Groundviews

SRI LANKA IN 2014 : REPEATING PAST MISTAKES

Image courtesy Sri Lanka Guardian

Our long-drawn out internecine war in recent history came to an end in May 2009 with the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam (LTTE). We thus had an opportunity once more, post-war, to address anew the underlying causes for violent conflict in our society, come together as a country and find ways and means to reconcile ourselves to our monumental losses. Prior to the military defeats of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in 1989 and the LTTE in May 2009, the governments of the day were urged both by its supporters and foes alike to ‘fight fire with fire’ because a majority of the civilian population had had enough of our ‘liberators’. Tragically, however, we failed to seize the moment. Both the Premadasa administration and the Rajapaksa-led regime exploited their respective military conquests solely for the consolidation of their political bases. The continuing tragedy is that neither in the post-1989 period nor post-2009 was a genuine effort made to put in place mechanisms that could have led to national healing and wholeness.

For the sake of political gain we have continued to succumb to our baser human instincts instead of transcending them during the five years that have sped by since the end of the war. Triumphalism has trumped reconciliation. Instead of marking solemnly the anniversary of the end of war each May, paying due respect to the dead and others afflicted by war, we have resorted to military parades and political gimmickry. Our history is replete with rich examples of chivalry and generosity extended even to political foes which we ought to have drawn upon. Nations which have recovered from the devastation of civil wars (one thinks of South Africa) are those which have had the benefit of enlightened political leadership. Post-2009, we embarked on the commendable and impressive re-construction of the physical infrastructure destroyed during the war, but we should also have simultaneously re-commenced the repair of our national sensibility in order to attempt to bring traumatized and polarized communities together again. Such a dual thrust would have made the promotion of shared values and a shared future a less distant goal than at present.

Instead of suppressing free expression, we should have encouraged a clash of ideas once the clash of arms was over. The ordinary citizens of our country know the value of harmonious co-existence in our multi-ethnic and multi religious society. Those in doubt of this fact could ask any living member of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) for confirmation or read the LLRC Report carefully. In their submissions to the LLRC, these citizens have spoken openly and clearly of our imperative need for peace and harmony in post-war Sri Lanka. Instead of heeding their views, implementing their sane ideas, and giving meaningful political direction to them, our politicians have let the country down. It is not the citizenry of Sri Lanka that impedes national reconciliation and regeneration: that dubious honour goes to our purblind politicians.

In the last few decades I fear we Sri Lankans have taken leave of our senses. We have behaved as if we have lost our civility. We cannot, it seems, debate, discuss and disagree on vital issues of the day without turning violently and vilely disagreeable. Rather than encouraging those with different insights to express their own views freely, the powers-that-be seem anxious to stifle constructive dissent, denigrate, and even grievously harm, those with views dissimilar from theirs. It is only sycophancy that thrives in such a sterile climate and the end result of such a state of affairs is the creation of a destructive monoculture.

We have today gun-toting and drug-peddling politicians who brook no opposition. Our national institutions that should act as checks and balances to unbridled political power seem impotent. The judiciary and the police, custodians of law and order, might as well not exist. These bewigged and uniformed men and women have become helpless and pitiful bystanders, just as we ordinary mortals are. The traffic on our newly widened and carpeted roads is an apt metaphor for today’s Sri Lanka. If one follows the road rules, observes etiquette and drives sensibly, one is abused by the majority of fellow- road users. Might is right in this scheme of things. The bigger the vehicle they drive the greater their abuse of the road rules. The drivers of buses, the lorries, the jeeps and pick-up trucks are good examples of these law breakers as are those behind the wheels of government vehicles including those in security force and police vehicles. The Traffic Police studiously turn a blind eye as these latter day behemoths roll recklessly by. Meantime the grim statistics reveal that the number of deaths caused by road accidents is growing by the day. In the several holidays between the Sinhala- Tamil New Year and Easter Sunday in April 2014 alone, 94 deaths have been officially reported. The deadly chaos that prevails on our roads and elsewhere is symptomatic of the law of the jungle that is in effect in contemporary Sri Lanka.

Wherever we turn, we see evidence of a society deep in conflict despite the end of war. We are a post-war society but yet miles away from a post-conflict society . Our over-centralized political power structure is identified by many to be the primary cause of our present socio-political woes. The centralization of power that began with the introduction of the first republican constitution in 1972 was concretized with the creation of the executive presidency under the second republican constitution of 1978. It is this all powerful executive presidency that has:

The results of the recent provincial elections seem to indicate a degree of disaffection and disenchantment with our political establishment. Both the government and the political opposition have been found wanting. Whist there is a marginal drop in support for the government in key areas of the country, there is at the same time no significant endorsement of any available alternative political formation either.

