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Sri Lanka’s enduring crisis of legitimacy

In light of the inability of the international truce monitors to get the Sri Lankan government of Mahinda Rajapakse to abide by its commitments vis-à-vis the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and disarm the Karuna Group, the EPDP and other paramilitary groups, a critical question is being asked by supporters of the LTTE, as well as a broad spectrum of pro-peace organisations in the South; ‘why is Colombo pursuing this highly destabilizing strategy and what does it hope to achieve’?

The ostensible answer to the first question is simple. Sri Lanka Army (SLA) commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, following his reorganization of the SLA command structure in the past three months, now believes that the military is capable of waging and winning an aggressive war against the LTTE. The Sunday Times recently quoted him as telling troops: “we bravely faced the situation and retaliated on those who attacked us. Thereafter we took a proactive role by looking for those who attacked us and retaliated in places like Jaffna and Batticaloa”.

'Rajapakse, from the outset, showed no signs that he understood the extent of the crisis of legitimacy that the Sinhala state is in.'

Ironically both Jaffna and Batticaloa have been at the center of paramilitary activity since late last year while the Army Commander’s statements were in flat contradiction to those by the Defence Ministry’s denying the presence of paramilitaries in government controlled areas of the Northeast. But Fonseka has, in effect, let the cat out of the bag. It is an open secret that the Karuna Group receives both logistical and intelligence help from Sri Lankan Military Intelligence. The unseemly spat between Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse and the outgoing head of the SLMM, Hagrup Haukland, over the paramilitaries is another reflection of the extent to which the government, the President and Sinhala hardliners take for granted the collective will of the international community (particularly US and India) to underpin Sri Lanka’s security and territorial integrity.

The US in particular tolerated Colombo’s establishing of close links between Military Intelligence and the paramilitaries, probably with a view that it would send a message to the LTTE that a return to war was not an option. There has, however, since been a marked shift in the attitude of the US, most clearly demonstrated by the State Department Country Report on Human Rights for 2005. The report indirectly, but pointedly, lends weight to the charge laid by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the LTTE that a number of killings in the Northeast in 2005 was the work of the paramilitaries in collusion with Military Intelligence.

The Colombo government is now in a pickle of its own making as a consequence of its crass inability to read the signals being issued by the international community. Having somewhat overcooked the paramilitary pudding by letting violence escalate to unprecedented levels, Military Intelligence and the hardliners in the SLA seem to be unwilling or incapable of turning the tap off. This highlights either the utter weakness of the President, something that the international community has become fully aware of in the aftermath of Geneva One.

The killing of Vanniasingham Vigneswaran, president of the Trincomalee District Tamil People’s Forum on April 7, 2006, outside the Bank of Ceylon, Trincomalee where he worked, by (almost certainly) the Karuna Group, encapsulates the position of GoSL to the CFA. Vigneswaran, it should not be forgotten, was at the forefront of the campaign to remove the Buddha statue, which in 2005 had been provocatively installed at a bus stand in the center of the Tamil district of Trincomalee in a blatant act of Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy.

Colombo’s failure (or is it refusal?) to reign in the paramilitaries reveals an inability by the Sinhala hardliners (as demonstrated by the contempt that Fonseka displayed towards Ranil Wickremesinghe in a recent speech) to grasp a simple fact; that an imperfect CFA could have developed into an imperfect peace which, if given time to mature, (in absentia of the paramilitaries) could have led to the restoration of politics being pursued by means other than by war.

As LTTE political strategist Anton Balasingham wryly observed recently, “the Rajapakse administration has failed to grasp the immense value of the truce accord that effectively prevented the outbreak of an all-out war for the last four years in spite of violations by both sides.” Balasingham went on to point out that the “four year period of peace has benefited the south enormously in economic recovery, while the north east continues to suffer through military occupation, repression and violence of the paramilitaries.”

We can add to this the words of Haukland who, in a parting shot to Gotabaya Rajapakse, noted: “the CFA document is purely based on the willingness of the parties to keep the peace. It is ultimately the parties’ own responsibility to reach peace but only with the assistance of the international community, the Norwegian facilitator and with the backing from the SLMM. The Defence Secretary, in my honest opinion, was avoiding any responsibility for the conflict but rather tried to put the blame on those who are here sincerely in Sri Lanka trying to do whatever in their power to put an end to a conflict which has had a detrimental effect on this country.” We can expect that this is the also the view of US Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead and his bosses in Washington. Thus, what we are dealing with is a Sinhala political class who are completely out of their depth in the international arena.

'We are dealing with is a Sinhala political class who are completely out of their depth in the international arena.'

As an aside, we can add to that a Sinhala legal class, if the semi-literate constitutional antics of H.L de Silva and S.L Gunasekera are anything to go by. Rather than learn from his humiliation in Geneva One, H.L de Silva seems caught up in his own sense of self-worth and is determined to fly the flag for a discredited Sinhala (Buddhist) chauvinism. Gunasekera and de Silva are, of course, both Christians and seem to be intent on espousing the most chauvinist positions imaginable in order to prove their ‘Sinhalaness’ to their fellows. Gunasekera has learnt nothing from his own humiliation by Jeyathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) ideologue, Champika Ranawakke, when he questioned Gunasekera’s ‘Sinhalaness’ by pointing to his Christianity. Note the JHU couldn’t even accept Maj. Gen. (retd) Janaka Perera as its presidential candidate when it found out he was he Christian too, even though Perera had established his anti-Tamil credentials in the 1980s.

