Kath Noble

The way forward

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 24, 2013

On the potential of the upcoming election to the Northern Provincial Council

WigneswaramFor the first time in a long while, I feel hopeful about the future of Sri Lanka. Everybody accepts that the main challenge at this juncture is reconciliation – uniting the country in spirit now that it has finally been united in body. And despite the many appalling failures of the Government – together with the complete inability of the Opposition to make any impact whatsoever on even absolutely mundane issues – there is suddenly reason to feel positive.

The Northern Provincial Council election is going ahead.

It is of course a reflection of the dismal state of post-war Sri Lanka that this very basic democratic requirement should be considered an achievement. Still, after months of frenzied campaigning by Sinhalese extremists, the fact that candidates are being nominated and preparations made is a huge relief.

Denying residents of the North the right to elect their representatives as people living elsewhere in the country do as a matter of course would have given the Tamil separatist project a tremendous boost.

This is no doubt what parties like the JHU want, since there would be no point to their existence if Sri Lankans could get along. Udaya Gammanpila somehow managed to keep a straight face while announcing that the JHU is boycotting the Northern Provincial Council election, as if there were any practical difference between contesting and not contesting when nobody in the North is going to vote for them. If Sri Lanka were to become a genuinely inclusive society, there would have to be a lot more such theoretical boycotts by the JHU.

Even more important than the poll itself are the personalities emerging, in particular Justice C.V. Wigneswaran and Daya Master.

The Government is yet to declare its Chief Ministerial candidate, but the hype in recent weeks has all been about Daya Master rather than Douglas Devananda. If it were planning on fielding Douglas Devananda, the Government could and should have given him the key role in its Uthuru Wasanthaya development programme from the beginning – he might have had some kind of a chance that way. Instead, the President chose to forget EPDP’s contribution to the defeat of the LTTE and put his brother in charge. The future of the Rajapaksas – or more charitably that of the SLFP – was considered more important.

Although this would appear to be tough luck for Douglas Devananda, he really only has himself to blame. He should have distanced himself from the Government long ago, at least to the extent that the SLMC has done by contesting elections alone.

I think that it would be no bad thing for Daya Master to lead the UPFA campaign. Anyway, his participation on the Government side puts an end to the old divide of Sri Lanka’s ‘War on Terror’. This is different to the experience in the East with Pillayan and Karuna, since they broke away from the LTTE and helped the Government to finish the war. Daya Master, KP and Thamilini, who are all now said to back the UPFA, were part of the LTTE until the final showdown.

Given the destructive nature of the ‘patriots versus traitors’ discourse in Sri Lanka, having the LTTE’s senior leaders represent the Government is very healthy. Fingers crossed that when the UPFA declares its list of candidates this week these characters all figure prominently.

Last week’s announcement by the TNA of Justice C.V. Wigneswaran as its Chief Ministerial candidate was already great news.

Finally, the party has understood the need to make a break with the past, nominating somebody with no connections – or even a vague hint of sympathy – with the LTTE.

My fear with regard to the Northern Provincial Council election – other than the distinct possibility of it never taking place – was that the TNA would be pushed by the Government’s desire to make devolution as meaningless as possible to do exactly what people who oppose the 13th Amendment suspect is their real objective and use the platform to push for separation. The more difficult the Government makes it for elected representatives to implement their plans – by failing to sanction funds, blocking initiatives via the Governor and so on – the less involved they will be in governance and the less stake they will have in reconciliation and building a Sri Lankan identity.

Obviously the answer is for the Government to behave sensibly, but we know from experience that it usually doesn’t.

We also know that Tamils will regard interference with the functioning of the administration in Jaffna as discrimination, even if it is actually motivated by a general eagerness to centralise. In the circumstances, I wouldn’t blame them.

Justice C.V. Wigneswaran clearly can’t solve all of these problems by himself, but his nomination is an indication that the TNA wants to at least try to find a way to work with the Government.

I wrote a piece after last year’s election to the Eastern Provincial Council looking forward to the prospect of an administration run by the TNA in the North, on the basis that the Government has become far too comfortable in power. Thanks to the ongoing woes of the UNP – which is yet to grasp the very simple concept that image matters in politics – the Government doesn’t need to bother about what people think of its actions. It runs the country exactly as it pleases, controlling all of the elected bodies and enjoying a special majority in Parliament.

