Peace via Geneva or revisiting 1956?

by K. Arvind

The euphoria generated in Geneva in February predictably came under siege from the twin evils of pseudo-patriotism and religious fanaticsm. Both extremes intensely resist any power-sharing arrangements with the Tamils—ironically, the only consistent feature in Sri Lankan politics across Sinhala party lines since 1956. If the international community in general and the Norwegians in particular are laughing at our amazing level of indecision we must only blame ourselves. One day we genuflect before the Norwegians to help us to get the LTTE to sit for talks. And then we ask them to clear out. Even before they land in Oslo, we plead with them on bended knees to come back and help us talk—again. The pendulum is about to swing back once more as the anti-Tamil twins of Lankan contemporary politics heat up their Get-Out-Norway campaign.

The long-awaited Geneva talks finally took place in February and both sides agreed to concede on a few things asked by the other side and to meet again in Geneva in April. This certainly is a positive move and so the country rejoiced. Unfortunately, even the small gains of Geneva are now under attack. There is pure venom generated by the Sinhala extremists aiming to torpedo the next round of talks. A former Secretary of Defence and another recognised political lecturer—also believed to be an advisor to the President—have both dismissed the claim of some government men “an amendment, in fact, is another agreement” theory—as “irresponsible”.

The lessons of Thimpu should not be ignored. Romesh Bandari commented after Thimpu that yet another peace prospect was destroyed at the altar of legal trivia. The LTTE, believing that the South is at last interested in peace, would have expected the government delegation to return to Colombo and to work pronto on acting on its Geneva promises. Shocked and infuriated by negative post-Geneva developments here, they blame the government for the heat generated and threaten they will go to Geneva in April only if the GoSL pledges in February are honoured.

The LTTE points out that since the CFA was signed four years ago there have been four meetings on foreign soil between the GoSL and LTTE —in all of which progress of the Agreement was naturally discussed. Some loose ends in interpretation and context were tied up at these meetings in the spirit of carrying the talks forward. The CFA, signed by two parties, with the mutually requested aid of a facilitator and prepared after months of work, at any rate, is a fait accompli. The LTTE charge that playing politics within Sri Lanka and winning elections; misleading the Sinhala people by false interpretations and pledges; is the worry of the Sinhala side over which they (LTTE) have neither interest nor control. And, the LTTE further charge that Rajapakse’s regime after winning the elections on contradictions, reckless and impractible promises to the majority are now trying to chose the platform of Geneva to play to the Sinhala electorate. It is well known that the present ruling side—prior to and after the Presidential Elections—claimed “the CFA was unconstitutional and bad in law. The first thing we will do is to change it entirely, once we come to power”. This is what the GoSL delegation tried to do in Geneva initially and were forced to give up. They later praised its usefulness in the official communiques. The “hue and cry” since the February Geneva talks is believed to be designed for local consumption.

Does the poor showing of the JVP-JHU in the March 31 local polls indicate a fresh re-thinking on the part of the Sinhala voter? Had the Sinhala voter eventually decided that a hard anti-Tamil line will in no way usher in peace? The rejection of the JVP by the voters of Trincomalee UC to return even a single Sinhala representative is yet another significant lesson whose import should be understood in perspective. The national mandate Mahinda has received must be utilised to forge the structures of a united nation. Inspite of the lack-lustre leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe and mass cross-overs of UNP party cadres and some seniors, the party emerged second best on March 31. The international community and the Buddhist religious hierarchy have called for a common front between the two leading Sinhala majority parties as a panacea for the hitherto unsolvable national question. Anton Balasingham, who would hardly want to get involved in a subject as peace-centric as this, sings the same refrain. No doubt with the Wanni nod.

