The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about press accreditation procedures for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that will be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in November. At past meetings, the Commonwealth’s Communications and Public Affairs Division has been responsible for issuing permission to journalists to attend the meeting. And, as you know, the visa application process will soon be under way.
But press reports from Colombo have indicated that the Sri Lankan government intends to enforce stringent background checks on any foreign journalists covering the meeting, with the apparent intention of denying them permission to enter the country. A document recently released by the Sri Lankan government said that the authorities reserve the right to “exclude any person … and impose additional conditions of entry to Sri Lanka … regardless of whether or not that person is accredited.”
Journalists will be issued accreditation by a task force, which is a division of the Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs. The ministry has stated that credentials may be “withdrawn, suspended, or deactivated for any reason at any time.”
Ceylon Today reported that on Saturday, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said authorities would be “cautious about who is coming” because some journalists have attempted to tarnish the country’s image under the “pretext of media freedom” and that they were a threat to the “national security of the country” and would be scrutinized before they are issued visas.
You are well aware, of course, of Sri Lanka’s abysmal press freedom record and the high level of impunity for those who attack or kill journalists. Even though the number of deaths under the current government has subsided, many Sri Lankan journalists have told us of continuing intimidation, and many admit to self-censoring their work in order to not fall afoul of the authorities. Others have told us of coming under threat because of their ethnicity.
Secretary-General Sharma, you have resisted calls for the Commonwealth to change the venue of the November meeting. You said in a June 29 letter published in the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror that the question for the international community was whether to criticize the lack of progress in Sri Lanka from afar or to make a practical difference. The paper quoted you as saying that the Commonwealth had opted for the latter option. You said, “We are active in Sri Lanka in advancing Commonwealth values, including human rights, the media, the judiciary and building mutual respect and understanding in communities.”
While we understand the value of engagement, if the Commonwealth cannot assert its own authority in asking for full media access to such an international event, the future for positive engagement looks bleak.
We ask you to ensure that the Sri Lankan government, which is widely known for its aggressive anti-press stance, does not prohibit access to foreign and local journalists who seek to cover the events surrounding the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Such an effort on your part would go far to show your commitment to advancing Commonwealth values of media freedom.
With best regards,
Commonwealth Director for the Communications and Public Affairs Division Richard Uku
Minister of External Affairs Gamini Lakshman Peiris
Minister of Mass Media and Information Keheliya Rambukwella
It is a pleasure to be back in my alma mater on its 190th anniversary. All old boys will agree that we owe a lot to St John’s College for all that we have achieved here in Sri Lanka and abroad in our personal and professional lives. I want to start with two brief stories to demonstrate how the foundation provided by St John’s has helped me in my academic career. I hope that these stories show our students how a strong and meaningful early education is important for our success.
When I went to the US for graduate education from University of Jaffna, I was worried that the knowledge there would be so advanced that I won’t be able to follow the courses. For one particular course, I thought I should talk to the professor before the class to see if he would recommend that I delay following that course. Professor John Baugh spoke with me for about ten minutes and asked me what books I had read in my field and which scholars I knew. Half way through the conversation, his eyes widened, and he said, “Do you realize that you are one of the most widely read students in this department? You obviously have good reading skills and academic training. Where did you get this educational foundation?”
My mind immediately went to my training at St John’s. From my early grades here, St John’s has always reserved time for the library. Students were taken to the Handy Library for a whole class period, to learn how to search for books, get familiar with the cataloguing system, and read quietly without talking to others in the silence of the library. That experience trained me in many things. It developed an appreciation for books, it disciplined me to focus on the reading, and it inculcated patience to read without distractions. It is this training that helped me to cultivate my reading habit. When I went to the US, I found that I was not only ready for my graduate education, I could also overcome the new academic challenges I faced there because of the reading skills St John’s had developed in me.
My second story relates to the skills of public speaking and memory. The college has always reserved time for literary associations, speech competitions, and concerts. Particularly challenging to me was the Tamil Oratory competition in upper school. We were provided a choice of topics, given a few hours to prepare, and then expected to stand before three judges and the audience to deliver the speech. This competition required good skills of thinking, planning, memory, and spontaneous delivery. This is because the time given was not enough to write a whole speech and read it. The skills I developed from this experience still remain with me. I still prepare the outline of my talk mentally, organize the points effectively, and speak without writing down the whole speech. This skill sometimes surprises my listeners. Recently, a senior professor from the US took me aside after I gave the keynote in a major professional conference and whispered: “That was a great talk. But tell me the truth: you wrote the talk and then memorized it, right?” She was surprised by my memory (that I can speak for an hour without notes), organization skills (that the talk was still very coherent), and delivery (that it was done with confidence). I had to explain that the talk wasn’t written or memorized. I had developed all the skills she mentioned during my early education at St John’s.
What is interesting about both examples is that these skills of reading, speaking, thinking, and planning cannot be developed on a single day or in a short time. You can’t develop them simply before an examination or a lecture. They take time to develop. It is for this reason that a solid educational foundation is important. The habits and practices we develop in childhood support us in the challenges we face later in life. They develop further and help us achieve even more complex and demanding tasks. Many scholars think that some of these skills are dying today. Young people are losing the discipline of reading consistently for a long period of time because technology offers them instant and disconnected messages from multiple media. Memory is impoverished as students depend on readymade sources for information and are not expected to remember them for future use. I would suggest that the skills St John’s developed in me are still valuable and have helped countless former students succeed in their education and professions.
These skills are part of the tradition of St John’s. From its very beginning, the college has given a high place for these skills. The first school library association was started in 1890. There are other Johnian traditions everyone in Jaffna and even in Sri Lanka talks about. The college is well known for developing a solid background in English, cultivating a good discipline, and providing a balanced education that includes spirituality, sports, and extracurricular activities. However, we cannot remain satisfied with these traditions. When we have profound social changes around us, both locally and globally, we have to reconsider what new traditions we have to develop to serve our students and communities better. So, I want to focus in this talk on five changes we need in education to respond to the changes around us. To make it easier for students to remember them, each of the changes I propose starts with the letter C. Let me see if you can remember them after this talk!
The first change to consider is orientating to learning as creative. We have to focus on creating new knowledge rather than repeating old knowledge. There has been an observation that while western communities are good in inventing new things, eastern communities are good in applying and implementing them. Is there something in the culture of the western people that values novelty, while eastern people value tradition and orthodoxy? This attitude to knowledge could also be because we in Asia give so much importance to examinations, which cultivate a focus on established knowledge and the ability to repeat it. However, learning involves more than passing an examination. Our students have to also produce new findings, discover new knowledge, and invent new technology. If not, we will always be followers of other communities rather than leaders. We will also not be able to develop our own communities in the ways that are relevant for us.
Consider how students are encouraged to be creative in the United States. Every year, there are nationwide science competitions for school students to display their new inventions. One of the winners in this year’s competition was Eesha Khare from California, whose parents come from India. She produced a supercapacitator, a gadget that will fully charge cell phones in 20 seconds, in extremely short time. She won a prize of 50,000 dollars, which she is going to use to attend Harvard. These inventions are not playful. They actually lead to industrial production and make real changes in people’s lives. Eesha is already courted by major high tech companies. They say “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In our community now, we have a lot of need. We have experienced a lot of destruction during the war. You can invent things that make a difference in the lives of our people.
Change number two: learning should be critical. By critical, I mean that we should have a questioning attitude towards knowledge and facts. This is connected to the previous change. We cannot be creative without questioning old knowledge. Asian communities don’t always encourage a questioning attitude because they believe that authorities such as parents, teachers, and leaders know what is right for everyone. Questioning is discouraged because it is considered a challenge to those in authority. I think the tragedies of our community in our recent history have resulted from our inability to question our leaders. Eventually, such an unquestioning attitude led to destructive policies and actions.
However, questioning doesn’t mean rejecting everything that our community holds as important. A critical learning can actually help us understand and appreciate our traditions and values. It can also help us understand our limitations and work towards formulating new values and traditions. Questioning can start from what goes in our schools and go all the way to what goes in our country and even in the world. Consider how students in a school in the United States, Wilcox County High School in Georgia, engaged in critical thinking. Their school had a tradition of holding two year-end parties—one for white students, the other for colored students. This April, some students thought this tradition was flawed. They wanted to establish a new tradition in which students from all the races can have one unified party. A group of four students from different racial backgrounds organized a committee to plan this party. There was considerable opposition from their town. There was talk that these students will be punished or ostracized. However, these students didn’t give up. Eventually, when they held a successful party for all the racial groups, their story was in the national news media. They were applauded by the whole country for inventing a new tradition for their school.
Change number three: learning as civic. Civic means relating to the community we live in and being good citizens. Do we see our learning connected to making a better living condition for our community? Or do we engage only in learning for the sake of learning? If our only objective in going to school is to get all A’s in the AL examinations, learning is not civic. It is selfish. Our competitive examinations have made us focus only on displaying our own mastery of knowledge, rather than considering how this knowledge can be used in the service of our community. The civic attitude can enhance learning rather than distracting students from education.
Consider the example of civic learning from a school in the United States. In the city of Madison some years back, teachers in a high school divided their students into small groups and gave them projects relating to some burning issues in their community. Students had to study the problem and write a report on how to solve it. One group focused on the increasing rates of asthma in their town. The four students divided the responsibilities among themselves. One student visited local communities and talked to parents and leaders about their view that pollution was causing asthma. Another student interviewed the municipal authorities in the town on sanitary conditions. The third student did library research on news reports and scholarly research on the connection between asthma and environmental pollution. The fourth student interviewed scientists in the local university to understand how pollution caused asthma. As they conducted this project, the students were sharpening their learning skills—they were reading advanced research and news material; they were developing interviewing skills; they were writing reports on what they observed and learned. Their motivation to solve the problem in their community made all this learning interesting and engaging. Eventually, they wrote a combined final report on their recommendations on how reducing environmental pollution can reduce the rate of asthma and submitted it to the mayor. When they connected their education to solving a problem in their community, the students found learning motivating, meaningful, and enjoyable.
