Bluffing has become a fine art in our political discourse and rhetoric is the order of the day. If we see the Government’s public relations activities regarding human rights issues, one wonders whether we are on the threshold of a breakthrough in the human endeavour to institutionalise human rights to such an extent that we may become the leading light for others in the world. If we remove all those veils and take stock of the situation, we see that what has been done so far will end up as mere window dressing. Yes, of course, even for tactical reasons if the state can respond to certain demands from the International and local community and show some changes, at least in the form itself, in the first instance, it can lead to changes in the content, provided there is a concerted effort mounted by the democratic forces with a clear perspective.
Recently, there has been much talk about peace proposals and negotiations to solve the ethnic crisis. Suddenly out of the blue Minister Thondaman put forward a proposal and claimed that he had the key to the solution and if allowed he could bring peace to this country. Following this came an offensive, from the Buddhist clergy and various individuals, which ended up with scores of articles raising a hue and cry and the formation of various groups. Then some individuals who are concerned about the plight of the people and bitter about narrow political perceptions, defended Thondaman and pleaded for peace to be given a chance. There were peace appeals and demands to stop the war and to start negotiations. The LTTE stated that if anybody was interested in peaceful resolution they needed to begin now and they would come for negotiations without any pre- conditions. The President, meeting after meeting, preaches of consultation, compromise and consensus as the only method to solve the burning problems. But he is evasive on any concrete proposals. Bodhi Poojas conducted all over Sri Lanka asking for blessings for the President, the armed forces and the peace loving people in Sri Lanka (in the assumption that the first two do not belong to the third category) up to now have not yielded the desired results. [Top]
As soon as Thondaman’s proposals came to light there was a concerted effort made by the leading papers in English and Sinhala to question his legitimacy, and there were articles dealing with various aspects of his proposals. The selective way in which “political analysts” and “historians” were resurrected and called upon to give the verdict on the concept of the traditional homeland of Tamils has left the Tamil people bewildered.
Many mainstream Sinhala papers came out mainly with articles to rouse the passion of the Sinhala people, after all the inexplicable and unwanted tragedies of the past. Yes, there were also articles trying to turn the discourse into a more rational one. The state-controlled papers managed to come out with sober editorials and views expressed on this matter, but their weakness as a result of their being a mouthpiece of the government and their concerted mudslinging journalist approach have left the people cynical.
But the weekly and monthly papers like “Ravaya”, “Yukthiya” and a few others are playing a positive role in promoting a rational discourse. Their contribution to the internal process of self evaluation is a healthy one and it is refreshing. [Top]
It is wrong to give a negative picture about everything and be pessimistic about the future, as there have also been strong opinions expressed in several quarters to dampen the rhetoric. The doubts aired by raising questions about the feasibility and possible future developments of Thondaman’s proposal at this juncture cannot be termed and branded simply as an outcome of Sinhala chauvinism alone. The people in this country have their bitter experiences with all the political parties. As Tamils have their mistrust of the Sinhala polity the ordinary Sinhalese also have their fear and mistrust in the Tamil polity. The acts of the LTTE during the last 10 years and the experience of the outcome of the famous peace negotiations with the Government also have created legitimate fear among the ordinary people and different sections of the society. In such an environment the Minister came out with a set of proposals only to negotiate with the Tigers, without developing any mechanism to see that the past won’t be repeated; brushed aside all legitimate concern expressed about the trustworthiness of the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, and the sorry state of the basic human and democratic rights of the ordinary people. Without any of the possible safeguards to ensure that he can achieve the desired results, he has come up with a proposal trying merely to legitimise a force which has shown its brutality and its sheer destructive capacity. His naivety as well as the lack of commitment he had from the Government when he launched his peace initiative have thus led him to play into the hands of the extreme elements in the South. His inconsistent stands on the LTTE, on the one hand declaring that the LTTE is the only group fighting (forgetting that they have ruthlessly denied the right to others to fight for the same cause), and that it is the representative of the Tamil people, and on the other hand claiming that the Tamil people have no leaders, shows his insensitivity to the tragic reality. [Top]
