Archive for September, 2007

Ranil Emulates Mahinda in Accepting Unitary Label

by Sumanasiri Liyanage

The United National Party has changed its policy on ethno-political question and stated that it would withdraw from a federal type solution to a unitary solution that would be based on the 13th Amendment to the Second Republic Constitution. Clarifying this change, its spokesperson, Ravi Karunanayake, even used words decentralization and devolution as synonym. At a meeting in Monaragala, Ranil Wickramasinghe talked about adopting a policy framework that is doable. This change in UNP policies may be a shock to Colombo civil society, but it would not be a shock for someone who carefully observed the political line of Ranil Wickramasinghe since 1987. He took anti-Indo-Lanka Accord position in 1987; he refused to participate fully Parliamentary Select Committee procedure in 1994; he was critical of 1995 devolution proposals and was against 2000 draft constitution bill.

[Ranil Wickramasinghe, UNP leader]  

In spite of his action in the past, he was branded as a federalist, even as an asymmetrical federalist, mainly because of the Oslo Communiqué. Now it is clear that for Ranil Wickramasinghe, Oslo Communiqué is an exception rather than a rule as far as his policy orientation is concerned. The Editor, Daily Mirror has welcomed this decision with grand words about conflict negotiation, but at the end taking a position on which all the talks should be based, namely, unitary state with substantial devolution. Wickramasinghe appears to be emulating President Mahinda Rajapakse not only visiting temples and carrying babies, but also accepting unitary state label. This signifies the poor quality of the Sri Lankan current political leadership, especially of the two main parties.

[President Mahinda Rajapakse] 

UNP’s new change can also be interpreted as a coup against the progressives of the APRC and APRC’s attempt to find an amicable solution to contested issues in the context of pressure coming from India, the US, Tamil and Muslim civil leaders and many others. Now the UNP has given an excuse to the SLFP so that the SLFP can stick to its post 2005-policy changes, i.e. maintaining the unitary character of the Sri Lankan state. The constitutional discourse in 1994-2004 has generated a consensus that the controversial labels like ‘unitary’ and ‘federal’ should be avoided. And there has been a consensus that a new constitution should be adopted by parliamentary two-third majority and at a referendum or a single majority at a newly- elected constitution assembly and a referendum. So this will answer Ambassador Jayathilake’s argument that keeping unitary would avoid a need of referendum. Mahinda Chinthanaya explicitly stated that the citizen will be allowed to vote for constitutional change at a referendum meaning Mahinda Rajapakse was ready to go for a referendum. (And he has, I agree with Dayan Jayathilake, best chance to win such a referendum)

The draft constitution of 2000 was in fact based on the 13th Amendment, Managala Munasighe Committee suggestions, and civil society proposals for constitutional change. So it was not an outcome of radical change but result of a gradual change. The tragedy of the Sri Lankan politics was that it failed to adopt this step-by-step approach. Both the UNP and the SLFP supported Mangala Munasinghe proposals. The only significant changes introduced by the 2000 draft bill include the proposal to go back to cabinet system of government, an introduction of co-ordinate relationship between two-tiers of government as far as defined subjects are concerned and the requirement of provincial consent to make changes to power devolution. Tissa Vitharana proposals can be easily defined as 2000 draft + a second chamber.

So those who think that drafting a new constitution should begin with 13th Amendment of 1987 forget completely some of the agreements reached by two main political parties. It is necessary to emphasize that this should not be mixed up with Minister Devananda’s suggestion that the full implementation of the 13th Amendment would facilitate the constitutional discourse. In fact I suggested the same idea many a time when attempts at state restructuring were at the horizon in 1995, 2001 and 2005. So, in this article I appeal to federalists as well as to non-federalists that we should redemarcate the boundaries of the discussion to go beyond the conventional dichotomy between federal and unitary. Why do I suggest so? I suggest it for two reasons: First, as I mentioned earlier, the international discourse on power-sharing in pluri-national democracies (PNDs) has advanced very much beyond this conventional binary analysis. Secondly, there has been a general consensus now that two constitutionally separate competencies -namely two-tiers of governments- should be established as one main element of the constitution.

In this context, the most legitimate constitutional questions to be asked are: What should be the relationship between these two constitutionally separate competencies? How this two-tier governmental arrangement could ensure co-operative governance instead of conflcitual governance? We can also add a question that would have economic implications. How and in what manner could governance be effectively adhered to the principle of subsidiarity? The setting up of constitutionally separate two-tiers of government can be justified on multiple grounds. The notion of subsidiarity has increasingly been invoked to legitimize the setting up of a lower level of government. It has multiple meaning, but what is most common and relevant here is that it refers to organizational and territorial principle requiring that decision-making and implementation be carried out in a space that is as close as possible to the citizen.

