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July 31, 2008

Military Victory: Is it worth the price?

By Fr. Alex Dassanayake

The long protracted ethnic war has brought about such an amount of death in our country that one can hardly imagine: so many valuable lives lost — the, flower of the nation both in the South and the North, destruction of valuable property through bomb blasts, aerial bombings, land mine blasts and shootings, both on land and sea; thousands of widows and orphans, the maimed and the homeless; those who live in refugee camps for ten, fifteen years, undergoing untold sufferings and ever living in fear of fresh attacks.

Untold sufferings and destruction

Also thousands of those who leave the country for safety — thus families broken, children separated from their parents, husbands from their wives; painful brain drain when promising qualified young men and women leave the country in search of better pastures — what a loss for the country ! tremendous financial losses on the attack of Katunayake Air Port and the Anuradhapura military air port with almost the entire fleet of air craft destroyed; the attack on the Galle harbour and so many naval boats lost in sea attacks; so many innocent civilians, victims of attack on buses and in their villages. Thus we are a morally and economically a battered nation

As a result of all these the tremendous burdens laid on the poor masses of the country due to the rocketing price of essential food items and other goods, more than double the price added to these the exorbitant rise in electricity and water bills; the daily escalation in travelling expenses — all these, disproportionate to the income of the people no wonder there are so many strikes by organized groups, but the voiceless masses of the poor suffer in silence. What then is the future of our nation? There would be an under-nourished and both physically and morally weak generation of Sri Lankans; the situation of the poor people in the North is much worse than that of the South. Will not the Rs. 2.8 billion on SAARC not add extra burdens on an already over burdened people.?

While the poor people are undergoing untold difficulties and burden on burden laid upon them, there is a jumbo size cabinet and over hundred Ministers and so many other Advisors and high ranking Officers who enjoy all the perks and do not seem to make the sacrifices that the poor have to make — rather they seem to feed on the poor. the rise of fuel prices and the essential goods don’t seem to affect them.

Further they are well protected and provided for and hundreds of security personnel deployed for their security, bullet proof vests and vehicles available to them while the poor masses are exposed to insecurity.. Have they not been elected by the vote of the people to be their servants. Can a poor country like ours afford to incur such heavy expenses on those in power?

Do we have democracy?

Democracy exists where all people have equal rights and are treated equally, when all enjoy basic human rights, when all citizens are allowed to exercise free use of their vote to elect a Government they want, no one is to be deprived of their right of franchise or compelled to vote for some one whom they do not want. However in recent times we have seen so many election abuses, state resources being abused, obstructing others or rigging votes threatening even the officers on duty; some parties using arms while others are forbidden by law. We can therefore truly ask “is there real democracy in our country:

Further, the frequent harassment meted out to Media personnel has been very harmful for a democratic country like ours: abductions, disappearances, assaults, arrests and murder of several media personnel in recent times has brought the image of our country very low before the international community.

It is the essence of democracy that anyone has the right of free expression and offer positive criticism, but today anyone who speaks or writes criticising the policies and actions of those in power are immediately branded as “traitors”, “unpatriotic” or pro L’FTE and soon put within bars and harassed.

Giving a deaf ear to sound advice

Many knowledgeable persons and Inter-Religious Leaders and the Inter-national Community has repeatedly appealed to both those in power and the LTTE to put an end to this meaningless and bloody war and sit down for peace negotiations but all these have gone unheeded. Before International visitors those in power state emphatically “We are for a peaceful political solution to the ethnic conflict.” But at home, warfare and gun culture reigns. This is indeed a very pathetic situation.

Unfortunately this war is paving the way to the destruct-ion of our beautiful country and its many resources, trees have been felled to clear the battle field and to build bunkers; the railroad tracks have been removed to construct bunkers and check point barriers.

It is being proudly stated that the Eastern Province has been liberated and a Provincial Council established. It is no secret how this has been achieved and the recent events show that terrorism has not been completely wiped out of this region — a helicopter carrying VIP’s for a State Function was shot at, poor civilians travelling in a bus along the Buttala road had been shot at and a few killed while several others wounded; in other places several people abducted and not been able to verify by whom and so many other disturbing events taking place in that region.

While terrorising media personnel who report about the security situation and other crimes, the magic spell is cast on the people in the South by such statements as “the war will be over soon” Kilinochcbhi is now in sight” “the LTTE is much weakened” “our gallant soldiers should not be demoralized”: with these the war goes on and it is evident that before the end of the war there would be a terrible blood bath on both sides — loss of many more valuable young lives. Can we afford such a sacrifice or is the price of such a victory truly of worth.

Let both the Government and the Opposition and also the LTTE work in a responsible manner, having the welfare of the people at heart and reduce the burdens of the poor people, and work selflessly for a genuine and lasting peace. Let this be the prayer of every true Sri Lankan.

July 25, 2008

War-torn Sri Lanka nowhere near political settlement

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The reality that Sri Lanka needs political solution to the problems pestering the entire population in varying degrees and that there is no militarily solution is widely recognized. Any devious move to avoid the required changes to the failed system of governing centrally will only prolong the suffering of the people. The unity and peace the country needs for moving forward will continue to elude with dire consequences. The huge losses incurred by the country in the past will also continue. Many concerned citizens have suggested changes ranging from some internal adjustments within the present system to constitutional reforms that entail a decentralized structure. The theorists have also conveyed ideas that do not help to seek an early political solution but only confuse further the muddled minds of the people. Their confusion arose as a result of the irresponsible emotive utterances of power hungry politicians seeking the support of the electorate. The political power sought by misleading and damaging ways was also for serving their own interests.

Weak system serving few

The fact that the country is facing several problems, besides the long-standing ethnic issue is widely known. This is not due to some misfortune or forces beyond the control of governments. The system itself was set up and nurtured to serve the few who by hook or by crook get into powerful positions. Nepotism and cronyism have also helped few others to thrive. Ironically, it is the flawed system that is hindering the constitutional changes needed for stability, good governance, national unity and peace. It is the lack of these essentials that have inhibited the development of the economy. Because of the past neglect and the ravages of the prolonged war, the need for rapid development is now great. Sadly, some still continue to give special importance to their narrow political aims.

The war is helping to divert the attention of the people from the failures of governments to deal with pressing social, economic and law and order problems. How long can this diversionary tactic work? There are signs that the working class is not prepared to wait long and endure the suffering for the sake of continuing this costly war. The military victory sought by the government is not going to solve the problems that led to the conflict. The country’s future depends on conquering many political and economic challenges sensibly with the cooperation of all leading players. The permanent confrontation between the two main rival parties which is a trait of the country’s political culture is also responsible for the present chaos and lack of progress in many fields.

The present coalition politics in Sri Lanka also reveals the loose political system unsuitable for addressing national issues. The coalition government with the SLFP as the leading partner has several minor parties with opposing views on the main national issue. The JHU, MEP and a section of the SLFP support Sinhala majority rule in the entire country. On the other hand the leftist and Tamil and Muslim parties want a structure that recognizes the diverse ethnic structure of the provinces. Some UNP defectors are in the coalition because they are opposed to the present organizational arrangement within the party, which they say is undemocratic. Earlier when the JVP joined the coalition government led by SLFP, it too had its own agenda and one was to prevent the arch enemy the UNP gaining power.

In the case of the CWC which represents the upcountry Tamils, this has been the normal practice since the time the present constitution was adopted, regardless of the main party in power. This is because of the priority given to the urgent need to improve the living conditions of the plantation workers and their families. The leaders are conscious of the fact that they will be isolated and remain helpless, if they are not in partnership with the main ruling party. Their people have a long way to go to catch up with other communities in Sri Lanka.

In his article, “The war is winnable: Lankan troops gaining impressive ground” in the ‘Daily Mirror’ of 12 July 2008, the ultra Sinhala nationalist Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Patali Champika Ranawaka from the JHU said, Sri Lankan Tamils were not subjected to any national oppression. “They were given privileged status by Dutch and British colonists and Tamil elite wanted to maintain the status quo even after independence in 1948. LTTE military machine was not organically evolved through the Tamil society. Instead it had been created to wage a proxy war (1983-90) against Sri Lanka’s foreign policy vis a vis India and later supported by a few western nations with vested interest. Therefore, deconstructing the artificially inflated military capability of the LTTE by way of determined and cohesive military campaign is always a possibility”.

