By Dr A.R.Sriskanda Rajah
During our childhood, most of us would have read Aesop’s Fables. One of those fables depicts the story of a milkmaid who carried a bucket of milk on her head with the intention of selling it at the local market for a good price. On her way she began dreaming that once she sells the milk, she would be able to buy chickens, and when they lay eggs, she would be able to sell them and become rich. Afterwards, she would be able to shake her head and say, ‘No,’ to all the men in the village who sought to marry her. As she dreamed, she shook her head and the pail of milk fell on the road. With that, her dream of becoming rich was shattered. Thus came into being the proverb: ‘Never count your chickens until they are hatched.’
When one recounts the euphoria expressed by Western governments following Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ascend to power on 9 January 2015, after Maithripala Sirisena’s election as the Sri Lankan president, the story of the milkmaid immediately comes to mind.
For many years, to be precise since J.R.Jayewardene’s ascend to power in 1977, the West had been hoping that bringing pro-market, pro-Western political leaders in power in Sri Lanka would pave the way for the re-liberalisation of the island. Re-liberalisation, the West believed, would not only transform the island into a flourishing market economy, but also a vibrant democracy that upholds the principles of representative government and the rule of law, respects civil liberties and human rights, and resolves its longstanding ethnic conflict.
The West had the same high hopes when Chandrika Kumaratunge came to power in 1994; and when Wickremesinghe became the prime minister in 2001. But then, the LTTE was spearheading the Tamil Eelam freedom struggle, so when the West’s plans failed to materialise, it began pointing the finger of blame at the Tamil freedom movement. For the West, the LTTE was the spoiler; it was spoiling peace and liberal state-building in Sri Lanka.
With the LTTE no longer being part of the equation, and the Rajapaksas being driven back to Medamulana, in 2015 the West once again began dreaming of successful liberal state-building. So first came the singing of the Sri Lankan national anthem in Tamil on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day. Then there was the Nineteenth Amendment that transferred some of the powers held by the president to the prime minister; and created a plethora of commissions to oversee ‘good governance’. But Western liberal state-building did not stop there. A counter-terrorism bill was presented to the parliament, purporting to repeal the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act 1978 and replace it with so-called international best practices. Though the bill never passed through parliament, the West was banging on it for the past years. Then came the Office on Missing Persons Act 2016 and the creation of the Office on Missing Persons. So for the West, despite the snail-pace progress made by the Wickremesinghe regime in implementing the UNHRC Resolution 30/1, it was nevertheless satisfied with the latter because it strongly believed that liberal state-building on the island was on track.
With the Medamulana regime now reversing the ‘good governance’ policies of its predecessor, it seems liberal state-building in Sri Lanka is once again back to square one.
First, the Tamil version of Sri Lanka’s national anthem that the West was banging on for reconciliation was ditched. A senior Western diplomat reportedly told a Tamil lobbyist in 2015, ‘See what we have achieved. We have managed to make the Sri Lankan government sing the national anthem in Tamil on Independence Day.’ But then, did any Tamils care?
With the exception of Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, Mathiaparanam Abraham Sumanthiran and Mano Ganeshan, no Tamil really cared about the Tamil version of Sri Lanka’s national anthem being sung or ditched. In fact, many Tamils cannot even remember a line in Sri Lanka’s national anthem. So, when the Medamulana regime announced on Christmas Eve that the Tamil version of the anthem would not be sung on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day celebrations, virtually no Tamils in Tamil Eelam or abroad bothered to raise their eyebrows.
Of course, there was whimpering from Sumanthiran and Ganeshan. And then the DMK-led coalition in Tamil Nadu tried to capitalise on it, perhaps hoping it would be able to create an anti-BJP wave; given it was the BJP government that accorded a red-carpet welcome to Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November. But when it realised that the Eelam Tamils did not give a damn about the Tamil version of Sri Lanka’s national anthem, it quietened itself down.
Now the Medamulana regime has decided to scrap the Counter-Terrorism Bill and is even seriously considering repealing the Office on Missing Persons Act 2016. So what of the Nineteenth Amendment? Gotabaya Rajapaksa has already promised to repeal the Nineteenth Amendment if he was able to obtain a two third parliamentary majority in the forthcoming general elections. In his maiden speech, he even promised to enact a new constitution.
This must all seem very shocking for Western governments. And indeed, for India too. Over a decade ago, when the LTTE decided to silence its guns, both the West and India promised the TNA leadership that they would push Sri Lanka to go beyond the Thirteenth Amendment and grant Tamils substantial devolution of power. Now with Gotabaya Rajapaksa hell-bent on scraping land and police powers for Tamils, devolution has become another elusive dove.
Having ended their exile at Medamulana in November, all that the Rajapaksa brothers want now is their grip on the apparatus of the Sri Lankan state being tightened. Taking a strong anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim stance would, they believe, pave the way for this endeavour.
So it would not be surprising if the Medamulana regime announces in the forthcoming weeks another series of anti-Tamil, anti-Muslim policies. Already, it is an open secret that the recent meeting between Gotabaya Rajapaksa and EU diplomats failed to break ice. In response to the request of EU diplomats to carry forward the so-called reconciliatory policies of the Wickremesinghe regime, the Sri Lankan president had reportedly told them that development was the key to reconciliation and the EU should support his government’s efforts to accelerate development activities. He knows very well the West would not buy his arguments; and the West knows he would use this as an excuse to ebb towards China.
But the million dollar question is when the West would begin to realise that its chickens are failing to hatch in Sri Lanka and look at the Tamil national question in a different perspective so that at least the Tamil-speaking areas of the island would be able to help fulfil its dream.