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Midweek Review

The rise of the Bonapartists: A political history of post-1977 Sri Lanka – II

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By Uditha Devapriya

There were three Bonapartist revolutions in post-independence Sri Lanka. The first was Ranasinghe Premadasa’s election in 1989, the second Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election in 2005 and his re-election in 2010, and the third Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election in 2019. I consider Premadasa, Mahinda, and Gotabaya to be more Bonapartist than fascist, contrary to most accounts of them by the liberal intelligentsia. There is an important distinction to be made, as important as the distinction between the Old Right and the New Right.

A crucial difference between Bonapartism and fascism, with which Bonapartism is often conflated, is that the one responds to the public and the other regiments it. Bonapartism can deteriorate into fascism and it not infrequently does, yet its inherently populist-pluralist character deters it from doing so unless its co-option by a rightwing fringe group makes such a transformation inevitable. The latter point is important.

Here one must consider the first Bonapartist revolution, along with its impact on the Right. Mervyn de Silva called the 1988 election an event of sociological significance on account of who won it. Ranasinghe Premadasa has been called many things by many people. At the end of the day, regardless of whatever epithets or insults, he was, and remained until his passing away, a Bonapartist tied despite his populist trappings to the Right.

Yet, under Premadasa the J. R. model altered considerably. Development theorists of the Left, including Samir Amin, were by then propounding a paradigm of delinking in response to IMF enforced dependence on MNCs. This was the position taken up by the Left as well, and it was in keeping with the Soviet Union’s policy of disengagement. Regarding the latter, it must be mentioned that the intelligentsia of the Third World put forward a different strategy at the height of their influence: a bourgeois modernisation scheme, with emphasis on industrialisation. This is what Sirimavo Bandaranaike tried to adhere to.

As I have noted in my essays on the NAM to The Island, such an approach fell victim to its own contradictions, top among them the inability of bourgeois nationalist elites to take modernisation forward to its logical conclusion. Out of fashion then and out of fashion now, the bourgeoisie opted out of BOTH disengagement AND delinking.

In Premadasa they found the champion of their model: an open economy minus what the latter decried as “old style capitalism” vis-à-vis his predecessor. This, then, would be how the Bonapartist was to shed off the Old Right’s embracement of neoliberalism.

Foreign policy wise, Premadasa differed from Jayewardene’s pro-Western posturing. In 1977 Jayewardene stated that his policy of nonalignment would be “more genuine” that what it had been under his predecessor. Two years later, however, the New York Times reported his famous quote about nonalignment, the US, and the Soviet Union. With the establishment of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC), the government tilted definitively to not just the US but also Britain and ASEAN: Motorola and Harris Corporation began building plants “with an initial employment capacity of 1,850 workers.”

Goh Chok Tong’s and Lee Kuan Yew’s visits to Sri Lanka reinforced the belief that Sri Lanka would regain its interrupted journey to becoming the Singapore of South Asia, a prospect promised by the Mahaweli Development Scheme.

This put the country at the backbenches of the pro-Western bloc in the Non-Aligned Movement: while Jayewardene courted Western European and American help, he was careful not to alienate the non-Western bloc. His warm rapport with Fidel Castro, for all the theatrics of Third World unity at the 1979 NAM Conference in Havana, belied his pro-US sympathies, as did his appointment of A. C. S. Hameed as Foreign Minister.

Less well apparent was his selection of Premadasa as an emissary of sorts to multilateral institutions. At the 1980 UN General Assembly, Premadasa called upon developed countries to shoulder their share of responsibility for underdeveloped countries. He was firm on this point: responding to a remark by Michael Littlejohns (of Reuters) that OPEC’s intransigence prevented the First World from aiding the Third, he politely but firmly contended, “You can keep on saying that, but it will do no one any good.”

It hardly need be added that after he became President, Premadasa took positions on foreign policy which contradicted some of Jayewardene’s, such as his expulsion of David Gladstone and his closure of the Israeli Special interests Section at the US Embassy; the latter act went as far as to provoke a confrontation with Stephen Solarz.

At a fundamental level, however, Premadasa’s vision remained bogged down in the IMF paradigm: Janasaviya, after all, was, despite its pro-poor leanings, funded by the World Bank. In other words, it continued to alienate the section of the middle-class – Sinhala Buddhist – which had evolved a cultural critique of neoliberalism.

