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New century, old story: War ends as social tragedy, continues as political farce

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(Fifty years after 1971: Concluding Part)

The violence of 1983 impacted the Tamils indiscriminately and directly led to the emergence of the Tamil diaspora. On the other hand, the backlash to 1983 from outside Sri Lanka, especially the West and human rights organizations, may have been a factor in the energization of the JC school after 1983. The UNP government of the day wholly owned the 1983 disaster and deserved a great deal more than whatever blame it got and wherever it came from. JC was opposed to the UNP government’s open economy swindle and its cultural sellout, and it resented the government’s cunning approach to the Tamil national question. That was to parley with Tamil politicians in secret, and organize violence against Tamil civilians in the open. When 1983 went out of control, the backlash was not only against the government, but besmirched the entire Sinhalese society, including those who were revolted by the violence and others who were intractably opposed to the government. And there were backlash echoes from different fragments in the Sri Lankan social formation.

by Rajan Philips

Sri Lanka didn’t need a Y2K (year 2000) problem at the dawn of the 21st century, indeed, the third millennium. The island of millenniums had enough baggage from the old century to carry over into the new century, or from the old millennium to the new. Old problems were carried with new mutations and whole new other ones were added. The war that was muddled through the nineties consumed almost the entire first decade of the new century, before ending in 2009. The end of the war did end much of the social tragedy that it created, but it did not end the farcical continuation of war by political means. Mercifully, the killings ended but the agony of the living has persisted with no certainty about the dead and the missing. Not to mention the endless spat over how many died, with nary a thought or hand for the survivors of war and their livelihood struggles.

The war added new mutations to the old national question. The emergence of the Tamil diaspora and with it the phenomenon of diasporic nationalism, are developments that no one could have foreseen even as late as 1982. Equally, at both the state and societal levels, Sri Lanka has not fully come to terms with the rise of new strands of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism outside the ambits of mainstream political parties among the Sinhalese. Add to these, the coming of age of Muslim nationalism after having long been in the shadows of Sinhala and Tamil politics. These developments have defined the 21st century course of Sri Lanka’s never ending constitutional odyssey, especially involving the fate or the future of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Provincial Councils, and even the Executive Presidency.

A new dimension to the course of politics was provided by the end of the war itself, rather by the debate over how the war ended and whether or not war crimes were committed. Twelve years after the war ended, there are no answers in sight to any of these questions. There are no permanently correct answers in politics, but the task of every generation is to keep the balance on the side of more correct than incorrect answers. As things are in 2021, and thanks to an untoward juncture of a global pandemic and government incompetence, there are mostly only incorrect answers and hardly any correct answers to the many questions that Sri Lankans are facing. The current juncture will pass one way or another, but the questions that have been raised in the aftermath of the war are not likely to be answered satisfactorily any time soon.

 

A Dysfunctional Family

If Sri Lanka is a family of nationalisms, it has been for the most part a dysfunctional one. This is because Sri Lanka’s nationalisms have grown into being more conflictual and competitive than being complementary. The war and its aftermaths would appear to have exacerbated these tendencies and the unfolding of diasporic and Jathika Chinthanya phenomena would certainly attest to this. At the same time, their emergence also provide insights into the social and cultural roots of the nationalist stirrings among the Sinhalese, Tamils and the Muslims. Identifying and sharing these insights is needed to get rid of the always simplistic, and very often offensive, stereotypes which for far too long informed each community’s understanding of the other.

As stereotypes go, “Mahavamsa mindset” apparently sums up the Tamil understanding of Sinhala nationalism. For the Sinhalese, Tamil nationalistic claims are nothing more than a new ruse for Vellala domination. And Sri Lankan Muslim nationalism is simply rejected as Sri Lankan manifestation of global Islamic fundamentalism. There is more to each nationalism than these stereotypes, and each involves the lives and mores of people that cannot be summarily dismissed in any approach to accommodating them and making them complementary to one another. There are people in each community who do not subscribe to the narrow nationalistic claims that are made on behalf of their community. And stereotyping smudges them as well out of recognition.

It might not be widely known outside the JC universe that the political roots of the two intellectual prime movers (Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara and Prof. Nalin de Silva) behind JC are traceable more to Marxism and left politics than to any Mahavamsa mindset. In fact, one of them (Prof. de Silva) is known to have been a defender of the right of self-determination of the Tamil people before 1983. The open economy politics that began in 1977 and its social eruption in 1983 have more to do with the emergence of the Tamil diaspora and the Jathika Chinthanya soul searching among the Sinhalese intelligentsia, than anything that stereotypical explanations can provide.

