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Sri Lanka: Towards a ‘Mugabesque’ Utopia

Mangala Samaraweera

By Mangala Samaraweera

Sri Lanka has had cordial and friendly relations with the rest of the world since ancient times. Despite being a little island we were never xenophobic. Our forefathers moved with ease and dignity with the mighty and the powerful in the international arena; travelers and merchants alike, throughout history, have commented upon the hospitality and the warmth of our people.

According to Pliny, the historian, there was an ambassador from our country in the court of Claudius Caesar - circa 59 AD. We also had a high profile presence in the imperial courts of China, the other super power of the ancient world. Later in history, there are records of a gentleman named “Arachchi” who was dispatched by King Buvenake Bahu VIII to serve as ambassador to the court of Lisbon. The travelogues of travelers like Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta and the Chinese pilgrim Fa-Hian show that we were an outward looking people, very much at ease with strangers from distant lands with habits and customs much different to ours.

Perhaps that is what made some of our ports a de rigueur point for many ancient merchants and seafarers.  According to records, the flourishing Port of Alexandria of the ancient world was in constant communication with our merchants as horses from Alexandria were much sought after by the royal household in Anuradhapura and ivory, pearls and gems from our land found a ready market in Egypt.

Much respected

In the post independent era, Sri Lanka’s contribution in the international arena far exceeded its modest status as a small developing country. Sri Lanka has been a much-respected member of the international community able to win the trust and confidence of different competing power blocs, especially in the Cold War era.

Most of our leaders since independence were cosmopolitan in outlook while having their customs and beliefs firmly rooted in the traditions of our country. In fact, our leaders put into practice the Gandhian saying about allowing foreign winds to blow through your land without being blown away by any of them.

Our leaders did not antagonise other countries nor did they grovel after the rich and the powerful. They cultivated a relationship with powerful world leaders based on equality and mutual trust. As a result the people of this country benefited enormously, as many powerful and wealthy countries came forward to assist in our development efforts. Even in times of need or crisis we were never short of important friends, despite the fact that our strategic importance was minimal.

Today, however our present leaders seems to be intent on making enemies of our longstanding friends in the international community who have helped us in good times as well as in bad times. The Rajapakse siblings and their xenophobic allies with their rabble rousing rhetoric against the “sudhas” seems determined to drive this country towards a Mugabesque Utopia of international isolation.

Hysterical journalism

The state media and some kept journalists of the private media are trying to out do each other with hysterical journalism asking foreigners to  “keep off’ and state owned vehicles with PSD security are assigned the task of putting up slanderous posters accusing Miliband, Clinton and Solheim and god-knows anyone else who might dare to question the government about the humanitarian situation – of being LTTE sympathisers!

Most of those who are orchestrating this insidious campaign seem to have conveniently forgotten that the very governments accused of being terrorist sympathisers have been in the vanguard in helping Sri Lanka to face the threat of LTTE terrorism over the years. In fact the United Kingdom was one of the first countries to list the Tigers as a terrorist organisation and proscribe it nearly a decade ago and the British authorities are actively pros ecuting those involved in LTTE activities as we saw only a few weeks ago.

The Defence Secretary angrily accusing the British government of meddling in our internal affairs also seems to have forgotten that it was his brother who visited Prime Minister Blair at Chequers in the summer of 2006 and invited the British government to help him solve our ethnic problem.  I was a witness as I accompanied the President to Chequers. Subsequently Martin McGuiness (one of the chief negotiators who brought the IRA and the British government to the negotiating table) visited Sri Lanka twice.

Americans active

The LTTE has been listed as a terrorist organisation for many years in the USA as well. The Americans have been extremely active in monitoring fund raising activities in the country since the ban and a full time unit in the FBI to monitor such activities was set up in 2006 at the expense of US tax payers to assist Sri Lanka in our fight against terrorism.

Also the State Department took the initiative to form a ‘contact group’ the same year to monitor the arms procurement activities of the Tigers in South East Asia. The US also came to the assistance of Sri Lanka in 2006 when we were canvassing the EU to ban the LTTE. The US used its influence with some European countries, which were not too convinced by our request, to support the listing, which required a unanimous decision from its member states.

Yet, the Defence Secretary continues to accuse the US government of carrying a brief for the Tigers. Perhaps we Sri Lankans should not interfere in the internal matters of the United States and leave it to the State Department to sort matters out with this US citizen making such serious accusations against his own government.

The Europeans, the Norwegians, diplomats and senior UN officials, parliamentarians and Congressman, journalists and international news stations and anyone else who dare to highlight the plight of the thousands of unfortunate civilians in the Wanni, are also accused of being terrorist allies engineering an international conspiracy against Sri Lanka by trying to save the LTTE from imminent defeat.

Outrageous action

Even the Swedish Foreign Minister was refused a visa to enter our country. This was an outrageous action against a friendly country, which not only agreed to list the LTTE in the EU in 2006 but also helped Sri Lanka’s development efforts in numerous ways over the years; the Kotmale scheme was one of the largest grants received by Sri Lanka from a foreign country.

