Kath Noble

The tragedy of so many errors

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 10, 2013

A review of Dayan Jayatilleka’s new book, ‘Long War, Cold Peace’

DJ-book-coverThe monks of the Bodu Bala Sena have inadvertently done Sri Lanka a favour. Their speeches are so crass and their actions so crude that they have provoked a backlash – the media is full of criticism of their anti-Muslim campaign, much of it coming from Sinhala Buddhists themselves.

People have recognised that these groups are a menace. The question is whether their rise has been properly understood and whether the measures being taken to combat them are likely to be effective.

In my last column, I mentioned and quoted from Dayan Jayatilleka’s new book in connection with the vote on Sri Lanka in Geneva last month, referring to his diagnosis of the mess that the Government is in, internationally speaking, and his prescription of how to get out of it. This is an argument that he has made on many occasions in newspaper articles, but it clearly needs to be repeated, given the near total disjuncture between the world as many commentators on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy see it and anything even vaguely resembling actual reality – implement the 13th Amendment to build up a solid constituency around India and the Global South in order to counter what is inevitable pressure from the diaspora-driven West.

Instead of following this very simple plan, Colombo’s thinkers are busy discussing how best to prepare for sanctions. And if they succeed in bringing this on the country, they will immediately feel compelled to start planning how to dig all the bunkers that they will need to hide from the air strikes that they will then be convinced are bound to follow.

Why risk so much to avoid the 13th Amendment?

The book sets this debate in context, and at the same time explains the rise of groups like the Bodu Bala Sena.

Its central thesis is that the LTTE had to be defeated, since it was a fascist organisation. One of the most interesting sections traces Prabhakaran’s rise to dominate the Tamil struggle. In 1976, when Prabhakaran reconstituted his forces as the LTTE after his split with Uma Maheswaran, he seemed to be at a disadvantage – a relative nobody in his community with no ideology and thus limited access to sources of foreign training. For a long time, the LTTE was also numerically smaller than its competitors. Yet by the time of the Indo Lanka Accord, it had become the preeminent organisation.

Dayan highlights the importance of Black July, which saw the primary contradiction confirmed as being not between the Tamil community and the State but between Tamils and Sinhalese. People supported the group that they considered to be the most effective, and their understanding of effectiveness can be summed up in the massacre at Anuradhapura in 1985. This support enabled Prabhakaran to eliminate his rivals, as he did in the massacres of TELO, EPRLF and PLOTE cadres in 1986 and 1987– a strategy that he continued until his own demise more than two decades later, in the meantime killing everybody from his deputy and top negotiator Mahattaya to TULF leader Amirthalingam to activists and intellectuals Rajini Thiranagama and Neelan Thiruchelvam to Deputy Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat Kethesh Loganathan and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.

Not only was Prabhakaran absolutely ruthless, he was unwaveringly committed to Eelam. As he dared to tell Nirupama Subramanium of The Hindu even after signing the CFA, his famous statement that he should be executed by his followers if he deviated from this goal was still valid.

That is why he went to war against the IPKF, against Premadasa and against Chandrika Kumaratunga, and it is also why he conspired to keep Ranil Wickremasinghe out of power.

He was a fundamentalist.

No state formed by a guerilla movement and no group still engaged in an armed struggle came forward in solidarity with the LTTE, even in its final hour.

The book suggests that the overreach of the LTTE was inevitable.

However, more important in the current context is its analysis of the politics that gave rise to the LTTE and resulted in Tamils ending up with nothing to show for a generation long war. Dayan puts it as follows: ‘The history of Tamil politics in the last quarter century has been blighted by two major errors. The first of these has been the non-use or abuse of united front tactics. The second error has been the substitution of extremism, fantasy and emotionalism, of sheer unaffordable posturing, for serious politics and stone-cold realism.’

None of the Tamil organisations accepted the Chidambaram proposals of 1986, which foresaw the permanent merger of the North and East, minus Ampara, and as a result they were given a merger subject to a referendum in the Indo Lanka Accord, and space was created for the Sarath Silva-headed Supreme Court to effect a de-merger. Similarly, the TULF rejected the 13th Amendment and the EPRLF took office in the North East Provincial Council promising to reopen negotiations, and their adventurism led to Premadasa deciding that the LTTE was less of a threat than the continuing presence of the IPKF – Tamil groups were busy talking of a ‘Cyprus solution’ – and there was no devolved administration in either the North or the East for more than two decades.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of lives were lost.

Where are the self-criticisms by Tamil leaders? They should start by reviewing Dayan’s book – although he is now best known as a spokesperson for the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, he is as much of a critic of Sinhala chauvinism as he is of Tamil extremism.

Speaking of which, what of the failings of Sinhala leaders?

The list of mistakes made is absolutely sickening and far too long to even summarise in this column. I hope that Sinhala leaders will read the book and reflect on it before they make too many more.

Of most relevance to the current context is the claim that these errors led not only to the outbreak of the armed struggle and its dragging on for an entire generation, but also to the rise of an equally ugly phenomenon – Sinhala ultra-nationalism.

Dayan has plenty to say about the early days of Sinhala chauvinism, but he sees a significant difference in attitudes later on. He argues: ‘Sinhala ultra-nationalism was the default option of the Sinhala people in the face of the existential threat posed by LTTE aggression and the vacuum created by the failure or partial and inadequate success of more pluralist, progressive, cosmopolitan or liberal-leaning leaderships.’

In perhaps the most devastating paragraph of the book, he says, ‘Had it not been for the excess and lopsidedness of Chandrika’s ‘package’ and P-TOMS, and Ranil’s CFA, Sinhala fundamentalism would not have enjoyed the surge it did. Sinhala ultra-nationalism, which had been marginalised under ‘Premadasa-ism’ to the point that its key ideologue was sacked by the then VC of Colombo without a social ripple, had reached such a peak a decade later that it was conceded 40 seats by Chandrika’s negotiator Mangala Samaraweera, over the protest of Mahinda Rajapaksa, then PM.’

Ranil Wickremasinghe was of course the leader for whom the least excuses can be made. Although he came to office just after 9/11 when the international mood had turned against the LTTE and when the Sri Lankan Special Forces had finally begun to demonstrate their ability to strike at Prabhakaran’s senior cadres, having killed eight field commanders in as many months, the UNP chose to see how Prabhakaran would respond to appeasement. It exposed its own Military Intelligence in the infamous Athurugiriya raid and agreed via the CFA to disarm the paramilitaries of its Tamil allies, with no concern for the arms of the LTTE and what it would do with them. Without securing access to areas controlled by the LTTE, it allowed the LTTE to move into its own areas and take over as many institutions and functions as Prabhakaran considered useful.

In short, the UNP did everything possible to build Prabhakaran’s confidence, despite the fact that he was the one with the track record of starting wars. Prabhakaran was even allowed to sign the CFA by himself, in his ‘capital’ Kilinochchi, sitting in front of a map of what he very reasonably expected would soon be his Eelam.

For me, nothing sums up the post-war crisis in Sri Lanka as neatly as the choice its voters face even four years after the defeat of the LTTE – Ranil Wickremasinghe, Sarath Fonseka or Mahinda Rajapaksa.

None of these leaders has the capacity to get the better of Sinhala fundamentalism, even if they were motivated to try.

An alternative simply must emerge.

‘Long War, Cold Peace’ shows just how much space there is at the centre of Sri Lankan politics, and provides some much needed hope that it will eventually be filled.

The outpouring of angst about the Bodu Bala Sena is certainly encouraging, as was the sight of those responsible for the attack on Fashion Bug hiding their faces with their robes as they were being taken into custody by the Police, since this implies that they believe that Sri Lankans regard such actions as shameful. They are right. However, it is not just about stopping a few crazy monks and their followers going around throwing stones, although that is essential. There is also an ideology to be tackled.

