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Stand up for equality, justice and democracy in Sri Lanka

by Rohini Hensman, 28 May 2009

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This year marks the twentieth death anniversary of Rajini Thiranagama, doctor, lecturer, feminist and human rights defender, and the first death anniversary of human rights lawyer and political activist Maheshwari Velauthan. The former was shot dead by the LTTE as she cycled home to her children after presiding over an Anatomy examination, the latter shot dead by the LTTE as she cared for her sick mother. They were among thousands of Tamils killed by the LTTE simply because they did not agree with it. For Tamil progressives like them, the defeat of the LTTE mitigates one source of terror.

The LTTE’s claim to be the sole representative of Sri Lanka’s Tamils could be sustained only by the physical liquidation of all those who disagreed with, criticised, or simply posed a challenge to its leadership, even from within the organisation. This meant that all Tamils with a different vision of the struggle for equality, justice and democracy had to choose between risking their lives (and, like Kethesh Loganathan and T. Subathiran, all too often losing them), accepting security cover from the government of Sri Lanka (which obviously crippled their capacity to criticise that government), and exile. Any Tamil who believed in the possibility of Tamils living alongside people of other communities in a united Sri Lanka was considered a traitor and sentenced to death. Probably the first of such ‘traitors’ to be executed by Prabakaran was Alfred Duraiappah, the popular Mayor of Jaffna, who was killed in 1975; Neelan Thiruchelvam and Lakshman Kadirgamar came later. Standing up for freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to vote in free and fair elections were all aberrations punishable by death. Parents who resisted the forcible conscription of their children received violent punishment. Indeed, questioning the decisions of the Supreme Leader in any way was an act of treachery. In fascist Tamil Eelam, internal terror was all-pervasive.

Could an organisation which destroyed the freedom of Tamils fight for their liberation from oppression? Clearly not. Could an entity which stood for an exclusively Tamil nation, in which Muslims and Sinhalese would be massacred or ethnically cleansed, pose an ideological challenge to exclusivist Sinhala nationalism? Hardly. The LTTE was simply a Tamil translation of the most reactionary Sinhala fascist politics. Where Sinhala nationalists stereotyped all Tamils, Tamil nationalists stereotyped all Sinhalese. Where the former claimed exclusive ownership of the whole of Sri Lanka, the latter claimed exclusive ownership of a third of the island. The politics of both harked back to the days of absolutist monarchies. Far from helping Tamils in their struggle for democracy, the LTTE created a further obstacle to be overcome. From this perspective, although its demise has occurred in the most horrific circumstances, prospects for the struggle for democracy in Sri Lanka have improved.

Conditions for a Successful Struggle

However, the success of this struggle would depend on several factors. The reactionary mirage of a totalitarian, exclusively Tamil state needs to be laid to rest once and for all. Such an agenda does not acknowledge the reality in Sri Lanka, where diverse communities are represented in all parts of the island – indeed, the most oppressed of the Tamil-speaking communities, the Hill-country plantation workers, did not fall within the proposed Eelam at all – and diverse peoples and cultures are inextricably intertwined. The incredible violence required to tear us apart cannot be allowed to go on. Whether we like it or not, we sink together or swim together.

Instead, Tamil progressives would need to fight for a vision of a democratic Sri Lanka which is a homeland for all its diverse peoples. They would need to fight for this in alliance with other minority communities as well as Sinhalese progressives. And they would need to win over a majority of Tamils to this vision: not so difficult within Sri Lanka, harder in the diaspora, much of which is disconnected from the reality in Sri Lanka in many ways. This effort would need support from Tamil and Muslim political parties and other formations which have hitherto tended to remain in the government fold out of fear of reprisals by the LTTE. Now that this threat no longer looms over them, they need to come out and present their demands to the Rajapaksa regime and ruling party, threatening to withdraw their support if the demands are not met.

The same is true of Sinhalese progressives in Left parties and other formations. While some have consistently supported the struggle of Tamils for justice, others have veered to one side or the other. We do not need to go as far back as the 1960s and 1970s, when Left parties which had previously stood up for minority rights when Upcountry Tamils were disenfranchised and the Sinhala Only Act was passed joined the Sinhala nationalist bandwagon. As recently as January 2008, Tissa Vitharana of the LSSP – who had earlier laboured conscientiously to produce a viable political solution based largely on the excellent proposal presented by a multi-ethnic majority of the Panel of Experts to the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) – lost his nerve, and instead of presenting the real APRC proposals to President Rajapaksa, presented him with a mutilated version of the 13th Amendment (introduced as a result of the Indo-Lanka Accord) which had just been given to him by the president! This bizarre farce was yet another instance of Sinhalese Leftists aligning themselves with a government dominated by Sinhalese fascists. If these Leftists wish to redeem themselves, they too must threaten to withdraw their support to the government unless it accepts and implements far-reaching political reforms that redress the genuine grievances of minorities.

