Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sri Lankan Government ideological war against the Tamils

The most casual observer of the Sri Lankan state’s conduct can see that the situation today is the continuation of war by other means.

By war, I am referring to the systematic and ideologically coherent practices of the state against the Tamils and other non-Sinhalese. What we see today is the intensification of structural violence against the Tamil people that began from independence.

By violence I do not mean just disappearances, abductions, murders, rapes and torture, although these are continuing, as we know. I mean more the structural practices of the state, aimed at limiting and suppressing the thriving of non-Sinhala people. We are familiar with some of these: colonization, erasing of Tamil usage in state practices, and the efforts to limit and destroy the socio-economic possibilities for Tamils.

None of this is new. It is part of efforts of the Sri Lankan state, since independence, to break down all resistance to the Sinhala national project. What is this project? To turn Sri Lanka into a modern day realization of an ancient myth that the island belongs to the Sinhalese and in which the minorities have a subordinate existence. As such, anyone who stands in the way of Sinhala majoritarianism – including principled Sinhalese who are not supportive of that project – are destroyed.
The recent parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka have once again brought to power the southern party that most aggressively espouses a Sinhala majoritarian view. It is a case of history repeating itself. It is a carbon copy of the 1956 elections. Then, as now, as the Tamils sought a political arrangement between Tamils and Sinhalese, the Sinhalese voted into power a party that vehemently rejected any compromise with the Tamils.

While constitutional changes are almost certainly in the near future, as the President’s party almost has the required two thirds majority, only the blindest of optimists see these changes as possibly positive towards addressing even basic Tamil grievances. Those who suggest this do so with no regards to either the historic evolution of the Sri Lankan state or the contemporary realities of Sinhala power today.

Let us be clear, change in Sri Lanka cannot come from within.

The last elections prove how overwhelmingly the structural bases of power serve Sinhala nationalism. The JVP for example lost several seats purely because its core platforms of Sinhala nationalism and anti-market economics were more convincingly taken up by the UPFA and President Rajapaksa.

In a contest between the UNP and the SLFP – both of which are essentially Sinhalese entities despite the token Tamils – the party that more aggressively pursued the Sinhala national project has won convincingly.

What we see now is another phase in the further entrenching of the Sinhala people’s dominance over the non-Sinhala.

It is not merely a question of human rights abuses, or lack of media freedom, or lack of governance. Rather, it is a specific kind of governance. This is why the Sinhala people – as in 1956 – are with Rajapaksa and his party.

To repeat, the core driver of Sri Lankan politics continues to be this Sinhala majoritatian nationalism.

This mass ideology predates independence and has now been entrenched in the mechanisms of the state. It is now carried forward in the state bureaucracy, the composition, practices and strategies of the military, the directing of international aid and state investment to some places and not others, and so on.

This Sinhala majoritarianism remains the central obstacle to the constitutional recognition of the Tamils, and other Tamil speaking peoples, as having a rightful place, equal to the Sinhalese, on the island.

And until it is confronted and checked, a truly democratic and peaceful Sri Lanka, one which treats all communities as equal, will remain an impossible dream.

It is worth noting that the ascendancy of this Sinhala majoritarianism has taken place while the country has been in the close embrace of the international community. After several decades of ‘engagement’ by the liberal West there still isn’t a hairsbreadth of liberal space in Sri Lanka. Indeed, it can be argued that Sri Lanka has headed successfully in the opposite direction.

Thus the war continues in Sri Lanka through politics. And as long as the war continues, there will be resistance. Some of us focus on media freedom, others are more driven by human rights concerns, or the humanitarian or developmental needs of the oppressed. But unless all of us recognize that the problems we are opposing stem from a strategic logic embedded in the state, we cannot succeed in our objectives.

We do not believe the course of Sinhala majoritarianism will change from within. Every effort by the Tamils to negotiate or reason with this majoritarianism has resulted in further violence. Look at the history of constitutional change since independence, for example.

Sri Lanka today is in a state of flux. As the Sinhala-dominated and supported state continues to wage war on the Tamil speaking communities, various forms of resistance will emerge, not only from within, but also from without. Today, the Tamils problem is being assessed and reflected upon in far more spaces across the world than ever before in our history.

As long as the oppression of Tamils continues, so too must the struggle for Tamil rights.

UN failed to protect Tamil civilians - Lord Patten

Patten's comment on the candidates during Sri Lanka's Presidential elections reflects his views of Sri Lanka as a state with alleged complicity in war-crimes, and that International Community has to exercise strong economic pressure to constrain Colombo's behavior within international norms.

