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The singer M.I.A. (a.k.a Mathangi “Maya” Arulapragasam) is as hot as lava right now. She is nominated for both an Oscar (for Slumdog Millionaire) and a Grammy (for Paper Planes). In the interview, she talks, among other things, about the situation in Sri Lanka. She accuses the “Sinhalese” government of systematic genocide.
According to Wikipedia,
“Her father was a founding member of The Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS). Due to the conflict, the first years of her life were marked by displacement. Contact with her father was strictly limited, as he was in hiding from the Sri Lanka Army. As the civil war escalated, it became unsafe for the family to stay in Sri Lanka, so they relocated to Chennai, moving into a derelict house, with sporadic visits from her father. Later resettling in Jaffna, the conflict deteriorated further, and the family once again tried to flee the island. Her school was destroyed in a government raid. Eventually she, her two siblings and mother Kala moved back to London where they were housed as refugees.”
Her opinions are directly influenced by her upbringing and her experiences, but personally, I find them half-baked and misleading. She gets her facts wrong, for a start, most glaringly by saying Sri Lanka has just two ethnic groups. Her accusation of systematic genocide is sensationalist and is arguable, at best. She also ignores the advances in regional democracy, autonomy and quality of life in the East, which are a direct result of military success and government control.
Which brings me to what I think about the war. That last point in the preceding paragraph is something critics of the military option often fail to acknowledge. We now have regional governance in the East and a Tamil Sri Lankan chief minister democratically elected by the citizens of that province. That’s pretty big. True, the Eastern election was violent and flawed, but which election in Sri Lanka, or anywhere in the region for that matter can be regarded as free and fair? (Refer Bush-Gore 2000) It was not just a cautious first step, but a powerful stride in the right direction. Readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of this government, but I am not blind to some of the successes of its strategy either. In the opinion of a Tamil Sri Lankan friend of mine, this government appears to have come closer to a workable solution than any other previously.
I have to give credit where it is due. Given the abject failure of repeated attempts at a negotiated solution in the past, and the LTTE’s scuttling of the last ceasefire, the choice of a military route to force the LTTE to surrender was unsurprising, even justifiable. Given this objective, the government has executed it well, balancing a number of different areas in an incredible awe-inspiring juggling act: the military morale and support in larger society, building up support in parliament by dismantling opposition parties into fragments (SLMC, JVP, UNP), the national and international public relations hurdles, the handling of relations with foreign powers and NGOs, the use of strategic alliances with the TMVP and EPDP, and the economy itself, which is still experiencing six per cent growth. If there was an election today, there would be no doubt which party would win.
My main concerns about a protracted military response always had roots in economics. I did not think we would have the financial robustness to withstand a war on the scale that was required. But, it turns out, we have not run out of money… yet. Yes, the economy has suffered. Yes, companies have failed, banks are teetering, people are losing jobs, but it’s happening everywhere else too. We have the dull satisfaction of knowing we are not being left behind; on the contrary, it can be argued that we have been investing in fixing the curse of our economy (the LTTE) over the last two years, and are now almost ready to reap the returns on our investment. (Incidentally, according to Bloomsberg, the Sri Lankan stockmarket has been one of the best performing in the world this year).
Nevertheless, I am jittery about the non-payment of the oil hedging bill – that is not a good sign of things to come. However, so far so good considering, of course, that this is a war economy. I do not think the economy can hold on for much longer though. It is not unlikely that the government will run out of money at some point, and then, all the government’s plans will have to be revised. But will this hit soon enough to affect the war strategy? The conventional military war seems to be drawing to a quicker close than expected, and the government is still paying its bills, so fingers crossed.
The main problems I do have with the government is the disrespect for human rights and their abject failure at winning over the hearts and minds of Tamil Sri Lankans. Admittedly, it is not easy when your army may be killing people who are potentially friends, relatives and neighbours, but still the government has not tried hard enough to appear inclusive of Tamil Sri Lankans. In the international arena, yes, Mahinda has addressed the UN in Tamil. Yes, the independence day telecast commentary were in three languages, and so were the posters – a nice change from the Sinhalese nationalist tone of last year. All these are just noises though. Why does Mahinda still allow himself to be compared to Dutugemunu? It has the all too familiar stink of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, as does the anti-conversion bill the government is supporting. The inaction in following up the murders of journalists and MPs like Sivaram, Lasantha, Maheswaram and Raviraj is unforgivable. The crime of killing the 17 aid workers in Muttur, the attack on Sirasa, the attacks on Rupavahini staff by Mervyn Silva – these are crimes that no perpetrator may ever be tried in court for.
It is the government’s responsibility to uphold the rights guaranteed in the constitution. That is its job. Patriots should find the true meaning of the word, not in a blind defence of a government or a party or even the military, but in a defence of the foundation of our country which is enshrined in the words of our constitution.
What I worry about is: what comes after the almost inevitable military victory? The government’s excuse for everything – unemployment, cost of living, reduced civil liberties – has been the war. What happens when the war is no longer usable as an excuse? People are going to want to see a better life. Can they deliver? Can they send 250,000 military personnel home after paying them Rs.20,000 a month? How can they find them alternative employment? What are they going to do with Sarath Fonseka? Is he going to retire quietly or accept a diplomatic post abroad? Is he the man to win the peace in an occupied North? How will they deal with remnants of the LTTE that will try to organise themselves into terrorist cells? Will the government restore journalistic freedoms? Will they release Tissanayagam? Will this become a Sinhala Buddhist state? Who will replace Sarath N. Silva as the Chief Justice? Will we still see abductions, threats to media people and incidents like Lasantha’s death and the attack on MTV? Will these incidents increase? Will the Rajapaksa brothers establish a dictatorship? Will there be a military coup? Will there be a situation where Mahinda remains in power, but Gotabhaya and Sarath do what they want? Who is going to tell them not to?
After all, they got the bombs; they got the guns; and they certainly got the men.
P.S. I am working on a post about what a concerned citizen can do to improve things in our country. Your suggestions, from any point of view, however off-the-wall, are welcome. Please leave a comment with what you think can be done by citizens to affect change, and in which direction. Thanks.