Defeat of Mahinda – starting point of some hope
Remember 8th January 2015?
Tens of thousands voted to oust the dictatorial Rajapaksa regime, cronyism and corruption. But it was not just a vote “against” them but “for” the 100-day programme which included promises to improve some conditions.
The expectation and aspiration felt at that time have now dissipated. Everyone in Sri Lanka could have benefitted if the executive presidency was abolished and the 100-day programme fully implemented (Here are some details of the so-called time table and program that never been implemented fully https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/maithripala-sirisenas-100-day-work-programme-detailed-diary-description/). It was the 100-day programme that propelled Maithripala Sirisena and the UNP into power.
Getting rid of the genocidal government was a big relief for the Tamil-speaking population. But this relief was linked to the expectation that some sort of justice and improved democratic and economic conditions were in sight.
Tamil leadership capitulation
The Tamil Solidarity campaign warned at that time of the inability of the new government to deliver on their promises. We warned against the lie of hope given to the people to keep them passive and urged for a mobilisation of forces to fully defeat Rajapaksa’s support base and win our rights. But none of this mattered to the so-called Tamil leadership – particularly the TNA leaders – who were engulfed by their parliament positions in the south. Soon it was clear that they had teamed up to defeat the Tamils’ interests inside and outside Sri Lanka.
Forcing the Tamil speaking population to, 1) denounce past struggle, and 2) accept the unitary state, have remained the key priorities for the western and Sri Lankan governments. These were pre-conditions enforced on all Tamil campaigners even before they start talking about other issues.
In order to pacify the Tamil population in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora they have floated the idea of some sort of war crimes “investigation”. There were also talks about some concessions via constitutional changes. Even this is much below the expectation of Tamils who were demanding their national rights along with real demands such as the return of lands, de-militarisation, release of all political prisoners, closing down of all detention and secret prisons, compensation to war victims, investment in infrastructure and services, etc. If the current Sri Lankan government delivered on at least some of these demands they and TNA may have gained some support. But the character of all pro-big business governments in Sri Lanka is not of giving concession to Tamils to protect peace and prosperity but to attack the rights of Tamils to further consolidate Sinhala nationalist support in the south.
But the so-called Tamil “leaders” don’t have any strategy or perspective for defeating the Sri Lankan government. Despite holding the opposition leader’s position, the TNA is the best collaborator that the Ranil-Maithri government could hope for.
The TNA leaders also narrowed every demand of Tamils down to one thing – that is the international war crimes investigation. They opted to fight for nothing else. Diaspora organisations such as the British Tamils Forum (GTF is an empty shell and has no base among Tamils), came on board with the TNA in this single solitary aim of establishing an international investigation. All the propaganda and resources have been directed at this one aim.
Call for investigation by UN and Tamils are for different reasons
All Tamils wanted to see the Rajapaksa family and others who committed the crimes against humanity punished. However it was not just a hunger for “revenge”, rather it was an expectation that their demand for national rights would get some attention as a result of this. But in reality it was a wrong strategy from the start to put all the eggs in the lobby-the-west-and-UN basket. However, this is precisely what the so-called Tamil leaders continue to work on. They justify the allocation of resources to campaign for a war crimes inquiry by claiming that it is going to result in some sort of victory for Tamils. It’s completely false.
The aim and expectation of Tamils in relation to a war crimes inquiry is diametrically opposed to that of the UN or the west. Their aim is to somehow bury the burning desire for freedom by establishing “normality” by providing formal a war crimes investigation. But Tamils wanted to revive and strengthen the struggle for national rights using the inquiry as a point of reference. However, the Tamil lobbyists have no power base. Due to this and their political weakness they walked through the only door they thought was open for them – ie the promise of a war crimes investigation. The result was a capitulation to the politics of right-wing UNP, and UN.
It is no surprise then that the 2015 UN resolution, following the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa, was co-sponsored by Sri Lanka and fully supported by the TNA and BTF. Among the 25 or so proposals of this resolution, were proposals to set up an inquiry which was to include international experts and judges. This is a very basic proposal. However, it was hailed as a major victory by the TNA leaders and their supporters. Sumanthiran even claimed, in Tamil speeches, that the war crimes investigation is “finished”. It emerged that the TNA made some sort of deal with the government and that the government will somehow deliver on investigation that will include international personnel. If they manage to get this done they could then parade it in front of Tamil voters as “victors” – and say it was them who had “scored” a point against the Sri Lankan government. This, they hope, will secure their vote base for the foreseeable future. They also claimed that the UNP-led government will propose a constitutional change that will allow the international judge’s participation.
