Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Le Monde diplomatique

Sri Lanka’s Own Goal

Sri Lanka’s own goal

December 2010, by Padraig Colman

In September 2009 I wrote about the Sri Lankan government’s failure to convey a positive image of the country to the world after its impressive victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended the national nightmare that began in 1975 when Vellupillai Prabhakaran shot dead the mayor of Jaffna. Prabhakaran went on to be leader of the LTTE, a ruthless terrorist group which began to seem invincible in its fight for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran was killed in May 2009 and there have been no terrorist incidents in Sri Lanka since. Yet the Sri Lankan government has almost managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory – by bungling the PR war. There is something of a siege mentality in Sri Lanka – a feeling that, after winning a long and brutal war, the country’s independence is threatened by unfair criticism from abroad.

The release by WikiLeaks of a batch of “diplomatic” cables gave encouragement to the “told you so” tendency. Those leaks relating to the former UK foreign secretary, David Miliband, have caused particular smugness. When Miliband visited Sri Lanka towards the end of the war against the LTTE, pressing for a ceasefire and negotiations, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa scolded him and reminded him that Sri Lanka was no longer a British colony. The cables now reveal that Miliband exerted his influence to get Sri Lanka’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games rejected: the UK did not want Sri Lanka to be given legitimacy for its actions in defeating the Tamil Tigers. Another cable revealed that Miliband supported US efforts to delay an IMF loan to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankans at the time thought that Miliband was backing Tamil terrorists for electoral advantage: in a cable dated 7 May 2009, the British Foreign Office “Sri Lanka team leader”, Tim Waite, wrote that, with UK elections soon due, and with many Tamils living in marginal UK constituencies, the UK government was calling for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka and would later pay close attention to the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. Miliband said that he was spending 60% of his time on Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government strongly believed that a ceasefire would be foolish when victory was imminent because it would, as had happened many times before, have allowed the LTTE to regroup and fight again. Miliband and his aides wrote about “ratcheting up” the case for humanitarian relief efforts: “[That] cable,” said one Sri Lankan writer, “exposes how a matter of a few thousand British votes took priority over the fate of a small state battling against a ruthless terrorist enemy” (1).

The leaking of the cables should have put Sri Lanka in PR heaven. But the president’s advisors managed to play it all wrong, and new life was injected into the moribund overseas rump of the LTTE.

As the revelations were taking place, President Rajapaksa travelled to the UK to address the Oxford Union. The event was cancelled because of security fears – not because President Rajapaksa himself posed any threat to the good citizens of Oxford or its students (the Thames Valley police later said they would have had no trouble policing the event). As someone pointed out, Kermit the Frog had also been invited on one occasion, and it was “unfortunate that the Sri Lankan High Commission in London did not file an intelligence report on such security threats.” Another source said: “It is a strong shot of oxygen to a dying LTTE. Fundraising will pick up again.”

Yet, as Namini Wijedasa wrote in Lakbima News, “Mystifyingly for a government that shuns the West, the event was flaunted as an honour of the highest proportions” (2). “The ideal path would be to work towards restoring relations to their former warmth, engaging with the West as much as we do with China, Libya, Myanmar, Iran and Cuba. Diplomacy is not a zero sum game where your developing ties with some countries give you courage to cold-shoulder the rest. It’s about dealing with everyone that can give you comparative advantage. … The president is already ahead in the game in Sri Lanka. But the direction he wants to take the country in internationally remains a perturbing mystery.”

Confirmation of the hypocrisy of the US, UK and EU always plays well in Sri Lanka; and the cables revealed what everyone already knew about the use of cluster bombs and abuse of civilians by the US and UK. Freedom of speech is an important issue for the West when it deals with Sri Lanka, and there was much legitimate concern about the murder of the Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. Yet western politicians have called for Julian Assange to be assassinated and the whistleblower Bradley Manning is not likely to be treated kindly. The Sri Lankan government is reported, after initial fierce resistance to perceived threats to the nation’s sovereignty, to have relented and decided to allow a UN panel advising Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on Sri Lankan war crimes to visit the country. The foreign ministry has been criticised for its handling of this matter, which has added to the confusion over government policy. At the same time, favours have been seen to be rewarded: retired military staff have been given embassy posts after their war service, in preference to career diplomats. The Sri Lankan government pays more than a million pounds a year to the PR firm Bell Pottinger. It does not seem to have been a good investment.

Sri Lanka Imprisons a Military Hero

Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero

Exclusive November 2010, by Padraig Colman

Politics is a rough old trade, nowhere more so than in Sri Lanka where the former army commander Sarath Fonseka, military hero of the victory over the Tamil Tigers (LTTE, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), has been imprisoned after his foray into politics. In January, he ran for president but lost. In April, he was elected to parliament. Now he has now been deprived of his seat and has to conduct his political life from a 12’ x 8’ cell.

He was court-martialled twice, found guilty of engaging in political activity while a member of the armed forces and stripped of his medals and army pension. At his second court-martial, he was found guilty of irregularities in arms procurement while army commander and sentenced to 30 months imprisonment.

Also being heard at the High Court in Colombo is the “white flag case”, in which Fonseka is accused of violating the Public Security and Emergency Regulations Acts via an interview in The Sunday Leader on 13 December 2009 (1). In this, Fonseca claimed that defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had issued an illegal order to Brigadier Shavendra Silva (now Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the UN) to shoot and kill LTTE cadres, surrendering with white flags, during the final stages of the war.

The charges and punishment have been scaled down (despite rumours that he was to be charged with harbouring military deserters, plotting a coup and the assassination of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers. Rajapaksa said in a BBC interview that Fonseka deserved to be executed). However, the white flag case could end in a 20-year sentence.

A motley alliance is campaigning for Fonseka’s release. The main opposition party, the UNP (United National Party), wants a remission of the sentence, which would amount to a pardon. But Fonseka refuses to ask for a pardon because he says he is not guilty and does not recognise the legitimacy of the court that tried him.

The JVP (People’s Liberation Front) also wants a remission, but it is facing an internal revolt and defections since ground-level activists object to their party’s support for Fonseca (whom they accuse of involvement in extra-judicial killings of their comrades during a JVP uprising of 1988-89).

Many Sri Lankans, even those who do not support Fonseka, are critical of the fact that some former senior LTTE members go free because they support President Rajapaksa, while Fonseka – who was a major factor in the LTTE’s defeat – languishes in prison. Some Buddhist priests have even offered to serve Fonseka’s sentence for him; and the JVP claims to have collected a million signatures in a petition calling for Fonseka’s release.

Even so, popular sympathy for Fonseka has been muted. But he has support among the Tamil diaspora. David Poopalapillai, spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress, a pro-LTTE group, said: “We in the Tamil diaspora will fight not only for the release of thousands of Tamils but also Fonseka” (2). That left the Canadian Daily Tamil News bemused: “Many Tamils are angry at Poopalapillai and CTC for expressing such unequivocal support for the jailed general. In some queer way David Poopalapillai and Canadian Tamil Congress has managed to upset all three parties in this conflict. Namely the Rajapaksa regime, General Fonseka’s supporters and Tamils in general.”

Back in Colombo, The Island newspaper questioned the motives of many of those campaigning for Fonseka’s release: “That his release is far from their goal is clear from their grinning mugs at protests which they have apparently turned into carnivals of sorts” (3). Many Sri Lankans were amused that Fonseka had campaigned for the presidency on a platform of fighting for oppressed minorities and press freedom, and against corruption and nepotism. For Fonseka is no Aung Suu Kyiu: as army commander, he upset all minorities with his bigoted outbursts. And before his candidacy, he had failed to champion press freedom.

Fonseka could now be more of a problem inside prison than out. As economist RMB Senanayake wrote in The Island, “If he dies in prison, Sarath Fonseka would prove himself to be not only a war hero, but a martyr.”

7 comments on « Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero »

  • # sam :
    3 November 2010 @23h51
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero

    Any Army Commander could win the fight against LTTE dictatorship, If they had the correct political backing. MPs in the parliaments in Western countries, specially, U.K., France, Spain, Benelux countries wanted to stop the progress of armed forces always, as it would prevent settled economic tamil refugees voting for tthem.