The violence of 1983 impacted the Tamils indiscriminately and directly led to the emergence of the Tamil diaspora. On the other hand, the backlash to 1983 from outside Sri Lanka, especially the West and human rights organizations, may have been a factor in the energization of the JC school after 1983. The UNP government of the day wholly owned the 1983 disaster and deserved a great deal more than whatever blame it got and wherever it came from. JC was opposed to the UNP government’s open economy swindle and its cultural sellout, and it resented the government’s cunning approach to the Tamil national question. That was to parley with Tamil politicians in secret, and organize violence against Tamil civilians in the open. When 1983 went out of control, the backlash was not only against the government, but besmirched the entire Sinhalese society, including those who were revolted by the violence and others who were intractably opposed to the government. And there were backlash echoes from different fragments in the Sri Lankan social formation.

The fragmentation of the social formation and the creation of multiple political spaces was another outcome of the open economy and the political makeover under the UNP government. Thus, there was a new sociopolitical space for the off springs of the old, westernized Ceylonese middle class. It is not unfair to characterize the NGOs as being among the occupants of this space. And the children of 1956 were not neglected, at least from the economic standpoint. The more mobile among them easily filled up the economic spaces that the open economy created.

And for their social reproduction outside the vernacular, with a western accent, President Jayewardene gave them international schools. If that was JRJ’s belated rejoinder to the schools’ takeover of the 1960s, and it certainly was, he was not particularly looking to provide reparation to the Churches who lost their schools then. Worse, JRJ snobbishly abandoned the entire national school system, which he had the absolute power to retool anyway he wanted – to provide international education with a national accent to the children of 1977.

There was another aspect to the open economy that the UNP, and every government thereafter, neither recognized nor addressed. It was the orphaning of the state sector at the altar of the open economy. The salaries and compensation levels in the state sector were instantly and massively devalued by the opening of the economy and the aligning of market prices and private sector remunerations to global rates. I do not think this anomaly has been satisfactorily addressed to date. If Singapore is the vaunted model, you cannot have a competitive public sector without matching compensation with the private sector. It is no secret that some of the best and the brightest in a whole generation opted not to join the Central Bank, the universities or government institutions.

 

Political Limitations

The upshot of these changes was the emergence of two contending formations. One of the two, the NGO-formation (to call it loosely with no disparagement intended), wanted to use 1983 as a platform to recast Sri Lanka’s political society fundamentally different from what had led to the catastrophe of 1983. The new society would be plural and secular, would celebrate its diversity and welcome devolution. Intellectually, ethno-nationalism would be called out for what it is not – not an essential human condition.

The other, the JC-formation (so called, for convenience), has diametrically been opposed to any and all of the above. The JC thinking is also indicative of the unique exceptionalism that Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is uniquely constrained to project unlike Tamil nationalism or Muslim nationalism, both of which have external cultural validations to fall back on by virtue of language (in South India) and religion (Islam), respectively. The JC response in effect might be seen as a response to a sense of besiegement of the Sinhalese by forces from within (NGOs) and without (the West).

At the political level, the NGO formation found its spearheads alternatingly in Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Their accomplishments fell far below expectations. The JC formation waited patiently for the most authentic Sinhala Buddhist leader in Mahinda Rajapaksa, and had its golden decade from 2005 to 2015. The rest of the Sri Lankan political field, both individuals and organizations and of all ethnic groups, have been scurrying between the two main political polarities at regular intervals. The JVP and the JHU, both beneficiaries of JC affiliations at some point, have been in both political alliances and have also splintered over which side they should be permanently aligned with. The Tamil and the Muslim political parties have had their cracks of affiliations with the two main alliances and have little to show as results for their efforts.

 

Mahinda Rajapaksa had his setback when the people rejected his attempt to extend his presidency to a third term. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected promising vistas of prosperity and splendour. But the country is living through a rather dismal record of incompetence quite different from what was handsomely promised. The ‘young’ SLPP that was seen by some as a permanent incubator of future presidents. Instead, the limitations of the executive presidency have been exposed like never before. The JVP is now making a mark as a sharp opposition party in parliament. JHU’s Champika Ranawaka, perhaps the only politician with credible presidential ambition but without a political vehicle of his own, is now a member of convenience in Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB).

Fifty years ago, the JVP launched its first abortive insurrection ostensibly to liberate the rural poor through the agency of its youth. Within twenty years, the JVP staged its second coming and the Tamil militants launched their violent struggle. They have all run their course which came to an end in 2009. Political violence used to be justified as the last resort after all other avenues have been exhausted. The violent struggles in Sri Lanka from 1971 to the Easter bombings in 2019 were not launched after all other avenues were exhausted. The question to ask fifty years after 1971 is – what happens after the ultimatums of political violence have all been tried and exhausted as well? Should politics be reduced to a farce as the continuation of war by other means?



