What we can expect in Sri Lanka in 2008

It is impossible to prophesise political developments in Sri Lanka with any degree of accuracy. For starters, there is little that is logical about party politics and nothing that is principled. From the pathological condition of politicking for short-term and personal gain to random acts of terrorism and responses that change individual and communal fortunes overnight, Sri Lanka’s incredibly frustrating socio-political developments bedevils easy explanation or projections into the future.

Some aspects of what we will see in 2008 are, however, blatantly obvious from developments the year before.  For starters, the UNP will continue its downward spiral into monumental irrelevance. Without any real vision, a significant lack of appeal amongst Southern voters, no meaningful alternatives to the socio-economic policies and military strategies of the government and shackled by a marked lack of political imagination, the UNP is even today a tragic party struggling to come to grips with its rapid and significant demise. The mercurial Leader of the Opposition will increasingly find himself alienated by a polity and society no longer able to appreciate debates on the finer points of governance based on erudite arguments, that is his forte. Though for the sake of populist optics the party will attempt half-heartedly to come up with political rhetoric aimed at appealing to the exceptionally strong vote base of the SLFP, it will fail in this regard. It is a party unable, in a sustained manner, to capture and galvanise public frustration with the Government, which is not insignificant and will certainly grow over 2008. In place of any significant impact locally, we will see the party appeal more and more to the International Community to support measures to expose the Government’s failings. This strategy will also fail. Like Putin’s Russia, Sri Lanka is no more governed by those who really give a damn for the opinions and recommendations of the International Community, or more accurately, has realigned itself under the guise of a new multi-partial foreign policy to regimes and states who are disinterested in linking developmental aid flows to human rights and good governance. More fundamentally, the International Community’s strategy of qualified support for the peace process with its conditionalities on aid no longer holds the LTTE, the State or any paramilitary group in check. Ergo, the UNP’s perceived partiality towards the International Community and to the US and Norway in particular will further alienate it in the South. Lacking therefore in a strong domestic, regional and international anchor, the party will meander from one rally to another all the time threatening to bring down the government but unable to cobble together support even within its own ranks to do so.

What of the JVP and JHU? I submit that we will hear even less of the JHU in 2008 than we did in 2007 as there is no longer any need for them to exist as a distinct political entity. They are self-effacing in positions unparalleled influence and authority within the Rajapakse administration. In fact, greater media exposure for them and their actions could actually vitiate their power. For example, Champika Ranawaka’s avowed environmental concerns will actually translate into policies that will see significant demographic changes in the East and in cleared areas in the North, but will simply fail to register in State owned media as essentially colonial. The JHU’s rabid intolerance of meaningful power sharing beyond the 13th Amendment, that it associates with the dissolution of and a grave threat to its ideal of a Sinhala Buddhist State, will find ready expression in the policies of the Rajapakse administration that will in no way accept recommendations by the APRC that are aligned to the federal idea. It will continue to set assert that only the JHU are true patriots and take pains to set themselves apart from what they consider and will publicly express as the essentially unprincipled political opportunism of the JVP. For its part, the JVP will continue to cantankerously and venomously attack the government’s record of corruption, fiscal policies and war efforts. Fundamentally however, the last thing it wants to do is to topple the government. As I noted in an article on the JVP I wrote in 2007, The JVP’s essential intolerance of dissent and plural opinion, both within its party and in polity and society writ large, is one that the Rajapakse administration has adopted and promoted in the SLFP, and how! Today, the JVP itself can only define itself in opposition to a mirror image of itself – the government’s ethnic majoritarianism by the self-proclaimed children of ’56 significantly challenges and vitiates the JVP’s own fire brand Sinhala nationalist propaganda. Much as they will publicly deride the government, they will be even more dependent on it for their own political survival in 2008.

Above all, Mahinda Rajapaksa will be unshakable in 2008. The 60th year of our independence will be his year, his way, his time. A few salient points from the Peace Confidence Index (PCI) poll conducted in November 2007 by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) makes for interesting reading in this regard.

<blockquote><em>•    A majority of the Sinhala community (48.5%) feel that the war can be ended and peace restored in Sri Lanka only by the government defeating the LTTE. In the other three communities, (Tamil- 62.3%, Up Country Tamil- 96.7%, Muslim- 85.2%) the option chosen was to stop the war and conduct peace negotiations.
•    The survey also asked the respondents to rate their level of satisfaction with regards to the action taken by various institutions to protect human rights. 61.7% of the Sinhala community expressed satisfaction with the way the government has protected their rights. A majority of the Tamil (62.7%) and Up Country Tamil (60%) thought the contrary.
•    A majority of the Sinhala community (60.5%) agree to bear the rising cost of living for the sake of the government’s war against the LTTE. 90.7% of the Tamil community, 90.4% of the Up Country Tamil community and 71.1% of the Muslim community disagree.
•    While a majority of 67% of the Sinhalese approve of the government increasing their defence spending, majorities in the other three communities (Tamil-72%, Up country Tamil-77.2%, Muslim-50.4%) disapprove.
•    When asked whether they were aware of the report published by the Committee on Public Enterprise, majorities in all four communities (Sinhala- 60.4%, Tamil- 61.4%, Up Country Tamil- 87.9%, and Muslim- 67.2%) were unaware of this report.
•    A majority of 84.4% of the Sinhalese expressed satisfaction the President’s handling of law and order. 66.6% of Tamils and 75% of Up country Tamils expressed their dissatisfaction.
•    A majority of the Sinhala community (57.1%) stated that they are very satisfied with the President’s handling of the war. However, 65.4% of the Tamil community and 70.4% of the Up Country Tamil community said that they were very dissatisfied.</em>