That example also illustrates the fourth change I wish to propose: learning as collaborative. What we see in the Madison example is how students work together, pool their collective strengths, and collaborate in solving a problem. There is more strength and more knowledge when four people put their heads together. More importantly, collaborative learning develops a new attitude and value towards learning, based on cooperation. The examination-based learning in our community has developed in us a lot of selfishness. Each student for himself or herself, seems to be the guiding principle. We are expected to show how we can outsmart the other students. However, in the adult world of work, we need to collaborate with others to solve problems or implement changes.
While collaboration between students is important, another sort of collaboration now involves teachers and students. Even teachers are adopting the attitude that they are not there to lecture to students, pretend they are the sole authorities on all kinds of knowledge, or give the right answers that have to be accepted uncritically. Teachers now think of themselves as facilitators of learning. They arrange the class, texts, and assignments in such a way that students can collaborate with each other and with teachers to learn creatively and critically. In my teaching in the US, I am always open to the possibility that some students might know more about certain areas or topics than me. When I am asked a question for which I don’t know the answer, I immediately confess that and promise to find it out in the next class rather than giving students a false answer simply to save my honor. I am open to being challenged by students on some of my positions, and engage in a dialogue with them to move to a higher understanding. Rather than portraying me as a weak teacher, this collaborative attitude actually shows that I am strong and confident. I know what I know that I can be humble about my limitations and be open to learning new knowledge from others.
This attitude is going to be difficult for Sri Lankan teachers who are treated like Gods. I want to discuss a particularly controversial practice in our teaching in this country that is drawing a lot of attention these days: Caning, or corporal punishment. Recently, I have received many email messages from Tamil people living abroad. They tell me: Teachers in Sri Lanka seem to have no limits on how they can use either the cane or their own hands in hitting their students. In some cases, this goes beyond punishment to physical abuse. Students end up with marks all over their body. We have to start a discussion in our community on the relative effectiveness of caning versus non-physical punishment.
Physical punishment has been banned in many countries. It has been absent from French schools since the 19th century. In 2008 a teacher was fined for slapping a student in France. In UK, in state-run schools, and also in private schools where at least part of the funding came from government, corporal punishment was outlawed by Parliament with effect from 1987. The Supreme Court of Canada outlawed caning in 2004. In the US, it is left to each state to develop a policy for schooling. Majority of the states have banned caning in public schools. New Jersey was the earliest to ban it in 1867. Physical punishment has also been banned from many socialist countries because they believe that it is contrary to socialist values. From the 1917 revolution onwards, corporal punishment was outlawed in Russia and the Soviet Union. Other socialist countries have followed this practice. In all these countries, if a teacher hits a student, he or she will be taken to the courts.
However, not caning or hitting the student doesn’t mean not punishing. Punishment is important for cultivating discipline. But certain non-corporal forms of punishment can be more effective. For example, my 11 year old son is very talkative in the class. He is very naughty and gets punished a lot. But he has never been slapped or caned. Teachers have many other good options. They can detain him after school or keep him in the class while others are playing during the interval. When other students earn reward points for being good, he will lose his points. These points are used at the end of the school year to buy things donated by parents. In the worst case, the parents can be called up (which my wife and I did once) or he can be suspended from school (which hasn’t happened to him yet: Thank God!). Some of these forms of punishment are very effective because they motivate my son to be good on his own recognition. He has the choice of either earning points or losing them, and suffer the consequences at the end of the year. So, caning motivates students negatively through fear and pain, rather than positively by encouraging students to do better.
I know that many parents and teachers in our community feel “aTiyaata maaTu paTiyaatu” and feel that caning is the only form of effective punishment. But soon we have to come to terms with the changing orientations to punishment and schooling around the world. We are living in a connected world where events and practices in one community are relayed to others in a matter of minutes. If a student in Jaffna gets beaten this morning, his uncles, aunts, and cousins in UK, Canada, Australia, and the US know within minutes how many times he was beaten, how many marks he has on his body, and which doctor he was taken to. So many Tamil people abroad have started asking: “Why is this primitive practice still continuing in our community? Why are teachers so abusive, angry, and out of control with their students? Are teachers taking out their own frustrations on their students? Is caning a legalized form of cruelty in our community? Is caning a reflection of how our community has become comfortable with violence after many years of war?”
That brings me to the final point: learning as cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitan means being a global citizen. Today we cannot separate ourselves from developments in other communities. As I just mentioned, we cannot think anymore that what we do in Jaffna will remain isolated in Jaffna. Within minutes it is known all over the world. More broadly, our fate is interconnected with the fate of other communities. Think of the global economic crisis, climate change, nuclear arms, and environmental pollution. What one community does affects all of us. So, it is important for our students to develop the attitudes, values, and orientations to consider other cultures and people. However, being cosmopolitan doesn’t mean losing our own values and identity. A better approach is to be proud of who we are, as we engage with other cultures. This is a two-way process. We can evaluate the things we learn from others from the point of view of our own culture and society. But we should also be open-minded so that we can be self-critical and change our values and traditions. In fact, when we engage with other cultures and learn new perspectives, we might in fact rediscover the secrets and wisdom of our communities that we may have forgotten over time.
Let me apply cosmopolitanism to my talk this morning. Are the new traditions of learning I am proposing influenced by my engagement with other cultures? To some extent they are. I am now a teacher educator—that means a person who trains others to be teachers. What I have shared with you are the principles that guide my teaching philosophy when I teach students from US and many other countries to become good teachers. However, remember that I started this talk by appreciating some of the traditions St John’s shaped me with—i.e., reading, speaking, thinking, and planning. I criticized many trends in the western world—such as instant communication and multi-tasking—that are leading young people to losing these important skills. St John’s should continue to develop the positive traditions in its history. However, there are other ways in which St John’s should develop a new educational tradition—namely,learning as creative, critical, civic, collaborative, and cosmopolitan. Even these are not new to our culture. My engagement with other cultures helps me rediscover elements in our culture that we may have forgotten. So think about Auvayaar’s saying “kaTRatu kai maNNaLavu kallaatatu uLakaLavu” (i.e., What we know is a fistful, what we don’t know is a world full.) This verse reminds us why we have to think of learning as creative, collaborative, and critical. No one can be satisfied with what we already know. We have to constantly critique what we accept as truths. Or think of Puranaanuuru: “yaatum ooree yaavarum keeLir” (i.e., Every place is our village, every person our kin). This verse reminds us of the importance of cosmopolitanism and engaging in civic learning that is useful to all people.
The changes that I spell out this morning have also been present in the missionary history of our school. Just think of the founder of our school Joseph Knight. When he came to Sri Lanka in July 1818, he was a representative of the Church Missionary Society. This society opposed the practice of treating Africans as slaves. They thus displayed critical thinking. Before he started classes for local students in Nallur, he first learnt Tamil language with the help of a local Hindu priest. It must have been difficult for both parties to engage in such learning. Knight would have thought of the Hindu priest as a heathen, and the priest would have thought of Knight as unclean. It is said that the Hindu priest used to stop by at a village well after these classes to cleanse himself before he went home. Despite their cultural differences, both people collaborated in learning from each other. That was not only collaborative learning, it was also cosmopolitanism. Both didn’t change their own systems of belief; but that didn’t prevent them from cooperating and learning from each other and enriching their world view. Knight went on to lay the foundation for the first Tamil/English bilingual dictionary. When the Winslow’s Comprehensive Tamil and English Dictionary was published in Madras in 1862, the preface acknowledges how Rev. Knight had started and contributed to this project. That was civic learning—i.e., knowledge that was useful to other people. There is also creativity, because Knight sought new knowledge. He started a comparative exploration of Tamil and English that we are still continuing today. Knight went on to start lessons for 7 students in his house in March 1823, before renovating the decaying Old Dutch Church at Nallur and getting permission from the government to start a school there. Motivated by a vision and sprit of service, Knight established a new institution and invented new traditions that have gone on to be a blessing to thousands of youth in our town.
Today there is a similar challenge for all of us to be missionaries, path breakers, tradition-builders in our community. With one history of our community coming to an end, we are in the beginning of another. We are almost starting from scratch. Buildings have been demolished, community leaders killed, families displaced, students orphaned. The question for our school is: what kind of education is going to address the changes around us. The task of slowly rebuilding our community is starting. Old boys have been sending money to St John’s to put up new buildings and support displaced and orphaned students. But an important question everyone is asking now is this: St John’s is proud of the new buildings it has put up; but is it paying enough attention to building the moral, spiritual, and intellectual life of its students? Should the school be more interested in building up the quality of education needed for the new age?
This is the time to initiate new traditions of learning and education for St John’s College. Though we may be materially disadvantaged, we are still culturally, spiritually, and intellectually rich. Buildings may be destroyed; but nothing can destroy our mind and soul. Nothing can stop someone’s mind from growing, influencing others, shaping the environment around us, conquering disadvantages, and achieving great things. This is the story of Johnians from the past. We grew up in a disadvantaged community, with less buildings than you have now. But that didn’t stop us from achieving impressive things on the global stage. It was not about what material resources we had. It was about what cultural, spiritual, and intellectual resources we developed in our community. You students can still achieve all that. You can develop to be powerful inventors, thinkers, and leaders, though now you may not have a house over your heads, family to care for you, or enough things to provide a comfortable life. Remember our school motto: “Light shineth in darkness”. It is precisely at this time in our history that we are called upon to shine. And the only thing light can do, something that comes naturally to it, is shine! I wish the staff of St John’s college, the parents, the local community, and especially the students the very best as they work towards building more meaningful educational traditions for the future.