This idea also goes with the notion of deliberative democracy that all the affected should be given an equal opportunity to participate in decision-making as equals in a non-coercive context. Secondly, in pluri-national societies, the concept of majority is a fluid one. Had different national groups been marginalized or dominated by the majority national group, an asymmetry of allegiances to the state would have been the result. Two-tiers or multiple tiers governance would provide a space to these national groups to exercise their authority in contiguous areas where they represent the majority. So it has conflict prevention or resolution aspect. Thirdly, as local representation in the center includes both individual and group interests, decisions that would be injurious to numerically small communities can be prevented. So that pluri-national character of the country will be reflected in making decisions.

I believe that we have now reached some kind of consensus on the above three points although there are unresolved complex issues. However, the question is how this two tier system of governance could be institutionalized to promote cooperative governance and to minimize prevailing suspicion, mistrust and fears of different communities. Different countries have tried different mechanisms. Some worked well while the others were not that successful. This mixture of results once again makes the constitutional design more problematic. In my opinion, the concepts of division of labor and subsidiarity would contribute in resolving these problems. I

n any country, there are issues that are nationally relevant. These subjects include in modern polity, inter alia, national defense, macro-economic management, international relations, maintenance of minimum standards on social welfare, education, health, environment protection and similar issues. Then there are issues that are locally specific. The distinction between national and regional may be blurred in some issues but quite clear in many issues. So the notions of subsidiarity and division of labor can be deployed in constitutional design. Hence the question of which tier is superordinate or subordinate would become a nonissue. The issue is which tier can perform the function effectively, and efficiently. In this sense, the criteria may be not political but economico-technical. So the relationship between national and provincial with regard to these two categories should be based on the principle of non-hierarchical horizontality.

In my opinion, Tissa Vitharana proposals have elegantly dealt with these issues in noncontroversial manner. Why are we going to invent the wheel once again after spending so much time and resources?

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Tigers Stress On Recognition of Tamil Sovereignty As Basis For Any Future Dialogue

by a Special Correspondent

Even as President Mahinda Rajapakse was addressing the 62 sessions of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York last week, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had in a pre emptive move made a call to the UNGA to rein in the Government of Sri Lanka by calling for a halt in military operations.

The LTTE had stressed that the “recognition of Tamil sovereignty was the basis for any dialogue.” The Tigers in their statement had said “The Government of Sri Lanka must end its deceptions; halt its military oppression, ethnic cleansing, and serious human rights violations; accept the aspirations of the Tamil people; and come forward to find a resolution that is based on the right to self-determination of the Tamil people.”

While as widely speculated President Rajapakse in his speech was to bank on the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) as the panacea for the ethnic issue, the Tigers had dismissed the APRC exercise as one meant to fool the international community. “This tactic of appointing ‘APRCs’ and ‘Round Tables’ to resolve the national conflict is an established deceptive habit of successive governments of Sri Lanka,” the LTTE had said.

While emphasising that they were still ‘restraining themselves in the face of government military operations’ the Tigers had further said that “it is always the LTTE that keeps the doors wide open for peace talks.” The LTTE statement is significant in that it marks a significant shift in Tiger strategy.

Following is the full statement:

The delegation led by Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapakse is gathered in New York, USA, to take part in the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly. This delegation, as in the past, will use this opportunity at the UNGA to discredit the Tamil struggle for self-determination as terrorism and mislead the international community to cover up Sri Lanka’s failed records on human rights, humanitarian issues, and peace process.

At the time when world leaders are assembling at the 62nd session of the UNSG to discuss international issues, the Political Wing of the LTTE wants to focus attention on issues related with the current conflict situation and the peace process. As the LTTE and Tamil people are denied a fair chance to interact directly with the International Community (IC), we choose to submit this statement.

(a) Sri Lanka and the peace process

Since elected to office, President Mahinda Rajapakse has been systematically weakening the IC-backed Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) between the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the LTTE.

It has blatantly ignored all the promises that were made at the Geneva talks.

Further, the GoSL has tried to isolate the LTTE, a party to the cease-fire and peace talks, from the IC and thus obstructed the Tamil people from directly interacting with the IC on their legitimate aspirations in a fair conflict resolution process.

GoSL has made schizophrenic public statements that ranged from, the intention to “wipe out the LTTE” and give a political solution to the Tamils, and to “weakening the LTTE” in order to “force” it to come to the negotiating table.

The appointment of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) to come up with a constitutional framework for a resolution to the conflict is another classic example of its duplicity.

This tactic of appointing ‘APRCs’ and ‘Round Tables’ to resolve the national conflict are an established deceptive habit of successive governments of Sri Lanka. But some members of the international community had shown confidence in this latest APRC and have been assuring everyone that it would come up with a framework for the resolution of the conflict. This misplaced confidence has not brought any constructive outcome to date.

On the other hand, the leaders of the GoSL make regular toxic comments and victory parades on the execution of the military campaign. Cynically exploiting the international discourse on “terrorism,” the GoSL locally justifies a war against the Tamil nation.

