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Sri Lanka: Losing the larger picture

by Shanie, 2 January 2009

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The Island

The headline in a website this week read "Sri Lanka defeat spirited Tigers". The reference was of course to the victory that the Sri Lanka cricket team secured over Bangladesh in the First Test concluded on Wednesday. Bangladesh is the minnow among the test-playing nations and Sri Lanka were expected to have an easy win. Early on the fourth day, it appeared so when Bangladesh, chasing 521 to win in the fourth innings, were reduced to 180 for 5. But the Bangladeshi skipper Mahamed Ashraful and his tail-enders had other ideas. Two century partnerships for the sixth and seventh wickets took them to 403 for 6. The minnows had not only taken the match well into the final day but were in a position to pull off a sensational and record-breaking win. In the end, the Bangla (Bengal) ‘Tigers’, despite a spirited performance, succumbed to a better-equipped opposition,

We do not know if the web editor coined the headline with tongue in cheek but it is possible that the headline could apply at some future date to the ongoing conflict in the Vanni. The predicted easy victory for the security forces is not happening so easily and the war, like the test match, is dragging on and being pushed to the wire. In the cricket match, it was one tragic mistake by a tail-ender, who dragged a ball well outside his off stump to his wicket, which both deprived him of a well deserved century and also triggered the quick collapse of the last four wickets. Can that happen to the Sri Lankan Tigers? Only time will tell.

For the present, we can only watch with a mixture of admiration and dismay. Admiration is for the performance of the Bangladeshis at cricket and dismay is at the mounting loss of young lives in the conflict at home. The sacrifice of these young men and women who are being killed or maimed could have been avoided or at least minimized to a great extent if only President Rajapaksa and the LTTE kept to their promises to the people whom they claim to represent. The LTTE has repeatedly failed to seize opportunities to secure an honourable peace by spurning attempts, particularly by the Government of Chandriika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, that sought to provide a constitutional framework to address minority grievances. President Rajapaksa promises justice to the minorities but has only rhetoric to offer. He has had and continues to have opportunities to offer a political solution to minority grievances but continues to spurn every such opportunity.

His twisted logic that this will be done once the war is over rings hollow. If, as his Government often says, the war is against the LTTE and not the Tamils, why does the war against the LTTE prevent the offer of a political package to the Tamils and Muslims? Indeed, if the government were sincere about offering a political solution, the war itself would have been rendered unnecessary. The LTTE would have been marginalised among Tamil opinion makers had the LTTE opposed such a solution worked out by consensus among the non-LTTE and non-Sinhala chauvinist political parties and civil society/religious groups.

Losing the larger picture

But sadly, President Rajapaksa has opted not to take that line. He seems unwilling or incapable of looking at the larger picture. Instead, he is going along with, or at least turning a Nelsonian eye to the lawless and reactionary actions of the obscurantist and fascist forces that are part of his Government.

In the North, Anandasangaree is quite right with his complaint that an armed group, seemingly enjoying the support of the security forces, is engaging in abductions, extortions and extra-judicial killings, replicating the actions of the LTTE in earlier years. The armed groups of today are totally insensitive to the feelings of civilians. Locals agree with Anandasangaree and say that people could be increasingly turning to the LTTE for protection from this armed fascist group. Civilians are being robbed in their homes by armed gangs in the night during curfew hours. It is possible that in addition to this armed group, lawless elements are also taking advantage of the breakdown in the rule of law. But, since the robberies are taking place during curfew hours, the armed gangs obviously are confident of immunity.

If President Rajapaksa is sincere about restoring democracy in the North, he should not be replacing one set of armed fascists by another. ‘The future minds of Jaffna’ deserve better than that. But first, genuine democracy must be restored in the rest of the country. Journalists should be free from intimidation, assault and arbitrary arrests. Lawyers should be free to practise their profession without death threats and without having their photograph and name ominously displayed on the web.

The Rajapaksa Government must learn lessons from a disastrous policy in the East that has brought about a multiplicity of armed groups and brought back a strong LTTE presence. Bishop Kingsley Swampillai, Bishop of Batticaloa and Trincomalee, was expressing the concerns of many locals when he complained of continuing abductions, violence and killings. It is a self-defeating policy to promote one armed group of fascists against another. And it is pity that continuing calls for a respect for the rule of law are being ignored. Sooner or later, such a policy will come to haunt the government.

[. . .].