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President picks up the gauntlet

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by Jehan Perera

By proroguing parliament President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given the parliamentarians, and the country at large, a reminder of the power of the presidency. There was no evident reason for the president to suddenly decide to prorogue parliament. More than 40 parliamentary committees, including important ones concerning public finances, enterprises and accounts have ceased to function. The president’s office has said that when parliament reconvenes on February 8, after the celebration of the country’s 75th Independence Day on February 4, the president will announce new policies and laws, which will be implemented until the centenary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 2048. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew transformed Singapore from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into one of the world’s most developed countries in the same 25 years that the president has set for Sri Lanka.

President Wickremesinghe has been getting increasingly assertive regarding his position on issues. Recently he attended a large gathering of Muslim clerics, where he was firm in saying that society needs to modernise, and so do religious practices. He has also held fast to his positions on reviving the economy and resolving the economy. There have been widespread protests against the tax hikes being implemented which have eroded the purchasing power of taxpayers. First they had to absorb the impact of inflation that rose to a rate of 80 percent at the time the country reneged on its foreign debt repayments and declared bankruptcy. Now they find their much diminished real incomes being further reduced by a tax rate that reaches 36 percent.

But the government is not relenting. President Wickremesinghe, who holds the finance minister’s portfolio, is going against popular sentiment in being unyielding on the matter of taxes. He appears determined to force the country away from decades of government policies that took the easy route of offering subsidies rather than imposing taxes to use for government expenses and development purposes. In Sri Lanka, the government’s tax revenue is less than 8 percent, whereas in comparable countries the tax revenue is around 20 to 25 percent. The long term cost of living off foreign borrowings rather than generating resources domestically through taxation has been evident for a long while in the slow growth of the economy even prior to the economic collapse.

13TH AMENDMENT

Another area in which the president appears to have taken the decision to stand firm is the issue of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. This problem has proven to be unresolvable by governments and political leaders who give deference to ethnic nationalism. Being an ethnic nationalist in the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious divisions has been a sure way of gaining votes and securing election victories. No leader in Sri Lanka has to date been able to implement the compromise solutions that they periodically arrived at, the last being the 13th Amendment. Earlier ones included the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 which could not even be started to be implemented.

At the All Party meeting that he summoned to discuss the ethnic conflict and national reconciliation, President Wickremesinghe took the bull by the horns. He exchanged words with ethnic nationalist parliamentarians who sought to challenge his legitimacy to be making changes. He said, “It is my responsibility as the Executive to carry out the current law. For approximately 37 years, the 13th Amendment has been a part of the constitution. I must implement or someone has to abolish it by way of a 22nd amendment to the constitution by moving a private member’s bill. If the bill was voted against by the majority in the House, then the 13th amendment would have to be implemented. We can’t remain in a middle position saying that either we don’t implement the 13th amendment or abolish it.”

The 13th Amendment has not been fully implemented since it was passed by parliament with a 2/3 majority in 1987. Successive governments, including ones the president has been a member of variously as a minister or prime minister, have failed to implement it in a significant manner, especially as regards the devolution of police and land powers. When parliament reconvenes on February 8 after prorogation, President Wickremesinghe will be provided the opportunity to address both the parliament and the country on the way forward. Having demonstrated the power of the presidency to prorogue parliament at his discretion, he will be able to set forth his vision of the solution to the ethnic conflict and the roadmap that needs to be followed to get to national reconciliation.

IRONIC PERSECUTION

It is significant that on February 20, the president will also acquire the power to dissolve parliament at his discretion. By proroguing parliament, the president has sent a message to both parliamentarians and the larger society that he will soon have the power to dissolve parliament with the same suddenness that he prorogued parliament. On February 20, the parliament would have been in existence for two and a half years. The 21st Amendment empowers the president to dissolve parliament after two and a half years. Most of the parliamentarians belonging to the ruling party are no longer in a position to go to their electorates let alone canvass for votes among the people. Under these fraught circumstances, they would not wish to challenge the president or his commitment to implementing the 13th Amendment in full.