In the absence of, on the one hand, a strong trade union driven Left movement, and on the other hand an equally strong radical youth movement – both decimated by Premadasa and Jayewardene – the Oppositional space gravitated to a nationalist-populist vacuum. What remained of the amorphous Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP) gravitated either to the UNP (Ossie Abeygunasekera) or to the People’s Alliance (Chandrika Kumaratunga).

Premadasa courted considerable support among sections of the middle-class as well as the petty bourgeoisie, including artists and the clergy (as seen in the latter’s act of siding with his government after Gamini and Lalith launched their campaign against him). Yet in one respect he remained a part Bonapartist and not a total one: his inability to respond to the cultural critique of his politico-economic paradigm.

This widened a vacuum, filled by the Jathika Chintanaya; the latter’s evolution from an intellectual to a political movement, from Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara to S. L. Gunasekara and Champika Ranawaka, has been charted many times before by several commentators. All that needs to be noted here is that in the absence of a political critique of neoliberalism, especially in the face of neoliberalism’s consolidation by the People’s Alliance under Chandrika Kumaratunga, the cultural critique gained ground.

What helped that critique gain even more ground was the capitulation of the Left to the neoliberal line of the SLFP, as well as the dismantling of the state by the first Kumaratunga government. The latter point is significant, for unlike J.R. and Premadasa Kumaratunga set about rolling back the state while opening up the economy.

As Dayan Jayatilleka has suggested, the cooption of the Kumaratunga regime by NGOs and the new “civil society” did much to provoke the Sinhala nationalist lobby. Incensed, the latter sought a third force. In the absence of a viable Left alternative – for Kumaratunga’s first term was marked by the deterioration of the Left within the People’s Alliance – the critique of neoliberalism soon became a monopoly of cultural revivalists.

It must be noted that the SLFP-PA’s rightward shift did not transpire in a vacuum. After a decade of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, the Democrats in the US and the Labourites in Britain embraced what they euphemistically called “Third Way Centrism”, discarding their Marxist roots while embracing a neoliberal line. In Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the new SLFP thus had its Western archetypes to look up to, and to emulate.

Jayatilleka has argued that the SLFP-PA’s turn to the right was pragmatist. I disagree: it ended up decimating the Left, something not even three UNP administrations could do and something which paved the way for the nationalist lobby to gain in strength and numbers despite its convoluted, contradictory positions on the economy.

Indeed, the contents of the latter’s economic programme revealed its contradictions: the Sihala Urumaya Manifesto of 2000, to give a sampling, rejected a closed economy while rejecting neoliberalism, acknowledging that while “going back to a closed economy” was “unthinkable” it would, in stark contrast to its opposition to neoliberalism, avail itself “of the opportunities thrown up by globalisation.” Viewed this way, even Nalin de Silva’s campaign against Coca-Cola at the Kelaniya University in the 1990s seems to me more of a cultural rather than a political attack on globalisation; Sinhala nationalism of the petty bourgeois sort, after all, decries neoliberalism and, paradoxically, critiques Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s economic policies for having destroyed the “Sinhala businessman.”

In addition to strengthening the Sinhala nationalist lobby, by axing or relegating to the background the Left faction of the SLFP Kumaratunga not only moved her party to the neoliberal Right, she compelled the UNP to do the same as well.

Surprising as it may seem now, the UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe originally opposed Kumaratunga over several sensitive issues, such as the proposed Federal Package. In the second CBK presidency, however, the UNP did a volte-face on those same issues. Ironically that time around it was left to Kumaratunga to rein in Wickremesinghe over his overtures to the peace lobby: at the very moment he landed in Washington after “brokering” a peace deal with the LTTE, she took over three Ministries and sacked him. That did not, however, incline her government automatically to oppose the peace lobby, as her experiment with P-TOMS (despite the opposition of the JVP) later showed.

The first Bonapartist revolt had taken place against the backdrop of an extreme Left uprising and widening discontent with an authoritarian rightwing presidency. A considerable section of the middle-class had voted for Premadasa despite their scepticism, but another section – Sinhala Buddhist nationalist – remained alienated from him.