On the other side, some Sinhalese Leftists, who had split away when their parties embraced Sinhala nationalism, subsequently provided implicit support to the LTTE’s fascism in the name of supporting ‘the right of Tamils to national self-determination’, ignoring Rosa Luxemburg’s pertinent question: who determines the will of the ‘nation’? In this case, the answer, clearly, was the Supreme Leader, Prabakaran, who took it upon himself to determine the lives – and deaths – of all Sri Lankan Tamils. Was this a worthy cause for socialists to support? Surely not, given that it involved slaughtering Tamil socialists! Paradoxically, their implicit support for the Tamil fascist agenda indicated unconscious Sinhala chauvinism (or, in the case of their European comrades, racism): the belief that Tamils are inferior beings, not yet ready for democracy. Furthermore, even Lenin did not argue for the ‘right to national self-determination’ in circumstances where an oppressed community was dispersed among a national population. Creating ethnically ‘pure’ enclaves, as the LTTE attempted to do in 1990, involved massacres and ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, defined in international law as crimes against humanity. A genuine liberation movement, which is supported by the people, cannot be defeated militarily. The military defeat of the LTTE occurred because it and its agenda were rejected by the Tamil people in Sri Lanka whom it claimed to represent.

These Leftists, along with Sinhalese liberals who followed a similar path, have to redefine ‘self-determination’ to mean real control over their own lives for all Tamils – and other minorities – in all parts of Sri Lanka. They could then play a much more useful role, persuading the Sinhalese masses to support this cause too. There is certainly a minority of rabid Sinhala chauvinists, but the majority of Sinhalese do not hate Tamils. Celebrations of the government victory over the LTTE have been interpreted as an expression of Sinhala chauvinism, and some of them have certainly been orchestrated by chauvinist elements. But Nirupama Subramanian pointed out that there were similar celebrations when the Cease-Fire Agreement was signed in 2002 – indeed, celebrations began in December 2001, when the UNP was elected and promised to bring peace – and Chandrika Kumaratunga swept to victory in 1994 on a promise of bringing peace through negotiations. What the war-weary people (including Sinhalese people) of Sri Lanka wanted, and still want, is peace. At that time, they thought that negotiations with the LTTE would bring peace, but they were disappointed. Now they think that a military victory over the LTTE will bring peace, but are likely to be disappointed again, unless Sinhalese progressives can convince them that only equality, justice and democracy can bring a lasting peace.

A precondition for this is that they must be made to understand that there is a problem which has not been solved by the military victory, since recognition of a problem is a necessary step for its solution. Many Sinhalese – including members of the English-educated diaspora – are astonishingly ignorant about what has been happening in Sri Lanka since Independence, taking the position that the only problem has been one of terrorism. Educating them about the persistent discrimination and violence against Tamils, which led to and fuelled the conflict, would be a vital contribution for Sinhalese progressives to make. It is also worth reminding Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka that equality is the bedrock of democracy, and that they allow democracy to be undermined at their own peril. The last time they allowed state security forces to torture and kill Tamils on a large scale, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this was followed by the same security forces torturing and killing an estimated 40,000-60,000 Sinhalese between 1987 and 1990. The Rajapaksa regime shows disturbing signs of sliding into the same totalitarianism unless it is halted by the public. The struggle for justice and democracy is a programme which can unite working people of all communities, rather than dividing Tamils from Tamils, Sinhalese from Tamils, and Tamils from Muslims.

Immediate Programme for Progressives of All Communities

The most urgent priority is to ensure the survival and fundamental rights of all the civilians displaced by the war. Failing this, the death toll will mount catastrophically, and this time, the government alone will be to blame. Food and water, medicines and doctors, clothing, shelter and so on must be procured from all agencies which are offering to provide it, and distributed in a rational manner which does not simply ensure the survival of the strongest, as some women in the camps have complained. The government itself has appealed for help, making it clear that it cannot cope with the task, so international agencies should be involved in the relief effort. Unless they and independent reporters are allowed in the camps, sickening stories of rapes, killings (especially of women and girls), abduction of children, and starvation deaths cannot be discounted. After all, senior citizens were released from the camps only after the District Magistrate in Vavuniya determined that 30 of them had died of starvation and malnutrition, and more were dying on a daily basis, so there is official confirmation of this particular story.

