Archive for Federalidea

East: Stability on cliffhanger after election

by Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz

The government conducted the first provincial elections in two decades on May 10 in the Eastern Province. The ruling colaition of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) through an electoral alliance with the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) and an “understanding” with the dissidents of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) grabbed 20 of the 37 seats in the Eastern Provincial Council. The TMVP is a breakaway group of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that seeks a separate state for the country’s minority Tamils in the north and east.

Voting in a crucial election in a troubled province: It could do more harm than good

The United National Party (UNP), which contested the elections in alliance with the main Muslim political entity, the SLMC, won 15 seats. The UNP alliance accused the government of rigging the elections and committing gross malpractices, especially in the Ampara and Batticaloa districts. According to UNP spokesperson Lakshman Kirielle, “in Pottuvil, Akkaraipattu and Mutur, government goon squads invaded 40 polling booths and stuffed the ballot boxes to their hearts content while the presiding officers and police simply looked on.”

[A woman walks out of a polling station after casting her vote during provincial council elections in Kathankudy, suburb of Batticaloa, eastern Sri Lanka, May 10, 2008.
via Yahoo! News, REUTERS/Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi]

President Mahinda Rajapaksa who won the Presidential elections in 2005 on symbolic agendas of an anti-Tamil and anti-federal platform interpreted his party’s election win in the Eastern Province as a people’s “mandate” against what his government coined as war against the Tamil terrorism and to drive the Tamil Tigers from the Tamil-dominated north where the LTTE runs a de-facto ethnic state.

Some questions

Elections are important political events, and political elites conduct these elections for different reasons at different times. However, there is no guarantee whatsoever that elections would bring about peace and stability to the country, or for that matter to any particular ethnic group. Therefore, the key questions are, will the eastern elections help establish stability? Will it generate peace and harmony among the different ethnic groups in the region? Can it pave the way to build genuine power-sharing between different ethnic groups?

The on-going ethnic/civil war requires a political solution. Commitments to a political solution need imagination, willingness and ability as well as guts to challenge the past and seek a new future.

However, the key political actors in Sri Lanka are lacking in such progressive efforts. The ruling Sinhala elites show no genuine interest in searching a political solution in the form of genuine power-sharing arrangements with the minorities, particularly the Tamils who claim they were discriminated against by successive Sinhala-dominated governments in favour of the Sinhalese. Besides, the government, which accommodates Sinhala nationalist agendas and Sinhala extremists, who oppose all forms of extensive and irrevocable power-sharing, is actively engaged in identifying the LTTE as malicious terrorists, while conveniently covering up its own anti-democratic and anti-minority activities. Some of these activities are aggressive and cruel and according to Tamil nationalist opinions, they meet the definition of state terrorism.

Peace with enemies

Elections alone would not guarantee any stability to war-ravaged Sri Lanka. Stability is a reflection of political willingness to meet the needs and the reasonable demands of the masses. In a democracy, when political elites fail to appreciate the needs of the masses, serious instability is the likely outcome. Sri Lanka, which once aspired to be the Switzerland of Asia, can only gain real peace and progress, if there is sincere political will for a negotiated reconciliation and compromise. Such a political will should engage the Tamil Tigers. One may have deep reservations about engaging the LTTE. But peace between the opposing ethnic actors can be achieved only when today’s enemies prepare to engage one another seriously. In short, we need to engage enemies constructively if we are serious about peace.

The major problem in Sri Lanka is the absence of “willingness”. Both the Rajapaksa regime and the LTTE are inherently nationalist. They play the ethnic card for political and military gains. This is indeed an unfortunate political trend and could help deepen the conflict. All this would close the door for compromise and reconciliation. Theoretically speaking, this sort of political eventuality is inevitable when political actors systematically employ nationalist agendas in deeply divided societies.

The end of the world

We have some serious problems. But they still can be solved in a human way. This should involve some tremendous efforts by the global community. In other words, there must be more sticks than carrots from highly-interested global actors both on the Tamil Tigers and the Government when they do not comply with peace requests that seek meaningful power-sharing democracy.

The high efficacy of global leverage often works well between countries connected through international aid and trade. The Tamil Tigers, who have been banking on solid support from the Tamil Diaspora, must be warned of further political and military repercussions if they refuse to go along with a negotiated compromise. Equally, the Government needs to be directed to study the Kosovo-style political outcome, if it closes its ears to the call for genuine power-sharing.

It is true that elections are key for any functioning democracy. But they alone would not produce any miracle between the warring and mutually-suspecting ethnic groups. Also, elections often trigger further instability when they are ethnicised and politicised. The just concluded Eastern Province elections can do more harm than good if the Sinhala political elites poititicise the outcome for their benifit. It also can further increase ethnic disharmony between the Tamils and Muslims if there is any agendas for politicisation. Such dangerous political scheming could frustate the already alienated Muslim youths who increasingly respond to the call for a struggle in the name of their religion.

Beyond the bleeding

The political stakes are high. They can erode not only the stability of the country, but also its ethnic unity. Therefore, Sri Lanka’s ruling elites should seek some rational choices, rather than trying to manipulate the “victory” of the May 10 elections to consolidate their power and to win the next elections.

Any move in this direction could seriously weaken Sri Lanka’s commitment to democracy and social progress. Alternatively, the Tamil Tigers need to understand the new political climate of the island. Specially, they should understand the fact that their suicide attacks on innocent civilians further strengthen the hands of extremists and thus weaken the liberal voices for peace. Sri Lanka will continue to bleed if peace has no chance. [This article appeared earlier in the The Sunday Times, Colombo, Sri Lanka-May, 18, 2008]

(The writer, a political scientist from Sri Lanka, is currently, affiliated as a visiting scholar to the Department of Political Science, Temple University, USA.)

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Eastern Provincial Council Election & its Results

By Col. R.Harharan (Retd)

The swearing in of Sivanesathurai Chandirakanthan (better known as Pillaiyan, his nom de guerre of militancy days) as the chief minister of the newly created eastern provincial council on May 16, 2008 marks a new turn in Sri Lanka politics. It came about after a great deal of backdoor bickering, rumours and heart burning. Even as the decision to choose Pillaiyan was being debated in the high security office of President Rajapakse, not far from there the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) unwittingly greeted the event with a suicide bomber ramming his motorcycle into a police van killing ten people and injuring 95 others.

The two contrasting events illustrate the Yang and Ying of Sri Lanka politics and militancy. Pillaiyan, heads theTamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) the new found ally of the ruling United Peoples Front Alliance (UPFA). It was formed out of cadres who walked out of the LTTE along with Karuna, the estranged Batticola leader. The participation of the TMVP as an ally of the ruling alliance was controversial. The TMVP cadres have gained an unsavoury reputation as armed political bullies indulging in intimidation, extortion and kidnapping of kids. And they had a record of violence against the Muslim population. To top it all, they retained the arms of their insurgency days for “their own protection”! And no political party wanted to be seen with them.

