Photo from The Struggle for Justice blog
Lankan society in its post-1948 history has undergone many violent conflicts in the form of pogroms, insurrections, and a civil war. The latest round of violence said to have ended with the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009 continues now at a much lower level, but seems to operate throughout the land. These campaigns of violence have caused collective social trauma within the society.
With the end of the war, the opportunity was ripe to rebuild the country and reconcile the many divisions. During the war, of course, many statements, assurances and pledges were made that the issues of Tamil people that culminated in an armed conflict would be resolved through major constitutional and legal reforms including devolution of power to the periphery, though after the end of the war, such measures are yet to come to fruition.
The reports of global capitalist financial institutions indicate that the present financial and economic crisis is structural, persistent and long-term. In many countries, industrial and agricultural production is being adversely affected including in the bastions of capitalism, the EU and the USA. The dominant capitalist model of neo-liberalism, based on free-market paradigm underpinned by deregulation and privatization has not been beneficial to the working people. Relocation of industries to more favourable and profitable regions, outsourcing of labour-intensive production and application of technological innovation to reduce labour intensive work have led to high levels of unemployment.
Yet, neo-liberalism does not wish to give up their hold on the world in a peaceful manner. The current drive of global capital to acquire and control all possible resources such as hydrocarbons, land, water, minerals and forests needs to be understood in this light. In the name of combating terrorism and promoting democracy and human rights, neo-liberal forces are waging its ruthless war on resource-rich countries the world over.
A decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq has failed. Pakistan and Yemen have become destabilised. Lebanon, Palestine and Libya have been devastated. Nonetheless, neo-liberals have not given up their policies of invasion, intervention and destabilisation. Unofficially, war has been declared on Iran and Pakistan. The neo-liberal camp has been repositioning their troops, armaments, logistics and coalitions to launch a surgical strike on Iran. Iran has been subjected to sanctions, attacks on military and missile installations, killing of its nuclear scientists, and cyber warfare. The case against Iran is based on speculation, even weaker than that was used against Iraq. Iran is an authoritarian state, but surrounded by countries carrying weapons of mass destruction such as the US, Israel, Russia, Pakistan and India. On the other hand, in Iran’s favour, it has not invaded any country in its recent history. Escalation of this conflict, which may happen any time soon, will destabilise the whole world and its economy.
Last year, agitations for political and personal freedom spread from Occupy Wall Street movement through the peoples’ uprisings in the Arab world to protests against economic crises in European countries, Chile, Israel and elsewhere. Young people, mostly unemployed secular students with no future prospects in life led these protest campaigns. They were not bound by any ideology. Apparently, their demands related to dissolution of centralised power, and assurance of their rights for autonomy and personal freedom.
The outcomes of these uprisings and protests remain uncertain mainly because the ruling elites in these countries mimic compromising gestures while holding onto power in the hope that the peoples’ momentum towards democracy and threats to the ruling elite’s existence will fade away with time. The people continue to demand change for the better. The regimes are utilising sectarian divisions based on religious and tribal affiliations to contain peoples’ uprisings and to safeguard interests, privileges and power of the elite.
Neo-liberalism continues to be the main challenge facing sovereignty of developing countries like Sri Lanka. The dominant progressive forces of the working people need to determine the direction of change that will control foreign capital investment for the benefit of people, define alternate developmental processes that are sustainable economically, socially and ecologically and lead to a social system embodying the characteristics of peoples’ control, participation and co-operative ownership.
Neo-liberal agenda has made social protests and rebellions criminal offences that can be dealt with anti-terrorism laws, as the current regime attempts to do. The new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that came to effect in the US allows indefinite military detention without trial, and determines that the entire globe is a battlefield on which the war on terror is being waged.
Who are best assisting these designs in the developing countries? They are chauvinists including social chauvinists (socialists in words but chauvinists in deeds) and the opportunists of all hues. In Sri Lanka, among them are those who oppose a fair and just solution to the national question of Sri Lanka based upon the recognition of peoples’ right to determine their own political destiny that would allow all people to live in dignity and peace.
