Eviction of Tamils – Extremism or Folly?
It is not surprising that pro-Tamil and pro-separatist groups are using the Mahinda Rajapaksa GOSL attempt to expel certain Tamils from Colombo to make propaganda. This is exactly what Tisaranee Gunasekara is doing in the article given below. For a long time she has been advocating a large measure of devolution for Tamils in the area claimed as their Eelaam by the LTTE. So the attempt to utilize the latest blunder of the MahindaR regime is not a surprise. I had already exposed the errors in her previous essay that GOSL is motivated by the Sin of Hubris in my Blog ID 7.42. The criticism of the MahindaR blunder in the present article is of course valid as many commentators, even from the Patriot Lobby who are generally devotees of MahindaR, have criticized this blunder. Howerever Tissaranee gives her own gloss to this development.
Tisaranee's principal point seems to be that MahindaR has not retreated from the decision to expel the Tamils but is only concerned with the way this expulsion has been carried out. Of course MahindaR's probes have never been real investigations and this will be case in the current instance also. Only the Police have been made the scapegoat this time to save the President's skin. In all likelihood the matter will be quietly buried in order to appease the International Community. But it has exposed a fatal weakness on the part of the President. Only the JHU and extreme Mahinda devotees seem to stand with him this time.
Tisaranee says that the President "has never taken a progressive, forward looking stance on the ethnic problem". While this true Tisaranee's own stance is hardly progressive or forward looking. It is nothing other than caving in to the racism of the Tamils. The irony here is that while she is advocating free co-existence of Tamils in Colombo and the south generally (which is a good) she is also advocating racist devolution to Tamils in the North and East (which is bad). People like Tisaranee do not see the contradiction involved in their position. If the Northern Tamils cannot live in peace with other communities in a united country how can the Tamils in Colombo do so. According to the logic her advocacy of racial devolution the two races have to be separated the Apartheid solution). Already the LTTE has ethnically cleansed their areas of Sinhalese and Muslims. So the logic of this position is that the areas inhabited by Sinhelas and Muslims must be ethnically cleansed of Tamils. In a way this is how the action of the MahindaR regime in expelling certain Tamils is seen by the pro-Tamils separatist lobby to which Tisaranee belongs.
The final error of Tisranee's analysis is that the "example of Israel is germane to Sri Lanka". It is true that Israel was established as a racist state for Jews but that does not mean that part of Sri Lanka should be established as a racist state for Tamils. Even though Tisaranee seems to be advocating only "devolution" for Tamils in the North-East the strength of Tamils aspirations for a racist homeland of their own akin to Israel will not go away. Devolution will only be the thin end of the wedge to total separation. But of course Tisaranee and other advocates of devolution do not like to emphasize this.
On the question of Israel the Jews had a prior claim to the land of Israel before the Muslims occupied it in the military campaigns shortly after the death of Muhammad. Thus the Muslims are clearly interlopers on Jewish land. So there could be some legitimacy in the Jewish claim to Israel. But the Tamils certainly have no prior claim to the the North-East. They were clearly invaders who in historic times colonized lands which were previously occupied by the Sinhalese. Thus unlike Israel there is no historical legitimacy for Eelaam, or for racial devolution for Tamils.
It is true that the Six-Day War did not bring security or peace to Israel. But trying to say passive in the face of Arab threats before the Six-day War too would not have brought peace to Israel either. The Muslims wanted to keep Palestine as an exclusive Muslim state. Israel would have had to face the same problems with or without the Six-Day war. But at least Israel is now in a more secure position as a result of the Six-Day War.
Sri Lanka too could have crushed the LTTE in the equivalent of a Six-Day War if it was lead by a people as clever as the Jews. Unfortunately the neo-Sinhelas had lost most of the innovative spirit of the classical Sinhalese. They had become chauvinists just like their Tamil opponents. Add to this all the negative traits of the neo-Sinhelas and the debacle now facing the Helas appear almost inevitable. The dilemma posed by the Colombo Tamils is simply part of this.
"There is a thin line between agencies of law and order providing protection to citizens, and the same agencies being diverted by the state to participate in what would otherwise be called acquiescing in terrorist activities. Such seeming ambiguities threaten human rights but are sought to be justified by resort to nationalism, and in turn to history ." –Romial Thapar (The Future of the Indian Past – D T Lakdawala Memorial Lecture – 2004)
The story is not yet over. The outrage of Thursday can be repeated, albeit behind a veneer of civility. As the official statement by the President indicates, what has been condemned is not the decision to evict Tamil lodgers but its manner of implementation: "The Inspector General of Police has been asked to submit an immediate report to the President on the manner in which the exercise to transport Tamil persons living in lodges in Colombo and its suburbs to their places of permanent residence in the North and East was carried out on Thursday and about reports regarding hardships and inconvenience caused to the persons concerned" (Daily News – 9.6.2007 – emphasis mine). The decision itself has not been rescinded; only a reviewing of its manner of implementation has been ordered – and from the man who implemented it!
