“Is there no woman here? …Is there no man in this land? Is there no honest man or only the sort of man who nourishes and protects the sons of his own blood? Is there no god in this country? Is there no god in this country where the sword of the king is used for the murder of innocent strangers?” – Kannahi’s lament outside the Madurai court from the 3rd Century Tamil epic, Silapathikaram as referenced by Dr. Vasuki Nesiah, delivering the 14th Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture.
There was a poignancy about the Black July commemorations this year that has been absent for decades since the ethnic riots of 1983.
Memory of those black days 30 years ago have been stirred over the last seven months, as whispers of communal violence sweep across the island, from Anuradhapura to Tangalle, striking familiar rhetorical chords and inspiring quiet yet ever-present fear for the country’s Muslim population, set against the deafening silence of the rulers. It is this same silence that consumed a nation in communal violence, tore a society apart and set the country on course for nearly three decades of bloodletting and civil strife in 1983.
This year therefore, reflection of the 1983 tragedy is in some ways foisted upon the more moderate, politically aware sections of the citizenry. The mob violence that claimed innocent Tamil lives and their homes and businesses is brought back to life in the 18 July 2013 attack on the Mahiyanganaya mosque, as Muslim devotees engaged in late night prayer during the holy month of Ramadan fasting. Raw pork was allegedly thrown inside the premises and devotees were forced to take cover as stones were pelted into the mosque for 20 minutes. To further reinforce the mood of terror, the power was turned off for the duration of the attack.
The mood leading to the 1983 anti-Tamil riots comes back also in the demolition and reclamation of the sacred Sufi shrine in Kuragala where only the mosque and an office remains of what was a few months ago a massive pilgrims’ rest, marked with flagpoles and Islamic symbols. It is recreated in the blatantly racist rhetoric against the lifestyles and customs of the Muslim Community and attempts to cripple them economically with manufactured controversies over the Halal certification and cattle-slaughter. And in the scores of incidents of violence against mosques, Muslim-owned trade stalls and clothing stores and assaults on Muslim men and women singled out for their attire or how long they wore their beards.
Mobs led by saffron robed monks representing the Sinhala Ravaya group torched beef stalls as they marched to Colombo last month in full view of the Police who did nothing to stop the miscreants. In fact, it appears that in every act of intolerance and violence the Police have been reduced to passive observer status, oftentimes standing up to protect the assailants rather than the victims. “Get out from here now. If they start attacking you don’t say we didn’t warn you,” Police officials told attendees at a candlelight vigil against the Bodu Bala Sena hate speech in Colombo three months ago.
The perception that these hardline mobs are being protected by the State law enforcement arm only increases fear and despair within the Muslim community that has gone from war-time ally to peace-time prey under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s reign. The saffron mob attacks are spilling over to other more political spheres too. At least two major seminars on devolution and the LLRC report organised by civil society groups have been disrupted by monk-led mobs in the Eastern Province. In both cases, the police asked the victims of the attack to settle the case.
In every incident of violence and intolerance, when it is led by these particular mobs, resignedly and for the sake of amity, victims have agreed to drop charges. And in virtually every case, the victims have been minority groups, whether ethnically – Muslims or Christians; or in terms of political paradigm – NGOs and dissident civil society groups.
Yet paradoxically, on other fronts, the Government is making haste to address some key areas of concern for minority communities.
All set for Pillay
A pending visit by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who delivered a scathing indictment of Sri Lanka’s human rights situation in her report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva this year, has pushed the Government into high gear. Developments on the human rights and rule of law fronts are unfolding at break-neck pace, with investigations into alleged military excesses being dusted off and reopened and new LLRC recommendations being adopted for implementation.
In an equally sudden change of heart, the Rajapaksa Administration decided last week that it would indict seven suspects in the Christmas day murder of a British national and the rape of his companion in 2011. The UPFA’s Tangalle Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Sampath Vidanapathirana will be among those indicted in the case to be filed in the Colombo High Court. Vidanapathirana who is currently out on bail was removed from his post and had his party membership revoked only to be reinstated four days later.
A few weeks ago, Vidanapathirana whose links to the political powerful are an open secret, was declared President of the Old Boys Association of the Mahinda Rajapaksa Maha Vidyalaya in Weeraketiya. Despite his implication in the high profile murder therefore, he remains a firm favourite within the ruling party. His impending indictment, which reliable sources claim is likely to occur weeks or days ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November, is a last ditch attempt to ensure Britain stays the course on summit attendance after several calls by the UK Government for Sri Lanka to make progress on the Khuram Shaikh murder and other outstanding accountability and reconciliation issues.
