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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 77

There’s good news and bad news

By Dayan Jayatilleka

By placing the issue of Tiger terrorism front and centre before the two largest audiences available in international politics (UN General assembly, NAM summit) as well as in numerous bilateral meetings and multilateral forums, hammering home the truth of LTTE aggression and the quintessentially defensive character of Sri Lanka’s military response, reiterating his commitment to a multiethnic, multi religious, multi cultural country and a political solution based on maximum devolution of power, President Mahinda Rajapakse has done his duty by the people and the armed forces, and more forthrightly than any of his predecessors. He has, in effect, bought time and provided space for the armed forces to do the job, while preventing the LTTE from obtaining any leverage for itself.

The limits of this highly laudable achievement must be recognised. It is restricted to the most important component of the world community, namely established states – through their political leaderships - but does not encompass that which Noam Chomsky deems the second superpower after the USA: world public opinion. And even at the level of the interstate system and leaderships, it is dependent upon the reasonably swift materialisation of the political promise that President Rajapakse made, on the record, to the international community.

Presidential paradigm

President Rajapakse’s speech to the Asia Society (New York) and his interview given to the BBC’s Tamil Service contain the clearest formulation so far, of his administration’s intended solution to the Tamil ethnic question. He rejects the notion of internal boundaries or borders within the island, commits himself to maximum devolution but refuses to be trapped by labels, either unitary or federal.

This would disconcert both the peacenik/TNA and JVP/JHU ends of the spectrum. It is however in perfect consonance with the practice of those states which steadfastly refuse to convert to federalism but have devolved power to the periphery and instituted a significant degree of regional autonomy. These range from Britain to Indonesia, from South Africa to the Philippines.

The demagogues of the JVP and JHU would say that the most sacred of all is the commitment to a unitary state as contained in Mahinda Chinthana or whatever, but this is an echo of their sworn enemies, the peaceniks, who having supported Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994, accused her of betraying her peace mandate and reform agenda by waging her ‘war for peace’ - when she had absolutely no option but to do so after the Tigers exploded two Sri Lankan ships in a mini Pearl Harbour attack in April 1995!


The people voted primarily for Mahinda Rajapakse – not some disembodied ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ – over Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2005, just as they did for Chandrika (and only secondarily her promises) in 1994, and Premadasa over Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1988. Such is the nature of a presidential election: it is a duel.

The JVP’s current contradictions with the SLFP are a replay of its conflict with the administrations of Sirima Bandaranaike and Ranasinghe Premadasa. On both occasions the JVP overshot the mark and pitted itself against nationalist democrats rather than comprador UNP governments. The masses that had distanced themselves from the earlier Rightwing leaders remained firmly in the political centre, leaving the JVP to isolate itself through its aggressive arrogance. By the claim that it was responsible for the rise in morale resulting in the military’s success and shrill warnings about a possible sell-out of the army’s achievement by this government, the JVP (not simply by Somawansa but also Weerawansa) seeks to drive a rift between the Rajapakse administration (including the President) and the armed forces. Well before his attempt at armed insurrection, Rohana Wijeweera had been experimenting with the project of a Sinhala-Buddhist ultranationalist military putsch, and had come to the notice of the CID investigating the alleged coup conspiracy of 1966, if only under his code name Dr. Tissa.

What’s Going Wrong

The goal of maximum devolution is adequately outlined by President Rajapakse but the pace has to pick up. The calendar has two dates circled: mid-October for the SLFP-UNP talks to bear fruit and year-end for the ARPC/APC to produce a document. That sounds reasonable enough, if adhered to, but decision makers must be aware that at another level, things are going very wrong, patience with Sri Lanka is running out, pressure on us is growing and can be contained only if a reasonable political solution, convincing to the world system, is arrived at expeditiously.

What’s going wrong is the perception of Sri Lanka in the international media, global civil society and therefore world opinion. If unattended to, adverse international opinion will reverse the tacit support we now enjoy from states, governments and leaders. While there is a degree of bias in the international media, the media mirror however distorting only reflects a version of what is actually happening, and what is happening brings into question Sri Lanka’s undergirding social contract, that between the various communities which comprise the country.

