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Government by, for and with the UNHRC or the people?

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by Malinda Seneviratne

Last week we wrote that it’s time for the Geneva Circus and that it would come with molehills and mountains. Well, now we have it all in a single document. The report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka is now in the public domain. A dismissing observation frequently used by high school debaters in another era is apt: ‘It reminds one of a Texan bull — a point here, a point here and, yes, a lot of bull between.’

As expected the report waxes eloquent over Resolution 30/1, one which the then Government in its wisdom (read ‘a combination of arrogance, ignorance and pernicious intent’) co-sponsored and from which this government duly withdrew. That co-sponsorship was severely criticized by the then opposition and it is reasonable to assume that the defeat of the Yahapalana Government had a lot to do with that intemperate move. It is not surprising that apart from the aghast of the likes of Mangala Samaraweera and the pro-resolution NGO adjuncts of that government, the decision to withdraw was barely even commented upon in Sri Lanka. Had to be done, was done. That was the message.

The UNHRC report then talks of ‘emerging threats to reconciliation, accountability and human rights’. Flag that word ‘emerging.’ We’ll get back to it presently. The implementation of Resolution 30/1 is commented on. Conclusions and recommendations are offered.

Here are the ‘threats’: a) militarization of civilian government functions, b) Reversal of Constitutional safeguards, c) political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations, d) majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric, e) surveillance and intimidation of civil society and shrinking democratic space, f) new and exacerbated human rights concerns.

Appointment of ex-military officers as heads of certain state institutions doesn’t constitute ‘militarization.’ They are, for all intents and purposes, civilians and have the same legitimacy as, say, some NGO backer of a particular government being appointed to head, say, the State Pharmaceutical Corporation. However, the extensive role of the security forces in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic can certainly be construed as ‘militarization.’ The report divests comment of context. If Sri Lanka has had any success in managing the pandemic, it is on account of two factors: a strong health infrastructure dominated by state agencies and the absolute commitment at great risk of security forces in tracking and tracing operations over and above the daily grind of ensuring that basic safety protocols are maintained.

It reminds one of the hue and cry over the relief centers set up in anticipation of the end of the conflict and gradually downsized as per lessening requirements following resettlement of the displaced. ‘Concentration camps!’ screamed the objectors, who, not surprisingly are still to go-to people for information when reports such as this are compiled and who, again unsurprisingly, were ardent backers of the Yahapalana government whose ‘performance,’ again unsurprisingly, is (mildly) applauded in the report. Just imagine a bunch of NGOs handling that unprecedented situation where hundreds of thousands of civilians previously held hostage by the LTTE had to be fed, clothed, housed and most importantly connected with families torn apart as the LTTE corralled and moved them to maintain its ‘human shield’. Just imagine a single ministry or department handling the same. It would have been a disaster.

The High Commissioner is ‘particularly troubled’ by the appointment of Lt Gen Shavendra Silva as Army Commander and Maj Gen (rtd) Kamal Gunaratne as Secretary, Ministry of Defence, because ‘it is ALLEGED (note the word) that they are implicated in ALLEGED (that word again) war crimes and crimes against humanity.’ Governments cannot punish anyone by denying seniority-driven promotions on account of allegations, and certainly not those submitted by individuals and organizations with dubious agenda based on statements/claims that are unsubstantiated. That’s with respect to the Army Commander. As for Gunaratne, he is, as pointed out above, a civilian and the objections on account of allegations are of no worth for the very same reasons mentioned with respect to Silva’s appointment.

Constitutional safeguards. The reference is to the 20th Amendment and talks of ‘democratic gains of the 19th Amendment’. The key ‘issue’ for Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner, is ‘[the erosion] of the independence of key commissions and institutions on account of procedures to select, appoint and dismiss. The 19th, she says, made for a constitutional council of ‘eminent persons’. The CC was severely tinted in favor of politicians. Their eminence, we don’t have to talk about. As for ‘civil society representatives’ they were all political addicts of the then government. They rubber stamped the will (whims and fancies, really) of the then Prime Minister. The 20th has a Parliamentary Council. All politicians. As eminent or otherwise as those in the CC. And look what they’ve done! They approved the promotion of the six most senior judges of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court! How appalling, eh? Then they approved the top most senior judges of lower courts plus a highly respected senior lawyer plus a person from the AG’s Department to fill vacancies in the Appellate Court. Appalling, that!

