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Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka: Fairy-Tale Ending?

You could write a heart-warming fairy-tale about the turbulent events in the island nation of Sri Lanka in the past two months. It would involve a conniving president who abruptly and illegally dismisses the elected prime minister, and replaces him with a corrupt and blood-soaked former despot who was the president’s old boss.

The despot, now claiming to be the real prime minister, tries to strengthen his position by offering members of parliament jobs as ministers in his new government. If enough accept, he would have a majority in the parliament and could claim to be sort of legitimate. But most of the MPs turn down the political bribes on offer, and parliament twice votes to reject his claims.

Finally, after 50 days of chaos, the judges of the Supreme Court say that the president has acted illegally and the ex-despot can’t claim that he is prime minister. At this point the despot resigns and the president grudgingly ‘re-appoints’ the legitimate prime minister. Virtue triumphs, and joy is unconfined. Maybe they even live happily ever after.

It’s an engaging tale, and the basic outlines are true, but in the real world the historical and social context that surrounds the events changes the tone of everything.

Sri Lanka is only ten years away from the end of a brutal civil war that lasted for a quarter-century, and the ‘despot’ is the man who won it by being more brutal than anybody else. His name is Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The war was about race and religion. Most of Sri Lanka’s people speak the Sinhalese language and identify with the Buddhist religion. A minority several million strong, concentrated in the north and east, speak Tamil and are mostly Hindu in religion (with a significant Christian minority). Tamils have been in Sri Lanka for at least 2,000 years, but the Buddhist majority tends to see them as alien and even as newcomers.

The Tamils did well under British colonial rule, when most Buddhist Sinhalese refused to collaborate with their new political masters. There was revenge-taking after independence, when Buddhist-dominated governments removed the official status of the Tamil language and imposed restrictions on higher education for Tamils. There were even anti-Tamil pogroms.

Buddhist intolerance towards non-Buddhist minorities is not unique to Sri Lanka, as the Rohingya minority in Burma can readily attest, but in Sri Lanka the Tamil minority was big enough to fight back. It did so, starting in 1987, in a guerilla and terrorist war that sought an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the island.

Up to 100,000 people died in the war, which ended with an orgy of killing (40,000) in the final five months of battles in 2009. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the president who directed those battles, in which Tamils trying to surrender were often killed, and he emerged from the war as a national hero.

With his populist, nationalist style making him a favourite with the Sinhalese masses, he seemed set for a very long run in power. His government continued to torture and ‘disappear’ opponents, and his family grew rich from corrupt deals. But in 2015 one of his cabinet ministers, Maithripila Sirisena, defected from the government, ran against him for the presidency – and won.

To his credit, Rajapaksa accepted his defeat. Sirisena found a new ally in Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose business-friendly United National Party had won a majority in parliament, and appointed him as prime minister. However, the new allies had little in common and estrangement between them grew.

The key issue that broke the alliance was trade: Sirisena preferred to make deals with China, Wickremesinghe with nearby India. On 25 October Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe (illegally) and appointed Rajapaksa as prime minister instead.

Wickremesinghe pointed out that Sirisena didn’t have the power to do that and barricaded himself into Temple Trees, the prime minister’s official residence. Rajapaksa couldn’t get enough members of parliament to switch sides. They voted twice to remove Rajapaksa, so Sirisena dismissed parliament and called new elections.

That was illegal too, and the struggle continued until, last week, the Supreme Court ruled that Sirisena could not dissolve parliament. At that point Rajapaksa resigned, and on Monday an angry Sirisena grudgingly swore Wickremesinghe back in as prime minister.

An encouraging outcome, in which parliament, the courts and the general population behaved better than anybody expected, but of course the story is never really over.

Sirisena can constitutionally dismiss the parliament fifteen months from now, and Rajapaksa may well win the next election. Meanwhile Wickremesinghe’s government may be almost paralysed, because relations between Sirisena and him are totally poisonous.

