A vote for democracy
In the days leading up to the Sri Lankan 2015 presidential election I had thought my ‘marginal diasporic opinion’ was of little use to the discussions occurring around me. Whilst there were widespread concerns about the current government’s concentration and abuses of power, the lack of media freedom and the independence of the judiciary, it was issues pertaining to the minorities that were tipped to swing the polls. On election day I went to the iconic Jaffna Library to read the newspapers, negotiating the road blocks and registering the exceptional police presence, anticipating trouble. In the news I learned that the ‘international Tamil diaspora’ had recommended Tamils in the North and East abstain from voting. Professor R. Sri Ranjan, a spokesperson for the International Council of Eelam Tamils (I.C.E.T.), claimed neither the ruling president Mahinda Rajapaksa representing the United People’s Freedom Alliance or its significant challenger, the common candidate Maithripala Sririsena for the United Democratic Front, would bring Tamils positive change. Despite the Tamil National Alliance announcing its support for the common candidate, Sri Ranjan argued that neither presidential candidate had specifically addressed Tamils or had indicated they would withdraw the military presence from the North and East. It was the professor’s belief that the election only concerned the Sinhala Nation and was impervious to Tamil self-determination. As a representative of both Tamils in the diaspora and in Lanka, Sri Ranjan insists that the core issues that the new government should address concern the co-existence of two nations:
A country is beautiful when all people can live in harmony with equal rights where human rights are respected. These governments, whoever it is, whatever party it is has destroyed the country. The fundamental rights of self-determination of all the people should be respected and the constitution of Sri Lanka gives no space for it.
So the constitution of this country should be changed to recognise the existence of the Sinhala Nation and the Tamil Nation as equal partners before true peace and harmony can prevail in the island. (Sri Ranjan 2015)
Filmmaker and academic, Sumathy Sivamohan however disagrees with a move to boycott the vote, arguing that the election has opened up spaces for minority voices in the politics of the Sinhala majority state. Addressing the possibility of de-militarisation she claims the presidential election gives the Tamil voter of the North ‘hope and a confidence in our own strength to bring about change.’ Speaking specifically of the people of the North and East — the heartland of the Tamil Nation — she cautions that this change will not occur overnight, but will enable Tamil and Muslim communities to better conceive their own lives and agendas. Rather than self-determination Sumathy advocates a politics of cohesion and belonging and on this issue she is adamant:
In this respect, it is suicidal for the Tamil voter to not vote, to engage in a politics of isolationism and in boycott politics…Isolationism is not the answer today. (Sivamohan 2014)
She calls to attention the disjunction between Tamil nationalism and its hardline separatist politics, both in Lanka and in the diaspora, and the realities that these positions have failed to address:
The daily lives of people are racked by unemployment, a dearth of skilled labour, caste discrimination persisting at many levels, in white collar as well as working class sectors. Education, housing, farming, the persistence of problems facing the fishing people, the right to the sea, access to government bodies, safeguards for farmers etc. The resettled do not have the capital to start up life anew and they go into debt in a major way. (Sivamohan 2014)
The election thus affords Tamils a wedge with which they may leverage their concerns beyond the nationalist agendas of separatist politics and as part of a broader critique of the Rajapaksa regime — indeed in the press the Tamil vote is described as being anti-Mahinda rather than pro-Maithripala (Srinivasan 2015). Furthermore, pursuing political alliances rather than separatist politics would enable Tamil communities to build affinities and strategise with other minorities whose communities are beset with similar problems and attempt to co-ordinate coherent reforms across the country.
The Sri Lankan born popstar M.I.A. Tweets:
The celebrity’s opinion could be read as echoing the sentiments of the I.C.E.T. but stops short of calling for a boycott, despite her having Tweeted earlier that if she were in Lanka she ‘wouldn’t vote at all to endorse war crimes’. Whilst many are disparaging of M.I.A’s comments, I raise her as a self-styled voice of a generation whose reach is beyond those with a vested interest in Lanka (for example read here) and her comments prompt one to probe the interplay of justice and democracy.
With reference to justice Professor Sri Ranjan argues:
Why should the Tamil Nation be excited about this election? Before a country talks about reconciliation, they should look back in the history of the island which is replete with failed promises and State-aided pogroms against Tamils by Sinhalese people. This history led to 30 years of war which ended with the massacre of tens of thousands of Tamils and rape of women.
Their properties are being forcibly colonised, putting people into dependence and Sinhalisation is on the march and there is nothing in the manifestos which mentions justice or reparations for the Tamils or expression of any mechanism to bring normalcy to their lives.