The latest and most categorical evidence came at the speech given by the Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapakse, in the presence of his brother, President Mahinda Rajapakse, in Trincomalee on September 14, which was nationally televised. He said,

“We cannot establish permanent peace in the country by winning only half or two third of the war against terrorism….. President Rajapakse cannot implement the desired political solution to the north and east conflict unless LTTE terrorism is defeated 100 percent.”

Two important facts can be gleaned from this statement that was clearly endorsed by the President himself. Firstly, that the GoSL intends to intensify the war in the north and secondly that the APRC was a fa‡ade to fool the international community.

Indeed less than a week after making this televised statement in Sinhala, the GoSL on the eve of its representation at the UN General Assembly has again paid lip service to the peace talks.

Genocidal war against Tamil people

The growing statistics of civilian casualties amply prove beyond doubt that this war conducted by the Sri Lankan armed forces is indeed a genocidal war against the Tamil people. Oppressive laws sanctioned by a majoritarian Sinhala Government are legitimising its brutality. The Emergency Regulations give cover and impunity for unlawful arrest, torture, killing, and disposal of bodies without investigations.

Human rights and humanitarian law violations: In the 21 months since President Rajapakse came to power in November 2005, 1974 Tamil civilians were killed by the Sri Lankan armed forces and its allied paramilitaries and 842 Tamil civilians were either arrested or abducted and then disappeared by the same forces. Among those killed were four popular Tamil Parliamentarians, Joseph Pararajasingham, Nadaraja Raviraj (both of whom were sitting MPs), A Chandra Nehru (a former MP) and V. Vigneswaran (an MP designate elected to replace the assassinated Pararajasingham).

Over 69 of those killed during this period were children under the age of 16. In addition to these killing of children, more than 150 civilians, among them many children, have sought safety in the Jaffna Human Rights Commission in fear of their life. Indeed the vast majority of the civilians who have been killed and disappeared in this period are the Tamils.

More than 500,000 people in the Jaffna peninsula are cut off from land access to the outside and are denied delivery of essential items by land and are kept in an open prison for its own military purpose by the GoSL. Despite repeated requests by the people of Jaffna and at the last Geneva talks by our side, the GoSL has not heeded to this request and has kept the A9 route closed.

Land grab: The occupation war started by the GoSL last year has forced hundreds of thousands of Tamil people from their land thus depriving them of livelihood. Many civilians were killed and disappeared in the process. The displaced were then forcefully resettled against their wishes in certain locations. Indeed the UN High Commission for Refugees announced that it was withdrawing from the resettlement involvement due to this flawed process. In Sampur and Muttur East, the GoSL confiscated lands belonging to the people by declaring them as High Security Zones and is implementing programmes to create new Sinhala settlements in these regions.

Media suppression: In order to obstruct information about its war on the civilians that is causing unimaginable hardship for the people, the GoSL is suppressing media freedom in many aspects. Those who operate despite such threats are murdered. Eleven journalists have been murdered since 2005 by the GoSL operated forces. The Uthayan daily from Jaffna, the voice of the most threatened people, is continuously operating under threat. Another journalist from the south who exposed corruption in weapon procurements of the GoSL has also come under death threat.

Labelling ‘terrorist’: Representatives of the international community, who have raised their voices on these horrendous violations of humanitarian norms, have been repeatedly targeted by the GoSL with the most vicious attacks. It is typical of the leaders of the GoSL to use the brush of “terrorist” and “LTTE sympathiser” on anyone who raises their voice for justice and decency in this island. Among those who have been painted thus are, UN Under Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, UN Representative for Children Affected by Armed Conflict, Ambassador Allan Rock, and Australia’s Former Foreign Minister and current President of International Crisis Group, Gareth Evans. They have all been called by senior members of the GoSL as “White Tigers.”

(b) LTTE and the peace process

We strongly believe that the international community understands that the Tamil liberation struggle against oppression has been taken up according to international norms. And it cannot be compared to aimless, intolerant causes of violence: terrorism

Further, we expect the international community recognise that it is always the LTTE that keeps the doors wide open for peace talks. LTTE unilaterally declared a ceasefire in 2000, after recapturing many towns in Wanni and the major Sri Lankan military camp in Elephant Pass, thus paving the way for the ensuing peace efforts. Yet the then regime of President Kumaratunga did not come to the peace table until after testing its military strength in yet another military operation and facing further losses.

We again gave time and counsel to the new regime of President Rajapakse to take forward the peace process. But his regime ignored all the agreements reached at the table, and even refused to heed the humanitarian needs of the people.

Whereas the LTTE continued to respect and urge for a full implementation of the cease-fire agreement, the Rajapakse regime eventually embarked on its war of occupation. It started the Mawilaru attack on the pretext of humanitarian need despite the patience exercised by the LTTE.

This military campaign of Sri Lanka has continued ever since in the east and the north, under variously codenamed operations, while the LTTE has continued to restrain itself, confining only to defensive operations.