It is also time the masses in the Sinhala electorate understood the limitations of the JVP leadership. They certainly had entre to political power—with several high-profile Cabinet Posts and Deputy Ministerships for quite a while. The following was expected of them (1) bring down the Cost of Living (2) invigorate the economy (3) bring down the price of fish and help increase the catch-capacity of the fishing industry (4) improve on agricultural performance (5) create more jobs to accommodate the unemployed and unemployed graduates. CBK entrusted these to them on the basis of their lofty claims that they have the methodology and know-how to deliver all. They failed badly. The JVP are not equipped to rule on a national scale. Their strength is clearly in agitating and creating mass unrest, in the process of which State property is destroyed, as they did more than once earlier. The JVP, now caught in a strategy-trap, is in the process of disintegration. SWRD’s predicament in 1956 was no dissimilar. The JHU, not wishing to play second fiddle, is now openly seeking political power. The present political climate contains within it several dangers. The life of the government certainly is threatened as the JVP and JHU—integral parts of the government—openly indulge in severe anti-government bashing. The President, taking in all defecting UNP parliamentarians and perhaps working to cause the cross-over, is making his own preparations to insure the survival of his regime in the event of a JVP and/or JHU pull-out. Signalling that the Mahinda-JVP romance is turning sour Weerawansa and Anura Dissanayake hoarsely scream “let Mahinda Rajapakse not forget the JVP placed him in power.” This is not the language of an ally. This is the hate-filled language of someone vowing to bring you down. 1956 bore similarities of the political climate of today. The radical monks, expected to give spiritual guidance and leadership to the people – are today working in the reverse.