The fairy-tale is to be preferred whenever possible.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“The Tamils…possible”)

Sri Lanka’s Future

22 December 2009

Sri Lanka’s Future

By Gwynne Dyer

First, the good news. Sri Lanka’s government, whose 26-year war against the separatist Tamil Tigers ended in total victory last May, is keeping its promise to let all of the 300,000 Tamil civilians who were captured in the final battle go home again. Not only that, but it is going to hold a free election next month – so free that the ruling party might even lose it.

The bad news is that it does not much matter who wins that election. Both the incumbent and the challenger are committed Sinhalese nationalists whose policies towards the Tamil minority militate against any reconciliation between the two groups. Tamils are less than a fifth of the population, so if tough treatment is enough to keep them quiet, then Sri Lanka faces a peaceful future – but repression has not worked in the past.

It’s easy to understand why the government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapkasa, insisted on a decisive victory over the Tamil Tigers, whose insurgency had caused 70,000 deaths over the years. There had been cease-fires and peace talks over the years, but the Tigers never really abandoned their goal of total independence for the Tamil majority areas in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

That was utterly unacceptable to the Sinhala-speaking majority, so the war was bound to end in a last stand by the Tigers sooner or later. They could have carried on with suicide bombings and assassinations forever, but their territorial ambitions drove them to seize and hold ground with a more or less conventional military force. (They even had a navy and an air force of sorts.) That made them vulnerable to military defeat.

All it took to make that happen was a government willing to devote all the resources of the state to building an army able to defeat the Tigers in stand-up battle, and tough enough to refuse all negotiations until the enemy was completely destroyed. The Rajapaksas provided that government.

All the well-meaning foreign pleas last May for a cease-fire to protect the Tamil civilians trapped with the Tigers were quite rightly ignored by the Sri Lankan forces. The Tigers always made sure that they had lots of innocent civilians around when they fought. The civilians absorbed a lot of the enemy fire, their deaths served to radicalise other Tamils – and cease-fires to protect civilians had frequently allowed the Tiger fighters to escape in the past.

Nor was Colombo wrong to round up all 300,000 Tamil civilians who were caught up in the Tigers’ last stand. Any surviving fighters were bound to try to hide themselves among the civilians, so a protracted sorting-out process was needed. But the Sri Lankan government promised that everybody except suspected fighters would be released within six months – and it has kept its word, more or less.

The camps have been emptying out fast over the past couple of months, and Colombo promises that everybody will have gone home by the end of January. There are justifiable complaints that not enough is being done to help former detainees re-settle, but there have been much uglier ends to long and brutal wars like this one.

The problem lies not in the past, but in the future. The Tamils are always going to be there, and the prospect of a peaceful future for Sri Lanka depends on reconciling them to coexistence with the Sinhalese in a state that treats both communities fairly. They will probably never again create a semi-conventional army like the Tigers, but it would be all too easy for them to resort to terrorism again if they feel desperate enough. And it would be almost impossible to stop it.

The trouble is that it took an ultra-nationalist Sinhalese regime to create the army that defeated the Tigers, and it is still in power. It does not want to welcome the Tamils back into equal citizenship, nor does it feel that it needs to. The Rajapaksa government has called an early election for 26 January to exploit its victory and consolidate its hold on power – and if it should happen lose the election, then things may just get worse.

The Rajapaksas’ challenger is none other than General Sarath Fonseka, who commanded the army that finally defeated the Tigers. The main opposition group in the Sinhala community, the United National Party, has banded together with nine smaller parties and put Fonseka up as their presidential candidate.

Fonseka could actually win, for his role in the defeat of the Tigers was just as large as that of the Rajapaksas. But he is also just as uncompromising a Sinhalese nationalist: as the war was nearing a conclusion, he was heard to say that Sri Lanka “belongs to the Sinhalese…(Minorities) can live in this country with us, but they must not try to demand undue things.” Like equality, perhaps?

That is the attitude that drove the Tamils into insurrection in the first place. The next time it wouldn’t take the same form, but it could guarantee another generation of misery, insecurity (and perhaps also tyranny) for the long-suffering people of Sri Lanka.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“All the well-meaning…past”; and “The camps…this one”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Tamil Aftermath

28 May 2009

Tamil Aftermath

 By Gwynne Dyer

“(The war) is not going to end soon,” said Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, the Sri Lankan army’s spokesman, last month. “It will take some time to completely eradicate terrorism from the country — we think about two years.”