The other peace makers involved in these types of approaches to bring the two parties to the negotiating table also do not understand this: that if these two parties do not have any concern for the ordinary people and are only concerned in preserving their own power, then the natural outcome will again be a continuing tragedy for the people. Their inability to grasp this fact has allowed them to concentrate only on asking the LTTE what they want and then reporting back to the other side, and releasing empty statements which repeat the LTTE pronouncements, such as the one that they are prepared to talk without any preconditions and so on. Suppression of all democratic alternatives, prisoners being kept in inhuman conditions, continuous arrests and detention of ordinary civilians, massacres of Sinhalese and Muslim people, recruitment of children for military service as well as to act as torturers, are all continuing in the North and East. Deliberate attempts to create clashes between the Muslims and Tamils are on the increase. But these organisations, which go and meet the LTTE never want to put pressure on them to make them accept at least a minimum human norm. It has become an art among the apologists of the LTTE and the spokespersons of the LTTE, to con these type of people. Even the people in the South who really have sincere concerns and who are crying at the plight of the Tamil people, have not spent the time and energy necessary to understand the reality in the North and East, the distorted development of its political culture, and its stranglehold on the people. They need to support the people in their struggle for ethnic justice, and at the same time they should avoid legitimising the imposition of an unjust regime in the name of ethnic struggle. It is a very difficult task indeed! But fighting for justice is always a difficult struggle.
Peace makers from abroad, on their flying visits here, some times express the opinion that if the Tigers are not there, then there would be nobody to defend the Tamil people, or that the Tigers are the only people who are fighting, and so on. They don’t realise the harm they are doing to the whole Tamil community by perceiving things in this way. Legitimising unhealthy forces just because they have the most destructive power, and do not have any inhibition in directing it against any one (whether they are from their own community or from any other community), is against the interest of humanity at large, and therefore against the Tamil people. How on earth can a group ‘defend’ them by destroying every aspect of human values - by trying to crush the sprit of independent thinking and action, by terrorising the people into dumb obedience and servility, by making a supreme virtue out of violence, brutality and death-dealing - and by negating the Tamil people’s broader interests in a culturally diverse, non-authoritarian society, free of racism, gender oppression, national subjection and arbitrary rule?. Is it imagined that for the Tamils their identity, liberation, happiness, and fullness of life can be realised in an extremely violent, xenophobic, fear-stricken and undemocratic regime provided that the dictatorship to which they must submit is exclusively Tamil?. When such individuals and peace organisations claim that they can deliver the goods (if their role is accepted), they show very clearly their naivety and the contempt they have for the people here. If they can consistently and courageously expose the unhealthy tendencies among the protagonists, namely the state, the LTTE, other armed groups and extreme forces in the south, as well as spend some time to understand the real issues and the complexities, then they can do much more to achieve peace in this land. The people in this country cannot suffer further by reinforcement of the unhealthy forces for the sake of individuals’ ego trips and their naivety. [Top]
Reacting to Thondaman’s proposal, extreme elements have gone to the extent of forming an organisation called Sinhala Arakshaka Sanvidanya (Sinhala Defence League) headed by the former minister Gamini Jayasooriya. A pressure group in the SLFP has been formed called “Hela Urumaya” (National Heritage). The existence of these groups is dependent on anti Thondaman - anti Tamil sentiments and on the call to defend the rights of the Sinhala race. Recently they openly declared their agenda as removing Thondaman and fighting against racism. In Sri Lanka the only problem is a “Frankenstein” called Thondaman; by an involuntary removal of him, these “patriots” are going to achieve peace!. When such people say that they are going to fight racism, we wonder whether they want to take cyanide and commit suicide!
By showing Thondaman as a bogey man, they have gone to the extent of covering up the injustices which had been done to the estate workers who are still living and working under very poor conditions. At the same time they can fool the Sinhala peasants who are also equally in a disadvantageous position by not allowing them to see the real issues. This Thondaman bashing has reached such a hysterical level that anybody who has never been to the estates will think that those workers are living in paradise, thanks to the dedication of Mr.Thondaman.