The second Bonapartist revolt, on the other hand, took place against the backdrop of deepening neoliberalism, a rollback of the state unparalleled even by J. R. Jayewardene’s standards, and the internationalisation of a conflict the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist middle-class wanted a military, not a political, solution to. Since the Left could not, owing to the bottlenecks imposed on it, come up with a proper critique of these issues, it was left to the Jathika Chintanaya and its offshoots to so do from a cultural vantage point.

In 2000, Dinesh Gunawardena’s Mahajana Eksath Peramuna joined the People’s Alliance. At the 2000 parliamentary election Gunawardena contested and retained his seat; he would do the same at the 2001 parliamentary election, becoming Minister for Transport and rescuing the SLTB from the moribund state to which it had deteriorated by then.

Gunawardena’s ideology – an impeccable blend of socialism and popular nationalism, not unlike his father’s – provided an impetus to a revolt within the SLFP. That revolt culminated in 2004 when an overwhelming majority of the party stood behind Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid as party candidate for the presidential election. Mahinda revived Bonapartism in Sri Lankan politics thereafter, becoming an heir of sorts to Premadasa; not for no reason, after all, does Dayan Jayatilleka often compare the two with one another.

Where Rajapaksa differed from Premadasa was the acceptance he won among the Jathika Chintanaya ideologues and the Hela Urumaya MPs, as well as the Left (the Old Trotskyite-Communist and the JVP). Not that their tactics and objectives converged totally; the Hela Urumaya for instance sought a wider post-war political agenda than the Jathika Chintanaya. Champika Ranawaka thus campaigned for Rajapaksa in 2005 and 2010 on the understanding that once they achieved their primary aim, the ending of the war, they would enact reforms that would free the public sector from the inefficiencies and the culture of corruption which two and a half decades of untrammelled privatisation had pushed it to.

When he and Rajapaksa disagreed over the direction the latter took towards the end of his second presidency, Ranawaka not only had to leave the government, he had to leave it while being forced to shed his nationalist credentials. In a big way, that says a lot about how Rajapaksa stole the nationalist light from its original torchbearers.

Today, Ranawaka is caught adrift: on the one hand the Sinhala nationalist crowd attacks him as a renegade, while on the other ethnic minorities distrust him over his past. This was summed up at the recent parliamentary polls: despite being given the No 1 preferential vote for the Samagi Jana Balavegaya in Colombo, Ranawaka came second from last to Mano Ganesan; the Sinhala middle-class vote which he coveted went to the Pohottuwa, while the SJB vote trifurcated between the Premadasa Central Colombo bloc, Harsha de Silva’s suburban middle-class bloc, and the Rahuman-Ganesan minority bloc.

In other words, Rajapaksa has become not just a Bonapartist but a total Bonapartist, unlike his predecessor from the UNP. He remained so long after the JVP and the Hela Urumaya left his coalition, and one can argue he remains so even now. As for Gotabaya Rajapaksa and whether he has become a more right-leaning Bonapartist than his brother: well, it’s been a year, and a lot can happen in four years. No assessment of the Gotabaya presidency can be undertaken until it reaches its end. On the face of it, it hasn’t even begun to climb up to its peak. On the legacy it leaves behind will historians be able to record what is, to me at least, the third Bonapartist revolution in Sri Lanka. Until then, we will have to wait.

(The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com)

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Midweek Review

A deeper scrutiny of ‘intelligence related matters’ needed

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Public Security Minister retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera Monday, 18 at his ministry met Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC, to discuss ways and means of strengthening law enforcement operations. Public Security Ministry Secretary retired Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis and IGP Chandana Wickremaratne participated in the discussion.

Former Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) of Police H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya, having read our last week’s column, further elaborated on the revelation by retired SDIG Merril Gunaratne pertaining to what he called the unprecedented expansion of the DIG cadre during Dingiri Banda Wijetunga’s tenure as the President (May 1993 to Nov 1994).

Kotakadeniya, one of the most outspoken senior cop, while in service (if one had cared to canvas his opinion) and now in retirement, said Wijetunga’s intervention had been far worse than mentioned and caused the further deterioration of the service. The retired Senior DIG sent us the following statement in the wake of the writer’s comment on Gunaratne’s latest work ‘Perils of a Profession’, titled ‘Perils of a Profession jolts scandal- ridden police’ published in the January 13, 2021 edition of The Island:

“In the chapter, titled ‘Violation of the line of seniority – a major cause for decline,’ it is stated President Wijetunge ordered the DIG cadre to be increased from 19 to 30 and that there was speculation about this increase benefitting an officer who was a favourite of the President. I would like to add two relevant facts regarding this issue.