In the euphoria over the recent military victory that ended the conventional war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (“Tamil Tigers”) and wiped out most of their leadership, most people in Sri Lanka have forgotten that prediction, but it remains likely. In fact, the brigadier may even have been optimistic in saying that two years would “completely eradicate terrorism” in Sri Lanka.

In the last weeks of fighting, foreigners called for a ceasefire to protect the Tamil civilians trapped within the diminishing perimeter held by the Tigers, solemnly warning that a crushing military victory by the government would embitter the Tamils and cause just such a terrorist war afterwards. But that was just foreigners being naive: after 26 years of war, the bitterness among Tamils is already quite enough to fuel a post-war guerilla war.

However, whether that war actually occurs depends on what happens next, not on how Tamils feel about the way the war ended. The ordeal of the 300,00 Tamils who were trapped with the Tigers’ army in its last stand was extreme, but it was not just due to government shell-fire.

The survivors of that ordeal, who are now being held in government-run “displacement camps”, were forced to accompany the Tigers in their retreat to serve as shields. They were killed by the Tigers if they tried to leave, so they are not in the least romantic about that last stand. Whereas the very large number of Tamils in the diaspora overseas are.

Diaspora Tamils are in shock about recent events, for most of them saw the founder and leader of the Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakan, as an invincible defender of the Tamil cause. They can scarcely believe that he and almost all the other senior leaders of the Tigers are dead. Moreover, the Tiger support network in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom that provided 80 percent of the organisation’s military budget is still intact.

There are plenty of young radicals in those communities who are ready to continue the war in Sri Lanka, if only by guerilla and terrorist attacks for the time being. This is strikingly different from the situation in Sri Lanka itself, where it is clear that most Tamils in the areas formerly under the Tigers’ control are ready to stop fighting. They have personal experience of the Tigers’s ruthless rule, they have lived through 26 years of constant insecurity and recurrent violence, and they have had enough.

That would normally be the deciding factor in the equation, for if the Tamils at home in Sri Lanka really want to end the war, who could make it continue? There are, unfortunately, two possible answers to that question. One is: the dogmatists in the Tamil diaspora, for whom the goal of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka is sacred. The other is: the victorious and deeply intolerant government of Sri Lanka, which may well throw its victory away.

Many Tamils living abroad just want to integrate into their new countries and leave all that unhappy history behind them, but family ties back home and the pervasive presence of Tiger radicals in the overseas communities make it hard for them to do so. There is a risk that the Tamil diaspora, like the millions of Irish who emigrated to the United States in the famine of the 1840s, will become the base for a permanent war against the oppressor back home.

That is what the Fenians became in 19th-century America, even launching unsuccessful “invasions” of British North America (i.e. Canada) in pursuit of their goal of liberating Ireland. If the Sri Lankan government cannot create an acceptable future for its Tamil population at home, the same thing will happen in the Tamil diaspora.

There is no good reason why Sri Lanka’s Tamils should not live peacefully as the country’s largest minority, but history is against it. The ethnic nationalism of the Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking majority has poisoned Sri Lankan politics, beginning with the laws that made Sinhala the sole official language and imposed restrictions on Tamil access to universities and the professions in the 1950s and 1960s.

Those laws were mainly the work of the Bandaranaike political dynasty, which deliberately cultivated a resentful Sinhalese nationalism for electoral reasons. The laws aimed to redress the grievances of the Sinhalese majority, who believed that the Tamil minority had prospered at their expense by collaborating too closely with the British colonial power, but they went too far and they have lasted too long.

What the country needs now is a clean slate where everybody’s language has equal status and every ethnic group has equal opportunities. At the end of these terrible months, and despite all the killings and the “displacement camps” crammed with dazed Tamil civilians, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has enough political credit in the eyes of the Sinhalese majority to make that revolution happen.

Unfortunately, his government probably lacks the imagination for that, in which case the terrorism will probably start up again soon.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“However…are”)

What Matters in Sri Lanka

26 April 2009

What Matters in Sri Lanka

By Gwynne Dyer

As the 26-year war in Sri Lanka nears its end, every busybody in the world is urging the Sri Lankan government to stop. Spare the poor civilians trapped in the combat zone, declare a cease-fire, it’s time to negotiate, they all implore. Even the US government has now joined the chorus.