Sinhala Buddhists are standing up against violence, but they must also stand up against the ideological foundations of the anti-Muslim campaign.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 10th April 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Not so quiet on the Indian front

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on March 20, 2013

On the politics of Tamil Nadu and the efforts of its politicians to influence the rest of the country

KarunanidhiIn the third week of the UN Human Rights Council sessions, Karunanidhi played what he hopes will be his trump card. Unless India not only votes against Sri Lanka but also ensures that the resolution includes a commitment to a war crimes investigation, his party will quit the coalition government.

Whether or not he gets what he wants in this instance, he knows that there is a limit to what can be achieved by means of threats alone. Threats couldn’t have persuaded Manmohan Singh to intervene to stop the war in 2009, for example. That’s why Karunanidhi didn’t make any. Instead, he launched a fast that lasted from breakfast until a slightly late lunch, at which point he professed to be completely convinced that the Sri Lankan military had stopped using heavy weapons in the No Fire Zone.

And that was at a time when Karunanidhi was rather more powerful than he is today, having since lost an assembly election rather badly.

Today, to get anything more than a resolution in Geneva, he is going to have to mobilise public opinion.

How easy this is in Tamil Nadu is obvious from the way in which Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa have been competing on Sri Lankan issues of late, and the result is an awful lot of blind hatred. Protests regularly spin out of control – it is not just that they become violent, but that they also pick illegitimate targets, such as Sri Lankan tourists and most recently a monk archaeology student (‘Buddhist monk is roughed up by a group of Tamil nationalists in Tamil Nadu’, Colombo Telegraph, 16th March 2013) and a monk pilgrim (‘Another Sri Lankan Buddhist monk is attacked in Chennai Central’, Colombo Telegraph, 17th March 2013). They are terrorist, albeit so far yet to do any serious damage.

Where this is heading should be a matter of grave concern for New Delhi.

Leaving that aside for the moment, public opinion in the rest of India bears very little resemblance to that in Tamil Nadu – a fact that some people have clearly noted as a problem, judging by their increasing efforts to reach out across state boundaries.

Last week, I was presented with an opportunity to experience some of this outreach in the form of a documentary screening and meeting on ‘War crimes and genocide in Sri Lanka’ at Jawaharlal Nehru University, organised by a group called Students for Resistance in collaboration with the Save Tamils Movement.

The documentary itself was fairly extraordinary.

Almost everything in it was said by nameless, faceless people sitting in unidentifiable rooms in unidentified places. Frankly, they might not even have been Sri Lankan. Whether they were or ever had been in Sri Lanka was also not obvious. Viewers were simply asked to trust the producer, which of course a lot of them did, the audience being almost entirely comprised of young activists.

Readers would eventually be able to judge for themselves, as the video would no doubt find its way onto the internet – it is called ‘Buried Justice’.

Since there was no attempt to present actual evidence, the claims made could go beyond all previous efforts. The number of dead, for example, was inflated to 200,000 in the last few months of the war alone.

Most interesting from the point of view of understanding the provenance of the documentary was the assertion that the LTTE never used force against its own people. One of the nameless, faceless interviewees acknowledged that some people dressed in LTTE uniform did come around when they were hiding in bunkers in the No Fire Zone threatening to shoot them if they tried to get away, but he claimed that they weren’t speaking ‘our Tamil’, implying that they were infiltrators sent by the Army – probably associated with the ‘traitor’ Colonel Karuna.

I noted in my last column the way in which some Sinhalese are pushing conspiracy theories that blame the LTTE for everything bad that has ever happened in Sri Lanka, including the burning of the Jaffna library and even the Black July riots. In parallel – as always – some Tamils are trying hard to absolve the LTTE of responsibility for the crimes that it did actually commit.

As always, it is not clear whether it was the Tamil chicken or the Sinhalese egg that came first.

Far more revelatory than the documentary were the comments by the three speakers – none of whom were from Tamil Nadu – and the response from the audience.

While appalled by what was said to have taken place in Sri Lanka, nobody exhibited any very special concern about it. As one of the invited speakers put it, ‘All states behave like that.’ He also pointed out that ‘similar things’ are happening in India today.

They were interested in the Geneva resolution only to the extent that it could be used to force a war crimes investigation on India too.

In other words, their reaction was very different to that of Western audiences to the much more measured documentary by Channel Four. (No doubt this is because Western governments direct the worst of their violence towards people in places as far away from their constituencies as possible, preferably in countries that their voters can’t even locate on a map.)

Also unlike in the West, a member of the audience expressed surprise at the tremendous amount of ‘information’ that was available. He attributed this to Sri Lanka being a small state that had to accept the presence of NGOs, which are much more strictly controlled and limited in India, and this prompted a discussion on how to replicate the kind of ‘solidarity movement’ that Tamils have established to engage with the wider world. Nobody suggested that what had happened in Sri Lanka was a ‘war without witnesses’, since they believed that they had in fact witnessed an awful lot more than they considered to be the norm in such situations.

As is often the case with young activists, they were sympathetic to the idea of armed uprising. However, they weren’t as hypocritical as many of their counterparts in Tamil Nadu – they were clearly more interested in armed uprisings in their own country than in somebody else’s.

They were also ready to criticise. One of the invited speakers made a point of denouncing the LTTE both for its practice of targeting civilians and for silencing competing voices from its own community.

In addition, a member of the audience who had studied in Tamil Nadu highlighted the futility of talking about the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka while paying absolutely no attention to the way in which Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are treated in India.

The Save Tamils Movement is certainly guilty as charged. I first encountered them during a stint in Chennai in 2011 when I was researching an article about the refugees (‘Stuck, for a generation‘, 31st July 2011), where they demonstrated every interest in discussing my opinion of the LTTE – which had by then ceased to exist – and none at all in anything else.

And the refugees are still in exactly the same condition today.

In Tamil Nadu, none of this matters. The refugees certainly don’t matter, since they are largely from the poorer segments of society, and worse – in the eyes of politicians and their hangers-on sitting comfortably in Chennai – they ran away from the struggle. The crimes of the LTTE don’t matter either.

Frankly, Tamils don’t matter to these people.

I believe that the only thing that really concerns them is the future of Tamil nationalism – more specifically, how the cause of Tamil nationalism can best be advanced while causing the least disruption to their own lives.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of India is not very sympathetic.

Students for Resistance, who are the regular partners of the Save Tamils Movement at Jawaharlal Nehru University, represent the very fringe of student activism, in a campus that is a long way from the centre ground of Indian politics. But even they know better.

What Manmohan Singh decides to do about Sri Lanka must eventually take this into account, whatever Karunanidhi’s games.

This article was published in The Island on 20th March 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Letting the extremists in again

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 16, 2013

On the Government’s responsibility to reduce intercommunal tensions and prevent violence

bodu bala senaThe execution of migrant worker Rizana Nafeek in Saudi Arabia touched the hearts of people around the world. That a girl of 17, left to care for a baby, in addition to being charged with the supervision of the other children of the household, plus the cooking and cleaning, should be punished – let alone beheaded – for what could well have been an accident, was appalling.

Equally distressing was the careless attitude of the Government. Appeals were made to the king, but it was negotiations with the family on blood money that were needed. Were they even attempted? And how is it that diplomats were so little in touch with her case that a minister claimed in a statement made after her death that she would be released very soon? The extra time that she got as a result of her appeal was due to the efforts of the Asian Human Rights Commission, an NGO based in Singapore, which raised the funds to pay for a lawyer. Would she have been convicted if the embassy had provided her with legal assistance as soon as she was arrested?