“Shortly after Wijetunga assumed office as the President, in 1993, he summoned me to the Presidential Secretariat. At that time I was based at Police Headquarters as DIG Headquarters and DIG Administration. My parents and I had the privilege of being acquainted with Wijetunga from my childhood as we were from the same village.

“When I met the President, he told me that the welfare of Police officers hadn’t been given the due importance and, therefore, to redress the situation he had an idea to appoint a DIG to handle welfare work in each DIG Range. He inquired from me whether I would endorse the proposal.

“I reflected for a few seconds and replied that the subject of welfare in each range was being looked after by an Inspector, and therefore the appointment of an officer of a rank of DIG was not quite necessary. The President did not appear to be pleased with my response.

“If few days, after this meeting, with the President, I was transferred as the DIG Logistics on 1.10.1994 and thereafter to Chilaw on 4.10.1994. I felt that the move by the President, to appoint several DIGs’ in charge of ‘welfare’, was meant to fulfill his desire to expand the DIG cadre to allow his favourite officer who was very junior, to also become a DIG.

“The other matter was that the DIG cadre increase was not from 19 to 30, but much above 40 since the officer concerned was at that time 44th in the list of Senior Superintendents. “

Kotakadeniya refrained from mentioning names. The Island inquiries revealed that ironically highly respected Frank Silva had been the IGP at that time and Mahinda Balasuriya the beneficiary.

Kotakadeniya, who had served as Defence Ministry advisor during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first tenure as the President following the 2005 November Presidential election, was the only retired officer to respond to The Island piece.

Deterioration of the public sector

The deterioration of the police should be addressed at the highest level. Unfortunately, successive governments, in spite of their grandiose plans to restore the dignity of the once proud service caused further deterioration. Political parties cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the current predicament.

But at least it is no longer a runaway rogue force, hand in glove with the underworld, due to the current government’s no nonsense line on law enforcers. Yet the current dispensation, too, is still struggling to cope with the situation against continuing revelations on the depth of its rot. The revelation of the clandestine dealings involving the elite Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) and heroin Mafia sent shock waves through the entire security establishment. Gunaratne, however, hadn’t at least made a reference to the PNB fiasco or the controversial release of Easter Sunday massacre suspect Riyaj Bathiudeen who had been held in CID custody in terms of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Mahinda Balasuriya received the appointment as the IGP in early November 2009 during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first tenure as the President. Balasuriya resigned in early June 2011 following the killing of a 21-year-old worker, during a protest, by police fire at the Katunayake Export Processing (EPZ).

The government rewarded him with a diplomatic appointment. Balasuriya, perhaps is the only retired IGP to receive an appointment as head of a diplomatic mission in spite of stepping down under controversial circumstances. Balasuriya served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Brazil. With the Parliamentary High Posts Committee, chaired by the Speaker, nothing but a rubber stamp for successive governments to accommodate their favourites, at the taxpayers’ expense, without any difficulty.

Balasuriya received significant media coverage when he was investigated by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that Inquired into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges (PRECIFAC). The yahapalana outfit probed why Balasuriya provided armed police security for members of Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF), who hadn’t been at least members of Parliament.

The Commission sought clarification on what grounds Balasuriya provided security in the period 2010-2015.

The Commission estimated the exercise could have cost the taxpayer approximately Rs 30 mn.

Gunaratne dealt with officers with political patronage at different levels exploiting the much abused system to secure promotions. In the chapter referred to by Kotakadeniya, Gunaratne depicted an extremely negative picture of the service.

Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section that referred to the pathetic situation of some influential persons securing key posts and promotions for stooges at the expense of the deserving: “The pattern, so monotonous since 1977, had seriously demoralized the service. Some have been adept not only in the ‘long jump,’ but also in ‘hop, step and jump,’ by obtaining more than one promotion outside the eligible criteria.

Backdoor entry into Parliament

But should we be surprised by irregular police promotions? In a country where defeated candidates can be accommodated in Parliament through the backdoor or ruling party perpetrated Treasury bond scams twice in 2015 and 2016, ‘rape of the seniority line’ as underscored by Gunaratne seemed not so serious an issue. In fact, the rot in the police is just one symptom of the overall deterioration of both public and private sectors.

