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Midweek Review

‘Race’ and racism

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By Prof. Charles Sarvan

 

The following is an abridged version of a longer essay: “essay” in the earlier meaning of “to attempt”. Argument generates the heat of emotion but rarely the light of understanding – I attempt merely to share some perspectives on race and racism.

The signifier “unicorn” refers to a non-existent animal. Similarly, “race” seems to be a signifier without a signified. But we are loose in our use of language. We speak of colonialism and colonies in instances where it was imperialism and imperial territories. We talk of “black” (non-white) and “white” people though there are neither “white” nor “black” people. The paper on which we write is white but not the people classified as “white”: Jeffrey Boakye (‘Black Listed’) offers “pinkish beige”. But the dominant West has chosen “white” (associated with cleanliness and purity), and the rest of the world has followed suit through docility or simple laziness. Besides, we have a penchant for sharp dichotomy: the guilty and the innocent, good and bad, etc. Shades in between, nuance and complexity, are mentally taxing and troubling. “The first problem with being black is that it is literally not accurate.” No matter how dark my skin is, it is not black (Boakye). Often in the Western press “race” means a non-white skin-pigmentation. In an article written many years ago, I suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that a certain kind of racism be more precisely termed “Colourism”.

It’s argued that prior to the 1600s and the enslavement of Africans, white people did not see themselves as belonging to a ‘race’. In simple terms, the slaves weren’t Christian and, therefore, could be enslaved. But, as the slaves became Christian, another justification was needed, and it was found in whiteness. But language is conventional rather than individual, so though I am careful to distinguish between colonialism and imperialism; though I refer to the autochthonous as “Native Americans” and not as “Indians”, I find myself writing of “black” and “white” people; sometimes, of “people of colour”.

 

Human race

Those who believe in race are unable to agree on the number of races presently existing: it ranges from one (the human race) to about seventy. Shlomo Sand, Professor of History at Tel Aviv University in his The Invention of the Jewish People, first published in Hebrew for a Jewish readership (see, Sarvan, ‘Groundviews’, 07 March 2013), states that there is no biological basis for Jewishness, and that belief in a Jewish race is nothing but “racist pseudoscience”. Race is a social myth and not a scientific fact but “Zionist pedagogy produced generations who believed wholeheartedly in the ethnic uniqueness of their nation”. Another work by Professor Sand has the provocative title, ‘How I Stopped Being a Jew’. Opposition to Zionist policy and practice, particularly against the Palestinians, is deliberately and incorrectly besmirched as racism, more precisely, as anti-Semitism. But there is no Semitic race (Sand). What prevails is but ethno-religious nationalism. Israel today is made ugly by “brutal racism” and a crying failure to take others into consideration (Sand). Israel defines itself as a Jewish state but is unable to define who a Jew is: there is no Jewish DNA (Sand). Professor Sand asserts that he can’t be free unless others are also free. “My own place is among those who try to discern and root out, or at least reduce, the excessive injustices of the here-and-now”.

 

Ethnicity

Yet another synonym suggested for discredited ‘race’ is ‘ethnicity’. However, the latter term can testify to the resilience and mutability of racism, and the disguises it can adopt. Ethnicity is an aspect of relations between groups where at least one party sees itself as being culturally distinctive, if not unique. This sense of difference influences the perception and treatment of others. Though there are similarities and differences, the former are glossed over, and much made of difference. However, the boundary delimited by one cultural criterion – system of government, language, religion, social customs and practices – does not coincide with those established by other criteria. In short, “ethnicity” may be a Trojan horse bringing back disgraced racism. Ethnicity is a term to be used after careful thought. The term culture can now denote something essential, now something acquired; now something bounded, now something without boundaries; now something experienced, now something ascribed. Race as culture is only biological race in polite language.

Finally, it’s a matter of defining terms and clarifying concepts. Take for example, the word “peace”: Is it peace for the conquerors only? Is peace merely the negative absence of overt war or the positive presence of harmony for all citizens which, in turn, is the product of elements such as justice and a sense of security? (Justice cannot be equated with Law because there can be unjust, discriminatory, laws.)

 

Nationalism

As with ethnicity, so it is with nationalism. It has been said that a patriot is one who loves his own while a nationalist hates all others. ‘Nationalist’ can be but a euphemism for ‘racist’: some nationalists claim that only members of their group constitute the real and authentic nation. Racists reject a nationality based on citizenship. Some Sri Lankans living abroad claim, often receive and enjoy, legal nationality but vehemently and violently deny it to other groups in Sri Lanka: there, they affirm, nationality is based not on citizenship but on ‘race’.

Though race does not exist, racism certainly does – and flourishes. Race is not the father of racism but its child (Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘Between the World and Me’). It’s those who are race-minded, who think and react in terms of race: see Flannery O’Connor’s short story, ‘The Artificial Nigger’. As Professor Amy Chua notes in ‘Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations’, the majority projects itself as the norm; others are deviations and subordinate. “Sri Lanka” means for many “Sinhalese Buddhist”, and secondly Sinhalese Christians. Tamils, Muslims and others are beyond the including circle. (The Buddhist scholar, Dr. K. S. Palihakkara, using figurative language, sadly noted: Soon after the death of the Enlightened One, the beautiful clearing he had made was overrun by the surrounding jungle, and now “almost all Buddhists practise more of Hinduism than Buddhism: ‘Buddhism Sans Myths & Miracles’, Stamford Lake Publications, Pannipitiya, 109. If this is so, it obviates the question whether there are Sinhalese Hindus: Buddhists are also Hindu.)

