Sri Lanka: Déjà vu all over again

Satya Sagar

In over two decades of being a journalist it was the first time ever that I have cried upon reading a newspaper editorial. Having watched closely the shameful decline of the media in India – and indeed around the world – from being a force that once spoke Truth to Power to one that now Sups with the Devil I have not surprisingly become cynical about my own profession. And yet there I was just a few days ago unable to control my tears while reading the editorial written by Lasantha Wickramatunga, Editor of the Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka, that he asked to be published upon his murder. On 8 January 2009 Lasantha was murdered by masked gunmen in Colombo – an event he not only predicted but also pinned the blame for on the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapakse.
Addressing the President directly Lasantha writes, “In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.”
Accusing the President of turning into a monster, he says further, “In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. ... Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood.”
In fact Lasantha’s description of Mahinda Rajapakse would have been apt to describe the succession of leaders in Sri Lanka over the decades who have adopted every ruthless method possible to keep themselves in power. Murdering political opponents, fanning sectarian riots, muzzling the media, undermining democracy, stealing national assets – everything seems to be game for those running this country since independence from colonial rule.
However, the mere lust for power or corruption of the Sinhala elite – even one seemingly infinite – does not fully explain the long-running Sri Lankan tragedy and the intractable civil war that has cost this beautiful island nation hundreds of thousands of both ordinary and combatant citizens. The toll of the Sri Lankan conflict, though officially put at around 70,000 lives is estimated by independent researchers as upward of 3,00,000 not to speak of the thousands more disabled and injured for life.
The roots of the problem go very deep, into the country’s murky colonial past when foreign rulers – particularly the British – stoked divisions in Sri Lankan society along religious, ethnic lines for their own purposes. The adoption of the first-past-the-post electoral system at the time of independence from British rule further encouraged feudal Sinhala politicians to play the chauvinist card to woo majority Sinhala voters with debilitating consequences for aspirations of the Tamil minority. In a country where there was hardly any anti-colonial movement suddenly everyone became either a Sinhala or Tamil ‘nationalist’, fighting over land and territory like two brothers locked in a bloody property dispute.
Tragically the various formations of the left in Sri Lanka, caught up as some of them were in opportunist electoral alliances, were unable to mobilize both Tamil and Sinhala masses with them, thus leaving the field open for such chauvinist forces. The ruthless crushing of various radical left movements the Sri Lankan state has also left a political vacuum filled in by those advocating the politics of hate. And then there has been meddling in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs by Big Brother India right from the sixties or seventies. The entire armed rebellion by Tamil militants against the Sri Lankan government in the seventies was financed and supported materially by India – for a variety of imagined ‘geo-strategic’ reasons. (Ironically today India wants to complain about ‘non-state’ actors from Pakistan carrying out terrorist attacks on Indian soil!)
India is however not the only player involved in Sri Lanka though –  with the Pakistanis, Israel, United Kingdom and the United States contributing to the mess in different ways over the years. From time to time the US, by switching sides in the conflict expediently, has created hope, fear, paranoia all at the same time among all the players.
Though now it has banned the LTTE as a ‘terrorist’ organization, in the seventies US operatives played a very dubious role, urging the organisation to eliminate other ‘leftist’ factions in the armed movement in return for tacit international support. Both the Israelis and Pakistanis have provided military assistance to the Sri Lankan armed forces in various ways over the years and continue to do so. (India too by the way is involved in training Sri Lankan army officers and also suspected of providing logistical support in a variety of ways in the current offensive against the Tamil Tigers.)
Yet another instance of how international players have – wittingly or unwittingly –helped disrupt peace in Sri Lanka was after the 2004 Asian tsunami, which devastated a large part of the country’s coast and left over 40,000 dead. When this disaster struck there was an active peace process on for almost 4 years already with the possibilities of this extending well into the future looking bright.
The humanitarian crisis brought about by the tsunami initially even helped strengthen this peace process with an unprecedented show of support for Tamils hit by the disaster coming from people in the Sinhala dominated south. All this unraveled quite soon though when international donors rushed in with their bags of dollars – completely impervious to the local political dynamic and the need to be sensitive to what impact such influx of money could have. Their actions set off a fierce competition between the government and LTTE for control over the funds being disbursed and it was only a matter of time before the two parties returned to their bad old warring days.
It is important to recount all this precisely because of the way successive regimes in Colombo or for that matter in Delhi and Washington never seem to learn anything from the modern history of Sri Lanka.
For example, the euphoria sweeping the south of Sri Lanka over the military victories of government forces in recent weeks and months over the LTTE in the north are a case of déjà vu all over again and reminiscent of similar premature celebrations in the past. While independent journalists and observers have not been allowed into the battle zone the Sri Lankan government has announced capture of one LTTE stronghold after the other, the latest being the fall of Elephant Pass, a strategic causeway linking the Jaffna peninsula with the mainland, on 2 January this year. Residents in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo reportedly took to the streets and set off firecrackers as radio stations announced the capture of the Elephant Pass.
The Tamil Tigers had held the pass since April 2000, and its loss is another huge blow to the rebels after the fall of their political capital, Kilinochchi in late 2008. Since resumption of fighting in 2005 the Tigers have had several major setbacks organizationally which have weakened them considerably.
The most serious of these has been the splitting away of its forces in Eastern Sri Lanka under the command of Colonel Karuna, weaned away by a combination of his grievances against Prabhakaran, manipulation by the Sri Lankan government and allegedly also some large payments doled out by Indian intelligence operatives.
The rebels are now almost totally confined to the jungle district of Mullaittivu in the northeast, where some 300,000 civilians are also living. The Sri Lankan military now also controls a 142-km stretch of the strategic A-9 highway, that links north and southern parts of the country.
All military advances in the battle against LTTE have of course been achieved with some really brutal tactics, turning a blind eye to the ‘collateral damage’ of civilian casualties - particularly through aerial bombing operations. The internal displacement due to the intensification of the war has also been horrific with over 500,000 people in northern Sri Lanka reported to be homeless, on the move constantly or in refugee camps running out of food, water and medicine.
Despite the fact that the LTTE now really seems be cornered and on the retreat one should not forget that in the nearly three decade long civil war they have faced so many ups and downs that it is impossible to write them off. The larger question however is that even if the LTTE is on its last legs, what does that mean for the future of the conflict whose root causes, which lie in both Sinhala chauvinism and Tamil insistence on independence, remain unaddressed?
As Lasantha wrote so poignantly in his last editorial “a military occupation of the country's north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity.”While the Tamil people will in all probability continue to both fight and pay a heavy price the current Sri Lankan regime of Mahinda Rajapakse is also taking its Sinhala population back into the heart of fascist darkness. The gunning down of Lasantha as also a string of attacks in the past few years on government opponents, particularly in the media, shows the dangerous slide of Sri Lanka into becoming a full-blown dictatorship in the coming days.