At first look, the sight of darkly unsmiling men with a few women scattered among them, gathered together in a dilapidated school hall of an impoverished village deep in the dusty interior of the East of Sri Lanka is both formidable and unsettling.
A litany of questions
The tense translator whispered that this was, at one time, a favourite recruiting area for the LTTE regional leaders who had preyed on the poverty stricken Tamil youth of this village. Long before the war ended and even before the Eastern split occurred in the movement, these villagers had realized the futility as well as the brutality of the tactics adopted by their ‘liberators’. Those who were able to do so had fled back to the village. Others had perished, either at the hands of the LTTE itself or by government forces. Now, those who remained continued to be neglected, pushed out of the way by the tourism centered development drive centered on beachfront properties and the bustling towns of the main travel routes.
The intense anger on the part of those present was unmistakable and the litany of complaints was long. Why were their places of worship not respected? Why were statutes stolen from one temple and taken to another? Why were government officials coming to their homes and asking for copies of the deeds to their lands only to thereafter destroy the legitimate deeds and forge other documents so that outsiders could come and occupy their lands? Why were people still being forcibly abducted? Why were they still not being provided answers as to whether their sons and daughters, some of whom had been forcibly recruited by the LTTE, had been killed or were in detention? Several mothers loudly bewailed the fact that their children were being kept for two to three years in prison without any charges being filed against them.
Throughout, it was reiterated that the Tamil people were not against the Sinhalese people but that it was the Sinhalese politicians who were not giving justice to the Tamil people. When it was pointed out however that not only Sinhalese politicians but also Tamil politicians were to blame for what befell Sri Lanka, reluctant chuckles began to be heard, hesitant smiles dawned and nods of acquiescence were seen all around. What was remarkable was the way in which, quite as much as a knife cuts through butter, genuine empathizing with their plight broke through the tensions and dissipated the palpable hostility in the air.
Necessities of ordinary people
For these people, the upcoming provincial elections in the East are of little interest (except as a protest against a government that they see as trampling on their culture and identity) as they have no faith that the desperate poverty of their village and surrounding areas would be lessened by politicians of any ethnicity or belonging to any party. Where in other areas of the country, the sight of a provincial minister using state vehicles and state officials for electioneering would still, despite the now endemic nature of the abuse of state resources, result in the raising of an eyebrow and call for a sarcastic remark by a Sinhalese villager, here such a sight elicits no response.
These people have seen far worse and gone through far more horrific nightmares. To them, pronouncements on the Rule of Law and constitutional liberties carry no significance whatsoever.
And as opposed to the sophisticated urbanites in Colombo arguing constitutional fripperies in elegant language, the realities of ordinary life in these far flung areas are unmistakably different. Necessities are stripped down to the bone. Their imperative demand for the minimum of the people’s culture and identities to be protected by fair administrative and legal processes, whatever the overall constitutional structure may be, is at once starker and far more powerful in its impact than abstract constitutional debates.
The tossing aside of a stable legal order
Seen from this vastly commonsensical perspective, reconciliation between communities in these formerly war affected areas could have been achieved by just that little bit more concern for the country and just that little bit less of outright greed for money and power on the part of this administration. A carefully planned post war reconciliation process, building on the basis of a stable legal order that commands equality before the law would have provided Sri Lanka’s best answer to the Eelamist lobbies overseas.
Instead, what we had was the dismantling of those slight checks and balances that already existed, the enthroning of the Executive Presidency and the despicable tossing away of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. At that time, those who protested against this virtual ‘kingship’ were disregarded. It was even maintained by the more credulous among us that a limited amount of ‘monarchical rule’ would be good for the country as the democratic process had not worked so far. People wrote letters to the newspapers asking the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence to clean up the Augean stables of the corrupt police establishment as much as the war against the LTTE had been fought. Right to Information legislation was opined not to be necessary by many as the Presidency was seen to be the ultimate magnanimous fount of all rights.
Any dissenter who critiqued government policy and called for the accountability of politicians towards the people were labeled supporters of the LTTE and found themselves in a whirlpool of slander and character assassination drummed up by propagandists. Vice Chancellors of universities and other academics openly endorsed the incumbent President. Fundamental concepts of integrity and balance in public service were tossed to the winds in our disgraceful eagerness to pay obeisance to political power. Judges and lawyers competed with each other to accept unconstitutional appointments to what were supposed to be independent constitutional commissions in what was an abandonment of their wider duty to uphold the Rule of Law.
The office of the Attorney General was brought directly under the Presidential Secretariat. Proving those lotus eaters who observed that this change would not result in different prosecutorial policy most spectacularly wrong, the then holder of the post brought the office of the chief law officer of the State to such degenerative depths that shocked even those who were no strangers to these games.
A country in chaos
Well past these immediate post war years which radically transformed Sri Lanka from being a flawed democracy to a nation in the throes of complete and utter non-governance, we now experience their destructive consequences in full. Quite apart from the trampling of rights of ethnic Tamils living in the North and East save for the powerful few who are in collusion with the government in selling the country for their own gain, the country may justifiably be said to be in chaos. Religious tensions have steeply increased. Criminals run rampant in every corner of the land. The ubiquitous Julampitiye Amare, politically protected as he is, is still on the loose despite ineffectual judicial intervention in regard to pending arrest warrants for murders, as we saw this week when a series of burglaries was reported to be his doing. Rapes of young village girls by local government politicians only result in temporary arrests while public attention is high.
The head of the local authority in Tangalle who was accused of killing a British tourist and raping his girlfriend has been reinstated to his party positions despite an official announcement by the ruling party seniors that errant party members would be severely dealt with. Meanwhile a government minister accused of complicity in the attack on a court house in Mannar remains defiantly at large, despite the sworn affidavit of the judge who had been threatened and despite investigations indicating the complicity of this minister and his supporters.
The authority of the law and of the courts appears to be at a minimum. Just a few days ago, a North Central provincial court recommended that those who abuse state property during the upcoming provincial elections should be chased and stoned, indicating quite disturbingly the extent to which public confidence in the efficacy of the law has been affected, even on the part of the judges themselves.
Recognising the common enemy
Against this backdrop and in that far off village in the East, perhaps the most energizing aspect of that entire exercise was the vigorous discussions that took place regarding protests being carried out by university teachers and trade unionists. Refreshingly, these people appeared to be far more receptive than the shrill diasporic voices in acknowledging the greater strength of a common struggle against a despotic government rather than focusing narrowly on ethnic interests alone.
If these attitudes could be replicated and the common enemy of the elite in general and the political elite in particular is recognized across Sri Lanka’s villages not only in the North and East but in other parts as well, this country may look forward to a different future than what dismally now awaits us.