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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 31, July 24, 2010

Sri Lanka at Peace, But....

Sunday 25 July 2010, by Apratim Mukarji







In the late 1980s and early 1990s in Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rakapaksa was a very energetic young human rights lawyer, working as one of the two close associates of the Mothers’ Front President and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Mangala Samaraweera, Mahinda;s closest friend and a suave member of the urban elite, was the other clutch on which the matriarch constantly depended in carrying out a very unequal popular movement against the Premadasa Government’s ruthless suppression of the second rebellion by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.

Sri Lanka was a country of terrible fears and terror then; and working ceaselessly in seeking an impossible justice for the thousands of mainly rural Sinhala families which had lost their young men and women to the dark forces of state terror meant risking one’s life at every turn. Rajapaksa was one of the magnificent band of dedicated human rights workers Mrs Bandaranaike had built up to fight Sri Lanka’s virtual dictator, Ranasinghe Premadasa.

It is no small irony that decades later, that once-admirable human rights lawyer is being increasingly viewed as an authoritarian ruler betraying every sign of intolerance and anti-democratic tendencies. The irony is made to look all the more stronger because Rajapaksa’s perceived degeneration into authoritarianism is happening when he has every democratic credential in his favour and the country has been at peace for a year, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) defeated and decimated and the threat of separatism buried once and for all.

As the President has emphasised many a time during this one year of peace, it is now time to rebuild the country and heal the wounds that had plagued the inter-communal relations. Yet, even dispassionate assessments of today’s Sri Lanka come round to the conclusion that while in the post-war period the Sinhalas are living truly in peace, the Tamils are at best experiencing an uneasy peace.

Tamils are certainly not complaining of war-time deprivations and tribulations they had endured for nearly twentyfive years. The entire north and east, their traditional homeland, are once again accessible to them, and over two hundred thousand of them have been resettled in their previous places of habitation. However, the issue that seems to bedevil the government efforts at rehabilitation is the intricate relationship between Tamil civilians and the former rebels. The government has made it clear that along with the rehabilitation of innocent civilians those suspected of having been members or supporters of the LTTE must be screened meticulously and those found to have been on the side of the former rebels have to be tried and punished.

Even if the government’s commitment to the welfare of the Tamils is accepted at face value, the latter are clearly not able to put faith in Colombo’s impartiality. Apart from the historical factors that have shaped this divide, which is essentially of a communal nature despite the presence of Tamils in the government, the community at large definitely view it as acting for and on behalf of the majority community.

Unfortunately, apart from uttering appropriately worded statements occasionally, Rajapaksa has been in truth working towards strengthening this negative Tamil thinking. Right from the beginning of his first term in the President’s office, he has been quite candid about the inherent supremacy of the majority community in Sri Lanka, and has consistently insisted that all policies and solutions adopted to rebuild the country must first win the approval of the Sinhalas.

This has at times been subtly conveyed. For example, he told The Hindu on July 6, 2009, “Now my theory is: there are no minorities in Sri Lanka, there are only those who love this country and those who don’t.” The underlying concept is to tailor everything to the likes and dislikes of the majority of the people. Yet, the president aspires to satisfactorily deal with the problems of the minority Tamil and Muslim communities. He has also taken certain steps that in popular concept facilitate communal reconciliation, such as, recruitment of Tamils and Muslims into the armed forces, and the learning of a second language (Sinhala and Tamil) by new entrants into public services. But these are at best cosmetic, and it is far more necessary to address the real issues.

 

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Rajapaksa’s populism is now well-established, and this brings to mind the populism practised by an authoritarian predecessor, Ranasinghe Premadasa. Like Rajapaksa, he was also proud of his ability to speak Tamil. He was also a past master in interacting with the poor and the ordinary (in fact, he was assassinated when he had got down from his vehicle and was directing vehicular traffic on May Day, 1993).

Like Premadasa, however, Rajapaksa has also been honing his skill in whipping up Sri Lankan nationalism, a process he initiated immediately after his first term as the President. The earlier President exploited this sentiment to achieve his goal of driving out the Indian Army after his purpose of palming off the responsibility of fighting the LTTE to the Indians was eminently served. His present successor is exploiting Sri Lankan nationalism to achieve his objective of attaining a complete mastery over his country.

Throughout his first term in office, Rajapaksa successfully exploited the majoritarian disdain for external criticism of anything Sri Lankan, which itself is a by-product of historical insularity fed essentially by an inherited inferiority complex. In order to steer the country towards an extreme position of hyper-nationalism, he laid down two principles on which his govern-ment’s response to external criticism would be based: one, that it was Sri Lanka which knew what was best for it, and two, that the inter-national community had no right to interfere in its affairs.

However, he had been shrewd enough to point his antagonism towards the rich White nations, while constantly harping on the special relationship that he had been building with Asian countries. Even among the latter, he singled out Sri Lanka’s neighbouring countries for this special relationship.

Thus, at one stroke, he had satisfied the majoritarian ego in his country, and the combined nationalistic ego of South Asia. It is no wonder that members of the Indian security establish-ment speak approvingly of the “Rajapaksa Model” of fighting and defeating the LTTE while mulling over effective ways of fighting Naxalism, separatism and terrorism. It was a master stroke on the part of the Sri Lankan President that one important part of the “Rajapaksa Model” was to keep the neighbouring countries “in the loop”. This policy is now being continued in Sri Lanka’s diplomacy. The President appears to take it for granted that governments in neighbouring countries will continue to support his policies.

It is against this backdrop that the Sri Lankan Government looks benignly at its Ministers and supporters to hold public demonstrations against the United Nations because its Secretary-General does not desist from launching an international investigation into the alleged massacre of LTTE cadre and Tamil civilians during the last days of the war in early 2009. President Rajapaksa will clearly not rest until this threat from the UN and Western nations to his government dies a natural death. Meanwhile, the master strategist tries to ensure that his home-grown enemies, namely, non-governmental organisations, the media and intrepid politicians, are effectively silenced, and his authoritarianism remains unchallenged.

 

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.

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