Describing the Tamil diaspora as among the most successful in the world, he said it could play a big role in Sri Lanka’s growth.
by Amra Ghouse, Kumaran Nadesan, Suthamie Poologasingham, Nima Ranawana and Viranjith Tilakaratne
When Sri Lanka celebrated its 67th Independence Day on February 4, it did so filled with hope that it can finally realize its true social, political and economic potential. Many Sri Lankan Canadians too are now cautiously optimistic about that country’s future.
This renewed hope for Sri Lanka is especially pronounced because of the stillborn reboot from six years ago. Then, in May 2009, the Sri Lankan state ended nearly 30 years of its own ‘war on terrorism’ defeating the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In the process, however, a brutal price was extracted from ethnic minority Tamils caged in the crossfire whose dead and disappeared are still being counted – now the subject of an international UN investigation. The populism of the wartime presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa started eroding away soon after the war as nepotism, corruption, and cosmetic reconciliation efforts angered many in Sri Lanka and around the world. Additionally, authoritarianism, religiously motivated violence against Muslims and Christians, and a belligerent foreign policy pivot towards China alarmed powerful allies abroad.
It was in this context that Maithripala Sirisena, a sitting Cabinet Minister, stepped up as the common candidate to front a surprising coalition of communists, Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, Tamil and Muslim minorities, and others to lead a ‘rainbow revolution’ against Rajapaksa. On January 8, 2015, in a largely peaceful transfer of power, Sirisena won the election with a record voter turnout of almost 82 per cent. Nearly half of the majority Sinhala Buddhists voted in his favour, with Muslims and Tamils playing kingmaker, the latter wisely rejecting the call from some quarters to boycott the election.
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Nearly half of the majority Sinhala Buddhists voted in his favour, with Muslims and Tamils playing kingmaker, the latter wisely rejecting the call from some quarters to boycott the election.[/quote]
Since then, President Sirisena has initiated a wide-ranging set of reforms as part of his First 100 Days Program, aimed at building good governance while also addressing the long-standing grievances of the Tamil people, perhaps recognizing the inter-connectedness between both issues.
There are already encouraging signs.
Sirisena has not backed away from his main election promise of abolishing the unfettered Executive Presidency. He has appointed a leaner Cabinet and has also started cutting back on presidential expenses. A sweeping corruption probe has begun to investigate the excesses of the Rajapaksa coterie. A populist, interim Budget has been tabled ahead of parliamentary elections in April 2015. The government has also rolled back much of the media censorship imposed by the previous regime. The unlawfully impeached former Chief Justice was reinstated, and just last week, a new Chief Justice has been appointed on the basis of merit who also happens to be a Tamil – a first in over two decades.
With respect to Tamil grievances, Sirisena has scrapped the economic embargo on Tamil regions and reversed a recent ban on foreign nationals, many of them diaspora Tamils, visiting the former war zones. The military governor of the Northern Province, where Tamils have traditionally lived, has been replaced with a former UN diplomat. Even more significantly, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has negotiated consensus within the coalition to implement constitutional amendments that will see more powers devolving to provinces albeit within a unitary state.
Some analysts have correctly observed that these amendments should be treated only as the first step in a longer devolution journey towards creating a truly inclusive national identity. To create more goodwill, the government has also announced that it will release 275 political prisoners, representing only a small percentage of the total number of Tamils being held in secret camps; publicly committed to returning Tamil lands that were illegally seized by the military; and is interested in repatriating the two generations of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in neighboring India.
It is important to note, however, that it is still early days for the new government. Rather troublingly, Sirisena has stuck to his predecessor’s line about not demilitarizing the Northern Province, and has also promised immunity for the political and military leadership of the previous regime from any international inquiry – likely to make more inroads into the Sinhala Buddhist base and to hold his rambunctious coalition together. Neither of these positions, however, will endear him to Tamil voters in the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections or the Tamil diaspora that wields great political influence in their host countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom that have general elections of their own coming up later this year.
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Neither of these positions will endear him to Tamil voters in the ... Tamil diaspora that wields great political influence in their host countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom that have general elections of their own coming up later this year.[/quote]
Both of these countries are also key allies in the mainly U.S.-backed UN investigation on Sri Lanka which is expected to report back to the UN Human Rights Council next month. It remains the case that only such an international investigation can be fair and independent enough to deliver the kind of justice and accountability needed to allow for the meaningful reconciliation of Tamils to Sri Lanka.
This context, then, forms the litmus test for Sirisena’s political will to go beyond symbolic gestures and dive deeper to address the structural barriers to a democratic, inclusive, and peaceful Sri Lanka. By addressing systemic discrimination faced by minorities, especially Tamils, Sirisena can not only cement his own place in history but also gain the support of old and new allies in completing the country’s transition to middle-income status and awaken to its own ‘tryst with destiny’. Just as importantly, he can also earn the trust of the powerful diaspora, like that in Canada, and tap into their investment potential and knowledge base to help build a new Sri Lanka since they, including many Tamils in spite of the burden of memory and loss, still recognize the island as the place where their roots remain.
The authors are interim advisors to Sri Lankans Without Borders (SLWB), an independent, Toronto-based not-for-profit organization that promotes cross-community engagement between various ethnic communities in the Sri Lankan Canadian diaspora. SLWB is also firmly committed to a democratic, inclusive and peaceful Sri Lanka on the basis of truth, accountability and justice for all people. This opinion was originally published on Groundviews and has been re-published with minor edits.
by Ranjit Bhaskar
That a public event held in the memory of a slain Sri Lankan journalist was not immune to tensions caused by the civil strife there is a reminder of its intensity four years after the defeat of Tamil Tiger forces.
