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A Political Solution – Who needs what Kind of Solution?

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Shivanthi Ranasinghe

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) got a nasty shock at the recently concluded general elections. Meera Sirinivasan for The Hindu warns in the article titled “The Centrality of Devolution in Development” that to interpret this result “as a shift away from long-pending political demands is at best reductive and at worst dangerous”.

As Sri Lanka is yet again at a juncture where a new constitution is being contemplated, a reality check on Sirinivasan’s warning is timely. It is important to understand the validity of the demand as well as its feasibility. After all, this demand for self determination has been dominating Sri Lankan politics and international relations for a very long time. 

Despite the passage of time, persistence and international pressure, this “historic” demand is still far from its goal. Sirinivasan argues that it is a legitimate and democratic right to be able to “actively shape their political and economic destinies” and a necessity as “a vital check against a ‘majoritarian’ state deriving power and legitimacy from its core ethno-nationalist base.” 

The first question that must be clarified is: who is it that is being referred to as “their”? 

 

Who are “They”?

Throughout her argument, Sirinivasan interchanges “their” to refer to both the Tamil community and the Tamils living in the North and East. However, Tamils in Sri Lanka are not confined to only these two areas of the Island. In fact, over 52 percent of Tamils live outside these two areas. Furthermore, the North and East there are not only Tamils in the North and East, but also Sinhalese and Muslims live there. 

In the East, the three communities live in roughly equal proportions. The rising Muslim population however may overtake the other two communities before long. It is true that at present the Sinhala and Muslim presence in the North is marginal. However, that absence was artificially created by the LTTE. 

The domestic mechanism to investigate the causes for the three decade war against terrorism, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) finds that the ethnic cleansing of the Sinhala families living in Jaffna began as far back as 1977. By mid 1980s, the LTTE were evicting the Sinhalese in earnest. “By 1987, there were no Sinhala residents left in Jaffna.” According to the census department, in 1981, there were 5,684 Sinhala families living in the Jaffna district. These families have told the Commission that they wish to return to the North, where they were born and bred. 

On October 30, 1990 the entire Muslim population, numbering around 72,000 persons, were expelled from Jaffna within two hours. In 2002, LTTE strategist Anton Balasingham apologized for it, calling it a “political blunder” and invited the Muslims to return. However, the fact remains that the reason for the LTTE to expel the Muslims in the first place was the Muslims’ objection over the creation of a Tamil homeland. 

Therefore, as Attorney-at-Law and author Dharshan Weerasekera reasons, there cannot be any further devolution until the evicted Sinhalese are resettled in their former homes in the Northern Province as they too have a right to enjoy the benefits of such devolution. Without taking this foremost step, the very demand for self determination for Tamils is nullified because the fundamental principle of law states that “one cannot benefit from one’s own wrong.”

To ignore this fundamental principle “would in effect be validating ethnic cleansing as a tactic for gaining ‘self determination’, which would be an absolute travesty of justice, not to mention morality,” points out Weerasekera. 

Therefore, the reference to “their” cannot be exclusive to the Tamils, but must also include the Sinhalese and Muslims as well. This however still leaves the question as to the Tamils who can claim ownership to this political solution – will it entitle all Sri Lankan Tamils or only the Tamils in the North and East?

 

For whose Benefit is the Demand for a Political Solution?

The TNA represents only the Northern and Eastern provinces. Their sole focus is winning self determination for Tamils. Yet, they received a very poor mandate from their own voters. Their abysmal election results have been attributed to neglecting the economy. Yet, even in the political front, the TNA has failed by,

1. Miscarrying the proposed constitution

2. Allowing Provincial Councils to become defunct

 

1. Miscarrying the Proposed Constitution

 

Despite international support, TNA failed to implement the much touted political solution. This was due to the passive resistance by other minority parties, including the Tamil parties outside the North and East. 

It is noteworthy that the Good Governance Government (GGG) from January 2015-November 2019 was a coalition of minorities and some other parties. Furthermore, GGG had the most unusual setup where both main political parties cohabited in the Government. The legitimate Opposition, with 55 MPs representing eight provinces, was ostracized. Instead, the TNA with only 16 seats within the aforementioned two provinces was appointed as the official Opposition. Equally contentious was the obvious partnership the TNA had with the Government. 

With a two-third majority in Parliament on its side, the TNA had the best working environment to push their most desired solution. TNA indeed took up the opportunity. They designed a system that would pump Central Government’s powers into the Provincial Councils (PCs), making the Central Government a dependent of the PCs.

These plans were not scuttled by the Sinhala Buddhists. It was the Muslim politicians and their Tamil counterpart outside the North and East who quietly rejected this effort. Not only would they have not benefited from this arrangement, it would have adversely affected them.

Without an overriding central control, the province’s ethnic ratio would become the domineering factor. In very simple terms, the province will be ruled by the majority of that area and the minority communities within will have very little say. The Central Government will be without the powers to redress any wrongs or injustices or assure equity. The national politicians will not have a say in matters concerning their respective communities.

