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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
Prelude to the ‘Black July 1983’-
22 June 2008
[see also Black July 1983: the Charge is Genocide...]
Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha
Another June 22nd brings to me the memory of Mervyn de Silva, the erudite Sri Lankan journalist, who breathed last in 1999. As a tribute to his journalistic acumen, I have collected together eight of his commentaries that appeared in the Lanka Guardian magazine, between January and July 1983. These eight commentaries provide a crystal clear backdrop to the ‘Black July 1983’ – the anti-Tamil pogrom, that was let loose by the authoritarian regime of President J.R. Jayewardene.
Compared to the current crop of Sinhalese journalists, practicing their trade in Colombo and elsewhere, many Tamils (including myself) consider Mervyn de Silva as a keen observer who had the courage to view the perennial ethnic problem of the blessed island in an objective scale. Sometimes, this was not to the liking of Poo-Bahs, Buddhist clergy and the Sinhalese public who enjoyed feasting on the pro-Sinhalese glory tales. Certainly, Mervyn de Silva had a pro-Sinhalese, liberal Leftist bias (and he was entitled to it!), that showed up in his columns that appeared either under his nom de plume Kautilya or anonymously (‘the Sri Lankan correspondent’) in the Economist magazine. But, in my view, when Mervyn de Silva signed his commentaries in the Lanka Guardian, Newsweek and South magazines, he restrained his bias with a short leash.
I have transcribed below eight of Mervyn de Silva’s political commentaries relating to the Sinhala-Tamil tension that was building up in the first half of 1983, after the first Presidential election in October 1982 and the infamous December 1982 referendum vote to extend the then parliament’s term by six years. These signed commentaries appeared in the Lanka Guardian magazine, between January and July 1983.
A handful of books in my shelf, authored by Sinhalese (Prof. K.M. de Silva, Dayan Jayatilleka and Rohan Gunaratna), Tamils (Rajan Hoole et al., T.Sabaratnam and S.Sivanayagam) and non-Sri Lankans (M.R.Narayan Swamy), that had covered the ‘Black July 1983’ riots do not make any reference to these eight commentaries of Mervyn de Silva, that appeared in the Lanka Guardian magazine. Therein lies the relevance of these commentaries to the research on ‘Black July 1983’.
The Colombo media-circulated canard, that the anti-Tamil, July 1983 pogrom was a ‘spontaneous eruption of Sinhalese fury’ had few serious takers. Nevertheless, it has been regurgitated ad nauseam, for its propaganda value. A sympathetic “Sinhalese freelance journalist living in London” noted: “Last July’s riots were sparked off when the army kidnapped three girls, raping them and killing one. In retaliation the Tigers ambushed and killed 13 soldiers. This incident set off the nationwide violence”. [R.L.Pereira, ‘Sri Lanka’s Pogrom’, New Internationalist magazine, Oct. 1983]
Rohan Gunaratna, the Sinhalese intelligence analyst with strong credentials for anti-LTTE bias, repeated it as, “The killing of 13 soldiers of the ‘four four bravo’ patrol in a landmine blast and an ambush by the LTTE in Jaffna, sparked off the ethnic riots of July 1983”. [Book: Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka, 1993, p. 78]
This canard of ‘spontaneous eruption of Sinhalese fury’ was a creation of Cyril Mathew, the anti-Tamil baiter of President Jayewardene’s Cabinet, and it was strongly refuted by his then Cabinet colleague S. Thondaman Sr., the leader of Ceylon Workers’ Congress in August 1983. To quote journalist T. Sabaratnam, “In a statement issued through the Ceylon Workers Congress, Thondaman attacked the theory of spontaneous reaction. ‘In our thinking’, the statement said, ‘it was the work of well-organised groups, who had gone on a rampage, rioting, looting and setting fire to houses and business establishments.’ ” [Book: The Murder of a Moderate – Political Biography of Appapillai Amirthalingam, 1996, p. 306].
When read in sequence, Mervyn de Silva’s eight commentaries (that pre-date the July 1983 pogrom), punctures the ‘spontaneous eruption’ theory. In these commentaries, Mervyn de Silva has also
The eight commentaries that appear in this anthology are arranged chronologically, as follows:
In these commentaries, Mervyn de Silva has used some abbreviations that are comprehensible to Sri Lankans, but may not be easily decipherable now by non-Sri Lankans. As such, other than the now recognizable abbreviations of political parties (UNP, SLFP, CP and TULF), I provide a guide to these abbreviations.
Please note that the words indicated in bold font and those included in parentheses are as in the originals.
New Lamps and Old Maps - [Mervyn de Silva, Lanka Guardian, Jan.1, 1983, p.3]
The referendum result is replete with many messages, some teasing curiosities and a few paradoxes. During the Presidential campaign, Mr J.R. Jayewardene, adapting a remark of the Younger Pitt, spoke of ‘rolling up the electoral map’ for ten years. The Sunday Times, the most regulated and authentic voice of top level government opinion, wrote that in the past six months the President has ‘transformed the political destiny and future of Sri Lanka in a manner unknown before’. While the shape of the new map also remains unknown (at least till we know more about ‘National governments’ and ‘mini-elections’) the geography of popular opinion as demarcated on December 22 fits a much older electoral map.
Almost every editorialist and commentator has spotlighted the urban-rural vote distinction and tried to use this dichotomy to make sense of the voting patterns. In a snappy headline, the Sun picked on the term ‘rice bowl’. Others, like the Island, have identified the areas of UNP success as centres where ‘development is a reality’. Still others talk of the ‘Kandyan heartland.’
From a tightly divided Colombo to a Ratmalana, just barely held, from a quite evenly balanced Moratuwa and a defiant Panadura-Kalutara to a total rout at Habaraduwa, from defeats at Ambalangoda, Balapitiya and Galle right down into the Matara-Hambantota belt, it is a clear message of an Oppositional swing.