To be fair, not all appointments to the various commissions followed the same logic. Partisanship has been a factor. However, nothing in these appointments are ‘worse’ than those we saw during the yahapalanaya years; those appointments didn’t provoke as much as a murmur from the bosses of the UNHRC at the time. Telling!

As for ‘democratic space,’ the government has not held the long-postponed provincial council elections. True, they are white elephants. True they are the outcome of the most pernicious piece of post-independence legislation (the 13th Amendment). It’s part of the constitution though. Hold them or amend the constitution, that’s what is logical. Apart from this, it is silly to say that democratic space has shrunk. Elections were held just a few months ago. No complaints of any wrongdoing there. NGO activists can claim to be scared to speak. Claim. It is useful to say ‘scared’.

The report talks about political victimization. Now there are two sides to this coin. The gripe is about cases filed during the previous regime being withdrawn. Fair enough. However, the UNHRC has not bothered to consider the possibility that there were thousands who were hauled before the FCID during that period, many put behind bars etc., but no one found guilty. Whether this is due to some back-house deal among politicians or simply lack of evidence, we don’t know. However, it is no secret that the FCID was run by a few pro-UNP lawyers who used the mechanism to harass one and all who they imagined were Rajapaksa loyalists. If indeed THAT was victimization, offering relief is certainly not out of order. The report makes much of the Shani Abeysekera case, forgetting that he was in the thick of things in the vendetta circus of the previous regime.

The report takes issue with the ‘Commission on Victimization’. The High Commissioner alleges, ‘The Commission has also interfered in other criminal trials, including by withholding documentary evidence, threatening prosecutors with legal action, and running parallel and contradictory examinations of individuals already appearing before trial courts.’ It’s up to the Commission to respond to these charges, which are certainly serious.

Then it talks of ‘majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric’. First off, we’ve had a nauseating load of ‘minoritarianism’ and minoritarian-driven ‘exclusionary rhetoric’. Secondly, the allegations are nothing more that perceptions and demonstrate a woeful lack of appreciation of history, heritage and most importantly demographic realities.

For example, the report says, ‘In June 2020, a Presidential Task Force was established on the sensitive issue of Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, consisting almost entirely of Sinhalese members, including two Buddhist priests, despite the diverse population and heritage of the region.’ Here’s the truth. The vast majority of archeological sites in the island that are ‘Buddhist’ in character so happen to be in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The vandalism of the same at the hands of the LTTE is very well documented. The Government could have included Muslim and Tamil historians and/or archaeologists in this Task Force, true, but the UNHRC statement seems to confuse the past and present. This is archaeology. Period.

As one might expect, the issue of disposing the bodies of the Covid-19 dead has been mentioned. This is a contentious issue with respect to which the Government has not covered itself in glory. However, the politicization of the issue has not been the preserve of the government or the majority community. Not a single all-Muslim community has come forward to say ‘bury them here, right here in our village!’ That ‘lack’ indicates how politicized the issue is, over and above the constant shifting of goal-posts regarding this issue by Muslim representatives (first it was ‘our religious right’ and when that was sought to be affirmed by arranging burial in the Maldives it was ‘we want to be buried in our motherland; now God’s Kingdom now and now Motherland!). Anyway, the UNHRC alleges ‘impact on religious freedom’ and talks of the Covid-19 pandemic ‘exacerbating the prevailing marginalization and discrimination suffered by the Muslim community’.

Marginalized? In what way? Discrimination? In what way? Has Bachelet been advised on privileges enjoyed by the Muslims that are denied to other religious communities? Has the UNHRC talked of the privileges embedded in Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act and of course the rank sexism in that community affirmed by the same? Is the marginalization and discrimination of ‘Muslims women’ not an issue for the UNHRC?