As political analyst CA Chandreprema observes, for minority parties outside North and East to agree to this solution would be political hara-kiri. Even Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe did not want to claim ownership of this proposal, notes Chandreprema. This will certainly not be the “vital check against a ‘majoritarian’ state,” that Sirinivasan seeks in a political solution.

Even for the Tamils in the North and East to benefit, the two provinces need to be merged, explains Chandreprema. Without such a merger, the Tamils in the East will come under the Muslims’ dominance. They will never agree to such a situation. However, a merger between provinces cannot and should not take place without a referendum from the two provinces. It is highly doubtful that the Muslims and Sinhalese will agree to a situation where they will come under the Tamil domination.

Therefore, this is a solution that looks great on paper to those who sees the Central Government as a Sinhala-Buddhist “majoritarianism” and hence a bully; and the Tamils in North and East as the underdog and ignores all other stakeholders. In reality, this will hurt the minorities more than the majority for it is only in the North and East that the Sinhalese are without a greater presence. Thus, this will effectively divide the country with the North and East under Tamil dominance (if the two provinces are merged) and the rest under the Sinhala dominance. Hence, this will not see the light of the day unless this is forced through against the peoples’ will. That of course would be most undemocratic.

 

2. Allowing Provincial Councils

to fall defunct

 

PCs were formed at the behest of the Rajiv Gandhi regime as a foundation for Tamils to exercise self governance. The rest of the country was forced to accept this system that they neither asked for nor needed. This was bitterly opposed by the nationalists for they feared this as a step towards separatism. However, India was firm and the then Sri Lankan Government under President JR Jayewardena conceded. Except for the land and police powers, the PCs are currently empowered with all the other legislative powers as per the Constitution.

It is most unfortunate that the Chief Minister of the temporarily merged North-East province Annamalai Varadaraja Perumal acted in a manner that heightened the nationalists’ fears. He moved a motion in the Council on March 01, 1990 to unilaterally declare the merged provinces as “Independent Eelam”. The then president R Premadasa was thus forced to quickly dissolve the PC and take it under Colombo’s administration.

However, after the East was freed from the terrorists, the Eastern PC was formed on May 10, 2008. Election for the Northern PC (NPC) was held on September 21, 2013. Yet, quite petulantly the TNA dominated PCs refused to use the opportunity and prove their case that they are capable of governing themselves. 

Instead, NPC Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran for five continuous years returned the funds and projects from the Central Government claiming that these are not “theirs”. Instead of making use of the powers already at hand, TNA continued to demand greater autonomy. Ironically, those provinces that once opposed the system are now working smoothly with the Central Government.

By 2018, the terms of all nine PCs had expired. The previous government in which the TNA played a prominent role hung on to a technicality to postpone elections. To date, the TNA had not protested over this outcome even though the PCs were formed specifically to give them autonomy.

 

It is not a surprise that the TNA’s vote base is steadily and rapidly declining. Living the life of elitists the TNA had quite sadistically allowed their own electorate to suffer by not utilizing the powers granted by the PCs. As a result, the people in these areas suffer enormously from unaddressed and accumulating economic and social woes.

 

Conclusion

The TNA is being disingenuous. Their proposed constitution is not democratically possible. Despite the drama, they presented a proposal that is unacceptable to all stakeholders – including the Tamils in the North and East (unless the two provinces can be merged).

They also failed to protect the PCs. This was handed over to North and East Tamil politicians on a platter at India’s insistence. This intervention cost India heavily. Yet, during its five year term, neither of these two TNA dominated PCs looked after the people, nor allowed the Central Government to do so. People are held hostage to prove a political point – not unlike the TNA’s erstwhile boss, the LTTE.

It is obvious that the TNA is not serious about a political solution. This call for autonomy for Tamils is just a political slogan that gives them a reason for their political existence.

The most important component in this debate however should not be about the politicians’ rhetoric. It is the people, their worries and hopes that matters the most.

During a recent visit to the Northern peninsula, this writer made a number of interesting observations. These observations and the exchange of ideas with the people include,

1. Many of the educated, elderly people live in empty and neglected homes. Their children are living overseas, where the economic prospects are better;

2. Despite the end of terrorism, considerable extent of land remains abandoned. The owners are overseas and do not wish to return home leaving their present comfortable lives;

3. Those in the most vulnerable segments continue to be marginalized by a rigid caste-based system. Without basics such as housing or essentials as drinking water, the poor are trapped in poverty;

4. As a political solution, people want an income that will give them the freedom to live with dignity and independence. Thus they wish for more investments in the North in the form of factories and industries. This will allow people to find jobs without leaving their hometown or their families behind;

5. The war is seen as a matter of the distant past and not something relevant to the present.

Sirinivasan argues that economic development sans a political solution “will prove futile unless citizens have the political agency to inform the process.” However, it is evident that without a robust economy where the benefits flow to all levels of society, a political solution – whatever it might be – will be without owners.

 

(ranasingheshivanthi@gmail.com)


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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