The SLMC’s decision to go into a coalition with the UPFA in the East enabled the Government to keep believing that it could rule unchallenged forever, although it may be rethinking that assumption now that its members are refusing to participate in sittings in protest at what they describe as the high-handedness of the Chief Minister and the Governor.

In the North, there will be absolutely no space for doubt.

That will also be very healthy – authoritarianism isn’t good for anybody.

It is much too soon to say whether these encouraging developments will translate into lasting change, and there are plenty of reasons to suspect otherwise. The impeachment of the Chief Justice demonstrated that anything can happen in post-war Sri Lanka – the Government is ready to go to any lengths to get its way and the Opposition won’t really bother to object. Still, given all the country has been through in recent months, I feel that even the slightest indication of progress must be welcomed enthusiastically.

This article was published in The Island on 24th July 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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A wish for the New Year

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 9, 2013

Why Sri Lanka must join the 90-strong league of nations that recognise the right to information

right to informationRajiva Wijesinha has been attracting attention in recent weeks due to his unfortunately rather lonely stand from within government ranks against the impeachment of the Chief Justice. It would have been easy to keep quiet, so he deserves a round of applause.

But it is the effort that he has been making to engage with people in the North and East to find out what they need or want to rebuild their lives that is even more important. Unlike other government politicians, who meet this constituency only when they are laying a foundation stone for an infrastructure project that they are hoping to take credit for – or get a cut of – without the slightest concern as to whether it is actually a priority, Rajiva has been listening to them and communicating what he has been told to the rest of us through his column in the Daily News. Of course what people feel confident to share and what that newspaper cares to publish can be nowhere near the whole story, but even a very partial account is valuable in understanding the ground situation in the former conflict areas.

One conclusion that he has come to as a result of this experience is that to get things done there is a desperate need for transparency in government operations. In one of his recent articles, he has urged action on a Right to Information Act, which he points out was one of the recommendations of the LLRC.

We’ll soon find out whether being included in the much referred to LLRC Action Plan means anything!

A Right to Information Act is long overdue.

The LLRC Report notes that such laws have been adopted by virtually every other country in the region, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives.

Senior politicians in those countries have realised that it is only way to ensure that their policies are implemented. Bureaucracies throughout South Asia – and indeed worldwide – suffer from inertia and corruption, and they are subject to many other influences and pressures than those coming from the top. Interference by juniors is also an issue, and it can be difficult to embark on an initiative to discipline them when their indiscipline has become part of the political culture. As a result, people get disenchanted, either with their party or with the system as a whole. Of course a Right to Information Act makes it easier for citizens to expose the wrongdoings of ministers and presidents as well, but it is now generally recognised that the benefits outweigh the costs, even for them.

From the point of view of citizens, this is wonderful news, since the legislation can be an extremely powerful tool in challenging budding dictators, never mind democrats.

The need in Sri Lanka is clear.

There is no longer any such thing as ‘information’ in this country. There is only hearsay.

Consider the rather innocuous matter of expenditure on Deyata Kirula. Last week, the UNP blamed the Government for spending Rs. 26.5 billion on what they dubbed a carnival when so many people have been affected by flooding. The money should be used for their rehabilitation, a spokesman argued, since it is clearly not possible to build a house within the allocated sum of Rs. 100,000. So far, so easy to follow. But then the Government claimed that the exhibition would cost only Rs. 40 million, with the remainder of the allocation of Rs. 60 billion being for development work in the four districts of Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Polonnaruwa. And the JVP added that of the Rs. 25.5 billion spent on Deyata Kirula last year, in Anuradhapura, only a single building remained, supposedly a paddy store, but it was located so far away from paddy areas that it could not be used.

And we are lost!

As things stand, there is absolutely no reason to trust the Government and absolutely no reason to believe the Opposition.

Whoever happens to be near a microphone says whatever comes into their head, never mind whether it is true or even whether it corresponds with what they said yesterday. And tomorrow they will have no qualms in telling us the exact opposite.

Most people respond by closing their minds, no longer willing to try to separate fact from fiction.

A Right to Information Act can help to get out of this dangerous rut.

Properly formulated, it would do a great deal towards restoring the category of ‘information’, by forcing the Government to give truthful answers to questions put to it by citizens or face the consequences in court.