The section on surveillance and intimidation of civil society is laughable. Are these actors, with sad and even corrupt histories, above the law? Can they not be questioned or investigated? In any event, all we have with respect to this ‘issue’ are (we assume for lack of any other evidence), complaints. The complainants, as is well known, need to paint a picture of woe to remain relevant (and their organizations to remain financially viable). What’s wrong in checking on funding sources in a world where international organizations are used as cat’s paws by certain countries to destabilize others, especially when the governments in power are not ‘friendly’. This government is certainly not malleable. The previous one was not just malleable but seemed to consider genuflection an article of faith!

The section on Hejaaz Hizbullah is not without merit. There were technical errors committed in the arrest. He’s under a detention order. The UNHRC is upset that he might go for 10 months without being charged. It is indeed revealing of the true political will of the UNHRC that it found no compulsion to comment on the case of Pilleyan (who went 5 years (!) without being charged!).

‘Mysterious deaths under custody’ is an issue. It is a long-standing issue. The 2015-2019 period saw many such cases. UNHRC noted some of these cases but didn’t make a song and dance about it. Molehills were left as molehills. However, such ‘incidents’ scar the government. It’s something the Government does not need.

It is then a report that is full of exaggeration and in a sense a regurgitated whine over Resolution 30/1. It is a report that is built on a long history of falsehood and exaggeration furnished almost exclusively by actors who are certainly not dispassionate nor apolitical but rather had heavily invested in certain outcomes that have nothing to do with human rights or democracy. It is, nevertheless, an official report which charges the government among other things of not responding to queries submitted to it. The Foreign Ministry needs to respond comprehensively.


On the face of it, one might say that this report is just one of the many things that came up this week, but considering the history of such documents and the possible impact, it does warrant extensive response. For example, while the UNHRC report tutors the government on do’s and don’ts, it calls upon the Human Rights Council and member states to do much more than knuckle-rapping.

It wants the Council and member states to explore possible targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged (cute term, that!) perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses (yes, guilty until proven innocent, over and above the fact that allegations have been submitted by individuals and organization that have pernicious agenda, the fact that substantiation is weak and reliability of witnesses worth little more than toilet wash). They want to stringent vetting procedures applied to Sri Lankan police and military personnel identified for military exchanges and training programs. Based on allegations, yes.

But here’s something cuter. The Council and member states are urged to ‘prioritize support to civil society initiatives and efforts to reparation and victims’ assistance and prioritize victims and their families for assistance in their bilateral humanitarian, development and scholarship programs.’ Rewards for those who follow the script? The UNHRC could but will not revisit the term ‘civil society’ with respect to Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile a gazette was issued on Thursday by the President’s Secretary Dr P.B. Jayasundera notifying the public of the appointment of a three person Commission of Inquiry (Supreme Court judge A.H.M.D. Nawaz, as Chairperson former IGP Chandra Fernando and retired District Secretary Nimal Abeysiri) to investigate all allegations of human rights. The Commission has been given six months to report findings. The gazette notification alludes to the government’s decisions from withdrawing from Resolutions 30/1, 40/1 and 34/1, notwithstanding which pledges to work with the UN and its agencies on accountability and human resource development to achieve sustainable peace and reconciliation.

The government will not be applauded by the UNHRC. That’s for sure. However apart from this ‘basic’ and the basic of comprehensive response, it is important for the government to retain the confidence of the citizens. That’s not only about the UNHRC circus, however. It’s about delivering promises, being acutely aware of and sticking to mandate. In the end, that’s what will matter most.



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Politics

The British will not learn English, let’s not kid ourselves

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The UK and others hell-bent on censuring Sri Lanka for imagined war crimes frequently refer to documents that are based on a report issued by a ‘panel of experts’ appointed by Ban Ki-moon. The Darusman Report is what it is called. There are lots of claims in that document but no one can claim that any of it was ‘independently confirmed.’ The sources will remain a mystery for years to come. In the United Kingdom, they’ve not heard of the word ‘contradiction’ it seems. Certain things that are partisan and come unconfirmed are permissible whereas other stuff that’s independent (unless the UK actually sided with the Sri Lankan security forces in the last days of the war on terrorism) are out of order.

by Malinda Seneviratne

The United Kingdom, it is reported, has rejected Sri Lanka’s request for the disclosure of wartime dispatches from its High Commission in Colombo. Sri Lanka had made the request during the 46th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva a few weeks ago.

