Kath Noble

Next stop, Jaffna

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 19, 2012

A few thoughts on the provincial council elections

Mahinda Rajapaksa must really love elections. Since he came to power, at least some part of the country has gone to the polls almost every year, sometimes more than once. We had local and provincial council elections in both 2008 and 2009, parliamentary and presidential elections in 2010, more local elections in 2011 and now more provincial council elections in 2012. No prizes for guessing that in 2013 somebody somewhere in Sri Lanka will be voting.

I hope that it will be the turn of the Northern Province.

Concerns have been raised about the prospect of a TNA-led administration in the North, on the basis that the party may use the platform to push for more devolution or even a separate state, by itself or with the support of the West.

Indeed it might. The TNA hasn’t done enough to distance itself from the use of violence to achieve political ends, or to distance itself from the goal of Eelam. Both would have been helpful for its constituency and for the country, since distrust of the TNA’s intentions encourages or is used as an excuse by the Government to delay the much-discussed ‘political solution’, or to avoid it altogether. Perhaps the TNA is under pressure from the diaspora, or maybe it is yet to be convinced that the war is over.

Whatever, keeping it out of power by undemocratic means isn’t going to convince either the party or its supporters to change their ways. The voters of the Eastern Province demonstrated as much on September 8th.

There have been many fascinating attempts in the media to present the results of the provincial council elections in the East as a resounding endorsement of the Government and its policies. However, this is no more than wishful thinking.

For a start, the UPFA won by a margin of less than 1%, receiving 31.58% of the popular vote compared to 30.59% for the TNA. Given the usual massive abuse of state resources by the incumbent administration, it is ridiculous to suggest that people are anything like enthusiastic about Pillayan et al staying on at Trincomalee.

Also and most importantly, while the UPFA’s vote share fell by well over 10% of the total, the TNA’s went up by nearly 10% – it secured only 21.89% of the popular vote in the 2010 parliamentary elections. The TNA now enjoys the support of the vast majority of Tamils in the East. And it got eleven Tamils elected to the provincial council, compared to only one from the UPFA (the former chief minister, whose achievement has been questioned).

Being out of office clearly isn’t a problem for the TNA in terms of popularity.

Of course it isn’t. While the Government insists that life is now very good in the former conflict areas, a lot of people living there don’t agree. They aren’t so hopeful about Mahinda Rajapaksa’s development agenda. This we know from many sources, including the fact that according to official figures, 2,992 Sri Lankans crossed the sea to Australia in the first eight months of this year, compared to 736 in the last twelve months of the war. The vast majority of them were Tamils. And this data includes only those who reached their destination, not those who are now being caught by the Navy on an almost daily basis. Everybody is debating whether or not they should be classified as refugees, as if it would be quite normal for so many people to want to undertake such a perilous journey for economic reasons – it is not.

In the North, the TNA will be the sole beneficiary of dissatisfaction with the Government. The party has its faults, but at least it won’t put up any more signboards in Sinhala and English in areas where Tamils make up 100% of the population. (I am taking a trivial example not because there aren’t more important things to be done, but to demonstrate that it is will as much as ideas and resources that is lacking.)

The TNA must know that its prospects are only going to improve the longer it is prevented from challenging the Government, so it isn’t going to feel at all pressured to fall into line.

The other point to note from the East is that the SLMC too increased its vote share. At the 2010 parliamentary elections, the SLMC and UNP together achieved 26.57% of the popular vote, increasing to 32.80% in 2012. The ever-hopeful supporters of Ranil Wickremasinghe may like to think that the UNP is the party whose fortunes improved, but that is plain silly. It achieved 11.82% of the popular vote in the provincial council elections, compared to 20.98% for the SLMC. And for their information, 11.82% is pretty close to zero! The UNP is in a deep hole, electorally speaking, but it is hard to feel sorry for people who believe that clinging to the same leader for nigh on two decades is perfectly normal. If only their foolishness didn’t have such an impact on the rest of the country.

It is equally clear that the SLMC would not have seven provincial councillors if it had run under Mahinda Rajapaksa. The party leadership’s rumoured decision to form an administration with the UPFA, going against the wishes of its members from the Eastern Province and likely also the views of its voters for the sake of concessions in Colombo, is not very democratic.