He also said that he does not want any real move on the political front now as this would hamper military victory. To quote: “At this critical juncture, no political solution aiming to devolve more powers to Federal or other means should be allowed. Process should be demilitarization, democratization and development”. According to him the key to (military) victory lies in “the unity of the Nation and the support of the national movement”. In so far as the ethnic problem is concerned, which until recently was widely considered to be a national problem, this is like putting the cart before the horse. Moreover, if there was any real national movement, it was before independence. Perhaps the movement referred to is the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist patriotic movement’

The present government has more than 100 ministers and deputy ministers but it cannot be regarded as a national unity government with all partners having the same interests and long-term aims. They are exceptionally divided on the ethnic issue. Some even do not want to acknowledge its existence. Because of the opposition to devolution within the United People's Front Alliance (UPFA) government, a new movement to encourage it to devolve power to the Provincial Councils was launched in Colombo on last Thursday, July 24. Speaking at the inaugural meeting attended by parties to the Alliance as well as civil society activists, Minister Dilan Perera said the new movement will strengthen those in the government who support devolution.

Under the present system, the opposition members can show their muscle only when new legislations or amendments to existing ones are considered for approval by the House. They have done this regularly, except when the circumstances are not favourable as in the case of the 17th Amendment. The support given then and the disinterest now of the SLFP-led government in implementing it show the dubious nature of national politics in Sri Lanka. The method of choosing the MPs via the present district cum preferential system also ensures that no single party gets the two-third majority needed for Constitutional Amendments without the support of the opposition. The point is the present system is unsuitable for supporting consensual politics. It caters to the needs of the leaders of the party or parties wielding power, especially if the leader of the main party in the coalition is the Executive President of Sri Lanka.

No will for political/constitutional settlement

Recent statements of the President days before the SAARC meeting in Colombo, despite the conflicting stands of his Ministers on the ethnic issue have failed to raise hope for normalcy and peace in the war-torn island. This time the government insists that the rebels must first lay down their arms. The LTTE which does not trust the Sinhala political leadership has categorically rejected this condition despite their alleged huge losses in the ongoing war. Without the will and mutual trust the talk about a ‘negotiated settlement’ is meaningless. In the case of the Northern Ireland conflict, the antagonists realized they have to trust their opponent for the sake of ending the prolonged suffering of their people.

Some of the suggestions of citizens for changes to the present divisive system are in principle sensible but lack realism as these have ignored the damage done to the integrity and unity of the nation. The forces that have on previous occasions obstructed political settlement of the Tamil problem are now in a revitalized form. But Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha as Secretary-General, Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) in the document - ‘The Enemies Within - why political compromise failed over half a century’ - released on July 14 has said that the situation has changed primarily because of the weak UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership and the absence of forces that are “in a position to agitate against positive government initiatives”. His optimism is based on his preferred perception that “the government has shown that measures to promote rights and empowerment for minorities within the context of a united country will not entail opposition”, though “the opposition mutters darkly about the JHU and the MEP”.

He also thinks because of the present enlightened leadership of the Sinhala nationalist parties, “there is no problem whatsoever about those parties being pro-Sinhala (for much needs to be done for deprived Sinhala majority regions too) provided they are not anti-Tamil or anti-Muslim. He has admitted that all elements supporting them may not understand this distinction but “since the leadership does, there should be no difficulty about the government taking firm action to stop any intimidation.” He concludes his perception of the developments on the political front since the time the present government started its own peace process through the APC, APRC, Expert Panel and Presidential commission with the following statement. “There is no better time to move than when the country at large has confidence in a government that has achieved so much in terms of security as well as equity in the face of considerable odds”. Anyway, one has to give credit to Professor’s ability to see things positively, despite the present turmoil, bickering and financial and economic crises in the country.

[Sunset over Batticaloa lagoon: HA pics]

Look eastwards for solution!

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha has in his document has also conveyed the way the present government intends to seek a solution to the vexed problem with the support of Sinhala nationalists. It was the JHU and MEP that pressed for the inclusion of the new Tamil party, Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) in the APRC (All Party Representative Committee). The Committee resumed sittings on July 14 after a lapse of several months with the participation of the new TMVP member, Batticaloa Mayor, Shivageetha Prabhakaran but without the JHU and MEP members. The TMVP contested the Eastern Provincial Council election in partnership with government and secured the Chief Minister’s post.

Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan is also in the company of Wimal Weerawansa, former propaganda secretary and parliamentary group leader of the JVP and now the leader of the breakaway JNP (National Freedom Front), another Sinhala nationalist group backing the Rajapaksa administration from the opposition bench. The Sinhala nationalist parties supporting the Rajapaksa regime are anxious to demonstrate they are not racist anti-Tamil parties, though they are dead against India’s meddling in Sri Lankan affairs. Even joint collaboration on economic affairs is viewed with some suspicion. Both the JHU and Wimal Weerawansa’s JNU are in the forefront campaigning vociferously urging the Sri Lankan government not to go ahead with the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India. The link between the TMVP and the government, particularly with the JHU helps to support the Professor’s claim that the present Sinhala nationalist leaders are not anti-Tamil.

Criticizing the US House of Representatives: Resolution 1338 dated July 10, 2008 submitted by 3 US Congressmen, Neville Ladduwahetty has said (The Island 23 July 2008) that the resolution if approved by the Congress will only prolong the conflict when the government is on the way to establish ‘normalcy and democracy’ as it has done in the Eastern Province. An international monitoring presence in Sri Lanka in whatever form “would only extend the conflict indefinitely. Therefore, humanitarian considerations of the people of Sri Lanka call for the conflict to be brought to a closure as early as possible, as has occurred successfully in the Eastern Province. The US Congress and the International Community have an obligation and a responsibility to respect humanitarian considerations and desist from intervening in GOSL efforts to bring normalcy and democracy to the areas that are yet to be liberated from the LTTE”. Will the prevailing model of ‘normalcy and democracy’ in Sri Lanka guarantee national unity and real peace without basic changes to the present constitution? A political solution acceptable to the Sinhala nationalists will not necessarily tally with the aspirations of the ethnic minorities in the light of all what happened over the past five decades. There is a general tendency among some nationalists to ignore the past tragic developments.

The real East

Citing the comments in the interview Andrew Whitehead of the BBC had with Martin McGuinness, former IRA fighter and now Northern Ireland’s elected Deputy First Minister, Shanie in her weekly column in The Island 12 July has very rightly said that “we need leaders on all sides who are courageous and discerning enough to realise the futility of prolonged conflict and who are willing to compromise to arrive at a solution acceptable to the majority among the different communities”. Martin McGuinness had mentioned that he had told both parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka that given the nature of the conflict it is meaningless to think of a conclusive military victory. Apparently his advice has fallen on deaf ears. Sadly in Sri Lanka there are not many leaders of the kind needed to act responsibly in the interest of all citizens and the country but there are many to mislead the people and give false hope that normalcy and peace are possible through “spectacular military victories”. Contrary to the claim of the government and some ‘patriots’ “people in the East know and the people with discernment outside the East know that there has been no conclusive victory there. Civilians still have to look over their shoulder lest they fall foul of the LTTE or a paramilitary group” (Shanie).

Apprehensive about what awaits them in Muthur-East? [More Pics]

A report compiled recently by Swaminathan Natarajan for the BBC Tamil service conveys in some detail the unsettled situation in the east a year after the nationwide celebration of the "dawn of the east" on 19 July 2007, following the liberation from LTTE control. Establishing elected Provincial Council and other local bodies was claimed as the return of democracy to the East liberated from LTTE control. According to the BBC report, internally displaced people living in the refugee camps lack basic facilities like toilets and clean drinking water. Those who have been resettled are yet to receive support from the government. Many school buildings damaged or destroyed in the war are yet to be rebuilt. In many places students sit under temporary shelters made of asbestos. As a result the students suffer from a number of health problems. Many houses partly or totally damaged by different kinds of bombs, shells and bullets are yet to be repaired or rebuilt. People are living in fear, despite the presence of the security forces; some of them are still staying in private property without compensating the owners. “In some places the government has built roads and hospitals. But the operation to win hearts and minds, it seems, has a long way to go”.