They entered Parliament assuring the Buddhist majority they do so symbolically to eradicate bribery and corruption from the political system and to show the way to righteous governance. The people believed them and voted them in. What is the situation today? The Cost of Living is unbearable even to the middle class, crime has never been higher, consumption of narcotics is on the rise, foreign prostitutes openly roam our streets day in and day out, gambling casinos have sprung up everywhere, people of means live in fear inside their homes in the suburbs and rural homes, armed bank robbery is not uncommon, owners of Pajeros and similar high-priced vehicles live in fear – some of them killed. Sri Lanka is featured in the Internet as a haven for paedophiles, incest is many times higher. These are all areas in which the activist heterodox Buddhist clergy could have helped eradicate and save the fair name of the country if their played their traditional role. Apparently, their focus is elsewhere. They are not satisfied with a symbolic role with small numbers in Parliament. They now want outright political dominance all over the apparatus of political power. I use the word “activist” to distinguish the political variety from the thousands of orthodox Buddhist priests who live a simple life by the precepts and continue to enjoy their venerated place in society. They refuse to be seduced by the beckoning of political power. There are many highly learned priests who enjoy the respect of a wide circle of non-Sinhala students and academics who go to learn of Buddhist philosophy from them regularly. There are several Tamil-speaking Buddhist priests whose preachings on TV are listened to with keen interest by Tamils all over -the country on Poya days. The performance of the JHU since they came to Parliament saw them as equally susceptible as lay men in all the negatives of the dirty side of democracy – lure of lucre, rackets in the illegal sale of expensive vehicle permits, questionable land deals, consorting with Parliamentarians with a history of rowdism and connections to the criminal underworld – and many other. Sri Lanka has in recent years seen many signs of religious intolerance and bigotry committed by secret societies. The Catholic and Christian churches that were desecrated in many parts of the country know who caused the meticulously planned attacks against them under the very nose of the guardians of the law. Yet, they are unwilling to share this knowledge with the authorities as they fear this will take them nowhere. There is no guarantee they have seen the end of these shameful acts of vandalism committed against them – Sinhalese themselves; only for the sin of professing another religious faith. In such a poisoned atmosphere what justice and fair-play can the Tamil people expect? Tamils both here and overseas have from 1956 seen little by way of change in the majority Sinhalese mind-set to suggest there can be a future in which they can live as equals. They cannot be faulted if they continue to suspect the Sinhala political and religious leaders will never agree to share power with them peacefully – even at limited provincial level. The trail of aborted agreements with leaders of governments in Colombo extending to a half a century bear adequate witness to this. Does Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva suggest a new beginning when he assured in Geneve to “look at issues from a fresh perspective?” In recent times we have seen the minds of the unsuspecting Sinhala people being fed with illusionary bogeys of “ISGA” “P-Toms” “Interim Agreement” and many more. This is a continuation of a process that began 60 years ago – “Federalism” “B-C Pact” “Dudley-Chelva Pact” “District Councils” and now the CFA. It is more than a coincidence whenever an agreement to solve the Tamil issue is about to materialize, a fearsome bogey is let loose throughout the land with high intensity publicity and with vocal sections of the Buddhist clergy and related interests spearheading the campaign. I am reminded of what President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’ said recently – referring to an alleged conspiracy by some Western powers to place Iran in bad light. “They will introduce an imagined enemy of the West and link your name with that Al Qaeda, J.I. and whatever. If there is no such enemy they will invent one for you. In case of Iran earlier, it was the Ayatollas and the fear of export of the Islamic revolution. Today it is a conspiracy set against us to prevent our right to produce nuclear energy for non-military purposes”. So it is with the players in the Sri Lankan side. The question of Tamil rights and justice to them is always linked with some element engaging majority Sinhala apprehension and prejudice. No won-der most Sinhalese think, in the parrot-like cry of a notorious convoluted political pole-vaulter and lawyer “all LTTEJTigers are Tamils and, there fore, all Tamils are LTTEITigers.” Meanwhile, significant political developments are taking place in adjoining Tamilnadu, which those who counsel the President on Indian affairs – and particularly the more relevant Tamilnadu affairs – should keep him informed in perspective. Trying to meet the Tamilnadu Chief Minister at short notice, against established protocol and prior to a crucial Assembly election there where the Sri Lankan Tamil issue can be dynamite, are indications of amateurism on the part of the President’s advisors. Today, we have the situation where Vaiko of the MDMK – a high-profile LTTE supporter often referred to as the “Voice of the Tamil Tigers in India” – has joined hands with Tamilrtadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha in the forthcoming TN Assembly Elections due on May 08. In the 234 seat TN Assembly by giving Vaiko/MDMK 35 seat allocations Jayalalitha has won him over Karunanidhi/DMK who refused to consider more. than 25 seats. It was only recently Vaiko emerged from long incarceration – courtesy Jayalalitha under the POTA Act – cousin of our PTA. Jayalalitha’s dislike of the LTTE is all too well known. She often complains of a 24-hour threat to her life from the LTTE. The Vaiko-Jayalalitha new found “kiss-and-forget-it-all honeymoon” can change the New Delhi equation with Colombo against us unless handled by GoSL properly. Vaiko is quite capable of changing inter alia Jayalalitha’s anti-LTTE posture for a quid pro quo on the alleged LTTE threat on her life. The international news channels report this week Vaiko’s MDMK has asked New Delhi not to support the Sri Lankan government in any manner to strengthen her armed services military capability which, Vaiko warns will be used against civilian Tamils. The scenario still can be changed from Chennai if our men there handle matters with finesse and professionalism. Colombo lacks the right quality in our representation in Chennai where a career man is in charge. In the changing political scenario, Chennai should ideally be manned by a politically-savvy Tamil-speaking official with established connections with the political, social and commercial elites there. Although the unassuming Sumith Nakalagama is carrying out his Consular duties satisfactorily the political results expected out of his office may well be beyond him. Experts and India-watchers have called on the Sri Lanka government on many occasions to man our Chennai office with men who can change the equation there in Sri Lanka’s favour and it is hoped the President will give this matter his most urgent consideration.

President Rajapakse has much work to do if he is to deliver on the long- awaited peace the country voted him for. He must have realized by now the Bard’s wise words “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” As that giant cut-out of his at Kollupitiya Junction called him “a fearless man of action.” This is the time to justify that faith in him and not to go by the cynical broadside of CBK “Rajapakse Incorporated knows no direction and will take this country to ruin and division.” Like SWRD in his time President Rajapakse is surrounded by contradictory political forces armed with diametrically opposed radical programmes – to all of which the President appears to have nodded as quid pro quo for votes in the Presidential Elections last November that catapulted him into power.