In a New York Times article in January 2010 Patten said that public in Sri Lanka is "faced with a choice between two candidates who openly accuse each other of war crimes," and adds, "[w]hoever wins, the outside world should use all its tools to convince the government to deal properly with those underlying issues to avoid a resurgence of mass violence....In short, this means not giving Colombo any money for reconstruction and development until we know how it will be spent. And if we see funds not being used as promised, it means not being afraid to cut them off untilwe know how it will be spent."

It is widely understood that the failure of a state to protect its own citizens is the threshold condition that triggers the R2P responsibility on the international community.

"The State has a primary responsibility to protect the individuals within it. Where the state fails in that responsibility, through either incapacity or ill-will, a secondary responsibility to protect falls on the wider international community. That, in a nutshell, is the core of the responsibility to protect (R2P) idea" and that "Sri Lanka is anything but an R2P," Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, said during the eighth Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture at International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in August 2007, well before the large scale massacre carried out by Colombo in May 2009.

Lord Patten's statement implicitly acknowledges that scale of the killings of Tamil civilians crossed the threshold levels to call for R2P intervention, and thereby, has added further fuel to the calls by several rights organizations for independent war-crimes investigations in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s military massacred as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final onslaught against the Liberation Tigers in 2009, according to a former United Nations official with detailed knowledge of events.

Sri Lankan Army bulldozed all the cemeteries.

It was heartening to hear President Mahinda Rajapakse identifying reconciliation and development as the priorities of his new government. However, it is crucial that both processes should unfold with the active involvement of Sri Lanka's citizenry, rather than being imposed from above by an omnipotent state. We seem to already have plenty of intimations of the latter.

On 19 March 2010, Sri Lanka's Daily Mirror carried a brief article on its front page startlingly headlined, "Government to wipe out LTTE [Tamil Tiger] landmarks". The rationale for this, according to the secretary to the ministry of tourism, George Michael, was that the "LTTE and the violence which affected the public during the war should be forgotten". Fortified with such logic, the government has bulldozed all the LTTE cemeteries in the Wanni and is now proceeding to demolish the homes of Velupillai Prabhakaran and other LTTE leaders. A few weeks back, the Thileepan memorial near the Nallur temple was defaced with the collusion of the Sri Lankan army. While the homes of LTTE leaders will be replaced with hotels and resorts, according to the ministry, we have also witnessed the erection of several state-sponsored "victory monuments" to commemorate the defeat of the LTTE in the north.

I am dismayed by the government's myopic and misguided understanding of memory, and its brutal disregard for the feelings and emotions of a people who have undergone unimaginable and innumerable horrors for the past three decades. The primary response to the war we endured should not be bulldozings and demolitions and exhortations to forget, but rather to ensure that we never again descend into that hellish abyss. To do this, we need to reflect on the circumstances that led to this war and make sure we do not repeat the mistakes made in previous decades.

In this regard, the UPFA government's efforts to develop the neglected northern and eastern provinces and limited use of the Tamil language by government officials are steps in the right direction – but much more work needs to be done to offer parity of status to the minorities in this country.

Bulldozing cemeteries and demolishing homes in the name of development and the promotion of tourism will only further alienate the Tamil citizenry and stall any attempts at reconciliation. Such memorials, in particular, play a crucial role in all societies. They function as repositories of memory, suffering and grief, and often help to translate the unthinkable to the thinkable. While the LTTE undoubtedly appropriated these cemeteries and the rituals of mourning associated with the dead to promote and disseminate a violent form of Tamil nationalism, we must also remember that those buried there have fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, sons and daughters. Bulldozing and obliterating these cemeteries not only deprives the kin of the dead a place to commune with their lost loved ones, but also displays a callous disregard for both the dead and the living. It is also a telling indictment of us as a nation that we do not have any memorials to the civilians who have died in this war, as well as in all the anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim riots that have taken place in this country.

On 21 February 2010, a group of academics at the University of Jaffna sent a letter to the director general of the department of archaeology appealing for his intercession in thwarting the further destruction of the heritage of Jaffna. They also alerted him to a variety of historic buildings, including temples, schools and presses, in Jaffna earmarked for demolition under the road development authority's current programme of road expansion in the north.

This letter is reflective of broader debates carried out in Jaffna – in Tamil newspapers such as the Uthayan, Thinakkural and Valampuri – concerning the need to secure the cultural heritage of Jaffna in the face of the postwar development of the north. Personal appeals have also been made by the vice-chancellor at the University of Jaffna and a delegation from the All Ceylon Hindu Congress. Sadly, all appeals seem to have fallen on deaf ears: no reply has yet come from the director general, nor any invitation for further consultations with the governor or project funders.

The new government's first step towards reconciliation should be the inclusion of Tamil and Muslim citizenry of the north in the formulation of a consensual and viable development plan for this war-torn region. And that plan must secure the integrity of its cultural and emotional heart.