My rights are an entitlement, not a favour.

You know what, I’m not comfortable with the yardstick used by some to measure the performance of this government. I’m not happy with being asked to appreciate and be grateful for regaining some of my most basic rights, such as the freedom to express myself freely.

I am entitled, as much as anyone is, to my rights. Just because one government deprived me of them does not mean another is granting me a favour by allowing me to exercise them. I was born with certain privileges and they are enshrined in the constitution. Having them honoured is not a matter for praise. It’s a question of prerogative.

And, yes, I know firsthand that I did not have that under the Rajapaksa regime. I have visits from state intelligence to prove it. But I’m not willing to settle when it comes to this government or any future governments.

I joined journalism in 1994, when Chandrika Kumaratunga had just assumed the presidency. I know some journalists had issues with her. But I came into my own. I discovered my strengths. I even dabbled in political satire.

Then came that awful Rajapaksa tenure when you didn’t know where the threat would come from and for what. What a slap in the face. It was a time of abject self-censorship, though we still wrote. Yes, we still wrote. And some of our articles were quoted on political stages and talk shows by the opposition during election campaigns.

In my darkest moments, I would ask a trusted mentor how to survive; when this would end; when we would be free again. And he would tell me–completely unmoved–that if I had lived and worked under Premadasa, I can live and work under anyone.

Premadasa had been worse. Does that mean Rajapaksa deserved my gratitude and appreciation for having been better than him? How could I even contemplate that?

Do we really want to go down the path of comparing one government against another and settling for the least bad or slightly better? Shouldn’t each government be judged on its own merits and demerits? And how long must one keep harking to a past that was worse with the objective of adding some shine to the present?

I called a political contact today to ask about some irregular appointments. He gave me a familiar refrain: “We’re not like the Rajapaksas. We are not doing what they did. Don’t you remember what it was under them?” Sure, I remember. But to be proffered this to deflect criticism of the present government is repugnant.

The presidential, then government, change was no ordinary one. It was hard won and there was a lot at stake. Much was promised. Lofty, lofty pledges to eradicate corruption, bring wrongdoers to justice, and to not tread down the same path again. Yes, crucially, to NOT TREAD DOWN THE SAME PATH AGAIN.

It was a promise. I expect–and I have taught my children–that promises are meant to be kept. Pledges are meant to be honoured. I’m not willing to settle for anything less. And to be told that I should be eternally beholden towards the politicians that promised me this in exchange for my valuable vote is, frankly, bullshit.

For a while, yes, I was grateful. I enjoyed the freedom in the air, the feeling of not being afraid, of democracy–or some form of it–returning. But I believe this has an expiry date. I cannot be expected to indefinitely compare the present with the horrible immediate past and accept the morsels that are thrown at me.

So if the COPE report came out today and it held a protege of the prime minister to account, it’s no less than what I expect and will continue to expect from our elected representatives. I’m not going to sit on my haunches and say, phew, what an admirable and praiseworthy development it is that we, the voting public, have one mechanism among many others that actually worked for us.

And let’s not forget how we got here. The UNP faction of the government did everything it could to avoid this result. Everything.

I investigate. That’s my job. And let me tell you that new deal-makers have entered the scene. They are every bit as bad as the old ones. The tenders are being fixed, the prices are being inflated and it will only get worse. Look at the reaction of the police and the relevant minister to the shooting of students in Jaffna. Happy with it? Better than before? Grateful?

Even the bond scam: The prime minister and the opposition tried to cover it up and to exonerate their man. I’m not saying he is guilty. I would need to see the evidence to arrive at that conclusion. But from the very start, it was warned that Arjuna Mahendran should not be the governor of the Central Bank because of an obvious conflict of interest. This went unheeded.

Either way, the bond scam is not the point. I’m no longer willing to compromise on the highest ideals of democracy. I no longer desire to have the wool pulled over my eyes. I will neither be co-opted nor enlisted to campaign or make excuses for this or any government. I acknowledge the advances and the positive developments–but from a position of entitlement, not indebtedness.

If I settle, my readers would also be led down that path . And that is unacceptable.

Mother, you matter

On their wedding day.
On their wedding day.

Your death certificate came in the mail the other day. It was the first time I was seeing it. And I’m thirty-nine. That is how long you have been gone.

It is hard to describe how I felt. You lived only a few hours after I was born. My father never talks about that day. He does not talk about you. Once he is gone, I will never know. I will spend the rest of my days on earth tortured by aching questions to which I will not have answers.