On the other hand, the taming of parliament by the president does not guarantee the success of an accommodation on the ethnic conflict and a sustainable political solution. The ethnic conflict evokes the primordial sentiments of the different ethnic and religious communities. Political parties and politicians are often portrayed as the villains who led the country to decades of ethnic conflict and to war. However, the conflict in the country predates the political parties. In 1928, in response to demands from community leaders in Ceylon as it was then known, the British colonial rulers sent a commission to the country to ascertain whether it was ready for self-rule. The assessment was negative—the Donoughmore commission wrote that the representatives of the biggest community held to the position that their interest was the national interest. All the representatives of the smaller communities who were divided one against the other were united against the biggest.

An important role therefore devolves upon civil society not to fall prey to the divisions that come down the years. There is a need for enlightened leaders of civil society to work with commitment to explain to the people the need for a political solution and inter-ethnic power sharing that the 13th Amendment makes possible. There were signs of this during the height of the Aragalaya when the youth leading the protests called publicly for equal citizenship and non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and caste. They pledged not to be divided by ethnic nationalist politicians for their narrow electoral purposes. It is ironic that the government led by President Wickremesinghe has made these enlightened youth leaders the target of a campaign of persecution instead of making them a part of the solution by constructively engaging with them and issuing a general amnesty.

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Privatisation of education and demonising of students of Lanka

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Student union leader Wasantha Mudalige with prison guards

by Anushka Kahandagamage

Sri Lanka is trapped in debt due to decades of corruption and short-sighted economic policies. To come out of the trap or, I would say, escape the moment, the government is seeking loans from the IMF, or anybody else who is willing to lend, no matter the conditions. To this end, under the IMF’s tutelage, the government is seeking to privatise education, aware that it will face the wrath of the people. In this setting, to suppress the protests, the government has adopted a strategy of demonising students, in the public education system.

School children as “drug addicts”

A media empire, which has strong ties with the current Lankan regime, recently sent shockwaves through schools, and their communities, by reporting cases of school children hooked on harmful narcotics. Following these reports, there were many write ups, social media content and stories published on the menace of drug addiction, among Sri Lankan students. That media network even released a video, interviewing two schoolgirls who claimed to be addicted to harmful substances. In the midst of the media frenzy, the police carried out surprise checks in schools, searching students’ bags. The state humiliated and terrified school children by using the police to conduct surprise checks in the schools and peek into the students’ backpacks, instead of investigating the avenues through which dangerous drugs enter the country. After a week, the Minister of Education claimed he was unaware that the police were conducting surprise checks in schools, with sniffer dogs, adding that there was no need to deploy the police force for this purpose. If the Minister was not aware that the police raided schools, it is not surprising that the state would also turn a blind eye to how narcotics enter the country. While there is a risk of students addicting to dangerous drugs, the state cannot place all the blame on students. Instead of taking responsibility for the state of affairs, and acting to keep harmful substances off the island, the state places the burden on schoolchildren and simply refers to them as “drug addicts.”

Bhikku students as “alcoholics”

The next example is from the Buddhist and Pali University, in Homagama. Similar to the first story, the same media network reported some irregularities occurring in the University. Those irregularities included the student monks forcing incoming students, also monks, to consume weed, liquor and party. Following this news report, some investigations were conducted in the University and empty liquor bottles were found in an abandoned well. Then we witnessed several press conferences where University authorities questioned the student monk leaders. While one cannot and should not disregard students’ violence upon another student, it is interesting to note the way the government is taking up the particular incident, at this particular point of time. There was a massive social media campaign to show that the student-monks are immoral and unworthy of education. It cannot be a coincidence that the student monks, at this University, were actively involved in the Aragalaya. In other words, the government was trying to defame the University, and the students, by labelling them as oppressors and alcoholics.

The Rajapaksa regime continuously used Buddhist monks, in their political operations, especially to incite conflict and win elections. The state has frequently deployed Buddhist monks to further its nationalist agendas. When the state used monks for their agendas, including to instigate violence, the monks were not framed as ‘immoral.’ The higher Buddhist authorities did not take action against groups, like Bodu Bala Sena, or Ravana Balaya, or their violent activities. It is ironic that the Government seems to be concerned about the ‘morality’ or ‘discipline’ of Bhikkus at this moment when many student Bhikkus have joined hands with the people to protest against the state.

University students as “terrorists”

The last example is the most pressing at this moment. On 18th of August, 2022, the police arrested Wasantha Mudalige, the Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Along with him, the authorities detained Hashan Jeewantha and the convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thera. The state labelled the politically active university students as “terrorists”. Again, this cannot have happened by chance; we all know the Aragalaya against the Rajapaksa dictatorship was heavily influenced by the Inter-University Students Federation and the Inter University Bhikku Federation. The student unions were the muscle of the people’s protests against the oppressive and corrupt regime. The Ranil-Rajapaksa regime labelled the student leaders’ terrorists and started arresting them.