All the three major opposition parties-the United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – have complained of election malpractices including rigging and intimidation by the UPFA and TMVP. The election commissioner had also acknowledged these complaints. These are to be out rightly condemned. However, such aberrations have been hardy perennials of elections in Sri Lanka (as also in its South Asian neighbours) and the May 10 election has proved to be no exception. But the more significant thing was the election was conducted without any major violent incident. This is a commendable achievement considering the explosive mix of multiple ethnic, religious and linguistic character of the province, with its near-equal population of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalas. There had been no complaints of the TMVP members overtly displaying their weapons during or after the elections. Similarly there was no conspicuous LTTE activity to interfere with the polls. These would indicate that the administration had established its firm control over the province, which is good news for the harried population.

[Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa, right, greets Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, after swearing him in as the Chief Minister for the newly elected Eastern Province, at President's office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, May 16, 2008:pic-Gemunu Amarasinghe-AP Photo via Yahoo! News]

The President took a political gamble the first time when he formed an alliance with the TMVP for the PC polls. This was unpleasant news to his Muslim allies. However, he managed to persuade MLAM Hisbullah, influential eastern Muslim leader to part ways with the SLMC and ally with the UPFA. The SLMC headed by Rauf Hakeem fought the election as an ally of the opposition UNP. The President’s gamble appears to have paid off as the UPFA group won 20 out of the total 37 seats of the provincial council (including two bonus seats) as against the UNP’s 15 seats and one each won by the JVP and the Tamil National Democratic Alliance (TNDA).

The President has now taken a second gamble by making Pillaiyan the chief minister of the eastern PC, disregarding the vociferous claims of Hisbullah for the post as a Muslim claimant. Though there are eight Muslims as against only six Tamil (TMVP) members among the UPFA’s 20 councillors, Muslim dissent does not appear to worry the President. The President must have counted upon the internal divisions among Muslim members to work in his favour when he nominated Pillaiyan.

Pillaiyan is as yet an unknown political personality just as the TMVP is a less known political entity. So far most of the Sri Lanka watchers and analysts have tended to see him in relation to Karuna or as the Tamil troubleshooter of President’s brother and advisor Basil Rajapaksa, the Military Intelligence, or the Security Forces. The TMVP has invariably been understood only in the negative glow of its highhanded conduct with the public or for its friction with the Muslims, the STF etc. In this context, TMVP’s political proposals handed over to Thissa Witharana, the Chairman of All Party Representatives Committee (APRC) in May 2007 are useful. The TMVP document provides some understanding of its stand on issues connected with ethnic relations, provincial autonomy, devolution, nature of war against the LTTE, and support to Rajapaksa.
As a political entity and partner of the UPFA, the TMVP is in a position of power now to turn some of its beliefs and recommendations into reality. Some of these are as follows:

TMVP believes that devolving political, administrative and financial powers from the Centre to the peripheral units of governance (provincial councils) within an un-divided and united Sri Lanka holds the solution to the Tamil issue

* The powers to be devolved to the provincial governments should be clearly defined and not restricted by the Central Government except under special circumstances defined in the constitution.

* The Southern Sinhala polity has to unite to defeat the LTTE terrorism. At the same time it has to be accommodative to seek and offer political solution to the Tamils. This two- pronged approach only can permanently put an end to terrorism in Sri Lanka.

* Though Tamil has been recognized as a national language in the constitution, it has not become an administrative reality. The use of Tamil by the Tamils while dealing with the government and its institutions should become a reality.

* Tamils must be chosen to serve the government and its various services based upon merit. Their services should be recognized and rewarded on their merit. No Tamil should be excluded from any of the government services because he/she is a Tamil.

* State-aided colonization schemes in the north and east should be brought to an end, while the movement of people across the island should be free and unrestricted.

* Special provisions should be made to earmark adequate financial and administrative resources to re-build the north and east and speed up development and progress.

The TMVP’s views on issues like the merger of north and east are practical and realistic rather than reverting to polemics of the past:
* The TMVP recognizes the merger of the north and east brought through the Indo-Lanka agreement. The 13th amendment to the constitution as originally brought forth through this agreement, should be the starting point for further constitutional reform.

* However, the reality of de-merger has to be accepted under the present circumstances. The TMVP demands that a referendum should be held in the east on the merger of north and east after the completion of two years of provincial council elections in the north and east.

* Elections for the Northern Provincial Council in areas under government control should be held as soon as possible and the Council should be permitted to function without any let or hindrance.

* Conditions must be created in the north and east for people who are living as refugees in India and the IDPs to return and resume their normal lives in areas of their original habitation. Elections for the provincial Councils should be held only after such conditions are created.

* Except for the diehard Eelamists, others would probably find the above proposals as pragmatic and having reasonable chances of success in the present circumstances. But how far Pillaiyan and the TMVP will be able to get at least a few of them implemented?

If Pillaiyan is serious about the TMVP proposals, he should be ready to undergo a trial by fire awaiting him as a chief minister. Then only he can burn a number of ghosts that haunt the TMVP and as a corollary Pillaiyan’s reputation. Much of this is a mind game on what people come to believe from experience. It cannot be always achieved by political gamesmanship or propaganda.

The first is to get an image make over for the TMVP. The TMVP should gain more respectability. This comes not only by power but by public conduct of the party men. Pillaiyan will have to disprove the adage power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is a tall order for any party. But there is little choice for Pillaiyan. He will have to rein in his petty war lords and local chieftains who might be tempted to flex their muscles more and distribute favours now that the TMVP is in power.

Collection of money, subscription or other forms of extortion from the public for the party coffers or otherwise will have to be stopped. Public property seized, lands illegally occupied or procured under coercion, will have to be restored to original owners.

Pillaiyan has to get rid of the anti-Muslim halo that hovers around him as a TMVP leader. He will have to curb the temptation to dish out favours for Tamils. Only free and fair conduct towards all ethnic groups, particularly Muslims, can redeem his image. If he fails to do so, the President might leave him in the cold as a political liability because his own reputation is at stake in making the eastern PC a viable entity.

Pillaiyan is often described as the point man of Basil Rajapaksa. So Pillaiyan will have to acquire his own independent identity when he embarks as the chief minister. This can come through only with impeccable performance. But the moot point is will Pillaiyan be allowed to do so by the Rajapaksa triumvirate for fear of “growing too big for his own good.”