    Mahinda Rajapaksha has led the correct leadership.

    Sarath Fonseka while on a visit to USA to see his daughter, was interviewed by USA judicials regarding so called Human Right Violation.

    Common belief is that he agreed to listened to their underlined requests, in view of getting the presidency. They also used the cast problem in SL society. Please refer DBS Jayaraj published letter about Sirmavo Bandraranayke. This leter tell bout Karawe and Govigama cast problem in SL at upper echeilon. HOW come now canadian DBS Jeyaraj write a letter stipulating cast roblem at this time unless he was told that Sarath is Karawe caste and Mahind is Givigama caste. So the time is right to get some extra money from donor agencies.

    DBSJ Didn’t that letter focus on cast, and leadership.

    President is a friend of Palastine Friendship Club. He sacked one of his, ministers Mangala Samaraweera then, foreign ministe, because he failed to voice the agony of Palastines at U.N.

    Israel Lobby groups want to stop Mahinda Rajapaksha at this level. They do not want to pass the LTTE technology to Palastine miltiantiy. Yes, they helped to eradicate LTTE, because it was the wish of India. Israel Has lots of trade dealing with subcontinent and USA.

    Now the governments in so called west wants to prosecute, Iraq style court, our belowed MR and Gota.

    When Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia ask for a court in their country, west (i.e.President of USA and the ass licking priminister in UK) decided to hang him in Hague. So he took his life. When Saddam Husssain ask for a court at Hague in Nethwerlands the west ( i.e.President of USA and ass licking priminister at 100/ Downing Street ) decided to make the hanging in Iraq ( former Persia also known as the creddle of human civilization) So they make a special criminal law. To Hang PRESIDENT SADDAM HUSSAIN.

    They said he was in a hole like a rat. Remember He never left his people. He was with persians. He could easily go to any country.

    When Idi Amii Did settled in Dubai nobody asked it.

    MR cleaned the country. He may not perfect. Can those westerners, specialy those UNITED kINGDOM People representative say that he violated geneva convention.

    Get a life, You are the decendents of King Jeorge the IV who killed all males over 18 many years ago in the island of Sri Lanka.

    You are the idiots telling us about war crimes

  • # PP :
    4 November 2010 @00h46
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero
    Poopallapillai is trying another stunt. Country will come up slowly. Just like Europe after WW11. Give time and evrything will be on track. Bloody LTTE terrorised us for 30 years and no one opened their eyes then. There is a lot happening in tamil areas and people live without fear.
  • # Sarath :
    5 November 2010 @23h39
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero

    It is amazing how much crap Sri Lankans are willing to take. After 5 years they have not still figured out that Mahinda Rajapaksa always does the exact opposite of what he says and always accuses other of exactly what he’s going to do.

    He accused Sarath Fonsake of planning a coup. Without a single shred of evidence people are ready to believe this. Yet after seeing the images on TV of Sarath Fonseka and supporters being barricaded in their hotel on election night and forcibly keeping the election commissioner in a room, people couldn’t figure out that it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who was planning the coup. He accused Fonseka of being an Idi Amin and look who’s acting the part. He promised the citizens a “Subha Anagathayak” (A Bright Future) but they will not finish paying the loans he’s taking for at least eight generations. He promised people the benefits of peace yet after an year since the end of the war the country is still under Emergency Law and people are still being abused by politicians and police. He talks of a “just society” while his brother (affectionately known as Mr. 10%) want 10% from any deal that goes on in the country; this would be pure extortion if someone else did it. He declares “Mathata Thitha” (prohibition) yet serves alcohol at his many party gatherings and its a well know secret he’s an alcoholic himself. I mean come on, people in Sri Lanka have seen heavy drinkers, haven’t they? Do you think they can’t see it when they see his blood shot eyes? He raises taxes on wheat floor and bans wheat products from government facilities, yet wheat products are still served at the Presidential house and parliament.

    The list goes on and on. If people of Sri Lanka want to figure it out they have plenty of evidence. I don’t think they are capable or willing. This must be akin to Stockholm Syndrome. Their inability has condemned them to suffer the fate that they are in for a very long time to come. He will keep promising them the moon and they will keep believing him; every time. All they’ll get will be empty stomachs.

  • # Padraig Colman :
    6 November 2010 @05h51
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero

    Sam: My intention in this article was not to take sides but merely to explain to a western audience how the imprisonment of Fonseka had affected the political landscape of Sri Lanka. I am not sure if I am being called an idiot personally or whether it is blanket abuse of westerners in general. I am certainly not a descendant of George IV. Wasn’t he German? I don’t think I have any German blood in me. As my compatriot, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney once wrote: “Let it be known my passport’s green/I owe no allegiance to the queen”. The passport isn’t green any more but it is Irish. My nation suffered 800 years of British oppression, much longer than Ceylon.

    In spite of your overheated style of expression, I think we are probably broadly in agreement about most things. UK and USA are still committing far worse war crimes today than Sri Lanka did during a legitimate fight against terrorists.

    Sarath: Hypocrisy seems to be part of the landscape of politics in any country. I don’t know as much about Rajapaksa’s personal habits as you do. I did make eye-contact with him at the Nuwara Eliya flower show a few years ago and didn’t notice any bloodshots. I agree that apathy is a feature of many Sri Lankan people (what to do, men?) but violence has also been too prevalent for too long.

    What choice does the voter have? The UNP is dead in the water. Many UNPers have joined the government as has most of the left apart from a rump of the JVP. As I said in the article, the JVP are losing foot soldiers because of their support for Fonseka. Fonseka’s personal character defects are many and well-documented and I doubt if the country would have been better-off with him as president. Many Sri Lankans have expressed the masochistic desire for a “benevolent” dictator like Lee Kwan Yew. Now they’ve got the Rajapaksas.

    I did mention the fact that Fonseka in the end was not charged with plotting a coup. I have expressed the view in another article that a coup might have been likely if Fonseka had actually won the presidency.

    I try to avoid expressing my own opinions in these articles but if I were Rajapaksa I would release Fonseka and encourage him to join his family in Oklahoma.

    PP: I agree that most of those Tamils who live in the north and east have better hope for the future now that the LTTE have been defeated.

  • # Dan :
    7 November 2010 @03h36
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero

    It was heavily reported that General Fonseka had strong political ambitions, and that was the reason previous governments kept him away from the powerful post of Army Commander.

    From what transpired, looks like that accusation is well founded. In that case, nailing him to the cross and making an example out of him for the rest of the military might be a good for the democracy in SL. Especially considering the role of military in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia…etc.

    I do feel sorry for the guy, but I am not sure what else the government can do. Fonseka attended a very public mini political event, in traditional white dress (uniform of the sri lankan politicians) at Kelaniya temple, a day after he publicized his intention to retire from military. It was only a day or so after the government accepted his 30 day retirement notice, but they forced it to take effect in 24 hours instead of waiting 30 days.

    It so funny the way politicians, monks, ex LTTE sympathizers, most of them who publically loathed Fonseka, and given the chance probably would bestow the same or worse fate on him, trying to protect him from Rajapaksha government. For them Fonseka is just a stick to beat the Rajapaksha government with. Most people involved in Sri Lankan politics are sleazy, spineless and unscrupulous. This makes Sri Lankan politics a very dirty game, but you cannot say it is not interesting… In a sad, funny sort of a way

  • # Dan :
    7 November 2010 @03h49
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero
    Forgot to mention, I love reading Padraig Colman’s article every month. It is nice to read an intelligent article about Sri Lanka in western media once in a while. You are one of the few journalists I know that can report on complex issues with amazing perspective. Reminds me of Joe Schlesinger, great journalist from Canadian journalist from CBC.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    8 November 2010 @06h01
    Sri Lanka imprisons a military hero

    Thank you so much for your kind words Dan. I hope the editor has read them!

    You say:” This makes Sri Lankan politics a very dirty game, but you cannot say it is not interesting… In a sad, funny sort of a way”. I find it endlessly fascinating. A lot of the commenters here berate me for not taking their side. I have no interest in taking sides but get great pleasure out of trying to make sense of the ever-changing soap opera.

