Counterproductive Confrontation or positive transformation?

Jehan Perera, Courtesy of the Island, 14 December 2010

The Oxford Union may have dealt the government an unexpected blow by unilaterally withdrawing the invitation it had extended to the President to speak at the university. There was the possibility of a mass protest campaign against the President’s visit escalating due to action by the Tamil Diaspora as well as some Sinhalese expatriate supporters of imprisoned former Army Commander and Presidential candidate former General Sarath Fonseka. But the government once again demonstrated its political skill in turning around the torrid time experienced by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his entourage in the United Kingdom into political advantage back in Sri Lanka. 

  Tamil protest group at Heathrow airport


The nationalistic sentiment of people anywhere in the world is to stand behind the country’s leaders, whether they are in the right or the wrong. In the case of the President’s inability to deliver his Oxford speech, the norms of civilized conduct were themselves violated, most notably the right of any person to freedom of expression. As a result, those members of the Opposition in Sri Lanka who attempted to gain political mileage out of the reversal to the President in the United Kingdom have found themselves to be under attack and condemned by public opinion for their absence of patriotism. 


Pic courtesy of Lanka Guardian

 The public manifestation of the government’s displeasure with the British government for having failed to protect the President’s right to free speech was the well organized demonstration outside the British High Commission led by cabinet minister Wimal Weerawansa. This led to the closure of the High Commission and to the inconveniencing of legitimate travellers to the United Kingdom, whose visa applications got delayed as a result. It is, therefore, no surprise that those who have sought to make human life on this planet better for everyone have urged that the cycle of revenge and retaliation be nipped in the bud if not turned around by acts of loving kindness, compassion and non-hatred.  Unfortunately there is too little of this in Sri Lanka.

The sordid episode at Oxford University was replicated at the University of Colombo on International Human Rights Day a little over a week after the Oxford fiasco. The United Nations office in Colombo had selected the University of Colombo to be the site of its celebrations in honour of this very special day that commemorates the coming into being of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the various international covenants that are its offspring.  However, the day before the event the university authorities informed the UN that one of the speakers at the programme, the UN Human Rights Prize winning activist Sunila Abeysekera would not be permitted to speak. This compelled the organizers of the event to change the venue. The denial of freedom of expression in a university is a travesty, whether in Oxford or Colombo.


Doubtful Transformation

A civilized society is one that attempts to resolve conflict through peaceful means, and not through violence. When a war is fought it must be seen as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The reality is that war unleashes militaristic and nationalistic forces whose existence continues to depend on keeping a war-mentality and national security state going, even after the end of the war and the way in which a war is fought can come back to haunt the winner. The main purpose of the war ought not to be the vanquishing of the opponent, but rather to open the door to a just solution. This is what transforms a conflict from one that is destructive to a situation in which there can be progress and mutual benefit. This is indeed what happened to Germany and Japan after the vast destruction of World War 2.

It is now over a year and a half since the government succeeded in completely defeating the LTTE which had fought for a separate Tamil state for over three decades using a mixture of terrorism and conventional warfare. As a result, especially in foreign countries, Sri Lanka is generally believed to be a country that solved its problem of terrorism and has restored peace and normalcy.  However, today, the reality is slowly dawning that the end of the war did not bring the conflict transformation that was sought.  It was hoped that the end of war would bring reconciliation and harmony with the polity and with the world.  But this has not been the case.

The end of the war has not made governance in Sri Lanka more liberal or accommodating. Instead there is a continuation of fear, anger and polarization.  What else can explain that more than a year and a half after the end of the war the country continues to be ruled under Emergency law and the military budget, which soared during the war and which was expected to come down after the war’s end, has soared still further, along with the cost of living.  Despite this formidable security apparatus, the government seems to have taken no deterrent action on the assaults on opposition UNP parliamentarian Dr Jayalath Jayawardana inside Parliament by government parliamentarians and on New Left Front leader Dr. Wickramabahu Karunaratne at Colombo airport by goons on his return from London. 

Both Dr Jayawardana and Dr. Karunaratne were accused of collaborating with the Tamil Diaspora responsible for sabotaging the President’s visit to the United Kingdom. But, the government’s hostility is not only directed against those whom it suspects of involvement in the attempt to humiliate the President in a foreign country. There is hostility also to those who try to suggest a way out of Sri Lanka’s increased confrontation with the Western countries. The UNP’s deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya proposed that the government impartially investigate the allegations of human rights violations during the war in order to put an end to the allegations. But this has been interpreted as being a form of collaboration with enemies of the government who are accusing the government of war crimes and has led to strident calls for a vote of no confidence in Parliament on him.