Things up north are not much different from things in the south of the country. We are told by the government that there is an attempt by a segment of northern citizens to resurrect the LTTE. There is discernible disagreement and even hostility between the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – led Northern Provincial Council (NPC) and the central Government and its minister Douglas Devananda. There are tensions within the TNA itself that are worrying, to say the least. There are also major socio-economic problems. The younger generation of the north of today unlike their counterparts of an earlier era, we are told, are less interested in education and upward social mobility. They show, according to the Chief Minister of the NPC, a preference instead for sex, drugs and violence (motor-bike gangs are known to operate in parts of Jaffna). These youngsters live off the monies remitted by family and friends living in the West and hence they are uninterested in education or employment. A sense of hopelessness, especially among the young people, is palpable in the north and all they desire is to leave home and seek different, if not greener, pastures elsewhere.

The majority of citizens in the north feel they are treated by our government as if they are the vanquished of Sri Lanka. They resent the presence of the military in large numbers in the north which they look upon as ‘an army of occupation’. They are deeply disturbed and uncomfortable with the intrusion of the security forces personnel – in uniform as well as in plain clothes – into their day to day existence. While all religions are held in respect, most civilians in the north are saddened by the erection of Buddha statues in places where they did not exist before. These civilians rightly point out, and all true Buddhists must agree, that the latter act is a manifestation of religious bigotry that is at odds with the spirit and ideals of   Buddhism. Replicas of lions made of bronze also dot the city of Jaffna and its environs. The citizens of the north feel that the calculated placing of these religious and ethnic symbols of the majority community is yet another way of reinforcing the notion that they who are from the north are now the conquered subjects of the state.

To add to these woes, there also appears to be a resurgence of ‘casteism’ in the north since the demise of the LTTE. Friends, relatives and contacts there tell us of conflict based on rivalry between those belonging to ‘privileged castes’ and ‘oppressed castes’. Meantime the vulnerable and the marginalized continue to suffer as of old. The wretched of the Vanni seem bereft of succour. According to available statistics, there are around 70-80 thousand female-headed households and close to 5,000 (five thousand) orphans in the Vanni. Their psycho-social needs are enormous and these helpless people are physically and emotionally exploited by one and all. The Muslims who have returned home to the north after the war feel unwelcome. Some of the men of the cloth one meets in Jaffna are unhelpfully aggressive towards the south while others are cynical and resigned to their unkind fate. Some among the citizenry even argue that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is irrelevant! It is indeed ironic that this 13th Amendment is rejected by certain citizens in the north as well as by some in the south for diametrically opposed reasons: while many in the south think the amendment goes too far as a power-sharing mechanism, their counterparts in the north think it does not go far enough! In these circumstances it is exceedingly difficult for one to remain optimistic about the political prospects for an early settlement of our vexed ‘National Question’ in today’s post-war context.

On the social front, Sri Lanka, like its neighbor India, has shown a marked tendency to abuse and harm women. To add to the various other forms of discrimination, rape and related violent forms of harassment of women are on the increase in all parts of the country. Even female visitors to our country, a land renowned over the centuries for its traditional hospitality to outsiders, are not safe these days. The observations of Prof. Ratna Kapur in relation to the gang rape and killing of a female student in Delhi in December 2013 are as applicable to our country today as they are for our giant neighbour. There is evidence of a crisis of Sri Lankan masculinity which ‘occurring with alarming regularity’ compels the country ‘to reflect upon who we are as a society’.

Courtesy, respect and kindness to another human being is a hallmark of any civilized society. How may we Sri Lankans treat in a civilized manner those of our citizens who profess a different faith, dress differently and speak a different language when we have shown ourselves to be singularly incapable of tolerating diversity. Take for example, the appalling conduct of those saffron-robed men who belong to the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and related groups who have clashed not only with those of other faiths but even with those who profess the same faith. Surely it is time we re-summoned our lost sense of humanity. We must resuscitate the values we once shared. Justice and fair play need to be restored urgently if we are to have a modicum of hope for a viable future for our island home.

The world outside is watching us closely. Change is imminent in our immediate neighbourhood as elsewhere. Our political relationships and partnerships with the world outside are in dangerous disarray. So long as we do not address crucial and sensitive domestic political issues with the sincerity, honesty and urgency that they deserve, so long will we remain in danger of the ignominy of being dictated to by outside elements to do that which we must ourselves do. We need the political will to begin our journey back to sanity, decency and civility.

The highest levels of our government and the opposition need to close ranks to get Sri Lanka out of the morass it is in primarily due to our ethno-religious differences. The possibility of the TNA now accepting the invitation of the government to participate in the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) is an encouraging sign. One wishes the government will make the PSC more representative than at present and also take the lead in this initiative by setting out clearly the parameters of the basis on which a political arrangement acceptable to all stakeholders is to be discussed. We have to avoid the tragic pitfall of the past efforts at dialogue when both sides focused more on their differences than similarities. Mutual recrimination will get us nowhere. The need is to search for common ground and avoid the resurrection of intransigent past political positions so as to help our citizens to get on with the business of living. Our deliberations for a shared future should be based on democratic principles and values. The people of Sri Lanka are ready, willing and able to live amicably with one another. It is time our politicians, be they from the south or the north, stopped playing unsavoury and unscrupulous games of old. Our political leaders must realize even at this eleventh hour the wisdom of Confucius who observed that ‘the soul of a country is visible only if the rulers have the trust of all those who live in it’.

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.