The dispatches from the then British Defence Advisor, Lt Col Anthony Gash were never referred to in any of the many ‘studies’ on Sri Lanka’s bloody struggle against terrorism. Indeed no one would have known of them or what they contained if not for Lord Naseby invoking the UK’s right to information laws to obtain them.

Gash’s dispatches clearly prove that there were no war crimes committed by Sri Lankan security forces, certainly not the kind that the terrorist lobby (strangely or perhaps not so strangely bed-fellowing with rogue states such as the UK and USA) and indeed these bed-fellows claim have been perpetrated.

British authorities pretended for years that there was no such information available. Now they can’t deny these dispatches exist. And therefore they’ve come up with an interesting disclaimer. The UK now faults Gash for not obtaining independent confirmation of reports he had sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Key word: ‘now.’ This was NOT the position originally taken by the FCO.

Alright, let’s take the CURRENT position at face value. Couldn’t the UK table the dispatches in all relevant forums with such caveats/disclaimers? That’s just one issue. There’s another. Yes, the business of ‘independent confirmation.’ What’s independent and what’s confirmation?

The UK and others hell-bent on censuring Sri Lanka for imagined war crimes frequently refer to documents that are based on a report issued by a ‘panel of experts’ appointed by Ban Ki-moon. The Darusman Report is what it is called. There are lots of claims in that document but no one can claim that any of it was ‘independently confirmed.’ The sources will remain a mystery for years to come.

In the United Kingdom, they’ve not heard of the word ‘contradiction’ it seems. Certain things that are partisan and come unconfirmed are permissible whereas other stuff that’s independent (unless the UK actually sided with the Sri Lankan security forces in the last days of the war on terrorism) are out of order.

It seems to me that the authorities in the UK don’t know whether they are coming or going. Well, maybe they do know that they are severely challenged in logic, in intellect, in moral standing etc., but believe that the world someone does not notice. A third possibility: they just don’t care.

The United Kingdom, with respect to the UNHRC resolution and all matters relevant to it, then, hasn’t exactly covered herself in glory, but what of that considering that shamelessness is the blood-stained batch on its coat of arms, so to speak?

Let’s humor them, though. There’s a lady called Sarah Hulton. Let’s assume she knows English. Let’s assume she has some skills in language comprehension. Let’s not assume she values truth, justice and being honorable for we shouldn’t kid ourselves too much. Nevertheless, we can ask some questions.What’s the value of hearsay? Do we discard ‘word’ and if so which words? If we pick some words and junk others, what criteria should we employ? The Darusman Report, for example, is ALL ABOUT HEARSAY. We have to assume that until we know who said what, for only then can we talk of reliability of source.

We have reports that toss out random numbers without a shred of substantiation. Is that OK, Ms Hulton? If Gash is unreliable, how can any report based on some other report that is based on hearsay be okay?

Let’s not kid ourselves. This is not about truth and reconciliation. The United Kingdom values lie over truth, injustice over justice, violation of all basic tenets of humanity over their protection, theft over property rights, plunder over protection. The British are yet to reconcile themselves regarding the many crimes against humanity they have perpetrated or, at least, benefited from. Seeking justice and truth from such people is silly. Seeking honor from the dishonorable is silly.

And yet, in Geneva and in other places where bucks and bombs count more than truth and justice, countries like the United Kingdom will prevail. For now. For now, we must add, for we know that nothing is permanent. For now, the reports of idiots and/or the politically compromised will be valued over those of impartial, dispassionate individuals such as Gash.

