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Geneva odyssey: More confrontation or new approach?

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by Rajan Philips

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who made the surprising call for the government cancelling the ECT deal with India and Japan, has made another surprising and really a gallant announcement giving the green light for allowing burials for Muslim and Christian victims of Covid-19. If the Ministry of Health has been caught unawares by the PM’s statement in parliament, well, they had better get used to it. But no sooner had the government appeared to have cremated the burial issue than Cardinal Malcom Ranjith raised a new headache for the government – threatening to take his case for justice for the victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks to international courts, if there is no assurance of justice through domestic investigations. That is a shocker even though it is no more than a threat for now.

The Cardinal is manifestly unhappy with the course of the investigations so far. Not only does he want to uncover those who masterminded the attacks, he also wants those who ignored prior warnings about the attacks to be exposed and punished. It is over the latter part that the government seems to be getting tied up in the usual coverup knots. As a straightshooter the Cardinal wants total transparency, but Sri Lanka parted with transparency in investigating political crimes decades ago. What has become is a culture of opacity and coverup.

If His Eminence could use his spiritual capital to successfully shake up Sri Lanka’s culture of opacity in the cover-up of crimes by successive governments, he would have brought deliverance to all Sri Lankans in this world before they even get to the other world or into the cycle of rebirth. Without that deliverance, or getting on the path to it, Sri Lanka cannot get out of the muddle it has made for itself at the UNHRC and cannot avoid the annual pilgrimage to Geneva.

Put another way, it is the culture of opacity and the web of cover-ups involving political crimes that seriously undermines the government’s nationalistic assertions against war crimes investigations at the UNHRC. Conversely, Tamil leaders who insist on international war crimes investigations/prosecutions against Sri Lanka are cynically unconcerned about doing anything about the broken-down domestic criminal justice system. A troubling intersection of these two tendencies has come about in what the Amnesty International has called, “the collapse of Joseph Pararajasingham murder case.”

Amnesty International was responding to the acquittal of of MP S. Chandrakanthan and four others in the 2005 assassination of TNA MP Joseph Pararajasingham, and the announcement by the Attorney General’s Office that it would be dropping the charges against the suspects. According to AI, this is “another sorry milestone in the Sri Lankan authorities’ continued failure to ensure justice for crimes committed during the armed conflict.” It is also disturbing for the silence among the Tamils over this particular travesty of justice. And Sri Lanka’s parliament cares nothing about accountability for the murder of one its own MPs, but welcomes those accused or convicted of murder so long as they are able to become MPs, not by winning a direct election but by getting a spot on the winning list of a political party. Once on the nomination list, criminals can campaign for mercy votes to avoid conviction. And they succeed!

Old JR’s New Mutation

For Amnesty International, the collapse of the Pararajasingham murder case is a natural outcome of the government’s withdrawal in February 2020, from the UNHRC resolution (30/1) committing the country to promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights. A less natural outcome is the alleged intention of the government to take away the civic rights of opposition political leaders and public servants based on the contentious report of a controversial Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Political Victimization. True to its name, and without any irony, the Commission would appear to have prepared its own list of names for political victimization by the government that appointed it.

Forty years ago, President JR Jayewardene invented the devise of presidential commission of inquiry to deprive his chief political opponent Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and two others from her government, of their civic rights. That was a disgraceful and damaging exercise of political power and no successor of JR Jayewardene wanted to repeat what Sri Lanka’s inaugural President did. Until now, that is, and that too with a long list of names. The list allegedly includes Ranil Wickremesinghe, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem and TNA leader R. Sampanthan. Perhaps, more can be added and merrier it would be for Sri Lanka’s democracy.

The JVP leader has colourfully told President Gotabaya Rajapaksa what to do with the Commission’s report. The question is what is the President thinking that he can do with the report, its list, and its recommendations? After precipitously withdrawing from the UNHRC resolution on postwar reconciliation, the government seems to be incubating more Sri Lankans to go to Geneva to pitch their grievances against the government before the UNHRC. The Commission on political victimization seems to be setting up everyone in the opposition – from Ranil Wickremesinghe to R. Sampanthan, to seek justice outside Sri Lanka for injustice within Sri Lanka.