But time has passed. Once again promises have not materialised.
International judges and establishing credibility
The Sri Lankan government was fairly consistent in denying any possibility of international judges being included in any investigation. They didn’t keep it a secret, but the TNA leaders turned a blind eye. As early as March 2015 Ranil and Maithri (http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/sri-lanka-says-no-to-foreign-judges-in-war-crimes-probe/article17413166.ece) refuted categorically the involvement of foreign judges. Maithri and Ranil have since given a number of interviews repudiating such a possibility.
Why then, you may ask, did Sri Lanka co-sponsor the UN resolution in 2015. It is true that it is their diplomatic game – to buy more time and delay. However, the important point is that the resolution does not hold Sri Lanka accountable to anything. There is nothing in the resolution that Sri Lanka will be bound to. They had no reason to oppose it. The 270-page OISL report published in 2015 was a detailed record of the various crimes and atrocities that took place in Sri Lanka. However, nothing in it was new. All the details were already available in the public domain. Mere acknowledgements do not scare the Sri Lankan government which has already been through the experience of facing hard evidence such as that in the Channel 4 documentary, The Killing Fields.
What’s more, there was no specific agreement about judges or timetables that bound the Sri Lankan government.
The fact that the Sri Lankan government has been refusing to implement anything has not been central to the campaign. How could there be a focus on this? These lobbyists now believe in the UN. They believe that the UN is genuinely working in the interests of Tamils. They believe that the UN should be given a chance. They believe nothing else can be done other than going along with the UN’s decisions whatever they may be. Not doing so will alienate the lobbyists and eventually they will lose their raison d’être.
Even the basic recommendations in the conclusion to repeal the PTA were not implemented by the government. A year later the TNA and their counterparts in the diaspora propagated the claim that something good may come out of the 2016 resolution. However, they have re-focused their campaign to push the UN to maintain the 2015 resolution. A UN attempt to further dilute the 2015 resolution was the fear that dominated the diaspora lobbyists. Politically speaking the diaspora lobbyists’ campaign is a ‘step down’ – their ambition has been narrowed to maintaining the 2015 resolution. This shameful capitulation has gone unnoticed.
No surprise then that 2017 has once again become a year in which the UN co-sponsored a resolution with Sri Lanka that enjoyed the support of the TNA and their co thinkers in the diaspora. This however allowed a two-year extension to Sri Lanka. In effect the UN gave its full support to the UNP-led government to serve its full term and use the threat of a Rajapaksa win again in the next election. It is absolutely clear that the western governments want to keep the current government in power. This is a more of a priority than the ‘puny’ human rights justice to the tiny Tamil population which has no economic power. Now it is clear that there is no likelihood of any justice being delivered before the next election.
In the run-up to the announcement of the resolution, the President and Prime Minister repeatedly said in the media that they will not allow the participation of international judges. This was also fully supported by the TNA leaders and their co-thinkers in the diaspora.
What is the justification for this? Some key aspects of the defence of the Sri Lankan government were:
- regarding constitutional reform
- public consultation held
- offices established in relation to missing people and reconciliation
The above claims were in effect ridiculing the intelligence of human rights campaigners. There were lots of talks. So far no action was taken. So-called constitutional changes are not on the cards. The only proposal on the table is a possible 20th amendment, which will be about changing the electoral system, details of which were not published (http://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/sri-lanka-debate-on-new-constitution-scheduled/). A widespread expectation exists that it will be a gerrymandering process.
Yes there was consultation. But it was controlled from the top. Even the Centre for policy alternative (CPA), which is involved in the consultation process, published a report saying that only 1.1% is aware that constitutional reform was proposed! (http://www.cpalanka.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Opinion-poll-on-Constitutional-Reform_Final_Oct-16.pdf). Over 70% have never heard about the Public representation committee on constitutional reform (PRC). Then came the parliamentary ‘coup’ against the people – calling the whole parliament a Constitutional Assembly. The government claimed that the parliament has a mandate and it can act as a constitutional assembly. But in fact it is a totally undemocratic process. Tamil Solidarity, along with campaigners in Sri Lanka, demanded the establishment of a democratically elected constituent assembly that will include all the constituent parts of the country. That process could provide the opportunity for all sections of society to elect their representatives to start the process of democratic discussion on what sort of constitution or a change is actually required.
