Groundviews

Sri Lanka May Yet Be Lost, or Saved


Original photo Ranga Sirilal | Reuters

Two years after the comprehensive defeat of the LTTE, the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war is still playing itself out.  Take the events of the past month for example:  the public release of a UN Panel Report supported accusations of war crimes against both main parties to the conflict;  government functionaries decried international conspiracies and local traitors;  a government minister claimed to have trained suicide cadres in the Western Province; and in the Eastern Province, a pair of tit-for-tat political killings were a reminder that full disarmament of paramilitaries and personal armies has not taken place.  With the warfare over, the horrendous loss of human life no longer continues.  However, the post-war situation in the country remains far from ideal, and its future does not seem entirely secure.

Thinking about the current state of the nation, my thoughts have returned to a moment in Sri Lanka’s political history when an alternative end to the war seemed possible – the period after the 2002 Cease-Fire Agreement when peace talks were ongoing between the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE.  The prospects of a negotiated end to war also held perils for the people of this island, and some of these are surprisingly similar to those in post-war Sri Lanka today.

The negotiations between the Wickremasinghe government and the LTTE were largely illegible to those not directly involved.  Based on the limited information that seeped out of the process, there were concerns that the ultra-pragmatic approach taken would allow the LTTE to retain the monopoly it claimed in representing Tamil interests.  It seemed likely that the outcome of a completed peace accord would be a LTTE-run interim administration in the North and East of the island.  Whilst for many in the North and South this seemed like a compromise worth making to secure an end to war, for others this prospect raised serious concerns and fears.  I do not speak here of those whose passions were aroused by issues of territorial integrity and potential breakup of a state, but rather of people who were concerned about the quality of civic life that would be possible on either side of a future border between Eelam and what remained of Sri Lanka.

The peace-brokers’ proposition was that after securing autonomy of some sort for the territory they claimed, the LTTE would be transformed from within (and by returning members of the diaspora) from its totalitarian mode of governance to democratic representation of a Tamil polity.  Considering the movement’s track record, this seemed like a hell of a gamble.  Even in the government controlled parts of the North and East, the LTTE’s increasing political presence gave little confidence that there would be space for political dissent or social pluralism under their administration.  For those of a Tamil nationalist persuasion, a strong LTTE-run administration was just the thing to build up a new nation, and the majority of people accepted this short-sighted argument.  Non-partisans quietly warned about the loss of vital space for independent thought and action, and dreaded what the advent of Eelam or a proto-Eelam would mean for institutional, community and personal life.

Although there was little public discussion of it at the time of the negotiations, there were serious questions also about what might become of the rest of Sri Lanka after a separation.  Would it retain its embattled but still pluralist character, or would it be transformed by the presence of a mono-ethnic (nascent) nation across the border?  How could this change what it meant to be a Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher person in Sri Lanka?  Though less concrete than the fears about life under the LTTE, these were nevertheless vital questions for which there were no real answers at the time.  Soon enough, these concerns seemed to be rendered academic, as conflict escalated into full-blown war.  However, reflecting on the state of the nation on the two-year anniversary of the LTTE’s defeat, it seemed that many of the same worries about a post-Eelam existence hold true in a victorious Sri Lankan state.

Certainly the trappings of the Sri Lankan government’s triumph are not very different from that which would have accompanied an LTTE victory – triumphant military displays, crisp bank notes with the dear leader’s head on them, witch hunts of collaborators and the crippling of viable democratic opposition.  More worryingly, though, the past two years have seen unprecedented usurping and consolidation of state power in the hands of a few, both formally and unofficially.  The instruments and bodies for preparation and enactment of legislation, oversight of elections, control of all major state resources, administration of justice, and public media institutions have come under the direct control or indirect influence of the small cabal that heads the current regime.  All the systems or process of the state are now subject to intervention by this small group, regardless of the legality, propriety or morality of their actions.  Government itself has been hollowed out, and its key organs captured or under siege.  State assets are given over to corporate interests in which the cabal have a stake.  Civic space outside of the state, whether trade unions, opposition political parties or other forms of associational life, has also come under attack – both directly and more insidiously.  The principle of formal (and substantive) equality of all Sri Lankans, the goal of social equity and the idea that the state exists for citizens (and not the other way around) are rarely referred to except in Orwellian double-speak.