Speech by Prof. Suresh Canagarajah,Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Applied Linguistics and English, Pennsylvania State University, USA, at the THE ANNUAL PRIZE GIVING was held on Saturday 6th July, 2013, at St.John’s college Jaffna in Sri Lanka
H.E. Kamalesh Sharma, Secretary-General, The Commonwealth, Commonwealth Secretariat, Marlborough House,
Pall Mall, London SW1-5HX, UK
CHOGM – 2013
I am writing to you with reference to a news item published in the Sri Lanka Daily Mirror of 29th June 2013. The story, captioned ‘Commonwealth wants to make practical difference in Sri Lanka’ quotes a letter you have reportedly sent to an unspecified recipient . In the absence of any contradiction or clarification from your organisation, I assume that the remarks are accurate. You are quoted as saying:
“The LLRC report was a home grown roadmap for achieving peace in a multi ethnic nation.The question for the international community is whether to criticise the lack of progress from afar in implementing that report or to offer and to make a practical difference. The Commonwealth has opted for the latter and the Sri Lankan government even now is identifying the areas where we will help. We are active in Sri Lanka in advancing Commonwealth values, including human rights, the media, the judiciary and building mutual respect and understanding in communities.”
The Commonwealth wanting to make a practical difference in Sri Lanka is indeed most welcome. However, for many of us who are living not afar but in Sri Lanka, we find it rather difficult to share your optimism as Sri Lanka seems to be moving away from the values which you claim that the Commonwealth is advancing even now. The day to day practical reality is that Sri Lanka continues to violate with impunity all 16 values of the Commonwealth Charter in varying degrees and we in Sri Lanka experience first hand the present Sri Lankan government’s contempt for democratic values, the rule of law and the sanctity of life.
In fact, Sri Lanka has slipped down to the 29th position in the ‘Failed State Index‘ compiled annually by the Fund for Peace and the Foreign Policy magazine. This year this drop is due to the deterioration of performance in 7 out of 12 categories, notably in the areas of human rights, rule of law, delegitimisation of the state, poverty and economic decline.
The human rights situation in Sri Lanka shows no signs of improvement and as ‘Lawyers for Democracy‘ stated in April, ‘the spate of deaths of persons while in Police custody is alarming. The casual manner in which the death of persons in police custody is being treated by the authorities is an insult to our system of administration of justice.’ The independent inquiry into the cold blooded execution of over 27 prisoners in November last year has also yet to materialise.
While hundreds if not thousands of complaints of serious human rights violations gather dust at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), the commissioner announced a few days ago that the commission will be probing into rail tragedies at unprotected railway crossings in the country! In the face of such cynicism, the workshop being conducted by the Commonwealth and the HRCSL in Colombo at the moment with the participation of your deputy, I feel, is an useless exercise in mutual deception. By conducting a workshop with the HRCSL you are conferring legitimacy to a human rights institution which has become yet another appendage of the executive since the 18th Amendment of September 2010 . This is in direct contravention of the Paris Principles, which relate to the status and functioning of national institutions for the protection and promotion of human rights. As the Paris Principles stipulates, ‘ the key elements of the composition of a national institution are its independence and pluralism. In relation to the independence the only guidance in the Paris Principles is that the appointment of commissioners or other kinds of key personnel shall be given effect by an official act…..’ However, all commissioners of the current HRCSL have been appointed by the President.
Lattimer House Principles are also being consistently and continuously violated. After the President forcibly excluded the legal Chief Justice, Mrs. Shirani Bandaranayake from her chambers and installed someone else in her place in January, the executive with his hand picked set of judges proceeded to scrap the violated court of appeal order. This order was ignored by the President when he removed the legal Chief Justice after an hurried impeachment trial more akin to the witch trials of the dark ages. The witch hunt against Mrs.Bandaranaike continues and she has been summoned several times to the Bribery Commission which has also now become yet another appendage of the executive arm since the 18th Amendment came into operation.
Today, it is a well known secret that all Judicial transfers and appointments are decided at ‘Temple Trees’, the official residence of the executive, in violation of the Latimer House principle which states that ‘ Judicial appointments should be made on the basis of clearly defined criteria and by a declared process.’
Another Latimer House Principle states that the ‘ interaction, if any, between the executive and the judiciary should not compromise judicial independence.’ Yet the new Chief Justice prefers to demonstrate his devotion and servility to the executive by being a frequent visitor not only to the President but to his brother, the defence secretary.
The judiciary is not the only victim of the erosion of law through disempowered institutions. Even the university administration has been made into useless appendages of the executive. For example, the University Grants Commission has now abdicated its powers and responsibilities under section 34(1) of the act to select and recommend one person for appointment by the President. It has now unlawfully clothed the President with authority to make his own choice of Vice Chancellor.
The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Sri Lanka as the 4th most dangerous place in the world for journalists to work in. The Criminal Investigation Department continues to raid newspapers which highlight corruption linked to the first family and two days ago,the Editor of ‘Janarela’ – a weekly Sinhala tabloid , was grilled by the CID regarding an article published last year. In the north, un identified militia men have continued their attacks on several independent newspapers. Several media personnel at MTV, a leading private television network, were threatened again recently.
Also, the government which purportedly claims that it values Commonwealth principles, has sought and received Chinese expertise to monitor, hack and block websites which expose human rights violations and corruption. In fact, the Defence Secretary, recently identified social media such as Facebook and Twitter as a serious threat to national security and plans are afoot, according to reliable sources to ban social media as well as to introduce the draconian code of ethics for the media, recently approved by Cabinet, after the summit in November.
Despite the predominantly Chinese funded ‘show’ development in the North, at vastly inflated costs, the plight of the Tamil people has deteriorated and the militarisation continues unabated. A special unit under the Commander of the area has been formed to suppress democratic activities: during a visit to the area some months ago, even a meeting attended by the Leader of the Opposition was attacked by this squad. While the government is reluctantly preparing to hold Northern Provincial Elections thanks to intense international pressure, there are reports that members of this squad are intimidating and threatening candidates who are hoping to seek nomination from opposition parties.
Even other religious minorities are now being persecuted with impunity. There have been over 15 Incidents during this year where Mosques as well as Muslim owned businesses have been attacked in broad daylight while the Police looked on. Two weeks ago, a beef stall owned by a Muslim was vandalised and destroyed while the Police and the PSD (Presidents Security Division) guarding the Presidents Tangalle residence, just a stones throw away, looked on. Many Christian places of worship have also been attacked in recent months. The fact that these fanatical groups can take law into their hands with total impunity is proof enough of the unholy alliance between these purveyors of terror and the powers that be.
Also in violation of yet another Commonwealth value, the government is continuing its witch hunt against members of civil society. The much respected local representative of the Ferdrich Ebert Stiftung was recently apprehended at the airport and questioned about funding a book written on Buddhism and Governance by the Leader of the Opposition seven years ago. She was also questioned by the CID for two days in May after hosting a workshop on Campaign management for Members of Parliament of the UNP. Another woman from an Indian NGO was deported last week for being critical of some development activities in the North. Many other key human rights activists are also subjected to harassment and the bank accounts of some of them have been frozen without a court order.
Emboldened by its apologists in the International community, the regime, continues with arrogance to violate the core values of the Commonwealth Charter. It is in the context of these continuing violations that I cannot share your enthusiasm that the “Commonwealth soft power and behind the scenes contribution’ can lead to “real progress in the long term”. From the daily occurrences, some of which I have mentioned above, it is clear that the government is unable to mend its ways and that there is a vast discrepancy between the values of the Commonwealth and the values of its incoming Chairman.
It is certainly true that certain recommendations of the LLRC report need a longer period to implement but if the government of Sri Lanka is sincere and genuine in its commitment to the Commonwealth Charter, there are some changes which could be implemented immediately prior to the Summit in November and in time for the Northern Provincial Elections.
For example, the notorious 18th Amendment to the Constitution, introduced as an Urgent bill in 2010 abolishing the independent Judicial, Elections, Public Services and Police Commissions can be repealed immediately with yet another urgent bill restoring all the independent commissions. This could well be the litmus test on the governments commitment to the core Commonwealth values.
Free and fair elections are an integral part of the Commonwealth charter. In addition to the independent elections commission and independent police commission been in place before the Northern Elections, it also imperative that a civilian governor be appointed to the North and that the army be confined to the barracks , if the election is to be truly free and fair.
If such changes are to be implemented prior to CHOGM in November, all Sri Lankans, I am sure will congratulate and thank you for the ‘Commonwealth soft power and behind the scene contribution’ in restoring the credentials of one of Asia’s oldest democracies. However, holding of the summit without such a proven commitment to the values and principles of democracy would not only call into grave question the value, credibility and future of the Commonwealth, it will also be the granting of the Commonwealth seal of approval to an emerging dictatorship in Asia.
As the CHOGM summit is of immense public interest, I am taking the liberty of releasing this letter to the media.
JR invited, Rajiv Gandhi invaded and Tamils paid the price. The cost of political unrealism at over 1,500 dead on either side was exacting. The invasion had a twin motive. To make the North safe for the TULF – read moderates friendly to India – and the South safe for the UNP – read a regime amenable to India. JR heaped victory on his country. The invitee was treated to ignominy by Tamil militants. It rankled in India’s mind from 1987 and most particularly since 1991 and was avenged in 2009. Lessons of the misadventure are not learnt yet by any of the parties complicit to it.
