Kath Noble

Overkill

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on December 5, 2012

One of the many reasons Sri Lanka needs to retain its independent Supreme Court

jaffna protestWe really should have learned by now that suppressing the peaceful activities of young people, however much we disagree with them, never actually works. There are always repercussions.

The Indian police created a massive public outcry a couple of weeks ago when they arrested a 21 year old girl for making a totally innocuous comment on Facebook. Why, she asked, should the city of Mumbai shut down for a day to mark the death of a politician? A friend who ‘liked’ the post was also indicted. They were first accused of ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’, then ‘statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes’. After spending a night in a cell, during which time the cops were presumably scouring their legal textbooks for something a bit less obviously untrue, the students were finally charged with ‘sending false and offensive messages through communication services’.

The objective of the exercise was to let people know that some opinions are simply not acceptable. They will not be allowed to pass, and the response will not come only in the form of words. There will be action too.

Followers of the politician mobilised both official and unofficial agencies to get their point across to Maharashtrians. An angry mob gathered outside the police station in which the girls were being held and goons attacked a hospital owned by one of their relatives.

They counted themselves lucky to be locked up.

Such is the legacy of Bal Thackeray, founder of the Shiv Sena. The man was never so much as Chief Minister, but he was tremendously influential in Maharashtra. And he was even more controversial. A populist in the style of Adolf Hitler, who he sometimes professed to admire, he continually railed against outsiders, and he openly encouraged violence against them. After his first Dusshera rally in Mumbai in 1966, his supporters went off to burn South Indian shops and restaurants, and they never looked back. They were responsible for the first political assassination in the state after Independence too – the 1970 killing of communist party leader and trade unionist MLA Krishna Desai. And in 1974 they murdered Dalit leader Bhagwat Jadhav, announcing yet another target group.

Mumbai is now best known for the 26/11 attacks, but there have been many worse atrocities in the city. For example, riots killed several times as many people in 1992 and 1993. And a commission set up by the state government blamed the Shiv Sena for the worst of the crimes – its MLAs even testified that Bal Thackeray had personally called them and ordered them to get Muslims killed.

Analysts have suggested that his frequent obnoxious outbursts were not sincere – unlike Adolf Hitler, he did not really believe what he said, only exploited sentiments that he knew would make him popular. But that is unlikely to be much comfort to the victims.

The Shiv Sena has converted an awful lot of people to its cause over the years, including police officers.

Fortunately, Maharashtra is still part of India. And public anger in the rest of the country at the arrest of the girls had a near immediate effect. Responding to a petition filed in Delhi, the Supreme Court called for an explanation from the state, and the responsible central ministry issued new guidelines on the use of legislation designed to limit freedom of speech.

This is long overdue, since the Indian police are renowned for their eagerness to wilfully misinterpret the law when it happens to suit the powers-that-be.

Sri Lanka, meanwhile, is busy dispensing with such checks and balances.

The impeachment of the Chief Justice has been proceeding at top speed in the last few days, presumably because the Government has realised that the whole episode is going to be deeply embarrassing and had better be completed as soon as possible. Indeed.

Since we are prevented from commenting on the proceedings in the interests of fair play – ha! – let us simply hope that we do not forget Shirani Bandaranayake the moment she is ejected from her post.

For the Supreme Court has a lot of work to do.

The Sri Lankan defence establishment is renowned for its achievements on the battlefield, but even its supporters agree that it doesn’t always understand how to handle ordinary people.

Its opponents are convinced that it is intent on genocide.

I am reminded of its attempt in 2007 to evict from Colombo all migrants from the North and East. The Government argued that it was very difficult to identify terrorists, so in order to stop bombs going off in the city they had to impose restrictions on Tamils. Numerous measures were generally accepted as reasonable in the circumstances, such as mandatory registration and regular search operations, but then the Government decided to start sending people away. Several hundred Tamils were loaded onto buses in the middle of the night and sent to Vavuniya, on the basis that they had no ‘valid reason’ to be in Colombo. It was appalling discrimination of a kind that was also very unlikely to be of any use in the campaign against the LTTE. Worse, it pushed Tamils further into Prabhakaran’s open arms. Acting on a submission by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Supreme Court put a stop to it, and the Government apologised for what it admitted had been a huge mistake.

This was vital recognition that security matters cannot be exempt from oversight, even during times of war.

In peacetime, such reviews of Government action can and must be intensified. And the Supreme Court must start with the recent attacks on students in Jaffna.

