Sri Lanka is in deep crisis on many fronts, and its politics is almost a total mess. Yet, its President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, elected by a whisker in November 2005, thanks to the boycott of the election by the Tamils in the North-East, after a last-minute call by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), is the only Sri Lankan head of government to have grown in popularity since election. He owes this immense popularity among the majority Sinhalese to his rejection of the peace process and the success of the armed forces in regaining, at a very high but unknown cost in men and material, all but 200 sq. km of the vast territory held by the LTTE.
Results of the provincial councils elections held during the past six months, show soaring support for the government; and if a general election is held now the government will secure with ease a two-thirds majority in Parliament. This apparent strength of the government and the preoccupation of the media, political parties and the public with military gains in the North conceal the crises faced by the country on several fronts.
This essay is intended to address the crisis gripping Sri Lanka on various fronts that do not receive adequate attention. Thus, despite the importance of the war and the consequent humanitarian crisis, it deals with them only briefly. The next section contains a short comment on the war and the humanitarian tragedy. It is followed by comments on the failing economy amid the growing global crisis and corruption in high places; violation of human and fundamental rights; the drift towards lawlessness; and foreign meddling. It concludes with comments on the impending threat to democracy and the tasks ahead in defending democracy.
The War and the Humanitarian Tragedy
The nominal interest of the ‘international community’, meaning imperialist countries, is in the humanitarian crisis. Their declared concerns have drifted with the course of the war, resumed in early 2006, with the Ceasefire Agreement in place until the government withdrew unilaterally from it in February 2007. Earlier calls for a negotiated settlement and end to hostilities became muted calls for a ceasefire last year; and are now reduced to concern for the safety of civilians entrapped in LTTE-controlled areas.
Indiscriminate bombing and shelling by the government armed forces have been the main cause of the human tragedy, aggravated by the deliberate blocking of essential supplies including food and medicine to LTTE-controlled areas. In the latter half of 2008, international and local news media and non-government organisations were ordered out of the conflict zone by the government so that now only the Internal Red Cross has limited access to the affected areas. Thus the true situation of the people even in areas regained by the government forces remains unknown.
The LTTE is now confined to less than 200 square kilometres of territory with an estimated 300 000 people, whom the government claims are held against their will as a human shield. People facing a dire shortage of essential goods and services and threatened by bombing and shelling will like to move to more secure areas. But it is uncertain whether they sufficiently trust the government or the armed forces to move into government-controlled areas. Reports of injury and deaths in government-designated security zones due to shelling by the armed forces are certainly no inducement to move into those areas. The living conditions of people who are further away from the conflict zone are equally pathetic: besides lack of attention to their urgent needs, they are treated as terrorist suspects by the security forces; and utterances by people in high places, later retracted, to the effect that ‘security villages’ will be set up to detain the displaced persons for up to three years are ominous.
The LTTE, with its emphasis on armed struggle at the expense of mass political work, failed to pay adequate attention to the safety and well being of the people in its territory. But for foreign governments and international organisations to demand that the LTTE should ‘release’ the people under its wings is wrong, without simultaneously insisting that the Sri Lankan government ends all attacks on civilians and ensures the safety of civilians wherever they are, and ensure that they are not harassed or victimised by the denial of essential goods and services. Strangely, no call has been made to deploy independent observers to find from the people on either side of the battle lines about their wishes and experiences.
Many who express deep concern about the humanitarian crisis now ignore the abject human rights record of the government, which they denounced strongly only months ago. Equally, pro-LTTE agitators fail to criticise it for its serious lapses, especially on matters of safety and well-being of the people, and with regard to respecting their wishes.
The Economy in Crisis
The Sri Lankan economy was propelled towards doom by the ‘open economic policy’ initiated in 1978, accompanied by unrestricted imports, reckless privatisation of state assets, and opening up the country to parasitic if not predatory foreign investors. As a result, the emergent national economy and well-functioning state enterprises were effectively destroyed or swallowed up by foreign predators.
The escalation of national oppression and conflict diverted public attention from the effects of the erroneous economic policy and repressive measures against political resistance to it. The resultant war, aided by foreign meddlers, some siding with the government and others fishing in troubled waters, added to the economic burdens of the country, which since 1978 has become increasingly dependent on the export of cheap labour, directly by employment abroad and indirectly through export processing zones where foreign ‘investors’ exploit the Sri Lankan export quota for apparel to the US and Europe. Besides the social implications of such employment, the diversion of close to 15% of the work force from useful production has made the economy susceptible to invasion by cheap imports and a rise in consumerism.