To say it’s urban is not enough. The south-western seaboard and the immediate hinterland are literate, more inclined to political activism and better organized. In a neat sociological summary, Wriggins describes these areas as been ‘in touch with the outside world longer than any other regions. Decades of accessibility, of relatively easy movement to and from Colombo, of the penetration into the surrounding countryside of urban customs, and the cash and contract basis of relationships have transformed these areas more than the others. Educational statistics show a significantly higher proportion of children in school in the Western, and Southern and Sabaragamuwa provinces than elsewhere. The only exception is Northern province, which is traditionally highly literate…”
Political observers of an earlier generation used to call the southern coastline and the Kelani valley ‘the red belt’ or ‘the string of red forts’. LSSP theoretician, Mr. Hector Abhayavardana calls them ‘centres of radicalism’. What happened to this radicalism? It was ‘diluted’, he explains, obviously underlining one of the many grievous consequences (grievous to the Left) of the compromises involved in the alliance with the SLFP. With the SLFP in deep trouble, is there a resurgence of radicalism in the old ‘red belt’ and a return to the old map? Does Wriggins’ ‘literacy’ connection between these areas and the peninsula explain the seeming paradox of the North-South convergence?
While the UNP managed to hold Colombo, capture Gampaha and sweep the rural heartland, it tasted bitter defeat in the North and South. If Jaffna is the traditional home of Tamil nationalism, the South is considered the seat of Sinhalese nationalism. Or is it a much more complicated case of nationalism in one instance, and in the other a question of economic discontent fuelling a radical revivalism?
A pre-TULF myth about the ‘unity of the Tamil-speaking peoples’ sustained all too briefly a TULF which had Mr. Thondaman as one of its founder-presidents. As an integument, language was never strong enough to cover many, very real differences. The myth was buried on December 22. For Jaffna, Trinco, Wanni and Batticaloa we have the (Indian) Tamil plantation labour’s reply in Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, and parts of Kandy. Behind that firm pro-government response is the CWC. And it was Mr Thondaman who lit the lamp.
A Daily News political commentator writes of Mr. Maitripala Senanayake ‘turning trumps’ in the NCP. If he’s back as ‘Raja Rate veeraya’, what of the others? Sometime ago, the Divaina had a most interesting cross-section of man-in-the-street views on ‘defectors’. The consensus was by no means favourable. In the South, at least, last minute long jumpers do not seem to have achieved anything. Party loyalties seem to be too deep-rooted for all but a handful of personalities to make anything more than a marginal impact.
Whether out of election fatigue or demoralization and apathy (especially in the SLFP) or obstruction and intimidation (the Opposition claim) or disillusionment (UNP ‘liberals’), there was a significant percentage drop (about 10%) from Oct. 20. So the 54.6% should certainly not be taken as an improvement on President Jayewardene’s performance of 52.9% when 80% went to the polls. The December 22nd 70% was as low as the turnout in 1952 and 1956. Two major questions remain: (a) What will the President do next and what shape will a ‘new’ Government-cum-Parliament take? (b) How will the unqualified ‘NO’ from the North affect the Government-TULF discussions on ‘devolution’? While the SLFP goes into another of its agonizing re-appraisals, the question is being asked how Kundasale alone succeeded in standing up to the UNP onslaught?
Tigers – A Fact of Political Life [Mervyn de Silva, Lanka Guardian, Feb.1, 1983, pp.3 and 24.]
Tigers! It would have been a rare newspaper reader who didn’t think that or speak the word on seeing the frontpage story of the murder of Mr. Pulendran, the UNP Vavuniya organizer. The political target, the previous pattern of killings and the operational style would have certainly warranted such an instinctive reaction. In fact, one daily paper did say that it had ‘all the hallmarks of a terrorist action’.
Now the police think otherwise. A grama sevaka and several others have been arrested and the Sun, which is usually ahead of its daily competitors at least in this area of news, reported a pre-referendum fracas between the deceased and one of the accused.
The ‘Tigers’ are now part of our daily diet of news, a fact of life, no longer discussed in nervous whispers or guarded tones. Even the usually undemonstrative and respectably conservative Daily News could proclaim on its front page ‘SHOT – AND TIGERS TAKE THE CREDIT’ in preference to the Island’s ‘TIGERS MOPPING UP MASQUERADERS’. This attitude is a reassuring sign of maturity.
No problem vanishes because we have chosen to ignore its existence. A benign neglect or a studied posture of indifference can be dangerously self-defeating. Next to the economic troubles which now besiege us and threaten to overwhelm many Third World countries, the Tamil National question is certainly our gravest discontent, and the ‘Tigers’ are only a dramatic manifestation of the multifarious pressures which created that question.
Perhaps because Sri Lanka was comparatively immune to these particular brands of violence, even otherwise perceptive Sri Lankans have been slow in awakening to the hidden realities of social disturbance or maladroit in grasping the nature of the problem, or understanding it as a phenomenon.
In late 1968, the UN Day was celebrated in Colombo with a symposium on ‘Youth’. 1968 was of course the year of Youth Upheaval the world over. While drawing some basic distinctions between the alienated youth of the affluent West and our own unemployed school-leavers, one of the speakers asked whether there was reason nonetheless for Sri Lankans to be seriously disturbed by signs of youth unrest here. ‘How do we know that the angry young tiger is not at our own city gates?’ was his concluding remark. Speaking after him, a highly educated, liberal-minded and upright Christian cleric of great eminence pooh-poohed the attempts of ‘elitist’ journalists who draw facile parallels from their frequent travels abroad. Just two and half years later, the angry young tiger leapt at his perceived oppressor with home-made bombs in tooth and claw. Now the ‘tiger’ of that rhetorical flourish is even more a stark reality, except that his habitat has changed to the northern peninsula from the Sinhala south.
Who are the Eelam Liberation Tigers and what do they stand for? Whether it is Northern Ireland or the Basques in Spain or the Moros in the Philippines, it is now an established fact that whatever the ‘crimes’ committed (ie. in terms of the law) this violence cannot be studied in the manner that normal criminal activity is investigated. Since motivation is fundamentally different and often more complex, any serious understanding must be founded on at least some knowledge of the political conditions which produced the movement or organization, its aims and objectives, the social complexion of its cadres, its local and foreign links etc.
