Photograph courtesy Joanna Eckersley
2006: The Seeding Year
Sri Lanka entered 2006 on the cusp between a failed peace process and a looming war. The year began with a murder. The killing of five Tamil students in Trincomalee and the subsequent attempt by the government to deny the existence of the crime by depicting the victims as ‘Tiger terrorists’ were dress rehearsals for war as ‘Humanitarian Operation,’ in which no civilian Tamil would die because every dead Tamil was, ipso facto, a Tiger,
Two and a half months previously, in November 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa had won the presidential election by the thinnest of margins. Rajapaksa, contesting at the head of a motley coalition which included the JVP and the JHU, had paraded in the politico-ideological garb of a child of ’56. His platform included pledges to retain the unitary status of Sri Lanka and to demerge the North-East. This sundering of the post-Accord/post-Insurgency Southern consensus towards greater devolution was not a response to a popular demand. It was a sop to the Sinhala-supremacist fringe which Rajapaksa was aiming to co-opt as subordinate partner and shock troops of his power project.
The other main presidential-contender, Ranil Wickremesinghe, strove to recast himself as the champion of Buddhism. His platform was vague on devolution and focused on restoring the lost-Buddhist glory, such as a promise to build the tallest dagaba in the world.
The South was evenly divided. The casting vote belonged to the North-East. The LTTE, with its election boycott, decided the outcome in Rajapaksa’s favour. Rajapaksa’s unexpected victory propelled Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism on to the political centre-stage, a preeminent position it would occupy for close to a decade.
2006 set the tone for the next nine years. The events of that year cast a long shadow which menaces us still in 2016.
The Fourth Eelam War began in 2006. Vellupillai Pirapaharan started it in Mavilaru and Mahinda Rajapaksa ended it in Nandikadal. The intervening time and space became a living hell for civilian Tamils. The murder of five students on January 2nd had been an important first step on the part of the Lankan state towards a strategy of total war. Other seminal events of 2006, from Muttur and Vallipunam to Colombo’s complicity in child conscription[i] and political assassinations, demonstrated the new government’s willingness to fight the Tigers the Tiger way. As Rajan Hoole pointed out, “From 2006 the government began to do what would have been unthinkable after 1987. Intense shelling and deliberate displacement of Tamil populations became integral to its military strategy… This scorched-earth policy towards Tamil civilians was later to be repeated in the Vanni.”[ii]
The pro-devolution wave which began with the Accord came to an end in 2006. That wave had reached its zenith in December 2002 with the Oslo Declaration. For the first and only time, the two major Southern parties supported a federal settlement within an undivided Sri Lanka. Even the JVP gave the deal cautious backing. Pirapaharan strangulated that historic opportunity when he denied ever having agreed to the Oslo Accord. With Rajapaksa’s victory on an explicitly revanchist platform, the devolutionary ebb-tide began. Before 2006 was over, federalism would be a dirty word again and the North-East de-merged sans a referendum.
2006 also saw the resurgence of the spirit of Black July, with the Trinco mini-riot. In April, a bomb exploded in the town’s main vegetable market. In a very short time, well-organised Sinhala mobs were attacking Tamils in a horrendous replay of 1983. The security forces provided security to the mobs; the Rajapaksa administration looked the other way. It took a telephone call from Delhi to make the government order the security forces to quell the riot. The belief that the majority community had the right to administer violent-lessons to the minorities, whenever it deemed fit, had regained currency and would pave the way for the anti-Muslim riot of 2014.
Sri Lanka’s march from a flawed democracy to a familial autocracy commenced in 2006. Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa emerged as his presidential brother’s main trouble- shooter, both nationally and internationally, cementing the edifice of Rajapaksa rule. On January 11th of that year, President Rajapaksa made a profanity-laden threatening call to Lasantha Wickremetunga. “I will rest only once I’ve destroyed you,” was reportedly how Rajapaksa ended that call[iii]. Wickremetunga would be murdered three years later in a high security zone. The white-vans, which were to become a key feature of Rajapaksa rule, made their appearance that year. In November, the first journalist to write about this frightening new development, Parameswari Munasami, was incarcerated under the PTA. The controversial MIG deal, Sri Lanka’s largest military deal up to that point, took place in July, creating a trend of humongous-scale corruption with members of the ruling-clan as key players and major beneficiaries.