You are my mother. But I have no memory of you. I have no memory of your voice, of your smell, of your warmth. Sometimes I close my eyes and try to remember what it felt like to be in your womb, wafting in a cocoon of amniotic fluid. I pray that, by some miracle, I will recall those precious moments when I was one with you. I am special, I imagine. I can recollect what others cannot.

I can’t, though. I do not remember any of it.

You existed. By writing about you—for the first time in my life—I want to honour that undeniable fact. I was young when someone told me in anger that my paternal aunt was not my mother and that my mother was dead. I asked my father if it was true. “Yes,” he said, next to tears.20151009_220151_LLS (1)

I had to find out. It was inevitable. But my world shook a bit. Not much. I was too young. I spent the next few years trying to analyse how I felt about this earth-shattering revelation. Nobody else seemed to care that you had lived; and that you didn’t anymore.

In moments of sadness, when I felt abandoned by the world, I imagined that you were alive. Or, I imagined that you had left me siblings. We would stand up for each other and not be alone. I’ll be honest. I did not spend the major part of my childhood wishing you back. There were other battles to fight.

Without contact with my father’s or your relatives, the puzzle was hard to piece together. I had no photos, no date of birth, not even a name. I did not know your wedding anniversary. I do not know whether you were buried or cremated and at which cemetery. I have no clothes you wore, not anything. Not even your wedding ring or some other trinket that had once touched your skin.

Nobody ever realized these things would be important to me. My father does not see it even now. I need to know. I may not ever get you back. But it will complete a part of me that is still missing. Fill a gaping hole.

Every time I think of you, my chest tightens. I want to know what you looked like, how long your hair was and how short—because you were short—you really were. I want to know your personality, whether you were a good lawyer and if you made friends easily. Did you cook better than I do? Did you know to bake? Did you sew? Were you neat and tidy? Did you read? Were you compassionate? Where you kind? Were you short-tempered?

And how did you die? My aunt told me you haemorrhaged. She said there was another surgery in the operating theatre of the private hospital at the time so they could not take you in immediately. She said my father and she looked for blood so you could receive a transfusion. That is all I know.

You were just 31. And I was your first and only child. I’m sorry.

This is one story I haven’t written. I just don’t have the information and my sources are not forthcoming. I have tried to find your friends but the memories of the few I know are so distant. They are also too general. They’d say you were bubbly or kind or friendly. But people usually say that of the deceased, don’t they?

Your relations got in touch with me after many years but they don’t seem to remember much either. Your parents are gone. Your father once cried so much when he saw me after a long absence. And he wrote me letters. I wish I had visited him more.

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Your niece, Anusha, said you were wonderful. She said you would bring her chocolates after work and call for her often. That is not much to go on.

So I’m faced with the unpalatable reality that I may never know anything more about my mother than I do now. I will never see anything of her but a handful of photographs and the tiny handwriting on a field notebook given by her employer, a bank, to record developments related to her cases.

The last entry is on September 4, 1976—a month you before died. It says: “Left Colombo by 6.05 train to Kurunegala to reach Kurunegala by 9.30 am.” On the 20th of September you have signed your name. That is all.

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I want to tell you this, Amma.  I acknowledge your existence. I accept that you once lived and breathed. Whoever else might have forgotten you, I have not. I yearn to know more about you. I am tired of suppressing all this in order not to hurt somebody else. Because you matter. You matter to me.

As I grow older, I spend even more time wondering about you, perhaps because time is running out. But till I die, I will never stop thinking about you. You are important to me. Nobody can change what we mean to each other. And I hope you are at peace, wherever you are.

(My mother, Sri Suddha Sinharatna Bandara Dona Nandaprema Jayawardena, died on October 25, 1976. She was a lawyer. Her parents were from Ja Ela. At the time of her death, she was working for the Kurunegala branch of People’s Bank).

Stopping the Rot

A speech from three years ago: “But the objective, in my personal view, should not be to topple governments. Any fool can see that the alternatives are not viable. And if the systems remain the same what’s the point in changing a government anyway? Besides, that objective will defeat the purpose. The fight will once again be about personalities and not about systems.”

Members of the Citizens Movement for Good Governance and friends,

This is an honour indeed. And yet, I am more than a little daunted at having to speak before an audience whose experience and memories stretch so back into the past. When Dr. Visvalingam invited me to address you, I was delighted. But as the days flew by, I became more and more uncertain of what I could say to people who already knew so much more than I do. And who have lived much longer than I have.