    I have analysed Fonseka’s history and character in more detail on my word Press blog. See:…

    I can be contacted on

Sri Lanka and the 18th Amendment

Sri Lanka and the 18th amendment

Exclusive September 2010, by Padraig Colman

Recent events in Sri Lanka have been overshadowed by a new amendment to the constitution approved by parliament on 8 September. Its main changes are:

- A president, if elected, can serve any number of terms; previously a president could serve a maximum of two six-year terms;
- The 17th amendment to the constitution has been repealed;
- The election commission will no longer have the power to prevent the use of state resources during elections.

Apart from the government papers the Daily News and the Sunday Observer, the English language press has led protests against the 18th amendment. The parliamentary opposition, the United National Party (UNP), caved in to the changes (two days after they were publicised, its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe left for a wedding in India. Ranil’s challenger for the UNP leadership, Sajith Premadasa, made no statement about the changes.)

The United National Party ceased long ago to be an effective opposition. It is no longer “national” (it mainly appeals to a westernised urban elite, ignoring the rural masses), nor “united” (many members want their party leader out), nor hardly even a “party” any more (President Rajapaksa has persuaded many of its MPs to cross over to the government).

After parliament passed the amendment — with a majority of 144 votes — the UNP suspended the membership of seven of their MPs who had supported the bill. One TNA (Tamil National Alliance) MP voted with the government. Rauff Hakeem and seven other SLMC (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress) members, elected only this April on the UNP ticket, voted with the government. Hakeem spoke for the bill using time allocated for the opposition. (Hakeem, who once said it was unreasonable to expect a party to stand by its election promises, has taken his party into and out of alliances with the government. He says: “My conscience is clear. I know I have not sought any opportunistic favours.”) (1).

Leftists who have consistently said the presidency was too powerful did not oppose the bill. The 17 votes against the amendment were by members of the DNA (Democratic National Alliance, Sarath Fonseka’s party) and the TNA. The rest of the UNP, including Ranil Wickremesinghe, did not vote.

The received wisdom has been that most of Sri Lanka’s problems have been caused by the executive presidency introduced in President JR Jayawardene’s 1978 constitution. Since 1994, SLFP-led political alliances have been clamouring for changing what was seen as a UNP constitution. SLFP president Kumaratunga promised to abolish it but didn’t. Abolition was a main plank of Fonseka’s platform. Wickremesinghe said the country should be ruled by an executive prime minister (preferably himself). President Rajapaksa himself promised to abolish the executive presidency and has helped the UNP leader by having one-to-one discussions with him purportedly to that end.

Professor GL Peiris entered parliament in 1994 from academia calling for constitutional change. He has served in UNP governments and had a hand in drafting the 17th amendment which he now finds deeply flawed. He is currently foreign minister in the SLFP-led government. Professor Pieris’s explanation for supporting the executive presidency now is that the LTTE would not have been defeated without strong leadership and similarly such power is needed to rebuild the nation.

The 17th amendment provided checks on the powers of the president, providing for high-level appointments like the chief justice, the inspector general of police, and the election commissioner and appointments to the important state commissions.

Inefficiency, and unfairness, results if jobs are handed out as political patronage. TUC secretary Saman Rathnapriya said the end of the 17th amendment will mean a politicised and corrupt public service. Navarthne Bandara, president of the Postal Officers Union, said that under the new arrangements “power to appoint officials to the public service will be vested with ministry secretaries who are appointed by ministers under whose whims and fancies they will function. This will surely have the public service eating out of the politician’s hand” (2).

The pressure group CPA (the Centre for Policy Alternatives) (3) says the 17th amendment did not work because of “intransigence and contempt for constitutional provisions on the part of successive presidents, rather than any fatal structural flaw that made it inherently unworkable.”

The 18th amendment will replace the Constitutional Council by a Parliamentary Council consisting of five members. Three are ex-officio: the speaker, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. The speaker (currently the president’s brother) and the prime minister are nominated by the president. The other two members will be separately nominated by the prime minister and the leader of the opposition (Ranil is routinely referred to by the Sunday Leader as the president’s “fourth brother”) to include ethnic groups not represented by the three ex-officio members.

Those opposed to the amendment are concerned at the way it was rushed through, as an urgent bill without consultation. The Supreme Court ruled that a referendum was not required. The CPA says: “These changes are contrary to the successive mandates given to the president by the people in the 2005 and 2010 presidential elections.” The CPA condemns the secrecy of the operation: “Even at the Supreme Court hearing the intervening petitioners were only given copies of the proposed changes after the government started making its submissions. Few outside government even had access to the proposed amendment before it was sent to the Supreme Court”.

Supporters claim it allows the electorate to vote for whomever they want. Opponents argue that the incumbent has unfair advantage because of the state resources he commands. The changes to the electoral commission further strengthen the position of the incumbent.

A craving for firm government can border on a masochistic desire to be dictatorially dominated. Most businessmen interviewed in Lanka Monthly Digest cite “benevolent” dictators like Lee Kwan Yew or Mahathir Mohammed as personal heroes. Lakbima News editor, Rajpal Abeynayake, writes: “It has to be remembered that Mahathir’s repression in Malaysia and Lee Kwan Yew’s domination in Singapore went as far as was necessary to keep opponents at bay but was tolerated because the economy flourished. There was no toleration of bad governance or political clowns who embarrassed everybody.”

The columnist Malinda Seneviratne warns: “History has shown time and again that tyrants have come to power democratically and ‘nice people’ have ended up abusing trust and position” (4). He adds: “Forget names and faces. Let’s concentrate on the wording. Let’s imagine the unimaginable. It is far better to assess the worth of any particular amendment by imagining that the benefits accrue to the politician you dislike most” (5).

Sri Lanka Dependent on India

Sri Lanka dependent on India

Exclusive June 2010, by Padraig Colman

Sri Lanka’s president Mahinda Rajapaksa visited New Delhi for four days last week for talks with Indian ministers. He returned home with seven bi-lateral agreements with India, and immediately met China’s deputy prime minister in Colombo.

Small nations are bound to have complex relationships with large powerful neighbours. Ireland, for instance, had an ambivalent association with Britain, and the imperial power continued to exert power long after Ireland became independent. Cyprus’s fate will always be intertwined with that of Turkey and Greece. Sri Lanka is a nation about the same size as Ireland with a population of 20 million. Yet just across the Palk Straits there are around 65-70 million Tamils, many of whom were sympathetic to the fight by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) for a separate Tamil state within the territory of Sri Lanka.

India’s support for Sri Lanka in recent years was a vital factor in the defeat of the LTTE in 2009. Radar equipment was supplied and the Indian secret service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), discreetly provided intelligence and training for pilots. Indian naval support prevented the Tiger leaders from escaping by sea to fight again.

The Indian government is today providing aid for de-mining areas formerly controlled by the LTTE and rebuilding the railways in the north. Some Sri Lankans are ambivalent about India’s agenda in promoting reconciliation through devolution, under the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution. India’s help to the LTTE is seared into the national memory – the mines that India is now helping to remove were originally laid with Indian assistance.

Part of the game plan

Governments from the India state of Tamil Nadu had long provided a haven for Tamil separatist militants from Sri Lanka. The central government under Indira Gandhi connived in this, and tolerated the existence of bases and training camps in other parts of India. According to MR Narayan Swamy, the biographer of the LTTE leader Prabakharan, the RAW trained 1,200 Sri Lankan Tamils in the use of weapons and laying mines between 1983 and 1987. Arms deliveries to various groups began in 1984 and went on almost up to the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement in 1987 (1).