Already, a line up of Sri Lankans seeking redress in Geneva seems to be starting. International justice and journalist organizations are reportedly urging the UNHRC to adopt a new resolution asking the Sri Lankan Government to “cease harassment, surveillance and attacks against journalists and law enforcement officers who investigated attacks on journalists,” and to immediately release former CID Director Shani Abeysekara. It will not be long before, if not already, UNHRC will be petitioned for similar resolutions on behalf of long detained human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, whose only palpable cause for detention without charges is that he is a Muslim. No one knows what the future holds for another Muslim professional, Dr. Mohammad Shafi, or whether he too will be forced to seek redress in Geneva.

 

Withdrawal Effects

We do not know what plans the government had to deal with UNHRC when it unilaterally withdrew from the Council’s resolution co-sponsored by the previous yahapalanaya government. Perhaps, the withdrawal was more for dramatic political effect at home than for strategically dealing with a serious matter in Geneva. One year after, there is no plan to see, and the government has neither results at home nor a new strategic plan to show in Geneva. If anything, the exercise of the political victimization commission will only be an embarrassment for the government delegates in Geneva. On the other hand, the government’s Tamil and Muslim detractors will be citing Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s threat of going to international courts, with much approval and for maximum effect.

The vacuum created by the government’s inaction, not to mention unnecessary misdoings, is being filled locally and in Geneva in ways that the government clearly has failed to foresee. Regardless of what position one takes on it, the latest report of UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet on Sri Lanka is an escalation from its predecessors. For the first time, the Commissioner is calling for targeted punitive actions by member states against perpetrators of human rights violations in Sri Lanka. 

As Dayantha Laksiri Mendis has cogently pointed out (The Island, Friday, February 12) a new proposed Geneva Resolution could be “devastating for Sri Lanka if it is based on the Report of the UN High Commissioner for HR.” He goes on to suggest that “it is desirable at this point of time to draft a counter resolution and outline Sri Lanka’s proposals relating to reconciliation and accountability without taking a confrontational approach.” Specifically, Mr. Mendis’ advice is to “draft a counter resolution and identify how we intend to deal with reconciliation and accountability taking into account ground realities, constitutional provisions and the political ramifications.” So, will it be more confrontation or a new approach to reconciliation and accountability? That is the question.

The local withdrawal effects have been quite a few, and the government should be wise to emerging new mutations of opposition and protest and learn to engage with them more positively and unlearn the old ways of counterproductive confrontation. There are signs of both within the government, although the confrontational approach is clearly having the upper hand. The most blatant and ill-advised sign of confrontation is the government’s withdrawal of the high security detail provided to TNA MP M. A. Sumanthiran because he participated in the P2P protest march in violation of a court order. Technically, he was in no such violation, and even if he was it was a matter for the courts and not a government minister to act upon.

As for P2P, the alliterative abbreviation for the five-day march from Pottuvil in the east to Polikandi in the Jaffna Peninsula, it is an instance of local political filling the void of government inaction in the north and east. The purpose of the march was to highlight the yet unresolved issues of missing persons, denial of space and right to commemorate their memory, return of land, the fate of people indefinitely detained without any legal process, and the new concern over the present government’s archaeological expeditions. The march was organized by Tamil political groups with participation by Muslims and plantation Tamils and the highlighting of their concerns. One would hope that the government would have the wisdom to view this development not as a challenge to be put down, but as an opportunity to engage with the people in the north and east and their representatives to address their day to day problems. It is also an opportunity for President Rajapaksa to extend his much vaunted village visitations to include the villages in the two, as SJV Chelvanayakam called them, “deficit provinces” of Sri Lanka.

The antibodies within the government to the virus of confrontation are admittedly weak, but nonetheless deserve due acknowledgment. It is remarkable that the Socialist Alliance leaders are consistently principled on the question of devolution and the continuation of the provincial council system. Equally heartening is the fact that the Lawyers’ Forum for the People held their news conference last week to warn about the ridiculous recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into political victimization (PCOI), at the Dr. NM Perera Center in Colombo. They could not have found a more appropriate place for it.

To modify what Colvin R de Silva said about his legal luminary colleague S. Nadesan, NM Perera was a unique Sri Lankan who could have talked constitution to any forum anywhere in the world. In Sri Lanka, as Pieter Keuneman said it, NM was the jewel of parliament. And it is too much to expect the current parliament to live up to the high standards that were set by NM and his generation of parliamentarians. What should be worrisome at the same time, is that the current parliament has got itself a majority to enact a new constitution drafted by a committee that has no political or constitutional experience at all. Whether what they will create would be appropriate for a future UNHRC resolution is a different matter that we can only wait to see.