This is not just a matter of humanitarian concern. These people are citizens of Sri Lanka, and incarcerating them in prison camps, as has been done so far, is a violation of their fundamental rights. If the government fears that terrorists are hidden among the civilians, they need to screen them rapidly, move LTTE fighters into prisoner-of-war camps, register both civilians and fighters, provide civilians with identity cards and freedom of movement, and provide fighters with humane conditions and rehabilitation. All this needs to be monitored by the UN and ICRC. Unfortunately, we cannot trust the government, given several high-profile killings (like the killing of five students in Trincomalee in 2006, the massacre of 17 ACF workers, and the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge) and thousands of less-publicised ones, all of which bear the mark of state-linked death squads. Unless some agency other than the state monitors the screening and the camps, and keeps lists of both civilians and LTTE cadres, there is every possibility that thousands of camp residents will be abducted and killed.

Keeping a register of people in the camps and giving them freedom of movement is also vitally important for families that have been separated, and people desperately trying to locate loved ones. The President, in his address to parliament, referred to mettha (loving kindness) and karuna (compassion), but there is little evidence of these Buddhist values in the way that these traumatised civilians have been treated by the state. Running the camps by a civilian administration, access to them for international and local aid workers, and freedom of movement for the inmates would be preconditions before we can talk of mettha or karuna.

In the slightly longer term, all the displaced should be assisted to resettle back in their original towns and villages by the end of the year. Now that the war is over and terrorism, according to the president, has been vanquished, there is no need for High Security Zones, and industrial zones and the Indian-built power station also should not be located on the land of displaced people, neither in the North nor in the East. It is important to emphasise that the displaced include tens of thousands of Muslims, some of whom have been languishing in camps since 1990, and any resettlement programme must cater to those Muslims who wish to return to their original habitats.

The end of the war and defeat of the LTTE also demolishes the excuses for various other ‘special measures’, among them: carrying of arms by cadres of other Tamil groups, supposedly in order to defend themselves from the LTTE: all these cadres should be disarmed; the emergency provisions and anti-terrorism legislation which have destroyed the rule of law in our country and allowed the state to act in a dictatorial, brutal and corrupt fashion: all these should be withdrawn forthwith; and the silencing of the press and imprisonment of journalists, which should be replaced by the immediate release of journalists like J.S.Tissainayagam and the restoration of freedom of expression. All these special measures promote state terrorism, and what is the point of eliminating LTTE terrorism only to fall prey to a different band of terrorists?

In the longer term, it is crucially important to introduce and implement a new, democratic constitution, without which the cycle of violence will simply begin again. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speech indicates that he has no intention of introducing a political solution to the conflict; his reference to respect for ‘the principle of the unitary state that has been established in our Constitution’ shows that he has failed to learn from history, and is therefore quite capable of repeating the mistakes that led to the war in the first place. When Sri Lanka was first defined as a ‘unitary state’ in 1972, there was no separatist movement, no militant groups; soon there were both. The same Constitution confirmed Sinhala as the only official language, gave a special place to Buddhism, and removed protection from discrimination for minorities: in other words, it was clear that a ‘unitary state’ was synonymous with a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist state’. The 1978 Constitution, which introduced the all-powerful Executive Presidency, turned this into a totalitarian Sinhala-Buddhist state.

Since 1995, there have been several attempts to formulate and put in place a new, democratic Constitution, yet the President seems to be ignorant of all these efforts, including his own creation of the APRC, when he talks about the necessity to ‘find a solution that is our very own’. Where was he when the APRC crafted an excellent political solution well over two years ago? Or was that not a ‘solution that is our very own’ because it was based on the proposals of a multi-ethnic panel of experts? Does ‘our very own’ mean ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’?

A credible political solution would need to abolish the Executive Presidency and special place for Buddhism in the Constitution; ensure real parity for Sinhala and Tamil; put in place a Bill of Rights that rules out discrimination on any grounds whatsover in all parts of the island, and guarantees other rights like freedom of expression and association; includes the right to life, which is missing from the existing Constitution; devolves power to the Provincial Councils to a much greater degree than the 13th Amendment; and ensures greater representation of minority communities at the centre through a bicameral legislature.

The minority and Left parties that are currently part of the government must give Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLFP notice that they will quit unless he implements the measures outlined above, and thus force him to choose between them and the Sinhala Right. In the event that he chooses the latter, they should form a third front – since the UNP is as compromised as the SLFP – and start campaigning for this programme as soon as possible. Whether they win or lose the next elections is less important than demonstrating to the people of Sri Lanka – and especially the minorities, who have suffered so much – that there are political leaders in Sri Lanka willing to stand up for equality, justice and democracy.