The presence of private security at the Lasantha Wickrematunge Memorial Lecture in Toronto last weekend meant that the organizers were not taking chances with emotions that are still raw. This was reinforced when moderator Naheed Mustafa warned participants that they would be whisked away if deocrum was not maintained at the event, hosted jointly by Sri Lankans Without Borders and the South Asian Journalists Association.
Rather unusually it began with apologies on two counts – for the last-minute dropping out by two featured speakers for “personal reasons” and for the panel being not representative of the fractured South Asian island’s ethnic mix. But to the credit of the panelists present, they brought fair and rare perspective to the lack of media freedom and the resultant ills afflicting a country that should be cashing in on the peace dividend.
“No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces - and, in Sri Lanka, journalism.” This was the opening sentence of the article Wickrematunge wrote days before he was killed in 2009. This message about the messenger being targeted could not been starker.
“It is tragic that media censorship and political oppression against which Lasantha [Wickrematunge] struggled valiantly then, and for which he died, persist four years after his death,” said J.S. Tissainayagam, one of the panelists and an acclaimed journalist who is in exile after being arrested and sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment in Sri Lanka for criticizing the government’s treatment of Tamil civilians affected by the war.
“Following the military campaign, there are fundamentally two ways whereby the present government has imposed censorship. One is through legislation; the other by physically targeting journalists. But more importantly, there were new regulations that came into effect after armed combat ended in May 2009. They mostly pertain to restricting the dissemination of news on the internet and via telecommunication networks,” said Mr. Tissainayagam.
Pointing to the empty chair on the dais with the portrait of Prageeth Ekneliayagoda, he said the journalist disappeared from Colombo eight months after the military campaign had ended. Today the government’s only answer to his disappearance is to orchestrate a smear campaign against his wife and refusal to conduct a credible investigation into the incident.
“The effect of these methods of terrorizing the media has been twofold. Its impact on the media itself is forcing journalists to censor themselves. But its reach is much wider. It also closes the mind and our ability to critique and question the status quo,” Mr. Tissainayagam said.
He said there is more than one reason for the government’s persistence on imposing tight restrictions on the media. The most important is that the government does not want reports of its conduct during the war in the Tamil north to undermine post-war consolidation.
“The government is deeply concerned these stories will infiltrate southern Sri Lanka and the moral ugliness of such savagery will be repugnant to many Sinhalese. The fear is that an open discourse will persuade the vast majority of Sinhala people within the country to demand an impartial investigation into war crimes of the political leadership. Thereby the government will lose its support base,” Mr. Tissainayagam said.
The media in the Sinhala south too is subject to privations because if war crimes-related issues are to be effectively concealed, censorship has to be blanket. ”Secondly, repression of the people in one part of the country, inevitably begets repression in other areas too. And therefore the [Mahinda] Rajapakse government is careful to contain incriminating stories from the South as well.”
Mr. Tissainayagam said it was unfortunate that the self-preservation policy of the current government runs contrary to its rhetoric of reconciliation. “If you want the Sinhalese and Tamils to reconcile, there has to be first and foremost a frank dialogue between the two groups. But if, official strategy is to prevent that, by ghettoizing the North and censoring media throughout the country, reconciliation will only remain in words, not deeds.”
Sanjana Hattotuwa, the founder and curator of Groundviews, a Sri Lankan website that offers alternative perspectives on human rights and governance, said that despite censorship being not official, journalists are extremely worried about crossing the unknown redlines of the government. This has lead to unprofessionalism among journalists and the new trend of censorship by buying out media houses as against the cruder form of physical elimination, Mr Hattotuwa said. ”Self-censorship is so perverse that even senior journalists who have been physically attacked do not want these incidents reported for fear of persecution by the government. Expecting the mainstream media to push against the boundaries penning them in is like trying to push a car with the handbrakes on.”
On what role the diaspora can play to set right the situation, Mr Hattotuwa pointed out the plurality of the Tamil and Sinhala solitudes and their entrenched politics. However, he said they can help by writing on a sustained basis about the democracy deficit facing the country. “They must critically engage with the country and expose the ugliness that tourist brochures will not tell.”
Mr. Tissainayagam said as media in Sri Lanka is an integral part of a highly prejudiced society, it is for the diaspora to engage the international community to push for reforms in the home country.
Malinda Seneviratne, a Sri Lankan journalist who was expected to participate in the event via Skype, said in remarks read out by the moderator that technology has provided instruments that can best the most pernicious of censorship mechanisms. He said these means can be used and abused and that it can both minimize realities as well as inflate falsehoods. “That kind of truth-cooking is not the preserve of governments. Indeed spin and twist can be off-shored and this happens frequently too,” Mr. Seneviratne said.
Proliferation of spaces does not mean that the general public is better informed, said Mr Hattotuwa. “As media literacy is lacking in Sri Lanka, diaspora conversations has not influenced the domestic discourse right now. It might happen in the future.”
Tim Uppal, the federal minister of state for multiculturalism, who put in an appearance during the event, expressed Canada’s concern about human rights and democracy deficit in Sri Lanka. He hoped that the country will live up to the British Commonwealth’s values. That the two immigrant groups in Toronto - Tamil and Sinhala - lived up to the values of informed debate without incident is small consolation for now. – New Canadian Media