These questions have to be answered. While the remittances of workers in the Middle East are so important to the Sri Lankan economy, the Government must have the capacity to deal with the problems that they will inevitably encounter.

However, there is an even more important and pressing job to be done at home, in tackling communalism.

Sri Lanka is fortunate that Rizana was a Muslim.

These days, Sinhalese extremists are so keen to advance their campaign against Muslims that the execution of a Buddhist in a Muslim country would have become yet another of their ‘grievances’. They would have been out on the streets protesting, perhaps even burning an effigy of the Prophet Mohammed. There would have been posters and emails and a whole lot of ugly words.

It wouldn’t have mattered that Muslim countries consistently back the Government on matters equally close to their hearts, with regard to Tamils.

This is part of Sri Lanka’s post-war mess.

In the last year or so, these people have been increasingly active. We have seen the emergence of several very unpleasant websites, in Sinhala and English, dedicated to vilifying Muslims. And they are constantly on the look-out for new ways to draw the majority into their communalism. Recently, they have been talking about the ‘tax’ Sinhalese have to pay towards the construction of mosques as a result of the money some businesses spend on halal certificates, with absolutely no concern for the fact that the funds are likely used only to administer the system and that this is anyway an incidental cost for manufacturers, and one that they only bother to pay if they feel that they can sell enough of their products to the mere 9% of the Sri Lankan population that are Muslims. In other words, it is a non-issue.

But extremists are never ones to let facts get in the way of their preconceived notions. They are now urging Sinhalese to boycott shops and companies owned by Muslims, in an attempt to establish some kind of commercial apartheid.

More seriously, there have also been attacks on Muslim shrines and mosques, notably in Anuradhapura in June 2011 and in Dambulla in April 2012.

There was a time not long ago when the JHU was the vanguard of Sinhalese extremism. Its leaders were the ones who talked of sending Muslims ‘back’ to Saudi Arabia and other such nonsense.

But it would seem that something changed with the party’s success in the 2004 elections, when it secured nine seats in Parliament under Chandrika Kumaratunga, subsequently entering into an alliance with the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The need to interact in even a very flawed democratic framework had an impact, if not on the views of its leaders then on their understanding of what can be done about them in a country like Sri Lanka, and some of the least moderate of the JHU’s members broke away.

Groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya came up.

The Ven Akmeemana Dayaratne, who leads the Sinhala Ravaya, inadvertently became one of the JHU’s MPs in 2004, as the fourth man on its list in the Colombo district, when the party forced the third man to resign his seat on discovering that he had become a bit too attached to the SLFP. The leader of the Bodu Bala Sena, the Ven Galagodatthe Gnanasara Thero, was also in the JHU at that time.

No doubt the slight moderation of the JHU was not their only motivation for moving away from the party. They seem to be at least as interested in boosting their own profiles, in particular in competition with the Ven Athuraliye Rathana Thero, whose humble beginnings in a tiny temple (actually a converted house) in Matara would not be easily accepted by monks from the orthodox Siyam Nikaya with thousands of acres vested in their temples by the kings of yore.

Having broken away, they need to show their strength. Yet their supporters are actually very few in number.

That is what the Anuradhapura and Dambulla attacks were about.

The monks who led the mobs on those occasions were making a point. They wanted to chase Muslims away, but with as many people watching as possible, since their objective was to demonstrate to Sinhalese that they are the people who can deliver.

What is crucial to note is that the Government encourages this behaviour.

Violence shouldn’t bring the perpetrators anything other than prosecution and imprisonment, but nowadays it is the easy way to get what you want.

In Dambulla, the Ven Inamulawe Sri Sumangala Thero could have negotiated the relocation of the mosque away from the sacred area. The temple has plenty of land to offer, and Muslims were not implacably opposed to moving. Yet that would have required discussions that could have gone on for weeks. He got what he wanted within a matter of hours when he stormed the mosque, ably supported by the Sinhala Ravaya. The Prime Minister declared that the mosque was illegal and would be removed forthwith. (Fortunately his enthusiasm to reward the mob did not endure – it is reported that more reasonable leaders subsequently managed to resolve the matter amicably.)

The Government is now doing exactly the same thing in response to protests about the Law College Entrance Exam.

Various people questioned the results when they were announced last month. According to news reports, while in almost every year until 2010 less than ten Muslims qualified, in 2011 the number was 51 and in 2012 it was 78. The three toppers were Muslims, as were 28 of the first 50. This naturally raised suspicions, since it was in 2010 that Rauff Hakeem took over as the Minister of Justice. It was alleged that he was involved in leaking the question paper, using Muslims who serve as English-Tamil translators. Equally naturally, Rauff Hakeem denied it, saying that responsibility for admissions to the Law College lies with the Council for Legal Education rather than with his Ministry, while the Entrance Exam is conducted by the Department of Examinations, but it is hardly surprising that this did not dispel all doubts.

Politicians regularly interfere in such matters, so there was no need to treat it as a communal issue. The only special feature of this scandal, if the allegations are proven, is that it was uncovered because those involved belonged to just one community.

What was needed was a credible investigation.

But although the Government immediately took action when a leak was alleged in the O Level, resulting in the arrest of five people, including a tuition master and an official from the Department of Examinations, it ignored the Law College Entrance case. This is despite the fact that unlike the O Level, the Law College Entrance is a competitive examination, meaning that one person’s success necessarily means the failure of another, which makes it a much more controversial issue.

It was only when the Bodu Bala Sena stormed the Law College that anything was done. The Principal immediately decided to suspend registrations.

People thus got the message that it pays to be violent.

Even more important is the space that this kind of response opens up for extremists.

As things stand, the vast majority of Sinhalese are not at all interested in the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya, or indeed in the JHU. They are content to live peacefully with Muslims, and they have no intention of acting on any prejudices they may have developed. They don’t read the disgusting websites that such people maintain, and they have not been roused by the shouting about halal certificates and other such red herrings. They are not stupid.

But their common sense cannot be taken as given forever.

The relationship between Sinhalese and Muslims is far more sensitive than the relationship between Sinhalese and Tamils, due to the more obvious cultural differences.

Having just concluded a generation long conflict, the Government should understand the danger.

The Government has a tremendous responsibility to stop the further growth of Sinhalese extremism, yet it actively helps in the creation of ‘grievances’, and it consistently allows communalists to do as they please, even when this includes violence.

Sri Lanka is fortunate that there are as yet no comparable groups among Muslims.

When Rizana Nafeek was executed, they could also have taken it as a reason to protest against Sinhalese. They could have argued that the Government didn’t bother with her precisely because she was a Muslim, while it is an administration that is interested only in Buddhists. They would have been wrong, but there is no reason to expect one set of extremists to be smarter than any other.

The sad truth is that the girl died because she was poor.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 16th January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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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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Making white people feel better

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on November 21, 2012

On the inadequacy of the UN’s evaluation of its attempts to save lives in the final stages of the war

Last week I felt like I had been transported back in time. We were back in those awful first six months of 2009, when I was by turns horrified at the plight of the people caught up in the fighting in the Vanni and disgusted with the way in which the international community was responding.

Of course we all wanted to stop the war. I hate violence. But as I argued then and continue to believe, at that point, the only way the war was going to stop was with the defeat of the LTTE. Prabhakaran would not give up on Eelam. He was going to continue his vicious campaign against the Sri Lankan state and all its communities until he was caught or killed. Our task, therefore, was to minimise the damage. We had to try to ensure that it was done with as little death and destruction as possible.