In spite of the creation of the National Police Commission (NPC) in terms of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution followed by the 19th and the recently introduced 20th, the crisis-ridden department is in bad shape. The PNB’s alleged involvement in drug dealing, Riyaj Bathiudeen’s sudden shock release, alleged attempts to undermine police investigation into Easter Sunday attacks, handling of the probe into negligence on the part of Brandix and government officials in respect of the second Covid-19 eruption highlighted fundamental flaws in law enforcement.

Police continue to play politics and politicians continue to play with the police. Both parties engage in ‘politics’ at the expense of truth and credibility. The Parliament remains indifferent. Yahapalana IGP Pujith Jayasundera, in the wake of the Oct 26, 2018 constitutional crisis caused by the sacking of Wickremesinghe government, immediately switched his allegiance to the Rajapaksas. Jayasundera returned to the fold as President Sirisena’s ambitious project collapsed.

Over the years, politicians have set up systems that took care of problems. Actually, Gunaratne in ‘Dilemma of an Island’ (2001), ‘Cop in the Crossfire’ in 2011 and the latest ‘Perils of a Profession’ launched this January dealt with perhaps some broader issues though a fully-fledged Presidential Commission as suggested by the author is required to reach consensus on genuine remedial measures.

Former Sub Inspector and defeated candidate at the August 2020 general election Palitha Range Bandara recently received the appointment as the General Secretary of the demoralized UNP. Bandara succeeded Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, who was rewarded with the post of Assistant Leader.

Beleaguered UNP leader Wickremesinghe picked Bandara in spite of him being accused often of divided loyalties. But in relation to ‘Perils of a Profession,’ it would be pertinent to mention that Bandara received backdated promotion to the rank of ASP in Dec 2017, courtesy the NPC.

The NPC recommended promotion for cop-turned-politician Bandara to the rank of ASP on the grounds the previous Rajapaksa administration victimized him, politically, though he had left the police long before Rajapaksa came to power in 2005. The NPC made the recommendation to the Law and Order and Southern Development Ministry. The NPC responded to Bandara’s appeal and recommended that MP Bandara be reinstated in the Police Service from 24 August 2000 and promoted to the ASP rank on the 27th of the same month and sent him on retirement. Promoting an SI to the rank of ASP cannot be an issue for those yahapalana grandees who brought back Maj. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake from retirement to name him the Commander of the Army. The National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) carried out the Easter Sunday attacks during Senanayake’s tenure as the Army Commander. Instead of accepting responsibility for the failure on the part of the Directorate of Military (DMI) to thwart the NTJ project, Senanayake exploited the police lapses to contest the last presidential election. Senanayake couldn’t poll even 50,000 votes. The results of the Nov 2019 presidential poll placed Senanayake fourth behind JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

The yahapalana administration also brought back Rear Admiral Travis Sinniah from retirement to place the Navy under him. However, it is pertinent to mention that Sinniah led some of the most successful operations on the high seas against the LTTE arms smuggling vessels.

Need for clear cut procedures

The government will have to set up specific mechanisms to deal with both law enforcement and military officers claiming political victimization, rightly or wrongly, instead of looking at them through a political lense as has been happening under various governments. Gunaratne mentioned several instances of how retired senior officers brazenly exploited the political setup for their advantage. In the absence of procedures, any wrongdoer can secure benefits at the expense of the truth.

The author dealt with an attempt made by a Colombo-based diplomatic mission to recruit a police intelligence officer in the early 70s. Having named the officer concerned as Ananda Jayasekera, who passed away in 2019, Gunaratne discussed the case that ended up with the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike being alerted to the foreign mission’s bid to run an agent within the State Intelligence setup.

During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second presidential term, the US Embassy made an abortive bid to recruit Maj. Gen. Prasad Samarasinghe. The offer was made at a party hosted by the then US Defence attaché Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith on January 20, 2011, in honour of a senior officer from the US Pacific Command.

Samarasinghe not only turned down the offer to secure permanent residency in the US for him and his family by betraying the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he promptly brought the US bid to the latter’s notice.