President Rajapakse is a past master at time buying exercises. Ranil Wickremesinghe was infamous for his committees; Mahinda Rajapakse orders probes by the dozen. The probes – like the committees - never produce results; they are merely there to be fished out as excuses whenever there is international concern or criticism – the best case in point being the probe on the Muttur massacre. The probes multiply while the misdeeds which warrant such probes continue unabated. Incidentally government spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella is already on record denying any harassment: "The Minister denied any form of harassment adding that all of them (lodgers) volunteered to go back to their native places" (Daily News – 8.6.2007). The findings of the probe – if they materialise - are a foregone conclusion.
Meantime the decision is not rescinded. Hopefully the Supreme Court will strike it down since so manifestly violates the constitution, even accounting for the PTA. If not, the regime is likely to wait until the furore dies down and then seek to implement it in a less controversial manner. That is why attention should focus primarily on the decision and its underlying assumptions. The decision treated all Tamils coming from the North East as enemy aliens, as potential Tigers and terrorists; the implementation was merely a reflection of this assumption. Therefore the problem was not really in the implementation but in the decision itself. And as the President's statement reveals, what is seen as 'excessive' is neither the decision nor its underlying assumptions but certain acts committed during its implementation: "Allegations that officials exceeded their authority in implementing this initiative will be thoroughly investigated and appropriate remedial action taken, including disciplinary action against any wrongdoing on the part of any Government official, the release said" (Daily News – 9.6.2007 – emphasis mine).
Vellupillai Pirapaharan could not have devised a better plan to dishonour Sri Lanka or picked a better time to implement it. If the action itself was unthinkable in its inhumanity, the timing was unbelievable in its inanity. This ethno-centric atrocity was committed while Japanese peace envoy Yashushi Akashi, was in Sri Lanka. That in itself is demonstrative of the fatal absence of vision and foresight characteristic of this regime, it cannot understand that Medamulana is not Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka is not the world. There is pressure by some international organisations on Japan to reduce/stop aid to Sri Lanka; and Japan is our biggest bilateral donor. By enabling Mr. Akashi to witness firsthand the manner in which the regime treats its Tamil citizens the Thursday's action would have strengthened the arguments of those international organisations clamouring for an aid withdrawal. With one stroke the regime has proven the LTTE's contention that Tamils need a separate state because Sri Lanka is a 'Sinhala country'.
President Mahinda Rajapakse is a path-breaker – to the past. In his long history as parliamentarian and political leader, he has never taken a progressive, forward looking stance on the ethnic problem. From the early 1980's he was with the extremist wing of the ethno-centric SLFP, opposing any devolution, and denying the very existence of the ethnic problem. Though circumstances may prevent him from being as blunt, his actions demonstrate that he has not progressed much beyond his original Sinhala maximalism. It is precisely this extremism which enabled him to do what less immoderate minds would have shunned as being counter-productive, such as the SLFP's political proposals which seeks to turn the clock back to the pre-Accord times. Those of us who oppose such measures argue that they are dangerously counterproductive as they help the enemy, the LTTE, by antagonising and alienating ordinary Tamils. However, what if one's worldview is based on an axiomatic equation of Tamils and Tigers?
When the evictions were being debated in parliament, a visibly enraged Anura Kumara Dissanayake (of the JVP) said that though terrorism must be fought this does not bestow on the government the right to be totally stupid (ola mottala) because the war against terrorism cannot be won if we cannot win over the Tamil people. What if the President and his coterie believe that Tamil people cannot be won over because they are born Tigers? If that is one's basic assumption, the evictions make perfect sense, as does its manner of implementation. If all Tamils are Tigers, then they do not merit any civility or consideration, do they?
According to the police, the deported Tamils were in Colombo without any valid reason. Does not the desire to escape a brutal war constitute a valid reason? Does not the need to flee the LTTE's child conscription and other acts of inhumanity constitute a valid reason? Some desperate Tamils brave the seas to try to escape to India; others come to Colombo, preferably to go abroad, at least to stay in a place of relative safety and normalcy. From a humane, commonsense point of view it makes perfect sense for Tamils – especially parents with young children – to flee the living hell that is North-East. Tragically this is not so if your world view is Sinhala supremacist and you see a lurking Tiger in every Tamil man, woman and toddler.
