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These Retrogressive Times

Jul 24, 2010 3:48:17 PM - thesundayleader.lk

“Stupidity has come back as a king – no; as an emperor, as a divine Führer of all Aryans.”
— Aldous Huxley (Eyeless In Gaza)

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

The past may well return complete with old and new horrors if we do not learn from Black July

Twenty Seven years ago, “Black July” burst upon Sri Lanka with the sudden ferocity of a flash flood. The omens of this bloody deluge was evident in the ‘language of contempt’ and the ‘dismissive atitude’ vis-à-vis Tamils which was de règale in Sinhala polity and society.

Black July, like most disasters which befell independent Sri Lanka, was a preventable tragedy. Had President Jayewardene honoured his 1977 election promise to come up with a political solution to the Tamil question, the Black July and the subsequent civil war could have been avoided. The UNP in 1977 was up to that task, objectively. It had a clear parliamentary majority; the SLFP was in retreat subsequent to its electoral trouncing; the JVP was of negligible import; and in the TULF, the regime had a moderate Tamil partner it could have worked with.

But President Jayewardene’s authoritarian agenda made him equally inimical towards demands for democratisation in the South and devolution in the North; both sets of demands were categorised as ‘subversive’ and handled with unmerited severity. A historic opportunity to settle the ethnic issue in its infancy was thus lost, rendering most subsequent disasters, including the Black July, inevitable.
That failure to solve the Tamil question, together with the unjust proscription of the JVP, was JR Jayewardene’s greatest historic error. (Contrary to public perception, the B-C Pact was abandoned by S.W.R.D Bandaranaike not because of Jayewardene’s infamous Kandy March but because of the protest by Buddhist monks, the first pillar of his Pancha Maha Balavegaya). Those twin and related errors plunged the country into concentric cycles of violence and destroyed Jayewardene’s dream of a third presidential term.

Post-war, Mahinda Rajapaksa could have moved swiftly to devolve and democratise, two necessary preconditions for consensual nation-building. He did not, partly because of his Sinhala supremacist mindset (he does not believe in the existence of an ethnic problem) and partly because he abhors sharing power with anyone outside his family. Just as J.R. Jayewardene’s authoritarian project impeded a political solution to the Tamil question, the Dynastic project of the Rajapaksas are rendering impossible a consensual peace based on reconciliation.

The APRC Final Report

Mahinda Rajapaksa has a completely organic blueprint he can work on, if he wants to seize the moment and settle the ethnic issue. The APRC appointed by the President to come up with a political solution to the North-Eastern problem has prepared a Final Report and presented it to the President. According to Parliamentarian Kariapper, “the APRC expected that President Rajapaksa would commence a dialogue with the main opposition United National Party and the Tamil National Alliance, based on the final report of the APRC with a view to formulating a new constitution” (The Island – 20.7.2010). The President did the opposite; he tucked away the Final Report out of the public eye, to gather dust in the darkness of obfuscation.

Last week several parliamentarians decided to un-closet the Report, releasing it to the media and tabling it in parliament. The regime’s frenzied reaction to the latter action, and its demands that any reference to the Final Report be expunged from the Hansard prove that the Rajapaksas acted with mala fide. The regime interred the APRC Final Report because the Rajapaksas, as non-believers in an ethnic problem, are committed to sabotaging a political solution to the ethnic problem.

The regime waged and won the Fourth Eelam War (launched by the LTTE) on a Sinhala supremacist platform, premised on denying the existence of an ethnic problem (this entailed massive human rights violations which are beginning to haunt us now). When the ethnic problem was reduced to a terrorist threat, a political solution was ruled out, by definition. The APRC was appointed not with a sincere intent but as a time buying devise, to appease Delhi and the West, until the Tigers were defeated. That is why, whenever the APRC produced some concrete result (such as the Majority Report of the Experts Committee), the Rajapaksas moved to negate it, often with the help of their Sinhala supremacist allies.

The APRC Final Report seems a very moderate document, which circumvents controversial issues (such as the nature of the state) and tries to combine devolution with safeguards against separatism. But even such a moderate formula has no place in the vision of an unequal Sri Lanka, in which the Sinhalese are the rulers and the minorities are the ruled, fated by birth to lead a subordinate existence. If the Sinhalese are the hosts and the minorities are the guests, they have no intrinsic rights and no structural grievances. That was the vision which premised our ‘nation-building’ efforts since 1956.

The Rajapaksa Presidency gave a new lease of life to that old vision which was discredited by the war and abandoned after Indian intervention. Post-victory, that vision is informing and propelling the Rajapaksa ‘nation-building’ project. The past has become the present. Before long the majority will feel (again) that this or that minority has too much of something or the other. Economic malaises, caused by Rajapaksa incompetencies and the prioritising of guns over butter, will make the need for scapegoats even more acute. Vocal demands to protect the patrimony of the Sinhalese by tipping the playing field in their favour will follow, to counter either the Tamil Nadu factor or the Middle Eastern factor or the Western factor or some other factor eternally working to undermine Sinhala-Buddhists and promote minorities!

According to this worldview equality is ‘unfair’ because the dice is permanently ‘loaded’ against the Sinhala Buddhists (so we had to have Sinhala Only and standardisation etc, and Black July as a last resort). As the fear of being overtaken and overwhelmed by the minorities consumes us, we will become more irrational and intolerant, more prone to excesses and violence. And when the Tamils or some other minority resist these blatant injustices, they will be branded traitors and treated as such. That was the path to Black July.
A nation-building project premised on Sinhala supremacism (and the hosts and guests concept) will be as unsuccessful the second time as it was the first time. Fortunately a complete retrogression is still avoidable. The mere fact that the APRC managed to produce a Final Report is a minor miracle. The Rajapaksas must not be allowed to bury it, again. The Report must be studied and debated, including in the parliament. The UNP must place it on the agenda in its discussions with the President about constitutional reforms.

India and the international community must be lobbied to put pressure on the regime to implement the Final Report of its own APRC. Here is a realistic cause, an organic solution, for the minority parties to champion (especially the EPDP and the CWC) and the Tamil Diaspora to promote, if they are serious about a just and a consensual peace. If we fail, retrogression will be our fate; the past will return complete with old and new horrors, including the psychological plague bacillus which enabled that abomination, the Black July.