Douglas Devananda, once a separatist militant and now a government minister (he accompanied Rajapaksa on his recent trip to India and was threatened with arrest for murders carried out in Tamil Nadu in 1986), says: “We realised that they were only trying to use us in their game plan.” It was widely rumoured that Indira Gandhi intended to use Sri Lankan Tamil rebels as an advance force in a plan to emulate the Turkish action in North Cyprus in 1974 and actually take over part of Sri Lanka. A retired Sri Lankan intelligence officer writing anonymously in the Sunday Leader (2) claims the RAW was responsible for a bomb blast in Colombo’s Pettah market in 1987 and planned to blow up the city’s sewerage system if the Sri Lankan government did not comply with India’s wishes. That same year India, finding the LTTE intractable, sent in the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). The stated intention was to bring a swift end to the conflict by disarming the LTTE, but the Tigers were as ready to fight the Indians as the Sinhalese.

Sri Lankan Tamils were alienated when frustrated Indian soldiers, out of their depth, committed atrocities, such as a massacre of doctors, nurses and patients at a hospital in Jaffna on 21 October 1987. This followed intensive shelling of the city of Jaffna. According to Narayan Swamy: “The Indian army had been welcomed with garlands and prayers…For the mass of Jaffna people, the IPKF offensive was an unbelievable conflagration, a horror movie come true.” And the Sri Lankan government accused India of violating its sovereignty and international law by sending the Indian air force to drop food supplies on Jaffna.

Ranasinghe Premadasa, prime minister of Sri Lanka from 1978-88, had always been opposed to the accord with India. When he succeeded JR Jayawardene as president in December 1988, tensions between Sri Lanka and India increased. Premadasa saw the removal of the IPKF as essential to restore order to the south after the bloody JVP uprising because the Sinhalese nationalist JVP traded on bitter opposition to Indian interference. Premadasa was later assassinated by the LTTE, on May Day 1993.

Withdrawal was completed in March 1990. More than 1,000 Indian soldiers had been killed and over 2,000 wounded. The financial cost to India of its intervention in Sri Lanka was put at around $1.25bn. But the real cost was far higher. Rajiv Gandhi’s mother Indira was the architect of India’s interventionist policy: Rajiv oversaw its intensification and paid the ultimate price – assassination by the LTTE.

Poisoned chalice?

Before Rajapaksa’s visit to India there were street protests in Colombo by leftist elements and high profile lobbying by professional and business people against the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Part of the anxiety about this trade agreement, which has been growing for over two years, is that the government is withholding details, so people fear Sri Lanka could be dominated by cheaper and skilled Indian services at the expense of domestic industry. The fear is that this version of “free trade” with India will be analogous to the way the US uses Nafta to maintain hegemony over weaker trading partners. In The Island newspaper Douglas Jayasekera has related his experience of previous trade negotiations (3).

Deuteronomy tells us that gifts blind the eyes of the wise. Aid can be a poisoned chalice. Indian “aid” has come in the form of interest-bearing loans and development projects have provided few jobs for Sri Lankans. The big Chinese projects have used only Chinese labour. And the Chinese presence building a port at Hambantota has caused India anxiety and may be the reason for the proposed new Deputy High Commission in that city. Many Sri Lankans wonder at the real reason for an Indian diplomatic presence in Jaffna and Hambantota when there are few Indian nationals in either place. The suspicion is that the Jaffna office, which will undoubtedly have RAW personnel on its staff, is to develop closer relations between the Tamil community in Jaffna and Tamil Nadu.

Some Sri Lankans fear being colonised by India. The anonymous intelligence officer links this in with the promotion of the 13th amendment which India imposed on Sri Lanka as a means of devolving power to the north and east, the territory claimed by the LTTE as a Tamil homeland. He claims: “This is a first step towards setting up a client state in the north and east of our country which would ultimately vote to link itself with Tamil Nadu and India”. But Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s UN ambassador in Geneva during the closing stages of the war, sounds a warning note: “If India stops supporting us, not even the Non Aligned Movement will defend us fully, because they take their cue from respected Third World states such as India” (4).

11 comments on « Sri Lanka dependent on India »

  • # Christine :
    17 June 2010 @06h18
    Sri Lanka dependent on India
    India has a overblown population of poverty-stricken citizens And the coastal belt of Tamilnadu state tTrivandrum, Madurai, Chenai,has some filthy living conditions and awful cultural practices like childhood denial and the rest ( film Water, and world media reports)Indira Gandhi created a thirty year war for Srilankans. The horror tactics that killed many are now exposed by her own terror mongers.India have a taste of it now in their own cities as they bounce back on them.We rejoice today as we have freed our country of Indian supported Tamil Terrorism.And Indira Gandhi who is described by western World media as ’Mother of Destruction’ has paid the ultimate price with her own blood and that of her Son, reminding that “History repeats itself”.We appeal to our President to maintain a very cautious but cool relationship with India.India was creating blood shed in many states around them so there will be a day that india stand trial before ’GOD’ and their rivers will then flow with their own blood as we did with ours for the last thirty years. President’s Business relationship with india might damage the Srilankan work culture and ethics.Australian work places are already having trouble with cheap Indian employees who are trained to work as Robots where Creative thinking and decision making under the control of the worker is very poor next to nothing and they have poor and arrogant interpersonal skills.The smooth and gentle communication skills we have in Srilankans in our workplaces will be then diminished for ever.Again we might develop pronunciation problems as one person here said “Indians speak english like they eat MURRUKU” and so it sounds . It is seen that Indians are manipulative in eliminating others from jobs to have another Indian in the job because they come with long term plans of migration,and they can’t face competition in the work place due to inadequate training and social and language inadequacies. Also found that they produce high-school IT certificates as advanced work place IT qualifications to obtain Visas, When these Indian companies bring in cheap Robotic Indian labour, then we are fooled by denying jobs for our own highly qualified Srilankans whom we loose to other countries as brain drain.President please give a thought to our past as there is a Sinhala saying “Ginipelelen bataka miniha kalamadiria tath bayalu” We are an democratic once highly regarded independent nation The Tamil presence in our country has tarnished that image. So they have to face reality and fall in line now to make Srilanka a mother land for all ethnic groups to grow in it.Why this big fuss about only Tamil, and to have Indian dominance in Srilanka Why do they want to have a say in runing our country?.Are our leaders not capable enough to run the country?.
  • # MahamahaRaja :
    17 June 2010 @19h26
    Sri Lanka dependent on India

    India is in no position to dominate Sri Lanka. India is a poor country, with hungry and uneducated masses. Tamil Nadu is a case in point. Therefore there is no way India could support a client state in northern Sri Lanka. However, weak politicians, blinded by gifts (as the author notes) could easily allow this impossibility to become a reality.

    So far, Rajapaksa and the defence establishment have withstood foreign meddling and supported the forces of Good in this country (the military) resolutely and with courage. They are no doubt aware of the RAW meddling in Jaffna and Hambantota, and it is therefore up to them to come up with a calm counter-insurgency operation against these imperialist ambitions of a few jokers in India. I’m sure the Indian people would be horrified if they knew what their leaders were doing, playing Machiavellian games with tiny neighbours while their population lives in squalor, and it is up to decent local and foreign media to highlight these criminal machinations of narcisstic Indian politicians.

    If they really feel for Tamils and support Tamil self-rule, why don’t they allow independence for the real Tamil homeland, Tamil Nadu?

    If Rajapaksa does the foolish thing and go along with Indian gifts, the voters of this country will kick him, his son, and the rest of his family out of power. Sri Lankans do not tolerate double-dealing or betrayal of the sacrifice of the infantrymen, seamen, and airmen of this great nation.

  • #
    18 June 2010 @05h28
    Sri Lanka dependent on India
    I feel CEPA will have adverse affects on Indian economy as China may use Sri Lanka to flood their products to Indian Market.
  • # Richard Kaz :
    18 June 2010 @06h15
    Sri Lanka dependent on India

    The comments from anti-Tamil elements from Sri Lanka are predictable. Unafraid and unashamed to be racist.

    This article is an unbelievable one-sided one. Only pro-Rajapaksa Tamils like Devananda and MR Narayan Swami are quoted. Where is the true opinions of the Tamils in this article?

    Having said that, the Congress Party led government in Delhi was never genuinely interested in the welfare of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. It paid lip service to the issue to attempt to placate the Tamil Nadu people. But with the LTTE defeated and the Rajapaksa regime increasingly showing its true colours as a Sinhala supremacist one, the people of Tamil Nadu cannot be fooled anymore by Delhi’s acquiescence.