He has to create a positive political image among Tamil population who are very skeptical about his credentials and capabilities. For this he will have to shed the militant image and don the mantle of a Tamil political leader. There is reservoir of capable and forward thinking Tamils in other political parties and public entities. He should not hesitate to muster their support for the common good.

The successful conduct of the Eastern PC elections and installation of Pillaiyan at the helm as the chief minister is a victory for President Rajapaksa. However, east will require a lot of handholding and sympathetic consideration as it embarks on a new path. Though the election has given the President and his party a foothold in the east now, he has the more difficult task of establishing it in a tricky environment. He has to make the UPFA not merely as a vehicle of power but also of development. This can be done only through empowerment of the provincial council with adequate financial and administrative resources. Unless the ruling alliance is seen as a proactive participant in the development of east there will be no ownership of the people in it. And then the only winners will be bureaucracy and corruption. We have seen this happen too often in the past.

Other political parties, particularly the opposition, will have to recognize the reality of eastern province and see the political developments there in the national perspective. The UNP and SLMC will have to rethink their strategies to recoup their waning fortunes. And that means overcoming internal personality clashes, revamping the leadership styles and motivating party members.

These are the realities of the east which are far beyond cosmetic changes of power sharing. The task ahead is much bigger and more difficult and goes farther than mere power play. [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.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail: colhari@yahoo.com)

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The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Split

by Jayadeva Uyangoda

The radical, Sinhalese nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna has split, the real reasons for which are not yet clear. Among the various possible reasons are the mainstream jvp’s unease with a breakaway faction’s Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist project and the collision of the Sinhalese nationalist and class struggle lines within the party. It is also a dispute about coalition strategies that has spilled on to the domain of personal relations. For now, the Rajapakse administration is the beneficiary. Among the significant political developments in Sri Lanka in recent weeks is the surprising split of the radical-Sinhalese nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-the People’s Liberation Front.

[The 37th anniversary commemoration of the 1971 insurgency, held in open air theatre of Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo on the 5th of April, 2008-pic:jvpsrilanka.com]

The media had earlier speculated about a possible rift within the JVP. But the story of an actual break-up of the party became public on the day, April 5, 2008, when the JVP was commemorating the 37 th anniversary of the 1971 insurgency, which the JVP led. In his Hero’s Day address, the JVP leader, Somawansa Amerasinghe, announced that Wimal Weerawansa, the party’s propaganda secretary, was suspended from all positions in the party on disciplinary grounds. The next day, Weerawansa made an emotional speech in Parliament-he was also the JVP’s parliamentary group leader accusing the party leadership of shooting him from within. He walked away with 10 out of the 39 JVP members of Parliament (MPs), indicating that he was ready to launch a new party. In subsequent charges and counter charges that the two factions have been exchanging, there are numerous conspiracy theories, attributed to some foreign and reactionary forces, to explain each faction’s behaviour.

In Sri Lanka, giant monoliths have shown that they are also quite vulnerable, with tendencies to crack under pressure. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) split in early 2004. The JVP splits in early 2008. The 2004 split cost the LTTE its military command in the eastern province and eventually the control of the entire province. The leader of the LTTE’s breakaway faction was Karuna Amman, LTTE’s military commander in the eastern province and one of the most ruthless and skilful military commanders the LTTE had produced. The JVP’s breakaway faction i led by the party’s propaganda secretary, a brilliant public speaker and the charismatic young leader of the Sinhalese nationalists. While being a leading office holder of a party which still calls itself leftist-the English media in Colombo continue to call the JVP “reds” and “Marxists” though these labels are quite dubious-Weerawansa in fact founded and led a Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist movement called the Patriotic National Movement (PNM). Thus this split seems to reflect the mainstream JVP’s unease with Weerawansa’s Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist project.

Although the two factions have openly traded many accusations and counter-accusations during the past two-to-three weeks, the real reasons for the split are not yet clear. It seems that there is a deep sense of bitterness built up over the years between the two groups, and reconciliation between them appears unlikely. The dissidents are even subjected to physical violence. The basic dispute that has generated so much inter-personal bitterness appears to be about the policy towards the present administration of president Mahinda Rajapakse. While the mainstream JVP tried to maintain a critical distance from the Rajapakse regime, Weerawansa and some of his parliamentary colleagues had argued for working closely with the regime. In that sense, it is a dispute about coalition strategies that has spilled onto the domain of personal relations.

Significant Political Body

The JVP is one of the most remarkable political entities to have emerged in Sri Lanka. It has a history of nearly 40 years. An offshoot of the Maoist Communist Party (MCP) of Ceylon, led by N Shanmugathasan, the JVP first emerged as an under¬ground radical movement. That was in 1967-68. Its founder leader, Rohana Wijeweera, began his political career as a youth activist in the MCP in 1965. A drop¬out medical student from the Patrice Lumumba University of Moscow, Wijeweera was among the many young leftists in Asia, Africa and Latin America at the time to take the revolution seriously as well as a serious political practice. Disillusioned with what was called at the time the “reformist”, “revisionist” and “class collaborationist” politics of the “old” left-today these terms sound quite strange and archaic-Wijeweera launched his own revolutionary project. Calling his effort “a creative application of the universal truths of Marxism-Leninism to the specific conditions of the semi-colonial, semi-capitalist Ceylon”, Wijeweera worked among the youth and the rural peasants in Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese society. The radicalised and educated youth were attracted to this underground movement. That was the time when the romance of armed struggle and revolution, from Algeria to Zanzibar, Bolivia and Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam, had swept south Asia as well. During this time, the Naxalite movement was also beginning to take shape in eastern India.The defining feature of the JVP as a radical movement has been its serious and uncompromising commitment to capturing state power. The JVP made two attempts to fulfil that objective, first in April 1971 and then in 1987-89. Both ended not just in failure, but in the annihilation of large numbers of its leaders, members, sympathisers and even their family members. The 1971 attempt was a brief
affair, spread over a few weeks. Many of the movement’s leaders, including Wijeweera, survived death and prison sentences to re-launch the movement in the early 1980s.

The second JVP “insurgency” of 1987-89 developed in a new political context. The civil war between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil secessionist groups had erupted after the anti-Tamil riots of 1983. The Jayewardene regime proscribed the JVP in July 1983, alleging falsely though that the “left” parties were behind the anti-Tamil riots.

The JVP, which had been engaged in parliamentary and electoral politics for a few years, went underground again. The Indian involvement in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, particularly through the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987, gave a new opportunity for the JVP to re-emerge. And re-emerge the JVP did with a bang. The day Rajiv Gandhi and Junius Jayewardene signed the Accord, on July 27, 1987, there were organised riots in Colombo. Rajiv Gandhi himself escaped possible death at the ceremonial guard of honour when a naval rating attempted to hit Gandhi’s head with the butt of his rifle. Those were the unmistakable signs of the second coming of the JVP’s “revolution”.