Firstly a brief look at the precursors to India’s intervention. Tamil militancy and the state military were reaching a point of a major collision. Events moved in quick succession in mid-1987. May of that year was rife with talk that the capture of Jaffna by the Sri Lankan military was in the offing. Either rumour or inspired leak had it, that execution of the plan would involve heavy casualties. Jaffna was gripped with fear. What lent credence to it was the feeling that the militants were not strong on ground and their ammunition supply was limited. The native intelligence of the Jaffna man helped in this discernment.
The Vadamaratchchi Operation launched on 26th May and the ease of capture in 4 days, confirmed the forebodings. Extension of the operation to reach the heart of Jaffna was therefore anticipated. The first three days of June saw movement of people going in all directions away from their homes with no clear idea where. News of the food convoy from India moving towards Jaffna was comforting to the Tamils. But that noon itself it was stopped at mid ocean by the SL Navy. Euphoria for the South and disappointment for the North were only for a while.
The following day a little before 5 pm, there was an unprecedented roar of low flying jets, fighter planes and cargo planes dropping food items. It was revealed subsequently and quite credibly that the air drop was scripted even before the food convoy set sail. Within minutes everybody figured out what it was all about. The youth lit crackers. Not a soul bothered to say food has come. No one stopped to debate the legality or otherwise of airspace violation. Their obsession was that SL army with air cover was going to honeycomb the Peninsula. This had now been foiled by India. They were ecstatic only about what the drop signified. INDIA IS COMING was their perception. This was enough to dispel all gloom.
The following morning, Thursday, I asked an officer working with me what his clairvoyant friend will say. He said that he had already met him who after prayers and meditation had said that “the next day – Friday, the army will get out of Pt. Pedro and march towards Jaffna. BUT midway, it will turn back and go, for reasons he was unable to know.” On Friday morning the army did break out. At Atchuvely much to the surprise of all Tamils it reversed course. This turning back is the now well-known handiwork of DN Dixit who was forceful enough to get New Delhi to intervene and stop any further advance beyond Atchuvely.
From this date after a seeming lull, there was a spate of activity among three groups. The Indian Government, Sri Lankan Government and the militants with civilians as spokesmen. To bring about some settlement and to avoid confrontation was the concern. As these went on, a few weeks later a food shipment arrived in KKS harbor. To receive it Mr. Hardeep Puri, Political Secretary was at the harbor. He was taken to Jaffna town in an open vehicle by the Tigers. On either side of the road there was a massive, happy and enthusiastic crowd, wanting to convey its gratitude. Again, not for food but for the prospect of INDIA COMING. In charge of arrangements were Tigers. The vehicle could only inch along. All the way he was profusely garlanded, feted and treated to food and drinks. It was a reception which is reserved for the rarest of personalities for an exceptional occasion. In an earlier time only Nehru could have got it. Now Puri had it. To Jaffna he symbolized India and honouring him was honouring India. The whole event was televised by local TV managed by Tigers. Such was the emotional bond between India and the Tamils at that time. The Tigers did their arrangements well, but it was clear that it was formal and ritualistic. Their heart was not in it.
The month of July saw again a flurry of engagements among India, Sri Lanka and the Tigers ending up with the Indo Lanka Accord in July 1987. The Tigers had no say about it, no hand in the draft and did not so much as have the occasion even to read it. Within an hour or two of it being signed, massive Antanovs and other planes flew continuously for two days or more. They ferried men and material from India to Palaly. Alongside, was the movement of SL troops to the south by air as well. Soon after, there was a formal handing over of weapons by the Tigers. Those who were knowledgeable were certain that it was a mere token of what they possessed.
To the war weary, there was peace in our time. To the percipient signs were ominous. From August1987, they were fueled by India’s proclivity to unsettle, not by error but by design. The relationship between India and Sri Lanka in the period 1977 to 1987 needs to be understood to fully discern developments at that time.
When JR won the elections in 1977 and became President in ’78, his alter ego Morarji Desai was Prime Minister of India. In 1980, Indira Gandhi unseated him scoring a resounding victory. This was irksome to JR who had earned her ill will and wrath. Ideological differences apart, there was personal antipathy and even temperamental incompatibility. He prided himself over the thought and made it public that he was of Nehru’s vintage. Implicitly, Indira was but a trifle. Can it go well with a lady of aristocratic lineage and bearing, who was styled by the West as Empress of India? She was a personality cast in the mould of Patel and not of Nehru. JR hated her and her hatred was no less. Once in the early eighties a friend of mine while talking to her in Delhi, said “Madam, JR hates India”. She leaned towards him and said “Me also”. It was such a leader of a great nation that JR had to deal with.
To a Prime Minister poised to deliver a lethal punitive blow, the 1983 pogrom against the Tamils provided the occasion. Even more important was the emergence of motivated Tamil militants straining for training in India. Tamil Nadu of the same ethnic identity was a suitable hinterland ready at hand. As factors moved favourably in Delhi’s calculation, Tamils had their own ideas that history would move as they wished. If India could be persuaded to the strategy of partition, then Cyprus Solution of the north for the Turks and south for the Greeks could be considered a precedent for the Sri Lankan situation. Whatever the viability of this thought, it lost its sheen with the demise of Indira Gandhi. There was little realization among Tamils that the world had moved much from Palmerstone’s Opium War against China, at the whim of the PM of England 130 years back. Such whimsical intervention was no longer possible. Partition became even less practicable without a fearless and resolute Indian leader. When an overnight change in strategy was required we harboured the same views from November 1984, ie after the death of IG, to October 1987 when war broke out.
Does history run its course as per some destiny or is the path altered by a powerful leader? This has been a dilemma for historians to interpret. Arthur Koestler invokes a picturesque analogy. A small stone is washed away by a river. Not so a boulder, which makes its impact for 200 yards or years. In recent times Napoleon, Bismarck, Lenin, Mao and Deng left their mark in altering world history. Nehru, Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev and Lee Kwan Yew too made a striking contribution through their force of personality. In that line was Indira Gandhi as well among the great world leaders. The void created by her demise was well assessed by Sri Lanka’s political leadership and the sails were freshly set to gain direction. Distressingly the same did not hold with the Tamils and we floundered, yet fortified in the belief that when we are in a soup, either India or the International Community is obliged to retrieve us.
From late 1984, Tamils were caught up in a drift that lacked purposive direction. Indira’s reputed Advisor G. Parthasarathy was marginalized for no reason by Rajiv Gandhi, and he relinquished his duties. The respected and competent Foreign Secretary A P Venkataeshwaran, fully conversant with the Tamil problem was dropped unceremoniously. His predecessor was one Romesh Bhandari and he enjoyed the confidence only of President Jayawardena. His handiwork was the miserable Thimpu Talks in mid-1985, which took nobody anywhere. The objectives as discerned by Tamils were two. (1) Force march all militant groups to the conference table, thereby asserting India’s supremacy. (2) To cut V. Pirapakaran (VP) to size, proclaim that all the militants stand on an equal footing and to din into VP that he is not primus but all are pares. (No first but all are equals). By Christmas 1976, Tigers had eliminated all other groups and VP proclaimed that he was just primus and there were no pares. This was the only dismal effect of India’s efforts for two years.
By early 1987 VP’s stay in India had become untenable. When he asserted his independence increasingly, relations with his benefactor MGR soured. Can a chick remain till eternity under the wings of the mother? Will not an eaglet fly off from the cliff one day? When the day comes the baby kangaroo gets out of the pouch. When the hour struck, VP got out of Tamil Nadu and came over to Jaffna. From January to June Jaffna experienced constant warfare, aerial bombing, shelling, power outages and shortages of food. The people had braced themselves to circumstances however trying.
To connect with where I digressed, may I say some movement was observable now. After hectic activity in July 1987, VP was flown to Delhi under duress from Suthumalai Amman Temple premises by helicopter to Chennai and thence by plane to Delhi. Nothing was known as to why. It was only speculated that the trip may have something to do with an Accord. When VP did not return for more than two days there was agitation among the people and more among the cadres.
On his return a mammoth meeting was held at Suthumalai where VP read out a prepared speech. It then transpired that he was not given enough time even to read the contents. Wrath and determination to undo the so called Accord were explicit on his face at the event that was televised. If VP was not considered the leader and spokesman of the Tamils, why was he flown to Delhi in the first instance? If he was so considered, why this cavalier treatment? The implacable discord that came about, his spurning of the Accord, the violent incidents that followed, the outbreak of war with the Indian Army and consequent unfortunate happenings even after its withdrawal have their origin in this highbrow behavior of the Indian establishment in Delhi. India reaped the whirlwind.
Events that flowed subsequent to the Accord, cast unforgiving shadows and confirmed misgivings. Happenings seemed to flow in a well scripted coherent sequence. Very soon on display were India’s sinister intentions. From the rump of anti-Tiger elements resident in India, was cobbled together a rag tag called ‘Tri Star’. It was to serve as a fifth column for the Indian Army. What a way to keep peace and win over the people! Each time small batches landed on the Mannar coast, they were mowed down by the Tigers. News used to seep to the people immediately. In the book by Lt. Gen. SC Sardesh Pande, written with transparent honesty by an officer of character, there is reference to it. He speaks of VP losing credibility about India on this score. A war was coming became clear to the Tigers.
I do not use the acronym IPKF because it is a misnomer. Keeping the peace was not the mission of the Indian army. Peace between Tamil and Tamil? Between Muslim and Tamil? They were not at war. Then what was the justification to heap 60,000 troops or more within the confines of North-East? Why keep in and around the Jaffna fort alone, some 19 tanks? When war broke out on 10th October, did any rumble along to the Sinhala-Tamil border to keep ethnic peace if it was ever feared?