Racism can strengthen the racial consciousness of a minority. While identity is neither single nor simple but multiple and complex, racism and ‘colourism’ focus on just one aspect: ‘race’ or skin-colour. I quote from an earlier article of mine:

“There was a time when most, if not all in the Island, irrespective of language and religion, equally took a measure of pride and encouragement from ancient achievement, temple and lake; an equal measure of happiness in being “Ceylonese”; a time when Tamils described themselves as Ceylonese and not (as some Tamils tend to do now) as “Sri Lankan Tamil”. When in 1915, D. S. Senanayake (later the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon) and his brother, F. R. Senanayake, were jailed by the British authorities, Tamil Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to England to plead their case. On his successful return, jubilant crowds placed him in a carriage, detached the horses, and dragged the carriage themselves. He was not seen as a Tamil who had helped free a Sinhalese, but as a Ceylonese helping a fellow Ceylonese… In 1925-6, when Bandaranayake, as leader of the Progressive National Party, set out the case for a federal political structure for Sri Lanka, he received no support for it from the Tamils (K M De Silva). In 1952, the Kankesuntharai parliamentary seat was contested by Chelvanayagam, as a member of the Federal Party. He was comfortably defeated by a UNP candidate.”

Racism can erase class solidarity: I know individuals who were socialists but later in life proudly succumbed to racism. Even those who have chosen to live outside the Island, while asking for and enjoying equality in their new home, nourish racism in the Island. In the Bible, cruel and persecutory Saul changed dramatically, and became saintly Paul. But with politics, it’s a case of Pauls becoming Sauls, racist and corrupt: life can be corrupting.

 

‘We can’t breathe freely’

The trampling of the rights of others is often justified by a proclaimed sense of victimhood and vulnerability: “We are victims.” “We attempt only to balance the scales of justice.” “Our identity and survival are in danger.” The last is said even by an overwhelming majority in full control of the state and its apparatus. The struggle for equality by a minority group is deliberately miscast as an attempt at domination, and brutally suppressed: fear, imagined or real, can breed cruelty. George Floyd’s dying words (May, 2020), “I can’t breathe!” have resonated internationally. Oppressed minority groups may gasp: “We can’t breathe freely!”

Inter-racial social and personal friendships do not alter fundamentals, though they are touted as evidence of the speaker being above racism. It doesn’t help if you are against injustice but do nothing at all about it (Henry Thoreau, essay ‘On Civil Disobedience’). Perhaps, the ruling elite in Sri Lanka, including military officers, have Tamil associates, if not friends: “I have a Tamil friend, therefore I am not a racist.”

Racism is also more powerful than religious affiliation: white Christians in the USA joined their fellow whites in enslaving or lynching black Christians. If I’m not mistaken, Sinhalese Christians primarily don’t identify with Tamil Christians but with Sinhalese Buddhists. A sacred text in one hand can inflict more harm than the knife or burning torch in the other. Religion has often willingly lent itself to political and racist projects. Those capable of injustice and cruelty (irrespective of religion), transform those evils into the noble and, most importantly, the holy: sacred, therefore obligatory. Golda Meir asserted that Israel was brought into existence in order to fulfil God’s wish. Similarly, “the Buddha chose Lanka and us. Therefore, we have no choice but to dominate”: not, “Blame me on History” but “Blame me on the Divine”!

For Sri Lankan readers, the contradictions inherent in racism are illustrated by Anagarika Dharmapala .The Buddhism he ‘exported’ was a world religion; broad and inclusive; lofty and noble, but within Lanka, Dharmapala’s Buddhism was narrow and racist. As Patrick Grant writes (‘Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka), Dharmapala lauded Buddhist tolerance and inclusion but believed in Sinhalese hegemony. He preached that Buddhism was universal, breaking down boundaries and hierarchies of race, colour, caste, kinship but promoted a racist Sinhalese-Buddhist fundamentalism, one which even excluded Sinhalese Christians. He urged young Sinhalese to be scientific but credited the myth of the ‘Mahavamsa’ with literal truth (Grant). Evidently, the Anagarika was not troubled by cognitive dissonance. The “dreams” of some can become terrible and tragic “nightmare” to others. The Anagarika was an irredentist who wanted to recover a paradise that had never existed. In his “dream”, Lanka under King Dutugemmunu was a paradise: The Sinhalese people lived a joyously cheerful life in those bygone times … the streets were crowded day and night by throngs of pilgrims … The atmosphere was saturated with the fragrance of sweet-smelling flowers and delicate perfumes There were “no slaughter houses, no pawnshops, no brothels, no prisons and law Courts and no arrack taverns and opium dens”: see, Ananda Guruge: ‘Return to Righteousness’.

 

‘Worse than War’

Professor Daniel Goldhagen (Harvard University) sees racism leading to something much ‘Worse Than War’ (eponymous) which he terms eliminationism, racism at its very worst – the transformation, repression, expulsion or extermination of a group. It’s implemented “only when the perpetrators are confident of success, owing to the overwhelming superior force they can unleash against defenceless people” who, though they are fellow countrymen, are seen as foreigners and inferior. The enemy is pursued and killed with veritable “glee”. “They routinely talk to them, taunt them, conveying to them their belief in their deeds’ rightness and justice, and their joy in performing them”. Multiple acts of savagery not only precede and accompany but occur after the death of the victims. Bodies are stripped naked, mutilated and displayed to men, women and even children. The perpetrators express joy, gloat and boast. “They mock the victims and celebrate their death”. Not only dead bodies but places of worship and cemeteries are deliberately desecrated. The rape of women is part of the display of power, intended to humiliate and visit shame, not only on the victims but collectively, on the group.