Here we face certain obvious difficulties with a proscribed organization whose work is clandestine and therefore does its utmost to guard its secrets, except when it serves its purpose to disseminate information. So it was with the recent killing in Jaffna of a much ‘wanted’ criminal, the 28 year-old Babukumar alias Babu. As the Daily News reported, the ‘Tigers’ took credit for it openly much in the manner of the anonymous telephone call which news agencies in other countries receive when a tycoon or general is kidnapped, or there’s a bomb blast in some public place or diplomatic establishment. The perpetrator wants not only to be associated with the act for publicity purposes and ‘demonstration effect’ but also to make it plain that this was a deliberate political action, not a criminal act or the work of some lunatic or drug addict.
Both the Island and the Sun noted that sometime ago leaflets had been distributed in Jaffna warning ‘anti-social elements’ (extortionists etc.) that they would face drastic punishment if they pose as ‘Tigers’ in order to rob innocent people. The police told the Island that the ‘Tigers’ were obviously ‘touchy’ about anti-social elements engaging in criminal activities disguised as ‘Tigers’, and were therefore carrying out planned ‘extermination’. In short, they were not merely clearing their name in the eyes of the Jaffna people and demonstrating that they were not common criminals but actually doing a law-enforcement job on their behalf!
This insistent effort to dissociate themselves publicly and as in this instance dramatically with ‘criminals’ or ‘criminal activity’ is an aspect which should be carefully noted by all students of the problem because it helps us to get an idea of their ‘self-image’. A letter sent to the government in mid-1979 was distributed to the local press and to newspapers in many western capitals. In that they claimed that they were not ‘amateur armed adventurists roaming in the jungles with romantic political illusions’ nor vandals who destroy for ‘anarchic reasons’. Instead, they portrayed themselves as ‘revolutionaries’ engaged in revolutionary political practice.
They also claimed to be the ‘most powerful extra-parliamentary liberation movement’ in Jaffna. There’s the second difficulty we encounter, the first being lack of authentic information. The shoot-out in the Madras bazaar was a clear demonstration of the existence of many armed bands, often mutually hostile, and with allegiance to different leaders. In the Madras case, Prabhakaran and Maheswaran’s identities were established. The Sun, in particular, has also named groups called ‘Eagles’, ‘EROS’ etc. So which is which? Which is salmon, which mackerel? Which Tiger which Panther?
Fortunately, the Sun and Island groups have two specialist reporters who, to our great advantage, complement each other. Ranil Weerasinghe is strong on the security angle, and that also tends to be his perspective, while D.B.S. Jeyaraj inclines more, when he is not on ‘spot news’, to the social-historical or ‘deep background’ approach.
For actual documents however (and there again, the question of authenticity creates difficulties) London (and maybe India) is the best source. While Brigadier Ranatunge at his news conference noted the Indian connection, the President of the Sinhala Association in London, Mr. Wickremaratne had good reason to complain of the propaganda offensive launched by Eelamites and pro-Eelam bodies. A flood of leaflets and documentary material reach Fleet Street, British academics, civil rights organizations, and British MPs, whereas only a trickle reaches the local press. (And then, it is mailed anonymously from faraway places like US and Australia). As a result, the most knowledgeable analysts are foreign academics or journalists – Dr. David Selbourne of Oxford, Prof. Gail Omvedt – the American, Prof. Phadnis of the Nehru Univ., Martin Woolacott, Martin Walker etc. journalists.
In Jaffna’s social matrix, caste has always been a major factor, as correspondent Jayapalan writes in this issue. The intrusion of racial prejudice and religious animosities into our school texts is the subject of a study on which Reggie Siriwardena comments. Have the ‘Tigers’ gone beyond caste, religion and race? For a Marxist like scholar Selbourne who wrote extensively in the British and Indian press after his visit here (Colombo, the plantations and Jaffna) ‘class’ of course is the true sign of emancipation.
Class, not race
In that sense, are the self-styled ‘Liberation Tigers’ liberated? Selbourne remarked on the significance of an appeal to the Sinhala soldier to fight on the side of the oppressed Sinhala workers and peasants. Was this a conscious effort to establish a ‘class’ position as distinct from the militant nationalist?
While some academic analysts observe that other statements on the origins of the movement and its aims are couched in highly charged Marxist terminology, skepticism is also expressed because there are such elementary lapses as calling the SLFP and UNP ‘successive chauvinistic ruling classes’ of the Sinhala nation, instead of successive Sinhala governments, representing sections of basically the same ruling class. A few general conclusions have emerged among foreign analysts who seem to have the best access to information.
Tigers, Extradition and Political Dilemmas [Mervyn de Silva, Lanka Guardian, Mar.1, 1983, p.3.]
Mr. Amirthalingam’s visit to Madras was announced when the Commonwealth Law Ministers were flying in to Colombo for their annual conference. Since extradition was on its agenda was the TULF leader’s trip a ‘blocking move’?
Though Sri Lanka was expected to press fellow Commonwealth governments to tighten up the extradition laws, a conference source told the LG that no delegation appeared to have received firm instructions. ‘The discussion was general’ he said, admitting however that a decision had been taken to continue ‘consultations’ to examine the feasibility of declaring murder (all forms of it) as an act which was outside the ambit of ‘politics’.
More precisely, the murder of a Head of State, Government or Minister was NOT a political act affording protection to somebody who had been given sanctuary in another country or sought asylum in a Commonwealth country. If some ‘movement’ was registered on this issue it was that some governments may at least pay more attention to the problem and adopt a course that would try to ‘close the loophole’ on politics.
What happens when a man kills a ruler universally or widely regarded as a tyrant and flees to another country, while the tyrant’s government continues to hold power? The question posed by the Indian delegate underlined the moral-political dilemmas involved in an issue which has troubled many nations for at least a century and intrigued judges and lawyers.
But the crux of the matter and the heart of the predicament lie in the increasingly common discovery that one man’s terrorist is another man’s liberator, somebody’s cold-blooded murderer is somebody else’s hero. So, it is not just governments but peoples and popular opinion which enter the controversy.