Sumathy’s campaign for community participation in a nation-wide democratic process is an an option made available for Sri Lankan Tamils only after the defeat of the L.T.T.E., who forcefully discouraged and prevented voting in the past. Does participation precipitate empowerment and lead to justice? Surely the perpetrators of injustice must be understood as being amongst both the Sinhala state and Tamil nationalists and militants. Those made subject to this violence are not only Tamils, but as now widely acknowledged Muslims, Up-country or Malaiyaka Tamils and others terrorised by the warring factions. Perhaps what is most significant about Sumathy’s emphasis on empowerment via participation is that minorities are not simply rendered victims. Rather, they are at the forefront, articulating their needs and lobbying the government to implement their recommendations independent of the international diaspora’s will. These movements are not representative of Tamil (or other minority’s) nationalism, but rather arise from intercultural community activism to address collective needs.
The mourning after
Like many others I awoke on the morning after the election to learn that Mahinda Rajapaksa had vacated Temple Trees during the night. The news of his defeat was celebrated amongst my circle of friends, both Tamil and Sinhala. It is yet to be seen when and how the incoming president Maithripala Sririsena will implement the proposed changes, which involve a significant curtailing of presidential powers and reforms to the parliamentary system within one hundred days of election. Nevertheless the historical change of government appears to have been received across the island with optimism and relative calm.
People I have spoken to since say things like; ‘it is what the people wanted’ and ‘this is good for democracy in this country’. If democracy requires co-ordination and determination, how then does one attain justice? At a conference I attended last year the legal scholar Ratna Kapur argued that justice implied haste. The longer the delays in redressing injustice the greater it becomes.
Days after the election stories began to circulate that the change of leadership was not as smooth as it had appeared, as allegations that Rajapaksa attempted to convince police and military leaders to stage a coup appeared in the press (BBC News 2015). In light of these claims it is worth noting the following commentary from the editors of The Guardian newspaper:
What has happened in Sri Lanka was not a revolution nor, at least not yet, a restoration of the democratic checks and balances of the past. It was instead an uprising within the dominant party in government against the high-handed style of the Rajapaksas. (The Guardian 2015).
It is too early to know what role the new government will play in the lives of the marginalised, however there are those, such as the journalist Trevor Grant, who regard the change as more of the same and predict that justice will not be forthcoming under the new government either. On the day the new President Sririsena was sworn in he wrote:
…the central current issue of the UN war crimes investigation into the slaughter of up to 70,000 innocent Tamil civilians will receive the same blathering nationalistic rejection as Rajapaksa applied to it, from the moment he declared in 2009 that, despite the 70,000 or so dead bodies lying in the sands of Mullivaikal, his military had completed a humanitarian mission with zero casualty. (Grant 2015)
One might infer from Grant’s comments that whilst the L.T.T.E. are also culpable of war crimes those responsible amongst them have already been executed, whereas those deemed liable in the Sri Lankan government are still, more or less, in power. During my stay in Lanka I have learned to be wary of the distortion of lived experiences and political agendas as they gain traction and develop abroad. In my interactions I have attempted to become attuned to politics as it registers in people’s day-to-day lives, so I am reluctant to dismiss the groundswell of hope and the will for change as being ultimately impotent. Rather, I remain perplexed — what now should the diaspora do? How might ‘people-to-people connections’, as described by Australian officials, support and stimulate movements for democracy rather than division, whilst advocating for justice and not only for Tamils? Or is the scenario being presented a choice between democracy and justice; in which the ‘70,000 innocent Tamil civilians’ slaughtered and the other casualties of war have become the price of peace? So as we celebrate democracy we simultaneously mourn justice.
Reflecting on my stay I have garnered a better understanding of the construction of nationalism in Jaffna and in the diaspora as well as the diversity of Tamil identities within Sri Lanka (and in relation to India). However as one that operates at the margins of the Tamil diaspora I am more familiar with the far-reaching repercussions of the war; with those that have fallen out of the nationalist narrative in the aftermath of war, such as the refugee Alex with whom I have developed a rapport and friendship. The issues that Alex and others in his position raised once concerned the conditions facing Tamils in Lanka, but they now speak of immigration detention, the resettlement process and the violence of spaces that lie beyond the Sri Lankan state. Such victims of the war are doubly tormented by the violence from which they fled and the conditions in which they are presently incarcerated. If as Grant and others predict, that the new government will do little to address the issue of war crimes, then injustice will continue to perpetuate on the island. Is this prolonging of injustice in Lanka compounded by the indefinite detention of the diasporic for whom return is impossible? If these campaigns inside and beyond the state are able to co-ordinate and correspond might we find a movement for transnational justice that is both non-nationalist and liberationist? Despite the end of war and the new government it would seem hostilities are far from over, either at ‘home’ or abroad.
Sivamohan, Sumathy, 2015. Personal correspondence.