Within the space of weeks we have witnessed Sri Lanka’s Muslims in a state of agitation over the killings of 11 wood cutters- with the protests aimed, probably unfairly, in the direction of the STF; Tamil politicians, including those of a markedly anti-Tiger bent, urging a more activist and even politically interventionist role by India; Sri Lanka being reprimanded by the United States’ Commission on International Religious Freedoms as a violator; and Amnesty International urging the UN to appoint watchdog to monitor the gross abuse of human rights by both the State and the LTTE.

There is a growing alienation of the Tamils, Muslims and Christians, i.e. of all the non-Sinhala Buddhist communities, in response to what is perceived as an increasingly aggressive Sinhala Buddhist hegemonism. There has been an erosion of trust and a mounting sense of insecurity.

The truth is that there are two struggles going on, which some times intersect but can be recognised as distinct and autonomous from the other:

1) The struggle between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE, the centripetal centre and the secessionist periphery, in which the world community supports the former in some modest measure.

2) The struggle between the contending collective identities, ethno-religious nationalisms, on the island, in which the world community is either neutral or unsupportive of perceived majoritarian hegemonism.

It is inevitable that a defensive war would entail the invocation of majority nationalist and religious symbols as vehicles of motivation and mobilisation. The USSR’s war against Nazi invaders could not but be a Great Patriotic War which rekindled Russian nationalism and entailed a pact with the Russian Orthodox Church. However, that war was against a foreign invader, while the Sri Lankan struggle is against a separatist aggressor whose social support derives from a community that is a significant part of the domestic social fabric. Therefore the war cannot and must not be fought purely or chiefly on appeals to majority nationalism.

In terms of their composition our armed forces are overwhelmingly Sinhala Buddhist and nothing can be done about that in the foreseeable future. But there is a difference between composition on the one hand, and function, dominant logic and ‘line’ on the other. If the Sri Lankan state and especially its Armed Forces, STF and police conduct themselves, and function, as vehicles of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony rather than of Sri Lankan unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty in a war on terror, international support will steadily disappear to be replaced by international isolation, pressure and finally intervention spearheaded by the regional hegemon. So long as the Yugoslav army functioned with the idea and ideology of a united, multinational (and federal) Yugoslavia, even Stalin who had just beaten Hitler, was deterred, but the moment it functioned as the army of Greater Serbian nationalism, it was defeated by a combination of internal separatism and external intervention.

The swift neutralisation of a dangerous situation building up in – and with – India, is strategically imperative. Given that we are fighting the same man who widowed the most important single person in India today, Sonia Gandhi, it is extraordinary that Sri Lanka has not been able to roll-back the headway made by the pro-Tiger Tamil Nadu politicians and the TNA. This is even more extraordinary when set against the fact that the Sri Lankan who perhaps has the most cordial relations with Sonia Gandhi’s Congress is not a Tamil, is Sinhala Buddhist, sits in Cabinet and has not yet been despatched as a special envoy to New Delhi: Dr. Sarath Amunugama, expert on the ethnic issue and devolution, arguably the most literate man in our present parliament, and in whose office one of the drafts of the Indo-Lanka Accord was drawn up!

Prophets Unhonoured

While the latest victory of the Sri Lankan navy over the Sea Tigers and the excellent performance of the Sri Lankan air-force are symptoms of everything that’s right about Sri Lanka especially under the present dispensation, everything that is wrong with us is epitomised by the non-utilisation either by the state or civil society of the two Sri Lankans who have recently been recognised as outstanding peacemakers by the UNESCO: Judge Christie Weeramantry and Mr Anandasangaree.

They have been felicitated neither by state nor society. Their services have been sought and secured by no one. Together or singly they would be invaluable special envoys, eminent persons, representing our country’s case to the world while counselling us in the observance of humanitarian norms, human rights, justice and fair-play in our struggle against terror. (Justice Weeramantry presided over the Lockerbie trial). These are truly wise men, respected by the world at large, who can guide us in the search for a solution to our violent discontents.

However, they are not fellow travellers of either the pro-Tiger NGO peace lobby or the Sinhala Buddhist hardliners. Those Sri Lankans who salute Anandasangaree ignore Judge Weeramantry, and vice versa! Though these two personalities have enormous international prestige in precisely those circles and on those issues that are sources of pressure on Sri Lanka, the usual jealousies would see them un-utilised or underutilised by the state (which may not have been so had Lakshman Kadirgamar been alive).

Home-grown though Messrs Weeramantry and Anandasangaree may be, the Biblical saying that a prophet is without honour only in his own land, is nowhere truer than in Sri Lanka.

- Asian Tribune -

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