The cash-strapped government has recently withdrawn its earlier directive allowing Provincial Councils to raise their revenue through increase of Business Turnover Tax (BTT) because of the resulting additional burden on the people who are struggling to make ends meet with unaffordable hikes in the prices of food and other essential items. Given the present national problems, even after the military campaign ends the Treasury will not be able to provide the funds needed by the PCs. At a meeting the visiting four-member World Bank delegation had with opposition politicians in the backdrop of the anticipated financial assistance to develop the newly-liberated East, the visitors inquired about the likely future of the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC). Specifically, they asked whether the Council will come up with a five year plan for development. The visitors were told that the Council has no money, and has no budget! At present the government is trying hard to convince the world there is a credible democratically elected Council in the liberated East whose Chief Minister is a Tamil and an ally of the government as well as the Sinhala nationalist (not anti-Tamil) parties.

Need for new Constitution

There is definitely a wide awareness among the Sinhalese moderates that a new Constitution is needed, if the country is to move forward steadily without the set backs experienced in the past. K. Godage a former Ambassador and regular writer on the current problems and developments has emphasized the need for a new Constitution in his article published in ‘The Island’ 14 July 2008. On the muddled political situation he has said forthrightly: “What passes for Democracy in this country is a mere shell of the real thing; the kernel has been removed by our politicians over the years. The political culture of this country has been built on adversarial, confrontational politics without regard to the national interest. Our politicians have missed the wood for the trees. This is the unfortunate tradition which they seem to want to perpetuate. The cement that has held this form of confrontational politics together has been, the vulgar pursuit of political power, for with it goes the opportunity to mount the gravy train and get rich quickly”. He also said: “We must reject majoritarianism, it is not democracy, and at the same time we must reject divisive racial or ethnic politics and ethnic political parties forever. Confidence building measures must be arrived at through the consensual approach. It is within a democratic framework, where power is shared and merit the deciding factor that we can find the necessary space to rise again”.

There has to be a genuine concern and a broad national outlook even for viewing past developments realistically without bias or dogmatism. Realism must come from proper understanding of both internal and external situations that are likely to influence future developments. As I have mentioned in earlier papers entrusting vital national tasks solely to politicians as was the case in the drafting of the 1972 and 1978 constitutions is bound to result in disturbing situations sooner or later. No new constitution of a country can be expected to deal with all problems that emerge at some point in time. For example, there are several amendments to the US and Indian constitutions but the basic structure remains as supporting pillars of the nation protecting its unity and diverse character as well as the basic freedom and rights of all citizens in the different ethnic, religious and cultural groups. The problem in Sri Lanka has been the absence of inputs from independent knowledgeable persons who are not tied to some partisan interest or dogmatic ideology. Shamelessly, self-interest also influenced the draft 1978 Constitution which was approved with the five-sixth majority the ruling party had in the then Parliament. There was no Senate, the upper House to review the draft as it was abolished in 1972.

The Sunday Island 13 July 2008 reported that Prof. Tissa Vitarana, the Minister of Science and Technology, who is also the Chairman of the All Party Representative Conference (APRC) told: `The way things are evolving, we’ll need a new Constitution.’’ The Minister who is from the LSSP and has been a strong advocate of equality of all citizens hopes the ``fixed mindset’’ on the unitary and federal models would change by settling for ‘maximum possible devolution’ in an integrated set-up. The crucial question is: will the Sinhala nationalist leaders in the government and the opposition support this proposal? It is relevant to remind here that the APRC Chairman’s recommendations merging those in the Advisory Panel A (majority) and Panel B (minority) reports submitted in 2006 was unacceptable to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was keen on maintaining his close ties with the Sinhala nationalists. He persuaded the Chairman to recommend the FULL implementation of the dormant Thirteenth Amendment as an interim proposal of the Committee. Since its acceptance a year ago, there has been no serious move to increase their limited powers and make them more responsible and useful to the people. Anyway, without financial devolution even if the powers are devolved fully, the system will be dysfunctional.

Can the13th Amendment be the real gateway?

Under the title ‘A military pathway to nation building’ Professor A. M. Navaratna-Bandara (Ref. Daily Mirror 17 July 2008) has exposed the thinking of the present leadership on handling the ethnic question without the constitutional changes sought by the Sri Lankan moderates and the international community. The success of the military campaign is also thought to be crucial for strengthening the hold on power

His candid observations on the 13th Amendment are very telling. “During the last twenty years the 13th Amendment has proved that it cannot devolve powers to the provinces. The legal, administrative and fiscal tensions prevailing in the provincial administrations are well documented now. The functions assigned to the provinces such as education, health services, agriculture, irrigation, animal husbandry, live-stock development etc. have become meaningless due to legal and financial constrains imposed by the 13th Amendment itself. The 13th Amendment is a mockery to democratic devolution.

The Provincial Councils (PCs) were instrumental in strengthening the grip of the Central government over the Provincial populations through the political men and women hand picked for the positions in the PCs by the party leaders or the Executive President. The PCs have become agents of the Centre”.

Initially, the 13th Amendment served to seek a military solution to the separatist (it was then not labeled terrorist) problem taking advantage of India’s offer under the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 to disarm the Tamil militants. The main reasons for the failure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force to achieve this objective and consequentially the inability to reach the ‘military solution’ mentioned by Prof. Navaratna-Bandara are now part of the Eelam war history. The point highlighted by him is that the Provincial Council system was not introduced from the felt need for devolving powers to enable the people in the different provinces, especially in the merged North-East to manage independently their affairs in specified social, economic and law and order fields. This is evident from not only the failure to implement fully but also even some devolved subjects were taken over by the center making the PCs ineffectual.

The following comments reveal the financial and bureaucratic constraints that also make the PCs ineffective, despite the considerable drain on the government budget. “The PCs never received the money allocated in the national budget fully. Every year the PCs lost millions of rupees due to the delay and non release of funds on time by the Treasury. The PCs were not provided even a legal draftsman to draft their statutes. The PCs do not have powers and finances to establish their own administrative arm. The tax base provided by the 13th amendment is not enough to manage their day to day affairs, let alone development”. Since the PCs have to depend on the money provided by the Central government, “the full implementation is not possible even if the President used his executive authority”. Now the PCs too are serving the few self-serving politicians at great cost to the public. According to recent reports vast sums allotted by the government to PCs “were utilized to import vehicles for their members, foreign jaunts and a range of other activities including seminars and workshops in five star luxury hotels”.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not unaware of these problems when he wanted the full implementation of the 13th Amendment as an interim measure at the critical time when the APRC was close to submitting the final set of devolution proposals. It is this exigency that has tempted “President Rajapaksa who boycotted PCs in 1988 and came to power with a big noise on ‘protecting unitary state’ in his third year in power to jump into the 13th Amendment bandwagon”. Anyway, the truth is the ‘full implementation of the 13th amendment’ is not possible without fundamental changes to the present system. The moment of truth for all looking eastwards for the dawn of normalcy and the climate conducive for peaceful resolution of the conflict is not far off.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]

July 21, 2008

Commemorating July 1983: Bridges that Continue to Hold

Statement by National Peace Council of Sri Lanka

On July 23, 1983 law and order in Sri Lanka virtually collapsed as mobs went on a rampage, inciting anarchy and fear, uprooting Tamil people, looting and burning their property and killing many of them. These mobs backed by sections of the then Government claimed they were motivated by the desire to avenge the killing of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers by the LTTE in the northern city of Jaffna. The large scale violence that engulfed the people, primarily victimizing those of Tamil identity twenty five years ago in July 1983, discredited Sri Lanka internationally and signaled the brain-drain that would impact the future economic and political trajectory of the country.