A Bloody Crusade

India’s political and military intervention in Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s seems to have redefined the JVP’s political agenda. To capitalise the public anger generated by what many Sri Lankans thought at the time as the high-handed behaviour of the Indian government as well as the fears generated by the huge Indian military pres¬ence in the north-east of the island, the JVP launched a “patriotic war” against the “Indian imperialist state” and its “local agents”, the Jayewardene regime. That turned out to be a bloody campaign of violence, directed against the United National Party (UNP) regime, the armed forces and the police and even the left parties who supported the Indo-Lanka Accord and the devolution of power to the Tamils.

Nearly three years of intense violence forced the Sri Lankan government to send the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) back home, forge a new alliance with the LTTE and then launch in early March-April 1989 the bloodiest counter-insurgency war Sri Lanka has experienced in such a short time span. It may have killed nearly 30,000 JVP members just in a period of six months. It also resulted in rounding up and cold-blooded killing of the entire top JVP leadership, including Wijeweera, with the exception of one politburo member. The man who was lucky to escape from Sri Lanka and save his life was Somawansa Amerasinghe, the JVP’s present leader. Legend has it that he hired a fishing boat off the coast of Negombo and escaped to the Kerala coast to later proceed to Italy. Eventually, he led a life of a political exile in England, until returning to Sri Lanka in 2001 to take up the new and powerful JVP’s leadership.

The remarkable thing about the JVP is that even after the annihilation it suffered at the hands of the state in 1988-89, the movement re-emerged in the early 1990s as a parliamentary party. Amerasinghe and his colleagues, who were exiled in Europe and Japan, kept the red flag flying till a new generation of leaders emerged from among the survivors of the terror of 1988-89. Wimal Weerawansa, the leader of the new dissident group, is one among them. Most of the JVP’s present top leaders are survivors of 1988-89. They also successfully steered the JVP away from the armed struggle and towards parliamentary and electoral politics.

The golden moment of the new JVP began in 2000 when president Chandrika Kumaratunga sought its support to form a parliamentary majority. Interestingly, the JVP did not accept cabinet positions, but supported the Kumaratunga regime from outside, calling the regime a “probationary government”. Then the JVP entered a formal coalition with Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance (PA) in 2004 to win 39 parliamentary seats and be in a position to dictate terms to the government. Amerasinghe, the exiled leader, had returned in 2000. Quite interestingly, it was the PA-JVP coalition, with its powerful appeal to the Sin¬halese nationalist fears and anxieties that largely succeeded in politically undermining the UNP-LTTE peace attempt of 2002-03. Out of power, and therefore in a self-critical mode, ex-president Kumaratunga now admits that she made two fatal mistakes by aligning with the JVP and then pushing out of power the Ranil Wickramasinghe administration, on the JVP’s behest. That was in October-December 2003.

A General Crisis

The JVP’s break-up is probably the manifestation of a general crisis among political parties and movements in Sri Lanka. Interestingly, the JVP has remained the only entity that did not suffer a major internal crisis in recent years. All the others-the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the UNP, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, the LTTE, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front-have suffered splits, leading to the decline of party fortunes, realignment of party loyalties, shifts in the party leadership and even reconfiguration of politico-military balance in the country. The JVP’s split seems to be of considerable political consequences too.

The split also indicates the crisis which the JVP encountered by trying to maintain two faces-Sinhalese nationalism and class politics. The JVP always had these two faces, but it was its radicalism and the politics of class struggle that gave it a niche in the political process. The JVP’s shift to nationalism as a means to state power occurred in the 1980s in the context of the Tamil secessionist insurgency and the Indian intervention in the ethnic conflict. In its post-1989 regeneration, the new leadership has given the nationalist agenda greater emphasis. This mixture of Sinhalese nationalism and radicalism paid the JVP dividends for some time, enabling it to emerge as the third largest party in Sri Lanka’s Parliament in 2004. In the 1994 Parliament, the JVP had only one MP who used to wear a red shirt over white trousers. Subsequently, all the JVP MPs began to wear the politician’s uniform in Sri Lanka, white or black trousers and white, long-sleeved shirts. That is how the Parliament had domesticated the yesterday’s rebels as respectable, “national” and professional politicians.

It appears that the present split is an outcome of the collision of Sinhalese nationalist and class struggle lines within the JVP. The nationalists wanted the party to extend uncritical support to Mahinda Rajapakse’s war against the LTTE and be silent on economic and other issues. But the class politics line, based on trade union constituencies, had a different agenda, to confront the regime on economic and social issues. In the short run the Rajapakse administration is the immediate beneficiary of the JVP’s split. The JVP cannot now mobilise trade unions on the street to protest against the spiralling inflation, rising cost of living, impending food crisis and the transfer of the economic burden of the war on to the poor and the middle classes. [courtesy:http://www.epw.org.in]

[Jayadeva Uyangoda (uyangoda@gmail.com) teaches political science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka]

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Marxism and ethnocentric nationalism

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The recent split in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-People’s Liberation Front has revealed the contradictions within the party as well as between ideologies and realpolitik. Besides the clash of personalities between Wimal Weerawansa, the party’s high profile propaganda secretary cum parliamentary group leader and Somawansa Amarasinghe the senior politburo leader, there are other reasons for the rift. Since joining the PA as another partner (the new alliance UPFA with SLFP as the main party), JVP was struggling to retain its distinct identity i.e. party different from the UNP, SLFP and the orthodox socialist parties. The “ultra-nationalist, unitarist approach and its opposition to devolution of powers”, which in effect means Sinhala majority rule “distanced it from the left and democratic political forces in Sri Lanka and abroad”-(The Hindu 2 May 2008). A similarity exists between the JVP and the LTTE in the ways the two rebel groups operated before the former abandoned violence as well as in the nature of their ultimate aims which are unrealistic. Wimal Weerawansa was seen personally close to President Rajapaksa and his influential brother Basil Rajapaksa, who is his senior advisor. He has also been a leading member of the Patriotic National Movement (PNM).

Link with PNM

In the interview (’The Nation’ 4 May 2008) with the Chairman of the Patriotic National Movement Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara, the latter told that the dissident JVP leader Wimal Weerawansa was still the General Secretary of PNM. Unlike the JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe, Weerawansa was very much involved with the PNM’s programme. Explaining the ‘Nationalistic Ideology’ of the PNM, the chairman said: “What we want to do is to collect all the nationalistic forces and present an ideology to the people based on a kind of civilisational consciousness. We tried to achieve a civilisational ideology, which cuts across all these political lines. Till we achieved independence there was no national liberation struggle, unlike in India. As a result, we never had a national ideology. After 50 years of independence we have not been able to build a national ideology.” The question is whether this ideology has taken cognizance of the ethnic division, exacerbated by the policies of successive governments which finally led to the war for separate Tamil homeland in the North-East. It is naive to assume that the ‘Nationalistic Ideology’ will bring the much needed unity, stability and peace.