My adoration for all what was good and great about Tamil Nadu and of India, made me purblind to reality. In the early eighties a certain lady from Delhi used to come to SL. In 1984, about 12 of us had a meeting with her in Jaffna. Her patriotism was never in doubt. But she said all the Tamils she met wanted the Indian army to come. She continued, “I don’t know why they are saying that. The Indian army is as brutal as any in the world, if not more brutal”. A senior officer from India who spent nearly a month in November 1987 and who had had discussions with me told me “I am getting back next week and after that I will not return because the Indian army is behaving like an army of occupation.” My experience at close quarters from October 1987 to February 1990, knocked off the scales clouding my vision. Before that I wondered how Bangladesh could turn against India, her deliverer and benefactor. Now I knew why.
Edward Snowden was unknown, just as Julian Assange was a nonentity until he blew a whistle. The disclosures regarding the extent, pernicious character and the political economy of surveillance has raised the ire of a lot of people. Americans of the United States, in particular, are livid about this invasion of privacy, apparently sanctioned by the self-appointed high priests of democracy and freedom (not just for the citizens of that country but the rest of the world as well) themselves.
It has been wryly observed that ‘White America’ seems to have just woken up to smell the coffee, so to speak. For that ‘America’ largely insulated from the horrors of the world and the tragedies at their doorstep, Snowden is a ‘newsmaker’. For large sections of the ‘other’ America (of the US), as well as for the rest of the world, unburdened of illusion a long time ago, it is just something that spilled into the comfort zones of privilege.
The truth is that Big Brother never blinks, although he can be so blinded at times by ignorance and arrogance that he misses both wood and tree and errs terribly. Mohamad Tabbaa, a doctoral student in Criminology and Law and the University of Melbourne has laid it out well in ‘Suddenly, white people care about incursions’, an article that’s available at www.salon.com. He notes that for many in the USA, government surveillance has been a regular part of life, especially since 9/11. He asks, therefore, ‘So why the outrage now?’ and murmurs, ‘Welcome to the world of the Muslim, post September 11’.
There’s a lot of truth in the assertion for if privilege in that country has a color, it is white. But there are whites and there are whites. The class structure is not white-on-top and non-white-below. There is ‘white poor’ and there are whites who object to much that ‘Big Brother’ does. The anarchists, in particular the ‘Black Bloc’ associated with the anti-globalization protests in Seattle in November 1999, were white. The communists hounded during the McCarthy weren’t all non-white. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were hanged. They were white.
The demarcating factor is perception of threat to a fairly well established system of privilege. The mover is fidelity to a project of sustained exploitation and control. Barack Obama, self-appointed grand abbot of democracy and freedom didn’t mince his words when he said that if you want security you must submit to surveillance. The point, however, is that surveillance is not about public security. It only gives that impression. It is about system-security where ‘system’ is about exploitation, plunder, strategic needs to sustain these etc. The ordinary US citizen has to submit him/herself to surveillance so that system stays.
Some say it’s all exaggerated. Here’s a story that will demonstrate the no-stone-unturned bottom line of anxiety and control that is an integral part of the US ‘security’ system.
In the year 2000, I wrote a series of articles titled ‘Sketchbook USA’ for the Sunday Island. It was all about my experiences in the USA, my observations during the7 years I spent in that country as a student. One of the articles was titled ‘My professors and friends’. I wrote about the teachers I respected most, learned from the most and were more colorful than their colleagues. Among them was Geoff Waite of the German Studies Department.
‘Geoff Waite, the only card-carrying member of the Communist Party at Cornell University and Professor of German Studies, who taught Marx, Nietszche, Freud, Lacan and Althusser to both undergraduates and graduate students, was far more relaxed. All he wanted from us was that we maintained a journal, i.e. write regular commentaries on the reading material or the class discussion. “As long as I am convinced that you are doing some serious thinking, I will be satisfied,” he would say.’
‘Card carrying member’ was shorthand for ‘radical’, ‘brave’ and ‘unique’. I didn’t spell it out because it was a light piece. The person who used that phrase, one of Geoff’s doctoral students, didn’t spell it out either. He knew, I knew. That was enough.
This was in a Sri Lankan Sunday newspaper. A light piece, as I mentioned. It was not ‘missed’ by whoever does surveillance in Sri Lanka for the CIA/FBI though. The FBI paid Geoff a visit, I learned a couple of years later. Maybe I was naïve. Geoff obviously wasn’t. He had observed, I was told, ‘Malinda screwed me’. I was so naïve that when I was informed of this, I couldn’t imagine how on earth I could have caused any harm to that lovely man endowed with one of the sharpest minds I’ve encountered. It took me a few months to figure out what must have happened.
Mohamad Tabbaa is a student in Australia. I don’t know which country he is a citizen of. He is being watched now, if he was not being watched before. What Snowden has revealed is far more sinister; people are being watched in terms of a ‘just in case’ logic.
And it is unlikely that governments other than the one in Washington haven’t picked a surveillance leaf from that nasty book.
How do we respond? Vigilance. Counter-surveillance. Solidarity. Flipping the script is not easy, but flipping is a non-negotiable if you value your privacy, your freedom. Play peek-a-boo. It works. You make them angry. They slip. They may have superior technology. You can counter it all. If you have a heart. And of course a mind. It is easy to lie but easier to be honest. Especially if you are being watched 24/7.
Just remember: if you’ve bought their lie, the more pernicious mechanism of incursion is resident within you.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com
In Sri Lanka today there are two types of Buddhists- the Buddhist Moderates who identify themselves as Sri Lankans and those who identify themselves as Sinhala-Buddhists which they regard as their nationality!
As a Sri Lankan (a Sinhalese and a Buddhist by faith) I have lived and worked amidst the strange practices of Sinhala-Buddhists in Sri Lanka. As such I have observed closely what a Sinhala-Buddhist is as opposed to a Buddhist Moderate.
The following are my observations.
Buddhist Moderates (Sri Lankans) – This group identifies themselves by their nationality- Sri Lankan. Their ethnicity and faith are on a need-to-know basis, usually for official purposes. Moderates understand and respect Buddhism as a philosophy and quietly practice their faith in daily life to the best of their ability. Therefore they respect the religious beliefs and ethnicity of the ‘other’ (Hindus, Christians, Muslims etc) and treat them all as equals.
The Sinhala-Buddhist- This group carries a double-barreled identity; ethnicity first followed by the faith- Sinhala-Buddhist. As such they wear their identity on their sleeve with unfounded pride. This group has heard about the Buddha’s teachings- the Dhamma but don’t practice it. But they do practice a ‘religion’ which they call Buddhism that is diametrically opposed to the Dhamma. To these Sinhala-Buddhists the noble teachings of the Buddha are akin to casting pearls before swine!
The Sinhala-Buddhist regards Buddhism as a ‘religion’ and not as a philosophy and a way of life, as advised by the Buddha. Therefore they regard the Buddha as a God and practice their ‘religion’ by worshiping and venerating Buddhist symbols and objects; totally against the Buddha’s teachings.
Unlike Sinhala-Buddhists, Buddhist Moderates regard the Buddha as their noble teacher and Buddhism as a way of life. They don’t worship Buddhist symbols like Sinhala-Buddhists do, as for them Buddhism is not a religion. The Buddhist Moderate has the highest regard for the Buddha and respects his teachings by striving to live according to those noble teachings unlike the Sinhala-Buddhist label bearer.
Therefore these two groups- the Buddhist Moderates and Sinhala-Buddhists practice Buddhism in two extremely different ways. In today’s context the latter reeks of bigotry, hypocrisy and chauvinism in the extreme. To the Moderate Sri Lankan Buddhist, what the Sinhala-Buddhist practices as ‘Buddhism’ is a type of heresy of the Dhamma!
The Good Buddhist
The Sinhala-Buddhist’s idea of being a ‘Good Buddhist’ is confined only to one day of the calendar month- Full Moon (Poya) day. This day is dedicated to worshiping symbols and objects. As the ‘done’ thing they visit the temple, worship and heap flowers opposite the perceived image of the Buddha, light oil lamps and drench the roots of an over hydrated Bo tree within the temple premises. Then they parrot off the five-precepts with no intention of abiding by them. Most don’t even understand the meaning of them.
All this is done because it is the ‘done’ thing or with the foolish and selfish motive of gaining perceived ‘pin’ (merit) to counteract the ill-effects (or so they believe) of the crimes they commit. It never crosses their minds to question how a tree, clay, concrete or stone object could pardon them or grant them merit. But it is the ‘done’ thing so they do it, though they do not know why they do it. For them this is practicing ‘Buddhism’!
Also on Poya Day, the usually carnivorous Sinhala-Buddhists refrain from eating fish, meat and eggs. This is another ‘done’ thing which has nothing to do with the Dhamma. However some of these ‘Buddhists’ believe that refraining from consuming animal flesh is the ‘Buddhist’ thing to do, therefore bestowing more merit on themselves.
It must be said that all these acts are harmless in themselves if not for the hypocrisy involved!
There is a popular misconception that the Dhamma prohibits followers from consuming animal flesh. In fact, the Buddha did not ‘prohibit’ his followers from doing so, if it is offered by a person in good faith. But he did advise his followers against seeking it and destroying life for it. Buddhist Moderates who refrain from consuming animal flesh do so either for health or ethical reasons.
So in typical Sinhala-Buddhist style, commercial establishments are banned by the State from selling meat on Poya Days. This applies to the sale of alcohol as well. But on the days preceding this ‘sacred’ Day, one may store as much animal flesh in their refrigerators as required and sufficient alcohol to see them through the days of prohibition.
Most often Sinhala-Buddhists are the first customers at meat stalls and taverns before the day of ‘prohibition’ dawns. So, for whose benefit and for what purpose are such prohibitions imposed? Who is trying to fool whom? This is Sinhala-Buddhist state-sponsored hypocrisy!