Last week, Minister Basil Rajapaksa apologised for Shaikh’s murder to the victim’s constituent MP Simon Danczuk who was part of a British Parliamentary Delegation visit to Colombo. It was the first time the regime had officially apologised for the murder and the Danczuk and the delegation returned to Britain confident that the Rajapaksa Government would finally move to prosecute Shaikh’s killers.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa this week also ordered the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on disappearances, another key issue on the international human rights agenda. Together with the investigation into the killing of five students in Trincomalee and the revival of the 17 aid workers murder case, disappearances constitute the bulk of the human rights agitation against Sri Lanka internationally. The Government is clearly, picking its battles carefully. Pillay’s 25 August visit to Colombo aside, the regime also has to contend with the Commonwealth’s need to ensure its incoming chairman holds itself up to greater moral and democratic standards before the November summit in Colombo.
Pillay’s advance team that toured the country last week appear already to be making it clear that the High Commissioner will insist on taking the President’s “come and see” invitation to heart. Unlikely to be satisfied by the clockwork tours of the north and east organised by the Government, she may assert her independence early on, analysts say. This was evidenced during her Chief Security Advisor’s visit last week.
Abraham Mathai insisted to defence officials that the High Commissioner would not be flying military operated aircraft to the former battle zones during her visit. The team was insistent on being permitted to charter private aircraft instead. The advance team was told that would be infinitely viable onboard the Sri Lanka Air Force operated private tour light aircraft and helicopters, Helitours. It is not certain how this information was received but given the monopoly enjoyed by Helitours, Pillay may well be compelled to fly the Air Force subsidiary carrier during her August visit. Where she chooses to go, however, some officials say, will be entirely at her discretion, even though she arrives in the country on the Government’s invitation.
Access for Pillay
Pillay is expected to hold the Government to its promise that she will be granted unimpeded access to judge the security and human rights situation on the ground for herself. She will undoubtedly be given progress reports on the major cases by Government officials, but her engagement will also centre on discussions with human rights activists and lawyers, opposition politicians, humanitarian teams working on the ground and most importantly, victims and victim families first hand.
Pillay’s report to the UNHRC following her visit to Sri Lanka, may be released during the September-October sessions or in February 2014, but irrespective of its date of release, the report will likely frame international action on Sri Lanka to come in the next few years, some analysts say. Giving her independence and the ‘unfettered access’ the US wanted for Pillay and UN Rapporteurs in the first draft of its second resolution, may go a long way to help Sri Lanka’s case in Geneva in 2014 and beyond.
Hemmed in on every side internationally, the Government has no option but to put its customary jingoism on hold as it strives valiantly to stem the calls for an international inquiry on alleged war-time atrocities and ensure that CHOGM proceeds on schedule in Colombo.
The fact that President Rajapaksa has his plate full on the governance front was apparent when he met with newspaper editors for breakfast at Temple Trees on Tuesday. The President and his team were compelled to field questions on CHOGM expenditure and attendance, the Commission of Inquiry on Disappearances, the northern poll, devolution of land and Police powers, the future of the 13th Amendment, the economy and even the COPE report.
Try as it might to make the ‘move on and develop after the war’ argument, nobody is biting except the local constituency of the Rajapaksa Administration. While that might mean everything at an election, the Government has been forced to confront the stubborn reality that when it comes to engaging with the rest of the world, it cannot have everything go its own way.
Making an enemy of Wigneswaran
But for every step the Government makes in the right direction, however temporary they may prove in the end, its intractability on other fronts keeps scepticism high about its bona fides on accountability and reconciliation. It persists in discrediting the Tamil National Alliance’s Chief Ministerial candidate C.V. Wigneswaran for instance, despite the former Supreme Court Judge’s credibility as a unifying and integrating choice to lead the Northern Province in an eventual TNA victory. It persists in seeing Mavai Senathirajah, the more polarising, nationalist candidate as being the wiser and more ‘indigenous’ choice.
Wigneswaran at the helm of Tamil political affairs, buoyed by a mandate from the northern people, will be a force to reckon with. The Government knows this. Just as it knows that Wigneswaran’s constant call for integration and cohabitation will show up the regime’s own ultra-nationalist agendas and rhetoric. By choosing Wigneswaran, the TNA has extended an olive branch and committed itself to trust building – and nothing terrifies the Rajapaksa regime more than that – since after all, it might be called upon to reciprocate.
Reports of plans to scuttle the northern election that is presently proceeding on course continue to emerge even though Government insiders are adamant the poll will be held on schedule. The international interest in the election, especially in terms of New Delhi and the Commonwealth, will likely stay the regime’s hand in this respect. Yet a shadow hangs over the poll especially after the Government last week decided once again to fast track the PSC process to propose amendments to the 13th Amendment. The announcement of the quickening comes in the wake of increasingly stringent calls from New Delhi for Colombo to desist from revising the 13th Amendment and thereby altering the terms of the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord.