While the ‘open economic policy’ made the country vulnerable to the vagaries of the global economy, the need to finance the war and service foreign debts meant further privatisation, transfer of public assets to foreign interests, and weakening of the economy. When credit form foreign governments and lending agencies slowed down, the government in 2007 turned to private bankers by issuing bonds at high interest rates. In the wake of the declared ‘victory of the war against terrorism’, the government now appeals to the Sri Lankan émigré population to invest in government bonds.
The global economic crisis has begun to bite, although the government is putting on a brave face. The plantation sector, still a major part of the export sector, is affected by a fall in tea sales and in some regions the plantations are cutting down production and the number of working days of plantation workers. Apparel export to the US and Europe has shrunk, and a few hundred garment industries have already closed down. Recruitment to the Middle East has slowed down, as redundancies and wage reductions are on the horizon. Thus, besides the impending fall in overseas remittances, unemployment will be a major problem in the months to come.
However, a thriving employment sector may be the armed forces, with over 400,000, of a population of 20 million, serving in the police and the armed forces and a proposal to increase the number by 100,000 to ensure security in the North-East.
The economy has also been hurt by serious financial irregularities, bribery and corruption, and recently even unlawful speculation using state funds, as in the hedging deal on petroleum, which made the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation liable to US$ 7,000,000 to a group of banks involved in the deal. Several other corrupt deals, including the purchase of military equipment, have been exposed by sections of the media, but corrective action has been rare; and nobody has been held answerable, except for political expediency, while the mediapersons concerned have been intimidated or harassed.
Crises of Human and Fundamental Rights and Law and Order
Sri Lanka’s record on human rights was not bright 20 years ago: today it has hit rock bottom: Sri Lanka fell from a rank of 51 (among 139 countries considered) when Reporters sans frontiers (RSF) started ranking a few years ago to 165 (among 173, or the ninth worst) in 2008. Attacks on media personnel, including the gunning down in January 2009 of Lasantha Wickramatunge, Chief Editor of Sunday Leader, known for his views critical of the government and exposure of corruption in high places, and the killing of opposition politicians, fare importantly in such matters. Killing of other civilians does not, however, attract sustained attention of the international media, with exceptions such as the killing of 13 employees of a France-based NGO in 2006.
Threats, assaults, abductions and killings are commonplace. Very few cases are properly inquired into; and hardly a serious crime involving human rights has been solved. Yet, hundreds languish in prison without trial or inquiry under Emergency Regulations, even through the years of the ceasefire, as terrorist suspects; and the numbers have risen sharply in recent years to include Sinhalese left activists and opponents of the war.
While several political killings and attempts have been attributed to the LTTE, the main opposition party has charged that forces close to the government had been responsible for some of them; and many of the criminal acts against dissenting politicians and journalists as well as abduction for ransom are feared to have been carried out with the connivance of those responsible for preventing them.
The courts of law have on occasion ruled against mass expulsion of people and even refused bail to criminal suspects associated with the ruling party. There was a recent instance when the police were reprimanded for attempting to frame an opposition politician. These are, however, exceptions and not the rule. Judges including the Chief Justice have been threatened for their verdicts. But that is not new. The country has seen enough of it since 1978, when the new Constitution enabled the politicisation of the judiciary and the police. As a result, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was unanimously adopted in 2000 that made a Constitutional Council (CC) responsible for appointments to key posts in the Supreme Court, the Police and the Elections Commission among others. But the CC has not been reconstituted since its term lapsed in 2005, allowing room for abuse, as under the JR Jayawardane regime (1978-989).
The country changed status from a British colony to an imperialist neo-colony in 1948, but defended itself against blatant interference in its internal matters, but for siding with US imperialism by choice under the United National Party (UNP) governments (1948-56, 60-65, 77-94). The conflict of this policy with Indian hegemonic ambitions since 1977 made India side with Tamils to further its interests in Sri Lanka. With its aim achieved in 1987, the Indian establishment switched sides to its new client, the Sri Lankan state.
Rivalry continues between US imperialism and India for hegemony in South Asia and has played a major role in derailing the peace process initiated around 2000, with the backing of the US. India resented Norwegian mediation, and asserted its interests and undermined the peace process at every turn. The US and its allies, having banned the LTTE and being committed to a global war on terrorism, were on a sticky wicket to object to the resumption of war in 2006. Meanwhile, the Indian establishment, pretending neutrality, backed overtly and covertly the Sri Lankan government, politically as well as militarily, using Chinese and Pakistani interests in Sri Lanka as a pretext, although neither country posed a serious threat to Indian interests.