    The Sinhala supremacists often ran a false campaign that independence or even autonomy for Sri Lankan Tamils would result in similar demands in Tamil Nadu. But the Tamils knew the opposite was true. If the conflict in Sri Lanka was resolved to the satisfaction of both Tamils and Sinhalese, there will not be any discontent within Tamil Nadu. However with Delhi clearly siding with the Sinhala supremacists and providing protection to them in international forums, the discontent in Tamil Nadu is starting to show.

    What the people of Tamil Nadu and South India in general who genuinely support the welfare of the Tamils in Sri Lanka need to do is take political control of their respective states, ensuring the Congress Party and its allies have no hope of winning elections in the south. This is the only way to bring a government in power in Delhi that has the genuine interests of the Tamils of Sri Lanka at heart.

  • # Padraig Colman :
    18 June 2010 @09h26
    Sri Lanka dependent on India

    To Richard Kaz:
    You say: “This article is an unbelievable one-sided one. Only pro-Rajapaksa Tamils like Devananda and MR Narayan Swami are quoted. Where is the true opinions of the Tamils in this article?”

    I have said this many times but I suppose I will have to say it again to you. There really is no profit to me in being pro or anti Rajapaksa. I really am not interested in “taking sides”.

    Tell me about the ”true opinions of the Tamils”. I have been engaged in a debate elsewhere about Israel. Any gentile who criticises the Israeli government is branded as an anti-Semite. Israeli historians who dare to write about the ethnic cleansing and brutality involved in the foundation of the state of Israel are branded self-hating Jews.

    Similarly, Tamils who disagree with you to not qualify to be representative of the ”true opinions of the Tamils”. Who are the “Tamils”? The name does not describe a homogeneous entity. There are differences of origin, social class, caste, economic status, education – it seems to me to verge on racism to lump them all together and assume that they all have the same interests and opinions. Rather like saying all blacks are good dancers or all Irish are drunks.
    If you read with an unbiased eye what I actually wrote you will understand that I am not quoting Douglas Devananda on the current situation. I am quoting what he said a long time ago what he said about India training Tamil militant separatists in the mid 80s. He was not pro-Rajapaksa then because Rajapaksa was not significant.

    What are your grounds for accusing MR Narayan Swami of being pro-Rajapaksa? He is an Indian national, a respected investigative journalist who probably knows more about Prabakharan and the Tigers than anyone else. Again, when he wrote what I am quoting, Rajapaksa was not important. What are you talking?!

    All of the Tamil groups that formerly pursued an agenda of militant separatism have condemned the Transnational Government and said that the only realistic option for Tamils in Sri Lanka is to work constructively with the Rajapaksa government. That does not necessarily mean agreeing with everything. Even the TNA, the LTTE’s proxy in parliament, has agreed to work constructively with the government. The only Tamil groups who do not accept the current reality are certain elements of the Tamil diaspora.

    Where do you live Richard?

    I have lived for eight years in the poorest district of the poorest province of Sri Lanka. The nearest other white face is an hour and a half drive away. He is an Englishman aged 89 who has lived here since 1956 and was married to a Sinhalese. I am also married to a Sinhalese. We are surrounded by Tamils and Muslims. Our best friends are Tamils and I run my articles past them for comments. I also correspond with leading Sri Lankan journalists of varying shades of opinion. I read a vast number of Tamil blogs and websites. Most people think this has given me a balanced outlook although some have accused me of “regurgitating LTTE propaganda” when I discuss Tamil grievances.

    I hope you are not including me in your “racist” jibe! I am an Irish citizen and am well-versed in the history of imperialist oppression and racism. My experience of more recent Irish history convinces me of the toxic effects of nationalist myths. We see the effects of such myths in Sri Lanka today. Tamil grievances were not mythical but now is the time for reconciliation.

    I can agree with your contention: “Having said that, the Congress Party led government in Delhi was never genuinely interested in the welfare of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.” I think that most Tamils actually living in Sri Lanka want matters to be “resolved to the satisfaction of both Tamils and Sinhalese”. The diaspora should be working towards that rather than trying to refight the war which has been lost.

    Christine asks: “Why do they want to have a say in running our country? Are our leaders not capable enough to run the country?” Good question. Sri Lankans of all ethnic groups are cynical about their politicians.

    Thank you for your comment MahamaRaja. You don’t seem quite as angry with me as usual. Tell Richard how you think I am pro-LTTE. He thinks I am pro Rajapaksa and bigoted against Tamils! I should stress that I did not choose the title of this piece. My working title was: “Sri Lanka and India, Past, Present and Future”.

  • # Rajkumar :
    18 June 2010 @12h42
    Sri Lanka dependent on India
    I do not believe SriLankan Tamils have any grievance to resolve, except that some Tamils are not willing to lead the life of a minority community in SriLanka like so many minorities in so many other countries.
    India’s plan is quite clear but lets have faith in the current leadership not to fall into any Indian or western trap. Even if they do fall into the Indian trap, India will not benefit as SriLanka could end up as India’s Vietnam. SriLanka is strategically positioned in the Indian Ocean and there are other power players who would do anything to dislodge India if they are stupid enough to invade SriLanka. India probably is aware of this and that’s why they have not invaded the country as yet. In fact I understand Rajapakse had told India during the last stages of the war that India if they so wished could invade SriLanka but Rajapakse was not going to give in to their demand to halt the elimination of their creation, the LTTE.
  • # MahamahaRaja :
    18 June 2010 @15h44
    Sri Lanka dependent on India

    Padraig, the time for argument is over. Often, western journalists have no appreciation of the context of the terrorist war, and have quite plainly been taking the terrorist side on this issue, while condemning al-Qaeda, Hamas etc. on other issues. Worse than a lack of appreciation of the fact that the most recent war instigated by Tamil supremacists is simply the latest battle of a two thousand five hundred year war against the Sinhalese Buddhists, is that many journalists knowingly hide this history and context and instead start spouting “Tamil grievances” as the cause of the war.

    If it is the case that you are genuine in your concern for Sri Lanka, then let me try and put my case to you. You very well know the most recent history, of British favouritism of Tamils, the majority imported by the British to work on the plantations as the Sinhalese refused to bow down to the imperialists. This favouritism for Tamils against Sinhalese served two purposes: 1. to employ the standard divide and rule means of controlling illegally occupied foreign territory; 2. to serve as a battering ram against Buddhism, by importing a load of pliable people from South India who would be willing to trade their language and religion for some power over the Sinhalese. The same tactic was used by the British, using the very same Tamils of Tamil Nadu, in order to subdue the Malays of Malaysia and the Africans of Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, and other countries.

    It resulted in blatant racism against Sinhalese in every facet of life, and worse it resulted in the superiority complex of many Tamils, something which will continue to be a stumbling block to ethnic harmony until they are re-educated that in a democracy, Tamils will not be able to be “more equal” than others.

    The removal of ill-gotten and undeserving privileges in no way constitutes a “grievance” or “discrimination.” Tamil politicians of yesteryear would occupy the best houses in Colombo 7, live lives of luxury and send their children abroad, while not lifting one finger to improve the lives of their constiuents in Wanni. And every election period, they would then go up there and demonise the Sinhalese, when it was the Tamils who had the control of the country (in the imperial period and beyond). Restoration of equality following the departure of the occupiers necessarily led to loss of Tamil power, but this is seen as in injustice by many Tamils. Ponnambalam, a leading Tamil politician at the time of Independence, decried how introducing universal suffrage and democracy to Sri Lanka would lead to “people being counted like cattle,” meaning that land-owners (land and wealth, were gifts for imperial servitude) would become equal to the common man, ie the Sinhalese Buddhists who would not trade their religion for an education.