Recent reports indicate that the island has achieved middle-income status. Similarly, certain surveys have found that the island’s social conditions, health and education have improved. However, let us not forget the fact that aggregated per capita figures statistically hide social inequality. Clearly, the gap between the affluent and the poor has worsened. The Gini coefficient shows that income disparities have grown significantly in the urban and estate sector and income has remained relatively static in the rural sector. The increase in consumption accompanying the affluence and service provision distribution is skewed in favour of the affluent in the land, in particular, geographically towards the western province.
The armed conflict that was concluded in 2009 has created additional disadvantages in the region of the North and East in terms of economic infrastructure, livelihood, health and education. Inequality in opportunities and income can be associated and correlated with one’s social class and political patronage, the geographic region one resides in, one’s mother tongue, caste, ethnicity and gender, and one’s special needs. Hence, in addition to per capita models, statistical growth assessment models that also take into account the deficiencies caused by such inequities and that incorporate mechanisms for addressing such inequalities are necessary.
Economic development and building a united nation
Lankan society is heavily polarized due mainly to political and economic factors. The state’s cultural policies towards non-Sinhala people are designed and implemented to build the majoritarian support for discrimination and exclusion of non-Sinhala people so that the attention of the working people can be diverted from the significant socio-economic issues that prevail at the time.
The government’s effort in building infrastructure will help the movement of people, but mainly it will be skewed for travel from the south due to the economic imbalance that exists. Providing opportunities for people within the framework of social justice, social inclusion and provision of equity will pave the way for a better future.
It is not possible to foster a harmonious environment in the island, without genuine efforts to address the sufferings of the people who have suffered due to loss of their loved ones, those who cannot grieve openly, those who do not know where their loved ones are, those who cannot visit their loved ones who are detained. People need to be given space and time to relate their stories and learn the truth of what happened so that it will provide genuine opportunities for reconciliation. Transitional justice provides such opportunities for people to collectively get over their psychological trauma. It should provide for people to come to terms with the past and get along with their future. Genuine reconciliation can be facilitated if the people are not burdened by the past that prevents them from going into the future. In particular, most of the non-Sinhala people affected by the long war, displaced from one location to another on so many occasions, do not enjoy their civil, cultural, economic and social rights in any meaningful way. They have become weaker and feebler.
The LLRC Report
The Report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (the LLRC) provides us with a good opportunity to seriously explore the present state of play in the political, legislative, executive, judicial, economic, social and other spheres. That can provide us guidance on the path we need to traverse to build a united nation upholding respect for democratic values, human dignity and the rule of law.
Though the scope of the mandate given to the LLRC was limited in comparison to the scope the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the LLRC report specifically states that lack of good governance, non-observance of the Rule of Law and lack of meaningful devolution were causes for building tension between communities. It recommends creating a separate and independent police commission and provision of provincial police with better legal tools and expertise, whilst reaching out to non-Sinhala groups. It has also emphasised the necessity to have an independent Judiciary, a transparent legal process and strict adherence to the Rule of Law for peace and stability and to work towards meaningful reconciliation. What we have today is not rule of law but rule of impunity.
According to the LLRC, the lack of governance and non-observance of the Rule of Law would re-result in the creation of tension between communities. It is the view of the Commission that making visible progress on the devolution issue is of critical importance to ensure the success of any process of lasting and sustainable reconciliation. The report has also conceded that the investigation into human rights violations is a vital component to national reconciliation. We should encourage Sri Lanka to fully implement these recommendations in order to jumpstart the process of national reconciliation.
Reconciliation – Where are we?
Lanka is governed as a police state. Despite the formal ending of the country’s state of emergency, all draconian powers that were employed during the war such as disappearances, killings, arbitrary arrests and detention without trial are still in force. Thousands of prisoners that had been detained remain in custody without being charged even after three years since the end of the war.
