Kath Noble

Let’s not have any more wars

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 28, 2010

Why the Government should start a dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance – a party that once took orders from the LTTE.

There are, I suspect, a lot of people in Sri Lanka who would rather cut out their own tongue than talk to the TNA.

It boils down to quite rudimentary logic. The TNA supported terrorists. And they want Eelam, even if they claim to be ready to settle for less. We simply can’t trust them.

The party hasn’t done a great deal to assuage these fears, it must be said. There has been no stocktaking of their role during the war in Parliament and with the international community. They said nothing when the LTTE killed their fellow politicians and started conscripting the youth of the North and East. They did nothing to persuade its leaders to turn away from violence. Worst of all, when Prabhakaran got trapped in Mullaitivu and it became clear that there would be no escape, they failed to call on him to release the hundreds of thousands of civilians being kept as a human shield. The TNA did a good job of exposing the suffering the Tamil people endured at the hands of the Government over the years, but it wasn’t enough. They let their own side get away with too much.

But, these are issues for Tamils to take up. The rest of the country, I propose, had better just get over it.

Members of the TNA would have been under serious threat if they had adopted a different position, we know very well. How many of us could say with anything like equal certainty that we would not have behaved in the same way?

The LTTE is gone, and that provides an opportunity for a fresh start in the relationship.

The party’s success in the election demands a change in attitude, anyway. They retained two thirds of the seats they won under the LTTE and confirmed their status as the third largest group in Parliament. The TNA took three districts, which is rather more than the Opposition managed to achieve. They represent more people in the North and East than any other party does. Given the obstacles the Government placed in their way during the campaign, it was a major victory. They are a force to be reckoned with, now they have established their democratic credentials.

This means putting a stop to the use of the TNA as a bogeyman.

The Government and its hangers-on are experts at frightening the Sinhalese community into ever greater subservience by claiming that its opponents are in league with the TNA, amongst other demons. It was done with gusto during the tussle between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, and the practice continued up to April 8th.

Having anything to do with the TNA is now a kind of taboo in the minds of a most unfortunate number of Sri Lankans.

And that is unhealthy.

Perhaps the TNA really is secretly hoping for Eelam, as the propagandists claim. I just don’t think it matters.

Separatism is no more than an idea. We shouldn’t start a ‘war’ on it, as some people have been arguing of late, to replace the ‘war’ on terrorism. Nor should it be criminalised.

It is bad enough that there is a clause outlawing its advocacy in the Constitution. That was inserted in the immediate aftermath of the Black July massacres in a vain effort to save the Government from having to face the inevitable consequences of its own actions.

I would like to see a rather more thoughtful approach to the subject.

Readers should know from what I have written in these pages over the years that I wouldn’t like to see Sri Lanka divided. I don’t consider it to be a good solution to the problems – real or perceived – of the Tamil people. Not even close. However, I don’t think it is morally wrong for other people to want Eelam, so long as they don’t use guns to make it happen. This doesn’t mean that I accept the claims they make in support of their position, only that I believe in their right to try to persuade the State and its constituent parts to grant their wish.

Where is the harm in letting people debate?

I haven’t a clue. Suppressing opinions doesn’t usually result in them going away, we should have learnt by now. I would have thought that open discussion, without the use of insults and slurs, would be far more productive for all concerned.

But, this will undoubtedly be dismissed as a Western idea, as has become fashionable.

It is true that most Asian countries adopt a very different position on separatism. India and China are only too clear about their opposition to any mention of it. But this isn’t necessarily about what is good for their people. Their size is what gives their leaders the power they are in the process of acquiring on the world stage, and they wouldn’t risk anything getting in the way of their rise to the top. It might not be just Tibet and Kashmir that tried to get away if they were given a little more encouragement.

This should give Sri Lankans even more confidence that the TNA’s views on Eelam – now or later – are not a threat, if they hadn’t concluded that already with the death of Prabhakaran in the muddy waters of Nanthi Kadal.

There is simply no need to worry about it.

What disturbs me even more than this persistent desire to crack down on an idea is the habit the Government and its fellow travellers have got into of claiming that two very different positions are in fact the same. We are told that people who support an improved Thirteenth Amendment really want federalism, and that federalists are determined to have Eelam, amongst other nonsense.

The country has got into a pretty mess when to say a good word about devolution of any sort is to risk being called a backer of terrorists.