(c) Expectations of the Tamil people from the international community

In the context described above, we urge the international community:

1. To recognise the concept of the sovereignty of the Tamil people, and support the peace process in accordance with this principle.

2. To provide appropriate opportunities to the Tamil people to express their aspirations, as have been given to the people of East Timor and Kosovo.

The Government of Sri Lanka must end its deceptions; halt its military oppression, ethnic cleansing, and serious human rights violations; accept the aspirations of the Tamil people; and come forward to find a resolution that is based on the right to self-determination of the Tamil people. The IC must rein in the GoSL to bring it in line.

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The UNP Re-positions itself on Envisaged Solution For Ethnic Crisis.

by a Special Correspondent

The UNP on Friday September 28th 2007 stated that the party stands for a negotiated political solution based on a credible power sharing formula acceptable to all communities as a means of settling the ethnic conflict.

The UNP statement was aimed at putting to rest charges that the party had dropped its commitment to a federal solution in a bid to woo the JVP.

Reiterating the party’s commitment to the devolution of power, the UNP said the political solution must address the grievances of the Tamils, the fears of Muslims in the north-east regarding ethnic cleansing, and concerns of some sections of Sinhalese that devolution will lead to separation.

The UNP also said there should be talks with the LTTE and the ceasefire agreement amended taking into account the current situation and the experiences of the past few years.

The UNP has in its statement also avoided using terminology to describe the devolution model but has said Sri Lanka should evolve an innovative model in keeping with her own experiences.

The statement also adverts to the party’s commitment to federal principles stating there must be credible power sharing between the centre, region/ province and the local authorities while introducing a system to safeguard the devolved powers.

The UNP further states the final solution will be placed before the people at a referendum for approval.

Following is the full text of the statement:

The United National Party believes that long lasting peace is possible only through a negotiated political solution based on a credible power sharing proposal acceptable to all communities. The Party’s Annual Conventions of 2004 and 2006 reiterated this position. These policies were set out and further developed by Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Leader of the Party and Leader of the Opposition, when he delivered the J. R. Jayewardene commemoration lecture. He made the following observations:

We must oppose separatism

Terrorism requires a military response

The causes leading to separatism require a political solution

There must be contingency plans to deal with any breakdown in negotiations or when there are obstacles to a political solution. This should include both political and security components. We must take steps to obtain the support of all parties and work wholeheartedly to ensure the success of the peace process.

A negotiated political solution must be based on: renunciation of violence; human rights and democracy.

It must also accommodate the legitimate aspirations of all communities. The political solution must address:

The grievances of Tamils;

The fears of Muslims in the north east regarding ethnic cleansing;

The concerns of some sections of the Sinhalese that devolution will lead to separatism;

The political solution must be acceptable to the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and other small ethnic communities. It must also have the support of the international community.

A political solution must safeguard the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and the sovereignty of the people. It must also protect the rights of the minorities.

We must be innovative and evolve a new constitutional model reflecting our own experiences.

The present system (the 13th Amendment) is based on the provinces. Therefore we have to determine whether provinces will be the unit of devolution for the future. If new units of devolution are being demarcated, it should be based on political, social and economic criteria.

There must be credible power sharing between the national government Regional/Provincial Councils and Local Authorities. The centre must retain the powers needed for the effective functioning of the national government. The other powers must be vested to the other two levels.

People living in the north have expressed fears that powers vested in the Region/Province may be taken away by a future parliament. People in the south have a concern that the party in power at the centre will take away the powers of the Regional/Provincial Councils controlled by opposition parties. Similarly, local authorities are worried that the party in power in the Region/Centre will take away their powers.

Therefore, it is necessary to have a system to safeguard the devolved powers. We have to give our attention not only to legal principles but also to practical problems.

These proposals must make provision for sharing of power at the centre between the national government and the Regional/Provincial administrations.

The Co-Chairs and India must be requested to arrange for cessation of hostilities and resumption of talks. In order to create an appropriate environment for talks it is essential, that all parties agree to uphold human rights. Investigations be carried out into the abductions and disappearances and remove the culture of impunity, immediate resolution of outstanding humanitarian issues, and guarantee all democratic rights.

The Ceasefire Agreement must be amended taking into account the present situation in the north – east and the experiences of the last few years. The environment today is far different from that of 2002 when the CFA was signed.

A Muslim delegation must participate at the peace talks as agreed.

We have to structure the entire peace process: Talks with the LTTE; talks with all other parties and group.

During this period we must also maintain a close relationship with India and the international community.

A political solution must be acceptable to all communities. Thereafter, it must be accepted by the people at a referendum. Once a negotiated political solution is accepted at a referendum, a constitutional amendment incorporating a political solution will be passed by parliament. This constitutional amendment will have to be approved by the people at a second referendum

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Sethusamudram Project: Can Sri Lanka Speak?