Against the backdrop of foreign powers stepping up their clandestine activities over the years, the circumstances under which Inspector Nishantha Silva of the CID secured political asylum for himself and his entire family a week after the last presidential poll underscored the pivotal importance of the intelligence services keeping a track of developments. Did the State Intelligence Service (SIS) headed by SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena know of the connection between Nishantha Silva and the Swiss Embassy?

Subsequent inquiries revealed a much wider conspiracy involving Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Francis, (former Siriyalatha Perera), the Swiss Embassy and the police officer who prominently figured in the leaked audio tapes of the then UNP State Minister Ranjan Ramanayake. Did SIS at least know the controversial CID investigator’s plan to flee the country in the event of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the presidential poll? Did the then Director, CID SSP Shani Abeysekera know of his subordinate’s plan?

If the Swiss government succeeded in evacuating Garnier Francis in an air ambulance amidst accusations that government personnel molested her and threatened her with death, immediately after Inspector Silva fled the country, the issue would have been raised in Geneva at the forthcoming 46th UNHRC sessions as if it was the gospel truth. However, the possibility of the matter still being raised during the Feb-March 2021 sessions cannot be ruled out as the West is quite capable of making an untruth a truth, especially through their ‘independent’ media as happened with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or the maligning of Gaddafi just before his ouster and gruesome killing in public.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa placed the SIS under intelligence veteran Maj. Gen. Suresh Sally. The SIS had never been under a military officer before. The crisis-ridden police are now placed under retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera as the Minister of Public Security with retired Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis as the Secretary to that Ministry. The Office of Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), too, has been placed under retired Maj. Gen. Ruwan Kulathunga. In spite of the much tighter hold on the intelligence setup, the government was caught flat-footed when the demolition of the LTTE war memorial on January 8, 2021 in the Jaffna University triggered chaos. The incident placed both Sri Lanka and India in an embarrassing position as the demolition of the memorial took place close on the heels of Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s high profile visit to Colombo.

Although the author made reference to the failure on the part of the police to thwart the Easter Sunday attacks, an issue as important as how the Indian intelligence managed its operations aimed at the NTJ hadn’t received due attention.

Did India alert SIS regarding their NTJ hunt or just provided the finished intelligence product on April 4, 2019, regarding the planned operation? Sri Lanka should be really worried about foreign intelligence services engaged in clandestine activities here, especially against the backdrop of growing US-China rivalry, with the former receiving the backing of India, Japan and Australia.

PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran killing outside the Maldivian HC in Colombo in July 1989 revealed the possible involvement of the Indian intelligence. The killing took place in the wake of the PLOTE bid to overthrow the then Maldivian President Gayoom at the behest of a Maldivian businessman. The sea borne PLOTE raid went awry even before Indian troops landed there to bring the situation quickly under control.

A deeper scrutiny of ‘developments’ is required as China-US hostilities take a turn for the worse with both seeking to enhance their spheres of influence. The need for the intelligence services to be prepared to face multifarious threats on different levels is of paramount importance. The Easter Sunday carnage is certainly not the first intelligence failure and it wouldn’t be the last.

The assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa on May Day 1993 exposed the entire intelligence setup. The infiltration of President Premadasa’s inner circle by the LTTE is perhaps the worst single intelligence failure that proved the importance of the intelligence services being on top of the ‘political game,’ too. For intelligence services, there cannot be a worse period than President Premadasa’s tenure (1989-1993). An ignorant President played pandu with national security leading to the Eelam War II in June 1990 with disastrous consequences. Retired SSP Tassy Seneviratne didn’t mince his words when he appeared before the LLRC. Seneviratne explained how President Premadasa’s interventions caused debilitating losses at the onset of the Eelam War II. The rest is history.

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Midweek Review

The Royalty and its ‘Yes’ Men

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By Lynn Ockersz

The air is thick once again,

With the familiar refrain,

That you, the ‘Sovereign People’,

Are at centre stage,

In this wearying racking of brains,

On how the notoriously Nodding Land’s,

Primal law must take shape,

But here’s the truth none can escape:

You have descended from wage labourer,

To an alms-seeker of the street,

And your hearth’s flames,

Are sputtering to an ominous end,

But the timeless moral remains:

You are hapless pawns,

In a decades-long power game,

Featuring dynastic heavyweights,

And their 225 ‘Yes’ men.