[Oil color on canvas ~ Courtesy: Sundaram Art Gallery]

Underlying the anti-Tamil pogrom was, and remains, an exacerbated ethnic conflict. Instead of approaching this conflict through a concrete political framework, the Government at that time sought an immediate military solution to a problem that it narrowly described as being a 'terrorist problem'. The failure of the State to protect the Tamil civilian population from the mobs, and its decision to escalate its military efforts, fueled Tamil aspirations for a separate State where their grievances could be resolved. Even to this day, the memory of the July 1983 pogrom remains the single most powerful legitimizing factor of support and inspiration for the Tamil militancy.

It is tragic that 25 years later, the Sri Lankan State continues to give its primary attention to militarily resolving the long-standing question of political rights and autonomy, with the result that mass human suffering continues. July 1983 has testified to the fact that violence knows no territorial delimitations or fundamental concepts of civil society - we are all victims of war, with our human rights and civil liberties threatened.

On the other hand, our work with the people convinces us that our fellow citizens are prepared to accept, and commit themselves to, a political solution that ensures justice and security to all. The people of Sri Lanka continue to believe in credible concepts of power sharing and peaceful coexistence. What was lacking then, and remains lacking now, is the preparedness of the country’s decision making leadership, both political and militant, to give leadership to the quest for a substantial political solution- one that can be effectively transferred from paper to the grassroots - and to actively construct the necessary power sharing accommodations to implement this political solution.

On the 25th Anniversary of what has been termed Black July, the National Peace Council also seeks to honour the memory of those who were victims of ethnic violence. But most importantly, we pay homage to those who, in times of heightened danger, risked their own security and well being to provide assistance to these victims, without any regard to ethnic differences or cultural identity. It is in moments like these that we have observed that the courage and empathy of humanity grows stronger.

During black spots of history, like 1983 or 1990, with the mass scale eviction of Muslims from the North by the LTTE, and the natural disaster of the tsunami of December 2004, a sense of an integrated national identity came to light; where fragmented communities realized that there is a sense of solidarity from the 'other side'. These bridges of human cooperation and co-existence have continued to hold. Even in the bleakest of times there has remained an unfading hope that the interconnected social and cultural ties that have bound the country’s different ethnic communities will not be severed, but instead finally emerge strengthened.

The National Peace Council remains steadfast to its conviction that peace must come through non-violent, political means, and that peace needs to be negotiated with those categorized as 'enemies'. In this time of commemoration of Black July we also affirm that we will work by the side of those who stand committed to these values and ensure that the State shall not be the oppressor but will be the protector and reconciler of the interests of all its ethnic and social groups.

Governing Council

The National Peace Council is an independent and non partisan organisation that works towards a negotiated political solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. It has a vision of a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka in which the freedom, human rights and democratic rights of all the communities are respected. The policy of the National Peace Council is determined by its Governing Council of 20 members who are drawn from diverse walks of life and belong to all the main ethnic and religious communities in the country.

July 16, 2008

The coordinates of national consciousness

by Dayan Jayatilleka

Any serious search for a solution to Sri Lanka’s problems has to be found within the known parameters of the people’s consciousness. Even if a solution outside those parameters is sought to be imposed from above and without, it will prove unsustainable. This is the lesson of Iraq.

Public opinion can pose a problem if it is at variance with the known facts and scientific analysis, but when mass opinion coincides with the lessons one can analytically arrive at, then the country is fortunate, as are those leaders who choose to respect that opinion.

A truly Sri Lankan consciousness has not yet been formed. However, it is possible to ascertain the current consciousness of the constituent components of Sri Lanka, its building blocs, the various communities or nationalities. While in this regard it would be wrong to pass off the consciousness of the majority as that of the whole people, it would be equally wrong or even more inaccurate to overlook the consciousness of the majority, and the majority of the majority.

No political leader would take a stand that is at variance with the known views of the majority of the majority, or could realistically be expected to do so. This is especially but not exclusively true of leaders in competitive electoral democracies. A leader may take a stand that is somewhat in advance of the majority of his/her people, but should not adopt a stance that is either too far ahead or tails behind that of the bulk of the people. (Mao denounced the former as "commandism" and the latter as "tailism".) However no leader who wishes to survive politically will take a stand that goes against the strongly felt views of the majority of the country’s citizenry and voters.

The most recent issue of the Sunday Leader (July 13, 2008) carries a reproving report of a brand new nationwide public opinion survey, a "Peace poll" published last month by the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool in the UK, and commissioned by Colombo’s Centre for Policy Alternatives. The story by Ruan Pethiyagoda is accurately entitled Thoughts of a Nation. The writer himself is deeply disapproving of the opinions as revealed in the survey, calling it "frightening" at one point, and concluding that it shows "how happy the Sinhalese people are with the government’s propaganda barrage … The poll has shown if nothing else that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s witty and carefully cultivated media and publicity campaigns have been extremely successful in swinging popular support in his government’s favour despite overwhelming odds …the Rajapaksa government is enjoying a chillingly comfortable lead in the propaganda war".

The question is why the government is so successful, though the statistics themselves provide the answer. The government mirrors far more closely—though not exactly – the views of the majority of the masses. Again, this is precisely what Mao recommended as "the mass line": "from the masses to the masses", taking the scattered views of the masses and synthesizing them at a higher level, then re-inserting them among the masses.

The same statistics also reveal just how far the opposition is from those views, and how remote and alienated the civil society/ NGO/ "peace constituency" is from the Sri Lankan people.

The Political spokesperson of the LTTE, Mr. Nadesan has recently stated his organization’s willingness to enter a ceasefire and negotiations. It would be suicidal folly to accept his offer because we have repeated experience from 1985, as to what this leads to. The 1985 ceasefire resulted in the Tigers encircling Sri Lankan armed forces camps with landmines. The brief 1987 April ceasefire was reciprocated with massacres of junior monks and bus passengers. The 14 month ceasefire and direct, high level negotiations during President Premadasa’s tenure allowed the Tigers to survive the IPKF and turn on the Sri Lankan state. The ceasefire and exchange of letters during Chandrika’s tenure allowed the Tigers to do a mini Pearl Harbour surprise attack on our boats in Trinco in April 1995. Worst of all was the CFA of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, with its unilateral concessions and appeasement.

This is the cumulative evidence. Reason therefore militates against the acceptance of Mr. Nadesan’s kind and generous offer. The evidence is corroborated by public opinion, and therefore reason by sentiment. Let us return to the most important and valuable aspect of this latest opinion poll, carried out by organizations that could hardly be suspected of a pro-government bias. They provide the answers to the crucial questions of policy and strategy on the war and a political solution.

Contrary to critics and commentators who consider socio-economic and governance factors more or as important as the war, the bulk of the Sinhalese quite rightly realize what the central issue is: the war and there too, not the continuation of the war: "only 37% of Sinhalese feel that the ongoing war is a significant problem for the country… ‘escalating violence in the last two years’ is a serious issue, [for] only 31% of Sinhalese..." For the majority of the people it is the Tigers, their conduct and character, that constitutes the main problem. The reporter says that "The number of problems that a majority of Sinhalese feel are ‘very significant’ is also startlingly limited. The only two problems that the majority of Sinhalese feel very significant are the ‘continued violence of the LTTE’ (60%) and ‘abuse of human rights by the LTTE’ (59%)."

The Peace poll renders transparent the views of the majority of the country’s people, concerning policy towards the LTTE. The Sunday Leader report says "Hatred of the LTTE is naturally still rife amongst the Sinhalese. 64% of the majority community is completely against transforming the LTTE using ‘political and economic incentives to find a settlement". In other words the Sinhalese are not stupid, nor are they so terrorized or daunted that they are on the verge of surrender or supplication. They are not purely militarist either, unlike some extremists who speak in their name: "Only 30% of Sinhalese believe that the LTTE ‘can only be weakened by war’ ".