Also on Poya Day a few even try to refrain from consuming alcohol, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct or murder/killing- the five precepts. But this is all confined only to Poya Days. Convinced and content that they have accumulated sufficient ‘pin (merit)’ to see them through all their misdeeds in the future, life returns to normal the rest of the month!
Insecurities of Sinhala-Buddhists
The average Sinhala-Buddhist suffers from an acute inferiority complex which is often mistaken for a superiority complex. This could be attributed to a lack of substance in the superficial ‘religion’ they practice by worshiping objects and symbols and a lack of knowledge of the Dhamma.
Besides wearing their identity on their sleeve, a relatively recent ‘fashion’ adopted by Sinhala-Buddhists is the way in which they wear the ‘Pirith Noola’ (Pirith blessed thread) on the right wrist. Instead of the customary three folds of white cotton thread, we now see them ‘exhibiting’ on their right wrist what looks more like ‘Pirith bandages’. This is usually observed amongst Sinhala-Buddhist political VIPs.
This new phenomenon could either be to draw attention to their Sinhala-Buddhist identity and superiority over the ‘other’ or to ensure foolishly imagined ‘divine protection’ as they carry on accumulating negative ‘karma’ through their hypocrisy. In some cases it also could be a combination of both.
Sinhala-Buddhists live in constant fear of their ‘concrete/clay/stone made’ religion which they call ‘Buddhism’ being destroyed. As is obvious to any right thinking individual, all material objects, including Buddhist symbols are vulnerable to natural phenomena and destructive humans.
To the Buddhist Moderate, such fear is unfounded as their faith is strong. It lives and grows within them therefore it can never be destroyed either by destructive humans or natural phenomena. Buddhist symbols don’t carry any weight with the Buddhist Moderate except for the archeological value of some.
Insecurity harbored by Sinhala-Buddhists is nothing new to Lanka. It goes back to ancient times of the Cholas and more recently to pre-independent Ceylon when the British introduced Christianity to the island. The likes of Anagarika Dharmapala (a Sinhala-Buddhist personified) claimed that Buddhism was being destroyed by the British and Sinhala-Buddhists were being forced to convert to Christianity!
The question arises here if anyone could be ‘forced’ to change their faith/religious belief for whatever reason if the person is strong in her/his belief? But that is another subject altogether.
Usually Sinhala-Buddhists practice their ‘hypocrisy’ amongst themselves without causing too many problems for the rest of society. They denigrate those of other ethnic groups and religions behind their backs, but are sweet as honey to their faces. This is only until a Sinhala-Buddhist political regime takes over and starts whipping up ethno-religious emotions for their own political gain. It happened with the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and it is happening now!
Today, in place of Anagarika Dharmapala and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike we have Sinhala-Buddhist Warlords to carry on the tradition!
This malaise has now brimmed over to extreme proportions. We now have Sinhala-Buddhist saffron-robed thugs masquerading as Buddhist monks denigrating the Buddha and his noble teachings in every possible way. Sinhala-Buddhist parents and teachers are encouraged to teach their young how to denigrate those of other religious faith from an early age. These saffron robed groups appear to be paramilitaries of the Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinistic State who use the sacred Saffron robe as a weapon over the ‘other’- those of other faiths.
Strangely this phenomenon burst forth post 2009 and today Sinhala-Buddhists see ‘demons’ everywhere threatening Buddhism in Sri Lanka!
This could be attributed to the political environment we live in today which is besieged by insecurities of various forms. After the successful elimination of LTTE terrorism, our warlords seem to find it necessary to create another ‘monster’.
This could be to keep the voter on edge and in constant fear and, therefore, to keep them reminded that only ‘they’ and ‘they’ alone have the ability to keep the country safe from the likes of Prabhakaran and other such ‘monsters’. This they believe is the surest way of keeping the Sinhala-Buddhist voter terrified and forever grateful to the Warlords for keeping them safe.
So today we find new concrete ‘Buddhist symbols’ sprouting like mushrooms throughout the country, especially in areas populated by the ‘other’ (Hindus, Christians and Muslims). This is the Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinistic way of claiming superiority over the ‘other’. Not stopping there, they go on to destroy places of religious worship of the ‘other’.
The Buddhist Moderate looks on in horror and revulsion as these acts go totally against the Buddha’s teaching of sympathetic understanding and respect for other religions!
So today while overtly paying lip-service extolling the virtues of the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha and religious harmony, the Sinhala-Buddhist Warlords covertly give full reign to terrorizing the ‘other’.
All this ugliness takes place in this so called thrice-blessed Buddhist country Sri Lanka!
*Sharmini Serasinghe was Director Communications of the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) under Secretary Generals Jayantha Dhanapala and Dr. John Gooneratne. She counts over thirty years in journalism in both the print and electronic media.
The 30-year-old ethnic conflict in the Sri Lankan state, an essentially Sinhalese majoritarian preserve, and the uncompromising and relentlessly violent Tamil leadership claiming a separate state, Tamil Eelam, on behalf of the Tamil minority of north and east Sri Lanka, culminated with a comprehensive military defeat of the Tamil Tigers at the hands of the Sri Lankan military and paramilitary forces. However, it also turned out to be a terrible example of collective punishment for the Tamil minority. This is the tragedy that the political scientist, former political activist with a strong Marxist-humanist commitment and a Sri Lankan diplomat, who till recently was serving the UN in Geneva and France and UNESCO, analyses with courage and insight.
After the British transferred power in 1948 virtually without a freedom struggle being waged against them, the ruling elite, Sinhalese and Tamil, initially adhered to the pluralist model bequeathed by the British based on liberal constitutionalism. However, that did not last long and Sinhala ethno-nationalists, lay and clerical, began to assert a majoritarian Sinhalese-Buddhist identity and ideology that sought to marginalise the Tamils. The adoption of the Sinhala only bill in 1956 as the sole national language literally rendered the hitherto more advanced Tamil intelligentsia illiterate.
The moderate Tamil leadership failed to dissuade the majoritarian Sinhalese nationalists to accommodate the legitimate interests and concerns of their group. As a result, disappointment, frustration and despondency spread among the Tamils. The leadership then passed into the hands of extremists, and the Tamil Tigers, led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, emerged in 1976 as the most uncompromising and ruthless protagonists of Tamil separatism and secessionism.
Book Review: Long War, Cold Peace: Conflict and Crisis in Sri Lanka Author: Dayan Jayatilleka Publisher: Vijitha Yapa Publications, Columbo; 2013
Jayatilleka convincingly demonstrates that in the armed conflict that ensued, exclusive ultra-nationalism took up uncompromising positions on both sides. However, whilst the Tigers never relented, the Sri Lankan government on a number of occasions sought a compromise granting autonomy/devolution within a formally unitary state. He especially regards President Ranasinghe Premadasa as the leader who was most forthcoming to accommodate Tamil concerns including those related to the national language. He was pitilessly assassinated by the Tamil Tigers, who rejected all such overtures as their goal was to create a sovereign and independent Tamil Eelam. The Tigers also assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and several Sri Lankan ministers and politicians including Tamils.
The author is at his masterly best when he applies his vast theoretical and conceptual knowledge, including normative political theory, to distinguish a freedom fighter from a terrorist. He defines terrorism as deliberate policy to target innocent civilians. In this regard, the review of Marxist theory and practice associated with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara is especially instructive, because although they resorted to armed struggle they considered it a necessary evil. Prabhakaran made a virtue out of violence and terror and personified that cult.
He reveals the psycho-ideological mindset of Prabhakaran as intrinsically fascistic. We learn that the leader of the Tigers actually hero-worshipped Hitler and kept a copy of Mein Kampf by his side, and like his hero extracted complete submission from his followers to his whim and caprice. Moreover, the Tamil Tigers showed no mercy to dissidents within the party or the opposition within Tamil society, or to innocent Muslims and Sinhalese. Their record of carrying out assassination attempts and suicide bombing predates by many years similar trends in South Asia.
Jayatilleka rejects the right of national self-determination to mean an absolute and automatic right to secede through the use of force and terrorism from an existing state. He asserts that secession from an existing state is not to be confused with liberation from colonial rule. Such an interpretation is an accurate understanding of the norms upheld by international law.
The author then examines the right of the state to wage war against an intransigent terrorist group in the light of classic just war doctrine and concludes that the Sri Lankan state had no other choice but to wage a war against the Tamil Tigers. It did so, but with such overwhelming force and ruthlessness that hapless non-combatant Tamils wholesale became its victims. It shocked the world and the United Nations expressed its concerns in no uncertain terms.
The author warns that a triumphant, vindictive, majoritarian Sinhalese mindset cannot win the peace. It is important to heal wounds and win back an estranged, defeated and humiliated minority. Currently a cold peace prevails that isolates and alienates the Tamil minority. He pleads for a just peace, which guarantees substantial autonomy, economic, political and cultural, equal rights for all citizens, and respect and acceptance of ethnic identity. To the Tamils his recommendation is to abandon secessionism and seek fair and equitable treatment within a pluralist, decentralised but unitary Sri Lanka integrated in a power-sharing framework. He argues that neither neo-liberal capitalism nor neoliberal conservatism can serve as the basis for building peace, which he argues has three important dimensions: the North-South axis; the rich-poor axis; and the country-world axis.