So I stand before you as an ordinary journalist who makes no pretence about the depth and extent of my knowledge or insight. I present to you my views based on what I have learnt of my country through the exercise of my profession.

It is the practice today that when somebody presents a view contrary to that which is held by the government and its henchmen, that person and his opinions are loudly denigrated. He must have an agenda, they say. And the word ‘agenda’ is almost always used negatively.

If you criticise the way foreign relations are conducted, you’re being bribed by the West. If you speak about human rights abuses, you are a grasping NGO agent. Either way, you are embroiled in a certain conspiracy to topple the government.

If you oppose the mass ordination of Buddhist children because you think it is not the healthiest way to alleviate poverty or to protect the Buddha Sasana, you’re part of an international religious plot to destroy Buddhism in Sri Lanka. If you eat bread or noodles, you’re a slave to those evil multinational companies—despite the fact that the person making this claim is a noodle himself.

If you criticise your rulers, you’re just downright ungrateful because they won the war—and that should suffice for the next several decades. Indeed, “if you are not with us, you are against us”. Still. Three years after the war ended.

This bigotry and intolerance is untenable. It is wholly detrimental to the free thought, free speech and the advancement of society. Why in this day and age is a government afraid of a diversity of views? Why do they feel so threatened by detractors and critics that they feel it necessary to classify them as conspirators or traitors?

As journalists, we have to avoid all these labels. And yet, you could still be sold out by colleagues who have aligned themselves so closely with this government that they are irreversibly indebted to them. If there are stooges in all other sectors, so it is also with the media. Carrots are certainly more powerful than the stick.

This is not a phenomenon unique to the prevailing regime. Ranil Wickremesinghe had media lackeys who treated as heretics those colleagues who did not blindly follow the leader. So did Chandrika Kumaratunga and no doubt those before her. I may be mistaken but it feels so much worse now. If there is one change I would like to see in the media industry, it is that we do not let our political preferences erode relations among ourselves to the extent that we are unable to tolerate each other in a room.

I have an agenda. That agenda is set by me, based on certain principles, and is not financed by anybody. It comes from wanting a better life for my children. It comes from having made a choice to stay in Sri Lanka when leaving was an attractive option.

As with any journalist, I have had access to many policy and decision makers over the years. I have observed how politicians think, how they work and the difference between the two. I have been able to compare how systems, and the attitudes of those that run them, have changed. I have witnessed half-baked attempts to introduce some semblance of independence to our public institutions through the 17th amendment. Then I saw how easily, and flippantly, even these efforts were reversed through the passing of the 18th amendment.

Having covered the story from the day the law was passed, I will be the first to admit that the 17th amendment was flawed. I remember writing that the law was riddled with more holes than a string-hopper. But it could have been improved for the greater benefit of this country’s citizens and its public officials. Instead, the opposite was done. Our public institutions have lost every semblance of independence and are completely and wholly controlled by the executive. And this includes the judiciary.

When the judiciary depends on the executive for survival and career advancement, and the executive is of the type that expects complete subservience, what hope does this country have?

I don’t have to go into detail here about just how politicised our institutions are. My audience knows it. What is despairing is that it appears to be a bottomless pit. You keep falling, and falling, and falling. The level of submission required is suffocating and even extends to the arts, particularly to the world of film. Since the war ended, Sri Lankans have been allowed to view the conflict only through the eyes of the Sinhalese or through the eyes of the military.

Their story of loss, grief and victory must be told. But what of the others who died, who suffered, who grieve? What about the Tamils? What about the LTTE fighters, many of whom even the government says were conscripted by force? They have a story to tell too. If we don’t tell it, a foreigner will. And then we won’t like it. Then we will whine about it. And somebody out there will join the growing ranks of traitor, of conspirator, of enemy.

I remember visiting a Tiger cemetery once, during the ceasefire. It was for a story. Back then we were encouraged to report these things. A mother and her daughter were laying flowers out on a grave. The woman said her son was buried there. He had been 16 at the time of his death. I saw the same pain in her eyes that I have seen in the eyes of other mothers, Sinhalese mothers, Muslim mothers. Sorrow has no ethnicity, no bias, no race or political preference. So why do we give it these attributes?

Everyone is doing politics everywhere now. The end result is that we don’t get our services. It’s politics at the municipal council, at the police station, in schools, universities and in the health sector. Sportsmen do politics, actors do politics, soldiers, even very senior ones, do politics on behalf of politicians. Politics, politics, everywhere. To prep up a regime, or to topple it. Nothing in between, where the people are.