At the risk of sounding like a spokeswoman for the Indian High Commission, having suggested in my last column of 2012 that its National Rural Employment Guarantee Act could be a model for Sri Lanka, I shall dare to suggest in my first column of 2013 that its Right to Information Act is also worthy of emulation. (Since I can already picture a small army of over-sensitive nationalists hyperventilating at their keyboards, I would like to offer as some kind of compensation my sincere belief that India has even more need of these progressive laws than Sri Lanka!)

A key feature of the legislation is the penalties that it imposes on officials for failing to respond within given deadlines, for giving incorrect or incomplete replies and for destroying evidence, including fines to be paid by them personally.

That this is effective may be seen in the growing number of activists who are being harassed or attacked.

Researchers who have compared the laws of the 93 countries that have adopted a Right to Information Act to date consider India’s to be the second best. By comparison, the UK is ranked 25 and the US 39. (See http://rti-ranking.org/)

This is not a matter of the enlightenment of its leaders, although it is surely not a coincidence that both the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act were passed in 2005, just after the return to office of Congress with the support of the Left Front. Rather, India does well in the global ranking because its Right to Information Act was the result of a sustained and well-supported campaign by civil society, and civil society is strong enough to prevent Manmohan Singh from succeeding in his now regular attempts to water it down.

Sri Lanka must take note.

I recall writing in support of a Right to Information Act in 2010, when it was reported that the Ministry of Justice was preparing a draft. But nothing emerged, with no constituency pushing for it.

Now the LLRC Action Plan says that it is the responsibility of the Media Ministry.

Even if the Government finally makes up its mind to pass the legislation, without proper scrutiny, Sri Lanka is bound to end up with the world’s worst example.

For a long time, the category of ‘civil society’ in Sri Lanka was practically non-existent, since all space was occupied by NGOs and they were totally discredited by the positions they took during the war, among other things. There was little hope of them bringing pressure to bear on the Government. Indeed, although people in other countries were ever ready to listen to them, they didn’t seem to have much idea of how to use the vast sums of money they were getting to influence Sri Lankans.

The Government would have us believe that nothing has changed. All dissent – even very mild disagreement – is said to be connected to NGOs and foreign plots, usually terrorist-inspired.

But the more extraordinary its actions, the more obvious it is that this is not the case. With the impeachment of the Chief Justice, another segment of ‘civil society’ has risen up in protest – lawyers. Like academics before them, whose three month long trade union action was the most effective challenge to the Government since the end of the war, in the sense of starting a debate on an issue of genuine importance, they are part of the mainstream. It isn’t easy to dismiss them. When they come out onto the streets, unlike free trade zone workers and fishermen, they are not subject to live firing by the Police. At least, not yet. And their real strength lies in convincing people, not in waving banners. They enjoy considerable respect among the rest of the population, and they have the capacity to lead them, if they so wish.

Let’s hope that they also take up the cause of a Right to Information Act, since it is clear that Rajiva Wijesinha alone cannot make it happen.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 9th 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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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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A one-man show with a one-man agenda

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 25, 2012

Why the search for another non-party ‘common candidate’ is doomed to failure

When launching an initiative in Sri Lanka, it is well known that one should be careful to call it the opposite of what it really is. Worried about infighting? Then be sure to include the word ‘united’ in the title. Concerned that the dubious public image of the leaders may dissuade people from joining up? Then it is inspirational concepts like ‘freedom’ that one needs to reference.

And so it is with the National Movement for Social Justice, whose inaugural rally was held in Colombo last week.

Sarath Fonseka’s latest attempt to resurrect his political career was a flop. Several hundred people came to listen to him speak. But he could not get the support of any established political parties, which is after all what is needed when it comes to winning elections. The organisers didn’t bother to invite the TNA, the JVP was united in ignoring the event, and even the UNP reformists weren’t keen on attending – Sajith Premadasa was convinced from the off that it wasn’t worth the struggle with Ranil Wickremasinghe, while Karu Jayasuriya left it to the last minute to decide to drop out. Even the remnants of the DNA, which Sarath Fonseka himself established, didn’t all show up.

He was left with the United Bhikkhu Front and a few individuals like Sarath N Silva, former Chief Justice, about whom the less said the better, plus assorted NGOs.

As such, Sarath Fonseka proved once and for all that his role as the ‘common candidate’ in the 2010 presidential election campaign was a one-off. It was an extraordinary contest at an extraordinary moment in the country’s history. Just a few months after the end of the generation-long war, the Army Commander took on his Commander-in-Chief. He will not get another chance.