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Call of the Forests – only a certain few hear it

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Much is being discussed (not so much by government or need-to-be-concerned officials); presented in video clips and written about deforestation in Sri Lanka, one of the country’s most severe environmental hazards. I quote statistics (from Internet searching) to show how fast and drastically our forest cover has been decimated.

“In the 1920s, the island had a 49 percent forest cover but by 2005 this had fallen by approximately 26 percent. Between 1990 and 2000, Sri Lanka lost an average of 26,800 ha of forests per year. This amounts to an average annual deforestation rate of 1.14%. Between 2000 and 2005 the rate accelerated to 1.43% per annum.”

“According to the UN FAO, 28.8% or about 1.860.000 ha of Sri Lanka was forested in 2010. Of this 9.0% – 167,000 ha – is classified as primary forest, the most biodiverse and carbon-dense form of forest. 185,000 ha is planted forest. Between 1990 and 2010, Sri Lanka lost an average of 24,500 ha or 1.04% per year, in total, 20.9% of forest cover or around 490,000 ha. SL’s forests contain 61 million metric tons of carbon in living forest biomass; and some 751 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles according to figures from the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Of these 21.7% are endemic – they exist in no other country and 11.9% are threatened. SL is home to at least 3,314 species of vascular plants of which 26.l9% are endemic. 9.6% of Sri Lanka is protected under IUCN categories 1-V.”

 

And now the forest cover is only 17%.

Reforestation is minimal but logging, distribution of forest land, grabbing of forested land, goes on apace. And the very worst is, it looks to be under the very nose of government officials who need to protect our forests. We hear of borderline forest land being broken up and distributed to villagers to grow vegetables. They can do this type of agriculture in the land that is already available. The fear however is that these peasants cry out for more land and it is given them, never mind deforestation, imbalance caused to eco-systems and elephant corridors and their habitats invaded. Most often it is then grabbed by mudalalis and then sold to richer entrepreneurs planning to build factories or holiday resorts – all to make money at the expense of villages, wild animals and preciously wondrous forests

Which sent me back seven decades to recalling how trips out of the cities invariably set you on roads going straight through dense forest on either side. Remembered seeing as a kid, when the car stopped for a while on the way to Anamaduwa, green snakes entwined from branch to branch indistinguishable from leaved twigs until the creatures moved. Guava trees at Anamaduwa were taboo to us as they were completely colonized by curling gerandiyas. You’d invariably meet elephants who quietly moved aside to let your car pass. Not always. My brother and friends were chased and the elephant reached 30 mph. Must have been a very angered rogue banished by the herd matriarch. At that time there was a win-win coexistence between man and beast. Then came development which enlarged to development at any cost, and the elephant-human conflict.

 

Chenas

I remember chena cultivation. The waste of this slash and burn type of agriculture was lost on the child that was me, only enamoured of the watch hut on a large tree and the tender succulent bandakka and bada iringu to be plucked and succulently chewed while looking through a chena plot. Lack of water and sufficient hands-to-help prevented paddy cultivation or crop growing on permanent pieces of land, hence the only way for subsistence farming of poor peasants in jungle areas was chena cultivation. This was stemmed to a large extent by D S Senanayake’s colonization schemes, the first – visited often – in Kottukachiya between Anamaduwa and Puttalam with Manager Mr Unantenne and Assistant Mr Amunugama.

As yet a classic on Ceylon

I dipped into Leonard Woolf’s Oxford University Press 1931 published Village in the Jungle (first published in 1913) because his graphic description of the fierce winds that blew across the forests where Silindu and his family lived, and the forests, were indelibly mind-marked. Whenever the Hambantota Rest House was stayed in when it was a fine place and later, stopped at for lunch, I would walk to the still extant court house where Woolf sat in judgment as Magistrate of the Province. He mentions the scene that met his gazing eye before he pityingly passed judgment on the simple forest dwellers charged for petty crimes, which often they were not guilty of. “The judge as he sat upon the bench, looked down upon the blue waters of the bay, the red roofs of the houses, and then the interminable jungle, the grey jungle stretching out to the horizon and the faint line of hills.” Still to be seen except the jungle is diminished and receded and the town expanded.