[Protest campaign organized by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna against the opening of UN Human Right office in Sri Lanka on 22nd March 2007, opposite the UN Office in Colombo-pic: jvpsrilanka.com]

The PNM chairman told the Marxist socialist theories failed because these were not built on a nationalistic ideology. He did not consider the JVP to be a Marxist party, although some Marxist slogans were used. “Marxism is a humanist ideology. It never succeeded in the West and it was taken by Lenin in Russia and Mao (in China) and those versions are not Marxism. The way it ended up in Russia was Stalinist, an anti-humanist dictatorial party in the name of Socialism. It was the model that appealed to these boys (Rohana Wijeweera and his associates); the dictatorial anti-human Marxism of Stalin. The JVP has the Stalinist ideology. I wouldn’t call it a Marxist ideology”. Its first leader, Rohana Wijeweera was a former student (dropout) of the Patrice Lumumba University in Russia and a member of N Shanmugathasan’s communist party or the ‘Peking Wing’ which he left in 1965 and formed his own political (Marxist) party-the JVP. According to Dr. Amarasekara, the break up of the JVP is largely the result of the clash of ideologies. Moreover, the followers of Rohana Wijeweera still believe in the radical way of gaining power even though they are in the mainstream of democratic politics and the dissidents, according to the PNM chairman, sincerely believe in the normal democratic process and in the ‘Nationalistic Ideology’ of the PNM.

He also told that the JVP members with the Stalinist frame of mind believe that “socialism can be pushed down the throat” of the people. But then, the same can be said of the nationalism of the PNM and the JVP dissidents, unless it is acceptable to all the diverse ethnic and religious groups in the country. The conditions to realize the concept of one people and one nation have been destroyed by the divisive policies and actions of the power hungry egoistic leaders. This nationalism is another notional view or belief that ignores the real situation. It cannot be imposed on those whose ideas of nationalism are different-not ethnocentric. Ethnocentric nationalism in a multi ethnic country is divisive.

Patriotism is said to be the last refuge of a scoundrel. In the context of the power struggle within the Sinhala polity, it is the refuge of those seeking power deceptively. Patriotism of the desperate power seekers who are keen on exploiting the internal divisions in the society is nothing but jingoism. The JVP has been playing this ‘patriotism’ card carefully to avoid being branded as a racist party. If loyalty to Sinhala nationalism is considered to be the desired patriotism, the latter is also divisive. There must be some political motive for the PNM to have had a hand in the break up of the JVP.

The JVP and the breakaway JNP

Early 2008 cracks within the JVP began to appear. On March 21 the Party suspended the membership of its parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa. A group of 11 JVP parliamentarians backed Weerawansa and warned of their intent to form a new political movement, unless their leader’s membership was restored. Both JVP groups vehemently oppose the LTTE who are now hated more than ever by the Sinhala community. The Sinhala nationalists back strongly the present government mainly because of its military campaign to destroy the LTTE. The prejudice and apprehension of the Sinhala masses have been exacerbated after the resumption of the war in early 2006. The JVP has no plan to seek a constitutional settlement to the ethnic conflict and the split is not going to make any difference to their stand on the ethnic issue.

According to MP Nandana Gunatillake who left the JVP much earlier and now is with the dissident group: “The new political movement would not be a carbon copy of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna” though it would “follow the original strategies of the JVP”. It would not be based on proletariat; the doors will be open to anyone who is ‘patriotic and progressive’. This shift is considered necessary to weaken other political parties competing for power under the existing political system. At the inaugural meeting held in Colombo on May 14, the leader of the new political party, ‘Jathika Nidahas Peramuna’ (JNP) Wimal Weerawansa said, unlike the JVP their party will be the real alternative to UNP and SLFP and not the JVP. Dissident MP Nanda Gunatillake is its General Secretary. Although the main party depends largely on the support of Sinhala nationalists, its reaction to the formation of JNP (English equivalent ‘National Freedom Front-NFF’) was apparent from the statement that it is useful only for “fanning the sentiments of Sinhala chauvinism”.

In recent months, the JVP leadership has found two enemies to scare the people and portray the party as the only organized group conscious of the impending danger to Sri Lanka that wants to take pre-emptive action to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. JVP regards India as a formidable enemy. Recently the leaders have come up with an additional foe, namely, the imperialistic forces in the West. People are being told that some countries have not abandoned their past colonial design and are trying to keep Sri Lanka under their influence by other means!

It was India that helped the present leader Somawansa Amarasinghe to escape to the West when the then Sri Lankan government was hunting for JVP activists. After the demise of Party leader, Rohana Wijeweera on November 13, 1989 while in government custody, Somawansa Amarasinghe became the only surviving politburo member. His anti-Indian rhetoric was very pungent in his speech delivered at the JVP May Day rally held in the Colombo Town Hall May 1. He said: “We say very clearly that India is an enemy of our country. Those who did not believe it earlier should believe it now. India has signed various pacts with the government. Through them, it is trying to intervene in Sri Lanka and fulfill its objective of dividing this country”.

JVP’s political strategy is also visible in the party’s May Day message. It stated-”the true meaning of the International Workers Day can be realized only by rallying all patriotic forces led by the working people into a broad anti-imperialist front against imperialism and its covert and overt local agents”. It accused the present government of helping the enemies to destabilize the island nation and achieve their sinister aims. “Government’s stupid action without any foresight has made the nation kneel down before our neighbour India and made us an easy prey to the imperialists’ designs. It has become a more serious issue because the Rajapaksa regime under the guise of being patriots and advocating a unitary state have become slaves of the imperialists and thereby supporting separatism.”

Even countries like China and India recognize the dependence of their economies on the outside world and are not hallucinating about losing their sovereignty to the machinations of powerful countries. The JVP has not realized that we now live in an interdependent world and the capital resource and economic dependence is great for developing countries struggling to increase the pace of development and improve the living conditions of the people-many living below the poverty line. It is well known there is no threat from any quarter to democratic countries where the governments duly elected by the people act on their behalf to meet their needs and aspirations. Only those who have some real reason or reasons to fear, will oppose the UN approved ‘R2P’-Responsibility to Protect-as happened recently in Sri Lanka. The plight of the survivors of Cyclone Nargis that hit Burma (Myanmar) is another instance that highlights the difference between dictatorial and democratic regimes. The reluctance of the junta to remove restrictions to enable swift flow of the urgently needed humanitarian aid is the main reason for some concerned foreign leaders to press for making R2P functional.