Then there is this business of how people have come to accept the unacceptable. Some months ago, I walked to the top of our lane with our five-year-old daughter, Anshula. We were heading to the little bookshop near Jubilee Post junction. When we got there, there was police tape around the shop and policemen outside. So we turned back.

I asked some three-wheeler drivers parked at the stand nearby what had happened. As my daughter listened open-mouthed, they described how some men had come the previous evening—not too late—shoved the owner of the bookshop into the inevitable white van and taken him away. They had guns, these drivers said, with great relish. Don’t know where they took him. “Oh well,” I told my daughter, “let’s come some other time”. “Will they find that uncle?” she asked. “I don’t know darling,” I replied, noncommittally. “But there are other bookshops.”

It was only at night that it hit me. My reaction was not normal. It was not normal for me to have accepted the abduction of this man. I don’t know if guns were actually used, but it was also not normal for me to have accepted that a bunch of guys could turn up with guns at the local bookshop. What had happened to me?

But this how it goes. We Sri Lankans are getting so used to things being done wrongly that we forget what the right way is. Does it make me an NGO puppet when I say all this? A traitor? A conspirator? A misguided fool? A plant of the West? An anti-Rajapaksa ingrate? Of course. To some people. But I’m none of those things to me. And that is what matters.

So… how do we reverse the rot? Heck, I don’t know. If the whole distinguished lot of you failed to get it done over the years, what chance do I have of prescribing or enforcing solutions? Most times, the situation seems so hopeless that the worst option seems to be the best option: That is, if you can’t beat them, join them.

But there has to be a way. And here is a little of what I figured out through my interactions as a journalist. First and foremost, we must fight on behalf of institutions and systems while separating personalities and politicians from the same. Politicians, regardless of their parties, have taken ownership of institutions and systems that do not belong to them. The public must bear on politicians to run them in a manner that benefits us.

So often, since the war ended, we have heard that we must be grateful to the government. Yes, we must. But this notion of gratitude has been taken too far. Today, we are expected to be grateful for everything, particularly services that are our entitlement. And those services, too, are delivered so grudgingly, so lackadaisically and so incompetently that it makes you cringe. This is a country that can’t conduct an advanced level examination without a breakdown. Need we look further?

I say that now, three years after the military victory, it is time to stop focusing solely on gratitude. It is time to demand good governance. The regime must be grateful to the people for tolerating its inefficiency thus far. All the international conspiracies in the world can’t mask the fact that things are not right here.

So how does the public know that they are being poorly governed, that politicisation is eating way at the very heart of our systems? The message must go to the grassroots, to the members of local government and provincial councils, of village societies and women’s groups. Teachers, clergy, business people, professionals, agricultural workers, everyone, must be made aware of their rights and entitlements. People must be educated about how proper systems work because we are so entrenched in what we have now that we cannot see or remember a better time.

As a journalist, I have found the public eager to learn about alternatives. I recall a discussion I had with a group of law students at the Colombo High Court last November. It was a vibrant dialogue about the importance of separating the judiciary from the executive. It seemed all the more relevant because we were waiting for the judgement in Sarath Fonseka’s ‘white flag’ case. They, and I, went away more enlightened than when we came in. And I wondered whether the legal education system was today independent enough for similar debates to take place at student level. My guess is, no.

When the message goes to the grassroots, stuff happens. Changes occur. We may not see them now, but things start moving. Politicians get nervous and feel more accountable. If the voices circulate only in the capitals, nothing will change. I had a scheduled interview with a senior VIP government minister recently. I was to meet him at 2 pm. At 1.30 pm, his aide called me and said the minister would be delayed because he was in meetings at Anuradhapura. Two o’clock came and went. I waited because the interview was an important one. We have waited a lifetime for Chandrika to get to places so this was nothing.

At 3.30 pm, I called the aide. So sorry miss, he said. The minister was still at meetings and hasn’t even had his lunch yet. What’s the problem, I asked. “Big problem, miss,” he said. “All the local politicians are fighting with him about so many things and he can’t get away. He’s been stuck since morning.” The minister did not return till late that day. He had been given a tough time by the people that matter.

This pattern needs to be repeated. People from the bottom have to get their rulers to listen. They have to cut through the rhetoric about international and local conspiracies and get to the root of the problem.