Let’s get this right. The British are not just bullies. They are cowards. Intellect is not their strong point or even if they are sophomoric at best, they are bullish enough to push aside the truth. It’s about ‘by any means necessary’ but obviously not in an emancipatory sense of that phrase, as used by Malcolm X. So when they talk of truth and justice, reconciliation and peace and other such lovely things, let’s keep in mind that it’s all balderdash. When they talk of ‘victims’ it is nonsense because without ‘wrongdoing’ that’s established, there can be no ‘victims’. Mr Hulton is not sleeping ladies and gentlemen. The United Kingdom is not sleeping. The Foreign and Commenwealth Office in that country is not sleeping. They are pretend-sleepers. They cannot be woken up.

One is reminded of a song from ‘My fair lady,’ the musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’. Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak? That’s the title of the song. When the English learn English — now that would be the day! Right now they speak some garbled language devoid of any logic or reason. It works for them.

Colonial-speak is a possible name for that language. It is an excellent communications device in all things antithetical to the high ideals, the furtherance of which was the reason for the establishment of the UNHRC. Indeed that has become the lingua franca of Geneva. The British know this French, pardon the irony! Ms Hulton knows it, as do her bosses in London as did their ancestors whose crimes against humanity are left out from the history books.

We are not talking of the past though. It’s the present. It’s ugly. As ugly as the past, only it’s come wearing other clothes. Nice ones. Not everyone is fooled though.

malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com.

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]

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Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew at Anuradhapura

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One day President JRJ telephoned me from Nuwara Eliya. He was wont to occasionally telephone me direct in the past. He informed me that PM Lee Kuan Yew would be arriving in Anuradhapura two days later, with Minister Gamini Dissanayake in attendance. I was to give the PM of Singapore the ancient city treatment for 40 minutes, and to remember to show him where Fa Hien the Chinese pilgrim cried, during his sojourn at the Abhayagiri monastery.

So I arrived at the appointed meeting place, the Tissawewa rest house where the Singapore PM and his party were having refreshments. I saw Murthy of the Overseas Service, who told me that I was expected, and that both the Singaporean PM and his wife were “top lawyers” who were educated at Cambridge. I was to expect searching questions. 

I went upstairs to see a long table replete with refreshments, Lee Kuan Yew seated at the centre and Gamini D. standing by. I addressed him in Sinhalese, identified myself as Raja de Silva and said that I had come to guide the visitors around Auradhapura. At this point the following conversation took place:

Minister Gamini to Lee Kuan Yew: This is Raja de Silva of the Archaeological Department who will be acting as our guide.  

LKY to RHdeS:

Are you in charge of this station?

RHdeS:

It comes under my archaeological control, Sir.  

LKY:

Are you in charge of this district? 

RHdeS:

The district comes under my archaeological control, Sir. 

LKY:

Are you in charge of this Province?

RHdeS :

This Province and the whole country comes under my archaeological control, Sir. 

LKY (looking satisfied):

Where did you learn your stuff?

RHdeS:

In an old university in England.

LKY:

Where was that?

RHdeS:

In Oxford, Sir. 

LKY:

Whatever reason did you go there for? 

RHdeS:

Sir, for the same reason you went to Cambridge. 

LKY (all smiles, turning to his wife):

Did you hear that? He has gone to Oxford. 

From then on the PM of Singapore spent much time at certain spots and my 40 minute time limit was ignored. At one point in the Abhayagiri area, at the splendid remains of an image house, the following dialogue took place. 

RHdeS:

It was here that Fa Hien,  the Chinese pilgrim, saw a donatory. Chinese silk flag and his eyes were brimful of tears. 

LKY:

Your President told me about that. 

It was altogether an enjoyable outing. 

 

Raja de Silva

Retired Commissioner of Archaeology

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The New Old Left turns 50

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by Malinda Seneviratne

Revolutionaries, self-styled or otherwise, are hard to imagine as old people, the exception of course being Fidel Castro. Castro grew old with a Cuban Revolution that has demonstrated surprising resilience. Che Guevara was effectively stilled, literally and metaphorically when he was just 39, ensuring iconic longevity — and the wild haired image with a star pinned on a beret is a symbol of resistance and, as is often the case, used to endorse and inspire things and processes that would have horrified the man.

Daniel Ortega at 75 was a revolutionary leader who reinvented himself a few decades after the Sandinistas’ exit was effectively orchestrated by the USA in April 1990. He’s changed and so has the Sandinistas. Revolutionary is not an appropriate descriptive for either.