This is not the place to discuss the political theatre of Tamil Nadu and the games played by the Delhi mandarins. But the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka is again an important issue in India, despite New Delhi’s wishes otherwise. The ongoing agitation in Tamil Nadu for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka was triggered by news of the suffering in the North of Sri Lanka reaching the state, despite efforts by the mainstream media to play down the events since resumption of hostilities in 2006. Reports of deaths due to indiscriminate bombing and shelling by the Sri Lankan armed forces and the suffering due to obstruction of essential goods and services caused public shock and anger. Yet, it was only after the Communist Party of India, not a reputed champion of the Sri Lankan Tamil cause, organised state-wide protest rallies that the strength of feeling was realised and mass protests gathered momentum. Protests in Tamil Nadu will lose their impact on Delhi after the general elections in India this year, unless the movement takes new directions, free of manipulation by opportunistic political parties.
International concern on human rights violations, threat to the media, the state of lawlessness including killings and abductions, and other issues have been mere formalities and have never been translated into action. The general attitude seems to be to hope for an early end to the conflict by the elimination of the LTTE as a fighting force, so that the imperialist countries can get on with furthering their interests in this island of strategic interest. Irrespective of how the war ends and the conflict continues in other forms, the ‘international community’ has little to offer to the victims.
The Threat to Democracy and the Task Ahead
The threat to democracy transcends the killing of as many as five MPs in the past three years, and the intimidation, abduction and killing of leading members of opposition parties and journalists, and attacks on the media. The present government has surpassed previous governments in dividing and weakening every potential challenge to its authority. Initially, minority nationality MPs were tempted with posts so that they joined government en bloc, like the two Hill Country Tamil parties, or broke ranks with the leadership, as in the case of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. Then, dissenters and corrupt individuals among UNP MPs were tempted into government ranks; and nearly every government MP was made a minister, or a junior minister.
The JVP leadership, by then too closely identified with the government, realised that its partner was ready to marginalise it. But by the time the JVP decided to part company in 2008, a dissent group cultivated within it sided with the government and formed a splinter faction. The TMVP (Tamil People’s Liberation Tigers), the group that split from the LTTE, was made a partner of the government coalition in the Eastern Provincial Council, and then an existing split was deepened by preferential treatment of the weaker faction, rendering the TMVP powerless and dependent on government for its survival.
Thus what exist as parliamentary political parties are severely weakened bodies without political vision and pose no serious threat to the government, unless its fortunes suffer serious setbacks. But general elections may be held before that. Meanwhile, the political landscape is being encroached upon by the clan of the President, whose three brothers are entrenched in positions of power.
Sections of the media, not so much the mainstream media, have carried a fair share of the burden of exposing corruption, nepotism and abuse of power. Thus subduing the media and prevention of the development of a mass opposition movement are principal concerns of the government. The rising threat to the media, once confined to Tamil journalists and printers, has crossed the ethnic threshold and forced an unprecedented number of Sinhalese and Muslim journalists to leave the country during the past year. A newspaper establishment and a radio station were shut down in 2007, and editors have been abused or threatened by people in power. The wave of arrests, intimidation, attacks and killings need to be seen against this background. The mainstream media has, however, learnt to conform on matters relating to ‘national security’ and is muted in its criticism of the government. Meanwhile, the government has, as part of its ongoing agenda to muffle dissent, proposed legislation to curb the electronic media. The NGO establishment too, for reasons of personal gain and fear of clamp-down for ‘anti-state activities’, is muted in its criticism of the government.
The Sri Lankan armed forces numbered far fewer than a thousand when the JVP launched its insurrection in 1971 and today we count by the hundred thousand. There is, besides army deserters and former militants, a thriving underworld with a significant say in the outcome of any political process. Added to this is rabid religious fundamentalism, growing out of chauvinistic politics with a parasitic social group attached to it. These forces could make an explosive mix that can plunge the country into lawlessness. To add further fuel to this potentially explosive situation are frustrated Tamil politicians calling for the ban of Tamil political parties known to be supportive of the LTTE. Thus the threat to democracy is serious and could become real in the context of the impending economic failure and armed conflict that may go on beyond a military defeat of the LTTE. National security could be the pretext for a fascist take over of the country.
The challenge before the genuine left, progressive and democratic forces is, therefore, daunting. But the conduct of the organised left among the Sinhalese is not encouraging. The discredited old left is less worth than an overgrown toe nail to the government to which its ‘leaders’ are clinging on for survival. Two militant Trotskyist parties have, during the past, two years got addicted to NGO funding so that their agenda is dictated by their NGO sponsors. Recently, the two parties moved close to the UNP in a ‘broad-based front to defend democracy’.
Thus the revival of the peace movement and a campaign for democracy is central to the revival of the left movement in the South. It should be accompanied by an anti-imperialist programme and resistance to meddling by foreign powers in any form, especially in the armed conflict and in advancing their interests in the name of peace, progress and stability.