These are clear markers of a deeply polarized, ethnically divided society. On many counts related to public perception of governance, war and peace, the Tamil community inhabit a country that is the polar opposite to that of the Sinhalese community. However, the Rajapakse administration does not and will not care about the reconciliation of communal differences – fundamentally, it is a Government of and for the Sinhala South. Its message will be simple, resonant and powerful – help us defeat terrorism by supporting us. It will, violently if necessary, seek to erase all competing and counter-narratives. It is a message that will stick with its Southern support base because it will be communicated in simple, easy to understand Sinhalese. Interestingly, the same message(s) will be communicated through bombastic English and polemics by those manning the Forward Defense Lines (FDLs) of diplomacy here and abroad, as so aptly articulated by Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleke in a recent article of his. In this sense, the Government’s local and international propaganda will rival in 2008, for the first time, the best that the LTTE has been able to muster.

The Rajapakse administration’s strength rooted in its significant public legitimacy will exacerbate problems for most NGOs and international agencies based in Sri Lanka working on peacebuilding, human rights, humanitarian issues and good governance in particular. These organizations will articulate problems and speak in a language that the Sinhala, Southern voter will have even less patience for than in 2007. It is this a marker of the success of this Government’s significant and dare I say, admirable strategy to control the public discourse and critical thinking, by overt and hidden means and the total control of State media, to the extent that the average voter in the South is no longer even remotely aware of or able to imagine the very real problems associated with the Rajapakse regime. It matches the LTTE’s brainwashing in its scope and ferocity. Senior leadership of pro-democracy NGOs will face ever increasing hate speech by those in power and their local and international apparatchiks. Field workers of local and international human rights and humanitarian organizations in particular will suffer the brunt of physical attacks, including outright murder and torture with total impunity. Further, organizations working on media freedom and the freedom of expression will find themselves painted as agents of foreign government’s with no real legitimacy in Sri Lanka. The Administration will become more rabid and parochial in its definition of what is local, authentic, Sinhala and Sri Lankan and essentially kosher in civil society initiatives. Anything and anyone that falls outside these self-styled definitions will be dealt with extreme prejudice.

It goes without saying that the LTTE, kindly put, will not have it easy in 2008. Clearly, they are militarily weakened as never before. They have considerably lost face, lost ground and lost their moral high ground locally and internationally. Their international image is battered and bruised. Their ardent hope that the International Community’s support will swing their way in light of the incredible and incipient racism of the Rajapakse administration was also terribly unfounded in 2007. This will not change in 2008. There is a palpable sense of imminent victory in the South against the LTTE, fuelled in large part by a sophisticated government propaganda machine that has generated a large measure of support, amongst a broad base of voters in the South for the government’s war against the LTTE. If the argument is made that liberal democracy is terrorism’s greatest ally because is constitutionally circumscribes what a government and State can do in response to terror attacks, the Rajapakse administration really has demonstrated how the complete and open sacrifice of fundamental rights and liberties can position it as more than a capable force to counter the threat of LTTE’s terrorism. In other words, the LTTE has never before fought itself. It now finds itself in a position where everything that it does will and can be matched by a Government untethered to notions of civility, mechanisms of constitutional governance or a regime of human rights. “If the choice is between public safety and public freedoms, I do not hesitate to say that public safety will always win.” said Malaysian PM Datuk Seri Abdullah Admad Badawi, in his speech at the Khazanah Global Lecture in Putrajaya, Malaysia on 10th December 2007. Clearly, our President would agree. “We have recorded unprecedented military gains and they, no doubt, will pave the way for a political solution,” the President said at a recent public meeting in the South, who went on to say that “there is no point in talking about a political solution without militarily crushing terrorism.”

In 2008, all civil society does, say and thinks will be defined and measured against the rubric of his government’s war against terror. It is a war that in will not just sacrifice all constitutionally enshrined democratic principles and values including the 17th Amendment, but in doing so, will see media freedom and the freedom of expression deteriorate significantly, Right to Information legislation seen as a threat to the war efforts and accordingly dismissed and the APRC’s recommendations shafted aside as untimely and inappropriate. Debt will grow, inflation will rise, tourism will fail to pick up in light of unstoppable terror attacks in commercial hubs and civilian targets by the LTTE, paramilitary groups or by elements within the Government itself, the East will continue to be the playground of the TMVP, our Foreign Policy will become even more farcical and we will, in sum, continue seemingly inexorably towards a country akin to that of present day Zimbabwe. As noted by political commentator Victor Ivan earlier this year, “in spite of all the allegations — corruption, large scale human rights violations, unprecedented nepotism and rising cost of living — the President will remain in office until the end of his term. This pattern cannot be altered except by a crisis caused by a complete collapse of the political system, and certainly not by political manoeuvring by the opposition.”

The point is quite simply that in 2008 the Government will cease to care about the niceties of democracy. If its kid gloves came off in 2007, its boxing gloves will come on in 2008 and we in civil society and NGOs keen to see the restoration of democracy in Sri Lanka will be soundly pummelled.

In our 60th year of independence, we may well defeat the LTTE. However, our war against terror would have only just begun.

<blockquote>This article written for <em>Montage</em>, published by Counterpoint. To get in touch with or to subscribe to <em>Montage</em>, please email montagesrilanka [at] gmail.com</blockquote>