The British know that best though the whole extradition issue as a legal question was more a Franco-German problem of the 19th century. Two Englishmen murdered an Irish nationalist leader and found refuge on British soil. They became heroes overnight. Even if the British government was prepared to send them back to face trial, the people and the press would not. In Canada, Britain and Australia, the legal issue is recognized but so is the moral-political predicament. In 999 cases, extradition may be justrified but what of the 1000th? Couldn’t extradition mean the judicial murder of a possible innocent?
What worries the Sri Lanka government of course is not merely Messers Uma Maheswaran and Prabhakaran but many others who have found sanctuary in Britain and Canada. In one case, official sources insist that a man guilty of three killings has fled to North America – US or Canada or both? When Colombo asked for the extradition of the six arrested in Madras it ran into both a legal and political problem. The men involved in the Pondy Bazaar shoot-out were also guilty of offences on Indian soil and therefore open to conviction under the Indian law.
But more importantly, the ‘Tigers’ became local heroes, with both the ADMK and DMK outbidding each other to play the political patron to their Tamil brothers. Though MGR is Thondaman’s friend, the pressure of his opponents and local sentiment forced him to identify himself with the Eelamites. In today’s India, centre-periphery relations are extremely sensitive. After all, the Congress has lost several states, and Tamilnadu is an important factor in Congress (I) calculations. So, Jaffna puts pressure on Madras and Madras puts pressure on Delhi, while Colombo, stymied by Tamilnadu, can only appeal to the Centre, Delhi for understanding and cooperation. It is a curious jumble of Sri Lanka’s north-south conflict and India’s South-North relationship. Will President Jayewardene take up this matter in his talks next month with Mrs. Gandhi during the 7th summit?
North South Focus – Parliamentary and Extra-Parliamentary [Mervyn de Silva, Lanka Guardian, May 1, 1983, pp.3-4.]
An Island lead story states that President Jayewardene will shortly appoint a committee of three senior Ministers to inquire into and report on ‘the problem of terrorism in the north in all its aspects’ in order to find possible solutions to what is plainly a major burden on the government rather than a dramatic diversion for the people of the untroubled south as it was in the mid-70’s.
Right now, politics in the South, it is true, is largely confined to the forthcoming by-elections. Certainly, the SLFP and the other opposition parties, though still demanding a general election in August, are happy to find that the parliamentary door which was shut tight for 6 years by the December 22nd referendum, is now slightly ajar. If the SLFP and its partners can win a dozen seats, the SLFP, still the UNP’s main opponent, will be able to emerge as the main opposition group and claim the post of Opposition leader, an office which should have been theirs but for the quirks of the British electoral system.
The TULF, now the main Opposition group, found its leader, all MPs and local government members hold a ten hour fast on April 22, Chelvanayakam day. What it signifies is that the TULF, for all its parliamentarism and for the conservatism of some sections of the leadership, is (unlike the SLFP) thrown into extra-parliamentary action, however ‘token’ the gesture. Caught by the dynamics of politics in the north, the TULF oscillates between its parliamentary position and conduct and other non-parliamentary courses of action. The crunch will come in August when the TULF will have to measure itself by its principled stand that MPs elected in July 1977 have no mandate from the people after August 1983.
What will the scope of the Ministerial committee be? Since it is composed of politicians looking presumably for political solutions as well as military options, one presumes that it will, in fact, cover the problem comprehensively. The need for such a broad approach is determined by the nature of the problem, the phenomenon itself. What is ‘terrorism’ from one point of view is ‘liberation struggle’ from the contrary standpoint. Unless that is borne in mind steadily, the inquiry will be narrowed to the merely security aspects – in short, how to fight the Tigers, not how to deal with the Tamil problem. If there were no Tamil problem, there would be no Tigers.
On this all are agreed, including these clandestine organizations which circulate propaganda material from time to time from capitals in the US, Europe and Asia. This literature makes it abundantly clear that fi there was any crisis-point it was the 1972 Constitution promulgated by the UF and other policy measures such as standardization, quotas, jobs, projects, allocation of funds, etc. These are the roots of the problem. Any serious, dispassionate inquiry must begin there. Meanwhile, the dimensions of the problem are changing, physically and qualitatively.
“The Gandhiyam Society Ltd. was founded in 1976 and its aims are,
At its inception the organization catered to the needs of Vanni people (inhabitants of the Vavuniya area) irrespective of race, creed or caste. In 1977 however a new situation arose. Large scale attacks on the Tamil population broke out in the Southern and Central parts of the country leaving thousands of Tamil families including plantation Tamils homeless. These people also lost all their possessions and in many cases at least one or two people in each family had either been brutally beaten up and in a number of instances even lost their lives. These people were soon herded into refugee camps all over the country. When the press started spotlighting the conditions in the camps, it was the government itself which transported these people under armed escort by road into the Vavuniya and Kilinochchi districts.
As government did not provide sufficient material to run the refugee camps in these areas, a number of organizations from the Northern and Eastern areas under the umbrella of the Tamil Refugee Rehabilitation Organisation (TRRO) came together to help these unfortunate people.
The Gandhiyam Society was one of these organizations. As time went by however, the task of caring for these people devolved almost totally on to the Gandhiyam Society. The Gandhiyam Society therefore never brought the hill country Tamils or any other Tamils to the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The people in fact were brought to these areas by the government itself.
Since 1977 the regular attacks on the Tamil population led to more and more of these people leaving their homes in other parts of the country and fleeing to these areas where they felt more secure. The ferocity of the attacks on the Tamils, police attitude toward this section of the population and certain remarks from even ‘responsible’ ministers of state continues to drive more and more people to this part of the country. Therefore, far from bringing or luring people from down South or the plantations, the Gandhiyam Society has only helped in rehabilitating these unfortunate people.”
Mini-Polls: A Breathing Space for Opposition [Mervyn de Silva, Lanka Guardian, May 15, 1983, pp.3-4 & 14.]
When President J.R. became the first elected Executive President of Sri Lanka on Oct.20 nobody seriously questioned the legality or the legitimacy of the Presidency. When it was decided not to hold a general election but to have a referendum to extend the life of a House elected in July 1977 to August 1989, the legality of the move was challenged. In the end, that question was settled by a Supreme Court verdict of 4 to 3. Only jurists and academics persist in debating it.