JVP and APRC

In his speech at the May Day rally, the JVP leader said that “separatism was once again raising its ugly head in the country. The party will crush attempts by the government to introduce a federal power devolution solution through Minister Tissa Vitharana”. The JVP MP Vijitha Herath stressed on May 2 that his party would strongly oppose any All Party Representative Committee (APRC) proposals for a final solution to the ethnic conflict, if the proposals were based on a mixture of Unitary and Federal models. The possibility of APRC recommending such a structure appeared from the statements made by the APRC chairman Tissa Vitharana after his recent visit along with some fellow committee members to the United Kingdom to study the power-sharing and devolution arrangements in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Another prominent Sinhala nationalist S. L. Gunasekara Attorney-at-law has ridiculed the APRC and its chairman in his recent article (Daily Mirror 5 May 2008). To quote: “…a peculiar body called the APRC, purportedly engaged in the nonsensical exercise of trying to find a solution to our ‘National Problem’ by devising a new Constitution with provision for ‘maximum devolution’, has just returned after a tour of England and Northern Ireland where they went for more costly ‘private tuition’ on devolution within a unitary Constitution! Trying to solve our ‘National Problem’ by discussing the ‘Irish experience’ of the United Kingdom, is like seeking to acquire knowledge about orthopedic surgery by visiting operating theatres in maternity hospitals!” To some, Centralism, Unitarianism, Majoritarianism and the like are indispensable for safeguarding the Sinhala supremacy. Those who oppose devolution are really against any weakening of this superior status of the ethnic majority Sinhalese which they think is vital for the future of the Sinhala nation.

JVP and LTTE

In the case of the JVP their past awful record has not hindered its emergence as the third largest political party in Sri Lanka. In the April 2004 general election, JVP won 39 seats largely because of the electoral agreement with the PA (SLFP was the main party in the coalition) and the peculiar proportional representation system introduced in 1978. Both the PA and JVP contested the election under the common banner of the UPFA. Dr. A. C. Visvalingam, President, Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance in ‘The Island’ May 3 has noted that ‘Naming and Shaming’ as a method of expressing disapproval does not work in Sri Lanka. Among other cases, he has mentioned the JVP’s past reckless actions, which were different from those of the LTTE only because the former lasted for a brief period. To quote: “Rohana Wijeweera was responsible for leading a movement against the lawful government of Sri Lanka on two separate occasions, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent persons and misled youth. Leading members of the media were among his victims. Inter alia, he caused his followers to rob banks, kill hundreds of innocent civilians in a brutal manner, attack the Katunayake Airport, violate the sanctity of the Dalada Maligawa and attempt to kill Sirimavo Bandaranaike in order to capture state power. For his admirers to ask the public to forgive and forget Wijeweera’s crimes, would be one thing but it is quite a different matter to mislead gullible members of the public, particularly those who were not old enough in 1988-1990 to understand what the public was being subjected to then”. The JVP is now in the forefront condemning stridently the crimes of the LTTE which have been denounced globally and the organization banned in several countries. No sensible person can justify the indiscriminate violence but this detestation should not take the attention away from the causes that transformed the non-violent struggle into a bloody conflict. Even in declared wars there are rules to be obeyed.

The JNP the newly formed party has vowed to find solutions to Sri Lanka’s political problems within ten years! JVP’s way of solving the ethnic problem is also to strengthen the unitary structure and when the power comes in their hands they will deal with it. From their ideology this is understandable, but it is strange that the present SLFP leadership also does not envisage any structural change. In this regard the government’s public statements are very vague blaming the LTTE for the lack of initiative. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, addressing the Oxford University Student Union on May 13 said: “They (LTTE) have always left the talks, with lame excuses. We are still ready to talk, once we are certain of their genuine intent for a political solution and their readiness to give up arms.” His uncompromising stand on the unitary structure is well known and even the moderate Tamils find it difficult to accept some thing that is the very root of the problem. The common problem with successive leaders is the lack of political will and courage to take corrective actions promptly without succumbing to nationalistic forces. These have also been exploited for their own political advantage.

Not only the country but also the people have already lost immensely because of the futile war. The Tamils have incurred extremely painful losses including many lives as a result of internecine killings. The education of Tamil children has also suffered badly. The cultural damage is immense. The present situation reflects the price of prolonging the violence rejecting all opportunities for a reasonable settlement within undivided Sri Lanka. These are also intrinsic to the country’s tragic saga.

Ironically, the JVP and LTTE with their separate unrealistic aims have lent support to each other by their words and deeds. Each grabs anything done or said by the other that is useful to promote or justify their stands. The JVP press release (’Lanka Truth’ 26 April 2008), following the bomb explosion inside a passenger bus in Piliyandala that killed 26 and injured more than 50 on April 25, stated: “This fury of the tiger terrorists could be halted only by defeating them in the political field just as Security Forces are defeating them in the battle field”. How the peace lost since the ethnic problem that started in 1956 with the enactment of the ‘Sinhala only’ language Act intensified into a gory conflict will be regained without any meaningful changes is a mystery! The effective way of defeating the separatists in the political field is to adopt and implement earnestly a suitable devolution package that makes the case for separation redundant.

To the LTTE, the JVP’s ultra nationalistic stand has been a useful aid in the pursuit of their separatist goal. The separatists have used such viewpoints to justify their claim that the Sinhala polity will never agree to share power with the minority Tamils. While the JVP wants a centralized governing system as in the communist states, the LTTE wants one party authoritarian rule where all residents will have to obey its diktat. The visions of both the JVP and the LTTE leaders lack realism. Both seized the poor socio-economic conditions in their respective areas that prevailed because of the neglect and faults of elected governments to seek power aggressively.

Tamil nationalism

In Sri Lanka, Tamil nationalism became synonymous with separatism only after the rise of ethnocentrism or supremacy of the Sinhalese that intentionally made the minority Tamil speaking people second class citizens. The chronicle that the Tamils are the descendants of past conquerors of the Sinhala land and are a potential threat to the Sinhala race also contributed to this perception. It has played a crucial role in the determination to strengthen and safeguard the unitary system which has bestowed the Sinhala rule over the entire island. No concerted effort has been made to build mutual trust between the ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil communities. In fact, even its importance in forging unity in diversity and nation building was overlooked.

Stability, peace and the much needed rapid economic progress will remain inaccessible, if the distrust and divisive politics continue to hold sway India’s Congress party attracted members from all ethnic communities which helped immensely in sustaining unity in diversity and nation building. There was no similar national party especially after 1956. The LSSP by focusing mainly on the urban working class failed to win the support of all segments of the society that is largely rural and conservative. The communal politics of previous Tamil parties led by affluent upper-class leaders also failed to promote national integration. Some leaders were interested in safeguarding their status in the society.