I am relieved, I must say.

Few people believed Sarath Fonseka’s pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency when he made it the first time around. Indeed, even he didn’t seem totally convinced, so busy as he was making promises.

I certainly didn’t trust him to give up power. For why did he enter politics? Because he was upset at Mahinda Rajapaksa’s refusal to allow him to further increase his empire as Army Commander. His plan for the post-war expansion of the Army was rejected by the Government. Critical as I am of Mahinda Rajapaksa, I believe that this decision indicates that he is not as bad as Sarath Fonseka might have been.

While this may not be saying much, it is the choice that Sri Lanka was faced with.

Also, justified or otherwise, Sarath Fonseka was commonly regarded as a guy concerned more with ends than means. Even if this was necessary in the circumstances, which is debatable, surely we can all agree that it is not a desirable trait in a peacetime leader? In peacetime, there can be no discussion about the acceptability of exceptions to the rule of law, although, as we have seen in the last three years, they may still occur in abundance. (Mahinda Rajapaksa is working hard to develop a similar reputation for himself.) But although we do not know for sure who is responsible for many of the worst crimes committed during the war, such as the various attacks on journalists (now totally forgotten, unlike the attempted assassination of Sarath Fonseka, one of the perpetrators of which was sentenced to 35 years rigorous imprisonment this week), I don’t think that there is any chance that Sarath Fonseka is less guilty than Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sarath Fonseka may have changed since then, having lost first an election and then his liberty. But I still believe that there are many people more suited to running the country than him.

I also believe that symbolism is important. Sri Lanka’s president should not be a military man.

Of course there is nothing wrong with people from other fields going into politics after their retirement. Even there is nothing wrong with military men going into politics. But the presidency is different. The president represents the country, to its people and with the rest of the world. Sri Lanka should be giving the impression that it is moving away from the military, not drawing closer to it.

This is a sensitive time, and such matters should be handled sensitively.

It is for the same reason that the proposal being advanced by various people in the last month or so for the Ven Sobitha Thero, Chief Incumbent of the Kotte Naga Vihara, to put himself forward as a ‘common candidate’ is also undesirable.

Whether or not one agrees with the analysis of those who took up arms against the State, there is no getting away from the fact that one of their arguments was that the State is irretrievably Sinhala Buddhist in nature. And there is no need to give them another reason to think so.

Also, if the Ven Sobitha Thero were to pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency, many people would trust him.

I dare not suggest that they would be anything but wise to do so, which is why I believe that the clergy should keep out of politics altogether.

The clergy are given special treatment in view of their office, and rightly so. Religion is important to the vast majority of people in Sri Lanka, and the leaders of the various faiths play an important role in their lives. They should maintain their honoured position. But when the clergy become politicians this is impossible. Either respect for them diminishes or the democratic functioning of society is undermined. There cannot be any hesitation about criticising elected representatives.

In any case, it is not the Executive President who can abolish the Executive Presidency. That is the task of Parliament.

The real question for those who advocate a ‘common candidate’ is whether or not they can trust the UNP.

I think that last week’s rally gave us a good indication of the future, and it is a future without the National Movement for Social Justice.

The UNP may be divided, but its various factions are clearly agreed on one point – it will be putting up its own candidate for the next presidential election. Ranil Wickremasinghe will of course try to make sure that it is him. After all, he will only have been party leader for a mere 20 years by then! But he won’t have an easy time. Sajith Premadasa is perhaps starting to think that he might make it, while Karu Jayasuriya undoubtedly hasn’t given up hope either.

Sarath Fonseka’s role as the ‘common candidate’ in the 2010 presidential election campaign was only possible because the UNP was sure that it could not win, the vote taking place so soon after the war victory.

And such circumstances are unlikely to be repeated.

Rather than ignoring this reality, people interested in anything more important than Sarath Fonseka’s political career had better shift their focus away from distractions like the National Movement for Social Justice and back to where it is needed.

The established political parties need serious attention. Each one of them is in chaos, with no clearly defined programme and leaders who should have relinquished their positions long ago. They have split or they are in the process of splitting. And with each split they get weaker, leaving Sri Lankan democracy worse off. They should be looking inward, working out how to get themselves and the country out of the mess they are in, not waiting for outsiders to act.

They all have good names. They just need to remember what they mean.

This article was published in The Island on 25th October 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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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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