Eliminationists view their victims as “having inflicted great injury upon them and their society”. Eliminationist action is justified as being essentially retributive and, secondly, preventive of (imagined) future attack. The victims, and not the perpetrators, are seen as the “problem”: They are the cause. They are to blame. They exist. Horrible and horrifying cruelty is seen as obligatory, laudable, even as “sacred”. The aim of eliminationism is to homogenize society, to usher in some dreamed-of pure state.

Language and visual images conveyed in talk and discussion, newspapers and radio spread the notion that an entire group of people are subhuman and dangerous. Therefore, any study of eliminationism that “fails to give primacy to language and imagery” denies the fundamental reality of how people are cognitively, psychologically and emotionally prepared. Language is the soil that contains the seeds of action. Such eliminationist attacks will not occur if the community in general disapproved, was shocked or expressed revulsion and distaste: there’s general complicity. Intellectuals, artists, university professors, academics, journalists are no different from the illiterate and the lowest in society. Indeed, having status and influence, they are far worse and more culpable.

Soldiers, the paramilitary and policemen play a major role in elminationism. They constitute “pre-existing institutions of violence”, and are either “the lead killing institution or in a critical support role”. During a period of conflict, other countries have difficulty knowing what is happening, and this gives licence to the military to act as it pleases. Soldiers often feel rage because of the danger they face, and because “their comrades, loved ones and people” have been killed, suffered injury or harm. They inhabit a brutalizing and brutalized world.

Detention camps set up by the government and its soldiers are “a spatial, social and moral netherworld” into which the perpetrators herd “a weakened, overwhelmed, unthreatening, and pliant population, including children” . “A principal operational purpose of camp systems is degrading the victims, to make them understand their subjugated, demeaned, and right-less state. Camps are “cruelty’s quintessential sites” and perpetrators create them in a manner guaranteeing the victims will suffer cruelty “regularly, daily and nightly”.

Changing perspective completely, one can argue that racism is inherent and makes us the most dangerous of all animals. We have made the planet and everything on it our prey (‘The Life of Pi’). There’s something fundamentally flawed in our human makeup. Jacques Lacan wrote of the mirror-stage in the development of a human being when it realizes that the image seen in the mirror is she, herself: that there is me here. The German word fremdeln refers to a behavioural pattern in the development of infants in which a child has a mistrust, dislike or fear of strangers. In a fundamental, biological, sense there is “Me” and everyone else is the “Other”. Is racism the result of the individual, rather than being single, seeing herself as belonging to a group, separate from, if not opposed to, other groups formed by other individuals? Does racism go back to our distant past when, armed with stones and sticks, we fought other animals and other groups of humans for our very survival? Professor Harari writes (‘Sapiens’) that tolerance is not a human characteristic, and a small difference in skin-colour, language or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are negligible yet figments of imagination are transformed into cruel and very real social structures and practice.

Although not based on fact and science, ‘race’ exists powerfully. ‘Race’ exists – for those who believe it exists. To the Stoics, the divine spark in human beings was reason, and Voltaire believed that though doubt is uncomfortable, and certainty can lead to criminality, progress can be made by the use of reason. To my limited knowledge, Buddhism is a philosophy; a moral and ethical code. But a moral position is based on reason. What has struck me about Buddhist doctrine is its beautiful reasonableness (reason + able): no wonder most follow the Buddhist religion and not Buddhist doctrine. Empathy too is needed to combat racism. And a pre-requisite of empathy is a modicum of imagination; the ability to “put oneself in the shoes of another”. Bu this imagination and empathy are lacking – even in academics teaching lofty, compassionate, literary texts.

Racism being irrational, can it be deconstructed by reason? After all, racists first form attitudes and beliefs, and then set about finding justification. Heraclitus famously said, “All is flux”, and the Buddha made transience one of his most important perceptions. But though some things change, some unfortunately don’t. Professor Harari observes that confronting racists with facts, evidence and statistics has no effect because their beliefs are not based on reason.

Professor John Gray argues (‘The Silence of Animals’’) that the idea that history is a story of increasing rationality, decency and ethical progress is a myth.

Lines from a once-popular song: “Oh when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” The question is really a sad exclamation. However, as Toni Morrison pointed out,, the more hopeless a just struggle, the greater the honour in not giving up. Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote that she no longer talks to white people about “colourism” because it’s futile. The speech-act theory is associated with J. L. Austin but it can be argued that all speech and writing are acts, and Reni Eddo-Lodge in saying she won’t talk does precisely that. Violence in any form, as Sartre noted, is the failure of human beings to resolve issues without resorting to the crudity of force. Reason and language are what we have to combat racism, and the peaceful existence of several multi-ethnic, multicultural countries attest to the fact “otherness” need not necessarily lead to conflict. Franz Boas insisted on the basic unity of humankind. There was no natural hierarchy of races, cultures or languages. He acknowledged that rejecting traditional beliefs and stories “in order to follow the trail of truth is a very severe struggle”. Boas used the German word “Herzenbildung”, meaning the training of one’s heart to see the humanity of another.

Racists will argue that racism is natural. But doesn’t “civilized” also mean the overcoming of our negative impulses and drives? As I wrote to Martin Jacques, author of ‘The Global Hierarchy of Race’: “Individuals like you have helped to make people confront their prejudices; to increase awareness, and so change attitudes and conduct. Our globe, planet Earth, rotates on its own but social change is the result only of human endeavour and action.”



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Midweek Review

Rajavarothiam Sampanthan’s legacy

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Air Force personnel carry TNA leader R. Sampanthan’s coffin from a Y 12 transport aircraft to a waiting hearse at the Palaly air base. On the government directive, the SLAF deployed the Y 12 on July 4 morning to move the coffin from the Ratmalana air base to Palaly. On the following day, the Y 12 took the coffin from Palaly to China Bay, for the conduct of the last rites in Trincomalee on Sunday (07), after public veneration in his home electorate.