While the conditions in which the December 22 referendum was held led to a barrage of allegations and strongly worded charges by Opposition parties, civil rights organizations, trade unions and some sections of the clergy, the central issue was that of legitimacy. If beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, legitimacy lies in the minds of the people. One fact is simply undeniable because it is a matter of arithmetic. It was distressingly obvious from the non-UNP vote in October and December that a House in which the UNP continued to have over 140 seats out of 168 did not reflect electoral opinion. The result was a credibility gap.
Would the UNP ignore this stark fact and hope that people will quietly learn to live with it or would the government find some way to close the gap a bit? It was only 2 years ago that Sri Lanka celebrated 50 years of universal franchise. And Her Majesty the Queen joined in those Golden Jubilee celebrations. But by December ’82, the doors of parliament in what was widely regarded as a vibrant Third World pluralist democracy were effectively shut for almost seven years. Is it, asked an Indian journalist, in the interests of the government to hold so many by-elections in an obviously uncongenial economic climate? No, replied the President. Then, in whose interests?, this writer asked. Answering that second question, Mr. Jayewardene said: ‘in the interests of democracy.’
When the opposition is not fairly and adequately represented, when the expression of non-UNP and anti-government views is severely or artificially curtailed, dissent can no longer be open. Feeling suppressed, dissent must sooner or later find other channels of expression. History is too full of examples of what happens next. Dissent goes underground – and frequently opposition leaders and spokesmen too. And we enter another realm of politics.
Such a situation not only sounds the death-knell of a lively democracy but constitutes a serious danger to the administration itself. That is one indisputable lesson of modern history, although the same history leaves some questions unanswered – such as the manner in which the danger expresses itself, and the time-frame in which it moves to the moment of climatic explosion.
But the pattern that modern history has laid out is clear and educative: sudden, unpredictable, seemingly irrational eruptions, periods of relative calm, often deceptive, labour unrest, student agitation, lawlessness, terrorism, sectarian strife, popular uprisings, insurgencies, guerrilla warfare, insurrections, civil war and revolution.
In the Third World, and even in the in-between world, countries which have gone through some stages of historical experience, are today watching regimes and elites retracing some steps in striving to restore civilian rule, re-introduce some democratic processes and permit a much freer interplay of opinion. From Turkey to Thailand, in Spain, Portugal and Greece, and even in Latin America, the continent of the junta, this effort at change, however fitful, tardy or short-lived is evident. It represents a recognition, however belated, that the human and social cost of regimentation is too much to bear. And, as far as the dominant elites are concerned, can be counterproductive in dangerously incalculable ways.
In its slow and steady evolution as a pluralist democracy, Sri Lanka has been a notable exception. But unless one believes in divine benediction, we cannot forget that the rule is always stronger than the exception. It is difficult and often misleading to ‘date’ processes. The strains on the system became quite visible from 1971 onwards, from the insurrection and the emergency, particularly the emergency which soon became a matter of everyday life, thus converting the abnormal to the normal. Then came the 1972 Constitution which the TULF and the Tamils in general say was the breaking point. 1972 also meant the extension of parliament’s term by two years.
The holding of a general election in 1977 is taken as a step which in some way mitigates the worst excesses of 1971 onwards, in terms, that is, of preserving the old democracy. To my mind, what is more important is that the holding of a free and fair election at which the government was soundly beaten meant that there had been no fundamental rupture with the past, no system-change or structural shift. Does the 1978 Constitution and more dramatically the referendum mark such a structural change? Or, are we, as these by-elections may demonstrate, in an intermediate stage?
It would be extremely naïve however to see these highly significant socio-political changes as a purely internal matter and as the imposition of a conscious design by individual leaders of governing groups. These changing realities simply cannot be isolated from external circumstances, and the initiators of these changes are as much the creatures of such circumstance as masterful moulders of new institutional forms.
The most crucial of such circumstances is the ever-worsening global economic situation dramatized in our case by the mounting balance of payments problem. In the tightening grip of this problem, Third World elites, even the most well-intentioned, find themselves increasingly helpless in meeting mass expectations, and fulfilling the aspirations of a new generation whose horizons of hope have been winded by education, and whose demands for social justice and a better life have therefore stronger moral impulse and urgency. Though no substitute whatever for a general election, these by-elections (and their result) must be seen, I think, in this perspective.
In a sense, the situation in the North, and the predicament of the TULF illustrates the general points made earlier. Since its inception, the TULF has been, and has been accepted as, the legitimate voice of the Tamil constituency, of the north certainly, and of the east up to a point. The TULF is in parliament and by an electoral quirk in fact is the main opposition party. It dominates the local bodies in the north and its immediate environs.
In 1977 the TULF raised the single slogan of ‘EELAM’ and rode to power with consummate ease. ‘Eelam’ is the public platform of the main opposition party and of the Leader of the Opposition, whose office is constitutionally recognized, and whose official services are paid for by the State. The TULF too faces a credibility gap, the gap between the rhetoric and the reality – the gap which the clandestine armed bands responsible for the killings in the north want to close in their own fashion. Were the killings only a murderous message to Tamil UNPers or an indirect communication to the TULF too? Some news reports said that there was a direct warning to a top TULF man in Jaffna who had to be prevailed upon by the party hierarchy not to announce his withdrawal from the contest.
What are the ‘Tigers’, or whoever, seeking to achieve? Are they trying to disrupt the polls or have them cancelled? Then, the TULF will be out of the local bodies, which in any case will be non-functioning a direct blow to representative ‘government’ at the local level. If that is the aim, then the next step would be get the TULF out of parliament, too.
The Tamils will then have no voice in the legislature or the local bodies. The parliamentary path would be closed. Extra-parliamentary activism will be the only mode of Tamil politics, and the general character of that particular Tamil ‘voice’ we already know – staccato in style, a deadly brevity in content. The TULF is really Colombo’s safety-valve.