The LTTE subjected the people in the south to terror and it was natural for them to place their trust in the government to overcome that terror. Understandably, the majority of people expressed their gratitude to the current President and the government for ending the armed conflict. On the other hand, despite many individual killings by the LTTE, many Tamil people in the North and East considered the presence and prevalence of the LTTE militancy in their region was associated with their fate and survival as a community by preventing the abuse of power the state forces and their paramilitaries had been hurling on them.
In the same vein we need to understand that the terror unleashed against Tamils, simply just because they were Tamils, was a non-issue until the counter-terror of Tamil militants started reaching the doorsteps of the people living in the south. Many disagreed with me in mid-2009, when I took the position that the conflict did not end with the military defeat of the LTTE. My conclusion was based on the simple fact that the armed conflict was a continuation of the political conflict in a heightened form, and the end of the armed phase of the conflict will be construed and interpreted as seeking solutions to the political conflict (national question) is not significant. Now hardly anybody would disagree with me that in a political sense, the conflict remains much more heightened with international attention set upon the ways the state and its people handle the broader governance issues of democracy and reconciliation. Such issues also include extension of equitable opportunities for all people based on protection and the application of the principles of rule of law, democracy and human rights. It is evident, that such an endeavour will require changing the ways the legislative, executive and judicial arms of the state operate today in political, social and religious domains.
Achieving the current ‘no-war’ situation after more than three and half decades of armed conflict has been enormously expensive. Yet we have not been able to achieve a state of positive peace due to the recalcitrant interest, thinking and attitudes that continue to prevail. With no self-critical reflections and all the bitterness and hatred being passed on to the next generations, the process of reconciliation has become a non-starter. Thus, the process of reconciliation has become extremely difficult and complex.
Measures for reconciliation
Following the termination of the armed conflict, the government has embarked upon huge business, infrastructure and community development programmes (with all their apparent deficiencies and shortcomings). Building highways and roads, providing vocational training, assisting in many small-scale industrial and agricultural projects, teaching English, and training in IT continue, with the help of many individuals and organisations, both local and overseas, and not for profit and for profit. There also have been many allegations that local communities do not get opportunities to contribute in terms of decision making or concretely taking part in any of the developmental activities that would generate income opportunities for themselves.
If the state intends to reconcile the Lankan people, one important symbolic step would be to free all political prisoners, who have been held with no charges being made against them. Those who have been tried and convicted through adjudications of institutions, not properly constituted, because of political and personal vendettas also need to be freed. Those against whom charges can be filed may be charged in properly constituted courts following proper rule of law. From a state and a government who had to conduct a ruthless and destructive war to end the armed conflict, this is not an easily achievable task. However, I am still confident that there will be a day when the country opens up its closed doors, as has just started to happen in Burma (will all best wishes for the process to continue unabated without being influenced by opportunistic, corrupted and corroded political advisors).
As we are aware, the island have been searching for an apparently dignified political solution for the last half a century with many discussions held; many agreements and pacts signed and then annulled unilaterally; many commissions and all party conferences appointed, reported and then such reports dumped into dustbin of history; and many study tours undertaken with no lessons or experiences apparently learnt.
Search for a solution
We have searched enough. We do not need to wait for international intervention to occur in these matters. If we consider Tamils and Muslims as our own brothers and sisters, then the state has the primary responsibility and accountability for looking after them and protecting their rights as fellow human beings. In the current global climate acquiring or restricting ourselves to a superiority complex of making the other submissive is impracticable, unethical, non-cognisant of the diverse nature of today’s Lankan society and its richness, and unrepresentative of our traditions of harmony and co-existence.
As many international experiences have shown, if we take positive steps to build lasting peace, the chances and opportunities for the so-called western conspirators to interfere and meddle in the country’s internal affairs, its sovereignty and territorial integrity will become minimal. Such measures will not only unify communities of people as a nation, but also unite as a bulwark against foreign interference. More significantly, such measures will create the basis for preventing another ethnicity, language and/or religion based insurgency in the island.