It is absolutely ridiculous to declare that the parliament – that is elected by a minority on the basis of unfulfilled promises if not lies, and controlled by the right-wing UNP which itself is based on the majority Sinhala population and can only serve the interests of big business and Sinhala nationalists – could act as “constituent assembly”.
If we leave aside the undemocratic methods employed in the consultation process, even the tiny minority who did take part in providing their opinion also complained and expressed their irritation. The final report by the consultation taskforce on reconciliation mechanism itself outlined that “people throughout the country expressed considerable frustration, bitterness, and anger at yet another initiative, despite the inconclusive nature and abysmal failure of past efforts to provide any relief or redress” (PRC final report published in May 2016 https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0ByOKvXw6zYVpQ3NhMU5oODJON00). This report gives a glimpse of the intense feeling that exists on the ground which is not visible at all to those on the top.
Absolute division exists in relation to reconciliation and inclusion of international judges in an investigation. There is no support among security personnel (including military and police) or among hard-core Sinhala nationalists. Small groups such as Bodu bala Sena (BBS) thrive on vicious anti-Tamil anti-Muslim propaganda. They are active on the streets inciting violence against the minority populations. UNP leaders in the past used such groups and violent activities to consolidate the majority vote. The involvement of the Tri Sinhala peramuna, with links to the notorious president JRJ who was responsible for inflaming hatred, is no secret. So is the link between BBS and the Gota/Mahinda wing of the SLFP. They will organise violent activities and conduct false propaganda among the Sinhala population. They link this to their central argument that the “country has been sold to western imperialism” and that the aim of the investigation is to divide the country and punish the Sinhalese. Already it is Mahinda’s gang who organises protests and marches in which tens of thousands are taking part.
Add to this an impeding economic crisis faced by the Sri Lanka economy and fuelled by the UNP-led austerity policies. The UNP’s attempt to privatise health and education has created opposition even among those who supported the UNP in the last election. Anger is mounting among city workers, students and many others. UNP support is fragile. They cannot hold on to power with TNA support alone. But neither do the TNA have a full grip on the Tamil vote base. The TNA leaders are enormously unpopular. “We will criticise the TNA for 364 days. But on one day – on the election day we vote for them to keep the devil out” is the popular saying among many. But the hatred that exists among the Tamil population against the southern parties is no longer enough to mobilise support. From ELuka Tamil (Tamils arise) to the many movements that are emerging on the ground, the TNA leaders have so far been kept outside. A clear-cut urge for creating a new alternative exists. It is a matter of time before the TNA leaders find it difficult to hold on to their position.
Currently the SLFP is in a way a leaderless party. If a clear leadership emerges from the Gota camp at the time of the election, we could see many jump ship and abandon the so-called national coalition. Already the Maithri faction is inviting the Mahinda camp to join forces to form an SLFP government (http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=162634). If that happens it is unlikely that the UNP will win the election. Whatever happens, the appointment of the parliament to play the role of constitution assembly will collapse. Then what body is going to carry on with the task? It is unlikely that all that needs to be done will be carried out in this term alone.
Similarly, we must ask the thorny question that the UN or the Tamil lobbyists are refusing to ask. Where is the office of the missing persons? Where are the so-called offices that the Sri Lankan government is supposed to have set up? There have been numerous protests organised by the families of missing people in the past years. None of them received any communication from these ghost offices. In addition, Ranil declared once that all those missing are dead.
Bogus nature of Tamil Lobby
Tamil lobbyists have restricted their whole effort to “defence of 2015, 30/1”. They have not stepped up their efforts with the understanding of what the Sri Lankan government is demanding or of the changing internal political and geopolitical situation. Instead they were happy to go along as far as they are dragged in the name of defending the 30/1. With this view unpopular personalities like Sumanthiran claimed: “Those who say Sri Lanka should not be allowed more time are playing straight into the hands of those who want to avoid accomplishing the undertakings”( http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/sri-lanka-to-cosponsor-un-resolution/article17397074.ece). This quote alone show show inadequate Sumanthiran is in terms of understanding the political process at work. It is the very argument of the west.
Withdrawal of any support from the current government will allow the old regime to return – that is the basis of all arguments – by the west and by the TNA and their co thinkers in the diaspora. With this argument they continue to support the IMF loans, lifting of the GSP+ sanction and promoting other trade deals with the west. But in fact the effect is the opposite as we have shown briefly above. The establishment of a hybrid court would be a “gift” to the current so-called joint opposition or hardcore BBS. Does that mean we need to support the counter action as opposing any investigation? What is the reason the Tamil lobbyists refuse to accept the extension? Will that give an opportunity to the Sri Lankan government to scrap all efforts on reconciliation? Isn’t that a form of bullying? In what way does this “diplomacy” link to delivering true justice? If the UN or Sri Lankan government is interested in delivering justice they should do so regardless of the position that is taken by the TNA or any other Tamil lobbyists. Their opposition to delivering on the promises is not an excuse to give up the process. It is absurd that we have to explain this point. But such is the political shallowness.
