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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2645

A State of Injustice

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Israel has degenerated into heartlessness, real cruelty toward the weak, the poor, and the suffering. Israel displays indifference to the hungry, the elderly, the sick, and the handicapped…. When all this happens as if it were perfectly natural, without outrage and without protest, I begin to fear that even if peace comes tomorrow, even if we eventually return to some sort of normality, it may be too late to heal us completely.” David Grossman (Rabin Memorial Lecture – 2006)

The Rajapakse administration is resisting the LTTE, as it should; as it must. The Navy’s destruction of three Tiger weapons ships last week symbolises the government’s readiness to take on the LTTE. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about its willingness to treat civilian Tamils with justice. The living conditions of the North-Eastern Tamils continue to deteriorate, plagued by devastating scarcities and frightening security concerns. In the midst of this deprivation and insecurity the regime, in characteristic fashion, insists that all is well and getting better still.

In vain, though. Last week the Human Rights Watch bracketed Sri Lanka with ten worst human rights violating states in the world. And Justice PN Baghavati, the chairman of the IIGEP, accused the Presidential Commission of Inquiry of being ‘woefully slow’ in its investigations and pointed out that “the Commission had not completed the enquiry even in one of the 15 stipulated incidents that occurred since August 1, 2005” (The Hindu – 12.9.2007). That is the crux of the matter – our glaring failure to investigate completely and properly even one case of human rights violations. There have been and are many inveigling promises and pious declarations of intent, but little action and no results. If action was filed against suspects in at least one case, Sri Lanka would have been in a better position to face the barrage of critical attention she is currently receiving in Geneva. Armed with proof of such timely action, Sri Lanka could have won the sympathy of the genuine campaigners for human rights while discrediting the Tiger supporters masquerading as human rights protectors.

Paucity of Vision

Is our failure to properly investigate even one case of human rights violations due to general ineptitude? Or is it of intent? Is it due to the inefficiency for which this regime is rapidly acquiring an impressive reputation? Or is it due to the partisan thinking of the regime, its ‘them and us’ outlook? Is it due to negligence or a fatal paucity of vision?

In a recent interview President Rajapakse made a fascinating statement which provides a valuable insight into his own conception of the nature of his Presidency: ‘I cannot change history or my own political circumstances overnight... You must remember my political legacy and constraints. During my election I received few Tamil votes because of the LTTE-enforced boycott. I was elected primarily by a Sinhala constituency on an election manifesto which made it clear that an ultimate solution to the ethnic crisis could be evolved only on the basis of a unitary state” (quoted in Friday – 13.9.2007; emphasis mine).

Mr. Rajapakse seems to regard himself, first and foremost, as the President of those Sinhalese who voted for him rather than of all Sri Lankans, equally. This is a formula for a politicised state and a partisan Presidency. If the President of the country believes that his primary duty is to those who voted for him/helped him, it cannot but affect the policies and actions of his government, rendering them unbalanced and unjust. It becomes particularly dangerous when the President believes that he owes a special duty to the majority community – because they voted for him – and that he is justified in treating the minority communities somewhat unequally - because they did not vote for him. In a pluralist country with an ethnic problem and an internal war, such an attitude, if it informs and fashions official discourse, policies and practices, can have extremely deleterious consequences.

An episode from the early days in the undeclared Fourth Eelam War highlights the repercussions of such officialised favouritism. In mid 2006 the LTTE carried out a savage bomb attack targeting a passenger bus in Kebithigollawa killing more than 100 civilians. Soon after, in Pesalai, a church in which fisher families sought refuge from a gun battle between the Lankan Navy and the Sea Tigers was attacked and a number of civilians were killed and injured (the government blamed the LTTE while many believe that the Lankan Navy was responsible). In the first instance the victims were Sinhalese and in the second instance the victims were Tamils. The different official reactions to the two incidents were striking in their discriminatory nature. As a young fisherman of Pesalai, comparing these divergent reactions, commented: “The president went to the scene of the bombing to survey the damage. The government paid for the funerals of the victims. Nobody has come here” (AP – 18.6.2006).

If we believe in a united or unitary Sri Lanka, then the Tamils are our people and it is our duty to show the same concern about their safety as we do about the safety of Sinhala civilians. However if the President of the country believes that he must prioritise Sinhala concerns over Tamil concerns because Sinhalese voted for him and Tamils did not, he cannot but preside over a government that is incapable of treating all the citizens as equals because it sees no need for such equal treatment. Under such circumstances inequality becomes the norm. A worse indictment of a non-divided Sri Lanka and a better justification for a separate Tamil country is hard to imagine.