It is both significant and heartening that the only party to back the deportations was the JHU. Even the JVP was severely critical of the move. Given Mr. Rajapakse's own proclivities and the fact that his current ideological and spiritual ally, the JHU, is the most retrogressive and extremist political entity in the South, we can expect a further hardening of official attitudes towards Tamils. Since the President does not hesitate to revel in policy spaces which would be shunned by more cautious and pluralist souls, the hitherto unthinkable is becoming increasingly possible. According to DIG Rohan Abeywardane the Tamils were deported for "their own good" to save them from abductions and arrests (Reuters – 7.6.2007). What will be the logical end of this brand of reasoning? Mass deportation of Tamil businessmen who, reportedly, are the main targets of abductors? The Tigers probably have active helpers among those Tamils who are residents of Colombo. Does that mean that we will someday deport all of them to the North East because we want to protect Colombo from bombs? If such measures seem too preposterous to be thinkable, let us remember that even a week ago the possibility that a democratic government would deport hundreds of its citizens from their own capital city simply because of their ethnicity too would have been unthinkable. Yet that was done; and those who thought the unthinkable and did it are running the country.
The example of Israel is germane to Sri Lanka. Israel won a convincing victory in the Six Day War. Yet it brought neither peace nor normalcy to Israel; only an existence characterised by violence and fear. As Israeli author and columnist Meir Shalev pointed out in his incisive peace on the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, the victory has turned into a pyrrhic one and the victor is paying a price that is almost as high as the loser: "Forty years have passed, and Israel has indeed choked. The country is busy dealing with one matter: the occupation – the territories, the Palestinians, terror, holy sites, the establishment and evacuation of settlements. Forty years have passed, and Israel has neglected everything that the Israel of 1948 wished to occupy itself with: education, research, welfare, health" (Los Angeles Times – 5.6.2007).
Our experience in the last one year is rather similar. Though we have won some important victories against the LTTE, we have also sown the seeds of our own politico-military weakening, with our manifest unwillingness to come up with a political solution to the ethnic problem or to make a sufficient distinction between Tamils and Tigers in our politico-military actions. Already Sri Lanka is being subjected to aid withdrawals and international condemnations. We are so blinded by our own beliefs and self-images, we take instant umbrage at any warning, even when it comes from responsible officers whose task is to monitor and warn. The best case in point is the regime's hostile reaction to the Auditor General's warnings about anomalies in official revenue figures. Instead of taking remedial measures, the Finance Ministry has taken the Auditor General to task.
"Sri Lanka's Finance Ministry has disputed a report by the auditor-general that weak collections led to a revenue loss of 360 billion rupees. The loss, it said in its annual report for 2006, was not more than 6.2 billion rupees of which half related to the VAT refund fraud which occurred during 2002-04. It also rejected the auditor-general's assessment of 22 billion rupees in tax arrears, saying that the figure needs to be 'revisited'…. The auditor-general's report said the revenue losses had occurred due to weaknesses in the tax administration, negligence on the part of revenue agencies and lack of supervision by the Ministry of Finance and Planning" (LBO – 6.6.2007). Having thus disposed of the Auditor General, we continue to spend lavishly money we do not have, until reality hits us in the form of a severe financial crisis, which will affect our ability to resist the Tigers.
No one can accuse Israel of fighting the war half-heartedly. Israel also has the fullest backing of the US, a seemingly limitless supply of cash and an impressive arsenal. And though it has won almost every battle, the war is far from won. There was one option Israel never pursued seriously and honestly – that of a political solution to the Palestinian question which could satisfy Palestinian moderates. What we need today is just such a solution and an alliance of moderates to back it. Sadly moderates are hard to find in Sri Lanka. Neither Mahinda Rajapakse nor Ranil Wickremesinghe is a moderate; one is in thrall to Sinhala extremists while the other is bending over backwards to satisfy the Tigers. Therefore neither would pursue a political solution to the ethnic problem. Mahinda Rajapakse will not do so since he thinks there is no ethnic problem while Ranil Wickremesinghe will not do so since the Tigers abhor a political solution. Without such a political corollary the war cannot be won and its existence would presuppose a President to thinks and acts as the leader of a pluralist Sri Lanka – a description that suits neither the President nor the Leader of Opposition.