So is the SLFP. When the announcement of by-elections to 20 odd seats was made, there were three reactions:
(a) Though it was strictly an internal matter, observers wondered what principle of selection (and method of exclusion) would be adopted. Finally, it came down to 18 with a few shifts here and there, and Panadura ‘pre-empted’.
(b) The total exclusion of the Eastern province, where the UNP had hardly fared well, was marked and inwardly digested. No possibilities for the TULF.
(c) The point of the exercise was an ingenious compromise, (partly from a concern for a credible parliamentarism but partly self-serving) between the need to afford more adequate representation to the Opposition and the need to retain a secure two-thirds majority, the symbolic guarantee of stability and the mechanism for executive control.
Bearing (b) in mind, it was widely held that the UNP may actually want the SLFP to replace the TULF as the leading Opposition party. That meant at least 10-12 seats for the SLFP, with the reported re-admission of the Maitri group. Can the SLFP win 10 seats? Will it be allowed to do so?
Weighed down by a myriad miseries, a woe-begone SLFP leadership traces all its tribulations to Mrs. B’s loss of civic rights, the causa causans. Indisputably that was a crippling blow. But surely the party could still have recovered from it if only the leadership was capable of meeting the UNP challenge. The SLFP then introduces a new plea. The UNP plotted to divide (the party and cause havoc in its ranks. Largely true, but is it a valid argument? Surely it is the duty of a political party to do its utmost to cause disaffection and dissension in the camp of its ‘main enemy’? Did not the SLFP try to exploit the differences between Mr. Dudley Senanayake and his deputy? And what of that by-election petition? Wasn’t it a clever trap to immobilize a UNP stalwart?
The UNP is entitled to its wiles and stratagems. The SLFP had to match the guile of its enemy. It failed miserably. Greed for power and its perpetuation, arrogance and petty squabbles, intrigue and distrust at the top, family feuds and factionalism were as much the cause of the SLFP’s woes as the UNP’s game plans. The SLFP leadership committed the cardinal error of any political party. Its struggle against the UNP was subordinated to the struggle for succession and power within the party. The SLFP has nobody to blame but itself, and the SLFP supporters, a vast flock minus a shepherd, has none to curse but its own selfish and self-centred leaders.
Does that give naught but comfort for the UNP? Will the UNP unleash a referendum-type blitzkrieg or confine it, if at all, to selected targets? A blitzkrieg which will reduce the SLFP to a few seats will be self-defeating. The whole point of the exercise will be lost. The UNP will stultify itself. All hopes of a slightly more active parliament with a critical and combative opposition would then be dashed to the ground. It may even announce a farewell to parliamentarism. Guided democracy, if that’s the name of the game, requires a strong shrewd and sagacious guide.
The ‘War’ Moves South [Mervyn de Silva, Lanka Guardian, June 15, 1983, pp.3 & 6.]
Bristling with ironies, and not entirely untouched by the surrealistic was the front page picture in the Island showing a group of deserters from the Raja Rata Rifles walking nonchalantly to the Anuradhapura railway station to take the first train out of town. Posting for the photograph and grinning triumphantly, they looked as if they had just beaten the Yaalpanam gunners at an artillery tournament and brought the trophy home. Like a clever Wijesoma cartoon showing a ferocious tiger twisting a sedate Lion’s tail, this was perhaps the only moment of light relief in the gathering gloom.
The ‘war’ – and these days even our mildest reporters and staid editorialists are quickly acquiring a military idiom – has come south. Not the ‘war’ of guns and armed confrontation or skirmishes between the security forces and armed rebels or well-organised attacks on pre-selected targets but the uglier, messier, and often unmanageable war of another ‘underground’, the underworld of hoodlums, and goondas resorting to arson, looting, thuggery and even murder under cover of racialism disguised at patriotism. Across the country, from Trinco to Matara, in Ratmalana, Panadura and Kurunegala and so many other towns, the security forces were on full alert to meet unpredictable situations apparently provoked by whipped-up racial passions. It is the sort of situation that no government or army can welcome.
The armed forces are fighting a ‘protracted war’, still quite low-key and small scale, against a small resolute group of armed youths. The enemy is Tamil…but not the Tamil people, either of the North or the rest of country. But the Tamil ‘resistance’ is trying its utmost to draw that particular dividing line – the State’s armed forces versus the Tamil people. This is the major psychological dimension of this unconventional warfare.
The armed actions of the Tamil rebels (from their point of view, successful ‘operations’) leads to Sinhala anger and frustration, and in turn inflames Sinhala feelings. Each successful operation also affects the morale of the services. This was in fact the justification for the introduction of an emergency law to dispense with coroner’s inquests, as Cabinet spokesman Ananadatissa de Alwis told the press.
To crack down hard on Sinhala arsonists and looters has its own political consequences. Not to do so is to risk the breakdown of law and order and invite near-anarchic conditions in which no administration can function. It is a slow goodbye to development. This is the dilemma of the government.
President J.R. showed an acute awareness of this danger when he asked whether some of these Sinhalese miscreants and racialist thugs were a bunch of ‘modayo’. This campaign of indiscriminate violence directed at Tamil shops, business and professional establishments and factories, only hindered the government’s own counter-attack on the terrorists, said the President.
He made another point worth noting. He appealed to the leadership of the SLFP, and to its supporters to assist the government in its plans to ‘wipe out terrorism’, a campaign which Lands Minister Gamini Dissanayake says will take two years. The President’s direct appeal to the SLFP is the first serious sign that a UNP administration, embattled economically and challenged in the Tamil north, may be compelled to move towards ‘a Sinhala consensus.’
JR’s reference to Mr. Thondaman who was on the platform pointed to another aspect of the UNP’s predicament. The army’s sweep in Vavuniya and Trinco has had an immediate impact on the re-settled plantation refugees, both a political and moral responsibility of the CWC. It also has an ‘Indian connection’ and therefore a diplomatic angle. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s instinctive response shows that anti-UNP bitterness (from elections to referendum and by-elections) is too deep and too fresh at this point of time for a closing of ranks between the major (Sinhala) parties. Adapting a wisecrack of Deputy Leader Mr. Ilangaratne, the SLFP president said: ‘We are against both Tiger terrorists as well as Elephant terrorists’.