Division at any cost has been the determined aim of the LTTE. The methods used were reckless that relied highly on violence. There was no dual track approach to win the legitimate rights of the minority Tamils. There was also no lobbying campaign abroad for some degree of self-governance, explaining the reasons for it. The unitary system has been unfair as it discriminated against the ethnic minority Tamils, despite some constitutional amendments and new laws passed by the legislature. These remained on paper without full implementation useful to the governments to indicate their good intentions. The Chief Minister of Tamilnadu M. Karunanidhi, who is well known to be a Tamil nationalist addressing the State Assembly recently announced: “Tamil Eelam is the dream of the LTTE and it will never be a reality.” Stating the obvious is not enough. More is needed to ease the suffering of Sri Lankan Tamils languishing not only in their own homeland but also in Tamilnadu and ensure their legitimate rights and security as a distinct community like the Tamils in India.

In conclusion

Marxism like any established religion cannot be the sole foundation of a political system, especially in a democratic country where the sovereign power rests with the people. Like any religion, Marxism also has certain principles and collective beliefs that are useful in governance even under a truly democratic system. But ethnocentric nationalism has no use at all in a pluralistic and democratic country like Sri Lanka. It is the source of dissent and division, because of the deprivation of the rights and privileges enjoyed by one powerful community to other powerless ethnic groups in the society. The concerns and aspirations of the different ethnic communities especially when they are not uniformly mixed in the different regions of the country cannot be addressed satisfactorily by a regime dominated by one ethnic group.

Basically, the problem lies in the contradiction between centralistic rule controlled by one ethnic group and governance based on the equitable sharing of powers among all the diverse ethnic groups. In a multi-ethnic country, if important decisions are made by one ethnic group without the consent of other significant groups, democracy becomes meaningless to the latter. This is somewhat similar to the situation in a totalitarian system where the decisions of the powerful leader(s) at the centre are imposed on all the people, disregarding their needs and aspirations. Any system that has no built-in restraints by way of adequate checks and balances will tend to be dictatorial, corrupt and biased in favour of the ruling class. It cannot be beneficial to all sections of the society and the country. This is precisely what happened after independent Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka. Many provisions of the first constitution that provided for some checks and balances were removed in collaboration with Marxist and Trotskyite ministers in the then coalition government. It was a strange combination of Marxist and Sinhala supremacist ideologies

The world today is very different from what it was at the time of the industrial revolution and the aspirations of the people are also different not only from the economic but also from other perspectives. Freedom now means much more than the elimination of slavery. Marxism is also outdated since the exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalists is not as bad it was a century ago. Capitalism like democracy may not be the ideal method but there is no better choice for the well-being of mankind in the modern world. In the end how the system benefits all the people equitably depends on the leadership responsible for administering it. The trust of all the people regardless of their ethnic or other group/regional differences in the system and the governments is crucial for unity, peace and progress. Since the mid 1950s, the ruling parties in Sri Lanka failed to win this collective trust of the Tamils. In the case of the JVP, the leaders have not considered this to be important for realizing their political ambition.

Commenting on ‘The Island’ editorial April 19 statement – “The JVP is known for signaling left and turning right and making U-turns on the wrong way to Utopia”, Jayatissa Perera a veteran in modern political history of Sri Lanka has explained plainly “Why do Marxists make U-turns” in ‘The Island’ of April 26. “It is because they are wise enough to realize sooner or later that Marxism is only a dream. Marxism which promised so much, no more wars, no more class system, no more rich and poor, no more exploitation of man by man, ended up in a brutal dictatorship, like under Stalin who succeeded Lenin, sending all dissidents to Siberia or killing them.

Colvin, for instance, who denounced the rich as those engaged in ‘perjury by day and forgery by night,’ always had one foot in Hultsdorf, just in case! Who thought that N. M. and Philip, who told the country that the only way for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was through Marxism, by destroying the capitalist, imperialist, reactionary forces and establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat would one day join their bitterest and sworn class enemies and even become ministers in a capitalist government? Philip who breathed fire like a dragon at the mention of the UNP joined it as a Cabinet Minister and waved goodbye to Marxist Leninist-Trotskyist revolution”.

Jayatissa has quite confidently stated: “Weerawansa and Somawansa will remain eternal foes like N.M. and Philip or the Bodhisatva and Devadatta. They will continue signaling left and turning right and making U-turns on the wrong way to Utopia. Marxism is nothing else!” As pointed out by him, there is a serious attitudinal problem with the political leaders coloured by biased opinions, beliefs and traditions that divide people into various diverse groups. Their own narrow short-term interests take precedence over national interest, which has no common meaning even within the Sinhala polity. Many cannot appreciate the beauty of unity in diversity. Without the attitudinal change no system will help to unite the people as equal members of one Nation and improve the prospects for a better future for all. This vital change will not happen without the intervention of the civil society. The media also has a crucial role to play in bringing the desired change. The future of the country that was earlier the model for others desiring peace, tranquility, welfare and security can no longer be left solely in the hands of politicians. This was the grave mistake made after independence.

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

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NPC: Flawed democracy and prosecution of war cannot win peace

Full text of media release by National Peace Council of Sri Lanka:

The suicide bombing in a busy street in Colombo’s commercial area of Fort, targeting buses in which riot police were stationed have killed at least 10 and injured another 95 including civilians passing by in the vicinity. The National Peace Council condemns this attack which has the hallmarks of the LTTE.

[A glass plate protecting a statue of Buddha is damaged at a temple near the scene of the bomb explosion in Colombo May 16, 2008-pic. Reuters via Yahoo! News by Buddhika Weerasinghe]

Sadly the blast took place in the heart of Colombo’s business centre, in close proximity to the Hilton hotel and opposite a Buddhist temple. It took place at a time in which millions of Sri Lankans are preparing to celebrate Vesak, the day of the birth, Enlightenment and passing of Lord Buddha, whose foremost precepts were to not take life and to meet hatred with love. Ironically, the police personnel were stationed for riot duty in view of the inauguration of the administration of the newly elected Eastern Provincial Council at the Presidential Secretariat nearby and a demonstration by the opposition parties against the manner those same elections had been held.

The Provincial Council elections and the local government elections held earlier in the east were deeply flawed.They highlighted the disappointing status of democracy in Sri Lanka despite over seventy five years of universal franchise. The people living in the Eastern province failed to experience free and fair elections that could have facilitated a credible process of devolution of power. It is now the responsibility of the government and provincial administration to ensure that development of the east will go hand in hand with the protection of human rights and human security in these areas.