The behaviour of some SLFP parliamentarians today shows the repetition of the stupid way in which the party had handled the early stages of the resistance of the Tamil youths in the Northern province, and how they had forced large number of youths into the wings of the armed struggle.
Another general theme is that Sinhala people are not united and only because of that the country is facing the crisis. The same theme was used by the Tamil leadership to suppress differing opinions among Tamils; and as a result of that today they are facing the consequences of not having asked the pertinent questions during that time, such as behind what values we unite, and so on. There are intellectuals writing articles about the betrayal by the Sinhala leaders, and so on. Today they come out with the simple argument that since the Tamils are living in the South and the language problems have been solved what is there to complain about. They do not want to understand, the way in which the state evolved exclusively as a Sinhala state and how Tamils were forced to feel alienated. The state can pass resolutions by a stroke of the pen, which affects a whole community on an ethnic basis. The standardisation based on ethnic ratio is a case in point. Any “National party” could take a decision without any just basis which is detrimental to one ethnic community and use its vast Government machinery to justify it’s acts and cut off the desperate voices for social justice. There was no avenue for any redress, either. When that type of power is poised over it’s neck, an ethnic community which is forever beyond the political, economic possibility of self-determining, equally with all others, faces a highly insecure future. Worse still: when the nature of the present state is a hegemonistic one dominated by an ideology which in a short-sighted way tries to represent the sectarian and narrow interest of the sinhalese community in the name of “Sinhala - Buddhist ideology”, then all other Sri Lankan communities are permanently condemed to the humiliating status of colonial subjects of the master-race. Such a regime is not conducive to developing in the 1990’s, a national identity encompassing the diverse ingredients of actually existing cultural, social, religious and linguistic variations rooted in history in Sri Lankan soil.
There are arguments put forward that the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ ideology should be the core of this countrys ideology. The whole weakness of these arguments is that we can artificially impose an ideology by declaring it as the dominant one. From this point of view it becomes difficult to envisage a solution to the ethnic problem through any form of arrangement which will give security in the full meaning of the term to the people whose ideology it is not or cannot be. They include the large numbers who belong to minority communities. They include also many Sinhalese and Buddhists, too, in the different communities. Such an ideology negates the basic rights of “others” by abstracting concepts such as “Sinhala” and “Buddhist” in isolation. Other communities become mere appendages rather than citizens with equal (social, economic, cultural..) rights when the Sinhala- Buddhist’ ideology is prioritized in the national ideology in such an manner. The tragedy of Burma, which is a Buddhist country in its performance of rituals is that in concrete reality it negates all aspects of Buddhism and the people are living under most gruesome conditions. Closer home, by abstracting the concept of “Tamil”, the Tamil people is living in the North and East in a sanitized environment and in lies, specially in the North. If these intellectuals in the South just spare a few minutes and stretch their imagination, they would undoubtedly see to how much trouble they would have gone to get the post which Mr.Anton Balasingam is holding dear to his heart, if they had been born as Tamils in the North.
If any group of politicians claim that they are trying to save their race and are calling others to unite under their banner without considering the various complexities, then we need to look into their activities with serious suspicion.
The Tamil community has learnt from its bitter experience the fallacy of uniting under one leadership slogan based on race and the consequences of it. In certain circumstances if these simple slogans take some legitimacy by purely appealing to the national or ethnic aspects, they will trap the people before the people can realise the danger, into a mental prison from which only a narrow authoritarian politics will emerge. We have enough experiences in world history and from our own history. But ironically we can see again that in the South an intellectual base is being laid by certain politicians and intellectuals, which is getting a wide currency. Yes, they are also raising issues, some of which are legitimate. But the final analysis and the panacea they propose has all the ingredients of an authoritarian social order.
Why does a country like Sri Lanka with so much potential again and again desperately choose a suicidal path?. Unless this question is squarely faced we will continue to live in a cycle of cynicism, desperate moves to destroy the system, natural tendencies of more authoritarianism, reinforcement of the status quo, and so on.
