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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And the beatings go on

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 17, 2013

On the upcoming election in the Northern Province and the violence associated with it

Fire at Uthayan officeThe Government is getting really good at denying responsibility for attacks on the media. Within hours of the incident at the Uthayan office in Jaffna on Saturday, its spokesman had issued a several hundred word statement claiming that it was an ‘inside job’. How’s that for efficiency? If only it put a fraction of that energy into finding proof of its imaginative theories, we might actually be convinced.

Unfortunately, it has not been able to identify the culprits in even one previous case, although there have been many.

That is what I would describe as an ‘interesting phenomenon’.

The statement claims to have spotted a rather different ‘interesting phenomenon’. It says that Uthayan is the only newspaper to have faced harassment in the ‘recent past’, which it suggests is odd because Uthayan is owned by a TNA parliamentarian who is ‘actively campaigning against the Government and the Military in the North and East’.

The first point to note is that unless one adopts a very narrow definition of the phrase ‘recent past’, this is simply not true. Faraz Shauketaly of The Sunday Leader was shot less than two months ago. Less than six months before that, the editor of the same newspaper, Frederica Jansz, left the country claiming that she was under threat, having had a run-in with the Defence Secretary. And before that, it was the turn of Lanka-e-News. Its office in Colombo was attacked by arsonists, and its news editor Bennet Rupasinghe and a journalist Shantha Wijesuriya were both jailed for a time. Its editor, Sandaruwan Senadheera, also fled the country. Cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda’s disappearance took place just three years ago. That all seems like ‘recent past’ to me.

But let’s concentrate on the last few weeks.

In that period, Uthayan has indeed suffered disproportionately – it has been attacked twice. On April 3rd, an armed gang trashed vehicles and computer equipment at its distribution centre in Kilinochchi, in the process injuring four members of staff. Then came the attack of April 13th at its Jaffna headquarters. This time the security guards fled and the armed gang set fire to the printing press and a stack of newspapers awaiting delivery.

That is certainly curious.

Even more peculiar is that it is not only the newspaper owned by a TNA parliamentarian that has suffered. The TNA itself has also come under attack. On March 30th, a mob of about 50 people threw stones at a public meeting organised by TNA MPs in Kilinochchi. Several participants were injured. However, they managed to capture one of the assailants and hand him over to the police, who were supposedly providing security for what was a pre-approved event. He was identified as a member of the CID. Photographs and even a video of the attack was made available to the authorities, but the man was released. No arrests have been made to date.

This was clearly no ‘inside job’.

In other words, while the TNA is ‘actively campaigning against the Government and the Military in the North and East’, somebody has been attacking the TNA. That is the second point to note.

Point number three concerns another ‘interesting phenomenon’. Until the last few weeks, Uthayan had not come under attack since the first half of 2011. On March 16th of that year, a police constable entered its premises and threatened the staff, saying that he would set fire to the building. On April 7th, the Jaffna Mayor declared that the newspaper would not be allowed within the confines of the municipal council and issued instructions not to give any advertisements or news to Uthayan. On April 29th, a reporter was beaten up on assignment at Jaffna University. On May 28th, another reporter was attacked on his way to work near the Jaffna Hindu College playgrounds. On June 16th, a photographer was attacked at a TNA meeting. On July 5th, the TNA parliamentarian owner of Uthayan received a death threat over the phone. On July 29th, the news editor was seriously injured in an assault on his way home near the Navalar Road Army camp. However, from then until the end of 2012, Uthayan was challenged only in court, according to a list that the newspaper has circulated.

And the last elections in the Northern Province were in July 2011.

Given that there is supposed to be a poll in September this year, the attacks on Uthayan would seem to be part of a very established pattern of election violence.

If the Government expects us to believe that it is not responsible, it has only to arrest the culprits and ensure that no further incidents take place. With thousands of soldiers roaming around the Northern Province, this really shouldn’t be too difficult.

The credibility of the election depends on it.

Of course, for that to be a problem for the Government, the poll must actually happen.

In the last few weeks, key personalities have been suggesting that it would be better not to have a provincial council in the Northern Province. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Island that a hostile administration could be ‘inimical to the post-war national reconciliation process’, and a whole lot of his hangers-on have been agreeing, in quite exhausting detail.

Bizarrely, their argument rests on the assumption that power should only be devolved to one’s supporters.

This may be a reasonable way to run an army, but we are of course talking about a democratic country. Democracy means that elections must be held even when the Government isn’t going to win!

Really ‘inimical to the post-war national reconciliation process’ would be for the Government to cancel the September poll on the basis that the people of the Northern Province want the TNA to form an administration.

To do so would be to justify continued support for Eelam.

What is needed is the exact opposite. The Government must focus its attention on undermining separatism, which means that it must work to show that Tamils can live in Sri Lanka. Fear of a TNA administration is understandable, since the TNA has not done enough to distance itself from the struggle for Eelam. However, even if the TNA wanted a separate state, it could not achieve it alone. It would need the very serious backing of the international community, including India, and while distrust of those countries is natural given their records, we should not forget that they all helped to defeat the LTTE. They know that a return to violence would be devastating, so convincing them that it is not necessary should be pretty easy.

Eelam will be a distant memory if the 13th Amendment is made to work, and letting the TNA run the provincial council would be a very good first step.

Unfortunately, the Government may be more interested in consolidating its own power. Indeed, it might actually be quite happy to see the pro-Eelam struggle reignite, in much the same way as it has directly or indirectly encouraged the anti-Muslim campaign. Neither is good for the country, but they may both help the Government to project itself as a necessary evil – the only administration capable of responding to such threats.

If that is the case, the media had better brace itself for much worse times to come.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 17th April 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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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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Let’s not have any more wars

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 28, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is unhealthy.

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the harm in letting people debate?

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

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

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

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

There is simply no need to worry about it.

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

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

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

So let’s cut the rhetoric.

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

And that means negotiating.

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

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

It is time for a dialogue with the TNA.



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

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