Image courtesy The Asia Foundation

Dear Friends,

First let me thank the Darebin Ethnic Communities Council and Darebin Intercultural Centre for inviting me to speak at this Pop-Up Art Studio event.

The biography Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka: The Lionel Bopage Story, which Michael Colin Cooke authored, came into being during the time of my association with the Darebin Ethnic Communities Council. The story presented was based on a series of discussions that Gaetano Greco, Nalliah Suriyakumaran, Michael, Chitra and I had about Sri Lankan politics as practiced currently and in the past. There were strong arguments as Suri came from a LSSP background, Gaetano from Labour Left and Michael from a left trade union background. These discussions signified an alternative view of Sri Lanka’s history that was unavailable at the time. In depicting this alternative view, writing this biography was considered worthwhile.

Sri Lanka’s big mess was not mainly the result of the activities  of the JVP, the LTTE, trade unions, working people, Tamils, Muslims or expatriates. It is due to the socio-economic policies, and political strategies and tactics successive regimes have followed since 1948. Those policies were formulated discriminatively based on peoples’ background such as class, ethnicity, caste, religion and sex. Thus, Sri Lanka’s body politic was unable to develop a wider nationalism that transcended ethnicity. It is such policy calculus that destroyed the country’s social fabric and continues to destroy it even today.

After coming to power, all regimes even those with red appendages broke most of the pledges they had made during elections. As successive regimes imposed more and more economic burdens, people found it increasingly more difficult. During my university days, most undergraduates holding Arts degrees were unemployed. Ironically, even some of those who had medical degrees could not find work. Cost of living pressures, the rights of workers being curtailed by structural reforms as prescribed by the World Bank and IMF; lack of water and land for peasants etc. had been and still are prominent issues in the south. Hence, socio-economic and political context is paramount in understanding the evolution of the political program of the JVP.

The era we live in today is totally different from the environment that existed in the seventies with the introduction of neo-liberalism by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and in Sri Lanka by J R Jayawardena. Capitalist globalisation intensified allowing free flow of capital across national borders for investment, and regulated flow of labour to satisfy production needs of such investment and domestic needs overseas such as in the Middle-East.

The fundamental social changes the Sinhala youth expected in May 1970 from the SLFP led coalition did not materialise. So, the youth set about organizing to implement that radical program for social justice. This flared into the April 1971 Uprising. Whatever the limitations of that uprising, reasons for the conflict point to major flaws in Sri Lankan institutions. Several analysts, historians and academics simply present this uprising as an isolated revolt by misguided youth or the work of a confused guy called Rohana Wijeweera. They place the responsibility for deaths and impairment during the uprising entirely on JVP.

However, the Criminal Justice Commission records show that the JVP was responsible for 41 civilian deaths, killing 63 members of the armed forces and wounding 305 security personnel. In retaliation, the state killed between 5,000 and 10,000 JVP cadre and sympathisers and arbitrarily detained about 25,000 JVP supporters. Many JVP cadre and civilians were extra-judicially murdered not at armed confrontations, but after arrest. Immaterial of the politics we pursued at the time, the capitalist state convicted us for the role we played against the imperial state and the neo-imperial CIA plots. Yet, the criminal nefarious role the state armed forces played during that time had never been subjected to public scrutiny. The story Michael has written portrays my life within that socio-economic and political context.

With state complicity, Tamils in the south were at regular intervals, brutally attacked and tortured, with thousands massacred, women raped and properties destroyed, simply because they were Tamils. Some were burnt alive. So, it was not surprising that the gun rather than the ballot became the tool in their struggle. Since the eighties, reprisals of Tamil militants were similarly brutal and inhumane, engaging in torture, abduction and detention of adversaries, arbitrary arrests, disappearances and killings. Many Sinhala and Muslim civilians including women and children were hacked to death. The conflict grew in intensity and ruthlessness and was militarily defeated. Yet the political conflict that gave rise to that bloodshed continues.

Without talking about the current situation in Sri Lanka, a discussion of the biography Michael wrote will be incomplete. The situation in Sri Lanka appears to be deteriorating rapidly. Obviously, a destabilisation exercise is on aimed at transforming or overthrowing the current regime to bring back those who were previously in power. Ordinary people seems to argue along the lines: ‘this lot is worse than the previous lot. They were corrupt, but did something for the country. This lot is more corrupt, but does not do anything much for the country’.

People sent the previous mob home wanting to achieve good governance through constitutional reforms, reconciliation, controlling corruption, ensuring rule of law and creating conditions for a better economic environment. Yet, everything seems to be stuck in a power game where the focus is either on gaining control of the SLFP, or on providing perks to school mates and friends. Reconciliation can move forward only when the mindset of certain politicians and bureaucrats seeing dissent as unpatriotic is changed; the rule of law becomes paramount; impunity granted to perpetrators of human rights abuses is rescinded and organs of the state are reformed.

The greatest threat to economy is endemic corruption. In Sri Lanka too, corruption has become a way of life undermining the rule of law, impeding development and promoting mis-governance. The political will at the highest levels to rectify the situation appears to have disappeared or diminished. Corruption appears to have also influenced law enforcement and judicial mechanisms. Many governments have come to power promising to eradicate corruption, but it has penetrated almost all political and bureaucratic strata. Ordinary people cannot survive without giving and/or accepting bribes. Charges of corruption, even if laid, usually do not withstand the legal process, and more often never lead to convictions.

The current regime does not seem to have the needed strength due to issues of balance of power. Additionally, it lacks courage due to the indecisive nature of its leaders to act against culprits. When the regime has no conviction, courage or strength to control corruption among politicians and bureaucrats, what could one expect? Having talk shops and issuing grand statements are not enough. They need to be followed through by action. Unless the regime walks its talk, it will be like the previous regimes, who promised good governance and reconciliation, but made democratic spaces even more slim.  When we see that the same old cycle unfolding all over again, we need to be concerned and troubled.

Manoeuvres for destabilisation to capture, maintain or consolidate power have affected the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. The Muslim community must be going through the same mental agony that the Tamils have been during the riots launched against them. This hatred, attacks and violence can easily spin out of control leading to another major catastrophe. It may be that the inaction of the current regime points to a political necessity to maintain a tense social environment for diverting the attention of people away from the country’s prevailing socio-economic issues.

We also need to consider the Islamic fundamentalist currents working for an Islamic Caliphate utilising mass fear and mass violence. We need to vehemently condemn such violence and terror. At the same time, we need to understand that the neo-liberal push to get hold of fossil fuel resources in the Middle-East and elsewhere by inciting religious hatred among Islamic sects and arming each against the other gave rise to this cycle of violence and terror. Certain extremely conservative sects appear to influence and abet some Islamic fundamentalists.

Successive governments bear a heavy responsibility for the scantest attention they paid for protecting the human and democratic rights of the people. They were elected to govern on behalf of all people regardless of their diverse backgrounds, but they did not. We need to recognize the common suffering, the stresses and challenges all people are faced with. Communities become desensitised and the value of humanity become diminished when hatred and conflicts condition their living environment. Propagandists of nationalism use such desensitisation to arouse and exploit complex emotions for their nefarious ends. We encounter many, who have become mentally blinded to adamantly believe that their views are inviolate.

Considering the experiences outlined in the biography Michael authored, we need broader perspectives to understand the complexity of this situation and develop sustainable solutions. Everyone concerned about this situation need to raise their voices against building up this racial and religious hatred, intolerance and violence. We need to build an environment where barriers to communication can be constructively undone.

Thank you very much for your attention.