Woolf describes vividly the forest surrounding Silindu’s village and the villager’s strong connection to it. At the end of Village in the Jungle only Punchi Menika is left, refusing to leave her home and the jungle as the others were doing. Her husband Babun, sister, father, and aunt Karlinahamy were all dead. “She was alone in the world, the only thing left to her was the compound and the jungle which she knew. She clung to it passionately, blindly,….The jungle surged forward and blotted the compound to the very walls of her hut. She no longer cleared the compound or mended the fence, the jungle closed over them as it closed over the other huts and compounds, over the paths and tracks. Its breath was hot and heavy, stretching away unbroken for miles.”

I refer to another book that speaks of our jungles of long ago. John Still’s Jungle Tide. I have no copy at hand to quote from, but I am sure you most have read this classic. Still was born in Lambeth, England in 1880, educated at Winchester College, came to Ceylon in 1897, served in the Labour Commission and was Secretary, Ceylon Planters Society. He worked with H C P Bell in the Archeology Dept. and was associated with the discoveries at Sigiriya and the ruins of the Polonnaruwa Lotus Bath. He authored several books on the history of the island, including Ancient Capitals of Ceylon, Tantrimalai, and Index to the Mahavamsa.

Very many books, monographs and research papers have been written about the forests of Sri Lanka. If persons had read these ancient classics, they would be more sensitive to the need to conserve our forests, not ruthlessly tear them down. I know I sound simplistic. It takes more than appreciation of literature to be conscious about preserving resources for future generations and the deplorable travesty of thinking money is everything. Yes, power, the good life may be available with money in hand, but how it is earned is so very important. Good breeding, good family background and good schooling are all important to develop a well balanced personality prizing above all else honesty, integrity and true national feeling. Appreciating Nature too and what it generously offers us, humans.

I adore quotes. Here are three from the two most famous persons of the world and the third from a respected protector of wild life:

“The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity; it affords protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axe-man who destroys it.” – Gautama Buddha

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another” – Mahatma Gandhi

“Forests are the world’s air-conditioning system – lungs of the planet – and we are on the verge of switching it off” – Prince Charles.

 

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CHAMINDA VAAS AN ALL-TIME HERO OF SRI LANKA

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by Sanjeewa Jayaweera

Fast bowling is an arduous task and is doubly so in the Asian subcontinent, where docile pitches and energy-sapping heat takes their toll on those brave enough to take up the challenge. One must have a big heart, a great deal of determination and lots of skill to succeed as a fast bowler. Chaminda Vaas (CV) had plenty of these and a few more.

He represented Sri Lanka for over 15 long years with great distinction. He played nearly all his cricket alongside the great Murali; whose bowling record is the best in the world. This prevented Vaas from receive the plaudits he deserved. He was the “unsung hero.” Vaas was no extrovert. He did not celebrate his wickets with much physical display. He went about the business of taking wickets and helping the team’s cause as a true professional.

Vaas has been a great performer for Sri Lanka. It will be the statisticians and connoisseurs of cricket who will genuinely appreciate what he has done.

He delivered 39,213 balls for Sri Lanka in Tests and one-day matches, an equivalent of 6,535 overs and took 755 wickets in these two formats. The split was 355 test wickets and 400 limited-overs wickets. In addition, he scored 3,089 test runs at an average of 24 runs per innings and 2,025 runs in the limited-overs segment. A genuinely outstanding record due to a Herculean effort.

The purpose of this article is to review the circumstances under which he resigned as the bowling coach of the Sri Lanka team a few hours before the team departed for the West Indies.

Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) released a media statement stating “SLC wishes to inform that former Sri Lanka Cricketer and Consultant Bowling Coach of Sri Lanka Cricket, Chaminda Vaas today (February 22) announced his resignation from his post effective March 26, 2021, and also informed that he will not be available to tour West Indies as a member of the support staff. Vaas’s resignation comes hours before the team was scheduled to depart for West Indies, which is scheduled for tonight. It is particularly disheartening to note that in an economic climate such as the one facing the entire globe right now, Mr. Vaas has made this sudden and irresponsible move on the eve of the team’s departure, based on personal monetary gain. The Management of SLC, and indeed the entire nation, hold Mr. Vaas in high esteem as a cricketer who has excelled for his country. His years of yeoman service have been appreciated and rewarded over the years, both in status and in kind. In such circumstances, it is extremely disheartening that a legend such as Chaminda Vaas has resorted to holding the administration, the cricketers, and indeed the game at ransom, by handing in his resignation at the eleventh hour, citing the administration’s refusal to accede to an unjustifiable demand for an increased USD remuneration, in spite of being a contracted employee of Sri Lanka Cricket, already receiving remuneration that is in keeping with his experience, qualifications, and expertise, in addition to which he would have been entitled to the usual USD per diems offered to all members of a traveling squad”.

It was an unusually lengthy and candid media statement highly prejudicial to Vaas. I assume that as Vaas is contracted to SLC until March 26, 2021 he was unable to comment other than say in a twitter message “I made a humble request to SLC and they turned it down. That’s all I can say at the moment. justice will prevail!

In trying to understand what actually happened it is necessary that SLC discloses as to why Vaas was appointed the team’s bowling coach just three days before the team departed to the West Indies. Should this vital appointment not have been made several weeks prior?

I understand that David Sarkar who was the contracted bowling coach of the Sri Lanka team left the country no sooner the second test match between Sri Lanka and England concluded on January 26, 2021. I have not seen a media statement from SLC explaining why Sarkar terminated his contract and whether the termination was unilateral or mutually agreed. It would be good to know whether there was a clause in the contract requiring Sarkar to give at least three months notice for early termination and if not given whether SLC is entitled to financial compensation. This is how employment contracts are drafted in the private sector and hopefully SLC has a similar clause when they contract both foreign as well as local coaches.

Considering the above there is a question mark as to why the SLC waited until February 19, 2021, to announce the appointment of Vaas as the bowling coach? This is three weeks after Sarkar left his post. Was SLC trying to find an alternative coach and only due to their failure turned to Vaas at the last minute? By any stretch of imagination, appointing a person with only three days notice for an overseas assignment seems exceptionally unprofessional. Today, International cricket is big business, and there is no way that important appointments should be made at such short notice.

It is true that Vaas is contracted to SLC but only as a “Consultant Coach”. A consultant’s job in the business world is significantly different from that of a full-time assignment. Therefore, should SLC and Vaas not have negotiated a new or even a supplementary contract? Was Vaas being appointed as the permanent bowling coach or just for this tour?

The SLC takes issue because Vaas resigned only a few hours before the team’s departure. We must assume that SLC had not negotiated terms with Vaas prior to announcing his appointment. Otherwise, there is no reason for a financial dispute. The only plausible explanation is that the SLC assumed that because Vaas was contracted as a “Consultative Coach”, he had no option but to accept this appointment? The SLC is unfortunately silent in these matters.

SLC has mentioned that Vaas has made a decision based on “personal monetary gain” What is wrong with that? How many others at the SLC and the many foreign coaches in the team not motivated by personal monetary gain? Are they working for free?

Unfortunately, in our part of the world, those in top positions reposed with responsibility tend to agree to any terms and conditions laid down by “white-skinned” applicants. However, when it comes to our own equally skilled and capable, every effort is made to refuse market terms. I have seen this even in the private sector.

In this instance, based on information in the public domain, I do not think that Vaas requested anything on par with the remuneration paid to Sarkar. Only an additional US $ 75 per day as his per diem allowance?

The SLC used the word “held to ransom” by Vaas in their media release. If indeed the enhanced amount was only US $ 75 per day, it seems the insinuation seems over the top.

SLC also states, “It is particularly disheartening to note that in an economic climate such as the one facing the entire globe right now”, that Vaas had wanted an increase in his per diem allowance. I find this an extraordinary statement coming from the same team who proposed that a cricket stadium be built in Homagama at the cost of several billion rupees during the pandemic! Are these guys really serious?

Sri Lanka has very few real heroes other than in the armed forces who fought during the terrorist war against the LTTE and the Sri Lankan cricketers who notably represented the country when Sri Lanka cricket came of age. Between 1990 to 2005 we woke to read news reports of our Army, Navy and Air Force camps being overrun and with many fatalities and ammunition and arms lost to the LTTE. The bombing of the Central Bank, the attack on the Bandaranaike International Airport and the oil storage tanks in Kolonawwa were disheartening. Amid this mayhem the only shining light and ray of hope was the performance of our cricketers. They gave us hope and much pleasure in those depressing times.