It is, I suggest, just a means of dismissing people without having to deal with their arguments.

So let’s cut the rhetoric.

The TNA’s manifesto called for a federal state with powers over land, the police, socioeconomic development including health and education, natural resources and tax, and that is what about one third of the voters in the North and East supported on April 8th, despite the many incentives for them to do otherwise. It is significant. If the Government is genuinely interested in reconciliation, it has to engage with this platform.

And that means negotiating.

In doing so, it would be prudent for the Government to look afresh at the issues under consideration. Opinions arrived at during the war may not be valid any longer. There is no Prabhakaran trying to hoodwink them into a deal that he will not honour and instead use to his advantage. The fascist dictator is no more. It is no longer a matter of holding out against the LTTE and its terrorism.

We can’t trust politicians, I know, but we should remember that they will be thrown out by the people if they don’t follow the mood of their constituency. That is democracy, and that is what is going to make all the difference for Sri Lanka going forward.

It is time for a dialogue with the TNA.

This article was published on the centre page of the Midweek Review on April 28th, 2010. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Will this be a happy New Year for Sri Lanka’s farmers?

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 17, 2010

Meeting paddy farmers in Polonnaruwa to find out if intervention is working.

There is something vaguely depressing about paddy fields after the harvest. Where there was once a flawless carpet of the most brilliant green shoots, almost screaming with life as they swayed to and fro in the breeze, there is now nothing but straw. Stumps, actually. And in a rather dull shade of beige. It’s not just that the plants look dead. They have been trampled upon, destroying the near perfect image of organisation and industry their caretakers took so long to achieve.

A season is over and the next is yet to begin. The farming world is essentially on hold.

Such periods of inactivity are best spent in reflection, so I headed up to the Polonnaruwa district in search of the answer to a question that has been troubling me for some time – now that we pay a lot more for our rice, are paddy farmers doing okay?

Readers will no doubt be only too aware of the increase in prices. It costs us at least Rs. 60 for a kilo these days, but I remember paying no more than half that amount only five years ago. Many people will have found such rapid inflation very difficult to bear, given that rice is a staple food that is consumed in large quantities by pretty much everybody in Sri Lanka.

We are encouraged to believe that this is a necessary sacrifice.

During the election campaign, politicians traded insults on the subject in their inimitable way. One side claimed to be the saviours of the farming community, while accusing the other of having done their best to wipe it from the face of the earth. Most people won’t have heard the reply, given the domination of all debate in the last few months by the Government. It wasn’t exactly thoughtful, anyway.

Mahinda Rajapaksa certainly looks a bit more inclined towards paddy farmers. He comes from a rural area, wears his satakaya almost day and night, and is prone to talk at length about self-sufficiency, the strength of the village and how his father washed his hands in the sluices of the Hambantota paddy fields on his way to submit his nomination papers, amongst other things. He has even been known to tuck up his sarong and get behind a buffalo at a Wap Magul ceremony – I am still trying to forget that image and the rather unpleasant extent of thigh he was showing.

It is the almost exact opposite of the picture we have of Ranil Wickremasinghe, who is considered far more likely to be seen with his feet up at the Hilton.

But these are just impressions. What matters is what they have done while in power.

Five years into the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, that should be our concern – what has he actually achieved?

Farmers have plenty to say about their situation and what has changed over time. They aren’t often asked, of course, as Colombo is usually far too busy debating the relative merits of various not so different electoral systems, the pros and cons of trying Sarath Fonseka in a military court as opposed to sending him to Hulftsdorp, the presence or otherwise of flaws in the yet to be implemented Seventeenth Amendment, and other basically useless issues.

Most eloquent was an eighty-something year old man known as Haramanis. Thinner and more wrinkled than anybody I have ever seen, he lowered himself into a chair on his front porch and began a slow, quiet – and yet so devastating – attack on the powers that be. They had destroyed the farming community, he said. What was once a worthwhile and meaningful occupation had been transformed into something akin to slave labour. Farmers were suffering. They worked day and night in the fields, but for what? They were lucky if they had enough to eat. If he were able to stop it, he said, he wouldn’t allow a single grain of paddy to so much as fall on the ground by accident. Planting it deliberately was madness.

Of course, he said all this while sitting beside his neighbour who had recently bought a tsunami machine from China without even needing to take out a loan.

