Ilankai Tamil Sangam
Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA
Tamils and Christians Short-changed Again?
by Amrit Muttukumaru, Sept. 29, 2005
It seems clear to this writer that both presidential candidates are playing the now traditional political football at election time with the ethnic conflict. They are both reluctant to face up to the reality that unless and until the stranglehold of Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism is tamed, there is little hope to resolve not only the long festering ethnic crisis, but also the more recent phenomenon of Christian bashing.
Let us face it, both presidential candidates Messrs. Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe are on a now familiar trail of ‘manipulating’ the ethnic crisis as a vehicle for their electoral success, each in his own way.
On one hand, we have the prime minister on a bizarre course of aligning himself through written commitments with extreme Sinhala-Buddhist forces such as the JHU and JVP, which espouse what is tantamount to a militarist solution with minimum ‘concessions’ to the Tamils, while at the same time speaking of a ‘negotiated’ solution within a ‘unitary’ constitution. Even the P-TOMS agreement which is a mere temporary aid sharing administrative mechanism for the NorthEast, the most affected by the 26 December 2004 Tsunami, is anathema to the JHU/JVP combine. One wonders as to what Mr. Rajapakse intends discussing at his proposed meeting with the LTTE leader! Clearly, Mr. Rajapakse is banking on the bulk of the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency, with inroads even into the traditional UNP vote bank which does not exclude the Muslims, particularly in the east.
On the other hand, his rival, the leader of the opposition, projects a seemingly ‘moderate’ stance vis-à-vis the ethnic conflict with his verbal commitment to P-TOMS and a ‘federal’ form of government. Of course, the extent to which Mr. Wickremasinghe is willing to go towards federalism has never been spelt out. It should also be noted that it was the UNP under his leadership that literally tore up in parliament the devolution proposal of 2000, which was a diluted version of the 1995 PA proposals. Even the breakdown of the post-2002 negotiation process took place under his government in April 2003 in the immediate aftermath of the LTTE being insensitively kept out of the Washington, D.C. preparatory meeting for the Tokyo donor conference. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s seemingly ‘moderate’ stance on the ethnic conflict evidently expects to harvest the vast majority of the minority vote, particularly that of Tamils of all description while keeping intact the bulk of the traditional UNP vote bank. The opposition leader’s stance seems to be, at least on paper, a shrewder tactic, given the presumably general all-round reluctance to venture into another high intensity military conflict and external realities. If, as is possible, the Tamil voter turn-out in the NorthEast is low, it could spell serious trouble to Mr. Wickremesinghe.
It seems clear to this writer that both presidential candidates are playing the now traditional political football at election time with the ethnic conflict. They are both reluctant to face up to the reality that, unless and until the stranglehold of Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism is tamed, there is little hope to resolve not only the long festering ethnic crisis, but also the more recent phenomenon of Christian bashing.
The impunity surrounding frequent attacks on Christian places of worship, with no serious efforts by the authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice, is not only a tacit encouragement, but also an acknowledgement of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony. It is reported that more than 200 Christian institutions, most of them Evangelical places of worship, have been attacked during the past three years with substantial damage to buildings and religious objects.
The hurling of a grenade at a well-attended musical show in Colombo featuring some of the biggest names from Bollywood, including superstar Shah Rukh Khan, merely because it was taking place in the backdrop of the first death anniversary of a popular Buddhist cleric, shows the extent of religious bigotry. A noteworthy item destroyed in the ensuing mayhem was the statue of the Virgin Mary abutting the main road within the premises of a leading girls’ school close to the venue of the concert. Sadly, not only was this desecration overlooked by the media, but more importantly, it was even ignored by the Christian religious leaders concerned for reasons best known to them.
No doubt, such acts and conduct are an insult to the sublime philosophy of Buddhism which has universal relevance based on the four noble truths and the eightfold path. What is happening in this country today in the name of Buddhism is an insult to the Buddha Dhamma. In this connection it will be prudent to consider the US State Department’s ‘International Religious Freedom Report 2004’ submitted to Congress which has a scathing reference to religious intolerance in Sri Lanka. Amongst others, it refers to "An overall deterioration of religious freedom due to the actions of extremists in Sri Lanka…. Buddhist extremists destroyed Christian churches and harassed and abused pastors and congregants."
It is no accident that both presidential candidates are silent on the proposed anti-conversion bill which is now in parliament. The entire edifice of the Sri Lankan State, which includes its Constitution with its ‘unitary’ structure and ‘foremost’ place to Buddhism, National flag and Anthem, implementation of its laws, access to education and employment, dealings with State agencies inclusive of the police and security of the individual, are weighted heavily against minorities, particularly the Tamils, even today. The manner of the recent passing of the Emergency Regulations in parliament, which largely result in the harassment of Tamils, is a reflection of this. The only minority support it obtained was inexplicably from the CWC, in spite of plantation workers of recent Indian origin being frequently at the receiving end of much harassment from the almost 100% Sinhala-dominated security forces and police. The recent violence witnessed in Trincomalee due to the unwarranted provocation caused by the placing of a large statue of the Buddha in a highly commercial area, and the subsequent saturation of the town with almost 100% Sinhala-speaking members of the armed forces, is another instance of pandering to extremist nationalism.
It is most unlikely that either of the two presidential candidates elected on 17 November will have the political will and sagacity to meaningfully redress these issues.