The UN has inadvertently confirmed this hypothesis. In the report of the Internal Review Panel into its actions in Sri Lanka in the final stages of the war, which was released by Ban Ki-Moon last week, it says that it had realised by the end of January that the LTTE was going to lose. And it did the right thing. It worked out a plan for a surrender.

This could have saved a lot of lives.

Some people are very keen to find out how many. The UN count, according to the quite reasonable criteria that they employed in what were very difficult circumstances, is 7,737. I think that even a tiny fraction of that number would have been too many.

The surrender plan was put to the LTTE at the beginning of February, but it was rejected. The LTTE had lost both Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu by then, but Prabhakaran would not relent. He rejected it again in April, even after having lost most of his senior commanders at the Battle of Anandapuram. He was trapped inside the No Fire Zone, but still he would not accept the inevitable.

Some people no doubt consider that heroic. But it was the biggest crime in the history of the conflict.

Prabhakaran wanted a massacre.

His strategy was to create a humanitarian disaster so extraordinary that the international community would feel compelled to intervene. He must have known long before it dawned on the UN that he would not be able to hold out against the Sri Lankan forces. He was no idiot when it came to war.

He wasn’t so stupid when it came to international politics either.

I said at the time that the international community was not going to get involved in Sri Lanka. But many people thought otherwise.

The West had by then established a pattern of ‘humanitarian wars’. It had dropped enough bombs on Serbia in 1999 to make Slobodan Milosevic withdraw from Kosovo. Then in 2001 it had set about trying to wipe out the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in 2003 it had invaded Iraq and finished off Saddam Hussein. The attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan were part of the post-9/11 War on Terror, but they were sold to the Western public as struggles against governments that not only posed a danger to the rest of the world but also suppressed their own people. Those wars were still going on when Prabhakaran was holed up in the No Fire Zone, but they had already achieved regime change. And Kosovo was his dream come true. In 2008, it was declared an independent nation.

Western politicians had other motives for intervening, but they always talked about fighting to save the world from a repeat of Rwanda. Prabhakaran thought that Western forces might be persuaded to come to Sri Lanka too.

For this, somebody somewhere certainly deserves blame.

The UN contributed to the misconception, but the really guilty parties are of course those in the West who started these ‘humanitarian wars’.

It would be comforting to believe that we can always prevent killings if only we try hard enough. Nobody likes to feel powerless. However, in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Kosovo, ‘humanitarian wars’ killed more people than they saved. If Western forces had set foot in Sri Lanka, the result would have been exactly the same.

That is why when I said that the West would not intervene in Sri Lanka, I said it with relief. Rwanda was a very special case.

If the West had not abused the memory of Rwanda so often, Prabhakaran might have chosen a different tactic. He might have abandoned the idea of holding onto territory. Instead of retreating into ever smaller areas of land, dragging with him at gunpoint those 300,000 plus civilians, conscripting more and more of them with every passing day and sending them to the frontlines to die, while compelling the rest to cower in bunkers with too little to eat and limited medial supplies as his cadres fired from among them at the Sri Lankan forces, bringing down on their heads such a devastating rain of bullets and bombs, he might have gone back to the jungles and waged a guerilla war. (Of course, he might still have done exactly the same thing, on the basis that there’s nothing like a massacre to mobilise future generations. He clearly didn’t care as much about human life as the rest of us do.)

The Internal Review Panel report criticises the UN’s Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka for his lack of political understanding in dealing with the Sri Lankan state, but it fails to recognise that it still hasn’t answered the question of how to deal with Prabhakaran. Yet this was the million dollar question!

The UN knew that the LTTE was going to use civilians as a human shield in 2008. The report admits that the LTTE repeatedly tried to use the UN’s presence in Kilinochchi as protection for its activities, positioning its facilities next to UN offices despite agreements to the contrary. It also acknowledges that the UN had to leave behind its 17 national staff when it officially withdrew from the Vanni in September because the LTTE was holding their 86 dependants hostage. In 2008, the UN knew what an impossible situation the Sri Lankan forces were facing.

What could it have done better, then, in 2009?

How about persuading David Miliband and all the other Western politicians who stuck their noses into Sri Lanka that the responsible course of action was to tell Prabhakaran that he had no option but to surrender?

No, that isn’t even mentioned as a possibility.

The ‘master plan’ that the UN’s experts have come up with after six months of work makes exactly the same mistakes the international community did at the time. It ignores the LTTE.

Instead of making it clear to Prabhakaran that he was on his own, which at least might have encouraged him to think again, the Internal Review Panel report proposes that the UN should have increased its pressure on the Sri Lankan forces.

It argues that the UN should have publicised the casualty figures that it was gathering via sms and highlighted its belief that most of the deaths were occurring in shelling by the Sri Lankan forces. It says that the UN should have been more forceful in warning the Sri Lankan state against committing war crimes. This would have saved lives, the report claims. But how? No doubt people like Gordon Weiss would have felt better if they had done so. But what would it actually have changed? At the beginning of February, the UN was sure that about 1,000 civilians had been killed in a period of three weeks. This had increased by a little more than 1,500 in another four weeks to the beginning of March.

By this stage, as we surely all remember, there was already tremendous pressure on the Sri Lankan forces. The LTTE’s propaganda machine had its genocide bumper stickers out, and it was stage managing protests around the Western world.

In the next six weeks to late April, the UN’s body count had gone up by another 5,000.

Of course I agree that this is appalling. But stopping people getting killed is not just a matter of being very upset about it.

Pressure is only a good thing if it is pushing in the right direction. What the international community did was to give the Sri Lankan forces every reason to think that the West was about to try to stop them ending a generation long conflict. I simply don’t see how intensifying this effort could possibly have encouraged them to adopt a more careful approach. Logically, it could only have made them think that they had better hurry up and find Prabhakaran before he could be offered yet another chance to escape.

If we have to relive those miserable days, let us at least come up with some genuinely useful insights.

This article was published on the editorial page of The Island on 21st November 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The good news and the bad news

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on November 7, 2012

On the attempted impeachment of the Chief Justice and the calls for the repeal of the 13th Amendment

The good news is that there is nothing illegal about impeaching the Chief Justice. If one third of MPs sign a petition requesting it and one half approve the petition once it is presented in Parliament, the Constitution says that she has to go.

That’s reassuring isn’t it?

It is what the Government has been claiming, in any case.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that if Mahinda Rajapaksa can remove the Chief Justice for doing nothing more than failing to support him wholeheartedly, tomorrow it may actually be illegal to fail to support him wholeheartedly. For who is to stop him passing a bill to that effect? It won’t be MPs, that’s for sure. They are firmly stuck under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s thumb. And the Chief Justice would by then know better than to rule the legislation in violation of the Constitution, since to do so would be to guarantee early retirement.

The matter of proving ‘misbehaviour’ or ‘incapacity’ is totally insignificant in the circumstances, as the administration has demonstrated that it has absolutely no shame.

International scrutiny is laughably ineffective – the Government was perfectly happy to announce the impeachment attempt as its representatives were preparing to defend its record at the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, where it was bound to attract condemnation.

Indeed, it seemed determined to antagonise its critics, as just days before Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had once again raised the prospect of repealing the 13th Amendment.

Let this be a warning to those who look overseas for solutions to Sri Lanka’s problems.

The only opinions that matter are those of voters.

This is good news for the judiciary, since people can relatively easily be persuaded of the importance of the law and judges who apply it judiciously. The attempted impeachment of the Chief Justice has already drawn a forthright and near universal response in the media. Public opinion will eventually follow, and we will soon find out whether or not this will happen in time to save the current incumbent. Let us hope so, whatever we think of Shirani Bandaranayake.