Lessons of the past should guide the future socio-economic and cultural changes that are required in our attitudes and actions for us to progress towards a peaceful society based on justice and equity. The three-decade long war created hostilities and strengthened animosity against each other, which strengthened the isolationist and exclusionist policy calculus of the state, thus generating sentiments and attitudes of bitterness, suspicion, hatred, prejudice and un-compromise towards each other. The Tamil community, in particular, has been dealing with the armed forces and their paramilitaries.
Needs of the ruling elite
It is in the best interests of the ruling elites for Lankan society to remain fragmented so that no united effort on the people’s part will threaten their power, control, interests and privileges of the regime. When a crisis looms, as our own historical experiences indicate, such layers and individuals will do everything at whatever cost to safeguard their regime. Pretexts are generated; news are concocted; and misinformation campaigns are carried out, so that these could be used to present a situation as if concrete and objective threats to the country emanating from such a so-called public enemy exists. Then, the cycle of violence commences.
Need for a new public enemy
The syndrome of a ‘new public enemy’ that needs suppressing through a new insurgency seems was created soon after the termination of armed conflict in May 2009. In 2010 itself, the state, its intelligence services and the government declared that they were aware of another insurgency to be launched soon using university students. This was made in an environment of a crackdown targeting the university students across the country, aimed at suppressing opposition to its planned measures for privatisation of education.
The proposed new University Act to establish private foreign universities in the island has been in preparation since then. Currently, the state and the government have become hyperactive in making Gobbelian type allegations of another insurgency led by a breakaway group of the JVP allegedly having links with pro-LTTE groups. As practised in the eighties, repressive measures have been used against any genuine political or trade union opposition to government policies.
The President himself warned in 2010 that students would face the law prevailing in the country. He was not talking about the rule of law, but the prevailing law. Hundreds of students have been suspended or detained, mainly for protesting against government policy. The burden of the current economic crisis will be placed on the shoulders of working people with public services being gradually cut down through privatisation policies following demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reduce the budget deficit.
The state has been in readiness to swoop on any protests by incorporating emergency laws into normal laws of the land; by centralising most of the power in the hands of President; by censoring the media; and by increasing disappearances and detentions without trial. Freedom of information in the land is becoming increasingly applicable in the way ruling elites and states interpret what that freedom should be. A strong example is Wikileaks, where attempts are being made to hide information about war crimes from the very people in whose name such crimes were committed. So, the political challenge will be to build a coalition under the leadership of the working people to resist the impending state repression.
The need for social implosion
Periods of intense cycles of violence have commenced with the violent suppression of freedoms and repression of rights of the ordinary people. Cycles of violence that commenced with the suppression of dissent ended up creating valleys of death. This vicious cycle would escalate spirally due to the situation that is made to prevail. Such artificial constructions are made for imploding a society from within, and I call this social implosion by a state, as against creating social reconciliation.
Despite its alleged democratic traditions, Sri Lanka has half a century of recorded history of using violence and terror to subjugate and suppress political opponents with the overt or covert use of a plethora of repressive legislation and state forces and through the maintenance of a culture of impunity among its security establishment. For example, the President and the government in the early eighties faced a crisis, which I would see as a parallel situation with many similarities to what the people in the island are experiencing today. In 1983, the government sponsored, pre-planned and launched the anti-Tamil pogrom, on the one hand, to ‘teach Tamils a lesson’ using violent means to favourably shift the economic power balance towards Sinhalese business interests and on the other hand, to crush the growing left movement in the country.
The repression the state launched then, developed into a massive spiral of violence leading to the insurgency in the 1988-89 period, killing about 60,000 people. Incidentally, several political and military personalities, who had been involved in serious human rights abuses such as disappearances, death and destruction on their political opponents at the time, continue to hold responsible positions under the current status quo. It is worth noting that in the 1988-89 period when university students protested against privatisation of education, several student leaders were tortured to death.