What then of the structural reform of the Sri Lankan state needed for a political settlement of the ethnic issue? Here the figures are even more interesting, giving us a picture of a people who are opposed both to federalism as to "no devolution at all", and are neither for radical enhancement (merger, re-demarcation, new provinces) or reduction of the present scheme of devolution. The Sunday Leader discloses that "…only 16% of Sinhalese truly fear that ‘devolution of power to the north and east will lead to the break-up of Sri Lanka.’ It follows that there is a lot of consensus amongst all communities on the possible solutions to the prevailing conflict… 53% [of Sinhalese] are against merging the North and East Provinces, and 86% of Sinhalese are against the creation of an autonomous unit for the Upcountry Tamils in the Central Province. Eighty four percent of Sinhalese are against the SLMC’s request for an autonomous unit for Muslims in the Eastern Province and an overwhelming 77% of Sinhalese are against making Sri Lanka a federal state. 61% are against redrawing borders to reduce the number of provinces in the country although 49% of Sinhalese feel it would be wrong to have ‘no devolution’ at all."

Where do the Tamils stand? The newspaper columnist complains that "…there is little ‘rebellious’ feeling among the majority of their [Tamil] populace. Only 37% of Tamils fear that ‘a defeated LTTE will give rise to new armed groups’ in a sense implying that the majority feels that once the LTTE have been destroyed, the war would be over. Similarly, only 38% of Tamils have found fault with the fact that the armed forces are predominantly Sinhalese, whilst a mere 37% are disappointed with the sectarian ethnic makeup of the police. A remarkably low 29% of Tamils are concerned that ‘upcountry Tamils do not own their own homes,’ a problem that only 10% of Sinhalese found very significant. Surprisingly again, a mere 55% of Upcountry Tamils were upset by the fact that they did not own their own homes, indicating either a complacent or ‘tamed’ Tamil society in the highlands."

The picture of a centrist consensus is clearer when one views the support for equality and an end to discrimination, both generally and specifically, i.e. across the board and among the Sinhalese. "When asked specifically, all communities seem to recognize the need to solve the problem of discrimination. 55% of all Sri Lankans see the need to ‘ensure full implementation of Tamil as an official language.’ This number is weighted down by a sizable 34% of Sinhalese - the nationalist element - who feel that it is ‘unacceptable’ to implement Tamil as an official language. In a curious twist, only 11% of Sinhalese said it was unacceptable to implement an ‘Equality Commission’ to monitor ‘all government policies and distribution of resources.’ 58% of the population favoured the implementation of such a commission…"

With an "overwhelming 77%" of an only slightly less overwhelming 74 % of the country’s citizenry opposed to federalism, any rational policy or person would abandon that slogan as a waste of time and source of public annoyance. Taken together, the totality of Sinhala views, on national priorities, the war, the Tigers, devolution and discrimination, present a picture not of a fanatical, chauvinist community but of middle-of-the road mass sentiment; of a majority on the Middle Path. Running against the collective wisdom of the current crop of Cassandras, the scenario turns still more optimistic when one recalls just how reasonable Tamil opinion is on many issues, revealing that there is no unbridgeable chasm between the communities.

(These are the personal views of the writer).

July 11, 2008

Loss of collective ‘national interest’ after independence

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The citizens of Sri Lanka have a country they regard as their motherland but do all regard it as their nation? They had this perception before independence when they all proudly identified themselves as Ceylonese and jointly campaigned for self-rule. The Ceylon National Congress was truly national before this word got tarnished. After independence, the natives regardless of their ethnic, religious and regional differences regarded themselves as joint heirs to the sovereign rights.

 

[Dr.T.B. Jayah] 

Non-Sinhalese leaders like Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and T. B. Jayah were considered by all as national leaders. The Tamils accepted Sinhalese political leaders like D. S. Senanayake and Dudley Senanayake as national leaders.  The entire leftist leaders from the south were also highly respected. The sense of belonging to the multi-ethnic nation was deep among all Tamils. Despite the 1956 ‘Sinhala Only Act’ Tamils retained passionately their distinctive Ceylonese identity but this diminished following the hurtful and humiliating developments in the 1970s and 1980s.

 

[Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan]

With the change of the island’s name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, the common national identity started to wane, while Sinhala-Buddhist ethos escalated dominating the social environment. Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism was raised high by the Sinhalese leaders competing for power. The view that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist nation that happens to have some residents from minor ethnic groups also spread. This perception also increasingly influenced national politics. Several inconsiderate policies and actions taken by the Sinhala majority governments intensified the division between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil speaking people – Tamils and Muslims, damaging the unity of the nation. The split widened with the tragic events in which many Tamil lives and properties were destroyed. 

[Statue of the first Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake at the school bearing his name-D.S. Senanayake College, at Gregory's Road, Colombo]

The perception that the future of the Sinhalese depends on safeguarding their supremacy also grew, though this has no real basis. India from the very beginning has made it clear that division of Sri Lanka into two independent states will not be tolerated. Because of this stand, India lost former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who strived for a permanent political settlement of the ethnic conflict without endangering the island’s territorial integrity. There is no real reason for the Sinhalese to imagine they will become a powerless ethnic group just because there are more than 60 million Tamils living across the strait just 22 miles away from the island’s northern shoreline.

The first uprising in 1971 was planned and executed by distressed Sinhalese youth in the south because of the lack of opportunities for advancement. Although the situation in the North and East was even worse, the continual protests remained non-violent. The ineffectiveness of decades of peaceful agitations was felt strongly by the desperate Tamil youth after mid 1970s and they started to embrace violent methods. There was wide support for the young militants from the Tamil people who too felt the need for the liberation struggle.  Sadly it took a different mode and proceeded tactlessly along a blind alley. The overconfidence of the leadership was grounded on their belief than on the support of other powerful forces. The dire consequences of this approach are now visible.
          
Unsuitable education system

The suspicion and imagined fear in the minds of some Sinhalese can be traced to the teaching of history to children in their very early years in school that gave special emphasis to the conquest of land by chieftains in south India and importantly to the Dutugemnu-Elara saga. The history books gave undue importance to perceptions that have little relevance in the modern world. The method of teaching was also unhelpful for promoting inter communal harmony and the concept of unity in diversity. The distinction between the past and the present world is important for the children to view historical events in perspective. Anne Abayasekara in her sincere analysis, “Am I a Sinhalese first and a Sri Lankan afterwards?” (The Island 30 June 2008) has given the feeling she experienced as a 9 year old girl when the 4th standard teacher taught Ceylon history from the book written by L.E. Blaze To quote: “The chapters in it that I remember clearly after all these years, were those relating to King Dutu Gemunu. I was stirred. I became conscious that I was a Sinhalese and I admired Dutu Gemunu. I don’t know what effect it had on the Tamil girls in the class, because at 9 years of age you don’t appreciate the fact that there may be others who react differently to your hero and who might even perceive him as an enemy”.

She has also drawn attention to the damage caused by the segregation of Sinhalese and Tamil students in schools and colleges contrary to the aim of forging unity and building one nation. Indeed the education system too promoted the notion of two nations in the island. After half a century of neglect, the present leaders have realized the importance of teaching English that will serve not only as a link language but also enhance opportunities for employment in the interconnected world. With nostalgia she has recalled the old days, when girls and boys grew up in schools with a very mixed student population. Not only they were “very fortunate” but also the country that was free from the destruction and turmoil that followed as a result of the divisive policies pursued by successive government. 

In her concluding remarks Anne Abayasekara has said. “Tragically, we are more sharply divided than ever. There are a few schools and some homes where a real effort is made to instil our oneness into children, to show them that, despite our diversity, we are all a part of the Sri Lankan family and indeed of the whole worldwide human family. But what the vast majority of our young ones see and hear every day is the opposite. Yes, I am a Sinhalese, but I do believe I am first a Sri Lankan”. There may be many others who feel the same way but do the young ones who did not have the chance to mingle with persons from other ethnic groups feel they all belong to one nation? It is relevant here to ask what exactly Sri Lankan means? Does it mean belonging to a country, which is the case when travelling abroad with Sri Lankan passport or a nation of mixed ethnic communities sharing common national interest?

