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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2585

Wars of Domination

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Shovel, shovel, sharp and strong
Dig a grave that is deep and long!”
Heinrich Heine (Dream Pictures)

The Army Commander deserves to be praised for his frankness. In an interview with the state owned Daily News he had spelled out how the Fourth Eelam War is perceived by the powers that be – as a war between the majority and the minorities for the control of Sri Lanka: "Like any other country in the world where people have to fight wars to safeguard the territorial integrity of their countries they have to go through hardships. They have to spend a lot of money. They have to sacrifice. The Sinhala nation has to sacrifice if you want to protect the country and survive….. In any democratic country the majority should rule the country. This country will be ruled by the Sinhalese community which is the majority representing 74 percent of the population" (The Daily News – 19.7.2008).

Finally we have the unvarnished truth about how the regime perceives the war and what it hopes to achieve by winning it. The various spokesmen for the government and the Army love to define this war as a ‘humanitarian war’ and a war to ‘liberate’ the Tamils from the jackboot of the Tigers. The Army Commander knows better and has no hesitation in saying it; as far as he and his political masters are concerned this is a war by the ‘Sinhala nation’ to ‘protect the country and survive’. In other words this is not a Sri Lankan war; it is a Sinhala war against the enemies of the ‘Sinhala nation’. And since it is the minorities who threaten this Sinhala dominance, the enemy is not just the LTTE but Tamils and/or any other minority who dispute the pre-eminency of the Sinhalese. The Army Commander’s candid utterances are a function of the Vidattaltivu victory over the Tigers. In fact, as the regime’s belief in the imminence of the final triumph grows, the need to wrap the nature of its Sinhala supremacist state building project in pluralist linen would diminish.

A Sinhala Peace in a Sinhala Country

The First Eelam war was a racial war, a war waged by the Sinhala state against the Tamil people, a war against not only separatism but also devolution. A paradigmatic shift occurred with the Indo-Lanka Accord. The Accord not only delivered a degree of devolution but accepted the pluralist nature of Sri Lanka and the homelands concept and paved the way for the (temporary) merger of the North and the East. The Premadasa and the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga administrations adhered to these structural and political changes; they also took forward the search for a political solution. The break came with the advent of the Rajapakses. From the time Mahinda Rajapakse assumed the Presidency he has implemented arevanchist policy; this has enabled a revanchist mindset to re-emerge and become hegemonic in Sinhala society; this mindset is in turn used by the regime to justify less devolution. With the Rajapakses the focus is not on what should be conceded to achieve a lasting peace but what should be retaken to ensure the re-imposition of Sinhala dominance.

With these political changes the nature of the war too began to change. The Fourth Eelam war became increasingly like the First one and substantially different from the Second and the Third ones. The Army Commander’s forthright comments demonstrate that this process of change is no accident, that the powers that be see the war as a necessary endeavour to re-impose majority domination over the minorities. The way the Rajapakse administration sees the war is the same way Vellupillai Pirapaharan and the LTTE see the war – not as a confrontation between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE but as a racial war between the Sinhala state/the Sinhala nation and the LTTE/Tamils.

The Army Commander’s revealing words enable us to understand the regime’s attitude to a number of important issues, from human rights to a political solution. It explains such acts as the attempt by Gotabhaya Rajapakse to expel North-Eastern Tamils living in Colombo lodges and the videoing of more than 800 Tamil householders in Colombo; it fits in with the demand for special identity cards for Tamils. The anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim rhetoric and phobias of the likes of Minister Champika Ranawaka belong within this new paradigm so baldly spelled out by the Army Commander. Now it is clear why the regime tends not to see a difference between Tamils and Tigers, why it reacts so angrily when concern is expressed about the safety and wellbeing of civilian Tamils caught in the war, why disappearances and extra-judicial killings proliferate….

The Army Commander in his forthright way has also spelled out what a political solution would entail under the Rajapakse rule: "Though we give political solutions those politicians in the North and East cannot solve all the problems faced by the people living in the North and East. In any country the majority community is running the administration. We cannot prevent that situation. If a minority is ruling the majority that is a dangerous situation and it is a problem. That is an unrealistic situation….. More than 50 per cent of the Tamil population is living in and around Colombo. Sometimes they are living much better than the Sinhalese and Muslim community. Even today I am saying that they have not been subjected to injustices as claimed. Is that only the Tamil people living in the North and East are facing problems. The entire population living in the South too are facing the same problems like them" (ibid).