Since she was deprived of her civic rights for abuse of emergency powers, Mrs. Bandaranaike could hardly resist the temptation to enjoy the irony and discomfiture of the UNP which has now armed itself with the PTA and Public Security Act islandwide. The SLFP was politically battered and beaten. But in going beyond traditional warfare to ‘unconventional’ warfare against the SLFP, the UNP has opened a front it will now find hard to close. Whatever his own ethnic loyalties and sentiments, the average SLFPer seems to be deriving some vicarious satisfaction from the way the Tiger is twisting not, as in Wijesoma’s cartoon, the Sinhala lion’s tail but the elephant’s trunk.
The ramifications of the turmoil in the north are getting wider daily. For all its air of a school boy romp, the desertions from the Raja Rata Rifles was a serious affair. And the Army top brass are right to crack the whip at the sign of indiscipline. About forty men are supposed to have deserted when six of their colleagues, accused of looting etc in Jaffna, were sacked.
The private sector is worried about the foreign investment and has plans to launch its own counter-propaganda campaign abroad to polish up Sri Lanka’s image – ‘stability’ and ‘democracy’ are the areas of concern. None of this could have been ‘planned’ by the Tigers or anybody else. It is the sheer logic of events unfolding according to its own laws. But when you take the total picture, it is difficult not to conclude that the initiative is slipping from Colombo’s hands.
AMIR – The Man in the Middle [Mervyn de Silva, Lanka Guardian, July 1, 1983, pp. 9-10.]
When the gravitational centre of Tamil politics was steadily shifting from Parliament in Colombo to armed attacks in the Jaffna province, this journal suggested that Mr. Amirthalingam’s dilemmas may be compared to the predicament of Mr. Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman. Admittedly, it was (pardonable) journalistic exaggeration, a hyperbole chosen to dramatise the painful plight which always seem to await the man in the middle. But today, despite the vast differences in magnitude, the analogy strikes us as less tenuous.
The Palestinian problem not only involves nation states, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and in a way, Egypt but it is truly regional, the whole Middle East. It is more than regional, it is international. If Mr. Arafat is caught between armed struggle and diplomacy, he is also trapped by so many forces – Israel and its all-powerful patron, the US, the Arab states (conservative and radical, near and distant) and the factions within the parent PLO, with their own varying tactics and strategies. Those conflicts were ever-present.
But the Israeli blitzkrieg in Lebanon, the massacre in Beirut, the eviction of much of the PLO’s militia from Lebanon, the Israeli-imposed Gemayel regime in Beirut, and now the US-sponsored troop pull-out plan, have forced these tensions to erupt and explode. In the eye of the raging storm is Mr. Yasser Arafat. He is caught by conflicts within the PLO, and by powerful forces outside (Israel, Syria, Lebanon and of course the superpowers).
During the NAM summit in Delhi this March, an Indian spokesman for Eelam, the president of the Kamaraj Congress urged the NAM to grant the Tamil Liberation Front the same ‘observer status’ as the PLO. (The PLO is in fact a full member, and a member of the NAM’s Coordinating Bureau). The mere title ‘Liberation Front’ as Mr. Nedumaran ought to have known, does not automatically gain recognition for a political movement and the TULF or TELO cannot convince the NAM that it possesses the same qualifications as the PLO, SWAPO, ANC or even POLISARIO. Yet, the attempt was interesting – a move, however naïve or ambitious, to gain international recognition.
While there is no parallel on that point (NAM recognition) it is in the internal dynamics of the Tamil situation and in the problems of the Tamil leadership that some similarities can be traced. Naturally, the impact of external forces does affect and influence the internal process, which is essentially one of polarization.
The PLO pinned its faith on the Fez proposals – by no means, an expression of the maximum demands of the Palestinians, but the difficult consensus reached by the Arab League, a heterogenous body. When Israel rejected the Fez proposals, the ‘moderates’ leaned towards a combination of Fez proposals and the Reagan plan. The Reagan plan is a far cry, a very far cry, from the basic Palestinian demands, but as one PLO delegate told me in Delhi ‘it is a recognition, however vague or ambiguous, of the concept of a bi-national state and therefore, some advance from the previous unyielding American position.
This may have been wishful thinking. Yet the ‘pragmatists’ of the PLO held on hopefully to the possibility that a step-by-step advance may be achieved through combining the two plans, though the PLO officially stood only by the Fez plan. Jordanian participation was a key element to the success of these plans. When the PLO-Hussein talks broke down, the plan collapsed. Diplomacy came to a dead end. Meanwhile, of course, Israel had launched its merciless military campaign – the pressure, physical pressure, from outside. These two developments – the diplomatic failure and the military onslaught – had a dramatic impact on the Palestinian leadership and movement. What to do? Divided opinion, division, factional conflicts, and polarization were inevitable. Arafat is in the crossfire. And literally so, because it is with guns.
The DDCs is nowhere near the Fez plan. It may be compared to the Reagan plan. Yet, it is on the DDCs that the TULF has negotiated these past 5 years, with Messers Wilson, Tiruchelvam and other members of the Tamil intelligentsia, both resident and expatriate (from New York to Geneva) playing roles oddly similar to Kissinger, Vance or Habib. The DDC ‘compromise’ is apparently still alive but time has run out fast. In the meantime, there has been the military pressure in the north.
Starting probably with a tiny minority of a minority supporters of the militants swell in ever-increasing numbers as the day-to-day operational sweep of the PTA widens. The military presence of the North and the PTA become the symbols of the ‘outside’ force. These two developments (the protracted and fruitless search for a diplomatic-political settlement and the stark, everyday facts of life, the PTA and the military presence) have had their inevitable result – polarisation.
On June 17, a bomb was thrown into the Point Pedrom UC office. Three TULF councilors were present of the UC’s total strength of 9. It was the inaugural meeting of the newly elected UC; the two UNP members were absent. A letter left behind asked the TULF members to resign. The Jaffna MC, and the Chavakachcheri and Valvettiturai UCs have not met in the face of threats, reported D.B.S. Jeyaraj, in the Island. Meanwhile, the same report said, the clandestine Eelam Liberation Army has said it has ‘no truck with the TULF’.