Although the Government hasn’t deigned to explain what she has done to attract its ire, we can assume that it has to do with the Divi Neguma Bill, which I discussed in these columns some months ago.

Curiously enough, the same dispute has also been used to justify the repeal of the 13th Amendment.

The Chief Justice delayed the Divi Neguma Bill by insisting that it first be approved by the provincial councils, since its subject falls in the concurrent list. Hence both the provincial councils and the Chief Justice must go? It is ridiculous. Even supporters of the Divi Neguma Bill must admit that it is not more important than the Constitution.

The bad news for minorities is that it is very difficult to persuade the majority in Sri Lanka of the importance of devolution.

This is ironic, since both the provincial councils and the Chief Justice are means of distributing power away from the President. Everybody accepts that it is dangerous to make one person all powerful. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the now often quoted saying goes. Thus a little power is entrusted to the Chief Justice, and much less is given to the provincial councils. I stress, we are not talking about a lot of power. That still remains with the President.

But the 13th Amendment was a response to war, and people struggle to separate it from the suffering Sri Lanka has undergone in the last three decades.

I have argued for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment on too many occasions already, and I struggle to summon up the enthusiasm to do so again, since the level of debate is frankly pathetic. The argument that India foisted it on Sri Lanka so it must be rejected is totally unconvincing. That was then and this is now. Sri Lanka can very well judge the 13th Amendment on its own merits. Just as it can very well re-demarcate its provinces if it wants, rather than complaining that the ones that it has were defined by the British. This is simply a distraction.

The same goes for the alleged waste of money. I am quite sure that everybody reading this article can write a list of at least ten things that cost the Government more than the provincial councils that are definitely more wasteful. Let them first save that money before they start getting rid of institutions that minorities want.

This is what matters. As Mano Ganesan reminded us the other day, all Tamil parties want the 13th Amendment, whether they are in the Government or with the Opposition. The only group that didn’t want it was the undemocratic one that perished with Prabhakaran in Nanthi Kadal. And why did the LTTE not want it? Because Prabhakaran realised that it wasn’t going to bring him a separate state, now or later, and that’s what he was committed to achieving, extremist that he was. The most vociferous in calling for the repeal of the 13th Amendment, ignoring the views of minorities, used to argue that Prabhakaran did not represent them and that people should pay attention to those who were willing to use the ballot box rather than bullets and bombs. It seems that they prefer terrorists after all.

I do not say that the 13th Amendment is the best solution to any problem, just that it must not be abandoned unless the minorities can be persuaded that something else would be an improvement.

But unusually for a post-conflict nation, Sri Lanka has not a reconciliation policy but a policy of antagonism.

The only people with whom the Government is keen on reconciling are those who can help it to remain in power.

Hence the ‘release’ of KP. It is of course highly unusual that official spokesmen cannot agree on whether or not the man the Government abducted from Malaysia is still in custody or not. But the fact is that he is definitely not in jail, as are hundreds of people who participated in a much smaller way in the LTTE’s terror campaign. He is back in Kilinochchi, running an NGO.

Justice does not require his prosecution, but surely it demands an even-handed approach?

(The Government is now promising to bring cases against members of the Security Forces accused of excesses. Why on earth should they suffer more than KP?)

Perhaps this is Plan B.

If Plan A of repealing the 13th Amendment cannot for some reason be implemented, the Government will want to do everything possible to keep control of the provincial councils. It has managed to delay elections in the North for a very impressive three years already, but it may eventually have to call them. It is currently talking about September 2013. Plan B may be to use KP to collect votes for the Government, to supplement the support enjoyed by Douglas Devananda.

This may not be illegal either. But it is probably more bad news than good.

This article was published in the Midweek Review of 7th November 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Unsettling news on resettlement

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 5, 2012

Questioning the official narrative that people displaced by the war are now home and dry

The Government has been trumpeting its success in resettling IDPs to all and sundry of late. Hardly a week goes by without some reference to the official statistics, which indicate that at the end of July there were only 5,443 people remaining at Manik Farm, while another 7,329 were staying in welfare centres elsewhere in the Northern Province. That’s nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands the Government was accommodating at the end of the war. What’s more, according to a recent statement by the Minister of Resettlement, the whole process will be finished by the end of September, with the resettled having been provided with ‘all their requirements’.

In a sense, this is only fair, since its critics were just as vocal in their absolute certainty that the displaced would be kept in camps indefinitely, or possibly exterminated – I recall much talk of Hitler and his final solution.

Still, it may not be accurate.

Last week, the Diocese of Jaffna issued a report that raised serious doubts about the Government’s claims, suggesting that it was deliberately misleading the public about the ground reality in the North – in particular, the authors said that resettlement was a long way from satisfactory.

It is an appalling failure of the media that most of us will not be sure who to believe. The recovery of the war-affected regions of the country is one of the most important stories of the day, yet instead of sending reporters to find out what is happening – where people are living, how they are surviving and indeed what they think about their future in a newly-reunited Sri Lanka – we are reduced to reading about what GL Peiris tells various dignitaries. A few days ago, for example, it was reported that he had informed the Archbishop of Colombo that many foreign visitors had been deeply impressed by its progress. What conclusions we are supposed to draw from such ‘news’ is not clear.

Meanwhile, the ‘commentariat’ is divided into people who blindly accept what they are told by the Government and people who always believe the exact opposite as a matter of principle.

I suspect that there are two elements to the truth.

First, the Government continues to believe that the only displaced people who count are those who left their homes in the final year of the war.

The official figures that are publicised so eagerly don’t include at least tens if not hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans who are still very much displaced. The war produced IDPs over several decades, not just a few months in 2008 and 2009. Many of them are living in pathetic conditions. They are spread across Sri Lanka in makeshift ‘temporary’ accommodation, sometimes with relatives and friends. They are also abroad, as the Government finally acknowledged last week by announcing that in 2013 it will start negotiations with India on the return of refugees from camps in Tamil Nadu.

Resettlement of these people is a much harder task, which is why the Government generally prefers to pretend that they don’t exist – there are bound to be numerous land and other resource conflicts, such as the one Rishad Bathiudeen inadvertently brought to our attention with his intervention in the dispute between Muslim and Tamil fishermen in Mannar.

If the Government were really serious, it would admit that there is still a lot of work to do, and it would get going with it straight away.

Secondly, there was never any plan to provide the resettled with ‘all their requirements’, so the suggestion that they are perfectly fine is bound to be a lie.

The Government only ever intended to give them basic materials. The rest is up to the IDPs themselves, plus India and its project to construct 50,000 houses and whatever contributions NGOs want to make. According to the Government, whoever fails to make the beneficiary lists of these agencies will just have to get back to work and save up if they want to rebuild their lives.

It apparently doesn’t matter that the destruction was at least partly the fault of the State.

Some people may be inclined to argue that funds are limited and so priorities have to be set, and it is obviously right to prioritise among the IDPs according to the urgency of their situations. Indeed, considered in isolation, they would have a point.

However, let us think for a moment of the areas in which the Government has not been concerned with prioritising.

Take the expansion of facilities for the Security Forces. Camps have been set up at great cost all over the Northern Province. They are within their rights and indeed wise to do so, since they must have a presence throughout the island – although they should obviously act in a much less careless manner, minimising the disruption caused – but this is not the point. What is important is that it has been done extremely rapidly. This shows what can be done when the Government is truly determined.

Money is not an issue – it was announced last week during the visit of the Chinese Defence Secretary that the Government would be taking another $100 million loan to build accommodation for military personnel in the North.

Never mind that this could buy another 20,000 Indian houses, although they are certainly needed. Borrowing from China means that there won’t even be jobs.