The rise of Tamil militancy was in response to the implications of the stranglehold of this majoritarian syndrome, regular violence unleashed on Tamils and their property, a litany of broken promises and the offer of too little too late.
Although those responsible for the more virulent attacks could be said to be in the lunatic fringe, particularly in regard to Christian bashing, the plain fact is that there seems to be at least some tacit acquiescence to this as reflected by the silence of the vast majority of the southern polity. Even the few instances of disapproval for the most part have been muted.
The contribution of successive governments to this state of affairs is manifested in different ways. This includes State-sponsored colonisation with overwhelmingly Sinhala settlers in the overwhelmingly Tamil-speaking Eastern province which became more aggressive soon after independence, the infamous 24-hour ‘Sinhala Only’ policy of 1956 making Tamils instantly ‘illiterate’, the tearing up of the ‘Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam’ Pact of 1957, the aborting of the ‘Dudley-Chelvanayakam’ Pact of 1966, ‘standardization’ of university admissions in 1972 which mainly worked to the detriment of Tamils, thuggery unleashed at the 1981 DDC elections in Jaffna which included the burning of the world renowned Jaffna Public Library, the farcical provincial council system of 1987, the regular dilution of the 1995 Devolution proposals, the tearing up of the year 2000 constitutional proposals for devolution and, more recently, the strong opposition to P-TOMS, which is a mere aid-sharing administrative mechanism for the NorthEast which was most affected by the 26 December 2004 Tsunami. Interspersed between these were horrible and widespread acts of violence unleashed on Tamils and their property, much with at least tacit State acquiescence. The pogroms of 1958 and 1983 were the worst of them, which even resulted in strong international censure.
Even today, exaggerations, subterfuge, concealment and sometimes even utter falsehood are employed to deprive the Tamils of what is their due to live with dignity and security as equal partners in a truly secular and tolerant Sri Lanka.
Alleged child conscription and the ‘Karuna’ bogey are examples of exaggeration and falsehood. The ‘love and affection’ of the Sri Lankan government for the children of this country is clearly seen in its proposal to reduce the age of consent for sexual relations from 16 to 13! This is in spite of Sri Lanka already gaining international notoriety as a paradise for pedophiles. In the UK, children as young as 16 years of age are routinely recruited into its armed forces. Recruiting campaigns often target the more deprived sections of the community through various incentives. While not for a moment condoning the deployment of child soldiers from any quarter, can the strong possibility be excluded that the best promoter of young people being attracted to the LTTE would be factors such as - the acts of omission and commission of successive governments in the form of serious discrimination, harsh treatment meted out by an almost exclusively non-Tamil speaking armed forces, stress caused by insecurity and terrible violence such as indiscriminate carpet bombing unleashed over the years on the hapless Tamil population? The ‘Karuna’ factor being projected as a force to be reckoned with in the east and thus posing a serious threat to the LTTE is an illusory creation of a section of the southern polity to dilute the NorthEast link.
The present policy to marginalize the LTTE internationally, which appears to be gleefully welcomed by the southern polity, will prove to be as myopic and disastrous as the infamous ‘war for peace’ campaign. Conveniently overlooked in this endeavour are domestic and international state terrorism in its different forms.
Notwithstanding all this, there is no question that the LTTE should fast-track its transition from militant freedom fighters to a responsible political organization based on tolerance, plurality and democracy in areas under its control. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan State gives a very poor example in all round good governance which includes an atrocious human rights record .
As indicated earlier, unless and until the stranglehold of Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism is tamed, there is little hope of resolving these issues.
An interesting phenomenon being witnessed is where large sections of Sinhala-Christians who find it discriminatory when their churches are attacked and desecrated, at least tacitly acquiesce by turning a blind eye to the far more serious and widespread discrimination and harassment perpetrated on Tamils. One wonders as to what chance there is for the Tamils of this country when even Sinhala-Christians are targeted for discrimination and the two presidential candidates are not willing to even take a stand on the obnoxious anti-conversion bill which has been presented to parliament!
Even the NGOs on the ‘peace’ gravy train are not pushing the two presidential candidates to be more forthcoming on their plan of action towards resolving the ethnic crisis and to state their clear stand on the anti-conversion bill. They seem to be now busy on the Tsunami trail and election ‘monitoring,’ both of which are proving to be lucrative! For example, these NGOs should pointedly ask Mr. Rajapakse how realistic it is to seek a solution within a ‘unitary’ constitution, given the ground realities of the conflict which include the LTTE controlling a vast extent of territory in the NorthEast and to unequivocally state whether there will be conscription in his strategy for war and more particularly whether his 3 able-bodied sons will be sent to the war front.
How the war will be financed is another issue of interest to the electorate. Mr. Wickremesinghe should be asked to state, in more specific terms, the extent of ‘federalism’ he will consider rather than merely repeating ad nauseam that it will be within a ‘united’ Sri Lanka. Also to be determined is Mr. Wickremesinghe's stance on the unit of devolution, at least in broad terms. A glaring omission in the just-released UNP manifesto is any reference to the P-TOMS. There is also an obvious reluctance to use the term ‘Federal,’ which is merely implied in the manifesto. This immediately raises suspicion on his serious commitment to a negotiated solution.
The Tamils and Christians are surely between the ‘devil and the deep blue sea’!
Posted October 3, 2005