The TNA (Parliament recognizes TNA as ITAK [Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi]) won 22 seats in the Northern and Eastern Provinces under Rajavarothiam Sampanthan’s leadership at the April 2004 General Election. It was their best performance. That achievement was made at the height of the LTTE’s conventional military power. By the time the TNA contested the next general election, the LTTE didn’t exist, hence the drop in their performance. The TNA only managed to secure 14 seats at the April 2010 General Election as the Tigers were no longer there to stuff ballot boxes on its behalf. At the August 2015 General Election, the TNA obtained 16 seats but suffered quite a setback at the last parliamentary poll when it was reduced to 10 seats. What would be their fate at the next general election scheduled for 2025? Against the backdrop of Sampanthan’s demise, would TNA think afresh and formulate new strategy or continue on the same path.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Just a few weeks before the 2015 presidential election, the late Rajavarothiam Sampanthan admitted that the annihilation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) freed his political party – the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – from the clutches of the ruthless Tigers.

The lawyer-turned-politician wouldn’t have said so willingly under any circumstances. Never. Sampanthan, who led the alliance during a turbulent 23 years, had no option but to acknowledge the truth as the writer raised the issue at a special press conference called by the TNA at Hotel Janaki, Fife Road, Colombo 05 to announce its decision to back Maithripala Sirisena’s candidature at the 2015 presidential election (Declaring backing for MS, Sampanthan admits: War freed TNA from clutches of ruthless Tigers, The Island, Dec 31, 2014).

Sampanthan was flanked by the then Northern Provincial Councillor Dharmalingham Siddarthan (PLOTE leader), Vanni District MP Nadeshu Sivashakthi Annamalai (EPRLF), Vanni District MP Selvam Adaikkalanathan (TELO leader), Jaffna District MP Mavai Senathirajah (Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi leader) and its National List MP, M.A. Sumanthiran.

Sampanthan earlier declined to answer that question when the writer contacted him over the phone several weeks after the combined armed forces brought the war to an end on May 19, 2009. The Island raised the same issue again in January 2010 after Sampanthan declared the TNA’s support for the then General Sarath Fonseka’s candidature at the 2010 presidential poll. The veteran politician side-stepped the issue but he couldn’t have declined to answer pointed questions at a major media briefing.

Canada-based D.B.S. Jeyaraj, perhaps the foremost Tamil political commentator, despite some grave blunders like openly claiming that the Tigers would turn the tide of war against the Army almost till the eleventh hour, posted The Island report on dbsjeyaraj.com on Dec 30, 2014, even before the print edition was available. He headlined the story ‘Sampanthan Admits that TNA has been Freed from the Clutches of the Ruthless Military Organization LTTE.’

Why did Sampanthan take so long to appreciate the armed forces’ victory over the LTTE? Interestingly, no other local print or electronic media reported Sampanthan’s much belated declaration on the LTTE.

At the time the TNA declared its support for Maithripala Sirisena, its parliamentary group consisted of 14 MPs. The TNA was the third largest group in Parliament. The first, second and fourth places were held by the UPFA (SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance), UNF (UNP-led United National Front) and DNA (JVP-led Democratic National Alliance), respectively.

The Island sought explanation from Sampanthan as regards the following issues: (1) Did the TNA probe its own conduct as a political party, particularly its 2001 controversial decision to recognise the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people (2) Why did the TNA ask the Tamil electorate to boycott the Nov 2005 presidential election (3) Circumstances leading to the TNA backing retired General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 presidential election.

Sampanthan sort of hesitated before he compared the situation before and after May 2009, when the war was brought to a successful conclusion.

The Trincomalee District lawmaker declared that both the government and the Opposition had the freedom because the LTTE no longer existed. Sampanthan stressed that the LTTE had been a ruthless militant organization. The MP grudgingly admitted that the TNA, too, had been freed from the clutches of the LTTE.

The TNA leader justified the recognition of the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people on the basis that both the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government and the UNP wanting to have talks with the group. That was a blatant lie. The LTTE had been on the offensive after taking the upper hand in fighting in the northern theatre.

Commenting on the Nov 2005 polls boycott, Sampanthan claimed that the Tamil electorate had no option but to abide by the LTTE directive. Sampanthan didn’t comment on the TNA having to issue that directive on behalf of the LTTE.

Without elaborating, Sampanthan referred to allegations regarding the UPFA engineering the LTTE’s decision.

The TNA Chief said that the Tamil community had to move on. People living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces as well as other areas had faith in the TNA. Therefore, the party received the right to decide on their behalf.

Prez Polls boycott

In the wake of a joint declaration made by the LTTE-TNA combine to ensure Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the 2005 presidential polls, the writer contacted Sampanthan on the night of Nov 15, 2005. Sampanthan’s reaction was sought immediately after Batticaloa-based TNA lawmaker Joseph Pararajasingham confirmed the decision taken in consultation with the LTTE in Kilinochchi to call on Tamil voters to boycott the poll.

Sampanthan declared that there hadn’t been any developments after the Kilinochchi announcement. “Nothing worthwhile would be achieved by supporting either of the two leading candidates, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe.” Both Pararajasingham and Sampanthan declared that the Tamil speaking people were not interested in the election (CBK calls off last Cabinet meeting: TNA refuses to change poll boycott stance, The Island, Nov 16, 2005).