2006 was also a year of redefinitions. It shaped the nature of the war and marked the contours of post-war order. By the time the year ended, the war was reduced to a terrorist problem, the existence of an ethnic issue was being questioned at the highest levels, Sinhala-supremacism had become coterminous with patriotism and Sri Lanka was being perceived as a hierarchically pluralist state – a country where the ethno-religious majority had a right, mandated not just by numbers but also by history, to dominate the minorities.
This was the year in which Groundviews came into being.
2007-2015: Reaping the Harvest
The direction was set in 2006. In the next eight years, Sri Lanka raced back to the past, both real and imaginary.
The war raged as a murderous conflict between two self-anointed sole-representatives. The old myth about Tamils not having any problems as Tamils became the dominant view within the regime. The various commissions appointed to propose a political solution were eyewash, a way of keeping the West and India quiescent until the LTTE was defeated.
The war ended in May 2009, with the resounding defeat of the LTTE. The stripped corpses of Tiger leaders and the faces of the wretched men, women and children, coming out of the war zone, on their way to internment camps constituted a morality tale about the dangers of ignoring limits. Vellupillai Pirapaharan didn’t know when to stop, and that inability dragged him and the people he claimed to represent into an unleavened defeat.
With the war won and the LTTE out of the way, the Rajapaksas felt free to turn their attention to the task of politically transforming Sri Lanka into a familial state. Presidential astrologer Sumanadasa Abeygunawardane was outlining the Rajapaksa plan for Sri Lanka when he predicted, “President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksas will rule this country for a long time…The Rajapaksas will become beloved leaders of this country… The next chapter in Sri Lanka is reserved for the Rajapaksas…”[iv]
In the next five and a half years, political, constitutional and legal limits to absolute rule were dismantled one by one. The incarceration of defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka, the 18th Amendment and the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayaka were colossal landmarks in a journey of retrogression which gathered energy, ambition and pace from each backward-advance.
But the Rajapaksa economic strategy was failing to deliver the peace dividend the Sinhala-South waited for. Its three axes of indirect taxation, inordinate borrowing and spending on spectacular physical infrastructure projects dazzled the South in the first three years. But by 2013, personal economic pain was beginning to bit and the hope of a better economic future was fading, as the Frontline Surveys of the CPA demonstrated. Predictably, the Rajapaksas turned to various minority bogies to fill the growing gap between Southern expectations and Southern reality.
Logically, survival-uncertainties should be the province of racial, ethnic, religious or tribal minorities. But from East to West, from the Third World to the First World, majority communities allow imagined threats to drag them into virulent and violent insecurity. For many decades, Sinhala-Buddhists, though a growing numerical majority, felt assailed by existential anxieties. The Rajapaksas mined these deeply-entrenched phobias about minorities gaining in wealth, numbers and power to create an ethno-religious populist cover for their anti-popular economics.
In 2013, the BBS shot into national prominence, with a well-organised and well-funded campaign against Muslims. There was a direct line of cause-and-effect between the anti-Halal campaign 2013 and the Aluthgama riot of 2014. Like in Trinco in 2006, the police nodded and the government winked as monk-led mobs attacked Muslim houses and shops. The Rajapaksa willingness to risk another civil conflict to buttress the raison d’ȇtre for their dynastic project became undeniable.
Had the Rajapaksas won in January 2015, Sri Lanka would be in the throes of another round of blood-letting by now. The country could have survived the waves of repression against political opponents a victorious Rajapaksa regime would have unleashed. But the damages inflicted by ethno-religious confrontations (Buddhists against Muslims being the most likely one) would have been an entirely different matter.
2015 Onwards: Hoping for a Future Less-imperfect
In the run up to the American presidential election, comedian Bill Maher raged against the cardinal error of false equivalency. The one-time supporter of Bernie Sanders had turned into a fierce proponent of a Hillary-presidency because it was the only way to prevent a Trump triumph. Maher – like Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky – did not deny Clinton’s flaws. His argument was that there could be no comparison between Hillary and The Donald. One was a bad candidate, the other a disaster, nationally and globally.