The Rajapaksa Government’s existential dilemma on devolution of power to the Tamil community arises from the fact that to devolve power or make concessions to the Tamils contrasts directly with its unique governance ethos and the post-war narrative it strives to perpetuate of majority domination and minority subjugation. Constrained by these inherent prejudices, the only true justice the present Administration can deliver is victors’ justice; the only reconciliation it can conceive of is physical and material reconstruction.
Until the senior members of the regime begin to have a change of heart about the roots of conflict and strive genuinely to knit communities of people together in its aftermath, sundry gestures – especially when they are made under duress by the international community – will continuously ring hollow. In the present context, the transparency of the timelines set by the Commonwealth and the UNHRC are not proving favourable for the regime’s credibility in finally attempting to prosecute alleged abuses.
Over the years, there has been a gradual shift in the political dialogue about Black July. Thirty years later, different interpretations persist of the mob violence against Tamil civilians in the capital Colombo and elsewhere in the country. The atrocities of the LTTE’s megalomaniac leader Velupillai Prabhakaran are cast up, apologist fashion, to lighten the burden of that horrific past. The ‘provocation’ argument is bandied about in the 1983 context in the mainstream now, its implications for reconciliation and trust building between communities torn apart by war, gravely damaging.
In post-war Sri Lanka, narratives of memory are constantly evolving. In the 1983 context, the narrative has shifted from one of shame and guilt, to one that is far more sinister. The Sinhalese community has begun to ask questions about why they must feel a sense of collective shame or why they must be singled out to make apologies for the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983.
The narrative is driven by the make-no-apologies triumphalism that has pervaded the nation’s conscience since the end of the war. In post-war Sri Lanka, the victors are rewriting history and the suffering, death and loss of all those who do not belong in the victors’ camp will be ignored, forgotten and never mourned. And because of this shift, never more have the rights of minority communities been at graver risk.
The paradigm shift has coincided with grotesque incidents of violence and hate perpetrated against the Muslims of Sri Lanka since the beginning of the year. And there is no disputing that this new narrative is strengthened and reinforced by the ideology and policies of the country’s current ruling elite. The evolution obstructs forgiveness and truth-seeking, and fosters suspicion and paranoia.
Sri Lanka may never again see a July 1983, but the unchecked incidents of intolerance and violence keep that persecution alive and minority communities will forever cower at its memory. A firm hand on the part of the rulers at this juncture could send the extremist mobs back into the shadows and could see a resurgence of hope for genuine reconciliation between communities. That extreme elements exist in every society is a given; the true danger lies in political sympathy or patronage of their ideologies and agendas.
Where the political leadership fails the citizen and the law becomes oppressive, the citizenry must seek to reclaim the space for morality and justice and dissident or counter-memory must seek ways to challenge the contemporary political narrative, said Dr. Vasuki Nesiah this week, in her lecture entitled ‘The law, this violent thing: Dissident memory and democratic futures’ to commemorate the life and death of eminent lawyer, academic and Tamil politician, Neelan Tiruchelvam.
In the Tamil epic poem Silapathikaram, Nesiah recalled how Kannahi, the wife of a man wrongly executed for stealing an anklet belonging to the Queen of Madurai, storms the palace and proves her husband’s innocence. Anguished by the miscarriage of justice, the King is killed by his own regret, yet Kannahi unsatisfied by this individual accountability, sets fire to the city.
“Kannahi is not only critical of the system that condemned her husband, she is also critical of the bystanders and enablers of that system… the power of this epic and part of what Neelan took from Silapathikaram in thinking about constitutional law was the story about the fallibility of leaders and the power of ordinary citizens to bring down a corrupt system. Rather than individualise the loss and privatise her grief Kannahi wanted to challenge and change the system that produced the miscarriage of justice,” Nesiah explained.
Black July must be unequivocally condemned and its victims remembered and regretted. It is also necessary for the moderates to reclaim the narrative. To remember those Sri Lankans and Sinhalese who saved Tamil homes from the mobs and rescued Tamil women and children by calling them their own; to salute and commemorate the great commonality of humanity in that crisis and to challenge the prevailing ideology as one fraught with all the hideous dangers of the past, is the greatest possible tribute to the victims of the 1983 riots.
As Nesiah said, where politicians and the system have failed the people, the citizen must learn to reclaim that space, mourn the dead, celebrate diversity and fight for alternative storylines to prevail. As Sri Lanka emerges on a path to a new pogrom four years since the end of one brutal 30-year civil conflict, the time may have come to set things on fire. (Courtesy Daily FT)