Next come Buddha statues. While the Government has been humming and hawing about which of the people who dodged bullets and bombs for a generation should receive help in rebuilding their homes – resulting in India making even slower progress than usual – and worrying about how to monitor the work of NGOs who come forward to contribute in case they mention inconvenient topics like human rights, elections or horror of horrors a political solution, people keen to erect Buddha statues have faced no such bureaucratic hurdles. There is apparently ‘better than single window clearance’ for such investments. Buddha statues have sprouted at a tremendous rate in places where there are virtually no Buddhists to appreciate them, most disturbingly actually on top of Hindu temples.

Such priorities don’t sound like Buddhism to me.

Given that neither the spread of Buddhism nor the entrenchment of the Security Forces is welcomed by the population of the Northern Province, it is only natural for them to make a comparison with the efforts the Government is making towards resettlement.

We may not hear about their unhappiness due to another key point the Diocese of Jaffna made in its report – intimidation and violence are still rife in the North.

Reconciliation by force must be one of those ‘home-grown’ ideas we’ve heard so much about.

It is safe to suggest that no elected body representing the people of the Northern Province would have dared to take decisions in this way, which is why provincial council elections are needed. Under the current system of governance, the population has near zero ability to influence policy on matters of the utmost importance to them. Members of Parliament from the North have absolutely no power, and their moral authority as elected representatives doesn’t get them very far, since the Government doesn’t care what people who aren’t going to vote for it think.

This is presumably precisely why it is so determined to maintain the status quo, undemocratic as it most certainly is.

Sadly, the lunatic fringe has brought us to a situation in which it is necessary to add that this doesn’t mean that Sri Lanka is a dictatorship.

The Government may soon start to demand praise for that too. Mahinda Rajapaksa hasn’t yet appointed a Minister of Elections, but no doubt somebody could be persuaded to cross over and take up the position, after which it’s just a matter of counting up the number of times the country has been to the polls since he became President.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 5th September 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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The trouble with Tamil Nadu

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 8, 2012

What to make of the upcoming conference of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation

The 65 million Tamils across the Palk Strait have played a huge role in the Sri Lankan conflict. They make Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority a minority both globally and in the immediate region, and they have become extremely hostile to the Government, which many of them regard as Sinhalese rather than Sri Lankan. They are commonly perceived as a threat to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Indeed, there is no doubt that at least some of them have actively supported Sri Lankan militants – Tamil Nadu was once a safe haven for the LTTE, among others. Although many things changed over the course of the war, especially after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, there was always a hardcore calling vociferously for Eelam. Three years after the last bomb exploded, the majority of Indian Tamil politicians continue to talk as though they are on the verge of launching an all-out assault on Colombo.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the resurrection of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation, whose first conference in many years is to be held in Chennai this weekend, has been greeted with considerable concern in Sri Lanka.

However, simply being worried won’t do.

Karunanidhi’s initiative is motivated – as always – not by any great commitment to Sri Lankan Tamils but by a desire to boost his own position in Tamil Nadu. The DMK and AIADMK have alternated in power in the state since the 1980s, and it is currently Jayalalithaa’s turn in the Chief Minister’s seat. The DMK suffered a particularly crushing defeat in the 2011 Assembly elections, coming third behind Vijayakanth’s DMDK, and it will have to wait four more years for a chance to redeem itself. Meanwhile, its people are being pursued both in the state and by the central government for corruption – Karunanidhi’s daughter is one of several DMK politicians now being prosecuted for their roles in India’s biggest ever scam. His chances in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections look pretty bleak.

Reminding people of the ‘glory’ days of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation, when he mobilised the masses to force Rajiv Gandhi to reverse the expulsion of Anton Balasingham following the collapse of the Thimpu talks, may help.

What is interesting about recent developments is not Karunanidhi’s motives but the issues on which he has chosen to focus.

First, he has announced that there will be no discussion or resolution on the establishment of a separate state. Either he genuinely believes that the situation in Sri Lanka is no longer that bad or the central government has been able to persuade him to drop or deprioritise the demand.

This is good news. Eelam is no solution to the problems of Tamils in Sri Lanka – it would cost a lot of blood to achieve and even more to sustain, and there has been more than enough bloodshed already.

Making Sinhalese believe that Tamil Nadu or anybody else is ready to intervene to make it happen is also not helpful. Yes, Sri Lanka needs to change and maybe it will not do so by itself. But it is even more likely that any change will be for the worse if people perceive such a threat. When India sent its troops to enforce an agreement a generation ago, the reaction was overwhelming. It would be still more so today, in the aftermath of the military victory over the LTTE. Karunanidhi is doing Sri Lankans of all ethnicities a favour by ruling out talk of a separate state at the conference – he should go further and rule it out altogether.

It is only natural that the demand for Eelam is losing strength in Tamil Nadu. Indian Tamils were never ready to do very much in support of the LTTE, but what they would do was inspired by the ‘romantic’ notion of freedom fighters roaming around the jungles of Sri Lanka in a ‘heroic’ battle against the odds to overthrow the oppressive state. They won’t summon up the same enthusiasm for the TNA, who are after all mere politicians.

If the Government were smart, it would capitalise on this decline in support for a separate state by doing a few simple things to demonstrate that it is willing to accommodate Tamils. For example, it could give up its farcical explanation of why elections to the Northern Provincial Council need to be delayed for another year to update voter lists when local, parliamentary and presidential elections have all been held since the end of the war. It could also forget its other delaying tactic in the form of a Parliamentary Select Committee and get back to negotiations with the TNA on a political solution.

A particularly smart move would be to do a deal with India on the 100,000 refugees living in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi is calling for them to be offered citizenship in India, which is only fair considering the length of time many of them have spent in the country – sometimes their whole lives – but the Government should work out a package that makes it genuinely attractive for them to come back to Sri Lanka instead, thereby making it clear to the world that Tamils are not just accepted but actually wanted.

Karunanidhi made this suggestion while noting that it would help to put a stop to human smuggling, which is rife in the camps. This shows that what really interests Tamil Nadu, and what will interest Indian Tamil politicians increasingly in the months and years to come, are problems that affect their own people.

The most urgent concerns India’s fishermen.

Karunanidhi says – as he puts it – the Sri Lankan Navy’s indiscriminate attacks on Indian Tamil fishermen will also be considered at the conference. This was a major issue in the run-up to the 2011 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, with extensive media coverage both locally and at the national level.

The problem is understood in totally different ways on either side of the Palk Strait. In Sri Lanka, it is believed that Indian fishermen enter Sri Lankan waters illegally because they have exhausted fish stocks on their side of the international boundary due to prolonged use of inappropriate technology, and they are periodically arrested by the Navy, after which they spend a few days in jail before being sent back home, as reportedly happened with 23 Indian Tamil fishermen only last week. Indians, on the other hand, think that fishermen of both countries come and go as they please – a fishing community leader was quoted in the Times of India a couple of days ago saying that Sri Lankans need the tuna in Indian waters as much as Indians need the prawns in Sri Lankan waters – and that the real cause for concern is the Navy, who beat them up and shoot at them, seize their catches and sink their boats.

Undoubtedly there are elements of truth in both versions. Indian journalists have interviewed numerous fishermen from Tamil Nadu who claim to have been attacked by the Navy – a 2011 article in Tehelka claimed that as many as 72 had been killed in the previous six months, with one witness describing how his brother was thrown overboard with a rope around his neck and dragged in circles until he drowned. These fishermen almost always admit that they were on the wrong side of the international boundary, and many are critical of their state government for encouraging unsustainable growth in the number of trawlers operating out of Tamil Nadu, but that is hardly the point.

