Soul Searching in Sri Lanka: Dialogue or War?

A Colombo man bicycles past defaced poster of Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga
A resident of Colombo bicycles past defaced posters of Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Nov. 8, 2003, the day after the president gave a televised address explaining her actions over the previous few days (Photo: AFP/Getty Images).

Sri Lanka’s president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, unleashed a storm of protest and controversy Nov. 4 when she dissolved Parliament, fired three Cabinet ministers, deployed troops around the capital, and soon after declared a state of emergency “for administrative and logistical reasons.” Despite Kumaratunga’s subsequent lifting of the state of emergency and assurances that the talks would continue, the crisis has put new strains on the tenuous peace process between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), separatist rebels from the ethnic Tamil minority who control the north of the island. Sri Lanka’s president and prime minister have long jockeyed for power, and so most international newspapers have viewed this as a constitutional coup on the part of the president. Here a popular satirical Sri Lankan columnist from Colombo's independent Daily Mirror, who writes under the pseudonym Koththamalli, responds to news of the crisis with an open letter to the president.—WPR

Open Letter to Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga

My dear Podiakka,
Heil! We can skip the traditional greetings today, in the aftermath of a virtual political earthquake and with the country facing chaos, if not anarchy. How it will play out or where we are headed is anybody’s guess. Anything can happen. You say you had to prorogue Parliament and sack three key ministers in the interests of national security. But the prime minister says you have acted in a desperately irresponsible manner to undermine the peace process and economic development. History will be the judge.

The dramatic and decisive first days of November produced the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)’s much-awaited and much-debated proposals for what is now called the Interim Self Governing Authority. The government, the LTTE, and the facilitators have made it clear that both sets of documents are only proposals or discussion papers to be toned down and fine-tuned through weeks and months of intensive dialogue in a spirit of accommodation. But critics and hardliners...are describing the LTTE proposals as demands, in an apparent bid to provoke public anger and protest.

The release of the LTTE proposals at a packed news conference in Kilinochchi last Saturday sparked off speculation that the two major parties are hatching plans and plots. Some reports suggested you might use the controversy over the LTTE proposals to launch a major bid to topple the government through some crossovers. Instead you took unexpectedly drastic action yesterday, though the consequences of your actions are as uncertain as party political affiliations. Most analysts believe the prorogation is a bid to buy time and some UNPers [members of the prime minister’s United National Party]. For the past five decades, the UNP has clearly outplayed the [president’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, or] SLFP, in the art of coup plots or toppling governments.

This may happen, with Sunday's sudden decision by the inner Cabinet to move a motion for the impeachment of the chief justice apparently being part of the maneuver. The decision to renew the move to impeach the chief justice was clearly linked to last Friday’s clash in the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva and Attorney General K.C. Kamalasabeysan were involved in a verbal duel.

The point at issue was a presidential request sent to the Supreme Court seeking a ruling or guidance on whether an order issued by the defense minister two years ago was a violation of constitutional power given to the president. The legal masterstroke was reportedly aimed at clearing a minefield for the president to take over the Ministry of Defense. Now you have taken not only the Defense, but also the Interior and Media Ministries. Yesterday the government handed over the impeachment motion against the chief justice to Speaker Joseph Micheal Perera. It was signed by about 100 MPs and the speaker reportedly entertained it. Where it will go from there is a mystery and a muddle with all the unprecedented power games being played. When it comes to such backstage power games, the government appears to be far ahead of your party in terms of brain power and financial resources. Over the weekend you were reported to be carefully studying the LTTE proposals and taking a generally cautious line. You have even recently reiterated your commitment to seeking a political solution through the devolution of power, based largely on your aborted 2000 [draft] constitution. That draft did not go as far as the LTTE proposals, but it could serve as a point of compromise and consensus. Though the JVP [the socialist People’s Liberation Front] is trying to push you into an all-out, if not violent, opposition, your longtime coalition partners, the LSSP [socialist Lanka Sama Samaja Party] and the CP [Communist Party], are calling for a full and open dialogue on the proposals.

At this point it seems essential that you and your party need to come directly into the dialogue so that extremists like the JVP and the Sihala Urumaya [a Sinhalese nationalist party] could be isolated or made irrelevant. Last Wednesday, the Sihala Urumaya, or groups linked to it, obviously resorted to the very fascism which they accuse the LTTE of supporting. Like any and all others, the Sihala Urumaya has the right to have its own point of view and to promote it. But if the Sihala Urumaya violently tries to prevent others from expressing or promoting their perspective then it is a fascist party. Amidst the claims, counterclaims, coloring, and concoctions, some details could help balanced and objective people see this issue in a proper perspective. The Sinhala-Tamil Cultural Festival for Peace was organized by a committee of about 150 with at least 145 of them being Sinhala people. The Sihala Urumaya leadership is aware of that. But it insists on labeling them as Sinhala agents for the LTTE and suggests they are working for money.

As to what happened inside the New Town Hall on that terrible Wednesday, Yours Truly spoke to Rohitha Bashana Abeywardene and other organizers. This is their story: On Monday and Tuesday a section of the media had portrayed the cultural festival as a Pongu Thamil event intended to boost the LTTE. One newspaper had quoted the Sihala Urumaya as saying the cultural festival should be banned or disrupted. Thus the organizers were expecting trouble and they had decided they would even give their lives to protect the more than 100 Tamil philosophers and artists taking part in the cultural pageant. The organizers say that in typical fascist style, some disruptive elements of the Sihala Urumaya came to the festival and sat in different places. At a given signal they started shouting at a Tamil speaker from different points. When the organizers intervened and persuaded them to leave the hall, another group or gang broke in from outside.

The organizers say they saw some Wanathamulla thugs with cycle chains and other weapons in the gang. They came in shouting “Demalu Marannda” (Kill the Tamils) and appeared to mean it. The organizers say that they then formed a circle round the Tamil artists and told the attackers that the organizers were ready to die to protect the innocent Tamils. Rohitha Bashana says it was a historic moment, because at least 10 of the organizers were injured and shed their blood to protect Tamil people. When the cultural festival ended peacefully on Thursday night, despite more attempts to sabotage it, the organizers told the Tamil participants they were ready to accompany them all the way back to Jaffna [the largest city in predominantly Tamil northern Sri Lanka] to ensure their safety. But the Tamil artists said they needed protection only up to Negombo and would go the rest of the way on their own. So they did. So out of a sordid and orchestrated attack came a glimpse of a contrast. While some Sinhala people descended to decadent levels, others rose to the highest dimensions.

Anyway, that has faded into relative insignificance following yesterday’s tumultuous events and the tense uncertainty they produced. The coming days will be a decisive period in the country’s history.

Yours sincerely,