Another cycle of violence?
Many people pose the question whether Lanka is entering into another cycle where violence will reign supreme, as it experienced three times before. One can only compare previous contexts, developments and experiences with the situation that is developing now. For simplicity, I will limit myself to comparing the context, development and experiences of the valley of death that commenced in 1983 and continued until mid-2009, where disappearances, arbitrary detention without trial, torture and extra-judicial killings by death squads associated with military have been used against political opponents.
What can be done?
As we have witnessed many times before, when international pressure, particularly from India, is exerted, the President would announce that the 13th Amendment in the Constitution or a plus version of it would be implemented. However, as time passes, artificial opposition campaigns will be created or allowed to be built to give a false impression to the outside world that there is enormous resistance against the devolution of power to the periphery. The only time, such a situation did not materialise was at the presidential elections held in 1994, when a consistent and persistent campaign for devolution of power was successfully carried out. Yet, due to the nationalistic and chauvinistic pressures that were created by small groups within the governing coalition itself, the proposed devolution package was neither widely discussed locally nor even presented to the parliament. Though concerns were expressed if the proposed devolution would be meaningful and adequate to guarantee the Tamil people’s physical security, the outright rejection of the extent of proposed devolution and the LTTE’s persistence on separation destroyed the Sinhala people’s trust in resolving the conflict through power devolution to the periphery.
The entire country should have the opportunity to reflect on the human misery that the conflict had caused. All the people in the country need to learn about the root causes of the conflict, the common experiences of social trauma that they have undergone, and the ways and means to prevent recurrence of such events.
I consider the first political indicator of a government that is candidly bent on reconciling its fractured society will be a genuine national campaign intended for that purpose. Even if it is only relating to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, or a plus or minus version of it, the south of Lanka should be convinced of the necessity to look after and protect all citizens of the island in the same way the Sinhala citizens are being looked after and protected. Significant rights could be bestowed on non-Sinhala people with the consent of the island’s southerners. Perhaps, starting with what has been already guaranteed by the Constitution, but have not yet been fully and robustly implemented could be taken up for consultation and dialogue at national level.
Such rights will obviously be subjected to a barrage of criticism from the diverse spectrum of views held by many. For example, such a national discussion may commence with the topic of the necessity to include a legal framework that makes discrimination on the basis of one’s race, caste, religion or spoken language a punishable offense in law; the termination of current practice of providing unequitable opportunities on the basis of preferential treatment; establishment of effective mechanisms to handle and resolve all issues that arise in this context in an accountable manner adhering to the principles of openness, justice and fairness; making use of all three languages holistically in public communications and correspondence; ensuring that there are adequate numbers of Tamil speakers to handle issues of Tamil and Muslim people, particularly, where they are predominant; and devolution of power so that the people in provinces could look after affairs that matters in their day to day lives.
Attitudes of the Left
If you tremble with indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine. This was Che’s indomitable leftward attitude towards injustice. In keeping Che’s sentiment in our hearts and minds, we of the left needs a critical look at the things we have done and we used to do.
Sadly, many in the left have helped and are still helping bourgeois ruling elites in diverse ways to implement their neo-liberal agenda. No wonder why the left is in a crisis. I believe that even those who do not think or act this way still need to rethink their strategies. From the experiences in 1971, 1988-89 and the long-term insurgency from 1983-2009, one needs to learn that they cannot break new ground or hold on to their social bases merely basing themselves on military strength. The major lesson to be taken from these experiences is that despite multiple provocations of the state and their cohorts, military strength is not a substitute for political work among the people and independent political initiatives. 2012 will be a year of high significance for the people of Lanka in terms of greater political initiatives and closer interaction between the Left and democratic forces.