The LTTE-TNA decision was meant to engineer Wickremesinghe’s defeat. There cannot be any doubt about that. Those who had accused the Rajapaksas of bribing the LTTE to influence the polls boycott in mid-Nov 2005 should explain why the group resumed landmine attacks less than three weeks later. When the writer interviewed Kumaran Pathmanathan, or ‘KP’ as he was widely known, in late 2009, one-time the LTTE’s international weapons procurer declared the LTTE was sure of taking the upper hand in the north within two years. Pathmanathan, who had been in the custody of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) at that time he shed light on the LTTE’s thinking in the run-up to all-out war in August 2006.

The late Sampanthan knew what he was doing. He fully realized that the LTTE was dragging the Tamil community to a destructive war but went along with the despicable strategy. Lawmaker Sumanthiran, who had been seated with Sampanthan at the Janaki Hotel media briefing on Dec 30, 2014, recently commented on the 2005 polls boycott. The comment was made in the presence of President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Jaffna. The Presidential Media Division (PMD) quoted Sumanthiran as having told the gathering: “It is possible that the challenges in the North may have impeded your journey in 2005, a fact that I believe is now regretfully acknowledged by the people of the region.”

Sumanthiran may not have at least considered entering politics at the time the LTTE-TNA ordered the polls boycott. Sumanthiran, in a statement issued to coincide with the Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day this year, shamelessly contradicted Sampanthan’s stand on the LTTE announced on Dec 30, 2014.

The truth is the annihilation of the LTTE paved the way for the TNA to resume political activity. The late Sampanthan, in spite of being under tremendous pressure by the LTTE at that time, must be held accountable for utterly irresponsible decisions.

Unfortunately, the other political parties represented in Parliament never bothered to take up the TNA’s despicable anti-democratic actions. They conveniently turned a blind eye even after the European Election Observation Mission declared the partnership between the LTTE and the TNA resulted in the former openly stuffing ballot boxes on behalf of the latter. The EU made the disclosure in its report on the 2004 general election. The bombshell EU report on the general election conducted on April 02, 2004, released in Colombo on June 17, 2004, declared in no uncertain terms that the group secured 22 seats with the direct involvement of the LTTE. Leader of now defunct TULF V. Anandasangaree was the only politician to comment on the EU report (TULF leader applauds EU for unmasking LTTE proxy, The Island, June 23, 2004). All others remained silent. Actually, the Parliament should have taken up this issue. The media, too, ignored the EU comments on the despicable LTTE-TNA partnership. The late Sampanthan led the TNA at that time. Later, Sangaree told the writer that the LTTE engaged in large scale and systematic vote rigging to such an extent, the TNA’s 22 MPs had absolutely no moral right to serve as parliamentarians (Monitors should have called for fresh poll in North and East – TULF, The Island, June 26). Actually, the TNA should have been summoned by the Committee on Ethics and Privileges.

TNA’s role in ISGA initiative

Indian Premier Narendra Modi has condoled the demise of. Sampanthan. In an X post, the Prime Minister said: “My deepest condolences to the family and friends of veteran TNA leader R. Sampanthan. Will always cherish fond memories of meetings with him. He relentlessly pursued a life of peace, security, equality, justice and dignity for the Tamil nationals of Sri Lanka. He will be deeply missed by his friends and followers in Sri Lanka and India.”

In the post-LTTE era, the TNA should have examined its own conduct to identify its role in the destructive Eelam War IV (August 2006 to May 2009) that only led to unnecessary further suffering by innocent people. India, where terrorism originated, should have studied the TNA role in the LTTE’s overall strategy.

The TNA at the behest of the LTTE, undermined the India-backed Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) arranged by Norway in February 2002. The TNA relentlessly supported the LTTE’s call for the institutionalization of the Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) to facilitate the resumption of talks. The TNA took up ISGA with the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga on LTTE’s behalf. The LTTE proxy went to the extent of threatening the government that the LTTE wouldn’t return to the negotiating table unless President Kumaratunga accepted the ISGA with powers to raise taxes, maintain law and order, control internal and external trade, negotiate foreign loans and the absolute control over marine and offshore resources of the adjacent seas and the undisputed power to regulate access.

The LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003 following six rounds of talks with the government. That move, perhaps taken in consultation with the TNA, set the stage for the final war. The TNA can never disassociate itself from the LTTE’s murderous actions that corralled ordinary people as a human shield as part of its overall war strategy when it was being pursued by the security forces.

The TNA, until the very end, remained committed to the LTTE’s despicable strategy. Having granted the LTTE unprecedented status of sole representative of the Tamil speaking people, that party remained mum as the people were forced to retreat towards Mullivaikkal with the depleted LTTE fighting cadre. The TNA never publicly asked the LTTE to let the people go. The Tiger proxy TNA did not utter a word to the LTTE on behalf of horror struck people held as its human shield.

When the relentless Sri Lankan military drive forced the LTTE to retreat from all fronts, Velupillai Prabhakaran dragged the civilian population to the Vanni east where they were deployed as a human shield. Let me reproduce a letter written by the wartime Norwegian Ambassador here. It explains the mindset of the LTTE.

Ambassador Hattrem’s note, dated Feb 16, 2009, to Basil Rajapaksa, revealed Norway’s serious concern over the LTTE’s steadfast refusal to release the civilians. The Norwegian note, headlined ‘Offer/Proposal to the LTTE’, personally signed by Ambassador Hattrem, underscored the developing crisis on the Vanni east front. The following is the text of Ambassador Hattrem’s letter, addressed to Basil Rajapaksa: “I refer to our telephone conversation today. The proposal to the LTTE on how to release the civilian population, now trapped in the LTTE controlled area, has been transmitted to the LTTE through several channels. So far, there has been, regrettably, no response from the LTTE and it does not seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree with this in the near future.”