Recent months have seen some efforts by the two countries to address this issue. However, there is clearly still a long way to go.

Perceptions matter. Consider the 23 Indian Tamil fishermen repatriated last week. They were arrested by the Navy on July 21st, and by July 22nd the entire fishing community of Rameswaram was on strike demanding their release. Due to the incident at the Mannar courthouse, this took longer than anticipated – precisely six days – and they were on their way back to India by July 28th, apparently without having incurred any penalty. Pressure was put on the Government and it delivered. However, it is not in a position to secure the same treatment for Sri Lankan fishermen. Only days after this incident, the Fisheries Ministry announced that it had paid Rs. 925,000 to secure the release of 11 Sri Lankan fishermen in Indian custody since May 15th – they were due to return to Sri Lanka on August 6th, having spent almost three months in prison somewhere in Andra Pradesh. They were accused of the same crime of crossing the international boundary. The difference is that there were no protests.

The Government must obviously ensure that the Navy behaves itself and that accusations of wrongdoing are responded to with the seriousness that they deserve. Doing so is not just the proper course of action – it will also make the Government’s life easier, as it will reduce pressure from the likes of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation. Karunanidhi may not be very inclined to rebuild the relationship with Sri Lanka, but he has demonstrated that he is willing to be pushed in that direction. To do more, he needs the support of the Government.

Jayalalithaa is not so different.

Meanwhile, it might be wise to avoid sending any more ministers or members of the Security Forces to Tamil Nadu, since in the current climate this is only likely to result in embarrassing retreats, and these incidents only make things worse for everybody.

Tamil Nadu need not be a deadly foe for Sri Lanka. The two states have much in common. Indeed, being just a few kilometres away, Tamil Nadu had better be a friend or at the very least a state the Government can work with. Anything else is dangerous. With the power of regional parties growing in India, the attitudes of Indian Tamil politicians can only become more important as time passes – it would clearly be better for Sri Lankans if they were favourable. This is not just a matter of convenience, to make it easier for Sri Lankans to go on pilgrimmages, although that too would be nice. Sri Lanka’s relationship with its 1.2 billion strong neighbour will be a major determinant of its future, which we all hope will be both peaceful and prosperous.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 8th August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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The Army’s no-war games

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on June 20, 2012

Why demilitarisation should not be limited to reducing checkpoints and high security zones.

What should the Security Forces do when there’s no war to be fought? Now that three years have passed since the defeat of the LTTE and pretty much everybody is convinced that there will be no resurgence, this would seem to be a pertinent question to ask. Of course vigilance is needed. The Security Forces have to ensure that they are ready to deal with any new militancy. However, that’s a limited task in comparison with the all-out war they were caught up in until 2009. So what now?

Last week, the Daily News reported that the Army had started purchasing paddy from farmers in the Eastern Province, cutting out the exploitative middlemen. Soldiers are working in shifts to clean and process the produce, and they would soon be in a position to supply their full rice requirement of over 1,000 MT per month, since they are busy renovating a ‘giant’ processing unit in Dehiattakandiya. Farmers are getting a fair price for their harvest, after years of struggle.

Now we are told that the Army is also going to make the country self-sufficient in milk. Malnutrition will be a thing of the past, since it is importing 10,000 cows from Australia, which the Army intends to raise in its farm in the Polonnaruwa district.

In some ways, this is good news. These are certainly worthwhile objectives.

Also, leaving soldiers sitting around doing nothing is a waste of resources. The Army alone claims to have around 200,000 members. That’s large by international standards, even in absolute terms.

The Ministry of Defence budget for 2012 takes up a massive 20% of Government expenditure. It amounts to 4% of GDP, compared to spending of 2.7% in India and 2.1% in China. Even the US, which is busy trying to rule the world, spends only 4.8% of GDP, and this isn’t so unproductive considering that it relies largely on domestic manufacturing. Sri Lanka imports its material defence requirements.

More significantly, these figures constitute an increase over previous years. Also, the explanation given when this information was published back in October – that the money was needed to construct new bases in areas reclaimed from the LTTE, as well as to repay loans taken for equipment bought during the war – was misleading, since Rs. 162 billion of the total Rs. 231 billion Ministry of Defence budget is to be spent on salaries and allowances, and this is what has increased. Sri Lanka has to spend so much on the Security Forces because they employ so many people.

Reducing the size of the Security Forces is understandably controversial. For one thing, having risked their lives for their country, it wouldn’t be very nice of the Government to throw them out of their jobs, even with compensation.

However, just because this is a difficult problem doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be tackled. Getting soldiers to do the work of civilians is no solution – these are other people’s jobs, after all.

It is rather like Colombo’s garbage issue, apparently resolved since Gotabhaya Rajapaksa took over the Urban Development Authority. Everybody is happy, since the city had suffered piles of rubbish slowly and so malodorously putrefying on each and every street corner for years. It was a health hazard as well as a nose and eyesore. Within months of his taking over, everything changed. The streets were suddenly spotless. However, there was no magic involved. It needed only political will. Those who had allowed the contractor to get away with not collecting rubbish just had to be told that their actions would no longer be tolerated. Bribes would not be accepted.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa deserves credit for this achievement, but it’s ridiculous to suggest that there is only one person in the entire country of 20 million who could have got this very simple job done. It’s not like wiping out a highly-sophisticated terrorist group.

Sri Lanka must be the only country in the world with a Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. Amongst its key objectives are both ‘assuring the territorial integrity and national security of the country’ and ‘the protection and development of wetlands’. How many more unconnected tasks will be added to this list?

Since the war ended, as well as paddy purchasing and processing and milk production, the Security Forces have also been marketing vegetables. They run tea shops and restaurants all over the North and East. And recently the Navy announced that it is building a hotel in Mirissa.

Even if the Ministry of Defence can handle all of these tasks, soldiers are paid more than the people who usually do them. Also, they are trained at great expense for something entirely different.

It is useless to argue that the Government should entrust pressing issues to the Ministry of Defence because it is the only ministry that functions well. Even if that were true – which seems unlikely – this can only be a recent phenomenon. After all, the war dragged on for three decades, with the Ministry of Defence apparently powerless to do anything about it. Other departments can and must be reformed too.

Mahinda Rajapaksa has been half-heartedly intervening in the agriculture sector ever since he came to power, with rather more rhetorical flourish but only slightly more action than his immediate predecessors. If he really wants to make the country self-sufficient in milk and solve the marketing problems of vegetable and paddy farmers, he has a Ministry of Agriculture for that. It gets a fraction of the funds of the Ministry of Defence – Rs. 6 billion in the 2012 budget, of which less than Rs. 2 billion is to be spent on salaries and allowances. It would function better if it had more money. Even doubling its allocation would mean only a pathetic 1% share of Government expenditure. And if a change of leadership is needed, there’s nothing stopping Mahinda Rajapaksa doing that too.

If a bit of political will were employed in the agriculture sector, the country would be transformed, in particular the North and East where there is so much undeveloped potential.

The end of the war was supposed to provide the opportunity for such change, as resources can now be redirected towards more productive purposes. But this is a process that is not going to end well if it takes place only within the Ministry of Defence. There is a need for other expertise and other methods.

Also, the fact that the Security Forces are essentially mono-ethnic means that their takeover of so many functions of the state is bound to be interpreted as discriminatory. It doesn’t matter whether or not it was intended that way.

Do Sri Lankans really want soldiers to run any more aspects of their society than is absolutely necessary?