We just give a humble conversation an ordinary civilian from Jaffna had with an army officer at the Vavunia check point to enlighten our learned friends in the South, who write articles, letters and organise meetings to save the Sinhala race:
Recently a visitor on his way from Jaffna to Colombo got held up at the Vavuniya check point and he was staying in the shade. An army officer came and began a conversation with him. He was in the Elephant Pass camp when the LTTE attack took place and he was telling his experience, how they all were taken aback by that attack and for the first two days they almost lost control of the situation as well as how on the third day they managed to raise the moral of the soldiers to stay put and fight back. A few officers also came and joined in the conversation. Then he inquired about the situation in Jaffna. Our friend told the sufferings the people are going through and how they all are really scared about the entry of the army into the Jaffna peninsula, as well as the uncertain future, which they are facing. The officer nodded approvingly and said he could understand that and tried to console the visitor by saying how difficult it was to control the boys who have been given a few months training, and how they are now trying to educate them not to harm the civilians and that they are making all efforts to avoid those type of acts which alienate them from the people.
Then suddenly, pointing towards the people in the queue he said “Look around, how the ordinary people are suffering. And we and the cream of our youth from both sides are giving our lives. Those who are in the South who use a lot of rhetoric should come and see the real plight of these people. Yes, we have to bring sense into the LTTE and if necessary destroy them, but more than that we need to bring sense into the extreme forces in the South also, who are using Sinhala Chauvinism to become heroes. They are making our task more difficult by rousing a false passion”.
May be Buddha’s teaching has had some impact on this officer, enabling him to see the reality and allowing him to ponder what is happening around us! [Top]
In August 1990 “ Operation Major” was carried out in the Islands adjacent to the Jaffna Peninsula. In our Special Report number 2, we brought out some details about that operation. Although we were able to bring out approximate casualties in many of those islands, the death toll in Mandaithevu was put as high as 50 on the information of the people who fled from that area. Since the army was controlling that island and civilians were unable to visit, we had to rely on the information of the civilians who had fled from there to gauge the situation. Until recently people did not have access to that island and were unaware of the fate of those who had been left behind. A few months back it came to be known that people have found large number of bodies inside wells and under heaps of cow dung. Nearly 70 decayed bodies were uncovered. As we mentioned in our Special Report no 2, about 49 newly inducted LTTE cadres were trapped in Mandaithevu and when they asked for reinforcement from the mainland it was not sent and they were told not to leave the island by the LTTE leadership in Jaffna. Eventually all of them took cyanide and killed themselves. It seems that those bodies are also included among the above total. Apart from them, some youths who had been arrested by the army in Mandaitheevu and other Islands were even used as manual labourers by the army. A few of them were released later. It seems now that most of them have been killed by the army. The recoveries of these bodies conform to that suspicion. Will the Human Rights task force visit and inquire into this? Will immediate action be taken against those who are responsible for these type of activities?.
In the South, recently, the case of 31 schoolboys from Embilipitiya, reported missing between August 1989 and January 1990, has been highlighted. The parents have demanded an inquiry into this, and they are prepared to give evidence to identify the culprits. But the Government has shown its callousness by ignoring the demands of the bereaved parents. A similar appeal was brought when Richard de Soyza, a well known journalist, was gruesomely killed on the fateful day 17th of Febraury,1990. The Government ignored the appeal and no external pressure could force it to unravel the mystery. [Top]
Yes, today due to external pressure the Government is involved in “Human Rights Rituals” to charm the “Aid Goddess”. Will they go beyond mere rituals for which they have found some “High priests” who are well versed in “ Marxist” jargon as well as the “Human Rights” vocabulary. “If the international community demands rituals, we will perform them to perfection”; that is the motto of the present Government. The World Bank and the IMF don’t demand rituals but concrete actions regarding economic management, which take away so many hard won rights of the workers as well as other sections of this country. But to stop the people becoming aware of the direction in which the country is moving, once again the ritualistic condemnation of the IMF and the World Bank are performed by the high priests. Then, in the same vein, they will boast about the World Bank’s commendation of our economic performance and beg them to recommend us for aid. This pathetic state of affairs will go on until we become aware of our weaknesses and take steps which we feel are right and necessary to rectify and strengthen our society by keeping the government open to the people. The present reality is the reverse, where the government is open to the international power structures but closed to the people. Pacifying the people and the international conscience by ritualistic rhetoric and totally surrendering to the International power structures is what is happening at present in our country. Even the religious rituals performed all over the country fall into this category.