Jayatissa, an NGO-linked activist, explained what he described as the unfortunate state of paddy farmers. By way of illustration, he read out a list of the costs involved in cultivating a hectare of paddy. The trouble was that he ended up with a figure that implied that farmers could earn Rs. 20,000 per month in the Maha season, as long as they had some of their own machinery and were ready for a bit of hard slog, which he denounced as impossible when I did the sums. Everybody agreed with him.

However, nobody talked about their costs exceeding their income, nor of falling into debt and thinking of committing suicide, which was a regular occurrence in visits to the Polonnaruwa district five years ago.

I put this down at least in part to the fertiliser subsidy. Although not really in the best interests of the country in the long term, as it perpetuates dependence on chemicals that damage the environment and cause sickness, while costing an awful lot of money, there is no doubt that it has helped farmers enormously. Governments have been subsidising fertiliser for decades, of course, but it has been a while since an administration took it as seriously as Mahinda Rajapaksa has done. Hundreds of billions of rupees have been spent under his stewardship. I didn’t meet a single farmer who complained about either the amount of the subsidy or the price of fertiliser.

Some people argue that the increasing trend of farmers giving up their land and offering themselves as agricultural labourers undermines the welfare impact of this policy. But wages are said to be about Rs. 800 per day, which is pretty reasonable.

A young man in his mid-twenties called Thushara who farms a couple of acres and runs his family’s small mill was actually quite optimistic. Although they had got into trouble a while back and had to mortgage their property, he said, things weren’t so bad now. He certainly preferred this work to a job in Colombo. People were coming back to the village to cultivate their fields, he said. They were doing alright.

It was rather a mixed bag of comments, readers will note.

But there was one thing on which they were all very clear. That is that the Government purchasing scheme was nothing more than an exceptionally well advertised scam, on which it would be perfectly stupid to count.

I couldn’t find a single farmer who had sold their harvest to the State. They hadn’t received the promised amounts of Rs. 29.50 for Nadu and Rs. 31.50 for Samba either. But this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Only days earlier, the responsible minister had told journalists at a press conference in the Mahaweli Centre that there was no need to worry about farmers because the Paddy Marketing Board had purchased 15,000 MT or so in the Maha season. It is a joke, albeit one we have heard on so many occasions over the years, when the expected yield is more than 150 times that amount.

Private traders are put under no pressure whatsoever to offer the guaranteed prices.

When the market is tight, farmers get more for their paddy, as happened in the last few seasons. They were a good deal better off for a while. Now they are starting to find life a bit trickier again. It depends on international developments as much as anything, as would be expected in an open system.

It is a matter of control.

Farmers like Haramanis remain frustrated because they aren’t able to manage their own affairs. They feel that somebody else is in charge, leaving their wellbeing to fate or the gods. Since the disintegration of the cooperative system and the consolidation of power in the sector in the hands of a few big operators, farmers haven’t been in a position to bargain. They must take what they are given, and that is always a smaller portion than they are due. Even when they are doing okay, they know that others are profiting still more and denying them their fair share. It isn’t a very healthy situation, but it is one with which many of us can empathise.

The gap between producers and consumers has become unnecessarily and counterproductively wide. And the Government doesn’t appear to have a plan.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is fortunate. His failure to tackle this root cause of the problems experienced by the farming community has yet to be exposed. It may stay that way for some time, but he should know that disaster could strike at any moment. Or creep up on him gradually, more likely.

That he has taken more of an interest than Ranil Wickremasinghe either did or would isn’t enough.

Meanwhile, the most immediate problem is with the urban poor – what is he doing to make sure that they can afford to eat as much as they need and have enough left over for their other necessities?

I don’t know. That question will have to wait for another occasion. The war has always been used as an excuse for any and all economic woes, only sometimes with good reason. Now that it is over, people quite rightly will be less patient. They will want an answer too.

Perhaps then it will be possible to look at the remnants of a season’s hard work with something approaching cheerfulness. To see their colour as a rather subtle kind of gold. To think of how what is left of the plants is going to be ploughed back into the earth to nourish a future harvest. And to regard the piles of paddy lying around by the side of the fields as signs of wealth and happiness, even if not quite things of beauty.

This article was published on the editorial page of The Island on April 17th, 2010. The internet version can be accessed here.

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