Unhappy coincidence

It is tragic that once again Sri Lanka is getting trapped into a negative cycle of fear, anger and polarization. The main cause appears to be the old one, a root cause, that of the unresolved conflict between the two main ethnic communities living on the island. The Tamil Diaspora gets it rationale for existence as a mobilized political entity from this continuing conflict. Instead of contributing towards conflict resolution their actions, such as sabotaging the President’s visit to the United Kingdom, would tend to generate more divisiveness. The outcome is that the government continues to see the Tamil community that extends to the Diaspora as a threat to be suppressed rather than a part and parcel of Sri Lanka to be nurtured and empowered.

It may or may not be a coincidence that shortly after the President returned from his abortive visit to the United Kingdom he is reported to have advocated that the national anthem be sung only in Sinhala, although Tamil is also an official language of the country. The President is reported to have told his ministers that in no other country was the national anthem sung in more than one language.  A directive to use only the Sinhala version is therefore to be sent out which will mean that even in the Tamil majority parts of the country, where Sinhala is not commonly spoken, the people will have to sing the anthem in a language they do not understand.  In Canada, on the other hand, where there are also two official languages like in Sri Lanka, the national anthem is sung in both languages at official functions, usually with a mix of English and French verses.

Language is an instrument of unity within a group, which is why President Rajapaksa is reported to have said that we must all think of Sri Lanka as one country.  However, it is also a way of maintaining the boundaries between groups.  A threat to language or its demotion can become seen as a threat or demotion of the community itself. In the mid 1950s, the language issue made the Sinhalese-Tamil cleavage the most divisive one in Sri Lankan society. The Tamil electorate soon rejected the Tamil Congress which focused on employment and education, and mobilized behind the Federal Party that gave priority to Tamil identity and autonomy.  The mistake of the 1950s must not be repeated again especially with the end of the thirty year war.

 The experience in both Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world of political struggle makes it evident that when the path of conflict and unilateral decisions are made, there will be constant escalation of conflict Stopping the spiral of conflict and resentment requires a conscious act of will and a strategy for de-escalation. It requires a vision of a transformative process which will lead to the good of everyone. The government, opposition and Tamil Diaspora need to consider a conciliatory approach, and one based on dialogue and a willingness to be accommodative.  It is necessary to see the opponent in a new light, as having part of the truth, which is necessary to bring wholeness and positive transformation. Trying to put the other in trouble or take revenge will only make matters worse for everyone as our interests are shared and mutual.

  This photo shows a crowd at Kilinochchi demonstrating in protest at the treatment meted out to President Rajapakse in Britain.

 It is derived from the local newspapers. Together with the other images deployed here by the web editor, they display an effort by the government to shore up the President’s image within the Lankan constituency. Whether the Sri Lankan people placed weight on events in Britain is another question.  

1 Comment

Filed under LTTE, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations

One response to “Counterproductive Confrontation or positive transformation?

  1. Renton de Alwis

    To be fair and balanced in our analysis of what we can expect in the future in terms of genuine reconciliation, I think it must be mentioned that the current President has made a sincere effort to learn and use Tamil in most of his key policy speeches and has used both Sinhala and Tamil, in most public speeches he has made, where it is relevant. There has been encouragement all around to learn and teach the official languages (Sinhala & Tamil) and English is encouraged to be used as a link language as well. Indeed there are glitches in its implementation on the ground, that we all need to work on, by doing our bit individually and collectively shunning any political and other differences. I think it is only fair to let the world at large know of these developments and the fact the President has learned and is using Tamil in his communications. I would give him the benefit of the doubt that this is no political stunt and he has a resolve to being an example. As a Sri Lankan, I am happy and proud that this initiative has been taken by the head of state.

    I agree that what we need to see more is not confrontation but positive transformation. As responsible citizens and Diaspora, it will be in our interest to ensure that we work on the possible in taking the process of reconciliation forward. While we all would like to see more rapid progress in this process, we must also agree that there will not be any quick fixes possible herein. This must be our solution and must be driven by us as citizens of this country. We must call for the support of members of our Diaspora who wish Sri Lanka to become a happy and prosperous nation. We must do our most to ensure that all people are treated equally and can live and prosper with equal opportunities living with dignity and in harmony.

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