Root of the ‘civil war’

Kumar Rupesinghe who has analysed the ramifications of state policies that led to the ‘civil war’ stated recently, it was “the politics of humiliation experienced by many Tamils, humiliation at the lack of access to justice, humiliation at the lack of access to (higher) education and employment and most of all, not being able to use their own language to conduct their business” with the state that turned the ethnic problem into an armed struggle. The Tamils were deprived of their sovereign right to make or at least influence decisions concerning their safety, welfare and future. The fulfillment of their aspirations was also not within their control. They lost their dignity and status as equal citizens. Their future also became increasingly uncertain as a result of frequent mob attacks on Tamil residents in the south. These were orchestrated with the knowledge and in some cases with the direct involvement of the authorities, as in the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. The destruction of the Jaffna public library was a callous deed intended to demonstrate the supreme power of the Sinhala majority government all over the island.

The Sinhala Only language policy and media-wise standardization of marks for admission to universities are by no means ‘affirmative actions’ like those taken to help the scheduled castes and tribes in India. The latter were in accordance with the Indian constitution intended initially to last for only 10 years. With the inclusion of the other backward classes in the underprivileged group, the proportion of the citizens needing affirmative action increased substantially in some states like Tamil Nadu. In Sri Lanka the discrimination was aimed at denying power, rights and opportunities to all non-Sinhalese. Ethnicity and not any socio-economic factor was the basis for the discrimination. Recently in India, a Muslim from Tamil Nadu and a Sikh had served the nation as President and Prime Minister respectively. In Sri Lanka no citizen from the minority ethnic communities can aspire to be the President or Prime Minister. Even if the politicians agree, the custodians of the Sinhala-Buddhist nation in Kandy will ensure that this does not happen.   

Separate homelands

There are many instances when government leaders have made a clear distinction between the privileged majority Sinhalese and unwanted ethnic minority Tamils. A case in point is the statement made by the head of government, head of State and Commander-in-chief of the armed forces President J. R. Jayawardene in an interview given to Ian Ward of the UK Daily Telegraph (11 July 1983) days before the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. He told: “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now … Now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or of their opinion about us. The more you put pressure on the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here. Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.”

The forced expulsion of Tamils including the aged and the ailing in a prearranged coordinated move from their lodgings in Colombo on June 7, 2007 by the security forces for no valid reason other than the fact they were Tamils from the North or East also shows the negation of the concept of one people and one nation. None were charged with any crime. The stated position of the authorities was they had ‘no valid reason’ to be in Colombo, which is “not their home territory”. On July 2 this year some 800 Tamils including women and children in Colombo 15 were unceremoniously forced out of their beds by the Modera police to be video graphed in their night clothes (Sunday Leader 6 July 2008). Is it fair to assume all Tamils are ‘terrorists’ or their agents? It is this kind of insensitive behaviour that has also prevented the evolution of one strong indivisible nation. The claim for a separate homeland for the Tamils came after enduring prolonged discrimination and humiliation. Anne Abeyasekara’s remark, “Our leaders - both religious and political, alas - have never honestly tried to create a Sri Lankan nation, nor are they making any noticeable attempt to do so even today” is the sad truth.

1972 and 1978 Constitutions and ‘stark reality’

The 1972 and 1978 Republican constitutions reinforced the Sinhala majority rule introduced in the 1948 Soulbury Constitution. Section 29 in the first constitution intended to protect minority rights and prevent discrimination was abandoned in the two Republican constitutions. The need for nation building and promoting the unity of the people would have been deemed necessary had there been any constitutional provision that required the consent of all ethnic groups on decisions concerning their present and future well-being and security.  In its present form, the unitary system which supports the Sinhala majority rule has also ensured that this depends crucially on winning the support of the majority of Sinhalese voters. This necessitates focusing more attention to their needs and aspirations than those of the ethnic minorities. The methods used to win this crucial support have also been in conflict with one nation concept.

It was not the collective national interest of all ethnic communities that influenced the design of the 1972 Republican constitution. The 1978 constitution went further and incorporated the personal ambitions of its chief architect disregarding completely the risks to the unity and stability of Sri Lanka. Even the harm to the democratic process which is evident now was ignored. It was drafted with short-term objectives in mind but made to last long by laying stringent conditions that virtually denied any decisive role for the ethnic minorities in constitutional reforms. The 1978 Constitution is also unique for another reason. The welfare and security of the politicians gaining seats in the House of Representatives with extras for those in executive positions are assured.  An apt description of democracy in Sri Lanka is – government of the politicians by the politicians for the politicians at public expense.

The strengthening of the Sinhala majority rule in the 1972 Constitution is evident from the following provisos.

(i). Removal of Section 29 (2) of the Soulbury Constitution;

(ii). Entrenching Sinhala Only Act in the constitution;

(iii). Special reference that that ‘The Tamil Language (Special Provisions) regulation, which was the only gain for the Tamils within the two decades of agitation, shall not be deemed a provision of the constitution;

(iv). Making Sinhala the language of the court in the entire country and failure to give Tamil a place even in the Northern and Eastern provinces. (The only concession granted was the right of interpretation.); and

(v). Chapter 2 of the 1978 Constitution accords pre-eminent place to Buddhism. Aforementioned provisos (ii)  – (v) were not in the Soulbury Constitution. (Ref: “The voice of conscience”   S. Thavarajah June 7, 2007 federalidea

The fact that the structure supporting Sinhala majority rule cannot be amended, unless the Sinhala polity decides otherwise is highlighted by Neville Ladduwahetty in ‘The Island’ 30 June 2008 – ‘Explaining Sri Lanka’s political and military dynamic’.  To quote: “The current constitutional provisions are viewed by the Tamil community as inadequate to meet their expectations. Meeting expectations would therefore require a constitutional change. Such a change requires 2/3 approval by Parliament and approval at a national referendum. Since election to Parliament is based on proportional representation no political party can secure an outright majority leave alone a 2/3 majority. Consequently, the majority needed to effect constitutional change would require parties coming together. But, given the rivalry among political parties this is an unlikely prospect. This dynamic prevents Sri Lanka to explore options other than the provisions in the current constitution; a stark reality that has NO bearing on the political will of governments or the lack thereof. This leaves Sri Lanka with NO political options other than the provisions in the current constitution. Therefore, the current constitution HAS TO BE the political solution”. The author’s emphasis shown in capital letters is significant. It is those who do not want any changes to the unitary system will revel at this dilemma. Paradoxically, the constraints provide rationale for LTTE’s lack of genuine interest in negotiated political settlement. The LTTE leader has all along been saying emphatically that the Sinhalese will not willingly grant self-rule for the Tamils in their ‘homeland’.     

If the ‘stark reality’ is the rigidity of the present structure, then what is the real motive behind the government’s sermon now and then on ‘negotiated settlement’ of the conflict?  Recently Basil Rajapaksa, brother and Senior Advisor to President Mahinda Rajapaksa soon after the sudden visit of the high-level Indian delegation (comprising National Security Advisor M. K. Narayan, Defense Secretary Sri Vijay Singh and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon) to Colombo mentioned in an interview that “the President is always willing to have negotiations and a settlement."  Whenever there is a call from the international community for a political settlement, notably from the USA and India, the response is seemingly positive, though vague and not without any condition. The APRC process which some have described it as farce is used to buy time hoping the demand for permanent political (constitutional) settlement will somehow die down. There is some justification to believe that the contemplated solution to the conflict is to adopt the same Eastern Province formula, hoping the promised implementation of the 13th Amendment will subdue the reform seekers.   

Serving whose interest?

The lack of interest of successive governments in implementing fully the 13th Amendment introduced soon after the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord is widely known. This is mainly because the Sinhala nationalists think that the devolution system therein undermines the majority rule entrenched in the unitary constitution. But the disinterest in implementing the 17th Amendment which provides for the establishment of a Constitutional Council responsible for setting up independent commissions to ensure competent persons (not cronies and stooges of politicians) are appointed to senior posts in public, police and judicial services and in general to promote good governance cannot be attributed to any such excuse. The independent electoral commission to ensure free and fair elections has also been not set up. Are these being delayed in the national interest?    