General Fonseka is merely reiterating the oft repeated assertion of the President that there is no ethnic or communal problem in Sri Lanka. Given this fundamental belief, a political solution would not entail a degree of power sharing between the minorities and the majority. If the minorities are lucky they will get some economic benefits as a ‘political solution’, nothing more. If they agitate for more (especially more political power), they will be treated as enemies and traitors and dealt with accordingly.

So the peace after the war, if there is such a peace, will be a Pax Sinhala, a Sinhala peace imposed on the minorities through brute force. The Sri Lanka that will emerge will be a Sinhala country in which the minorities can survive only on sufferance, only as second class citizens. In this Sinhala Sri Lanka the non-Sinhalese would be safe only so long as they behave; the parameters of acceptable and unacceptable conduct would be decided unilaterally by the Sinhala state and Sinhala society.

Anyone who does not want to accept this unequal status quo will be deemed an enemy. Given these conditions, the Army Commander’s pervious statement about an insurgency which may survive forever seems extremely plausible, if not inevitable. Very few members of the minority communities will be content to live under such humiliatingly unequal conditions; Sri Lanka, even if she defeats the LTTE, will know neither peace nor stability but continuous strife.

The burden of this majoritarian supremacist project will be borne not only by the minorities but also by the Sinhalese. The payment will be exacted in the form of economic decline, falling living standards and the loss of young Sinhala lives. The attempt to impose Sinhala dominance on the minorities will become a yoke for the Sinhalese and for Sri Lanka, depriving us of peace and stability, retarding our chances of achieving development. But for the regime such a continuous and a racially defined conflict will be the only way to remain in power.

Rumours of another War

A battle raged on Friday, in the heart of Colombo, a battle in which the police used its might against a group of unarmed men, women and children trying desperately to save their meagre homes. And that battle foretold of a coming war, a political war between an uncaring government and an economically and existentially beleaguered people, irrespective of ethnicity or religion.

Friday’s battle was preceded by another demolition; on the previous day (Thursday) state representatives demolished a number of small shops in Rajagiriya, once again citing SAARC security concerns as the reason. The shops were authorised structures constructed by the Kotte Municipal Council. Yet they were razed to the ground and their owners deprived of their livelihood, in a display of callousness and brutality which should be familiar to the people of the North and the East. If these shops represented a security problem they could have been closed for the duration of the summit. To destroy them completely showed a total absence of concern on the part of the regime even towards the Sinhalese.

A day later it was the turn of the hapless denizens of Glennie Passage, Station Passage and Garden Stuart Street of Colombo 2. The houses were unauthorised structures, but they have been in existence for three to four decades and their occupancy has been recognised by the CMC since the 1960s. According to a petition submitted to the Supreme Court the residents were issued an eviction order by the Defence Ministry on 11th July ordering them to vacate their homes in just a week. On the seventh day the UDA demolition squad appeared backed by the police. When the residents protested a clash ensued. The eviction stopped for a while when the lawyers representing 31 of the householders produced a Supreme Court stay order granted minutes before. Perhaps those who ordered the eviction in the first place did not feel bound by the Lankan law since the evictions resumed a couple of hours later, in clear violation of the Supreme Court order. The excuse of the UDA was that it had not received a copy of the stay order from the Supreme Court. The men, women and children who refused to give up their homes were tear gassed and baton charged. Since there was a Supreme Court stay order the police was acting against it and thus illegally, as were the UDA officials. Quite obviously they felt that the law of the land did not apply to them as their political masters are above the law.

There is a right way even to do the right thing. If the residents had to be evicted for security reasons it should have been planned in advance and they should have been provided with adequate alternate accommodations. That was the manner in which the UDA acted during the time it was under Ranasinghe Premadasa. But the SLFP has a history of evicting dwellers of unauthorised houses without providing them with adequate alternate accommodations; in the most infamous of these incidents during the run up to the NAM Summit the government of Sirima Bandaranaike threw hundreds of people out of their unauthorised homes in the middle of the night. They were taken to a marshy land which the evacuees, with typical Sri Lankan irony, named Summit Pura (a housing scheme was built there for the evacuees by the UNP government subsequently).

Friday’s events demonstrate the contempt with which the administration regards the Southern masses, its lack of concern for their well being. (If this is the way the regime acts in the South it is not hard to surmise how it must be acting in the North and the East, away from TV cameras and courts). As the conflict continues (be it in the form of a war or an insurgency) the burden on the Southern masses too will increase. Any discontent will be seen as an absence of patriotism and any dissent will be responded to with force. The Friday’s mini-battle is a foretaste of what the Southern people can expect from this government; it is also a warning of what the regime may encounter if it tries to force the masses to make endless sacrifices for a conflict which might last ‘forever’.

- Asian Tribune -

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