Critical I have been so far and realize I must share with the President what I think he ought to do to gain a breakthrough. Ideally, he should (1) “look at issues from a fresh perspective to find the sustainable solution to the conflict.” He must display the courage to steer out of fixed positions and show greater political savvy. Insisting on the safer course and path of least resistance – the much contested concept of a Unitary State – will only take you to war and separation, as S.B. Dissanayake – that messiah who was expected to save and ressurect the UNP warned in his come-back trail until he chose hibernation in Kangarooland (2) “demonstrate unwavering commitment to ensure substantial and sustainable economic development to the North- East Provinces (3) “‘invest in tsunami affected areas of the North-East to enable these areas to expeditiously recover from the devastation of the conflict and the tsunami.” Invoking the Courts on legal trivia under the guise of technicalities to deny the dues of the Tamil areas was rubbing salt in the wounds of the Tamils already brought to their kneea by the tsunami. Take those necessary steps to give without any more delay to the Tamil areas the funds the international community had sent them for purposes of rehabilitation (4) “remove the serious hardships caused to farmers, fishermen and others involved in economic pursuit in the North-East.” This can best be done by releasing some of the houses and agricultural lands seized under the HSZ programme, many of which do not pose any threat to the forces at all.

Neither the spirit of Geneva nor the President’s sincerity to usher in peace appears to be moving sources in the Army, as we learn in a recent meeting between army high-ups and a group of citizens whose properties have been seized by the army. These house-owners have been denied even their request for rent at government rates. While the political hierarchy wants to make amends with the Tamil people, the Army does not yield. It is with concern one learns from Ranil Wickramasinghe he had, in fact, as PM instructed the Army during to release some of these properties to show the good intention of GoSL. But these instructions have been deliberately ignored. Fortunately, there is now a semblance of hope and justice. The Supreme Court is entertaining a HR petition by a HSZ victim and has called for the list of properties affected. One of the risks of militarisation of a civil society is there will come a time for non-submission by uniformed men to political authority. This is a dangerous trend. Elsewhere I have had occasion to refer to the fear if there are, within the forces, elements outside the control of the C-in-C. This instance, the Taraki killing, the Bindunuwewa massacre, the killing recently of the 5 boys in Trincomalee and many others makes one suspect if there indeed are sinister forces in uniform bent on benefiting from the continuation of the war and the ethnic conflict – a danger the President must pay attention to? Though this has been regularly asked of previous C-in-C’s a separate Muslim Unit in the army has always been rejected as a path that would in no way help a national peace solution but, on the other hand, one that would complicate already complex defence matters. Therefore, the choice of creating a new Muslim Unit, already dubbed as the “Jihad Army” by the Tamil side, will only further inflame the North-East. The idea on the part of the decision-makers in uniform may be to eventually get the Muslims and the

Tamils to fight it out amongst themselves in the belief benefits will flow the army way on the basis of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic. Such a move, when the GoSL team is about to leave to Geneve can in no way be considered as a confidence building measure and will only go to harden the LTTE’s position. This sensitive development is now being discussed in increasing frequency, though in whispers. For obvious reasons, the media is reluctant to get involved in this ‘hot potato’ but as the old Tamil saying goes you cannot cover an elephant with a rice pan. Diplomats stationed in Colombo and serious students of Lankan affairs in the academia view this matter with much concern due to its potential to endanger our democratic way of life itself.

If the relief listed in the previous para above is given, much of it culled from the GoSL Communique, I think, Tamils will see them as reasons to feel GoSL is sincere in their declared campaign of “winning the hearts and minds of the Tamil people.” Likewise, the LTTE on their part, should honour their obligations made in Geneva and take those necessary steps to change the mass of the Sinhalese to think of them in a different and more acceptable Ught. The -Kalpitiya Dvora incident last week, that took place after preparation of this article, that snuffed out several young lives of both the Navy and LTTE personnel is yet another grim reminder unless bold and historical decisions are made urgently to abort the war, the blood of men on both sides and the tears of their innocent families will continue to haunt our lives. [Source: Island] – [TamilWeek Apr 16, 2006]

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