The Government continually tells the world that complaints about militarisation in the peninsula are hugely exaggerated. It says that the military can and must be present throughout the island, and that it is taking steps to reduce the number of personnel in Jaffna. This may well be the case, but statistics are not the only thing that matters. Even a single unit can be a problem if its members do not behave appropriately.

And it is clear that the powers-that-be in Jaffna have no idea about appropriate behaviour.

According to the eyewitness report of MP E Saravanapavan, on the night of November 27th, the Army and Police forced their way into two hostels of the University of Jaffna, claiming that they suspected students of preparing to light lamps to mark the deaths of LTTE cadres on Heroes’ Day. Some of the young people called their parents, and the message got through to the parliamentarian that trouble was brewing. When he arrived at the scene, he found army officers in the process of beating up the editor of Uthayan, who he promptly took to the hospital. The situation calmed down and the crowd dispersed. Then on November 28th, the students reassembled in the campus to protest the crackdown. They sat holding posters, some with their mouths covered with black cloth to imply that they were being gagged. Saravanapavan states that when they moved from the gate in a procession, they were set upon by the Army and Police. Seven students were seriously hurt. Four were arrested.

Opinions vary over whether the students were even marking Heroes’ Day, as the defence establishment asserts, or whether they were simply celebrating the Hindu Festival of Lights, Karthikai Theepam, which happened to fall on the same date this year.

That is hardly the point.

Of course it would be preferable if Jaffna youth broke from practices begun by and associated with the LTTE. Heroes’ Day is not the best time to remember the dead, at least not without proper acknowledgement of how the LTTE contributed to their passing.

But there is absolutely no chance that simply telling young people that they should not do it is going to work.

In a politically charged atmosphere like post-war Jaffna, when the defence establishment issues orders, it only succeeds in further alienating people from the Government. And when its orders are accompanied by the use of force, the result is even worse. Instead of supporting deradicalisation, as is needed to ensure that Nanthi Kadal really was the end of the Tamil insurgency, it is playing into the hands of the extremists, giving them plenty of material to use in their propaganda.

Let us remember that this was about lighting lamps!

If the Government does not recognise that it was wrong to intervene, it needs to be told. The public may already be on the verge of losing its voice due to the sheer number of reasons it is being given to cry out, but this one is just as important as the others.

The youth are a special category in any society, as this country knows only too well.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 5th December 2012. The online version may be accessed here.

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Mumbo Jumbo

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 25, 2012

Why the UNP needs a new leader

Everybody knows about the crisis in the UNP. Of the many elections there have been in Sri Lanka in the last two decades, it has lost all but one. This includes four presidential elections and four out of five parliamentary elections. And it will have the opportunity to lose a few more in September, as the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces go to the polls.

In the last general election, it could secure only 29% of the popular vote, worse than either of the two major parties have fared in a very long time.

The main reason for its failure was identified last year in a survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives. It found that less than 20% of Sinhalese support the UNP. And although the party does rather better than the SLFP with minorities, it has to compete with ITAK, which is backed by more than 50% of Tamils, the CWC with about 30% of Up Country Tamils and the SLMC and NUA, which together have the backing of some 35% of Muslims. Meanwhile, the SLFP is the preferred party of nearly 75% of Sinhalese – Sinhalese being nearly 75% of the population, this alone gives it a good shot at 55% of the popular vote.

To have any hope of ending its losing streak, the UNP needs to rebuild its base among Sinhalese.

Some analysts argue that the SLFP’s popularity is due to the war victory, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the number or scale of its electoral successes, which have given Mahinda Rajapaksa amongst other things a two thirds majority in Parliament – a feat that was supposedly impossible with proportional representation. That a more balanced distribution of power would be good for the country is widely accepted. They suggest that things will get back to ‘normal’ in a while, even if no action is taken. In other words, there is no cause for concern. However, such confidence in the automatic revival of the Opposition is misplaced. Voters are more discerning than they think. Having ended a war is no guarantee of support, as Winston Churchill found out within months of Hitler’s death – the British public acknowledged his brilliant wartime leadership and were grateful, but many of them preferred to have somebody else in charge of the recovery. Sri Lankans would have done the same if the UNP had presented them with an attractive alternative.

The fact that in the most recent local election – more than two and a half years after the end of the war – the UNP lost strongholds like Kandy that it had held for over five decades demonstrates that there is every reason to worry.