In my book, State, Nation and Ethnicity in Contemporary South Asia, London and New York: Pinter, 1996; 1998, I propounded a theory to analyse within a comparative framework a number of separatist movements in South Asia: Khalistani and Kashmiri in India; Sindhi and Mohajir in Pakistan; Chakma Hill Tribes in Bangladesh; and Tamils in Sri Lanka. I predicted that secession was doomed. The modern state is too well-armed vis-à-vis separatists. Moreover, international law and praxis is biased heavily in favour of the integrity of the state. Only when powerful neighbours or global powers support a challenger to the state can the balance of power possibly be tilted in favour of secessionism (pages 69-76). In the final showdown neither India nor any global power backed the Tamil Tigers: their extermination became inevitable. Seventeen years later Jayatilleka’s authoritative case study on Sri Lanka verifies the soundness and relevance of that theory.
*The reviewer is a PhD (Stockholm University); Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; and Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Karachi: Oxford Unversity Press, 2013; The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at [email protected]
Burma is often most renowned for its military Junta, repression of democratic rights and the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi that spanned over two decades. Such it is when in line with Western countries interest and their explicitly displayed values. Unfortunately what is lesser known is the multiple national independence struggles fought by suppressed nations in Burma, and the state sponsored persecution and terrorism against minorities. In 2012, Burma was being praised by the West for freeing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, liberalizing its economy, allowing political parties, extending democratic rights, and for the abolishing of media censorship. In the backwaters of these events, with the West applauding what it considers positive steps taken by the new civilian government under President Thein Sein, a war was unleashed to eradicate the resistance of the Kachin nation in northern Burma (1). As the West is supplying funds, handing Burma international repute, facilitating it with international space to self-narrate the progress of the country, the Burmese army is unhindered in pursuing its structural approach towards minority nations. After a 17 year truce with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), it launched an extensive military offensive on June 2012. This decision coincided with the work on the billion dollar Sino-Burmese hydropower projects in the irrawaddy river in the Kachin homeland. In order to secure these areas for Chinese exploitation, the Burmese military is entrusted to drive out the Kachin people (2) . With both the subtle blessings and sinister involvement of contemporary imperialist powers, the West and China alike, a chauvinistic state is facilitated to carry out genocide. Another process which also began in 2012 summer, was the genocidal ethnic cleansing of the Rohinyga Muslims, in the central west of the country. In matter of few weeks, thousands of Rohinygas were reported butchered by Arakanese mobs, Buddhist monks, state police and federal forces, with tens of thousands being displaced. This brings to mind the parallels between the Burmese state and the Sri Lankan state and their interaction and liaisons with international powers.
Burma is a multi-ethnic country and was united under British colonial rule which placed the diverse region under the fold of a centralized authority in Rangoon. The boundaries set and the establishment of government ignored traditional and national peculiarities. The Burmese government represents the Bamar people alongside a range of other Buddhist people, who speak different but related languages. Thus the national culture is heavily marked by Buddhism and the Bamar. The military dictatorship has also drawn its legitimacy for military government from the rule of kings of the past. This leaves little space for nations with other religious following and another linguistic affiliation to prosper in its own right. The Kachin people speak various Kachinic languages and most follow Christianity, while the Rohiniygas speak Bengali and are Muslims. Both these people are viewed as multi-centric elements within the national space. They oppose and restrict the erection of the dominant Burmese nationality. The Karen took up arms in 1961 establishing the KIO and its military wing the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) to fight the Burmese government battling the state until 1994 when a truce was signed. As in Sri Lanka it was successively imposed discriminatory laws and actions in the post-independence period culminating in the state decision to make Buddhism the state religion which antagonized and marginalized the Kachin. Also as with the Sri Lankan context the Burmese state pursued a malicious counter-insurgency to impose its national unity. Sri Lanka’s war on Tamils starts as an element of the state’s intent to pursue a policy of creating a Sinhala Buddhist nation state. Similarly with Burma it targeted the ethnicities within its borders which were deemed multi-centric, this being foremost the Tamils who have since early independence been increasingly mobilized on lingo-national basis. With successive governments presiding over series of discriminatory laws, violent suppression and anti-Tamil riots , the Tamils took up arms in the 1970’s and the secessionist war broke out.
In the aftermath of 09.11.2001, a new international platform to fight counter-insurgencies emerged. It became rather advantageous for any nation-state to conjoin their counter-insurgencies with other nations on the pretext of fighting terrorism. For Sri Lanka this constituted a structural condition which would facilitate its reliance on international backing and subtle support in pursuit of a military solution to eradicate Tamil secessionism. With the collapse of the ceasefire in 2006, Colombo initiated a heavy offensive in the East of the island, a process which ended in May 2009 with the genocide in Mulluvaykal. International powers were known to have contributed with economical, diplomatical and military support, either directly or indirectly which served Sri Lanka’s ambitions. China poured in 1 billion dollars annually to the Sri Lankan state from 2005 to 2009 (3), while Pakistan upgraded the Sri Lankan air force’s radar and fighter jets. India trained military personnel, and aided the military forces with crucial logistics to weaken the LTTE. During the last war a range of Western countries were in support of dissolving the LTTE militarily in order to set the platform to deal with the national question concerning the Tamils. Later on through UN internal reports published in 2012 it was shown that even the U.N. leadership by grossly downplaying the civilian causalities assisted Sri Lanka in accomplishing what it had intended. What seems initially to be a series of strange events, tends to emerge as a systematic pattern, where it appears that the established international community of nation states apply a structural approach to people struggles. This very approach favours nation states’ military solutions to settle the self-determination struggles of oppressed nations and is pursued under the guise of eradicating terrorism and paving the way for development. Discourse and promises of democracy and peace, added with preliminary actions taken in the name of credence, shadow the brutal reality enacted by chauvinistic states and thereby sets the stage for the subtle support granted by international powers.
Statements expressing forthcoming harmony and the generosity to accede economic concessions by President Rajapakse resulted in the international community abetting the the Sri Lankan government’s genocidal war. It now seems Burma is effecting equally, through its adaptation of the Sri Lankan counter- insurgency model. The intent is to quash a genocidal war against the KIO and the Kachin people in the North while eradicating the Rohingya through mob and police perpetuated genocide and violence . The international community however is delighted and rather pleased with Burma due to rhetorics of democracy and the economic concessions endorsed under liberalization. A dreadful symphony of imperialist expansionism and genocidal nation state politics is perpetuated under the guise of development and reform. Failing to practice what it preach of equality and democracy, the west perceive it as more fruitful to aid the nation states in completing genocide and eradicating resistance in order to pursue imperialist goals. The West intends to counter China, China intends to counter the West and India, while India intends to counter China and make itself a power in the region. In this matrix the Burmese government maximizes on an abundance of supplies and support to pursue its agenda, an art the Sri Lankan government mastered in the last few years. The much praised Aung San Suu Kyi remains silent on these atrocities and is instead indulgent in praising the military for its historical role in the country’s establishment (4). Meanwhile the Kachen people brace themself for a bitter survival as Burmese troops are moving in towards their heartland with designs of occupying the town of Laiza. The international community and its media seemed to have abandoned the Kachin as was the case with Tamils in 2009, and now another genocide is lurking around the corner.
1) On the ingorance of the war against the Kachin people by international investors.http://karennews.org/2013/02/burma-investors-beware.html/
Indian Ministry of External Affairs took the unusual step of issuing a strong press statement cautioning Sri Lanka not to dilute the 13th Amendment (13A) at the end of a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) delegation’s meetings with Indian leadership including the Prime Minister on June 19, 2013. It was in response in to Colombo’s hectic moves to dismantle the constitutional provision of 13A that confers a level of autonomy to Tamil minority. If 13A is abolished it would not only be negation of the promises President Rajapaksa made to the nation and India but it would set the clock back on the national reconciliation process that is stalled at the start line since 2009.
The much maligned 13A reached its episodic climax during May-June as the September 2013 Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections neared. There was a flurry of activities in Colombo as the President was averse to allow the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) – erstwhile political ally of the LTTE– to capture power in the NPC. There was a bit of confusion as the President was making up his mind on how to go about doing this. This resulted in the administration and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the all powerful Defence Secretary sending confusing signals on future course of action. Lalith Weeratunge, President’s Secretary, added his penny’s worth in twitter justifying the dilution of powers of the “while elephant” provincial councils had not served any purpose, a discovery that came 23 years too late.
In this context TNA MP Sumanthiran’s twitter was interesting: “If PCs have not worked so far, then why has this discovery not taken place all these years? Only when the Tamil people were going to vote did they decided that provincial councils are not required… This shows their malfeasance,” he added.
In a political tear jerker that would vie with mid-day television soap, the last two episodes saw the dramatic change in the ruling UPFA coalition’s political strategy. It hopped from bringing an “urgent bill” to replacing 13A with the 19th amendment (a morphed 13A with its non-flyer wings clipped) to refer it to yet another parliamentary select committee (PSC). Obviously, the quick change of mind came after India hinted dark forebodings and some of the coalition partners loudly protested, while Tamil parties watched.
The President has used the PSC as time-tested weapon to bring to heel recalcitrant Tamil political nit-pickers as much as chief justice. The PSC has two advantages –it buys time and rarely it produces acceptable results because key parties usually do not participate in it. In the present instance also, only the ruling UPFA coalition was quick to nominate 19 members while the main opposition UNP and yesterday’s opposition JVP remained non-starters. TNA’s participation is anybody’s guess, as the troika that pulls it ensures it runs in the same place without moving forward.
As the government appears to be reconciled to hold the NPC elections as scheduled in September 2013 without any change in the 13A, the PSC’s purpose is probably to delay a decision on the issue till the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is seen through in October 2013. As the President has appointed a PSC to “to speed up the process,” Colombo hopes to smoothen India’s ruffled feathers lest it decides not to participate (India never boycotts) in the CHOGM. We can expect the PSC to stretch itself to see through the CHOGM where the President would be anointed lead the CHOGM for two years.