But the objective, in my personal view, should not be to topple governments. Any fool can see that the alternatives are not viable. And if the systems remain the same what’s the point in changing a government anyway? Besides, that objective will defeat the purpose. The fight will once again be about personalities and not about systems.

I don’t know whether we can achieve this. I do know that the job can’t be left to journalists alone or to civil society alone or to anybody else alone. Everyone who has the knowledge and the exposure must encourage people at the grassroots to demand more from our rulers. Governing, after all, isn’t the sole prerogative or business of governments, and of particular political parties. The agenda has to be set by us. If we can’t get the people we elected to do their job, then we are responsible for the rot we so despise.

(Keynote speech delivered by journalist Namini Wijedasa at the Annual General Meeting of the Citizens Movement for Good Governance in May 2012, held in the auditorium of the Organisation of Professional Associations, Colombo.)

If parliament was a paddy field and parliamentarians were buffaloes

(Photo from internet, labeled for reuse)
(Photo from internet, labeled for reuse)

This column was published in Lakbimanews on October 7, 2007. I’m going to dedicate this to the timelessness of Sri Lankan politics. When all else falls apart, our politicians remain honest and true to their complete lack of morals or principle.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was chasing buffaloes last week. And not metaphorically speaking either.

Nobody could have missed the president in his buttercup t-shirt, diving into a good sized patch of paddy with the intention (we think) of getting everyone to grow rice. Hiking up his checked sarong–stick in hand–he trailed a pair of fierce-looking buffaloes while the shutterbugs clicked furiously from the sidelines.

It was a photo to die for–the kind that Ranil Wickremesinghe fails to supply, time after time. There’s something about Mahinda Rajapaksa that makes great pictures. And Sri Lanka loves great pictures, to hell with good governance.

Wear a sarong at Number 10 Downing Street and, boy, you’ve got it made. Rig oneself out in a three-piece suit under the blistering sun (as Ranil often has) and you really have lost the next election.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about metaphorical bull-chasing. Or buffalo trailing (whichever applies) because there is a LOT of that happening Sri Lanka side. Out in the real paddy fields, hundreds of varicose-veined farmers have enlisted the assistance of buffaloes to plough the soil. Some use these animals because they prefer the old-fashioned method. Not only are they good work beasts, they fertilise the field while turning the soil. Many farmers fall back on buffaloes because they can’t afford mechanisation.

In Sri Lanka, however, other farmers mobilise buffaloes for other reasons. In fact, there’s no shortage of farmers and certainly none of buffaloes. Let’s imagine–for a moment–that parliament was a paddy field and parliamentarians were buffaloes. And that party leaders were farmers. Doesn’t Sri Lankan politics now become far simpler to understand?

Party leaders desperately need buffaloes (metaphorically, speaking) for survival. The mechanisation option is not open. This would explain why just the other day Rajapaksa, the chief farmer, called upon yet another bunch of buffaloes to hoe his patch of paddy field, if only for one year.

It was the JVP buffaloes he was wooing this time. Speaking at the wap magul ceremony after doing his bit for the cameras, Rajapaksa insisted that JVP support was essential if his government were to deal with the ethnic issue and economic problems. “Join my government for at least a year,” he implored.

Only hitch is that competing farmers have been trailing the same buffaloes in recent weeks. Our Ranil goiyya even banished federalism from his vocabulary in an apparently vain attempt to get our Marxist buffaloes to draw his capitalist plough instead. So far, however, the JVP has shown little interest in cultivating–and fertilising–anything but their own acreage.

Does this mean other beasts would have to be approached before the budget in November? Upcountry buffaloes, perhaps? Muslim buffaloes? Sinhala Buddhist buffaloes? The whole damned lot?

Ultimately, Sri Lankan politics in recent times has seen nothing but buffalo canvassing by this party or that. Every year–as the budget vote nears–some farmer or the other claims he will topple the government and promptly starts chasing buffaloes.

And, so, a futile, pre-budget frenzy begins. Journalists whip out their notebooks and start doing the numbers. How many in this farmer’s party and how many in that? Which parties did all these buffaloes originally contest with? How many, if ten buffaloes cross to the other side? How many, if twenty buffaloes come back? Which buffalo is most likely to defect? How much would he go for and to whose patch of paddy? Which buffalo has no intention of defecting but is claiming he would? How far would farmers go to keep these buffaloes back?

Journalists start interviewing farmers–and buffaloes–about which way they would vote at the budget. With quite an unnecessary sense of foreboding, the media begins stories about possible elections. Some farmers say an election is coming soon and even start campaigning. Other farmers–and the buffaloes that work under them–go around the country saying they’re not scared of any bally election.