Totally undemocratic are the moves reported by DBS Jeyaraj to persuade five of the eleven provincial councillors from the TNA to switch their allegiance to the UPFA, which if they had been successful would have given the Government its all-important majority without the need for the support of the SLMC. DBS Jeyaraj says that the TNA representatives were approached by military intelligence operatives with a range of ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’, including the offer to one provincial councillor who is also a building contractor of a major state infrastructure project and the threat to another that his young son would be taken into custody for alleged involvement with the LTTE.

As DBS Jeyaraj points out, attempts to engineer crossovers are nothing new, although the employment of military intelligence operatives certainly adds a novel and even more reprehensible dimension to the phenomenon.

Also, we don’t normally get to hear the details of the ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’.

For this we should be grateful to the TNA. It has shown us what politics in Sri Lanka has become, and how difficult it will be to clean up – Mahinda Rajapaksa is clearly very good at engineering.

I hope that we will find more reasons to thank the party once elections are called in the North.

Although the TNA did not stand up to Prabhakaran, for which it deserves the harshest of criticism, it is willing to stand up to the Government. And it would be in a position to do so in the Northern Province. A TNA-led administration could do what most Sri Lankans now agree is necessary and show the Government that it cannot get away with everything everywhere. The danger for the TNA and indeed for Sri Lanka as a whole is that as things stand its positions and actions can easily be dismissed as sectarian and extremist, which could end up deepening the divisions in society and further entrenching the Government.

For that reason, and of course also as a matter of principle, the West should firmly resolve to say and do absolutely nothing.

It is only a matter of time before Mahinda Rajapaksa starts to fear elections.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 19th September 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Apologising for saffron terror

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 22, 2012

On the involvement of Buddhist priests in acts of violence against other communities

Rauff Hakeem is a generous man. A week or so ago, he issued what he referred to as an ‘unreserved apology’ to all Buddhists in Sri Lanka for a remark he made on the campaign trail that some people had interpreted as an insult to the Sangha.

Indeed, he didn’t just say sorry. The SLMC leader also praised the pluralism practised by Sinhalese Buddhists from as long ago as the time of King Senarath, who gave Muslims land in the Eastern Province when they were being persecuted by the Portuguese, and acknowledged the patronage and benevolence Muslims had always enjoyed under Sinhalese rule.

The media didn’t stint on its coverage of his statement, and the frenzied criticism that both preceded and followed it was also given plenty of attention – Faizer Mustapha, his colleague in the UPFA administration, accused Rauff Hakeem of trying to provoke race riots for political gain.

Race riots? He wants a repeat of 1915? Believe that and you’ll believe anything.

The funny thing is that there was no such widespread reporting of what the SLMC leader actually said in the first place.

The whole episode had very little to do with any offence caused and nothing at all to do with any potential danger to the country – very few people would have come to hear of Rauff Hakeem’s comment if not for the ruckus created by his critics. Instead, it had everything to do with the September 8th provincial council elections, in which the SLMC has decided to go it alone in the Eastern Province. Since Muslims are now a majority in the East, the SLMC is expected to do well, and no doubt it didn’t want to risk the fate of MLAM Hizbullah, who brought his faction to contest with the UPFA in 2008 on the understanding that the community with the most votes would be offered the chief ministerial position, only to see it handed to the TMVP – Tamils won only six seats compared to eight for Muslims.

It is actually Faizer Mustapha who should be apologising to Muslims for attempting to take political advantage by raising the awful prospect of race riots.

What made all this possible was the use of the phrase ‘saffron terror’, which Rauff Hakeem urged must be tackled as was the LTTE.

It is not a very helpful phrase, certainly. Muslims don’t like it when people call Al Qaeda Islamic terrorists, on the basis that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism – just because terrorists claim to be acting in the interests of a particular faith doesn’t mean they should be taken seriously. Predominantly Islamic countries never use the word Islamic in connection with Al Qaeda, in the same way as Anders Behring Breivik isn’t called a Christian terrorist in countries where the dominant religion is Christianity (he sometimes isn’t even referred to as a terrorist!) – indeed, this label is rarely applied elsewhere either, so dominant is the West in the formation of the global narrative.

Also, ‘saffron terror’ is the phrase in common use by Indians including the Congress and its now former Home Minister P Chidambaram to describe terrorism by rightwing extremist groups adhering to Hindu nationalist ideology.