To return to the substance of my argument, just as President Rajapakse completely misread, in the aftermath of his election victory on November 17th, the extent to which Oslo’s role is a projection of American/Western (and now Indian) interests in the island, it beggars belief that his brother Gotabaya would seek to blame the international community for the structural crisis that the peace process is now in.

The Rajapakse brothers are essentially street politicians, but the President has compounded his dilemmas by surrounding himself with a coterie of hardline Sinhala advisers who barely acknowledge that the post-1948 Sinhala state engaged in institutional discrimination against its minorities (principally the Tamil and Burgher communities). Most significant among these is H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya, who press reports blame for the sending of a Special Task Force (STF) contingent into Trincomalee with instructions to ‘be tough.’ The murder of five Tamil students in Trincomalee swiftly followed. It remains very much to be seen if the Sinhala state is prepared to act against the Sinhala police officers implicated in the execution style killings.

With the unfolding of tit-for-tat killings in the Northeast in the last two weeks, the partial exodus of Tamil civilians from Trincomalee suburbs and the fiasco over the transportation of the Eastern LTTE commanders to the Vanni over the weekend of 15/16th April, we can safely assume that, bar a miracle, Geneva Two is off. As the clouds of war loom, what does the future hold?

To begin with, if the Norwegians are ousted under pressure from the Sinhala Buddhist right, the international community will lay a significant portion of the blame for a subsequent war on Colombo. The President may well therefore resist this, keep the Norwegians in place and turn Fonseka loose, ensuring that the facilitators are in place once the wages of war become clear, say six months down the track.

It is noticeable that the Sri Lankan media, even the progressive Sunday Leader, have not mentioned the intervention of the Indian Prime Minister with Rajapakse as a prelude to ending the violence against Tamil civilians in Trincomalee. It is abundantly clear that the military in the Northeast is trying to bait the LTTE into a major retaliatory action. The dubious role of the Army and Navy during last week’s Sinhala mob violence in Trincomalee inevitably raised the spectre of July 1983 for many Tamils. But at this juncture, it is anyone’s guess if the LTTE will fall for the SLA’s trap given the international opprobrium that will follow if it launches the first strike of a war.

'Sinhala hardliners take for granted the collective will of the international community, particularly US and India, to underpin Sri Lanka’s security and territorial integrity.'

Could President Rajapakse have adopted a strategy that would not have ended up in this sorry impasse? Some commentators have argued that, had Rajapakse adopted a policy framework that recognized the extent to which the Sinhala state had discriminated against the minorities, he would have being able to win over a substantial number of the Tamils. Even if this was so, Rajapakse, from the outset, showed no signs that he understood the extent of the crisis of legitimacy that the Sinhala state is in.

Three recent incidents capture this legitimization crisis. First, on May 27, 2005 the Supreme Court acquitted 4 defendants, including one police officer, involved in the 2000 killing of 27 Tamil inmates by a Sinhala mob at the Bindunuwewa rehabilitation camp. They were acquitted on the basis that the defendants’ guilt had not been proved ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. Another defendant had been acquitted a year earlier. As a result, no one has been convicted for the Bindunuwewa massacre.

Secondly, the failure of either the government or the courts to remove an unauthorised Buddha statute in Trincomalee bus station suggests that the machinery of the Sinhala State is incapable of shedding its chauvinist shackles. The statue remains heavily guarded and no Buddhist actually venerates it. It remains a symbol of an un-Buddhist form of cultural supremacy that goes hand in hand with state sponsored moves to Sinhalise both place names and population concentrations in Trincomalee.

Thirdly, nearly fifty years after the passage of the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act 1958 no Tamil can receive an official communication from the State in Tamil. Although Tamil has been an official language since 1987 (under the Thirteenth Amendment), as the Language Commission recently observed, this is more symbolic than real.

Collectively these represent not so much a failed state, but a state which, if you are Tamil (or Muslim or Burgher), is so defective as to be beyond repair. In practical terms nothing has changed since the late 1990s when President Chandrika Kumaratunga once tried and failed to get Parliament to pass anti discriminatory legislation. Much blood has, however, been shed before and since.

Against this background, the LTTE remains fundamental to a solution to the Tamil national question. As long as the Sinhala state fails to address the policies that led in the first place to a demand for secession, it will misjudge the mood on the Tamil street, be it in Sri Lanka or overseas. The paramilitaries’ violence and associated political campaigns have done nothing to dent the support base of the LTTE and it demonstrates the utter naiveté of the Sinhala state to ever believe that they would, given the discriminatory milieu Sri Lanka’s Tamils live their daily lives in. As yet many progressive Sinhalas’ await a Sinhala political leadership that can begin the task of restructuring the state in a multi-cultural and inclusive direction.

Dr. Roshan de Silva Wijeyeratne teaches law at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. He is currently writing a book on Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and the history of constitutionalism in Sri Lanka.

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