The state’s stamping of University students as terrorists is a folly. If the state labels its own youth as “terrorists,” it means that the state has failed miserably because it is its own actions that have pushed them toward what is labelled as “terrorism.” The state should take a step back and reconsider its decisions.

Privatization of Education

The government and the government-validating media demonize students, labelling them as drug addicts, alcoholics and terrorists. The government undermines and defames the country’s student body. By doing so, the government is strategically isolating the students from the larger society and eroding public faith in them. Ironically, drug addicts, alcoholics, and terrorists are all confined to the public school and state university system, not private educational institutions. The media propagates the idea that students enrolled in the state education system are ‘immoral’ and ‘disobedient’. Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the puppet President of the Rajapaksa allies, proposes a new economic system which he thinks will counter the current balance of payment crisis. The proposal includes establishing an educational hub in Sri Lanka, which promises to privatise higher education in the long-term.

The state agenda of privatizing education is not a recent one, but it has been reenergized by the Ranil-Rajapaksa government in the context of crisis. Well before demonising the students, in the public education system, in June 2022 the government, national education commission, came up with an education policy framework.

Biased towards Rajapaksa ideologies, the national education commission that developed the policy, proposed to expand the privatization of higher education. In their report, the committee presents a table demonstrating how Sri Lanka allocates less money on higher education compared with the other middle-income countries. The next section outlines the way Sri Lanka relies more on government grants for higher education than other middle-income countries, which is confusing and contradictory, perhaps reflecting the grossly inadequate overall investment in higher education in the country. Then the report goes on to analyse how the poor school education system creates an unskillful student who is unable to think critically. It finally recommends promoting private participation in higher education, not only through funding but also by matching the curricula to fit the market and increase the “employability” of students. While on the one hand government pushes for privatising higher education, on the other, it demonizes the students in the public educational system. The State has seized the problem by its tail. The government is unable to perceive its own flaws in short-sighted policymaking, law enforcement, and corruption, and instead accuses and defames students, to distract them from its concerted effort to privatise education.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

(Anushka Kahandagamage is reading for her PhD in the School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)

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Janaka…Keeping the Elvis scene alive

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Janaka Palapathwala: Recreating the Presley era…through song.......

For the past three years, local performers have certainly felt the heat, where work is concerned, beginning with the Easter Sunday tragedy, followed by Covid-19 restrictions, and then the political situation

Right now, there seems to be a glimmer of light, at the end of the tunnel, and musicians are hoping that, finally, the scene would brighten up for the entertainment industry.

Janaka Palapathwala, whose singing style, and repertoire, is reminiscent of the late Elvis Presley, says he was so sad and disappointed that he could not reach out to his fans, around the world, because of the situation that cropped up in the country.

However, he did the next best thing possible – a Virtual Concert, early last year, and had this to say about it:

“The concert was witnessed by so many people around the world, in 12 different countries, and I take this opportunity to thank all those who showed a great interest, around the world, to make the show a mighty success. Lasantha Fernando of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the USA, went out of the way to pull a huge crowd, in the States, to make the concert a massive success. Lasantha, by the way, has done many shows, in Minnesota, including a concert of mine, four years ago.”

Toward the end of 2022, the showbiz scene started to look good, with musicians having work coming their way – shows, sing-alongs, events, overseas tours, recordings, etc.

Janaka added that the Gold FM ’70s show was back after six years, and that the music industry is grateful to Gold FM for supporting musicians with such an awesome event.

“Also, the unity and the togetherness of the Sri Lankan western musicians, scattered around the globe, were brought together, once again, by the guidance of Melantha Perera.

“The song ‘Baby Jesus Is Fast Asleep’, written, composed and directed by Melantha, was a true Christmas gift to people around the world.”

Referring to his career, Janaka said that these days he is involved in a mega video production project.

“I intend to do a road show for a total Dinner Dance Promotion package, titled ‘Janaka with Melantha and the Sign’.

“Phase One of the project is already completed, and we are now heading for the second phase, where we plan to get Sohan Weerasinghe, Clifford Richards and Stephanie Siriwardane involved in the cast”.

Janaka also spoke excitedly about his forthcoming trip to the USA.

“I’m so excited to tour the USA, after three years. The ‘Spring Tour USA 2023′ is going to be different.

“I’ve done formal concerts, in the States, but this Spring Tour will be a series of Dinner Dances where I would be seen in action, along with the top ranked DJ of Washington D.C., Shawn Groove, and some of the best domestic bands in the States, and I can assure all my friends, and fans, in the US, that this new venture is going to be doubly exciting.”

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