By Dr. T T Sreekumar

One of the important issues in the Sethusamudram debates is the near total obliteration of the Sri Lankan perspective(s) by the Indian Media. Understanding the Sri Lankan perspective(s) is critical for two reasons. First, it is more than evident that the canal will be in India but its impacts would cross Indian territories with the suspended sediments and dredged toxins affecting the bio-domains surrounding Sri Lanka. Second, given the shared concerns of food security, arms race, unresolved national struggles (Elam, Kashmir etc.) and continuing sectarian social conflicts in the region, an India-centric view on bilateral and multilateral issues such as defence, environment, foreign policy and economic growth is politically inadequate.

To develop and uphold a larger South Asian perspective on the Sethusamudram project appears to be as critical as the need for such a position on the India-US nuclear deal. Both issues have some striking similarities. The Indo-US 123 deal would culminate in an increased mutual distrust between Pakistan and India, inducing unprecedented escalation of defence expenditures in both countries in particular and South Asia in general resulting in further State withdrawal from public investments and infrastructure projects leading to increased rural unemployment, marginalization and pushing food insecurity along threatening boarders. Sethusamudram project has also been similar in its impacts given the strategic, environmental and economic import of its long term impacts for the region. It threatens the livelihood of millions of people and make whole of South India and Sri Lanka vulnerable to natural calamities in unimaginable proportions comparable to that of the sublime terror unleashed by Tsunami waves.

The discourses on the Sethusamudram project in India have tended largely to ignore the various views and concerns raised by civil society and media in Sri Lanka. The Indian debates are cantered on an astonishing ignorance and/or indifference about the decade long deliberations on the topic by social, environmental and human rights movements, scientists, writers, intellectuals, artists and fisher communities in Sri Lanka. The movement against Sethusamudram project in Sri Lanka has a history that offers lessons on understanding the potentials and limitations of democratic struggles for right to livelihood in South Asia while pointing to the deepening crevasses between State and civil society in almost every nation and nationality in the subcontinent. The concern about the regional implications of the Indo-US deal is also peripheral to Indian media.

[Meeting with Srilankan Delegation on Aug 1, 2005]

It is important to note that the Sri Lankan State appears to have given its nod to the project against the wishes of its people. The ‘official’ position has emerged in the last few years following bilateral discussions, which in many ways resembles Indo-US Nuclear negotiations. The Sri Lankan government, even as late as 2005 has been demanding the establishment of a standing joint mechanism for exchange of information. It wanted to set up a common data base on the hydrodynamic modelling, environmental measures and impact on fisheries resources, fisheries dependent communities and measures to cope with navigational emergencies. The discussions, however, has not led to the achievement of the level of transparency in the implementation of the project as these concerns still remain unsettled. The degree of coercion India might have employed to extract a forced consensus from the Sri Lankan State as US has been trying with Indian State in the 123 deal somehow does not figure prominently in Indian discussions.

[Sethusamudram Project Inauguration]

Political parties including those preach internationalism have been guided primarily by parochialism and self serving patriotism typified in their differential positions on the issues of Sethusamudram and 123 Deal. Reports on the Indian side showing a resolute refusal to address the concerns raised by the various Sri Lankan delegations that visited India during the negotiations have been suppressed. The fact that every single evidence, challenging the economic and environmental viability of the project, has been dismissed by the Indian side and that it has not been subjected to the media criticism it deserves can be seen as an indication of the media complacence (if not compliance) in the hegemonic overdrive that characterizes India’s foreign policy in the region. It is difficult to dismiss as a coincidence that the issues of ‘sea tigers’ and Katchatheevu had always figured prominently in the mainstream media’s imaginative narratives as well as in affirmative technocratic discourses on Sethusamudram project in India.

The two meta-narratives in India, the one which wants everyone to view the issue primarily from a national security and/or economic angle and the Hindutwa view which wants to highlight the mythological importance of the Ramsethu as a cause and occasion for consolidating its waning influence have received the maximum attention in the Indian debate. Communalization and ‘nationalization’ of the issue by BJP led NDA and Congress led UPA–CPM alliance respectively has resulted in a highly uneven debate on the issue.

The fact is by now clear to observers that Hinduthwa nationalism would morph into an opportunistic economic nationalism while in power and would divorce it while in opposition. This is just one of the interesting crude empirics of fascism, an analysis of which does not necessarily hinge on its inevitable iteration. Hence invoking the genealogy of the project to NDA period to rebuff BJP’s current opposition to the project is only self serving for the ruling UPA-CPM alliance. Fortunately for the ruling alliance, no archives of past CPM position on the NDA initiative appear to be available. Against the grain, I want to believe that the old leadership of that party might have wanted to oppose it on internationalist and environmental principles.

Civil society would not necessarily want (or not want) BJP’s support in this struggle. But it certainly would want to oppose the UPA-CPM alliance’s rather hegemonic opportunism as reflected in their differential approach to US Nuclear deal and Sethusamudram project and an aggressive divisive politics of communalization unleashed by the NDA. Indian media taking a broader South Asian perspective in this regard would provide a critical support for the Sri Lankan movement against Sethusamudram canal and deeply challenge the collective hallucinations of the consolidated ‘secular’ Indian response.