Ultimately, it was the bourgeois ruling elites such as the UNP led coalition in 1977, the SLFP led coalition in 1994, and the SLFP led coalition in 2005, who took advantage of the disunity in the left and their failed tactics, as evidenced by them later wiping out the new left in the electoral front. These are not personal mistakes, but essential ingredients and manifestations of the ultra-left adventurist line taken in confronting the provocative violent and armed repression of the state and its cohorts. Though the new left only genuinely and determinedly implemented that political line, it led to the political process of isolation and then to the eventual military and electoral debacle, thus revealing the bankruptcy of the tactics used.
Unfortunately, in 1994 and 2005 the JVP, and in 2005 the LTTE was being made use of by the bourgeois ruling elites to further their own interest. These ruling elites have used them and would use them again for electoral benefits. Is not this habit of getting used for the sake of gaining temporary and partial political benefits, acting as pawns in the hands of reactionary political forces, right opportunism of the worst kind? Yet, curiously, this sort of surrendering political independence of the left was sought to be concealed at times under ultra-left phrase mongering.
We do not need a telescope or a microscope to see that the national question persists and needs to be solved justly and fairly. The majoritarian state being chauvinist and the civil administration being increasingly militarised, armed violence has become an entrenched characteristic of the Lankan political landscape today. The past violence of the Sinhalese against Tamils, later on Tamils violence against Muslims, violence by the armed forces and their paramilitaries against civilians to generate pretexts for implementing their own agendas of domination.. One community’s sufferings have been pitted against another community’s sufferings by scapegoating that community as the cause of sufferings. So, re-examination of our own politics, our own actions, assertions and silences is extremely important in this context.
The question of power sharing, equal rights and equity of opportunity confronts the whole of Lanka. Inter-ethnic reconciliation and dialogue between communities should be the precursor to a long-lasting sustainable just and democratic political solution. Any one community in isolation cannot proceed towards a unilateral solution without taking into consideration the concerns of other communities.
The President and the state currently do not seem to be even in favour of fully implementing the 13th Amendment, though the current constitution already accommodates provisions for devolution of police and land powers. The Lankan state points to a national security threat posed by attempts to create political instability following the example of Arab Spring. This clear warns that the focus of the security establishment is now on scheming ways and means to repress the activities of the discontented workers and youth in the country. The working people and the youth are opposing the government’s push to implement the demands of the IMF by privatising services such as education and health, thus lowering public spending, wages and cutting down working conditions of people.
As has been done before, the communal card is currently being played again to reinforce division of the working class and the poor and prevent unity being achieved in the struggle to defend living conditions and democratic rights. To do this the security establishment under the political guidance of the ruling elite is reviving a threat posed by pro-LTTE groups both local and overseas and linking individuals and organisation with progressive leanings to such groups without any evidence to substantiate their allegations. This bogus threat is also being used to justify the increased expenditure incurred on maintaining and expanding the security establishment. Such attempts of the state can be thwarted only through the united action of the working people for abolishing social inequality and for protecting their democratic rights.
Our task today is to initiate a process to keep the momentum of the processes that have been initiated to include diverse progressive views into a coherent strategy and a minimum program of social change. We need to adopt a less dogmatic and less sectarian approach towards new social thinking and developments with more tolerance and critical assimilation. Building an extensive island-wide mass movement based on a broad political agenda that would focus on issues immediately affecting the working people such as corruption, capitalist globalisation, violation of individual and collective human and democratic rights of people and environmental issues is urgent. In order to sharpen and consolidate the political power of the working people, special emphasis should be placed on developing unity in action among all left formations in the short run and working towards unifying all socialists under the banner of a single party in the long run. If we are to be successful in this endeavour, then we in the left need to honestly and critically look at our past actions, alliances and programs.
[Editors note: Lionel Bopage was a former General Secretary of the JVP and was involved with the party since 1968 until his resignation in 1984. For more content with Bopage on Groundviews, click here.]
Long Reads brings to Groundviews long-form journalism found in publications such as Foreign Policy, The New Yorker and the New York Times. This section, inspired by Longreads, offers more in-depth deliberation on key issues covered on Groundviews