Peace Without Appeasement: Honoring Kethesh

By Qadri Ismail

Kethesh Loganathan’s decision to join the Rajapakse regime’s “peace” secretariat was bewildering at the time. It still is after his assassination, presumably at the hands of the LTTE.

A strong argument can be made that Tamils of conscience – and I don’t mean Lakshman Kadirgamar, a Tamil with U.N. Secretary-General ambitions – should have helped Chandrika Kumaratunga’s peace efforts. Of all postcolonial Sri Lanka’s heads of government, she – a leftist – alone viewed the national question as a matter of justice for the Tamils. Yes, she made early tactical mistakes about the protocols of the process. Worse, she was later willing to tolerate the military’s molestation of Tamils; not to mention her party’s role in the murder of Mawanella Muslims. But she always knew that justice was on the side of the Tamil people.

To Ranil Wickremasinghe, peace is simply a profitable proposition. The future might place him in the position of being the Sinhala leader who finally makes the deal that stops the war. But it would be just that: a deal. To the perspective that he articulates, to local and international capital that supports him, the LTTE must be appeased because it is bad for business. Wickremasinghe is quite willing to tolerate the LTTE as long as it targets only Tamils and Muslims, as long as it leaves the south alone.

Unlike his immediate predecessors, Mahinda Rajapakse reminds one of the truly terrible days of that war criminal, J.R. Jayewardene. To win the election, he actively cultivated the support of Buddhist priests who desire and demand violence. Among his first acts as president was to appoint Sinhala supremacists – notably, Sarath Fonseka and H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya – to leading positions in the defense establishment. That alone was signifier enough that the Tamil people could look forward, once again, to war. (Something the LTTE, for its own reasons, welcomed.) The refusal to investigate the January killings, presumably by the police, of the five Tamil youth in Trincomalee – details of this case have been made public by D.B.S. Jeyaraj, amongst others – was a blue-light to the troops that they could treat Tamil citizens like vermin; in Kurtz’s infamously racist phrase, “Exterminate all the brutes!” Wherever possible, they have.

In that context, Kethesh’s belief that he could somehow influence what is clearly a rabidly Sinhala nationalist government – work within the system – was, at best, a miserable mistake.

But we all misstep, don’t we?

Only, Kethesh’s – and make no mistake about it – was an error of judgment made in the interests of peace. For he wanted, as he had all his life, to make a difference. His decision to quit the Center for Policy Alternatives was spurred, in part, by his increasing isolation within the more influential sections of the peace lobby. They think hope is spelled R-a-n-i-l. They understand peace as the absence of war. To Kethesh – no mere nationalist, but a leftist, after all – things were not so simple.

He argued consistently (the articles are available at the CPA website) that peace wasn’t synonymous with appeasing the LTTE at any cost; that the process should be inclusive – of other Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala opinion; that human and democratic rights should not be exchanged merely for an LTTE promise to stop killing Sinhalese.

This made him inconvenient to sections of the peace lobby, which has made a habit of excusing LTTE massacres of Sinhala and Muslim civilians, of not protesting its systematic stifling of oppositional Tamils. And, as the UTHR(J) noted, he got marked as an opponent by the Norwegians.

The blondes – daft, dismal and disgracefully unwilling to learn from their own mistakes – are desperate, having screwed up the Oslo talks, for some international diplomatic success. But they have almost certainly outlived their usefulness in Sri Lanka. Which, however, is not necessarily a good thing.

For the Rajapakse regime has made it clear, even to the most massively myopic that, unless its hand is twisted by some outside force, it will not make any “concessions” to the Tamils – despite the president’s public posture as a peacenik. Indeed, it has made it superabundantly clear that it will condone rape in Mannar, massacres in Mutur and continue a policy that has already transformed thousands of northeastern Tamil and Muslim Sri Lankan citizens into homeless, displaced persons.

Mahinda Rajapakse once championed Palestinian rights. (Which may explain why Kethesh was optimistic about him.) He now sounds like an emulator of Ehud Olmert. He, too, is fighting a purely “defensive” war. (A ranch in Texas awaits the first person to guess who taught him to say that!) He, too, must bomb children in self-defense.

So, those who banned the LTTE, on the grounds that most of its attacks target civilians – Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese – should wonder whether consistency alone doesn’t demand that equal sanctions be applied to the Sri Lankan government.

Except that, of course, just as much as the EU ban only strengthened the unilateralist element within the LTTE, international sanctions will invariably strengthen unilateralist elements within the Sinhala right, notably the JVP/JHU. (By the way, those who still insist on calling the JVP Marxist should realize that national socialist is the more accurate term. The best known representative of that politics, of course, is a short, ugly Aryan with a miniature moustache who tried to exterminate all the Jews.) On the other hand, I am prepared to bet that if the entire Sri Lankan cabinet, including its many Ministers for Inconsequential Affairs, is banned from traveling to – or just hitting the shopping malls in – the west, it will convert to federalism faster than you can say “Buddhu-Ammo!”

For that is the distressing dilemma facing those of us who do not understand peace in Sri Lanka as the vanishing of war. The LTTE is to democracy what Darrell Hair is to good umpiring. Any settlement that strengthens them cannot produce a comprehensive, transformative peace. But who amongst us does not want the killing to end?

So, we cannot but beg that all the parties and “paramilitaries,” even if they don’t care about the suffering of civilians, stop the fighting. And then:

With Kethesh, we can also demand that peace requires not the appeasement of the LTTE, but the recognition that all the peoples of the northeast – and the rest of the country – are ensured a safe, secure and substantially democratic future. Rajapakse’s “maximum devolution within a unitary constitution” and his majoritarian committee of experts don’t even begin to address those concerns. For, as Kethesh argued, peace requires a transformation of the entire Sri Lankan state, not just the establishment of an autonomous area in the northeast, through a process that includes as wide a selection of Sri Lankan political opinion as possible.

Yes, this means that Muslim representatives participate as equals to the LTTE and government in any negotiations. Yes, it means other Tamil opinion is also involved, not just informed. And, yes, it means – as much as it troubles me to say this – that the JVP and JHU cannot be left out, either. Peace in Sri Lanka means abiding by even the unabidable.

But it also means that everything will be open to negotiation. Everything. Including that noxious flag, dominated by the armed Sinhala lion, which reminds me every time I encounter it that the minorities are insignificant in Sri Lanka.

That way, we could have peace without appeasement. And honor Kethesh’s memory.


Qadri Ismail is working on his addiction to alliteration.

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