Last weekend, the White House said that it was “deeply concerned about the plight of innocent civilians caught up in the conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers and the mounting death toll.” It called on both sides to “stop fighting immediately and allow civilians to safely leave the combat zone.” The Tigers immediately declared a unilateral cease-fire, while the Sri Lankan government called it a “joke” and continued its final offensive. But the government is right.

More than 70,000 people have died in the Sri Lankan war. Some hundreds of civilians, or maybe even a few thousands, will be killed in this last battle, but that’s far fewer than would die if the war continued for years more. Every time the “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” were granted a cease-fire in the past, they used the breathing space to rearm, and then relaunched their struggle for independence. So no more cease-fires; just get it over with.

Besides, the civilians in the combat zone, all Tamils themselves, were not just “caught up in the conflict” between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. As the rebels lost control of most of northern Sri Lanka over the past two years, they forced tens of thousands of Tamil civilians from their homes and made them join the retreat. If the civilians tried to escape the ever-dwindling territory controlled by the Tigers, they were killed.

They are hostages, held prisoner in order to hinder the government’s use of heavy weapons against the Tigers’ defences. In a just universe, all the mealy-mouthed diplomatic formulas that omit that fundamental fact would earn eternal damnation for those who utter them.

Even when the Sri Lankan army managed to breach the Tigers’ defences last week and tens of thousands of the hostages escaped, the Tigers sent along suicide bombers among the streams of refugees to punish them for their “treachery”. Next to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, the Tamil Tigers are probably the worst bunch of ultra-nationalist extremists that Asia has seen in the past half-century.

They do, however, have an effective propaganda service, and command wide support among the large Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. Not all of this is voluntary: one Tamil-Canadian in Toronto explained to me how he always avoided filling stations run by Tamils in order to avoid being indentified and “taxed” by the Tigers, with unpleasant consequences for his relatives back in Sri Lanka if he failed to pay up.

However, since there are many more Tamils than other Sri Lankan immigrants in most Western countries, their governments tend to take the course of least resistance, which in the current context is to back the Tamil Tigers’ pleas for a cease-fire. Calling for a cease-fire always sounds good, and the Western governments don’t have to live with the consequences.

If the sanctimonious foreigners really wanted to make themselves useful, they would stop calling for a cease-fire and instead demand full civil rights for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka after the war, including broad autonomy in the areas where they are the local majority. It was the brutal suppression of Tamil rights in the decades after independence, extending even to pogroms against Tamils by the majority Sinhalese population, that caused this war. It will eventually cause another if it is not ended.

The current Sri Lankan government is not the ideal vehicle for attaining this goal. The prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a nasty piece of work, and his brother Gotabaya, the defence secretary, is even nastier. Together they have turned a once-flourishing democracy into a country where critics of the government often die violent but unexplained deaths.

If your goal is a tolerant, multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, you would not choose to start from here. But that is where Sri Lanka is, and so the choice is between evils.

The Tigers are a cancer that needs to be eliminated. The present government will probably then do almost everything wrong, alienating the defeated Tamils from the Sri Lankan state by repressive measures when it should be trying to reconcile them. But once the Tigers are gone, the raison d’etre of such a brutal regime vanishes.

Sri Lanka’s democracy has had its flaws and failures over the years, but it has deep roots, and it is hard to imagine a regime like that of the Rajapaksas surviving for long in peacetime. Only war made that possible, and the war will soon be over.

So if the foreigners really want to make themselves useful, they should stop grand-standing about the civilians trapped in the Tigers’ remaining territory, which is now down to about 12 sq. km. (5 sq. mi.). Instead, they should push the Sri Lankan government to create a post-war dispensation that makes Tamils happy to be Sri Lankans.

As a start, all the Tamil civilians who have escaped from the Tigers should be freed from the detention camps where they are now being held within the next few weeks. Keeping them for the planned year or more is just vindictive.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“They

do…consequences”)