There wasn’t any positive LTTE response and the military went ahead with the final phase of the operation which was completed 15 years ago this month. Perhaps, the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), inquiring into wartime and post-conflict accountability issues, should try to identify several channels through which Ambassador Hattrem tried to convince the LTTE. Did Ambassador Hattrem seek the late Sampanthan’s help to convince Prabhakaran? Did the Norwegian seek the intervention of any other TNA MP? If not, the Norwegians believed that there was no point in even getting in touch with the TNA regarding this particular matter.

The diabolical LTTE-TNA partnership, finalized in late 2001, cannot be examined without taking into consideration the elimination of top Tamil political leadership by the LTTE. At least two ex-parliamentarians were killed in Sept 1985 by TELO at the behest of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

The LTTE assassinated Appapillai Amirthalingam in July 1989. Along with the foremost Sri Lankan Tamil political leader and former Opposition leader, the LTTE killer squad shot dead ex-Jaffna MP Vettivelu Yogeswaran. Ex-Nallur MP Murugesu Sivasithamparam was shot and wounded at 342/2, Bauddhaloka Mawatha/Bullers Road in Colombo 7.

In spite of initial reluctance, those who represented the TNA had no qualms in working with the top LTTE leadership responsible for the assassination of Amirthalingham. The killing took place during the LTTE-Premadasa honeymoon, 11 months before the eruption of Eelam War IV. The truth is the LTTE wanted Amirthalingham eliminated as Prabhakaran knew his monstrous group would never receive recognition as sole representative of Tamil speaking people as long as the political veteran lived.

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Midweek Review

The Common Pet

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By Lynn Ockersz

There he sits obediently,

The cynosure of all eyes,

Contemplative and sad,

Yet upright, ready to spring,

At the prey that strays,

And within him burn urges,

That ‘Culture’ cannot tame,

Which define his essence,

And these contending pulls,

Bring silent, lingering agony,

That petting can’t lay at rest.

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Midweek Review

Field Marshal in penetrating post-Aragalaya move

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President Wickremesinghe receiving a copy of FM Fonseka’s memoir at Nelum Pokuna (pic courtesy PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has switched sides again. Fonseka, MP, threw his weight behind UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Presidential Polls campaign as the latter strengthened his position, politically, with the finalisation of debt restructuring pacts with the Official Creditor Committee (OCC) and the Exim Bank of China for USD 5.8 bn and USD 4.2 bn, respectively.

Japan-led OCC includes France, India, the United States, Canada and several European nations. However, Sri Lanka is yet to reach an agreement with private creditors. That remains a challenge.

But, on the political front, President Wickremesinghe continued to make substantial progress with the gradual disintegration of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Would Gampaha District lawmaker Fonseka’s betrayal of the main Opposition party the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) at a crucial stage of the Presidential Polls campaign undermine Sajith Premadasa drive, with more than a dozen others from the SJB also having behind the scene negotiations with the UNP Leader to back him at the crucial poll, foremost being Rajitha Senaratne?

To be fair by Rajitha he has gone on record telling interviewer Chamuditha Samarawickrema, without naming the co-conspirators, that his plan is to, at the same time, have Sajith Premadasa as the PM candidate in a definite future tie up with Ranil. It is a clear cut challenge to the JVP. According to the one-time Health Minister Dr. Senaratne the SJB rebels had their first meeting at the residence of Eran Wickramaratne, MP, and, according to him, other rebels are cozying up to Ranil more than him.

The launch of FM Fonseka’s memoir “The Army Commander’s Promise to the Nation – I will not leave this war to the next Army Commander,” at Nelum Pokuna, with the participation of President Wickremesinghe last Friday (28) marked the end of Fonseka’s relationship with the SJB, officially.

Fonseka’s move is unlikely to undermine the SJB’s campaign at any level, unless the current internal rebellion, urging Wickremesinghe and Premadasa getting together for the greater good of everyone, gain greater support. In fact, in spite of MP Fonseka being Chairman of the party, he never played a role in Sajith Premadasa’s campaign. But Sajith has to be cognizant of the fact that his MPs do not want to be at the mercy of the JVP knowing its bloody past during two unsuccessful uprisings against elected governments in 1971 and the 1987 to ’89 period. His own late father President Ranasinghe Premadasa and his supporters faced the brunt of the JVP violence in the second uprising. By Sajith Premadasa’s own admission he was the target of an attack when he went to visit the Aragalaya camp site at Galle Face in 2022. He escaped any bodily harm, or even death, thanks to his alert driver who managed to whisk him away to safety in the nick of time. A similar visit to the site by JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake went off without any incident!

Field Marshal Fonseka, the war-winning Army Commander (2005-2009), had been among those UNPers who joined the SJB at its inception. in 2020. close on the heels of the Grand Old Party’s heavy defeat at the 2019 presidential election. The formation of the SJB, at the expense of the UNP, led to the total annihilation of the latter at the 2020 Parliamentary Polls, if not for a single National List (NL) slot.

The SJB secured 54 seats, including seven National List slots, whereas the UNP was reduced to just one NL slot. Now, MP Fonseka has returned to the UNP. Of the 54-member parliamentary group, fiery Fonseka is actually the third SJBer to go back to the UNP since Wickremesinghe joined the Rajapaksas in April 2022. SJBers Manusha Nanayakkara and Harin Fernando switched their allegiance to Wickremesinghe immediately after the latter accepted the premiership from Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (Former SJB NL member and State Minister Diana Gamage’s ouster from Parliament should be dealt with separately).