    The 1983 riot is another example. Shortly before the massacre of 13 unarmed soldiers as they returned home on leave, the country was awash with western and Indian media people. How convenient then that they were all in place and deployed for the rioting that began a few days later. In addition, far more Tamils than were actually affected by the rioting left the island. The astonishing thing is that these people, who said their lives were in danger, rather than fleeing to their cultural and ethnic homeland, Tamil Nadu, just 20 miles across the Palk Strait, rather made a beeline 7000 miles away to Australia, Canada and Europe. The ones who carried out the rioting were not representative of the majority of the Sinhalese, but rather was an ethnic mix which included criminal Tamils and muslims who had a chance to loot. The “ethnic” tinge was added later, by the international media. The numbers of dead were greatly increased for sensationialism, and long forgotten were the massacres of Sinhalese villagers by roving Tamil terrorist butchers, who even extracted foetuses from Sinhalese mothers before killing both foetus and mother.

    This media corruption is attested to by the fact that a journalist recently wrote of how faked “exotic” tales of daring reporting in Soviet Afghanistan were written by many journalists reporting at the time, often writing heart-rending tales of Soviet massacres of Afghans which never even happened, all in order to shape public opinion and further their careers through “sob” stories.

    Who gained from 1983? The Tamils, who were able to exercise their dream of economic migration to the west through the emotional camouflage of “fleeing persecution”; the western meddlers who sought to use a destabilised Sri Lanka as a Kosovo style base against the USSR; the Christian missionaries who had a great opportunity at forced conversions in a destabilised nation; India which sought to further increase the size of its “Union,” with a chance to realize at last Nehru’s dream of “Ceylon within the Indian Union”; and the NGOs who would be able to engage in many depraved activities – yes we know about the deal the Norweigians made with Prabhakaran to have access to children in the terroristan regions.

    Who lost from 1983? The Sinhalese Buddhists.

    Several other questions remain. JR Jayawardena, the first executive president, leader at the time, was half Tamil, and was Christian (faux conversion allowed him to become president). Why did he order the bodies of the soldiers to be brought back to Colombo, knowing that tensions were high among the people, when the normal procedure was to take the bodies to their home villages? The heads of the military and police at the time were Tamils, so why didn’t they deploy the military to save their own Tamil brethren? They remained confined to barracks while the rioting continued.

    What are the “grievances” of the minorities? Nobody is able to name them. If by grievance, they mean that Tamils can no longer admit Tamils to medical school over better qualified Sinhalese, as was common during the colonial and even post-colonial period, then this is unacceptable. If by grievance they mean that 50% of parliamentary seats are not reserved solely for Tamils who make up just 11% of the total population of the country, as was demanded by Tamil politicians shortly before Independence, then this too is unacceptable. Many people have aspirations, and delusions of power and grandeur, but when unfair, racist or apartheid-creating demands are not met, these do not qualify as “grievances”.

    There has been no discrimination against minorities in Sri Lanka, systematic or otherwise, and if the LTTE fronts had any evidence of this they would have shown it. The majority of Colombo (the capital of Sri Lanka) are Tamils, and Tamils and Muslims dominate the business sector – if they were being persecuted, why would they remain? Wishful thinking does not stand up in a court of law, and even less in a court of morals or ethics. Therefore, no “South Africa” style reconciliation as has been advocated recently, is required. In fact, it is the Sinhalese majority who were oppressed by the Tamil minority during the British occupation, and just as in South Africa, it is that, REAL apartheid of the past which needs to be investigated.

    As I said before, India should not be permitted to interfere with Sri Lanka. Rajapakse stood up to the mighty western international opinion, it will be no trouble at all to stand up to India. A clear distinction must be made however between the Indian people as a whole, and the megalomaniac Indian government.

  • # MahamahaRaja :
    18 June 2010 @16h03
    Sri Lanka dependent on India

    Let me further add that as I said in my opening above, the time for argument is over. This means that it is time to move forward, with equality as a principle guiding factor for all future policies, and that includes allowing Sinhalese who were ethnically cleansed from the north to return to their ancestral homes. Also, there are plenty of peaceful Tamils, and my quarel is not with them but rather with Sri Lankan and diaspora Tamil supremacists.

    Also, it is rather interesting how you continue to call the LTTE “rebels”, even though all the western countries including Britain and Ireland have designated them as Terrorists. On the other hand, the Sunnis are “insurgents” – how can you be an insurgent in your own country? And al-Qaeda are terrorists, not rebels. And then you ask why Sri Lankans call you double-standard using hypocrites?

    All the western media does this, stubbornly referring to Tamil terrorists as “rebels” when their modus operandi is terrorism, their actions are terrorism, and their sole purpose was to strike terror into the hearts of the Sinhalese – which they did until May 18 2009. Terrorism is terrorism is terrorism.

  • # Padraig Colman :
    18 June 2010 @16h26
    Sri Lanka dependent on India

    I spoke to soon when I said you didn’t seem as angry with me as usual.

    “This means that it is time to move forward, with equality as a principle guiding factor for all future policies.” I totally agree with that. I believe also that it is fruitless and dangerous to keep banging on about what was supposed to have happened thousands of years ago.

    “Terrorism is terrorism is terrorism.” I totally agree with that. I have argued in many articles that those in the west who thought of the LTTE as “freedom fighters” were delusional or hypocritical or worse. Calling them “rebels” does not mean that they weren’t terrorists. They were rebelling against the recognised government. I think you are fighting with the wrong person here. You are imagining postions that I am not taking.

  • # Prashan :
    21 June 2010 @11h13
    Sri Lanka dependent on India

    Good one! India should not worry about Tamil Nadu pressure at all! Basically the fact is that Sri Lanka must be in good terms with India just like Mongolia having to be warm with China. If any small country is next to a giant, they must maintain good ties.

    I am critical of India insisting on implementing the 13th amendment! They must understand that federalism is not suitable to a tiny country like Sri Lanka

  • # Tipu Sultan :
    22 June 2010 @03h17
    Sri Lanka dependent on India
    An interesting article. I write this as a Tamil from Madras who has visited Sri Lanka many times and currently calls Chicago home. Beyond the anecdotal references to all things Indian and India (which are a tad disingenuous) from the other respected comments, may I make the following points.
    1) It is a fact that the Sinhalese are a generally tolerant laid back group who are quite fun loving.
    2) It is also a fact that there are a few xenophobic elements in Sinhalese politics which have enlarged difference’s between the two major ethnic groups over the last 45 years.
    3) Fact- the Indian Army and the RAW trained Tamil groups for a number of years. (primarily as a carrot and stick approach to bend Colombo to India’s long term ambitions in the area) (this was part of systemic plan to train opposing elements eg: Bhindranwale’s group in Punjab etc etc etc)
    4) Fact – The IPKF’s primary mission was to subdue all militant separatist groups in Sri Lanka. (as part of an ’agreement’ between the govt in New Delhi and Columbo) Their early exit was a consequence of losing 12,000 soldiers in combat and not 1000 as reported. (India’s ’Vietnam’ moment)
    5) Fact- India views Sri Lanka as the most important point in its Naval strategy for the Indian Ocean and consequently would prefer a ’friendly’ dictator in Columbo.
    6) Fact – Tamil ’independence’ would have been a stumbling block to these long term plans and consequently the LTTE was sacrificed militarily. It is germane to point out that the LTTE was running a de-facto government in the North for many years , their military defeat was mainly a result of extensive Indian and Israeli military involvement
    7) The Indian government has no interest in the outcome of the Tamil’s fate in Sri Lanka, consequently offering Rajapaksa any number of ’gifts’ behooves New Delhi.
    8)Fact: the Tamils in Tamilnadu do not have any natural ties to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, various governments in TamilNadu supported the LTTE merely out of monetary gain (were paid handsomely by the LTTE to drum up local ’support’)
    9) The future for Sri Lanka will include extensive ’ties’ to India, expect them to be announced soon.
    10) Displaced Tamils will be forgotten, expect them to slowly die away as a silent unequal ethnic group.
    11) For those of you who meet the displaced poor Tamils in Sri Lanka, pause a moment and realize that their fate was determined by the mandarins in New Delhi and not by their ethnic affiliations.
    12) And for those of you who meet the ’expatriate arrogant Tamil’ cut them some slack, they have no home to go back to and merely cover their insecurities with a veneer of arrogance.
    13) For travelers like me, I feel a immense sense of sadness on what has transpired over the last 28 years in Sr Lanka – almost 350,000 dead, a huge diaspora spread over the world and the futile remnants of anger in various online forums.
    14) My advice to the Sinhalese: view New Delhi with caution, their calling card is treachery and intrigue.