The institution of compulsory ‘leadership’ training of adult university students by the military is not the same as forced conscription, but shares the same logic – that the rights of citizens may be overridden unilaterally by the will of those in power (with no option to dissent).  Similarly, the planned disenfranchisement of Colombo residents in relation to election of their local government is an anti-democratic act of profound significance.  The fact that minority groups are only able to lobby state policy and services through subscribing politically to the ruling coalition points to their unprecedented marginalization within the broader polity.  The unashamed appointing (and anointing) of family members and ‘catchers’ to key positions in government in a nation of over 20 million reasonably well-educated people sends its own clear message about trust in democratic representation and the commitment to the will of the people.

The widespread condoning or tacit acceptance of this increasingly authoritarian rule by Sri Lanka’s citizenry is troubling but unsurprising.  There is potent and relentless propaganda that dominates almost all public discourse in Sri Lanka today, and we’ve seen similar projects work to great effect in the past to ensnare a generation or two in the name of ethnic liberation.  There was a lot that the LTTE and its advocates boasted of in its glory days: zero tolerance of sexual abuse, efficient courts and dispensation of justice, quick resolution of community disputes, strong and visionary leadership, acquisition of land for economic development, a disciplined population pulling together for the collective good, patriotism and sacrifice on behalf of the nation. The civic freedoms and rights that future citizens of Eelam might enjoy were willingly and reluctantly exchanged for these supposed virtues (many of which proved to be more mythic than real).  The same exchange is being made in post-war Sri Lanka (for some of the same promises), with little regard for the hidden and long-term costs.

What may be lost in taking the deal on offer is the best of what it has meant to live in Sri Lanka, even during difficult times:  the right to demand or question state policy or services, diversity and mixing of cultural traditions, wickedly irreverent critiques of elected officials, the space to dissent without threat of repercussions or accusations of treason, solidarity and friendship across ethnic or class boundaries, good neighbourliness and kindness to strangers, a lightness of being or the certain joie de vivre that all Sri Lankans recognise.  These may all be gradually eroded by the citizenry succumbing to a regime whose overbearing approach to governance is greedy, paranoid and lacking in compassion or generosity.

But regardless of what we are told, there needn’t be only one deal on the table.  For decades, the vocal extremist and opportunist nationalists on both sides of the war managed to present the conflict as black and white; you were either on this side or that.  Even after one side was defeated, the argument being peddled is the same, and most people in Sri Lanka have bought this zero-sum equation.  But of course it’s always been a con.  There was always a third (and fourth or fifth) side to the story, but one that struggles to find its place alongside the voices of certainty, fear and hatred that dominate public discourse.  It’s in the denial of alternatives that the power of totalitarian regimes lies, and of course crucially in the acceptance of this premise by citizens who easily learn to tolerate despots.

While Sri Lanka has had relatively few public advocates of formal pluralism, it has always had a current of a soft, understated and unforced humanistic tolerance in everyday life that has survived the ravages of rabid ethnic nationalism and politics of hatred over the past half century or longer.  It is this which has to be guarded and cultivated in the recesses of the state, the underlife of institutions and the private spaces between and within individuals, where it still resides.

It is heartening to see efforts in the public domain – whether repositories of personal histories or pieces of poetry and prose – that try to preserve and communicate the better part of our humanity and civic engagement.  There are others who are trying to promote and secure values within the institutions in which they work, whether in the private, state or civil society sectors.  For those of us less skilled in art or leadership, it may be appropriate to look to ways that we can make a habit of decency, compassion, outrage, non-compliance and other simple anti-totalitarian practices in our private daily lives.  If we feel so moved, perhaps we might share the actions we find useful or meaningful with others.

Last Monday, there were a significant number of students who declined to join the start of the three-week compulsory training by the military, thereby risking their hard won places at University. Their brave refusal, whether motivated by political commitment or personal discomfiture, is a vital reminder that we are not entirely a nation of followers.

Yet.