The Tamil version of the joint statement produced by the United States Political Action Council (USTPAC), British Tamils Forum (BTF), and Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) claimed that the “Sri Lankan government is trapped by asking for extension” (http://www.britishtamilsforum.org/press-release/%E0%AE%95%E0%AE%BE%E0%AE%B2%E0%AE%A4%E0%AF%8D%E0%AE%A4%E0%AF%88-%E0%AE%87%E0%AE%B4%E0%AF%81%E0%AE%A4%E0%AF%8D%E0%AE%A4%E0%AE%9F%E0%AE%BF%E0%AE%95%E0%AF%8D%E0%AE%95-%E0%AE%AE%E0%AF%81%E0%AE%9F%E0%AE%BF/). This “spin” is necessary for these organisations who have been working very closely with right wing parties in their respective countries. On 18 March, two days after the US embassy in Sri Lanka’s press release which stated the obvious – that the coming resolution will be a co-sponsored resolution with Sri Lanka, the BTF had this advice on social media to Tamils in the diaspora: “Our expectations are high but our participation is regrettably low. How can we expect a much better outcome? This is the reality… Calling UNHRC member countries to refer Sri Lanka to UN General Assembly/ Security Council requires majority of the countries’ endorsement. No need to blame the past but start working your country’s support”. This echoes their stand on politics – ie nothing exists outside the UN walls. Tamils’ duty is to beg the establishment in the countries they live in to vote in favour of Tamils in the UN. This is the only viable thing that we can do. Everything else is mere rhetoric or utopian. This is the only “practical” thing we can do. This argument, that the Tamil politics should be a “dependent” politics – one that should tail-end the UN or the western government is wrong. It is this argument that has de-mobilised the Tamil masses. They don’t see any point in mobilising people – there is no power in that according to their point of view. It is a phoney strategy – one that initially flowed from helplessness and powerlessness. Now it is more than that. The processes of class clarification of the leadership of these organisations are nearing its end. Those who had a difference in opinion in terms of how the advocacy needs to take place have either left these organisations or are forming new ones. The above organisation shares the right-wing views of the UNP and other conservative organisations in their respective countries. Though they still claim that they are working with “all” parties, in effect they are only closely and comfortably working with right-wing parties and politicians. The leaders of this diaspora organisation pose no threat to the Sri Lankan government. They will soon be invited to take part in collaborative operations to pacify the Tamil population. This weakness is utilised by the Sri Lankan government.
Why do these self-proclaimed leaders have such a fetish about “international participation”? Why the big fuss? Initially it was to do with credibility. The perpetrators of the crime – ie the Sri Lankan government should not be allowed to carry out the investigation – if they did it will not be credible – was the claim. But they fail to explain to the masses how the UN and the west investigation will be credible – or effective. International representatives with the aim of “keeping peace” will not deliver justice. What we want is for the truth to emerge – however brutal it may be – how undiplomatic it may be. But ‘western justice’ is conditional – it is a variety of justice that is always linked to the interests of the richest and most powerful. From Iraq to Syria it is visibly out there. International involvement cannot also “force” the Sri Lankan government’s hand.
The peace process of 2004 with Norway’s facilitation came to nought. The UN watched while the 2009 massacre took place. The Indian and UK governments continued to provide military support during and after the war. The UN’s complicity in the massacre should also be on trial. Even if the UN had to send troops to force some sort of settlement (a utopian view of course), it needs an alternative power base present on the ground. We have built no such base. In the post-Trump era –the era of ‘reverse of globalisation’ and the rise of protectionism, talk of forcing the hand of Sri Lanka is absurd. The increasing Chinese connection – and the anger of India and the west – may further complicate the processes.
Tamil activists should not let any of this take the wind out of them. But the lessons should be learned. There is no point in being dragged along by the western wind year after year and finding yourself back at square one. We should spend that time in building a mass force. An independent mass organisation with progressive demands – one that can stand on its own without compromise is needed. It is such a force that can unite the Tamil-speaking people and appeal to the oppressed sections in the south to win meaningful victories for all. We demand an open and democratic discussion on a strategy that flows from this perspective.