By Tisaranee Gunasekara
The Rajapakse brothers may look enviously at Israel’s brutal raid on an international flotilla bringing symbolic aid to the blockaded Gaza. They may long to act with a similar gross disregard for international law and international opinion. But such incivility bordering on barbarity is possible for a small country only if it has the near unconditional support of the Global Hegemon.
It is the political, military and financial backing of the US which continues to enable Israel to act with total impunity, ignoring both global displeasures and local realities. Lacking such a mighty patron, the Rajapakses must resort to a combination of bluster and sleights of hand, to buy time and clear space for their Familial project (the fact that Namal Rajapakse, a non-cricketer, played for the Sri Lankan side at the IIFA match between Indian film stars and Lankan cricketers is symbolic of the Family-centric nature of the Rajapakse rule).
Richard Goldstone, Jew and Zionist, head of the UN Fact-finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict and author of a report harshly critical of both the Israeli government and the Hamas for their similar disregard for the safety of civilians, has pointed out the importance of equitability in pursuing justice. In an opinion piece in the New York Times (17.9.2009), he argued that the West cannot punish human rights violators in Africa while permitting Israel to violate international laws with impunity. There is an axiomatic link between the credibility of the West’ human rights project and the need to hold Israel accountable for its deeds, Mr. Goldman pointed out.
There is a valuable lesson here for Sri Lanka as well. A genuine peace is impossible so long as the Tamils are denied even a vestige of justice. Given the brutal intensity of the final stage of the war, many civilian Tamils could not but have perished, some killed by Tiger actions and others by the actions of the Lankan Forces. Amidst this generalised carnage, there would have been instances when civilians were deliberately targeted or their safety was callously disregarded, by both sides. Even if the perpetrators of these violations are not brought to justice, the fact that injustices happened must be acknowledged and Tamil people offered an apology. Without even that minimum of measures of reconciliation, how can we expect the Tamils to let the past go?
Denying even that modicum of justice to the Tamils becomes explicable only if we too believe in the Tamils are Tigers equation (which was a cornerstone of Tiger ideology). If all Tamils are Tigers, then there are no civilian Tamils and there cannot be any civilian casualties; that, then, is the only context in which the regime’s insistence on a ‘zero-civilian casualties’ outcome becomes possible. But if we do not accept the Tamils are Tigers equation, then it is incumbent upon us to investigate with objectivity and candour, all charges of human rights violations. If we fail to do so, that failure will indicate that we do see no distinction between Tigers and Tamils and do believe in the idea of collective punishment (a similar belief made possible the Dresden and Tokyo fire bombings and the Atomic attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the allies during the World War II; despite an occasional remark to the contrary, the allies did believe that the German people should be held accountable, collectively, for Nazi crimes).
In consequence we will continue to regard Tamils with suspicion and persist in trying to keep them quiescent by force, which in turn, will breed more resentment. A vicious circle of violent domination and sullen resentment will thus be created – not the most apposite of ingredients for a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka.
Devolution would be an excellent antidote for this malaise, but devolution is unlikely so long as the Rajapakses reign. A Sinhala supremacist victory cannot lead to a Sri Lankan peace but to a Pax Sinhala. And sharing power with the minorities has no place in the Sinhala Peace which has followed the Sinhala Supremacist victory over the LTTE. Consequently, devolution will remain an impossible goal under Rajapakses and, so long as the kind of international pressure which pushed a reluctant Jayewardene administration to consent to the Indo-Lanka Accord fails to materialise.
The reality behind the hype about the proposed senate is instructive here. For weeks, Rajapakse propagandists touted the proposed senate as a measure of reconciliation towards the Tamils, a mechanism to empower the minorities at the centre. In reality the Senate is to be a cross between a grazing ground for long-in-the-tooth politicians and a check on provincial devolution. According to media reports, provincial governors will become ex-officio members of the Senate, with one of them as its chairman. Since governors are presidential appointees, this will give the President a stranglehold over the Senate. Five members from each provincial council and several senior parliamentarians too are expected to be part of the Senate. This unelected Senate will have the power to veto decisions by elected provincial councils. The underlying purpose is obvious; if ever the minority dominated provincial councils in the North and the East take a step unacceptable to Sinhala supremacists in power, the Senate will veto it into oblivion. The Senate thus will not give anything to the minorities; its actual purpose is to sabotage provincial devolution and undermine the 13th Amendment.
While devolution or any genuine measure of reconciliation (as distinct from propaganda hype) is off the agenda, measures to stamp the Sinhala Buddhist identity on pluralist Sri Lanka are definitely on. According to the Prime Minister, the government will bring five new acts to protect Buddhism including an anti-conversion bill. The army is said to be giving Sinhala names to intersections in the North (such as Pilima Handiya, Car Handiya and Ali Handiya). Wesak was abused to remind the Tamils and the Muslims of the North and the East of their unequal status. In both provinces the celebration of Wesak was turned into a celebration of Sinhala-Buddhist dominance. Not the way to build a peaceful Sri Lanka or a common Lankan identity.
The Ruling Family’s support base is near exclusively Sinhala and primarily Buddhist. This reality blends seamlessly with the Mahawamsa mindset in vogue at the highest echelons of power. The perception of Lanka as the holy land of (Sinhala) Buddhism, the notion of a relentless contestation with alien invaders/visitors for Sinhala Lebensraum (living space) and the concept of the sinless war (waged for the protection of Buddhism, against enemies who are ‘unbelievers and men of evil life’) are the three pillars of the Mahawamsa mindset. Transliterated into modern conditions, this means a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist Sri Lanka in which the minorities are not co-owners but guests, at best tolerated. Within such a project there is no role for devolution and no room for genuine reconciliation. Trying to impose a Sinhala-Buddhist façade on the non-Sinhala, non-Buddhist North and the East is very much in keeping with this vision and this project. Nothing different can be expected from the Rajapakses, so long as they retain their sovereignty over Sri Lanka.
But pretence at compromise is necessary, because, Sri Lanka lacks a powerful and complaint international patron. Therefore, the President is likely to offer nebulous promises and economic palliatives to Delhi, during his upcoming trip, if his Indian hosts badger him about a political solution. Since Indians are unlikely to be so gullible, after so many dishonoured promises and violated deadlines, the true focus may be on giving Delhi a greater stake in the Lankan economy. Even if the CEPA does not become a reality, there will be other ways of buying Indian neutrality, and on these the Rajapakses are likely to concentrate.
During the Cold-war, countries which became proxy-battlegrounds for the two Superpowers did not prosper. The intent of the Rajapakses may be to balance India and China, but this is a policy fraught with danger, because it may end with Sri Lanka becoming a focal point of Delhi-Beijing rivalry. The best way to prevent such a quagmire would be to diversify dependence by involving other countries in the Lankan economy, so that instead of becoming a bone of contention between India and China.
Sri Lanka can become a place where many nations coexist with small stakes in the economic pie. Unfortunately such a policy of ‘safety in numbers’ is impossible so long as Sri Lanka remains bedevilled with war crimes charges; so long as there are no genuine measures of reconciliation towards the Tamils; so long as the Rajapakses continue to seek legitimacy for their dynastic project by imposing a Sinhala Peace on Sri Lanka.