Dr. T T Sreekumar is Assistant Professor of Communication & New Media Programme at National University of Singapore E-mail: sreekumar@nus.edu.sg , sreekumartt@gmail.com

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Paradigm Shift Needed To end War And Bring Peace To All

By Kusal Perera

There was an interesting piece of news a fortnight ago that quoted JVP – MP and Trade Union leader Lal Kantha as saying, although they have differences with the UNP he needs to say the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickramasinghe has clean hands in politics. However their spokesman, MP Weerawansa said the JVP is propping up its own National Alliance against the UNP and would also campaign against corruption of the present government and the rising cost of living. Anura Kumara Dissanayake gave it further stress by saying that their own National Alliance would be the alternative to the present government when it is ousted from power and not the UNP once again. Nevertheless, the JVP did vote against the government, along with the UNP when the Tax Bills were up for vote and all indications are, they would again vote against the government and along with the UNP when the 2008 Budget comes up in parliament. News in the media also claimed the JVP will not submit its proposals to the Finance Ministry for budget designing as they did before.

What’s all this confusion? Why should the JVP oppose the government on corruption and cost of living issues only and oppose the UNP too? Why not oppose the government all-round without talking of the UNP? The JVP has every right to be ideologically different to the UNP. On that they could oppose the UNP. Agreed and that’s fair enough politically. They also have the right to be different from the SLFP too. Where do these lines cross and where do they meet? The answer(s) lies in understanding the politics of JVP in relation not to the UNP, but to that of Sinhala peasantry.

The JVP at its birth was no Marxist party even to the extent of the “Old” or traditional Left that had a heavy Marxist grounding when the LSSP was formed in 1935. The JVP sprouted out from Maoist Nationalism of Comrade Shan that was going through turbulent crisis in the decade of the 60’s. That was the period Shanmugathasan was losing his foot hold on the Colombo based trade unions and was turning towards the Harijan movement in Jaffna. While Shan related himself emotionally to the Tamil Harijan aspirations, his Sinhala activists in the shrinking Chinese Communist Party could not. They therefore gave vent to their Nationalist politics within their youth movement that was wholly Sinhala. This brand of Sinhala Maoism also played heavily on “anti-imperialism” and thus turned towards its own variety of patriotism. The political interpretation of “Indian expansionism” that the JVP made into a core issue during their formative period explains this patriotism. Both influences had two common features that moulded the politics of the JVP and its internal thinking. One, they both had a very strong anti American element in their theories and two, they both were dependent on the peasantry for their social strength.

It is reason why, the JVP depends itself heavily on undergrad and unemployed peasant Sinhala youth. On both occasions when they took to arms and turned terrorist, their entire cadre came from those Sinhala rural youth. During both these ruthless uprisings, they had very little to do with trade unions. In fact when they decided to force their political will on society, the trade unions were simply pulverised into non-activity. It is only when they came to the open, did they venture into trade union activities. Within the present young work force that lacks the old working class traditions and is more petty-bourgeois in class thinking with the young commuting to and from their village cultures, the JVP links up through that village culture to the trade unions. With that when the JVP promotes any from Tamil or Muslim csommunities, they are only symbolic representations like the Kumarasuriyars of the SLFP or the Kadirgamars of the PA. This plays on their possible inability to attract the urban middle class and convince the academia and the intellect of the country, as did the LSSP, CP or for that matter the NSSP that had 5 professorial intellects in its Central Committee and a fairly large sympathiser group of urban middle class professionals during its highly active political life in the decade of the 80’s.

Such long ingrained institutionalised Sinhala thinking and their source of strength from the Sinhala peasant youth, possibly does not allow any inclusive thinking within the JVP. They therefore accept the SLFP rural base as their source of social power and to that extent would not want to project themselves as totally opposed to this government. To that extent they would not oppose the Sinhala thinking of this regime. They therefore cannot afford to oppose the war and the suppressing of democratic rights in the name of war. They compete for the same applause and cheer from the Southern Sinhala polity. That is precisely why they oppose all international pressure against human rights violations, dumping all such calls for saner treatment of people as international conspiracies, meaning “imperialism” which possibly comforts their thinking. Politically they have very little difference from that of this present regime. They therefore want to look different with their lingo and project a high platform of integrity.

This draws the political line that leaves no decisive political difference between the broad Sinhala political groupings and those who oppose the Sinhala Unitary platform. That demarcates more importantly democracy from that of corrupt, inefficient and ruthless governance living on a plundering war. Inefficiency, corruption and all undemocratic interferences in society stems from the war hysteria that some elements in this regime thrive on. The politics of difference therefore lies not in opposing corruption and rising cost of living, but in challenging the politics of war. And that keeps the JVP and the UNP opposing each other. That also keeps Mangala and his SLFP (M) politically opposed to the JVP.

