Home » Why new Sri Lanka needs a Tamil leader – The Indian Express

Why new Sri Lanka needs a Tamil leader – The Indian Express


No calls to a “neutral umpire”. No politicians making grand promises. No religious leaders spreading communal hatred. Just people. Or better still, peoples — Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindus. Students, their parents and grandparents, professionals – teachers, nurses, lawyers, bankers, doctors, computer engineers. From April 9 to July 9, as an economic crisis brought about by a dollar shortage suddenly manifested in crippling shortages of food, fuel and medicines, Sri Lankans of all hues congregated at Colombo’s Galle Face oceanfront, with only one demand: “Gota Go Home”. They had no leaders but they were well-organised. Fastidiously, they cleaned up the protest site every morning and evening, as if to convey the cleaning up of Sri Lanka itself. Out of the plastic waste, they created artwork on the promenade.

Most importantly, armed only with the knowledge that violence would be used to delegitimise their political demand, the protestors — median age 35 years — ensured that their protest was peaceful. The bloody incidents on May 9 were triggered by the supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was forced to resign as prime minister at the end of that day. And the terrible act of arson at Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s private house at the end of a dramatic but incident-free day, on which the people claimed victory with the effective ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, will remain a blemish.

When it is not through elections, regime change in South Asia has come in many ways — most recently, through an armed take-over by religious fundamentalists in Afghanistan. At regular intervals, through military coups, as in Pakistan and Myanmar. If not outright coups, through the “neutral” offices of the military as seen over the years in Islamabad. Not to forget that Nawaz Sharif was removed as prime minister through the novel instrument of a “judicial coup”.

But nowhere in this region in recent memory has people’s power come to the fore in the manner that it did in Sri Lanka over the last 90 days, gathering momentum with each passing day to withdraw a democratically-given mandate from a leader they had elected less than three years ago. Across South Asia, heads of government, politicians, political parties, governments, regimes and people must have watched the unbelievable scenes of Sri Lanka’s version of the right to recall on their television screens. Perhaps they also took note.

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But what next? For the protestors, “Gota Go Home” was a literal call for the president to resign, but beyond that, it was a call for deeper change, for a new social contract, as Sri Lankan writer Kaushalya Kumarasinghe wrote in these pages (‘It happened in Colombo’, IE, July 11). The present is truly an unforeseen but historic opportunity for reform in Sri Lanka. The country is the oldest democracy in South Asia — it had universal suffrage from 1931 — but one that began dismantling itself almost immediately.

When Sri Lanka became independent in February 1948, one of its first actions was to pass the Citizenship Act that disenfranchised “Indian-origin Tamils” (IOTs) — an ethnic group different from Sri Lankan Tamils – who, three or four generations earlier, were shipped to the island by the British to work on the tea plantations in the central hill districts.

In a forthcoming book, Rajan Hoole, the Sri Lankan Tamil academic who, with three other colleagues (their group was called University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna), painstakingly, and at great risk to life, documented the atrocities and excesses committed by the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan state over three decades of the civil war, describes 1948 as the “fatal year”, when Sri Lanka’s democracy was “stillborn”.

The hundreds of thousands that turned out on the streets of Colombo to celebrate the departure of the hated Rajapaksas crave “systemic” change. But it cannot come without an acknowledgement of the systemic discrimination against minorities that was set in motion in 1948.

The noted Indian political scientist Amita Shastri has written about how the Citizenship Act sharply delineated ethnic differences and distorted the political system to weight it in favour of the Sinhalese majority, creating “an intractable dynamic of ethnic outbidding between the two major Sinhalese-dominated parties [the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party] to attract Sinhalese [voters]” at the expense of the Sri Lankan Tamil minority. This directly contributed to the alienation of the Tamils, their support for secession, and the outbreak of ethnic violence and civil war.

The Rajapaksas ended that war in 2009 with a no-holds-barred military campaign in which the number of civilians who were killed remains uncounted, but is estimated by journalists and UN officials to be anywhere between 40,000 to 70,000, far higher than an official government estimate of about 12,000. Simply put, after winning the war, the Rajapaksas were not interested in winning the peace, because there was more to be gained politically by playing on Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.

The absence of a post-war justice and reconciliation process ensured that the wounds remain unhealed even 13 years later. The Tamil demands for sharing political power, at the least, through the full implementation of the constitutional provisions for devolution inserted at the behest of India in 1987, fell on deaf ears in Colombo. Now, the Tamil community sees these provisions under the 13th amendment as inadequate. An anti-Muslim communalism also took hold in the post-war period, fanned by political patronage to the hate-peddling Buddhist organisation Bodu Bala Sena. The monk who led this organisation, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, who was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison for inciting violence, received a presidential pardon from Maithripala Sirisena in 2018, and last October, was appointed by Gotabaya to head a task force called “One Country, One Law”. Gotabaya’s election victory in the 2019 presidential election was won by a relentless othering of the Muslim community after the Easter bombings of that year.

The “Gota Go Home” protestors appeared to be both aware of and making an effort to actively address these divisions. On May 18, there was an observance for the Tamil civilians killed in the war at the Gotagogama “village” on the Galle Face Green, the first time anywhere in southern Sri Lanka. Many in the Tamil community have seen these efforts as cosmetic or inadequate. They mocked the Sinhalese for coming out against the Rajapaksas only when their food and fuel ran out, while never empathising with the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka when they had no access to electricity and fuel for years together during the war. Even Sri Lanka’s flag that fluttered from many a hand at Galle Face is a contentious national symbol for Tamils.

In this moment of people’s victory, however, Sri Lanka could go beyond the merely cosmetic or symbolic and seize the opportunity for the ethnic reconciliation that has proved elusive for so long.

In a recent essay, Hoole and his UTHR colleague Kopalsingham Sritharan have flagged that while addressing the trust deficit with international [lending] institutions is important in the short term, “it is much more urgent for the government to address its trust deficit with the Sri Lankan people, and in particular the minorities”. They have pointed out the alienation of the Sri Lankans, and especially the ethnic and religious minorities, from the political system is due to decades of impunity. “Can currency be protected where life and freedom are savaged?” is the question they have posed.

At this incredible moment in its history, Sri Lanka could reach for the moon and win. As the country tries to find a leadership capable of pulling it out of its economic meltdown, choosing a Tamil candidate to lead the nation, a leader who can rise about the ethnic and communal divide and act as a leader for all of Sri Lanka, would be the step most commensurate with the enormity of the events of July 9. Such a step would have been unthinkable before, but the success of the aragalaya (struggle) gives the hope that this is no longer so. It would also be the true test of the aragalaya.

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