Rohana Wijeweera is seen as a rebel by some, naturally those who are associated with the party he led for 25 years, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front), widely referred to by its Sinhala acronym, JVP. He led two insurrections and was incarcerated alive on November 13, 1989 in the Borella Cemetery during the UNP regime that held stewardship during the bloodiest period in post-Independence Sri Lanka.

If he was alive today, he would be almost 78-years old. Imagination following the ‘ifs’ probably will not inspire comparison with Castro or Che. Not even Ortega, for the Nicaraguan actually helped overthrow a despotic regime and, as mentioned, succeeded in recapturing power, this time through an election.

Wijeweera did contest elections, but he is not remembered as a democrat. Neither he nor his party showed any success at elections during his leadership. In any event, as the leaders of what was called the ‘Old Left’ as well as people who are seen as ‘Left Intellectuals’ have pointed out, the 1971 insurrection was an adventure against a newly elected government whose policy prerogatives were antithetical to the world’s ‘Right.’ As such, although the JVP had the color and the word right, moment and act squarely placed it as a tool of the capitalist camp, it can be argued.

As for the second insurrection, the JVP targeted leaders and members of trade unions and political parties who, although they may have lost left credentials or rather revolutionary credentials, were by no means in the political right. That such individuals and groups, in the face of the JVP onslaught, ended up fighting alongside the ‘right’ is a different matter.

Anyway, this Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the first insurrection launched by the Wijeweera-led JVP. Of course that ‘moment’ was preceded by preparation and planning that was good enough to catch the United Front government led by the SLFP by surprise, but the entire adventure needs to be examined by the longer history that came before.

Wijeweera belonged to what was called the Peking Wing of the Communist Party, formed after the USSR and China parted political/ideological ways. When Wijeweera broke away from the Peking Wing he was barely out of his teens. What he and others dubbed as the ‘Old Left’ were at the time seen as having lost much of its previous revolutionary zeal. Entering into pacts with the ‘centrist’ SLFP gave credence to this perception. There was, then, a palpable void in the left half of the political spectrum. Wijeweera and the JVP sought to fill it.

It’s easy to play referee after the fact. April 4, 1971 was inauspicious one could argue. The entire strategy of capturing police stations, kidnapping/assassinating the Prime Minister, securing control of the state radio station etc., describe a coup-attempt rather than a revolution. There was no mass movement to speak of. There wasn’t even anti-government sentiment of any significance.

Nevertheless, it was an important moment. As Prof Gamini Samaranayake in his book on the JVP pointed out, the adventure revealed important things: a) the state was weak or rather the security apparatus of the state was weak, and b) armed struggle was now an option for those who aspired to political power. Indeed these two ‘revelations’ may have given some ideas to those Tamil ‘nationalists’ who would end up launching an armed struggle against the state and would so believe that victory was possible that they would try their luck for 30 long years!

Had April 4 not happened, would we have ever had an armed insurrection? If we did, would it have been different from April 1971 and 1988/89? That’s for those who enjoy speculation. Maybe some creative individual with an interest in politics and thinks of producing fiction based on alternative realities might try his/her hand at it. It would probably make entertaining reading.

The April 4 adventure ended in an inglorious defeat. Wijeweera himself was captured or, as some might claim, planned to be captured (a better option than being killed, as hundreds of his followers were). The captors did not know who he was until he himself confessed. He spilled the beans, so to speak, without being urged to do so.

The JVP, thereafter, abandoned the infantile strategy adopted in April 1971. The party dabbled in electoral politics for a while after J.R. Jayewardene’s UNP offered a general pardon that set Wijeweera free. Wijeweera and the JVP would focus mostly on attacking the SLFP thereafter. Others who were arrested opted go their individual ways. Some went back to books and ended up as academics (Jayadeva Uyangoda or ‘Oo Mahaththaya’, Gamini Keerawella and Gamini Samaranayake for example).