Sri Lanka Post Elections

Sri Lanka post elections

Exclusive April 2010, by Padraig Colman

On 8 April Sri Lankans went to the polls to elect a new parliament. This was the first general election since the defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in May last year and the first in almost 30 years which covered the whole nation.

It was a resounding victory, in seats, for the governing coalition headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) won 144 seats; the main opposition coalition the UNF (United National Front) 46; the DNA (Democratic National Alliance) consisting of a rump of the Marxist JVP (People’s Liberation Front) and supporters of retired General Sarath Fonseka, won five seats. Fonseka, who lost the presidential election in January and is now imprisoned and awaiting court martial on charges of fraudulent activities while Army Commander, won a seat in a Colombo ward.

Serge Halimi wrote in the January issue of Le Monde diplomatique: “Political combat sometimes stresses personal antagonisms and obsessive antipathies too much. The need for an all-out attack on an opponent makes for diverse alliances motivated solely by the desire to destroy the common enemy. But once that enemy has been brought down, the problems begin. What next? To make political decisions, the grey areas which in opposition had made an alliance possible have to be dispelled, and that brings disenchantment.” In this case the opponent was not brought down but disenchantment followed anyway.

I am not a great fan of counterfactual history but I would speculate that a military coup would have been possible if Fonseka had won the presidency. The coalition that supported his candidacy was fragile, its only unifying factor hatred of Rajapaksa. Fonseka’s intervention in politics has had the effect of weakening the opposition still further. The main opposition party, the UNP is dead in the water with its leader, Ranil Wickramesinghe, the butt of jokes. One of the kindest comments was that he is “personally hapless”. He gained 230,000 votes and a seat in Colombo but a former JVP man, Wimal Weerawansa, won more preferential votes (280,000).

The revolutionary JVP recovered from defeat (by torture and death squads) in 1989 to become a constitutional party that earned respect in many quarters for its grassroots approach to the problems of ordinary Sinhalese, and was seen as free of corruption. The JVP once had a say in government but joining Fonseka in his DNA party has lost them their previously solid bases: JVP activists are giving up politics and even leaving the country, and the party’s 39 seats in the previous parliament has been slashed to three.

The UNF tried to woo the minorities but failed. The Tamil National Alliance has transformed itself into ITKA (Illanka Thamil Arasu Katchi) and won only 15 seats, compared with the TNA’s 22 in the previous house. The governing UPFA won Nuwara Eliya, with its large population of plantation Tamils, from the UNF and the district now has seven Tamil MPs. Another district with a large population of plantation Tamils, Badulla, did not elect a single Tamil MP. There are signs that the dominant UPFA will become a national party with serious clout in the Tamil-majority areas of the north and east and that ITAK will decline without the LTTE’s muscle. The UPFA will probably extend its influence in the north through its ability to fund development and provide jobs and patronage.

There was a record number of candidates, but voting itself was lower than it had ever been. Sri Lanka has usually boasted a healthy turnout compared to most democracies – around 75%. Even during the times of the 1989 uprising (when the JVP were killing people who tried to vote and putting their heads on spikes), the turnout was 63%. This time it was around 50% and in the north it was a mere 23%.

The establishment of a Rajapaksa dynasty may be a matter of concern to commentators but it doesn’t seem to trouble the voters: Mahinda Rajapaksa got 60% of the vote in the presidential election. And in the general election, brother Basil got an astounding 425,861 preference votes. Three Rajapaksas were elected in Hambantota district. Rajapaksa has promised to abolish the executive presidency. Constitutional changes require a two-thirds vote in parliament. This has generally been thought impossible under proportional representation but Rajapaksa has almost achieved the requisite number of seats and has shown his skill in the past at forging coalitions and inducing crossovers. Some suspect that Rajapaksa wants to make constitutional changes because he is plotting a Putinesque ploy to become executive prime minister in perpetuity.

Many believe that devolution of power is essential to prevent further separatist revolts The 13th amendment to the constitution has been seen as the way forward on this but it has been in abeyance for some time. It was imposed by India, which is still promoting it. Not everyone, Tamil or Sinhalese, agrees that it is the panacea.

The 17th amendment has also been in abeyance. It was drafted to provide safeguards for human rights and curbs on police powers. Linked in with this are concerns about press freedom and corruption. Unemployment, youth and graduate dissatisfaction led to bloody revolutions in the past and the education system is felt by many to be in need of reform. A huge task faces the government if it is to reintegrate the north and east into the national economy.

Rajapaksa did not win the presidency easily in 2005 but now the nation seems transformed in his image. He has played a canny political game and people from a wide spectrum are grateful to him because, after 30 years of vicious war, there have been no terrorist incidents for over a year. Does he have the ability to now unite the nation and improve the economy?


Nationalism is the culprit

Exclusive July 2009, by Padraig Colman

One of the comments on my previous article on Sri Lanka for Le Monde diplomatique’s blog was: “Please write objectively on other conflicts too.”

So here I’d like to discuss the concept of revenge, and reflect on how the legitimate fight for human rights can transmute into terrorism when tainted by perverted fantasies of nationalism.

The non-violent civil-rights protests in Northern Ireland were hi-jacked by the Provisional IRA who appointed themselves protectors of the Catholic community and hitched the issue to their own nationalist agenda of a united Ireland.

Is there an inevitable regression from Northern Irish Catholics suffering discrimination, to innocent English (and Irish) people being blown to giblets while enjoying a drink with friends?

In Sri Lanka, militant separatism gained strength and developed into terrorism when Tamils’ grievances were not addressed through the normal democratic process. Inaction by successive governments led to action by militants which led to reaction from the ill-disciplined and ineffective security forces. Like the Black and Tans in Ireland, who burned villages in reprisal for rebel actions, Sri Lankan soldiers responded to the killing of comrades by killing innocents. The horrific anti-Tamil violence of July 1983 accelerated the emigration of Tamils from Sri Lanka, which in turn strengthened the position of the LTTE against other Tamil groups because of diaspora funding.

Where is the proportionality between unfair university admission quotas and a 30-year war and 100,000 dead? What was the connection between discrimination against Tamils and extortion and drug trading? How did the Sinhala-only policy lead to the assassination of Tamil politicians and the maiming of small children? How can a recurrence of such conflict be prevented?

“Revenge doesn’t know how to choose between the guilty and the innocent”. Slavko Goldstein wrote that in his book, 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning. Goldstein is a Croatian Jew and describes the ethnic tensions during the second world war in former Yugoslavia. Goldstein’s father, who was a communist as well as a Jew, was taken away by the Ustashi, the ruling elite of the Nazi puppet state of Croatia, and never seen again.

The Ustashi began rounding up Serbs in April 1941. Extermination camps were set up in the woods and ravines of the Velebit Mountains. One camp at Jadnovno lasted 55 days and held 4,000 Serbs and Jews. Of those, 3,999 were killed (one escaped) by taking them to the edge of a pit where they were bludgeoned with sledgehammers and axes. These events were remembered in the 1990s when Milosevic, in his push for a Greater Serbia, massacred Muslims and Croats.

The poet, Charles Simic comments: “Once more, the culprit was nationalism, that madness of identifying with a single ethnic group to a point where one recognises no other duty other than furthering its interests even if it means placing its actions beyond good and evil. Many the world over believe this is the only way; that the survival of their people justifies any crime they commit. They find the scruples of those who cringe at the shedding of innocent blood in pursuit of some noble cause naive and repugnant”.

Benedict Anderson wrote: “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny”. Nations “loom out of an immemorial past” and “glide into a limitless future.” Or, in the words of Ernest Gellner: “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.” Paul Ignotus, meanwhile, wrote of Hungary: “A nation is born when a few people decide that it should be.”