Maher’s diatribe against false equivalency is valid for Sri Lanka of today, as those of us who supported the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government try to deal with a growing litany of broken promises.
The disappointment is most acute on the economic front where the new government is continuing with many Rajapaksa policies and projects. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration too seems to equate development with building costly expressways. Politico-environmental disasters like the Colombo Port City continue. Namini Wijedasa’s must-read expose in The Sunday Times reveals how some of the corruption big-guns of the Rajapaksa years continue to commit financial crimes under the new dispensation. The shenanigans of Daham Sirisena, the duty-free vehicle bonanza and the creation of the ‘world’s tallest Christmas Tree’ demonstrate that some abuses and inanities are not exclusive to the Rajapaksas but common to the entire political class.
But on the political front and the judicial front, there is a discernible improvement. A new democratic constitution may happen or not, but at least the 19th Amendment is in place. A political solution to the ethnic problem may take years, but at least the government accepts the existence of an ethnic problem and reiterates its commitment to come up with a solution which addresses the grievances of the Tamils. Impunity and abuses continue but not at pandemic levels. Judicial independence and media freedom have improved qualitatively. Some ministers flirt with extremists, but the police on December 3rd prevented a Rath Yathra led by the notorious Galagoda-atte Gnanasara from reaching Batticaloa. Politicians still dream of muzzling the media as the attempt to arrest the editor of Lanka e News proves. But there is a safe-space for criticism and dissension, something which was non-existent during the Rajapaksa years. It is not perfect, and it needs constant defending, but its existence is a fact.
The Rajapaksas are defeated but not gone. And their determination to regain power is playing a decisive role in shaping the political trajectory of Sri Lanka. Their inability to see a path to power which does not involve inciting minority-phobia/hatred is a serious obstacle to the task of building a Sri Lankan future. And the emerging zeitgeist is in their favour.
Is hope possible? I think yes and offer as evidence the trajectory of Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhita Thero, from Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism to an acceptance of a Sri Lanka as a pluralist country, the equal home of all her people. An event he witnessed during the post-tsunami days might have played a critical role in this amazing transformation. The story of a displaced mother, her own baby lost to the tsunami, nursing an orphaned baby who survived the tsunami was carried on TV. The mother was Muslim. No one knew the ethnicity or the religion of the baby. But to the mother who had lost her own baby, the only thing that mattered was the baby’s need for a mother. Barriers of ethnicity and religion which had caused (and will cause) the violent death of innumerable such mothers and babies collapsed in the face of a common human need. Ven. Sobhitha Thero retold this story at the seventh day dhamma preaching organised by the Sri Lanka Rupavnihi Corporation, calling the Muslim mother ‘a goddess’ in human form.
Bertrand Russell in his essay ‘The Ancestry of Fascism’ highlights the correlation between changes of ‘intellectual temper’ and changes in the ‘tone of politics’. This, in my opinion, is the task of all of us who are politically engaged without being politicians, to discredit and defeat the ‘intellectual temper’ of the Rajapaksa years and replace it with a democratic and progressive commonsense. This doesn’t mean giving a carte blanche to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. On the contrary. It merely means understanding the still-existing difference between the Rajapaksas and the current dispensation.
Groundviews has its work cut out, not just for the next decade but beyond, protecting and expanding the safe space without which no meaningful political engagement is possible. That space needs to be defended not just from power-hungry politicians of every hue, but also from societal extremists, especially of the religious variety, be it the fanatical Buddhist monks or the fundamentalist Muslims who deny the right of other Muslims to struggle for social change (the threatening of women activists demanding the reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act being a case in point). A Sri Lankan future cannot be build without a moderate centre where equality and tolerance are the reigning values. And a moderate centre cannot be created and defended without moderates.
[i] In his 2006 report on Child Soldiers in Sri Lanka and Nepal, Ban ki Moon said, “A particularly disconcerting development during the reporting period was the increase in abductions and recruitment of children in the east by the Karuna faction… Reports have also been received in Batticaloa District that on 14 and 26 June, Sri Lankan Army personnel carrying weapons, accompanied Karuna faction members who forcibly abducted and recruited nine children aged 14 (two children), 15 (one child) and 17 years (six children).”
[ii]Himal – February 2009
[iv] Silumina – 7.6.2009