The best example for me was my 65-year-old mother becoming a cricket fanatic from 1995 onwards. She would get up early to cook and then have a shower and sit in front of the TV to watch our “boys” after firmly telling our father not to disturb her! She would call me during meetings to ask who was Murali’s batting coach or why Sanath only wants to hit sixes and fours!

There is no doubt that Chaminda Vaas and those who won the World Cup in 1996 and became a world cricket force were our true heroes. They made us proud to be Sri Lankans and showed how there is a way if there is a will. I am sure the many thousands of our soldiers fighting in the jungles would have been genuinely inspired by the deeds of Vaas, Murali, Sanath, Sanga, Arjuna, Aravinda, Roshan, Hashan and many others. In my view, SLC’s media release on Chaminda Vaas is a poorly thought, rushed, and one-sided document.

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NM and Abe Lincoln Pragmatists or Opportunists?

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by Kumar David

Leave aside the difference in measure – gigantic versus small country – or the nature of the endeavours and try if you can to bridge in your mind the century between the 1850s and the 1960s. I think I can’t ask you to forget that Lincoln succeeded in the Civil War and in proclaiming Emancipation while on both the National Question and the so-called Coalition Tactic to take half a step to socialism, NM and the left suffered setbacks. However both men had a characteristic in common; they made crucial tactical compromises on the way. A pragmatist is one who makes needed compromises but does not lose sight of his principles, an opportunist sells out for narrow gain, and a realist throws up his hands in despair and lives with reduced moral commitments.

Did you know that until the last years of his life Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist? He considered slavery immoral and economically retrogressive but he conceded that it was lawful and constitutional. Technically he was right till the 13th Amendment of 1865 after the Civil War. The American Constitution, up to then, did not explicitly endorse slavery but it did include clauses protecting the institution and Lincoln bowed. It is not possible to justify the ‘lapse’ in terms of values of the times because there existed at the time an Abolitionist Movement led by people like William Lloyd Garrison who demanded that slavery be immediately abolished and that freed slaves be incorporated as equal members of society. Abolitionists called the Constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.” Though Lincoln worked with the abolitionists he was not one of them. Lincoln’s deepest commitment was not to the abolition of slavery but to the preservation of the Union. This is all well-known and you will find what I have said at many sources, for example:

 

Great Emancipator and Smart Pragmatist

Though Lincoln opposed slavery morally, he did not believe until much later that blacks should have the same social and political rights as whites. During the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas who alleged he supported “negro equality” (like Sinhalese politicians flaying the left: “Rata Demalunta Vikka“) Lincoln defensively declared: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of social and political equality of the white and black races” and he opposed blacks having the right to vote, serve on juries or intermarry with whites. This is hard to reconcile with the Great Emancipator but his views evolved over time. He did want blacks to have the fullest opportunity improve and fulfil themselves and even have their own country. He favoured a separate country being carved out in Central America for blacks: “Given the differences between the two races and white hostility to blacks it would be better to be separated.” – August 1862 statement to a black delegation at the White House. Much earlier, constitution drafter Thomas Jefferson doubted that blacks and whites could live together and advocated a black homeland in Africa for freed slaves – it did take shape eventually as Liberia; Negro Eelam! In 1854 Lincoln wished to free the slaves and send them to Liberia. His epiphany was when the tide of battle turned in the Civil War. In September 1863 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

There is no doubt that all his life Lincoln abhorred slavery and considered it morally repugnant. But he judged till the late the 1850s that the white population would not accept abolition and adopted a pragmatic approach that could yield practical results. This is fascinating; similar but a time-reversed sequence to NM’s retreat on Sinhala Only later in life. In his personal convictions confirmed by my own familiarity (I was a young Samasamajist in the 1950s), NM was firmly committed to the language rights of the Tamils. He was an intransigent advocate of Parity of Status to an extent that many in the LSSP and CP (Philip had sold out by then) – Jack Kotalawela, Robert Gunewardena, Mahanama Samaraweera, Somaweeera Chandrasiri and others who we at the time called turncoats – simply could not comprehend. I know that NM was the clearest advocate of an equitable status for the minorities in the 1950s and he took his stand boldly to the trade unions and the working class. Maybe his training as a constitutionalist helped. Nor was he enamoured of the shilly-shally drivel of Tamil politicians and lawyers; he stood out much bigger than them. Alas the Sinhala electorate was to teach him a bitter lesson. It was not 1952 or 1956, the LSSP and CP did well in both, but the crushing defeats of the March and July 1960 elections that smothered the left. Lincoln won the final lap; NM started out strong but narrow nationalism finally defeated him.