The problem, which I find it hard to believe anybody can fail to see, is Ranil Wickremasinghe.

Ranil really is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s best friend. He is irreversibly associated with two policies that much of the Sri Lankan public – certainly the vast majority of Sinhalese – regard as anathema. Also, Ranil doesn’t seem to have changed his mind about them. These are his enthusiasm for appeasement and his commitment to neo-liberal economics. And Ranil isn’t just keen on these policies. He is a radical adherent. His Regaining Sri Lanka programme envisaged a sharp reduction in the role of the state in pretty much every sector, no matter how cherished. And he wasn’t just willing to do whatever it took to do a deal with the LTTE, he went so far as to ridicule the Government’s military campaign almost until it reached the banks of Nanthikadal.

He has not admitted that he was wrong. Indeed, he often sounds as though he would do it all again if he had the chance.

In addition to being a liability with voters, Ranil is not even able to hang onto the few members his party does manage to get elected. Dozens of his MPs have crossed over to the Government, especially in the last seven years. Of course this is the result of the smart manoeuvring of Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the Opposition too has to be smart. There’s nothing wrong with the Government making use of MPs’ interest in ministerial positions to boost its numbers – this is politics. (Of course it would be good to set a constitutional limit to the number of ministers an administration can appoint.) But Ranil should be able to take advantage too. He should be capitalising on the growing dissatisfaction within the SLFP at the dominance of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family and their plans for his succession.

I can’t think of many other democratic countries in which the same person has been in charge of a major party for as long as Ranil Wickremasinghe. In the UK, Tony Blair took over as party leader just a couple of months before Ranil became leader of the UNP. Even though he won three successive terms for the British Labour Party, in 1997, 2001 and 2005, he was still compelled to hand over power to a successor after ten years as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the British Conservative Party changed its leader four times until it found David Cameron, who finally defeated Labour in 2010. Imagine their fate if they had stuck with John Major! It is standard practice to bring in new faces – and hopefully also new ideas and new energy – from time to time, even when things are going well. Ranil has been party leader for 18 years, almost all of which have been spent out of office, yet still nobody has been able to replace him.

In the circumstances, it is quite ridiculous for the UNP to accuse Mahinda Rajapaksa of clinging onto power, when he has only been in charge for seven years. The worst dictatorship in Sri Lanka is to be found in the UNP.

This is exactly the argument made by those who have crossed over.

The struggle to eject Ranil has been going on for most of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time in office. And it has occasionally looked pretty serious – recall the awful death of Rienzie Algama, who set himself on fire outside Sirikotha in July 2010.

Ranil’s eventual agreement to initiate an annual secret ballot to select the party’s key office-bearers seemed to offer some hope of change. However, the constituency was only the Working Committee, and Ranil easily won the first round in December 2011 – he beat Karu Jayasuriya by 72 votes to 24. (Polling all party members would obviously give a much better idea of the mood in the country than asking a group of people who are either directly appointed by Ranil or indirectly depend on him.) That there were many in the party who were desperately unhappy with the result was made clear by the violence that engulfed Sirikotha soon after it was declared.

Now this violence is being used as a pretext to undo even this very small reform, with the Working Committee announcing last week that the party leader will henceforth be chosen for terms of not one but six years. They say this is essential for party unity.

Frankly, why does the party need to be united in defeat?

In any case, party unity is overrated. Plenty of leaders, from Margaret Thatcher to Mahinda Rajapaksa, and even leaders of the UNP in its more dynamic era, have won elections despite vicious infighting – it can even bring out the best in them.

Six year terms will enable Ranil to stay on until 2018. That is until after the next general election.

This must be music to the ears of Mahinda Rajapaksa. His strategy is clear – he intends to make the UNP face one election after another in the next few years, to keep its members obsessed with party unity. They will think twice about agitating against their leader if they are constantly in campaign mode. And they won’t have the spirit to resist Ranil when they are continually reminded of what bad shape the party is in, courtesy their regular election defeats. Because Mahinda Rajapaksa would love nothing better than to compete with Ranil for the presidency again – his unprecedented third term. He wants to ensure that the UNP never recovers from its crisis.

The UNP can’t play somebody else’s game. It must forget about the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces, which are not very important in comparison with what is at stake in Colombo, and instead refocus its efforts on choosing the most suitable leader and working out a new and more appealing programme for the next general election.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 25th July 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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