Demo-crazy in Sri Lanka

By V. Gunaratnam, October 17, 2012

After the War

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a recent bombast, declared that his government would not allow anyone to interfere with the country’s judiciary. But knowing the crazy things happening there, he probably meant no one would be allowed to interfere with his ‘right’ to interfere! With the AG Department under him, and the power to make appointments even to the Supreme Court, it is not difficult to understand his disdain for outside intrusion.

Rajapaksa is obviously capitalizing on the ‘war’ victory that won him the popular support of the Sinhala people, and reckons it gives him the right to change the constitution, pass laws, or eliminate ‘anything’ standing in his way.

Of very serious concern is how the Supreme Court is making decisions, to the point of denying the people the right to have their say in referenda when it matters. It is a serious breakdown in the judicial process at the highest level, and its impact on law enforcement at every level would be incalculably damaging.

In parliament, it has become even easier for the ruling party, with so many opposition MPs crossing over to the government side to vote with them and be rewarded with a good life at taxpayers’ expense.

Dismantling of the Constitution

With so many MPs crossing over in this way, the dismantling of the constitution has become so easy. It began with the introduction of the 18th Amendment removing the presidential term limits. When the Supreme Court gave its assent, without the people having a say in a referendum, it was nothing but a complete capitulation to the executive.

Another obnoxious provision in the 18th Amendment violates the need to keep appointments to high office free from political interference. In the process the 17th Amendment, which had adequate safeguards, was dumped. It gives the power to the president to make appointments even to the Supreme Court. Again, the people were denied a referendum.

Yet another provision grants the president the prerogative of addressing parliament, with full parliamentary privileges. It is an attempt by him to participate and interfere with the will of its elected representatives, the MPs. It compromises the autonomy of parliament, and the separation of powers, but was accomplished without even the hint of a referendum.

People’s Business, the Opposition and Freedom to Know

The country is firmly under the control of the trinity of Rajapaksa siblings in government, with a fourth taking care of business in parliament as its Speaker. There is hardly anything of financial significance anywhere in government that escapes the trinity from taking a hand. They seem to see an opportunity in everything!

The listless opposition, endlessly embroiled in infighting, is fast disappearing as a specie in parliament as their MPs keep streaming across the floor to the other side. Soon there will be no one left to fight for the people.

Easily the most serious assault on the people’s rights is the move to silence dissent. Printing presses are being destroyed, journalists disappearing, and web connections to the rest of the world are being tampered with. Very soon the only news in town will be government communiqués!

What is happening in Sri Lanka goes against the grain of what is taking place in other parts of the world today. The Libyan upheaval was one. The Arab Spring that is sweeping through the ME, and shaking Syria to its foundations is another. Nearer home, we see Myanmar gradually moving out of China’s shadow to chart its own course to prosperity.

Ethnic Harmony and Law of the Land

The President recently said that the priority of his government was to create an atmosphere conducive to people in Sri Lanka living in peace and harmony. But more than three years after the ‘war’ ended, the government has done little to make life easier for the Tamils other than be hounded by the military.

The law in Tamil homelands is what is decreed by the Defense Ministry. There is a 50,000 strong military to enforce their law in the North. For the Tamils, it is like living on a nasty planet dominated by the military. Even a lowly Sinhalese corporal has the power to mete out ‘justice’ on the spot, without the intervention of the law.

Tamil property is being seized at will by the state, without any legal process. It is said to be a plan to permanently surround the Tamils with military. It is a frightening prospect, but when did they worry about the Tamils?

Rajapaksa, when he said “peace and harmony,” it was for the outside world. But for his Sinhala followers he wants to be seen as constantly beating down on the Tamils, to keep them dreaming of their preeminence. It is as if the Sinhalese were oppressed by the Tamils until the Rajapaksas came along and liberated them!

It does not stop there. By an abominable piece of legislation, the government has created the necessary artifice to take over people’s assets, though the government gives it a different slant. What can be said when such a patently vicious piece of legislation was passed by the Supreme Court without the people being given a chance to have their say.

Bogey of the Tamils

The very first blow to Tamil aspirations was dealt as early as 285 days after independence in 1948. But the Tamils always believed there would be a fair solution. What they desired made a lot of sense, because they only wanted to mind their own business, in their corner of the world within Sri Lanka. But their dream never materialized.

It never happened, because the Sinhalese leaders never stopped raising the bogey of Tamils being a danger to their supremacy. But they never explained how this could happen when the Sinhalese outnumbered the Tamils by nearly 6 to 1. It was the kind of false political thrust they had against the Tamils. But for the Channel 4 expose, the government’s lies, the plight of the Tamil, and the inequities of war would not have surfaced.

Banda’s Sinhala Only Act

SWRD Bandaranaike left the UNP and formed what is today known as the SLFP, badly wanting to be PM, because he was well down UNP’s list of stalwarts who too wanted to be PM.

He reckoned his ‘Sinhala Only in 24 hours’cry would carry him to victory. To appease the Tamils, he hurriedly signed the BC Pact, but swiftly succumbed to a band of thugs led by UNP’s J.R. Jayewardene and abandoned it. In the end he did become the PM, and the Sinhala Only Act became law in 1956, leaving the Tamils and their language in the dust.