This is obviously not comparable with anything that is happening in Sri Lanka.

Rightwing extremist groups in India have been linked to a series of blasts in the last half decade that together have killed hundreds of people. When a bomb explodes, as happened in Pune on August 1st, the first reaction of the Police is now to acknowledge that it is as likely to be the work of Hindu extremists as it is of Muslim extremists.

Even generally speaking, the relationship between communities in the two countries cannot be compared. Race riots are a current reality in India – since July 20th, violence in the Northeastern state of Assam between Muslims and indigenous tribes has claimed more than 75 lives and resulted in 300,000 people fleeing their homes, while there has also been a mass exodus of Northeastern migrants from Southern cities like Bangalore and Chennai due to fears of a backlash.

Sri Lanka is much better off.

However, this is not guaranteed to remain the case. Given the history, which includes several events like those of 1915, and the fact that the country is just emerging from a generation long war fought by a group claiming to represent one particular community in the face of discrimination and oppression by a chauvinist state, it might be wise to err on the side of caution.

More important than how Rauff Hakeem expressed himself is the point he was trying to make. The phrase ‘saffron terror’ as employed by him was meant to refer to the involvement of Buddhist priests in acts of violence against other communities.

The Dambulla incident in April this year made the headlines around the world thanks to the availability of rather compelling visuals of monks leading a mob in storming and vandalising a mosque they claimed was built illegally within the declared sacred area of the Golden Temple. Anybody who still hasn’t watched the footage should immediately search for it on the internet (‘Bigoted monks and militant mobs: is this Buddhism in Sri Lanka today?’, Groundviews, April 23rd), since it is bound to change your perspective on the seriousness of the problem. The sight of a monk disrobing and jumping up and down exposing himself outside the mosque while other monks break down the door cannot be forgotten, nor can the explanation given by the Ven Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thero that the act of destroying the mosque is actually a shramadanaya in which all Buddhists should participate.

Three issues merit repetition. First, the monks used their status to achieve their objectives – the Police were present in numbers, but they did not prevent the monks from breaking the law, although they did restrain lay people.

Secondly, their concerns could have been resolved with very little difficulty if they had chosen a different path. The mosque is not like Ayodhya or the Temple Mount. It grew up to serve the Muslims of the area, but there is no desperate attachment to that particular location – it is not the Prophet’s birth or deathplace. Also, the structure itself is more or less makeshift. Putting up a new one in another place wouldn’t have been an unthinkable task before the mob attack inflamed passions. The Government could have negotiated for suitable land outside the declared sacred area.

Thirdly and most importantly, Muslim leaders responded very sensibly, moving to reduce rather than increase tensions, ensuring that protests were non-violent.

It is a shame that the Government has not apologised to Muslims for its failure to protect their religious freedom on that occasion. In particular, if saying sorry for statements that some people find upsetting is in order, Prime Minister DM Jayaratne should have done so for responding to the mob attack with an announcement that as Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs he was ordering the immediate removal of the mosque – this was hardly the responsible course of action, if there was even the smallest chance of race riots.

Meanwhile, the Ven Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thero is clearly not going to issue an ‘unreserved apology’, since he apparently believes that violence is a perfectly acceptable way of getting what you want (‘A monk on the rampage’, interview by Niranjala Ariyawansha of the Sunday Leader, May 6th).

The Dambulla incident happened months ago, and it may be argued that the damage done by the Buddhist priests was minimal – the mosque is back in operation and the people of the area have resumed their normal practice of peaceful and harmonious coexistence. Indeed, it is true. Sri Lanka must certainly not be castigated as an intolerant society, since to do so would be to ignore the common behaviour of the vast majority of its people and even the general attitude of its leaders. However, there would have been no damage at all if not for the Buddhist priests – they guided their followers in what was very definitely the wrong direction.

Also, Buddhist priests continue to be involved in such incidents, while nothing is being done about what looks like becoming a trend in the post-war environment.

In the last fortnight alone, reports indicate that a mob led by a Buddhist priest took away a statue of a god from a Hindu kovil in Panama, Eastern Province, while in Deniyaya, Southern Province, another mob including Buddhist priests beat and threatened to kill a Christian pastor and his wife whom they accused of spreading Christianity in the area.

These are much worse insults to the Sangha than anything that was or ever could be said by Rauff Hakeem.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 22nd August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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