It is not only the Tamils who are at the receiving end of this Rajapakse policy of helping friends and neglecting the rest. It is affecting the South as well. Last Sunday’s newspapers carried an anecdote which symbolises this partisan nature of the Rajapakse regime. At a recent Financial Consultative Committee meeting the JVP participants had protested about the replacement of President Premadasa’s circular mandating public sector recruitment via competitive exams with the disreputably dangerous practice of recruitment via political patronage.

President Rajapakse responded revealingly: “Piyasiri, there is no point in protesting against this…. We must help those who helped our party by giving them appointments. If both of you also have lists, give them to me and I will see that they are appointed” (Lakbima News – 9.9.2007). Clearly this is a regime intent on taking care of its own – be it party members, human rights violators or relations – irrespective of the cost to economy, system and country. And the masses who do not belong to any of the favoured categories are compelled to bear, almost exclusively, the costs of these interminable attempts by the regime to look after its own.

On Friday evening a large numbers of irate commuters carried out an impromptu protest against the inadequate number of rail carriages in the Colombo-Awiaaawella office train. “The first office train to Avissawella did not arrive on time and when the train with only two carriages arrived, there was a large crowd that could not be accommodated….prompting angry commuters to block the train from moving and staging a protest…” (Daily Mirror – 14.9.2007). This incident is important because it symbolises the indifferent manner in which the authorities treat even the Sinhala masses in the South and the destabilising potential of such neglect. Patriotism cannot be used indefinitely as a cover for a system in which the norm is to indulge friends at the expense of non-friends, with scarce public funds.

No one will sacrifice for ever. There are objective limitations to the amount of pressure a government can impose on its people. Milk powder importers are seeking permission to increase the price of a 400g pack by Rs. 273; the Pensions Department searches desperately for Rs. 1.3 billion; from the East to Colombo, many victims of the last tsunami still languish in makeshift shelters. The obvious response of the authorities to such hardships is to invoke the war, to use high defence expenditure as an excuse for exorbitant prices becoming more exorbitant and abysmal services becoming more abysmal. However the war is no bar when it comes to allocating funds for the maintenance of luxurious lifestyles of the powerful and the well-connected. For example the government is said to be making arrangements to send a 60 odd delegation with President Rajapakse to the UN. According to media reports the favoured ones will be housed at US$ 2700 per night suites at the Ritz Carlton. Such discrimination is unjust, unfair and unwise. It will compel increasingly large segments of the populace to make choices that they would not have made had they faced less discriminatory treatment. As Thomas Carlyle, in a clear warning to posterity, said, “What will not people bless; in their extreme need!” (The French Revolution: A History).

Deception as Policy?

The veteran TULF leader V Anandasangaree recently stated that the LTTE wants a kingdom for its leader while the Tamil people want a political solution to the ethnic problem within a united Sri Lanka. Recent history does teach us that attempts at appeasing the Tigers will be no more successful than compelling the Tamils to accept the unitary state. Oblivious to this reality, Ranil Wickremesinghe continues to cling to the belief that the LTTE ought to be happy with de facto Eelam while President Rajapakse persists in thinking that Tamils ought to welcome a unitary Sri Lanka with a few cosmetic changes.

During the election campaign the President chose to bind himself to the unitary state for his personal political gain. It was not a choice imposed upon him, as both the SLFP and the UNP had moved away from the Unitarian concept. It was a choice he made opportunistically, in order to obtain the backing of Sinhala hardliners. Now he is trying to impose it on the country, to the detriment of the country. Given the President’s determination to keep the unitary state intact, it is hard not to see the entire APRC process as nothing but an exercise in deception to lull the non-LTTE Tamils and disarm the international community. According to some media reports the APRC is being kept alive so that the President has something to ‘show and tell’ when he addresses the UN General Assembly in late September.

The Tamil people are exhausted by the LTTE’s incessant demands and by Vellupillai Pirapaharan’s megalomaniac strivings. If the government is willing to show a little concern about their security and well being, be a little generous in making political concessions, it will be possible to win over a majority of Tamils in Sri Lanka as well as a substantial section of the Diaspora Tamils. Such an attitude and a policy will also enable us to satisfy our friends and discommode our enemies internationally. With so much to gain, why are we persisting in repeating our own mistakes, in telling lies and practicing deceptions which are wearing thin through overuse?

As we tarry, the chasms are multiplying – between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, between those of different ethnicities and religions, between intoxicated imaginings and the stark reality. As the country moves inexorably towards an 80-20 society, high taxes, exorbitant prices and low quality services are asphyxiating even the middle class. Sri Lanka is becoming a playground for the appropriately connected, many of whom seem addicted to vulgar displays of lucre and muscle. The rulers inhabit an ‘ought world’, in a world of make believe where they are always right, good and successful. All the while a recalcitrant reality, indifferent to the grandiose claims of propaganda, moves in a tangentially opposite direction, at an ever increasing pace.

- Asian Tribune -

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