Many unaffordable expenditures of the government are not for meeting any urgent public or national need. It is not possible to list here all cases of lavish spending from public funds for political or some nonessential purposes. There are now 108 ministers (after the one who resigned recently) and 168 Presidential advisors. Their high salaries, perks and privileges as well as security arrangements and related expenses together consume sizeable portion of the public kitty. Apparently, the people including the civil society leaders do not realize it is they who pay for such extravagant expenses depriving funds for more worthy causes. Keeping the people ignorant of the implications of these excesses and the huge losses of public enterprises also serves the interest of the political class. In whose interest, no action has been taken on the alarming findings of the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprises?
 
Culture of impunity    

The perpetrators of many extra-judicial killings, abductions, involuntary disappearances and assaults (lately the focus has been on journalists and high-ranking media staff) remain to be apprehended and brought to justice. Sri Lanka has been described as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. The Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) together with the Newspaper Publishers announced on July 2 a reward of five million rupees for information leading to the apprehension and prosecution of the assailants of SLPI’s Acting Manager, Advocacy and Sri Lanka College of Journalism (SLCJ) Course Coordinator Namal Perera. He and his friend Mahendra Ratnaweera, Political Officer of the British High Commission in Colombo were attacked on June 30, while returning home after work. According to SLPI and Free Media Movement (FMM) this attack was an attempt to abduct Namal Perera in the same way Keith Noyahr, Associate editor and defence analyst of ‘The Nation’ was abducted on May 22 this year. He was released the following day after brutal assault because of timely outcry by his associates and complaint made direct to the President and other influential persons in the hierarchy. However, the culprits have still not been arrested. The SLPI in its public statement drew attention to the location where the incident occurred. It was “on the busy highway, in the vicinity of an army installation, the government Information Department and the security checkpoint”. Within the past two-years, 14 journalists and media workers have been killed. Some have fled or stopped writing. The veteran Sunday Times defence columnist Iqbal Athas is one of them.

 

[at the Colombo courts on June 23, 2008 : Jaseharan and journalist J.S.Tissanayagam] 

FMM in the statement posted on July 2 in its website drew attention also to the detention of senior columnist and news website editor outreachsl.com J.S. Tissainayagam, and printer and manager of the outreachsl.com Jaseharan and his partner Valarmathi by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) since 7th March (more than the statutory 90 days) without being charged. It also mentioned the “disturbing reports of torture and psychological abuse of journalists detained by the Police. Ironically, instead of investigating and preventing attacks against journalists, the Police have themselves attempted to abduct journalists”.  The ongoing internal conflict which has been transformed into a war like those between nations has also become useful as both a defensive and offensive political weapon in the internal struggle for power. It is being used to silence dissenting voices and calm down the people struggling to make ends meet in the wake of the steep increases in consumer prices (inflation rate is nearly 28 per cent).   

In conclusion

Eliminating terrorism militarily will not solve the national problems that have plunged the country into the present hopeless state. At present Sri Lanka is on the brink of being recognized widely as a ‘failed state’. A great deal remains to be done on the political front to create a climate conducive for remedial actions. The indifference of the government and Sinhala nationalists to the international community’s emphatic point – ‘there is no military solution to the ethnic problem’ is another blunder. There are a lot of similarities between the thinking and blunders of the leaders on either side of the ethnic divide. The opportunities missed for settlement are losses incurred by the nation.  

Diplomacy has also been a major casualty in the emergent culture. Sri Lanka has antagonized many foreign donors whose support is vital for national development. The widespread corruption and abuse of powers for personal or political advantage also reflect the culture of impunity. National Peace Council of Sri Lanka in the statement issued on July 1 said the issue of human rights violations with impunity has reached a critical juncture hurting everyone. This could also have far reaching implications for the future well-being of the country. It also referred to the patent contradiction between words and deeds of the government. Politics in Sri Lanka has become increasingly devious.

There is a fundamental difference between the politics of power and selfless politics that focuses on the unity, welfare and integrity of the nation. It is the lack of national interest that induces misuse of power denying welfare to the people and the nation. Broken promises and abandoned pledges indicate the lack of courage to act in the larger interest of the nation. Nations that are stable, united and peaceful have not been built by self-centered power seeking leaders. Statesmen who worked selflessly and resolutely elsewhere contributed to the evolution of robust nations. In Sri Lanka’s case the national flag itself depicts the ethnic majority- minority division. There are no deceptive ways to build trust between different ethnic communities and unite them as equal citizens of one nation. Sadly, the country’s political process ignored this vital need.

President Rajapaksa’s cool response to the wide international condemnation of the violence against free media is indicative of the weakness in leadership, unhelpful for promoting and sustaining good governance and the rule of law. According to him, “these are part of the conspiracies hatched by certain groups to tarnish the image of the country when victories are scored in the battle against terrorism”. He also denied the involvement of any state agencies or government parties in the abductions and attacks on various persons when he met some religious leaders recently. Isn’t the government responsible for the lapses in maintaining law and order, even if the culprits are from the opposite camp?  Have the offenders from the same side been punished? It is public knowledge that goons led by Minister Mervyn Silva assaulted employees of the state-run Rupavahini Corporation last December. Their main target was the News Director of the corporation. Though the government and police pledged investigations, none of the perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice. This has been the norm during the past two years. The government will not be able to extricate itself from the continual allegations until such time as the real culprits are brought to justice.

Recently, the internationally respected leader Nelson Mandela at his 90th birthday function in London said that the repulsive situation in Zimbabwe was due to the “tragic failure of leadership”. In Sri Lanka’s case the failure of the leadership in varying degrees since independence can be ascribed to the preoccupation with matters useful for strengthening the hold on power. The lack of political will and the courage to act responsibly in the national interest is associated with this obsession. The political system that emerged after independence itself is helping to sustain the basic weaknesses.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]

July 07, 2008

Resolution of the conflict in Sri Lanka can only happen at the negotiating table

By Andrew Whitehead
[BBC News, Belfast]

James Martin Pacelli McGuinness

One thing is certain," insists Martin McGuinness in his office at Belfast's Stormont Castle. "The resolution of the conflict in Sri Lanka can only happen at the negotiating table. Nowhere else."

"Both the government and the Tamil Tigers believe that they can have more victories over each other possibly in advance of peace negotiations. I have to say, I think both the government and the Tamil Tigers are foolish if they believe that."

Mr McGuinness' words carry authority. He is a former IRA fighter (some believe a onetime senior IRA commander), who led his movement through a complex peace process, and is now deputy first minister in a power-sharing devolved government in Northern Ireland.

He has made the transition that few achieve - from insurgent leader to a key figure in a democratic political system.

'No conclusive victories'

The peace process in Northern Ireland has delivered an end to shootings and bombings which had claimed more than 3,000 lives.

The most important ingredient in any peace process, or conflict resolution process, is leadership... the willingness of leaders to be courageous
Martin McGuinness

The IRA first decided to observe a ceasefire and then to decommission its weapons; a power-sharing system later brought together politicians who had for decades been bitter enemies.

It took almost 20 years to achieve, and divisions between Northern Ireland's Protestant majority and the community that Martin McGuinness represents, the Roman Catholic minority, remain deep.

But Northern Ireland's move away from decades of civil strife has attracted international attention.

Mr McGuinness has travelled the world talking about conflict resolution and how to achieve reconciliation.

He has visited Sri Lanka on a number of occasions, visiting both the capital Colombo and the rebel-held territory, and has talked to both sides in the island's bitter and long-running separatist conflict.

"What I have said to both the government and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka," he told me, "is that the conflict should be brought to an end."

"There should be a meaningful process of peace negotiations and they should give up any notion whatsoever that they are going to have spectacular, conclusive military victories over each other.

"Yes, they will have spectacular military victories. But they will not be conclusive," Mr McGuinness said.

Mutual respect

Mr McGuinness' intervention comes amid an upsurge in violence in Sri Lanka.

A Republican mural in Belfast. File photo
The IRA was fighting for a united Ireland

An uneasy ceasefire that staggered on for several years is now clearly over, and the Sri Lankan army has recently suggested that the Tamil Tigers are facing military defeat.