Others took up journalism (Victor Ivan alias Podi Athula and Sunanda Deshapriya). A few joined mainstream political parties (e.g. Loku Athula). Many would end up in the NGO sector (Wasantha Dissanayake, Patrick Fernando and Sarath Fernando). Their political trajectories, then, have been varied.

The JVP is still around. For the record, the ‘Old Left’ is still around too, although not as visible as the JVP. We still have the CP (Moscow Wing) and LSSP, as well as their off-shoots. Individuals who wished to be politically active, either joined the SLFP or the UNP or else were politically associated with such parties, even if they didn’t actually contest elections.

The JVP still talks of Wijeweera but this has been infrequent. It’s nothing more than tokenism, even then. The party has politically aligned itself with the SLFP and the UNP at different times and as of now seems to have been captured by the gravitational forces of the latter to a point that it cannot extricate itself or rather, finds itself in a situation where extrication allows for political crumbs and nothing more. The Marxist rhetoric is gone. Red has been replaced by pink. There’s no talk of revolution.

The high point in the post-Wijeweera era was returning some 40 members to parliament at the 2004 elections in a coalition with the SLFP. However, the decision to leave the coalition (UPFA) seems to have been the beginning of a serious decline in political fortunes. It demonstrated, one can argue, the important role that Wimal Weerawansa played in the party’s resurgence after the annihilation of the late eighties. In more recent times, the party suffered a more serious split which had a significant impact on its revolutionary credentials. The party’s radicals broke ranks and formed the Frontline Socialist Party, led by Kumar Gunaratnam, younger brother of the much-loved student leader Ranjithan (captured, tortured and assassinated sometime in late 1989).

The JVP, led by Anura Kumara Dissanayake, has done better than the FSP in elections thereafter, but the split also saw the former losing considerable ground in the universities, the traditional homelands of recruitment if you will. The spark went out as well. There’s palpable blandness in the affairs of the party. At the last general election the JVP could secure just 3% of the vote.

The JVP is old. Too old to call itself the ‘New Left’ (by comparing itself with the LSSP and CP). The FSP is ‘new’ but it poses as the ‘real JVP’ and as such is as old. There’s nothing fresh in their politics or the ideological positions they’ve taken. In fact one might even argue that now there’s no left in the country. It doesn’t mean everyone is in the right either. There’s ideological confusion or, as some might argue, ideology is no longer a factor in Sri Lankan politics. It’s just about power for the sake of power. That’s not new either, but in the past ideological pretension was apparent whereas now politics is more or less ideology-free. Of course this means that a largely exploitative system and those in advantageous positions within it are the default beneficiaries.

Can the JVP reinvent itself? I would say, unlikely. There’s a name. It’s a brand. It’s off-color. It is politically resolved to align with this or that party as dictated by the personal/political needs of the party’s leadership. Wijeweera’s son Uvindu is planning to jump-start the party with a new political formation, but adding ‘Nava’ (new) doesn’t make for the shaving off of decades. Neither does it erase history. Its potential though remains to be assessed. Maybe a decade or two from now.

So, after 50 years, are we to say ‘we had our first taste of revolution or rather pretend-revolution and that’s it’? The future can unfold in many ways. A half a century is nothing in the history of the world. It’s still nothing in the history of humankind. Systems collapse. Individuals and parties seemingly indestructible, self-destruct or are shoved aside by forces they unwittingly unleash or in accordance with the evolution of all relevant political, economic, social, cultural and ecological factors.
People make their history, but not always in the circumstances of their choice. The JVP is part of history. They were in part creatures of circumstances and in part they altered circumstances. Left a mark but not exactly something that makes for heroic ballads. Time has passed. Economic factors have changed. Politics is different. This is a different century and a different country from ‘Ceylon’ and the JVP of 1971.

The JVP is not a Marxist party and some may argue it never was, but Marx would say that a penchant for drawing inspiration from the past is not the way to go. One tends to borrow slogan and not substance that way. April 4, 1971. It came to pass. It was followed by April 5. The year was followed by 1972. Forty nine years have passed. A lot of water has flowed under the political bridge. Good to talk about on anniversary days so to speak. That’s about it though.

malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com

 

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]

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