Irish historians like Roy Foster have deconstructed their nation’s foundation myths: “The construction of ‘advanced’ Irish nationalism at home relied on buttressing from abroad, and so did the creation of Irish identity.” As large and influential Irish communities were established in the US and Britain, the Irish diaspora kept alive the fairy tales. Sinister men rattled collection boxes in north London pubs “for the boys”. Americans dreamed about their romantic Irish roots and gave money to Noraid for IRA arms.

Nationalists in Ceylon such as AE Goonesinha were stimulated by accounts of Parnell, Davitt and the Irish freedom movement and closely followed Irish events in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Sinhalese Buddhist thinkers such as Ratmalane Sri Dharmarama thero and the Tamil disciple of William Morris, Ananda Coomaraswamy, wrote of an ancient, highly developed Lankan civilisation. Another Sinhalese, Anagarika Dharmapala, wistfully dreamed of a dazzling past: “We must wake from our slumber… We were a great people”. The Tamil political leader, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, wrote in his diary: “Thought much of the unhappy conditions of our country and what a glorious thing it would be for Ceylon to emulate and excel her great past.”

Modern-day Sri Lankans might echo Adamantios Koraes’s 1803 remarks about his contemporary Greeks’ relation to their classical ancestors. He said: “We must either try to become again worthy of this name, or we must not bear it.”

Sinhalese and Tamils, just like the Irish and countless other “nationalities”, delude themselves with the false memory syndrome of ancient glories and rights, which, unfortunately, are too often defined by hatred of “the other”.

The film critic Mark Cousins has noted the current prevalence of vengeance as a theme in movies. One of the questions of our time is how a tribe that has been harmed finds peace. Filmmakers’ answer seems to be to return harm to those who harmed. Movies seem to give comfort by ventilating an audience’s feelings of impotence. Armchair warriors get some satisfaction by keeping anger alive and espousing vengeance as if life were a movie, the pain of the wounded and incarcerated a matter relevant to their own egos. Action and reaction – will the cycle never be broken?

Debates on blogs often generate more heat than light. One despairs about reconciliation in Sri Lanka when one reads comments like this: “While you are at the praying mood also pray that the Transnational Tamils will be merciful on the Sinhalese when they are done with the ground work for a bigger and more deadlier struggle against you, your racist Sinhalese sisters and brothers led by your majesty the King Mahinda”. Tough guy at the keyboard without even good grammar!

On the other side there are many expressions by bloggers of distasteful Sinhalese triumphalism.

In 1938 the Irish nationalist, Stephen Gwynn, wrote: “We know in Ireland, and probably they know in Poland, in Slovakia and in Russia, and in a score of other countries where revolution has succeeded, what is the cost of victorious hate.”

There comes a time when truth and reconciliation has to take the place of endlessly rehearsing grievances from centuries back, as the Irish were prone to do. Sectarian killings in Northern Ireland sporadically continued long after the IRA gave up their arms, but peace now seems the norm. Only this week loyalist paramilitaries announced that they had renounced violence (tell that to the Roma that they terrorised into leaving Ireland).

In Sri Lanka, the grievances are still present and sharp and will take skilful and sensitive action by the victorious and currently popular government to manage.

Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of the kind of thing France needed to forget in order to be a nation. Will Sri Lankans be able to forget the many horrors of recent decades and forge a new nation combining all cultural histories as successfully as the Sri Lankan cricket team?

Sri Lanka: concentration camps or welfare centres ?

Sri Lanka: concentration camps or welfare centres ?

Exclusive August 2009, by Padraig Colman

Now that the war is over we are getting very contradictory reports on the situation in Sri Lanka. On 8 August Amnesty International criticised the Sri Lanka government for forcibly confining internally displaced people (IDPs) in camps. Meanwhile the Centre for Policy Alternatives has presented a petition to the government saying that 300,000 civilians are being detained illegally. The former chief justice Sarath Silva fears that the continuing confinement of Tamils could cause a new war.

Sections of the Tamil diaspora have described the camps as being part of a genocidal agenda. The government calls the camps “welfare centres”. Critics call them “concentration camps”.

A group of volunteers summarised their observations after visiting the camps. They said that:

- many families have relatives to go to but are kept in the camps;
- families are separated in different zones;
- the camps are administered by armed military personnel;
- and they concluded that aid agencies should be able to talk to the displaced.

The editor of The Hindu, N Ram, described Menik Farm: “Conditions in these camps are much better than has been depicted, without visiting the camps, in western media reports. Moreover, they are visibly better than conditions in Sri Lankan refugee camps in India, which are still mostly inaccessible to journalists, researchers, and other outsiders.” This is not to say that Menik Farm is a Club Mediterranée, but it isn’t Belsen either. I was surprised to read that in April, before the war was over, banks had set up ATMs in the camps. The Sri Lankan government is meeting basic needs, including education for schoolchildren and vocational training for youths.

However, the Tamil News says that according to “reliable sources”, foreigners are being misled by being shown the better facilities.

Laurent Sury, head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières, observes that “with such a large number of people concentrated together, there is always the risk of waterborne disease with the rains.” The World Health Organisation says no large outbreaks of disease have been reported so far, although there is a risk of malaria and diarrhoea, and now there are worries about skin diseases.

Meanwhile an Indian medical team arrived in Sri Lanka on 10 March and set up a hospital in Pulmoddai in the Trincomalee district to receive IDPs being brought by Red Cross ships from the areas held by the LTTE. India now feels that conditions have improved sufficiently to withdraw by the end of August.

Security concerns

Adnan Khan, country director of the World Food Programme, confirms that “food supplies have never been affected by access restrictions.” He said his people were able to move freely within the camps.

One of the reasons given for holding people in the camps and restricting access was to weed out hard-core LTTE fighters. Interhamwe infiltration and intimidation was a serious problem in the camps housing Rwandan refugees in Goma. There have been reports of LTTE posters appearing in the Sri Lankan camps.

The army is finding large stores of weapons, ammunition and explosives hidden by the LTTE and expects to recover more. Vavuniya District Tamil National Alliance MP, S Kishor, said he was aware that around 50,000 IDPs have escaped from welfare camps by paying money to police and army personnel. Defence chief Gotabhaya Rajapaksa warned this could be a part of a strategy to revive the LTTE.

Many of us living in Sri Lanka feared that, despite the defeat of the LTTE, children traveling to school on buses or people buying food in markets would continue to be maimed and killed. A friend who was often vehement in her criticism of the president said: “I thank the president for finishing off the LTTE, who did nothing for the Tamils here. They represented the Tamils overseas. I thank the president because we do not hear of any deaths anymore due to bombs. What a relief that is to those of us who live here.”


The government says it will take at least six months to make the areas from which IDPs fled habitable again. The LTTE littered the area with land mines. India has already sent de-mining experts and the UK has promised £500,000 to the Mines Advisory Group.

Houses need to be rebuilt and other facilities provided: the LTTE controlled the area but neglected the infrastructure. The government plans to resettle at least 80% of those in the camps by the end of the year and rehabilitate over 10,000 ex-LTTE cadres and thousands of families who had direct contacts with the LTTE.

The UNHCR described a previous resettlement of 2,231 to seven villages in the Musali division in the southern part of Mannar district, which at one time was controlled by the LTTE: “The government has applied good practices in IDP return…The process was carried out in safety and dignity.”

On 9 June, 2,120 Tamils and Muslims were re-settled. At the end of June, some 9,000 people aged 60 or more were allowed to leave the camps and join their relatives. On 5 August, 1,100 people boarded 70 buses to return to Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara in areas where de-mining, reconstruction of roads, supply of electricity and water were already completed. “I’m happy to go back to my own house. I never thought that we would be able to resettle in such a short period,” P Sundaralingam told Reuters in Jaffna.

The Canadian minister Bev Oda was encouraged by what she saw in the camps. “This is not an ideal situation,” she said but “I would say that in partnership with international organisations, the government of Sri Lanka is making very good efforts to meet the basic needs.’’ The Tamil journalist DB Jeyaraj writes: “I ask readers not to engage in ethnic-orientated recrimination about the IDP plight. Please see those caught up in a humanitarian tragedy as human beings and not as ethnic beings.”

Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

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