There would seem to be no escaping the need for some reduction in numbers. While it is tempting to argue that such decisions should be left in the hands of the Security Forces themselves, who undoubtedly best know what is needed, it should be remembered that nobody likes to reduce their own power. Sarath Fonseka was so keen to increase his influence when he was in charge of the Army that he actually proposed accelerating recruitment after the war ended, with the objective of doubling its members. His former colleagues are undoubtedly more measured in their approach, but the final say must be with politicians, whose determinations must be influenced by a wider range of factors.

Although there is clearly no justification for sacrificing jobs in the North and East for the sake of the South, the economic impact has to be considered, since the majority of soldiers are from rural areas. Their salaries propped up the rural economy in the South through the long years of war.

Even more importantly, the process has to be handled in a much better way than the integration of the former LTTE cadres of the Karuna faction, many of whom are now running amok both in the Eastern Province and elsewhere. Those trained in the use of force have to be trained to do something else when they are no longer needed. They need new skills. There must also be political will to stop them employing their old skills outside the confines of the law. This rather obvious observation is accepted in the case of LTTE cadres who fought to the end, but it is not applied to those who gave up earlier. Gratitude for their assistance in crushing Prabhakaran should extend as far as agreeing not to prosecute them for crimes committed during their time in the LTTE, which were in many cases egregious. Crimes they go on to commit three years after the war ended simply cannot be tolerated. The problem is that the Government is tolerating many things these days, for its own convenience.

Gratitude towards soldiers can also only go so far. There must be a proper assessment of needs and a real shift in approach to reflect the fact that the country is now at peace. If not, Sri Lanka will have to face the consequences in the years to come.

Never mind the economic and political problems, if the Security Forces spend all of their time making cups of tea, they will forget how to fight wars.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 20th June 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Playing politics with Sri Lankan lives

Posted in Tehelka by kathnoble on June 11, 2011

Reflections on the second anniversary of the end of the war in Sri Lanka.

Last month marked two years since the end of the war in Sri Lanka, yet the country is still struggling to move on. Allegations of war crimes have not gone away. Neither have calls for a ‘political solution’ – a package of measures to address the grievances of minority communities.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha reminded us of her uncompromising position on the issue in her first televised speech after the election results were announced, calling for Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa to be handed over to the International Criminal Court. She had used the fate of Sri Lankan Tamils to good effect during her campaign, accusing Karunanidhi’s DMK of complicity in genocide.

Listening to Jayalalitha talk, it would be easy to make the mistake of thinking that Sri Lankan Tamils are as badly off as they were two years ago. That is clearly not the case. Two years ago, 300,000 of them were being held hostage by the LTTE. They were living in tents, having been displaced multiple times. They had lost everything. Their children were being taken from them and sent to the frontlines with less training than a security guard at a mall. And they were dying in large numbers. The Sri Lankan army’s shells were landing on them day and night.

Today, there are no bombs. More than 280,000 IDPs have returned to their homes. And children are in schools. This is an achievement for which the Sri Lankan government deserves some credit.

But it could have done so much more.

President Rajapaksa enjoyed unprecedented support within his country in the aftermath of the victory over the LTTE and a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude on the part of foreign governments. Reconciliation was his for the taking.

Instead, he focused on consolidating his own position.

One of his key priorities should have been to put an end to the generation-long ’emergency’. This would have given Tamils some much needed confidence in his intention to restore normal governance in the country. Yet he has not done it.

Neither has President Rajapaksa reviewed the Prevention of Terrorism Act, under which an unknown number of people are being detained. A major concern of Sri Lankan Tamils – mentioned again and again in hearings of the Sri Lankan government’s much-criticised Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission – is to locate family members from whom they were separated during the war. A list of those in custody should have been published two years ago.

Meanwhile, instead of gradually reducing the role of the military – whose functioning costs some 3.5% of GDP – the government has allowed it to expand its reach. President Rajapaksa rightly dismissed a mad proposal by the then Chief of Staff Sarath Fonseka to boost its numbers by a further 100,000 men, but he has not come up with a plan for dealing with the personnel already in place. They are at a loose end now that the fighting is over, and they have been coopted for everything from building roads to transporting tourists, eradicating mosquitoes and even selling vegetables. Military men have also been appointed as governors of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Given that Tamils have come to fear the security forces, this is hardly desirable.

President Rajapaksa should also have prioritised the restoration of democracy in the north of the country.

The LTTE made sure that elections were not free or fair in areas under its influence. Politicians had to follow its line or die. Many activists who opposed the LTTE were killed, leaving Tamil society very much in need of strong leaders.

With the end of the armed struggle, Tamils needed to be reassured that their rights could be won in the mainstream. The Northern Provincial Council – the level of regional government agreed to in the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord and implemented everywhere else in the country – should have been established. President Rajapaksa claimed to want to hold elections as soon as possible, but his words are sounding rather hollow after two years. Instead, he advanced the presidential poll by a year to January 2010.

Then in April 2010 when the results of a parliamentary poll showed that the Tamil National Alliance was a force to be reckoned with, winning the support of more people in the north and east of the country than any other party, President Rajapaksa should have invited them for talks on the ‘political solution’. He did so only in January 2011 and has since allowed the process to drag.

Meanwhile, he has sidelined the main Tamil party in his own coalition – the Eelam People’s Democratic Party – whose leader Douglas Devananda barely escaped death at the hands of the LTTE on many occasions.

This is not so much about suppressing Tamils as it is about promoting the president.

Indeed, it is clear that this is what President Rajapaksa has had uppermost in his mind ever since the end of the war. Although he claimed to want to change the constitution to address minority aspirations, the only amendment that has been passed vested more power in the president while making it possible for him to stand for election as many times as he sees fit. What’s more, it was rushed through parliament as an ‘urgent’ bill.

This is all very disappointing, but we need to ask whether the current course being set by the international community is going to make things any better.

Chief Minister Jayalalitha is not the only one to want to see Sri Lankan leaders in the dock. There were protests in many countries on LTTE chief Prabhakaran’s death anniversary last month, spurred on by the publication by the UN Secretary General of a report suggesting that there are credible allegations of war crimes to be investigated. Western governments are moving slowly in that direction. Here in India, Jayalalitha called on Manmohan Singh to impose economic sanctions on Sri Lanka until it sends President Rajapaksa to The Hague.

This is somewhat ridiculous when even the Opposition in Sri Lanka does not support action on war crimes.

At best, it will prompt the Sri Lankan government to get to work on some ‘sweeteners’ for India – a deal for Indian companies to redevelop the port in Jaffna and to build a new power plant in Trincomalee, plus the long awaited Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.

The question is – what use is that to Sri Lankan Tamils?

President Rajapaksa is an expert in turning foreign pressure into support for his government domestically. And he has proven his mastery of the Sri Lankan electorate on numerous occasions since the end of the war.

Attempting to drag him before the International Criminal Court will serve to further polarise a society that is already divided by so many years of war. Sinhalese are already starting to ask why they should forgive and forget the excesses of the LTTE when Tamils are not willing to put their suffering at the hands of the government forces behind them, even after two years. Whether this is a reasonable reaction is another matter. They point to the fact that LTTE chief K Pathmanathan has been allowed to settle in Colombo and even establish an NGO since his ‘rendition’ from Malaysia, while V Muralitharan alias Karuna – a former LTTE military commander – is a government minister.

It will also undermine support for what little efforts President Rajapaksa has been making at reconciliation – small steps to implement the language policy, to recruit more Tamils to the civil service, police and armed forces, and to provide training and jobs for former cadres.

What Sri Lankans need now is to be left alone. People in other countries playing politics with their lives is not the path to lasting peace but to further bloody conflict. And surely the country has had enough of that.

This article was published in Tehelka on June 11th, 2011. The internet version can be accessed here.

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