The SJB also lost Patali Champika Ranawaka, who registered Eksath Janaraja Peramuna (EJP) and declared his intention to contest the 2024 Presidential Poll. Unfortunately, the former JHU stalwart lacked the required backing to join the fray. Would Ranawaka, too, join Wickremesinghe? If that happened, what would be MP Ranawaka’s terms as he recently declared that he wouldn’t accept ministerial portfolios.

What really prompted MP Fonseka to join Wickremesinghe? The former Sinha Regiment veteran desperately wanted to contest the 2024 presidential election though he lacked political platform. In fact, Fonseka felt he should have had the opportunity to take on Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 presidential election. Fonseka obviously had no option but to join Wickremesinghe as the SJB publicly rejected him.

The FM’s relationship with Wickremesinghe cannot be examined without taking into consideration the latter’s dependence on the ruling SLPP in Parliament. However, the SLPP has been fragmented, sharply, with a significant number of MPs declaring their support for Wickremesinghe’s candidature.

In late February this year, Fonseka, in an exclusive interview with the writer, declared that he wouldn’t leave the party, hence the decision to title that article ‘Field Marshal won’t quit SJB’. (https://island.lk/field-marshal-wont-quit-sjb/). But, he has done so. In fact, The Island, during that interview at his Thalahena, Malabe office, raised the possibility of him joining Wickremesinghe against the backdrop of meeting the President in Parliament. The FM claimed that he met Wickremesinghe not as the President but the Minister in charge of the Finance portfolio regarding some of his funds held by the government. According to Fonseka, his February meeting, on the day the President delivered his latest policy speech, was the third. “There were two other previous meetings regarding the same matter,” Fonseka said, adding that the other officials who dealt with the issue at hand were the Governor, CBSL, Treasury Secretary and the Attorney General.

Disclosing the February meeting lasted just 10 minutes, Fonseka appreciated the fact that the President didn’t discuss politics at all on all occasions. “Perhaps, regarding the same matter, I may have to meet the President again.”

The funds held by the government are widely believed to be received by Fonseka in the run-up to the 2010 Presidential Polls. Perhaps, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government must have released the funds that had been held for over a decade. The June 28 book launch proved switching allegiance is all part of the game.

But if Wickremesinghe opts out of the race, as some believe, in favour of Fonseka, as happened in 2010, 2015 and 2019, then most of the JVP bravado about the election being a cake walk as there is no real challenger may turn out to be plain bravado. The writer, however doesn’t think so.

A place in Yahapalana Cabinet

In February 2016, Yahapalana Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe threw a political lifeline to Fonseka who had been in a desperate situation in the wake of the massive 2015 General Election defeat. Having contested the 2015 General Election under the symbol of the Democratic Party (DP), Sri Lanka’s most successful Army Chief failed to secure a single seat. That defeat demoralised and disappointed him. Obviously, Fonseka had absolutely no opportunity to strike a deal with President Sirisena or Premier Wickremesinghe as DP’s showing at the parliamentary poll was so poor and he faced political oblivion.

But, the sudden death of UNP NL MP M.K.D. S. Gunawardena, a SLFPer who switched allegiance to Wickremesinghe, in February 2016, created a vacancy that gave an opportunity to Wickremesinghe. Fonseka was swiftly named Minister of Regional Development and, thereafter, as Minister of Wildlife and Sustainable Development until the Oct 2018 constitutional crisis.

If not for Wickremesinghe, Fonseka wouldn’t have received an opportunity to serve in the Cabinet of Ministers. In the wake of the constitutional crisis triggered by President Sirisena and the Easter Sunday attacks several months later, interested parties called for Fonseka’s appointment as the Minister in charge of police. President Sirisena, who had been at loggerheads with the then Minister Fonseka, declined to do so.

At the time of the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) mounted Easter Sunday attacks Sirisena served as both Defence and Public Security minister.

Regardless of the opportunity granted by Wickremesinghe, in Feb 2016, Fonseka deserted him in 2020 when Sajith Premadasa formed the SJB. About five months after the General Election, MP Fonseka received the appointment as Chairman of the party. Now, after four years in political wilderness, lawmaker Fonseka had again received media attention by way of a book launch but could he sustain public interest?

When Fonseka’s relations deteriorated with the SJB at an early stage, as a member of Sajith Premadasa’s team, he got involved with a group of senior citizens who genuinely promoted him as an independent presidential candidate. They organized a mega event at a five-star hotel in Colombo several months ago to promote Fonseka’s candidature. But, when Fonseka made his latest move, that group simply abandoned him. One of them admitted quite candidly that they were duped.

Now FM is ready to follow SLPP dissidents who switched allegiance to Wickremesinghe at the expense of the party they were elected.

Having given up post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in July 2009 to enter politics, Fonseka contested the 2010 presidential election but suffered heavy defeat at the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The UNP-led coalition that included the JVP and the TNA, lost interest in Fonseka ahead of the parliamentary polls. The celebrated ex-Army Chief ended up with the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) and the grouping, led by the JVP, secured seven seats at the General Elections. Fonseka was among the group that included Arjuna Ranatunga, Titan Alles and Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

The arrest of Fonseka in early February 2010 in a despicable manner and subsequent legal action/ court martial and his release in May 2012 with a presidential pardon demonstrated a pathetic state of affairs.

Fonseka-TNA relations

Fonseka comfortably won all electorates in the Northern and Eastern Provinces at the 2010 presidential election. After having accused his Army of butchering Tamil civilians on the Vanni east front, the TNA (one-time-LTTE ally), backed his candidature, thanks to Washington’s machinations here to defeat Rajapaksas at any cost for defying the West and wiping out the Tigers militarily. The TNA backing for Fonseka had been in line with the overall US-led strategy to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2010 Presidential Poll. The US strategy, however, failed that time till Sirisena’s betrayal five years later, again with the US backing. Fonseka ended-up losing by a staggering 1.8 mn votes though he handsomely won all the North and East electoral districts with mainly Tamil votes.