Many Sri Lankans believe in this ‘conspiracy’ theory, blissfully unaware of the great human tragedy taking place literally in our back yard. Over the Wesak weekend, the temples were full of pious devotees of Lord Buddha contemplating the Dhamma, the great doctrine of Ahimsa and compassion, and the streets were ablaze with lanterns while hundreds perhaps thousands of our own brethren only a few hundred miles north were being massacred in what the United Nations has called a ‘bloodbath.’

For those like me, who believe in the doctrine of karma and the cycle of rebirth, this Wesak weekend was a moment to reflect on the plight of our fellow citizens and wonder what terrible deeds they may have committed in an earlier incarnation to deserve the fate of being sandwiched between a murderous terrorist group and an equally brutal regime to which every single Tamil is a terrorist until proven otherwise.

The stock response of all the key apologists for the regime is to dismiss all allegations of human rights abuses as ‘Tiger propaganda’ and label any journalist who raises such uncomfortable queries as a ‘Tiger sympathiser.’ The Defence Secretary, faced with such questions responds by reminding us about the atrocities committed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the country of which he is a naturalised citizen.

HR violations

No one would deny that there have been many atrocious human rights violations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few years. Only last week we saw the killing of over hundred innocent civilians in Afghanistan by American bombers. However, unlike the Rajapakse regime, when the media highlights such atrocities, journalists are not labeled as al Qaeda sympathisers and deported if they are foreigners and abducted and/or killed if they are locals.

Congressmen have the freedom to talk about such atrocities without running the risk of being harassed and murdered by state sponsored goon squads. International media and humanitarian monitors are allowed to visit the scenes of such crimes to make their own independent assessment and the authorities are quick to investigate such crimes as and when it happens.

Unlike Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary (a mere government servant) who stammers out a vituperative monologue in the face of such allegations, we saw how the US Defence Secretary and the Secretary of State (cabinet ministers) immediately expressed regret and promised an impartial inquiry about the recent civilian deaths in Afghanistan. In short, there is no culture of impunity like in Sri Lanka where a war is fought without any witnesses.

From Wanni to the world

With due respect to my fellow Sri Lankans who think that the war is over, I like to express my view that the war for Tamil Eelam has merely been elevated from the jungles of Wanni to the international theatre. The Rajapakse doctrine of meeting LTTE terror with equally brutal state terror and trying to solve an extremely nuanced and complex problem like our ethnic question by brute power alone has only strengthened the arguments for a separate state.

The raison d’être of Tamil extremism has always been Sinhala chauvinism; every time the small but vociferous cliques of Sinhala extremists raised their ugly heads the Tamil extremists became stronger. In 1957, when extreme sections of the Buddhist clergy forced the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to tear the pact with Chelvanayagam, the call for a separate state was heard for the first time in mainstream Tamil political circles; the pogrom in 1983 when Sinhala goons went on the rampage in the name of ‘jaathi-aalaya’ merely transformed the ‘Eelam’ call to a highly ruthless terrorist struggle.

Today, despite the fact that the LTTE has suffered a severe setback in the jungles of Wanni, the call for a separate Tamil state has been strengthened as never before. An openly racist regime with allies who publicly espouse the cause of a Sinhala Buddhist supremacist state a la Myanmar and a regime that cannot distinguish LTTE terrorism from the aspirations of the moderate Tamil people have by its actions pushed the moderate Tamil opinion en bloc towards a separate state mindset.


The powerful Tamil diaspora as well as the even more powerful Tamil Nadu politicians have now become united in their call for a separate state in Sri Lanka. The iconic Jayalalitha, always a vociferous and fearless critic of Pirapaharan and the LTTE has now become an equally vociferous proponent of Tamil Eelam.

The international community, that has always stood for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, maybe forced to rethink their strategies if the Rajapakse brothers continue with their present war strategies which are beginning to look more and more like an attempt to subjugate the Tamils of Sri Lanka instead of their avowed objective of defeating terrorism.

Sri Lanka has always been a respected member of the civilised community of nations and thereby bound by many international norms and obligations. Even when fighting one of the most brutal terrorist organisations in the world, we do not have the ‘luxury’ of stooping down to the level of a terrorist group. Of course, we must understand that for a corrupt, economically inept and inefficient government like ours without any other saving graces, the temptation to resort to populist slogans that appeal to the latent racism inherent in the majority can be a very tempting option.

What we see in Sri Lanka today is the reality show version of Dustin Hoffman’s film Wag The Tail. In this film, Hoffman playing the role of an American president faced with imminent defeat at his re-election bid, invents a war to mobilise popular support behind him. However in real life the longer-term consequences of such political cynicism can be disastrous for the future well being of our country.

In conclusion, in this holy month of Wesak a few words from the Dhammapadha;

Pare ca na vijananti – mayamettha yamamase

Ye ca tattha vijanti – tato sammanti medhaga

Those who quarrel do not know that it is we, ourselves who perish if we continue to quarrel in this manner. Those of them who realise it, have their quarrels settled thereby.









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