On July 21, Mr. V.N. Navaratnam, MP Chavakachcheri will throw a ‘bomb’ which will have an even greater impact on the TULF. He has no mandate to sit in Parliament after July 22, 1983, he argues, because he was elected in July 1977, and he does not ‘recognise’ the December 1982 referendum to extend the life of parliament. By absenting himself, he will create a vacancy. The TULF will have to nominate a successor or cause a by-election. Mr. Navaratnam will recontest the seat only if he has convinced the voters that the TULF is the main or sole voice of the Tamils.
As Security Threat Spreads, Settlement Chances Fade [Mervyn de Silva, Lanka Guardian, July 15, 1983, pp. 4-5.]
‘Time for a rethink’ is the headline of a recent Far Eastern Economic Review report on the Tamil situation written by that journal’s South and West Asian specialist writer, Salamat Ali. This well known Pakistan-born journalist, now based in Delhi, visited Jaffna soon after the violent disturbances which accompanied the May 18 local polls.
While it is indeed time for a rethink, the re-thinking can take different forms. We can talk of rights and wrongs – and that’s most important – of what ought to be or what might have been. Likewise it can take the form of a hard, steady look at the objective situation or what is.
First – a matter of terminology. As a rule, the local press favours either ‘Tamil terrorists’ or ‘Tigers’ (the Sinhala dailies of the big groups are passionately addicted to ‘kotiyo’) while at least one major international news agency uses the term ‘Tamil guerrillas’. Other terms included militant separatists, Eelam militants, armed rebels, hardline militants, Eelam ‘underground’, Tamil resistance, liberation fighters etc. Call them what you will but it is the objective, cumulative consequences of their activities, planned or unplanned, which really count in any serious ‘rethink’.
As confusion, agitation and dismay produce frustration and anger among sizeable sections of the Sinhalese community, the question of ‘What is to be Done?’ becomes the main topic of concerned discussion. The toughest military crack-down is the solution recommended by the daily and Sunday Sinhalese newspapers of the big groups. Their highly charged idiom and invective may of course be a classic case of the competitive commercialism of the mass media rather than crude communalism i.e. catering to the constituency, or playing to what the papers believe is the real deep-seated sentiment of the Sinhala reader, and thereby increasing circulation.
While urging the government to assure the people ‘that force will be met by force, fire returned by fire’, the Sun (8/7) also argued strongly for ‘urgent confidence-building measures’, though it did not mention what type of measures it had in mind. Nobody will dispute the need for ‘confidence-building measures’, but whose ‘confidence’ – Sinhalese confidence, Tamil confidence or both?
Ranil Weerasinghe, the Sun group’s specialist writer on these matters, wrote an extremely readable deep-background piece on the Trinco situation after a visit to that strife-torn town. While providing one answer to the question of ‘whose confidence?’ his report of what actually happened in Trinco and the conclusion he draws from what he saw and heard are certainly worth quoting:
“Eighteen deaths have been reported over a one month period, and every single one of them Tamils. Even the fact that two of them had been allegedly killed in a conflict between members of the same community cannot alter the course what is undoubtedly being set.” What course is being set undoubtedly? The Weekend reporter’s answer to that question is not only more explicit but also fits neatly into the pattern of developments outlined at the outset. “The end result is that Tigers or any such militant group become more acceptable to the Tamils in the East, not as subversives but as freedom fighters willing to help defend them not only against their aggressors but also against their ‘military oppressors’ who allegedly turned a blind eye to the activities of the assailants.”
The lesson from the Trinco experience then is that ‘force’ too often becomes brute force used so indiscriminately that the end result as the Weekend correspondent observes counter-productive. We saw it in Jaffna after the DDC polls, in the plantations areas where President Jayewardene himself was shocked and ashamed, and again in May this year in Jaffna.
Thus, the government appears to be adopting a two-track policy, a combination of ‘political’ and ‘military’ moves. Perhaps one of the most impressively high-powered/official committees ever appointed will soon report on how to make Tamil language rights (the Constitution and other enactments like the Official Languages Act) effective and the DDCs, a district budget and a district service. Salamat Ali in his FEER article says that President J.R. has ‘done more to accommodate the Tamils than all his predecessors put together’. But the TULF, while agreeing, has argued always that these concessions remain largely on paper. Is the current attempt to give flesh and blood to the constitutional provisions, the rights granted in various laws and regulations, and the DDC exercise ‘too little too late’? That’s the main question in regard to that particular effort at a ‘political solution’.
Meanwhile many other parties and inter-racial organizations (the Centre for Society and Religion, pro-Trotskyist Jana Urumaya, the Maoist CP etc) are putting forward their own ideas for a ‘political settlement’, a trend which reflects the growing concern and agitation of the Colombo intelligentsia. A political settlement, in any meaningful sense, must mean an understanding with the TULF in such a way as to win confidence of the average Tamil who may be sympathetic to the notion but certainly not to extra-parliamentary violence or extra-legal modes of struggle. Like the TULF though, the UNP has its problems – the fear of alienating the Sinhala constituency, and of running counter to the hardline group within the party.
Thus the government has not responded to the TULF appeals regarding the arrest of the TELF leader, 77 year-old Dr. Dharmalingam, former Jaffna mayor. He is the uncle of the TULF MP for Jaffna, Mr. Yogeswaran. Also arrested was Mr. Kovai Mahesan, who edits the Tamil paper, Jaffna-based Sutantiran, which has been banned, along with the English weekly Saturday Review, a newssheet that had made its mark very quickly both by its outspoken comments and as a source of regional news for the English-speaking Sri Lankan. The government intends to charge them both.
On July 21, Mr. V.N. Navaratnam MP will make a speech and walk out of parliament to absent himself from sittings thereafter. When the seat is declared vacant, the TULF can nominate a successor or force by-election. A proposed constitutional amendment will compel all new MPs to take an oath (and submit an affidavit to the Elections Commissioner) renouncing separatism. These ambiguities expose the TULF, the party which must be a party to any political settlement, to pressure from both sides, a thankless situation which leads to further polarisation.