This raises another question while answering the one raised before. Can the UNP – SLFP(M) deliver what they promised in their MoU, by simply calculating to oust this government with the support of this Sinhala JVP ? That’s a futile task as the Ranil – Mangala duo would then have to compromise with the very politics they have to defeat to deliver what they have said they would. What needs to be stressed is that it is not just removing one political alliance and replacing it with another that this society now needs, as the JVP seems to think they would do with their proposed National Alliance. This society now needs a paradigm shift in social ideologies to remedy all its ills. To bring this war to an end through a negotiated solution and peace for all. Not merely a replacement of the regime. The JVP is therefore best left with the regime without wooing it away from the mess it would have to take responsibility for. That in fact is the dilemma of the JVP. How to get out of the mess they are possibly responsible for?

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“You have to give the Tamils the confidence that their grievances will be looked into”-Ferial Ashraff

Minister Ferial Ashroff, leader of the National Unity Alliance, speaks to C.A.Chandraprema on the current state of Muslim politics in Sri Lanka, the three cornered conflicts between the Sinhalese and the Muslims , the Muslims and the Tamils and the Tamils and the Sinhalese in the east, and the present policy of the Rajapakse government on the ethnic conflict.

Q. A broad question for a start. What do you think of the present state of Muslim politics in Sri Lanka ?

A. The reason for this question I feel, is because we had this charismatic Muslim leader who was able to bring all these various forces under one umbrella and be the voice of Muslims in parliament. Now people tend to ask, what of Muslim politics in Sri Lanka because we are all divided and there are so many parties, so many factions. But I feel that this fragmentation is the general trend in Sri Lanka and if you were to take an issue relating to the Muslims, I don’t think there is much of a difference in what each person says. The divisions are basically due to personality clashes. We have not been able to gather around one leader or one particular party.

[Minister Ferial Ashroff, leader of the National Unity Alliance]

Q. If you take the period before your late husband formed the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, there was the situation where some Muslim leaders were affiliated with the UNP, some with the SLFP and there was no separate Muslim party as such. Haven’t things come back to square one because NUA which you lead is affiliated with the PA and the SLMC which is led by Mr Rauff Hakeem, seems to be more with the UNP even though they now serve in a PA government?

A. Before Ashroff, there was the situation where Muslims supported various other political parties and the grievance was that when an issue was raised, the voice that was listened to was that of the party and not of the Muslims. But now, even if they are affiliated to the other political parties as you say, when an issue is raised, because we have this history of Ashroff raising the Muslim voice, I don’t think the Muslims who support the various political parties, will make the same mistake they made prior to Ashroff. If it is an issue relating to Muslims, I think they would be able to come out and talk about it independently.

Q. If we go back in history, the immediate reason for the formation of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in 1987 by your late husband was because of this feeling that the Muslims had been let down by J.R.Jayawardene in signing the Indo – Lanka peace accord and turning the Muslims into a minority within the merged northern and eastern provinces. The accusation is that he later forgot the reasons for the formation of the SLMC and became an ethnic lobbyist in Colombo .

A. The reason why a Muslim political party had to be formed, was not necessarily, the merger of the north and east. If you take the Puttalam incident where the Muslims in power kept quiet while the Tamil politicians had to speak about it, and then there was this massacre in Galle , where the Muslims in power kept quiet and the Tamil politicians had to speak about it. So all these matters were in the background, and things ended up in the Muslims not being consulted with regard to the Indo-Lanka pact. When Ashroff started lobbying in various other places, he wanted the people to understand what was happening to the Muslims in the north and east. Even though we live in a small island, the Muslims in the Western and other provinces, don’t know what is happening to the Muslims in the north and east. It was only after the tsunami that the Muslims here felt that something bad has happened to the Muslims in the east. So Ashroff had to put up a big fight to get people to understand the necessity for a separate Muslim voice – which was very difficult – people wanted him to remain a regional voice. Since then of course, things have happened. And even when I represent the people through NUA, I can’t go by what Ashroff said, alone. The new situation has to be taken into account. I think the same thing happened to Ashroff.

Q. In the east, with which ethnic community do you have the most serious differences?

A. The Tamil community spoke of the discrimination by the majority community and this was what was being talked about until the Tamils became a majority and we had to talk about how the Tamils treated the Muslims. Our only request was that we be treated fairly by our neighbours. We also want the government to understand that we are Sri Lankan and have been living there for a long time and that we want justice and fair play. So we have to ask both communities to respect our views.