The National Peace Council expresses our condolences to the victims and their families. We call upon both the Government and the LTTE to end their reliance on a military solution and, in this Vesak period, to contemplate the path of negotiations based on human values and principles of non-violence to ensure the best interests of the people they claim to represent.

Executive Director
On behalf of Governing Council

National Peace Council of Sri Lanka

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NY Times Profile: Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, Singapore politician

“Funnily enough, I enjoy the fight,” he said in an interview. “It’s true. And if I had to give it up I wouldn’t know what to do.” A practicing Anglican Christian of Sri Lankan descent, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam was born in 1926, was raised partly in what is now Malaysia and received his law degree from University College in London in 1951.

Starting a Party, and Hoping to Crash Singapore’s Parliament Again:

by Seth Mydans

IT might seem late for a fresh start, but that is the story of J. B. Jeyaretnam’s life, a political intruder who refuses to stay away.

J B Jeyaretnam Last month he was back after six years of political banishment, the grand old man of political opposition ready to joust again with Singapore’s immovable political establishment.

[J. B. Jeyaretnam]

“We are just beginning!” he exclaimed at a small news conference announcing the formation of a new party, the Reform Party.

It was an unusual phrase to hear from an 82-year-old man who has been running for office-when the courts would allow him-since 1971.

But Mr. Jeyaretnam seems unable to stop pushing, a man at the mercy of his own force of personality, certain of his principles, uninhibited and seemingly immune to intimidation.

He paid his way out of bankruptcy a year ago, after having been convicted in 2001 of defaming members of the ruling party; ordered to pay damages; barred from the practice of law; and expelled for the second time from Parliament.

He says he has lost count of the number of times he has been sued for defamation for his political statements.

“We in Singapore are denied the rights to speak up, to tell the government to change course,” he said at the news conference.

He widened his eyes and smiled a puckish smile, displaying three large, widely spaced teeth, and rededicated himself to the rescue of his nation.

“The most important thing,” he said, is that what we have to bring about-and I’m saying it quite seriously-is the liberation of our people, the empowerment of our people.”

It seemed an outsize vision for this lone crusader at this late stage. He said 10 people had enrolled in his party; others had declined to step out into the cold light of open opposition.

But it is not so much his mission or his party that drew reporters, but the phenomenon of Mr. Jeyaretnam himself.

His persistence and his defeats are woven through Singapore’s history as a sort of counterpoint to its steady rise to affluence and economic success. In its 42 years, this city-state of 4.5 million people has built what its founder, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in a recent interview called “a first world oasis in a third world region.”

Most people accept restrictions on civil liberties and free speech as the price of their material well-being. Few people, even the discontents, call for fundamental change as Mr. Jeyaretnam does.

“We are quite narrow minded,” a 16-year-old high school student said, asking that her name not be used when talking about Mr. Jeyaretnam. “We think about getting a degree, getting a good job, that’s all. There aren’t any political discussions. It’s not really our culture. We just study and that’s it.”

WHATEVER his support, and whether or not he held a seat, Mr. Jeyaretnam has represented the idea of an opposition in a system that offers little role for one.

For Singapore’s first 16 years as an independent nation, since 1965, Parliament did just fine as a monopoly of the People’s Action Party of Mr. Lee. In 1981, after what he says were half a dozen attempts to win a seat, Mr. Jeyaretnam crashed Parliament’s gate in a special election as its first, and noisiest, opposition member.

His wife, Margaret, whom he had met when they were law students in Britain, died of breast cancer a year before the election, and it is one of Mr. Jeyaretnam’s regrets that she did not live to see him win.

Mr. Jeyaretnam’s relationship with the legislature since then has been defined by the establishment’s moves to eject him and his own attempts to get back in.

He lost his first parliamentary seat in 1986 after being fined and jailed for a month, when he was convicted of making a false declaration of his party’s accounts, a charge he says was politically motivated.

Of the five general elections since then he has been legally permitted to run in only one, in 1997. Though he did not win, he earned a special nonconstituency seat as “top loser” under election laws.

He held that seat until his latest conviction for defamation in a suit whose plaintiffs included Goh Chok Tong, who was prime minister at the time.

The next election is due by 2011 and Mr. Jeyaretnam plans to run again “if I’m still here.” He added, in his commanding voice, “I’m 82 and still fit.”

The People’s Action Party is a brilliantly successful political meritocracy that has all but monopolized the political talent here.

And that, says Mr. Lee, is the only way it can be.

“We do not have the numbers to ensure that we’ll always have an A Team and an alternative A Team,” he said once, when asked why Singapore did not have a vigorous opposition. “I’ve tried it. It’s just not possible.”

Since Mr. Jeyaretnam opened the door, there have never been more than four opposition members of Parliament. Today, only two of the chamber’s 84 members represent opposition parties, and unlike Mr. Jeyaretnam, they take a decorous and cooperative approach.

Mr. Jeyaretnam’s flamboyance has clearly irritated Mr. Lee over the years, and the government-friendly newspaper Today recently called their relationship one of the world’s longest-running political feuds. “His weakness was his sloppiness,” Mr. Lee wrote in his autobiography, “From Third World to First.” “He rambled on and on, his speeches apparently unprepared. When challenged on the detailed facts, he crumbled.

“Jeyaretnam,” he writes, “is a poseur, always seeking publicity, good or bad.”

HE does indeed love the limelight, but it is far more than a pose. Like with some dissidents in other nations, Mr. Jeyaretnam’s single-minded pursuit of a moral vision seems to be a compulsion.

“Funnily enough, I enjoy the fight,” he said in an interview. “It’s true. And if I had to give it up I wouldn’t know what to do.” A practicing Anglican Christian of Sri Lankan descent, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam was born in 1926, was raised partly in what is now Malaysia and received his law degree from University College in London in 1951.

His son Philip has followed him into law and is president of the Law Society of Singapore. His other son, Kenneth, is an economist in London. Mr. Jeyaretnam says they were among the benefactors who helped pay his way out of bankruptcy.

Back in Singapore with his British law degree, Mr. Jeyaretnam rose quickly in the legal establishment, serving as a magistrate, district judge, prosecuting counsel, registrar of the Supreme Court and chief of the Subordinate Judiciary, a position of status and influence.

He resigned in 1963 at the age of 37 and went into private practice because, he said, “I was disillusioned, completely.” In 1971, he made the first of his many unsuccessful runs for Parliament.

At the news conference he was asked the question that lies at the heart of people’s fascination with him: why he continues after all these years of what seems like futility.

“I am concerned with reform and with people’s thinking about the real values in life,” he said. “Why are we here? What is the purpose of our being?” [courtesy: NYTimes.com]

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