Some of the NGOs have played a valuable role in defending human rights. But there is a tendency for the present activities of the NGOs in the field of human rights to concentrate primarily on meeting and talking to the international lobby. Although that is a necessary activity, in the present situation, the intensive activities of various NGOs end up most of the time with having meetings and conferences most of which are becoming superfluous. It is also slowly and steadily absorbing the individuals who are involved in these activities into continuous involvement in attending conferences, writing reports at a conceptual level, and writing project proposals with little relevance and meaning to the concrete reality. These individuals also get trapped unknowingly into a form of “ritual” where they never have the time or energy to revaluate their role. They get involved in so many organisations with different names, and the activities of these organisations have become so much dependent upon impressing the funding organisations, that there is little effective contribution made by these various organisations to the needs of the community, though on paper the portrayals of the activities are very impressive.
The reality of the present day international situation and the rapid development of information technology demand an effective campaign network to counter the vast resources of the Governments and other International organisations (such as Multinationals, etc) which make the people powerless. Although the world is becoming smaller and smaller to the people who possess the resources, it is becoming remoter for the people who live in poverty or who are silenced by terror, etc. In this environment, those who are concerned about the plight of the ordinary people also need to utilise the above resources to highlight the injustices done to the people who have no power. Those in the “developed world” who believe in humanity and who share the same vision try to link up with the people in the “Third World” through NGO’s that succeed in getting their attention. But the objective reality of the economical disparity between these countries, continuous unequal power relationships and conscious activities of various intelligence agencies of the “developed states” that want to keep the status quo, distort these type of links. It is a long drawn out struggle, indeed. It requires continuous vigilance from the activists from both the Third World and the other part of the world.
This paradox cannot be solved by simply taking an anti NGO stand or by ignoring them. There is no simple answer for this reality. But it is essential that the activists themselves should develop some ethics to constrain themselves and develop some checks and balances to enable them to continuously represent the interests of the people. They have to fight against activism becoming careerism, and try to find ways and means to effectively influence the different segments of the people here without merely having “ritual” conferences among the converted. The internalisation of the reality in its fullness is essential to keep ourselves conscious and to communicate our ideas in meaningful terms to the ordinary people. The danger of conceptualisation and abstraction, which is essential for theoretical development, sometimes leads us to a situation where we, by becoming mere interpreters of the reality at the Global level, lose any confidence or belief in the role of the people in determining history. We become simply worshippers of the objective forces and ignore the subjective role of the people as those who must transform the present death-dealing conditions. Issues of ethics and morality affect people and we need to take them into account to promote a new value system. Their existential crisis in a world of growing powerlessness can be utilised by narrow political forces such as ethno-nationalists, religious fundamentalists and others in a destructive way. Unless the NGOs concerned about human and democratic rights take a courageous stand and use their resources fully in assisting and spearheading the development of an internal process which will unleash the internal forces to play a role in determining the future of our country, the whole exercise of human rights activities will be again utilised by the powers whose interests are directly opposed to the vast majority of the masses in this and other third world countries. Our country is in a crucial period and there is cynicism all around. If we want to challenge the rituals of the Government or force it to go beyond rituals, we need to have some confidence in the people and prioritise our objectives, and put energy into activities which will inform and inspire it the masses rather than indulge in activities which will only benefit us financially and emotionally. This is a challenge that has to be faced squarely if we want to have an impact in our community and want to create a healthy environment. [Top]
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