The following are my prepared remarks at the Global South Asia conference at New York University on 13 February 2010. My prepared remarks on the Sri Lanka panel in titled, ‘Return of the Displaced and Political Reconciliation’ are below. The remarks in the Sri Lanka panel which I chaired were to complement the presentations by Sharika Thiranagama, New School for Social Research titled, ‘Houses of the Future: Return and Reconciliation amongst Northern Muslims and Tamils’ and V. V. (Sugi) Ganeshananthan, University of Michigan, Lanka Solidarity, journalist and author of Love Marriage titled, ‘Dialogue in the Diaspora’. The February 2010 issue of Himal Southasian magazine is a special issue on Jaffna, Sri Lanka and has a number of articles that address the post-war moment. The Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF) statement on 18 January 2010 titled, ‘SLDF Calls for National Attention on Demilitarization and a Political Solution’ details many of these issues in depth.
I want to begin with the end of the war, which inevitably leads to a shift in politics. Post-war politics can not be same as war politics.
During the last couple years of the war, President Rajapaksa put together a war coalition comprised of a broad spectrum, from Sinhala nationalists to sections of the Old Left. Despite the end of the war, the President and his government attempted to keep the war mentality alive, as we have seen through the continued suffering of the displaced as they were herded into internment camps with no freedom of movement. It was indeed a lost opportunity for political reconciliation.
The war not only brought physical devastation and tremendous human suffering, it also undermined institutions, corrupted political culture, crippled dissent and contributed to the degeneration of our intellectual and scholarly production. As the people were bombarded by nationalist and war propaganda, issues of class, caste, gender and social justice were drowned. The end of the war, inevitably, is bringing these issues to the fore. The economic pressures in particular are mounting and the demands for democratisation are becoming stronger.
It is in this context that last month’s presidential elections, the first post-war national elections, became significant. Not only did it split the war coalition, with General Fonseka credited with winning the war, challenging the war-time President, it also signalled an interest in electoral politics not seen in the recent past. The elections were not so much a contest between the President and the General. Rather, General Fonseka, tarred with a militarist and authoritarian past himself, became the convenient expression of the dissatisfaction of people against the authoritarian and oligarchic aspirations of the Rajapaksa regime. In the face of the government’s unwillingness to recognise the post-war moment and to initiate a process of reconciliation and vision for Lanka’s economic and political future, the people propelled a considerable opening of political space through their election related mobilisations, ubiquitous discussions, open debates and dissent.
Despite such opposition, the President, by riding ideological momentum from the war victory and by holding elections two years in advance, was able to win with a large margin. While there was abuse of state power and state institutions, ultimately as in many other elections in Lanka, it was the rural Sinhalese population, which has much to rely on state patronage that gave the President the victory. The absence of a serious vision for Lanka’s future from General Fonseka and the opposition parties also meant that the rural voters were not willing to mobilise against the President on the basis of opposition to the incumbency alone. The abuses of state power, the uses of state patronage and the strength of incumbency all contributed to President Rajapaksa’s victory.
In the couple weeks since the elections, we again see the President and his government squander yet another opportunity for reconciliation, both with the minorities and the opposition, including the people that voted against the President. The arrest of opposition candidate General Fonseka by the military police a few days ago has unleashed protests, yet again exposing the authoritarianism of the Rajapaksa regime. Furthermore, journalists are again coming under attack as the Rajapaksa regime attempts to undermine the public sphere. With parliamentary elections now scheduled for April, the election dynamic again is likely to shape political engagement and the political space. Indeed the current round of repression, now mainly against sections of the Sinhalese population that oppose the government, is a risky strategy for the Rajapaksa regime; historically, elections have been a time when the arrogance of political power has been contested by the Lankan voters.
There are the many challenges of resettlement and reconciliation. But neither of these can be seen in apolitical terms, and in the limited framing of ethnic harmony. They are both related to a process of democratisation and a political settlement. During the decades of war, the problem in Sri Lanka was constructed as an ethnic problem. Indeed the political problems of Lanka can not be limited to one of ethnicity, as the recent political turmoil makes clear.
The most serious challenge in Lanka has been a problem of democratisation. That is democratisation in opposition to the abuse of power and authoritarianism as well as the refashioning of the brand of liberal democracy in Sri Lanka, which some of us have characterised as majoritarian democracy. Such a far reaching process of political reconciliation centred on democratisation would have to involve reforming the state through a new constitution that allows for the devolution of power to the regions and power-sharing at the centre. It would have to advance the devolution debate in ways to address class, caste, gender and the rural-urban divide. It would have to end the militarization of the decades of war. There needs to be substantive demilitarisation involving not only demobilisation and reduction of the size of the military, but also the lifting of the state of emergency and repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Thus political reconciliation can not just be about humanitarian issues and ethnic harmony. Nor can it be imprisoned within the Rajapaksa government’s narrow vision of reconstruction and economic development. Rather it has to take seriously the challenges of democratisation and a political settlement. Such political reconciliation will not be possible without dissent and democratic struggles that challenge the Sri Lankan State and the ruling regime, and awaken Lankan society at this important post-war moment.