He did nothing for the Tamils. The Sinhala Only act was really the beginning of the troubles the Tamils were to face down the years. Today, the Channel 4 expose is one of the main reasons for keeping the Tamil story alive.

Bandaranaike was an opportunist and a weak leader, propelled to high office by his Sinhala Only Act. He who gave rise to the ‘Sinhala Only’ cry in everything that followed that colored every move made by successive regimes. Hundreds of Tamils perished in the riots of 1958 during his rule, perhaps the first such assault against a minority. He died in 1959, assassinated by a Buddhist monk, and was succeeded by his wife Srimavo.

An Historic Perspective

The Sinhala Only Act was the forerunner of everything the Tamils have suffered to this day. A brief recounting of the main events provides a sense of the struggle of the Tamils, a people with a distinct culture, religion and language as the Sinhalese, and a constituent people of the country like them.

JVP:  Their 1971 failed insurrection eventually brought them into mainstream politics, but they soon forgot the values they had espoused, and fought for. They relentlessly sought to sideline the Tamils and deny them their basic rights. But today, having helped Rajapaksa become president, they are themselves sidelined and of little consequence.

SRIMAVO: The Sinhala nationalists in her party used her to extend Sinhala domination over the Tamils even further. The result was a Republican Constitution of 1972; Ceylon became Sri Lanka; and Buddhism alone was enshrined in the constitution. The Tamils had no part in the conversion, but were isolated further.

LTTE:  It was 1976 when tensions rose sharply in the Tamil homelands and the LTE was born. Soon after in 1977 the principal party of the Tamils, TULF, won massive electoral victories in the Northern and Eastern provinces, confirming clearly where the Tamils stood on the issues. But the Sinhalese parties did not like the verdict and rioted. Their armed uprising finally did not lead to the promised goal.

EXECUTIVE PRESIDENCY:  It was created in October 1977, by UNP’s J. R. Jayewardene. He had always played second fiddle to others in the UNP, and probably became consumed with a desire to wield crushing and supreme power, over everything he surveyed. It has completely changed the way the country and people are governed.  Catastrophically, there were no ironclad safeguards to prevent the abuse of power by the executive president.

PURVEYORS OF HATE:  In 1981 the Sinhalese were accused of burning down the Jaffna Library, the repository of some very valuable documents about Tamil history and origins. It was a hate-crime said to have been instigated by UNP high-ups. It was an utterly foolish adventure to have thought that destroying some documents of historical significance would destroy the Tamils and drive them out of existence!

BLACK JULY:   It was when 13 soldiers were killed in the North, for the dark deeds the military had committed in the north. But President Jayewardene acted like a heartless head of state. He was bent on making political capital of it, by parading the bodies in Colombo. All hell broke loose. Over 3,000 Tamil were massacred in cold blood, 25,000 rendered homeless, and eventually it forced 150,000 out of the country. The security forces did nothing to protect the Tamils. It is why July 23, 1983 is infamously called a black day in the annals of the Tamils.

PEACE TALKS:  1985 saw peace talks initiated between the government and the LTTE. But the Sinhalese were not ready to share power with the Tamils, though they held all the aces in their hands. The fighting and dying went on day after day. The 1988 Indo-Ceylon Agreement too did not help in bringing about a settlement.

KUMARATUNGA:  President Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power in 1994, pledging to end the war, but without any realistic plan or will to do so. She probably spent all her first term dreaming about a second term! She did not want to be seen as advancing the Tamils cause, and hasten her own political demise.

CEASEFIRE:  In 2002 a Norwegian mediated ceasefire worked for a while, but with a SLP President Kumaratunga having to work with Ranil Wickremasinghe PM of the UNP, it was an uneasy relationship. She relieved the agony by proroguing parliament in 2008.

ISGA 2003:  The reception from the President’s SLFP, was “…it will never be a party to robbing the people of Sri Lanka of their sovereignty,” and the JVP’s hostile reaction was that it contained all the powers required for a separate state. But the world will never understand how a small minority could rob a very large majority of its sovereignty? In the end the ISGA died a natural death.

DEFECTION:  When Karuna, LTTE leader in the East, was inveigled into defecting from the LTTE in October 2004, it was a body blow to the LTTE. The Eastern front weakened beyond repair, and the LTTE’s strategy was laid bare.

WAR:  So much has been written about the ‘war’ that it need not be elaborated here, except that Channel 4 exposed how the ‘war’ was brought to an infamous end. In the aftermath, the UN has called for credible and transparent accounting, investigation, and prosecution of some of the serious allegations of human rights violations, and a report on the missing.

Where it is all leading to

What is happening in Sri Lanka today is a grim reminder of how tyrants, who came to power democratically, abused the trust of the people, and were destroyed by them.

Today even the Supreme Court in Sri Lanka is said to be not free of imprudence. Its corrupting influence could be spreading to other institutions of government, and the decline of the democratic values and freedoms of the people.

It is the Sinhalese who have to rise to the challenge, find answers to their problems, overcome difficulties, organize, assert their rights, and win back the freedoms they have been taking for granted in recent times, and restore the democratic process, and reclaim the independence they have enjoyed sine 1948. The Tamils too would like to be a part of this, unfortunately they cannot do so in the present context, as anyone would realize without elaboration.

History tells us that “Nothing is forever in politics!”


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