Many analysts believe, however, that the separatists - one of the world's most tenacious armed groups - are unlikely to be vanquished on the battlefield.

The Northern Ireland politician, who has served time in jail for paramilitary offences and is also an elected British MP (though he has never taken his seat at Westminster), argues that around the world, achieving an end to conflict requires leaders who have the foresight to engage in dialogue with their enemies.

I asked him what words of advice he offers those who seek to emulate Northern Ireland's example - from profound civil conflict to peace.

"The first thing I tell them," he responded, "is we can't solve their problems - the only people who can solve their problems are themselves.

"The most important ingredient in any peace process, or conflict resolution process, is leadership. The willingness of leaders to be courageous, and to recognise that the only way to resolve conflict is by sitting down, respecting one another in dialogue and discussion," he said.

The Northern Ireland example also, many would argue, underlines the need to compromise.

The IRA was fighting for a united Ireland. The peace process has greatly increased the political power of the Catholic minority and has established all-Ireland institutions, but the region remains part of Britain. [courtesy: BBC.co.uk]

July 02, 2008

An Analysis of the Military Situation

by Col. R. Hariharan (Retd.)

Years back when I was a young officer in the Regiment of Artillery, our regiment moved from New Mal in Eastern India to Deolali in Western India. On the day of our departure we trooped into the railway station with our trucks, baggage, stores and all the men at 6 am in the morning. Our special train was scheduled to leave at 11 am. We sweated in the heat in the roofless station but the train earmarked for us was nowhere in sight. The hapless station master could do nothing. Around one pm we were informed the train would be placed by 5 pm.  It came at 7 pm and we were kept busy loading it for next three hours because we were told the train would leave by 10 pm. But it did not even when the clock struck twelve.

  

I was the train duty officer and ran around trying to find the railway staff that had vanished. Around 12 am I collared the station master in his house. 'The train is ready for a long time to leave, sir,' he said. I was furious; 'then why doesn't it leave,? I thundered brimming with military efficiency. He walked over to the station and told me, 'sir, train is there, but power has not come.' My uni-polar military brain could not understand the term 'power'. 'What power do you mean?' I asked. He said 'sir, you call it the engine, we call it power - the one that pulls the coaches, that has not arrived.' By the time 'power' came, a new dawn was on the horizon and we reached our destination two days late. 

That small real life experience comes to mind when we look at the current military situation in the Eelam War-4.  The military developments are in some order, just as political developments are in disorder. 

Sri Lanka security forces made the strategic link up in the north between 57 and 58 divisions, capturing a large chunk of  the territory between A32 Mannar-Pooneryn highway  fromt and the A9 Kandy-Jaffna highway. It is no mean achievement for any army, considering that this was achieved in three weeks time, after a few bloody battles and loss of quite a few human lives. For the Sri Lankan army it is a creditable achievement showing how a learning army can overcome its own past shortcomings and reach new levels of operational efficiency.  The strategic link up, if held, could block the free transportation of LTTE supplies smuggled from India arriving at the Mannar coast either eastwards or northwards movement along the A32 highway. It also provides launching pads for Sri Lankan offensives to wrest Vidathaltivu and later Pooneryn.

And the army should be able to hold on to the gains, considering that two divisions plus the newly raised 61 Division are there to defend. It is doubtful whether the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) still retain the capability to launch a sizeable conventional strike to dislodge the army form their gains. The arithmetic of force levels is against the LTTE and probably it would rather reinforce its Wanni defences and safeguard the line Pooneryn-Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi- Puthukudiyiruppu than deplete its forces in launching a counterattack. 

Sri Lanka Army Commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka vocalised the recent achievements of the security forces while speaking to foreign correspondents recently. 'The LTTE has lost the capability of fighting as a conventional army. Although they are (still) fighting us, they (are) not in the same manner as was in the past. That type of resistance is not there anymore.' 

Does that mean the 'final military victory' over the LTTE is around the corner? The Army Commander was more realistic. He said that though the LTTE's fighting capabilities was badly weakened, it would take another one year or so 'to completely defeat them militarily.' He summed up the assessment saying, 'I am sure the LTTE will totally lose even their present capability in less than one year. Then they will resort to a totally different type of tactic' So what the LTTE has lost is its proactive conventional operational capability. And that is undoubtedly a plus point for the security forces because they have the military initiative in the war from now onwards.

To the man fighting the insurgents, the only difference between the two kinds of warfare is that firepower is concentrated in conventional war, while it comes in penny packets in unconventional war. But bullets remain equally deadly in both kinds of warfare. This was dramatically illustrated yesterday when some extremist element shot at the Bell 412 helicopter while it was returning after flying in the President in Amparai. The LTTE in that area was driven away more than a year ago. Fortunately, the helicopter managed to land safely though its fuel tank was punctured by bullet fire.  

But what the General said in the course of the interview on the on the 'overall plan' of his forces was a little disturbing. 'We do not just go for terrains, but we go for the kill. This is the difference between the military operations in the past and the present,' he said. The laudable military achievements need to be put in the overall perspective. Was the LTTE's military capability the only issue that had dragged the nation into war with its own population for the last three decades?

Far from it; as long as there is Tamil population outside the fold of good governance in Kilinochchi,  Mullaitivu and parts of Vavuniya and Jaffna districts, even if the LTTE loses its conventional capability, every year it should be able to muster 1000 to 2000 recruits by coercion or otherwise. The LTTE's conventional capability is an acquired skill egged on and abetted by skewed Sri Lankan political priorities and decisions. Unlike that the LTTE's unconventional war capability is rooted in the grievance of the Tamil population. It does not matter whether others feel these grievances exist or not. And definitely it is not due to international conspiracy as dubbed by some Sri Lankans.

How does the LTTE sustain the ability to wage unconventional war? It is because the government has not given the Tamil population a feeling of security and trust in the present dispensation. The slogan 'Freeing the Tamils from the LTTE yoke' (as the government media proclaims) alone will not gain their trust if the they feel that they are being saddled with another yoke!  This lack of trust and feeling of insecurity among them cannot vanish as long as white van operations continue, media is muzzled, inquiries into illegal killings become political soap operas, and indefinite incarcerations without trials go on as before. These actions are not done by international NGOs or friendly foreign powers as it is made out for political convenience. Most of such actions are taken such loose cannons operating within the system to score political brownie points rather than solve problems.  

Many Tamils feel that every action to empower them with all the good intentions is undone by backroom operations. Two glaring examples of lack of political sincerity are the half hearted implementation of the 13th amendment and the 'non working' of the APRC, the all party committee - constituted for evolving an acceptable formulation of devolution. The 13th amendment has a lot of lacunae for the elected provincial government to exercise its powers; the government agents do not come under it, it has little powers to collect any form of revenue, and it has policing as a subject but has no control over the police force (the DIG Northeast works under Colombo). It cannot even organize and control water supply for the people.  Added to this is a general reluctance to implement even its limited articulation of power. So merely installing a Tamil chief minister in the east is not going to make the problem vanish. It requires hard decisions to empower the population. And there is no sign of anyone in authority seriously considering this. 

As regards the APRC, there is nothing much to show. After a lengthy and very eloquent dialogue process, with all the inputs of wise men, its only practical achievement is its recommendation for the implementation of the existing 13th amendment of the constitution. And beyond that, there appears to be nothing on its cards except the travel bills accumulated on tours of the committee members to study how the devolution process has been achieved in other countries. Is this status going to change?  Sadly, there is no sign of any other initiative.

Mahatma Gandhi's description of Sir Stafford Cripp's Mission in 1942 as the 'post-dated cheque on a failing bank,' appears apt for the current situation in Sri Lanka.  The government in Sri Lanka regardless of its composition or ideology has to create a sense of security and trust among the minorities. And this is not going to come on its own by military victory over the LTTE alone. The security forces can only do so much. The government has to act to make use of the opportunities provided by military victories. The Tamils have to feel the 'power' to take them to new places, like my own military experience taught me when we moved our regiment by train. [saag]

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. E-mail: colhari@yahoo.com)