 

Parity of Status

The lesson was painful but abundantly clear and NM, pragmatist per excellence compared to other LSSP leaders, drew it first. No party that fails to advocate the cultural primacy and political hegemony of Sinhala-Buddhism can win political power in Lanka. This has been true for 70 years; the intervention of a civil war hardened it. Lincoln never in his soul accepted slavery, but for the main part of his political life he did not place abolition on his programme. NM despised Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism but in the mid-1960s he gave up leading the charge against it. There is no way the Left could have turned back the tide of ethno-religious nationalism; history was being written by deep social and historical forces. Hence NM’s decision in the final decades of life to partner with the ‘progressive petty-bourgeoisie; our day has yet to come’. Inability of left ideology to defeat nationalism is best illustrated by the fate of the movement that displaced the LSSP-CP as the left-mainstream in subsequent decades. The JVP could not break from Sinhala nationalism for the first half-century of its existence. Worldwide, class receded to make way for ethnicity (linguistic, racial, cultural or fealty to an extravaganza of gods) as the primary driver of social conflict. Marx forgot to add ethno-national hubris to religion as the world’s bestselling opium.

This essay must not be misunderstood as an apology for the Lankan left’s accommodation of nationalism (quintessentially leftists are internationalists whatever national pragmatism compels in day to day matters) but I do insist that the ‘old-left’ was pragmatic not opportunist while today’s ‘Dead-Left’ is concerned with what leaders get for themselves; programmes don’t matter. I therefore firmly underline that neither Lincoln nor NM were opportunists in this pejorative sense. There has been scholarship enough to fill libraries about Lincoln and slavery and no judgement that I can add will be useful. I would however ask that my intervention today be read as an honest attempt at the evaluation of two persons in relation to the prevailing conflicts of their times.

I will conclude with a few personal comments about pragmatism that I trust a few of you will find interesting. Those who do me the honour of reading my column and those who have had the misfortune of personal acquaintance, have some idea of my views. I am an unrepentant Marxist, an internationalist who despises all nationalisms (Sinhala, Tamil, Timbuctoan), who draws strength from materialism, sees culture as a social product, and has trust in dialectics and science. Sometimes I confront the challenge “Marxism is dead and buried; it has no future; see what happened to the Soviet Union?” This is daft; the stuff of superficial minds. Imagine if the crimes of the Burmese Buddhist Army or Narayana Modi’s Hindutva were adduced as evidence that Buddha was a no-good dreamer or Hinduism is a load of crap! My Christian education equips me to play this game even better with the Church. I have no time for imbeciles with no inclination to philosophy or methodology.

But there is a pragmatic point. Socialism will not dawn tomorrow, nor is a classless utopia just over the horizon. Lenin’s brilliant strategy of a party of professional revolutionaries is of zero relevance one hundred years on. Guevara’s thesis is a one-of exception for Cuba. Modern Marxists must be pragmatic in dealing with the actually existing world while retaining their vision. “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you: If you can dream and not make dreams your master: If you can wait and not be tired by waiting”, then dear boy or girl you will make a splendid pragmatist who can strive for decent objectives with good sense. People who are in a hurry to discard ideals actually never had any. Sell-outs are opportunists, simple scoundrels. Marxists must learn to navigate complicated currents between actually existing liberal-democracy and aspirations of equity, between decaying finance-capital and desired social democracy, and seek allies to defeat extremists whether the American Trump-hooligan variety, Asian ethno-religious mobs, or other neo-fascisms elsewhere. When the Lankan regime’s best friends at the UNHRC include Belarus, the Philippines, Egypt, Russia and Venezuela it confounds my dutiful countrymen who venerate patriotism as a sacred obligation.

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