Q. There was that incident some months ago where Sinhalese stormed one of your meetings in the east saying that land was being distributed to tsunami victims deep in the interior of the country and that some of the beneficiaries were not tsunami victims at all, and that Sinhalese also should be given houses in the same area…

A. What you say about this incident is not totally correct. We had got land from the government and we were trying to build houses for the tsunami victims. This was in the Akkaraipattu divisional secreatary’s area. The tsunami victims were from the Akkaraiatu division. The policy of the government at that time, was that people of a particular divisional secretariat area will be settled in that particular area. If you take the coastal area of the Digamadulla district, you will find that there were hardly a Sinhalese living along the coast. They lived in the interior in places like Amparai, Uhana, Damana, Dehiattakandiya, Padiyatalawa, and so on. Only the Muslims and the Tamils live along the coast. So we got this property and wanted to build houses for the tsunami victims. But there are people amongst us who want to find fault with whatever is happening. I would definitely have looked into it if there was a valid reason for them to find fault with what we were doing. The property was 120 acres of sate land which came under the Hingurana sugar factory. Out of this, I asked for 60 acres to house 500 Muslim families who had been victims of he tsunami. So this 60 out of the 120 acres, was what caused all these problems. This was bare land, far away from Muslim settlements, it was 14 kilometers away from the Dighavapi chaitya, it was nowhere near the Sinhala village which was on the other side of the land and the Dighavapi village is in the neighbouring divisional secretariat area. So there has been a huge misrepresentation of facts. This seems to be a saleable commodity in Sri Lanka, to start off an ethnic conflict and to say that she is a Muslim, and she is doing something for the Muslims, totally forgetting the fact that I have been working with the Sinhalese of the Amparai district, and other areas where we are building houses and so on. But this had nothing to do with the Ministry of Housing, this was a tsunami project. I don’t handle tsunami projects. I was involved only because I happen to be the MP of the area.

Q. The reason why I asked you as to which community you feel you are under siege most is particularly that…

A. You have to go on a case by case basis. We have had similar issues with the Tamils as well. In another place, when we were trying to build some tsunami houses, the Tamils created a similar problem saying I was trying to take over Tamil property and settle Muslims there. That took quite a long time to settle. But unlike this spat in Akkaraipattu, that issue did not get much publicity because it was between the Tamils and the Muslims.

Q. You spoke of ethnic contradictions being a marketable commodity. What if someone says, that you too are exploiting that?

A. It would be absurd for me to say, “No, I’m different”. People will be able to decide in the future. If you take for example, that issue about Dighavapi temple land which was raised during Ashroff’s time, most of the people who spoke about it were people who had not even seen the area. If you look at the condolence vote in parliament for Ashroff, you would find that a very senior minister from that area, who was very quiet when all this was going on against Ashroff, stood up in parliament and said ‘I bear witness to the fact that Ashroff did not do anything detrimental to the Dighavapi temple or its lands. It is sad that this was said only Ashroff had died and the vote of condolence was taken.

Q. What future do you see for this country with people dividing and re-dividing again on ethnic lines?

A. I feel that anything has to reach a climax and them come down. I suppose we have not yet reached a climax in this process. As for dividing, I think we have only ourselves to blame, because all these people were represented by the major parties at one time. Even now, we support politicians of the majority community and worked very hard to give them the fullest cooperation. There is another strand of thought which says that it is the majority community which is being discriminated against. Unless people come out of this mindset, and are willing to look at the reality, and treat people equally as Sri Lankans, things are not going to improve. In that I think that the leaders have a great role to play by giving the confidence that he minorities are looking for.

Q. If you take the two main political parties, the UNP says all the ‘correct’ things with regard to ethnic politics. They talk about peace, about negotiations, about ceasefires and putting and end to war and all that kind of thing. So most of the other minority political parties, the CWC, the SLMC, and the UPF, and even the TNA seems to find the UNP rhetoric more attractive than that of the PA. You seem to be the only minority leader, who has consistently stuck with the PA despite the fact that they have been saying all the wrong things, talking about war, de-merging the north and east and everything that is incorrect in ethnic politics.

A. I don’t think they are saying all the incorrect things with regard to ethnic politics. I came into politics during president Kumaratunga’s time, and I still feel that Madame Kumaratunga made a sincere effort to find a solution to the problem. She was somebody who could treat the different communities equally. She had a feeling for the minorities. If you say that the UNP was always very liberal on the ethnic issue, it was not so. If you take president D.B.Wijetunga, he said there was no ethnic issue and that it was only a terrorist issue. But if you take the PA, I felt there were members of the PA who were prepared to look at this ethnic issue and try to bring about a solution. We still have the left parties who have been very openly supporting the minorities. I had this confidence that all these people put together will be able to sort out this problem. On that basis, I stood with the PA.

Q. How would you view president Rajapakse’s policy with regard to the LTTE?

A. We should be able to draw a distinction between the LTTE and the Tamil people. And if we have failed to draw the LTTE to some kind of an understanding, and the LTTE is going to continue to say no, then we have to look at them as a terror group and start dealing with them in a different way. The president feels that the LTTE has to be dealt with like that. But I feel that at the same time, Tamil sentiment has to be looked into and you have to give the Tamils the confidence that their grievances will be addressed and that has not been happening enough. A lot of work has to be done on that aspect. [Courtesy:The Island]

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