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Is external pressure the only way Sri Lanka can be prevented from remaking old mistakes?

No peace dividend; no political solution: the post-war conduct of the Rajapaksas indicate a mindset unresponsive to voluntary internal reforms, be it on devolution, good governance or human rights. This leaves us with a conundrum – is external pressure the only way Sri Lanka can be prevented from remaking old mistakes and retrogressing into past-nightmares?

21 May 2011, 5:37 pm
By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“…this way leads us nowhere …..to continue so has no glory”. Neruda (The People)

The second anniversary of defeating the LTTE is being celebrated with quintessentially Rajapaksa pomp and pageantry.

Peace has been good to the Ruling Family. It has won all elections, obtained a two-third majority in parliament, removed presidential term-limits, enhanced presidential powers, stymied the opposition and discouraged dissent. Post-war, the Rajapaksas rule continues untrammelled (with sons and nephews being groomed to takeover from the fathers and uncles, someday).

For most ordinary Lankans though, these are not good-times. This is not mere conjecture, but is based on a new Gallup poll. According to 2010 Global Wellbeing Index, 95% of Lankans are neither happy with their current status nor optimistic about their future prospects.

Only 5% of Lankans see themselves as thriving; 75% see themselves as struggling and 20% as suffering. Being an opinion poll, these findings are based not on objective facts (such as growth rates/HDI rankings) but on subjective feelings i.e. how the respondents regard their present and their future.

And in the minds of the majority of Lankans, 2010, the first year of peace, has been a time of disenchantment.

And no wonder; in the South the peace dividend remains elusive, while economic woes mount. Peace dividends cannot materialise when countries continue their war-time spending patterns, post-war. In Sri Lanka, undiminished defence expenditure (plus gargantuan waste and corruption) has gobbled-up the peace dividend. The regime’s (reported) plan to turn the Uva-Wellassa University into a military academy is symbolic and symptomatic of this ‘guns over butter’ mindset and its consequences, for people and development.

As the then US President Eisenhower remarked presciently about his own country, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed” (Speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors – 16.4.1953).

In Sri Lanka, the non-thriving 95% of the populace daily witness the smug-arrogance with which the thriving 5% overindulge themselves.

Iniquitous inequalities, a near-staple of capitalism, are being aggravated immeasurably by the Rajapaksa proclivity towards generosity to their own and miserliness to everyone else. For instance, the regime, while unequivocally rejecting the salary demands of university lecturers, has recently doubled the allowance to senior officials of 230+ state enterprises.

For almost 30 years, rulers could blame their incompetencies and inabilities on the war (and the LTTE). Today this excuse is no more; thus the regime’s periodic attempts to propagandistically-resurrect the dead Tiger; thus its unremitting search for new enemies. This dangerous predisposition was evident in the outrageous official response to the trade union action by university dons: “President Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday said that certain elements are attempting to undermine the 2600th Sri Sambuddhatwa Jayanthi. ‘It is the duty of all Sri Lankans to foil attempts to belittle the 2600th Sri Sambuddhatva Jayanthi,’ President Rajapaksa said.

The President made these observations at a meeting with Vice Chancellors of all universities. The discussion also focused on conspiracies being hatched by various forces who stood against the country. The Vice Chancellors opined that the members of the university academic staff should abstain from creating unnecessary problems when the entire country is prepared to celebrate the 2600th Sambuddhatwa Jayanthi” (Daily News – 13.5.2011). Never has a Lankan leader sounded so intolerantly paranoid towards the country’s academia; and never have Lankan Vice Chancellors fallen so low!

Vellupillai Pirapaharan equated even the most-minute act of non-compliance to a conspiracy to undermine the Eelam cause. Two years after defeating the Tiger, the Rajapaksa Siblings seem to be donning their vanquished enemy’s intolerant and irrationally-maximalist mantle.

Two years after the guns fell silent, the humanitarian and political problems of Lankan Tamils are still festering. According to a UN report, “117,888 displaced people…..are yet to be permanently resettled.

The resettled families in the North say they do not have proper dwelling places and they are at the mercy of friends and relatives for accommodation” (Daily Mirror – 19.5.2011). The following remark by a Vanni villager indicates the grim reality which persists behind the official hype about a Northern-Spring: “The LTTE controlled the people with repressive methods. Now people are afraid to speak because of the military. The war is over, yet our problems remain the same” (Transcurrent – 2.12.2010).

While most civilian Tamils languish in want and uncertainty, a glittering, no-expenses-spared ceremony was held at the Jaffna military headquarters, to launch the Defence Ministry’s reality show, ‘Ranaviru Real Star’. Such indecently insensate actions, which add insult to injury, foster not reconciliation but bitterness, which may spill-over from words to (hopefully democratic and non-violent) deeds someday.

The triumphalist-hype which provides the lyrics and the music of this Rajapaksa peace has rendered almost invisible the reasons which created a language issue, transformed it into an ethnic problem and, within that context, enabled the rise of the Tiger. According to the dominant (Sinhala supremacist) commonsense, trying to understand the root-causes of the war is tantamount to exculpating the horrific conduct of the LTTE. In consequence, a political solution based on power-sharing has been consigned to things untouchable.

There is a tiny snag though. Subsequent to the electoral-drubbing it received in Tamil Nadu, the Congress government is busy rethinking (or repackaging) its Lankan policy. The stridently anti-Rajapaksa attitude of the new chief minister, Jayalalitha Jeyaram, will further encourage this recalibration. The Congress Party’s Tamil Nadu debacle can be attributed, in part, to voter-anger over Delhi’s indifference towards the plight of Lankan Tamils, not just during the war but even afterwards.

A change in India’s Lankan policy – or perhaps a show of it – thus may happen, because the Congress cannot afford to suffer the same fate in Tamil Nadu at national elections. The Darusman Report has given Delhi an ideal stick to prod Colombo with. When Foreign Minister Peiris went to Delhi requesting Indian assistance at the upcoming UN Human Rights Council sessions, the Indians had read him the riot act, according to an official source: “There is a lot of concern in India [over the pace of political reconciliation] because, after all, the conflict ended two years back. If they don’t take measures in the domestic domain there is bound to be pressure from elsewhere” (quoted in The Hindu – 19.5.2011).

In response, Minister Peiris, predictably, used the TNA-pretext; he “assured that after six rounds of talks, Colombo and the Tamil National Alliance were moving towards ‘substantial issues’” (ibid). In reality the talks with the TNA is another time-and-space-buying exercise, like the APRC. The best proof of the Rajapaksa-mala fide is the offer of a Senate (dominated by the Sinhalese) in lieu of devolution, as the ‘political solution’. Incidentally, the UNP’s excellent decision to back any UPFA-TNA agreement would make it a little harder for the regime to extricate itself via its usual charade.

No peace dividend; no political solution: the post-war conduct of the Rajapaksas indicate a mindset unresponsive to voluntary internal reforms, be it on devolution, good governance or human rights. This leaves us with a conundrum – is external pressure the only way Sri Lanka can be prevented from remaking old mistakes and retrogressing into past-nightmares?


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