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Midweek Review

From Jaffna library to University – politics of identity

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By Harim Peiris

A centre of Tamil learning in Jaffna was attacked and destroyed. No, not last week, but 40 years ago, in 1981, the iconic Jaffna Library, a seat of Tamil language, literature and learning was burnt to cinders by a mob of what then cabinet ministers Cyril Mathew et al were watching, perhaps not entirely as innocent bystanders, from the veranda of the old Jaffna Rest House termed as “an unfortunate rampage by a few drunk and off duty police officers”. Coming a full circle, four decades later, once again a seat of Tamil learning, this time namely the University of Jaffna, witnessed the destruction of its memorial to the dead. The police officers were again there, now on duty and very sober, as under cover of darkness, they guarded the backhoes which did the demolition. The contexts were different, the events eerily similar, while the rhetoric is strikingly the same.

Back then there wasn’t even the pretence of trying to justify the actions and two years later in 1983, we had a pogrom and were in the midst of a civil war. Now, a decade after the civil war in Sri Lanka is over, we must learn from the lessons of the past. It is former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who paraphrased Spanish philosopher Santayana to state in the House of Commons that “those who did not learn from the lessons of history were destined to relive it”.

Post the civil war, the urge to curb Tamil nationalism from taking on any form of militancy or armed expression is an entirely legitimate and desirable objective. No one in his or her right mind would wish or desire Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations to once again lead to a civil war. However, towards this end, what is required is an intentional and purposeful, domestic process of post war reconciliation, which includes reparations and guarantees of non-reoccurrence. Unfortunately, more than a decade after the end of the civil war, dealing with either the effects or the causes of the war has not occurred in a meaningful manner. After the war, in the former conflict areas, the roads have been repaired and the public buildings reconstructed, but the shattered lives of especially the most vulnerable sections of Northern society, the widows, the orphans and the rural poor, remain largely as they were a decade ago.

Playing demolition derby in the University of Jaffna is not the means of advancing reconciliation. In fact, the University of Jaffna provides a useful safety valve and escape outlet for the frustrations of Tamil youth and curbing non-violent expressions of ethnic nationalism only drives it to less non-violent spaces. Neither does destroying the memorial to the dead, do anything to moderate Tamil opinion. Engagement and dialogue would have been better. It is a point that was reiterated most recently by visiting Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar and likely to be reiterated by a majority of the International community at the upcoming sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva.

 

Memorialising and remembering the dead

Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations and social tensions extend beyond life and into the realm of death. It is a key aspect of our humanity that we mourn our dead. The religious faith or belief systems by which we make sense of life and death and especially find the strength to move on after the death of loved ones, especially under tragic and violent circumstances are crucial aspects of our personal and community life. Accordingly, the need and right to mourn the dead, is fundamental to us as humans and crucial to providing healing and closure, especially in the aftermath of a brutal and long drawn civil war, which resulted in the destruction of considerable life and property of both combatants and non-combatants on all sides.

Sri Lanka’s current controversy over the remembrance of the dead is not just confined to the Tamil populace seeking to mourn the loss of loved ones during or at the tail end of the war. On our new battle front of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka has become the only country in the world, to prohibit the burial of the dead with the religious rites and rituals of the deceased and in accordance with the wishes of the next of kin. The decision of the government, through its Ministry of Health, which bears the responsibility, is on the flimsiest of pretences based on the views of its own handpicked “experts” who are contradicted officially by public communique not only by the independent and distinguished College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka but also by the WHO and the practice of the global community of nations. Even with the far more contagious Ebola virus, the dead are buried with no adverse effects and the view of the government’s “experts”, truly make us a land like no other.

It is my friend and colleague, University of Amsterdam academic Dr. Ram Manikkalingam who coined the phrase, “Sinhala Eelam” to denote a Sri Lanka, which was the Sinhala equivalent of what Prabhakaran and the LTTE sought to create, a mono ethnic nation governed on ethnic lines.

Sri Lanka’s strength and moral superiority over the separatism which was defeated at Nandikadal, derives from the fact that we are multi-ethnic and multi religious and we should cherish that strength and, in its defence, desist from governing exclusively by the prism of ethnic Sinhala nationalism. Bulldozing monuments does nothing towards that end.

 

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-17)

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