Sri Lanka needs to seriously introspect why the 13A still survives when all politicians, including President Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya speak periodically about changing it or getting rid of it.
The 13A fathered by the wily of Sri Lanka neta JR Jayawardane as political expedience to weather a brewing confrontation with India in 1987. It was a deformed child at birth, with low life expectation. It was never allowed to articulate fully and remained a cradle baby after Prabhakaran massacred hapless policemen and other Tamil activists of EPRLF in hundreds in 1990 and killed the hopes of the Northeastern Provincial Council ever functioning. Prabhakaran’s stand against 13A to give substance to his quest for a free Tamil Eelam suited Southern Sinhalas who were in any case averse to “Tamil terrorists” – regardless of their stripes – coming to power.
However, political parties in the rest of Sri Lanka took to provincial council system with surprising agility because it created one more layer of dispensation of power and favours. It also gave local politicians and their underlings the trappings of non-existent power. So the 13A continues its ambulatory existence as Sri Lanka polity has not been willing to find a suitable substitute that would provide decentralized powers to the provinces.
As the 13A owes it to the India-Sri Lanka Accord 1987 (ISLA), it has another “useful” political purpose – to make India the whipping boy. India is an essential “evil denominator” in Sri Lanka politics; political and military memoirs written by Sri Lankans are replete with instances to describe this phenomenon. Tamil and Sinhala leaders of all hues ranging from Rajapaksa to Prabhakaran to Weerawansa have emphasized 13A’s as an Indian machination thrust upon an unwilling Sri Lanka.
The 13A’s ISLA linkage has been bringing India into the Sri Lanka political scene now and again, though less frequently after India’s unpleasant experience of direct intervention from 1987 to 90. Even the present Indian interest in 13A came about only after President Rajapaksa thawed it out of cold storage when he came to power in 2005 to use it as a political ploy to ward off sermonising Western powers and retain India’s support.
To sustain Indian support during the Eelam War, Rajapaksa went through various committee manoeuvres and promises to “improve” the 13A, which was never fully implemented. Fortunately, for him, New Delhi with its own other internal and external preoccupations had accepted his arguments during the Eelam War. However, after AIADMK dethroned DMK from power in Tamil Nadu using Eelam War issue, New Delhi was pushed into action.
The pay off time for Sri Lanka’s double speak on the subject came at the UNHCR, after the Rajapaksa chose to ignore mounting allegations of war crimes at home and abroad. And New Delhi had little option but (to do the “right thing” as Hardeep S. Puri puts it in his op-ed piece in The Hindu “Why India is right on Sri Lanka”) to vote for the UNHRC resolution calling for Sri Lanka’s accountability for its conduct during the war.
The political scene in India is undergoing change and Sri Lanka will increasingly find its manoeuvring space getting more and more constricted even if the Congress-led alliance comes back to power in 2014. As Hardeep Puri wrote, “To dismiss popular sentiment in Tamil Nadu as the machinations of politicians is both a misreading of the situation and a recipe for disaster. Why should Sri Lanka not be held to account for not respecting understandings given bilaterally to India, such as those of April-May 2009?”
Unless Rajapaksa finds an answer to this vexing question, any government in India will find it difficult to wish away the issue because Sri Lanka’s “accountability” is as much applicable to its promises on implementing 13A and devolution of powers to Tamil minority, as investigating allegations of war crimes.
The simple truth is devolution and 13A issues have come to haunt President Rajapaksa because he squandered four years of peace in strengthening his political base rather than bringing back Tamils to political mainstream. This has compounded his accountability problem with the international community. Even now many are not convinced that he would go through the NPC election as planned because he has given sufficient indications that he would like to do what he and the Sinhala right want, rather than accept the inevitability of the TNA gaining control of the NPC.
Surprisingly, the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa while rightly recognizing the rise of Eelam protagonists abroad as a threat to Sri Lanka’s national security, has failed to recognize the hot house conditions Sri Lanka is providing for them to propagate their cause. Acts of Sri Lanka Buddhist extremism increasing everyday against Hindu, Muslim, and Christian minorities, allowed with studied indifference of the state reinforces the growing belief that the Rajapaksa regime is becoming an inward looking, and intolerant. Political speeches on tolerance and brotherhood sound no more credible.These add to the climate of suspicion.
The present mess has given hope for revival of the Eelam Cause among Tamil Diaspora, though there is little enthusiasm among Sri Lankan Tamils. Thanks to Sri Lanka’s indifference to war crimes allegations and implementation of LLRC recommendations, anti-Sri Lanka sentiment is lodged in Tamil Nadu’s local politics. This poses a serious threat to not only India-Sri Lanka relations but also the interest of Tamil Nadu as has living links with Sri Lanka Tamils.
Like all half cooked and warmed up food, 13A seems to have finished its shelf life. It has neither met the aspirations of yesterday’s Eelam secessionists nor satisfied Sinhala triumphalists. However, in the absence of a suitable substitute it stands as a sop, if not a symbol of hope, for Tamils. It also apparently satisfies President Rajapaksa’s “liberal sentiments” to leave it for the time being while his coalition members are pandering to Sinhala right wing elements. And it keeps India at bay. Given this curious setting I expect the 13A, truncated or otherwise, to survive its nine lives.
I am one of those who had believed that Sri Lanka at the end of the Eelam War had a wonderful opportunity to open a new chapter in equitable ethnic relations. But what is happening in Sri Lanka mocks at my simplistic belief. I realise Sumanthiran’s words “The Sri Lankan government from the word go was never interested (in devolution of power). The victory in the war meant, take it all….” are probably more than political rhetoric. And that is sad.
*Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: [email protected] Blog: www.colhariharan.org
The government of Sri Lanka is leaving no stone unturned in an attempt to annul provisions of the country’s constitution that are key to implementing post-war reconciliation. By seeking to rescind the 13th amendment, long held by the international community as the starting point for a political solution for the conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils, the Government has clearly demonstrated its cavalier disregard to UN resolutions and international treaties and therefore is an unreliable international actor.
A spokesperson to India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was candid when he said, “[t]he proposed changes raised doubts about the commitments made by the Sri Lankan government to India and the international community, including the United Nations, on a political settlement in Sri Lanka that would go beyond the 13th Amendment.”
The 13th amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution was introduced as an instrument to share power between the Sinhalese and Tamils through devolution to the country’s provinces. The amendment flowed from the Indo-Lanka Accord, negotiated and signed as a treaty between the governments of India and Sri Lanka in 1987, in a bid to end the armed struggle between rebels supported by India and the Sri Lanka government.
Devolution to share power between Sinhalese and Tamils was to soon encounter snags. The fundamental reason was that Tamils realised that devolution proposed under the 13th amendment would be hobbled by the very thing it was supposed dismantle – power wielded in Sri Lanka’s legislature by Sinhalese members of parliament.
This constraint was due to the unitary character of the Sri Lankan state. This means that the central government, in which the executive presidency and parliament are key institutions, remains constitutionally supreme. Under a unitary system even when power to legislate over subjects of local importance is devolved to subunits such as provinces, parliament can override those powers either by a simple majority or a two-third majority. This contrasts with federal constitutions where powers that the constituting units enjoy are so entrenched that they cannot be tampered with by central governments so simply. Needless to say in the real world constitutions mostly fall in between the unitary-federal continuum.
Despite devolution under the 13th amendment being hobbled by control from the central parliament, most of the Tamil political parties and armed rebel groups accepted the Accord and the brand of power sharing it proposed. Despite backing by Colombo and New Delhi, devolution to the PCs under the 13th amendment, which became law in 1988, was only implemented selectively. For instance, elections to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) where a majority of Tamils live, was never held. Second, a clause to merge the Eastern PC which has over 60% Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims with the NPC to strengthen common demands was temporarily implemented but later struck down by the Supreme Count as unconstitutional.
Following the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, devolution of power came back into currency as a practical mechanism of devolving power and thereby promoting reconciliation between the Tamils and Sinhalese. At the same time the international community – especially India and the US – expanded their role in promoting conflict resolution in Sri Lanka.
Citing the provisions of the Accord, the treaty between Sri Lanka and India, New Delhi called for the full implementation of the 13th amendment, which was echoed by the US and other sections of the international community. But buoyed by its military victory and elements of Sinhala nationalist elites, the Sri Lankan government prevaricated. Following three years of intensifying misery for the Tamils due to militarisation, widespread allegations of disappearances, torture and rape, loss of livelihood and parlous conditions of resettled IDPs, the United States moved two resolutions in the UN Human Rights Council. The second resolution, adopted in March this year, “welcomed” provincial elections for the NPC.
Faced with mounting international pressure the government has indicated its intention to hold polls for the NPC this year, although it is yet to be officially announced at the time of writing. However fearing that such elections would strengthen the Tamils in the North the government has on the backs of Sinhala nationalist groups begun to demand dismantling of even the vestiges of devolved governance. It has therefore proposed a 19th amendment to ensure that provincial governance is in name only. The government’s group of Sinhala representatives in Parliament is expected to back this bill and pass it with ease.
The Sri Lankan government’s move to dilute the 13th amendment only reiterates its indifference to reconciliation. It also shows up very clearly the inadequacies in the strategy of the international community. The international community expects Colombo to respect international laws or conventions – such as UN resolutions and treaties – and that meaningful sharing of power will come from within Sri Lanka under the present political structures. But that is not forthcoming. The international community should therefore strengthen the Tamils within and outside Sri Lanka and use other diplomatic tools available to it to resolve the Sri Lankan conflict. A delay will only exacerbate Tamil desperation and see a further erosion of international order.
J. S. Tissainayagam, a former Sri Lankan political prisoner, was a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard and Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States. This article first appeared in Asian Correspondent