MP Fonseka, in May 2021, explained why the Tamil electorate voted for him at the January 26, 2010, presidential election. The explanation given in Parliament coincided with the low-key 12th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE. Fonseka declared: THE PEOPLE OF THE NORTH AND EAST VOTED FOR HIM WITHOUT HATRED BECAUSE OF THE RESTORATION OF PEACE IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.

Why did MP Fonseka make such an assertion 12 years after the war? What prompted him to say so? Most importantly, was he telling the truth? Did the Tamil electorate really vote for him because of his role in the eradication of the LTTE? No one has responded to Fonseka so far. The civil society, too, has remained mum.

Actually, why did the UNP pick Fonseka as the common candidate? In the aftermath of the eradication of the LTTE, in 2009, the UNP had no option but to accept Fonseka as the common candidate, particularly against the backdrop of the war-winning General making covert moves in their direction. The UNP-led Opposition strategy was primarily meant to deprive President Mahinda Rajapaksa the advantage of the unbelievable (in the eyes of the powerful West that insisted on the invincibility of the Tigers in battle) war triumph. There couldn’t have been a better choice than Fonseka though the Opposition leadership quite correctly realised how the inclusion of the LTTE’s sidekick Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the grouping distanced the Southern electorate.

Fonseka didn’t mince his words when the media, on July 15th 2009, raised the possibility of his entry into active politics. The writer was among those who had been present at the media briefing called by General Fonseka, in his new capacity as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) at the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) within the Army Headquarters premises.

Fonseka declared he would never seek a political career. The war veteran said that he wouldn’t want to lose his popularity within 24 hours by taking to politics. The former Army Chief recalled the fate of his senior colleagues, Major General Lakshman Algama and Major General Janaka Perera, both of whom perished in LTTE suicide attacks on election platforms.

The LTTE assassinated Gemunu Watch veteran Algama on Dec 18, 1999, at an election rally in Ja-Ela held in support of UNP Presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, whereas Commando veteran Perera perished on Oct 06, 2008 in Anuradhapura at an event related with PC polls in which he contested as the Chief Ministerial candidate of the North Central Province.

Nothing could be further from the truth than Fonseka’s declaration in Parliament that those living in the northern and eastern regions voted for him because of the restoration of peace therein? The Tamil electorate never accepted Fonseka’s role as the Commander of the Army and repeatedly accused him and his Army of genocide, especially after the crushing defeat of the LTTE.

Having recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people, way back in 2001, the TNA wouldn’t have accepted Fonseka if the outfit hadn’t been convinced that only the former Army Commander could have challenged the immensely popular Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2010 Presidential Poll.

The plan received the wholehearted backing of the West and especially the US, though the then US Ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis, in a confidential dispatch from Colombo, subsequently exposed by Wikileaks, categorized Fonseka as a war criminal along with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and lawmaker Basil Rajapaksa.

The diplomatic missive, dated January 15, 2009, held the above-mentioned leaders responsible for war crimes. In spite of that, the US threw its weight behind Fonseka, perhaps initiating the move itself as the only viable political strategy to defeat the hugely popular war-winning Mahinda Rajapaksa securing a second term.

Now Fonseka is back again with Wickremesinghe as the latter builds-up large alliance in preparation for the 2024 Presidential Poll.

Why Fonseka accepted the TNA’s backing against the backdrop of its close relationship with the LTTE is still a mystery. Having recalled the killing of Majors General Algama and Perera when he assumed duties as the CDS in July 2009, Fonseka quite conveniently forgot the TNA’s endorsement of the LTTE bid to assassinate Fonseka. If the LTTE succeeded in eliminating Fonseka in April 2006 and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Oct 2006, the war would have definitely taken a different turn as we have often been reminded.

Post-Aragalaya politics

Field Marshal Fonseka was one of the few lawmakers to publicly endorse Aragalaya that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office. Aragalaya accepted him. The war veteran was the only lawmaker to address the crowds near the Janadhipathi Mandiraya a couple of hours before they stormed the place. After the SLPP elected Wickremesinghe, in late July 2022, as the President, MP Fonseka called for fresh Aragalaya to oust the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa administration. Addressing Parliament, Fonseka urged people to gather in Colombo on Nov 09, 2022. The war veteran wanted to launch a continuous protest campaign until the government was forced out. The SJB quickly distanced itself from Fonseka’s plans. The August 09 project collapsed. Fonseka suffered an irreparable setback.

Perhaps, Fonseka’s latest move should be discussed in the context of the retired military being largely divided among the SJB and JJB/JVP. Fonseka is the only top level retired officer to throw his weight behind Wickremesinghe.

Among those who had been present at the book launch was retired General Mahesh Senanayake, who recently joined the SJB. But that hadn’t discouraged Fonseka from inviting Senanayake, who was recalled from retirement to serve as Yahapalana Army commander. That was due to Fonseka’s intervention. But, the SJB’s decision to accommodate retired General Daya Ratnayake angered Fonseka, who lashed out at Sajith Premadasa for doing so.

The leader and Chairman hadn’t agreed on many things. Actually, there hadn’t been consensus on key issues. They disagreed on the move to back Dullas Alahapperuma as the Opposition candidate against Ranil Wickremesinghe when Parliament voted to elect an MP to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term. Finally, having tried to utilise Aragalaya against Wickremesinghe, Fonseka ended up in the President’s camp.

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