And nothing happens. Every year… nothing happens. The budget vote comes. The budget votes goes. There is no toppling. Not even close. Months are wasted in an unprofitable, vapid debate that produces nothing at the end. Not even fertiliser.

It is, to be sure, a clean case of janathawa gonata andanawa. How’s that for a good picture?

National government: A suppository like no other

Ranil Mahinda
(Photo from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s twitter feed)

THE idea of a national government has been bandied about in the past, often to facilitate crossovers. It is a concept that helps parliamentarians save face while defecting for personal gain. While going through my old files, I stumbled upon this column I wrote in the Lakbimanews of December 2, 2007. It was another time; a another national government. Here is a slightly edited version of that column.

Our chieftains are blithering again about a national government. Strictly speaking, this is not news – because there is a national government founded every year.

You see, a national government is very much like a suppository. It is cheap. It can be easily inserted into the Sri Lankan psyche where, just moments later, it brings instant relief to a multitude of painful symptoms. (Does not cure the ailment, but it covers the symptoms).

And like every good Sri Lankan national government, a suppository melts and dissipates in minutes. It is, therefore, not uncommon for various politicians of various hues to start gibbering about a national government when things get a little sticky.

Not to imply that Mahinda Rajapaksa is stuck in a pot of glue or something. But it cannot be nice lingering till December 14– twiddling the proverbial thumb–to see whether his government will make it through the third budget vote.

After all, Ranil Wickremesinghe (in moments of rash bravery) has been boasting about toppling the Rajapaksa regime. Unlikely as this may be… what if it were TRUE?

The ground situation is also politically precarious. The war may be going Gotabayesquely well but, even at the best of times, war is such an unreliable political gimmick. Success, one moment; abysmal failure, the next.

More importantly, the cost of living has become a symptom that even a suppository is hard pressed to appease. Bandula Gunawardane, who knew more economics than Adam Smith while he was in the Opposition, is proving more of an economic disaster in government.

The Central Bank says the economy is doing great. The ordinary man (clichéd as that sounds) only knows it would be cheaper to DHL a cow than to buy milk powder. And that the Government wants him to starve himself while they splurge money on themselves without accountability.

On top of this, the JVP has gone inconveniently mutinous. The CWC and a few other parties, who are being heavily wooed by the Opposition, cannot be trusted. And Tamil millionaire Charles Gnanakone is reportedly lurking in corners with bags of money to lure members from the Government to the Opposition on the orders of the LTTE.

So what better suppository than a national government to cure the symptoms? To banish the fever, vomiting and diarrhoea, verbal or otherwise.

Just talking about the possibility of a national government brings with it a degree of relief. It makes the public think that the light at the end of the tunnel may not be a train. It fools them into forgetting those unnecessary, sticky issues that a government cannot solve. And, it might even encourage the opposition to mull over something other than the defeating of a government.

We hear that it is the UNP breakaway faction, led by Karu Jayasuriya, who is mooting the idea of a national government this time. After decamping en masse–and piling portfolios upon themselves like cheap tinsel on a Christmas tree–they have now generously offered to campaign for Ranil’s appointment as prime minister in a future national government.

Luckily, our Wickremesinghe has not been fooled by the latest ruse. One reason may be that, the last time he decided to experiment with a national government, he got–not a suppository–but a kick up his backside.

The 2006 deal he signed with Mahinda Rajapaksa became the double-crossing joke of the century. The president smilingly flourished the agreement to the international community while simultaneously sneaking out UNP members from under Wickremesinghe’s very nose. One hell of a national government that was.

So here we are, heading towards yet another budget vote as if there’s no other business in the country that requires attention. Bombs explode as the war continues; corruption goes on as the MPs get richer and richer; inflation is ballooning as the prices climb higher and higher… and all they can offer us is a cheap, miserable suppository.

Welcome to Sri Lanka. We wish you a pleasant stay.

Grief is not Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim

Fenced off beaches tell no tales.
Fenced off beaches tell no tales.

Grief is a potent, deeply personal, emotion. It is more powerful than fear and, once experienced, lives in some form or the other throughout a person’s lifetime. A mother or a father who loses a child feels grief like no other.

Grief cannot be stamped out with the heel of an army boot. A sharp command, a flash of khaki green, the glint of a weapon, brute force or the threat of arrest might suppress its manifestation in public. But even in such a state, it exists. It endures. It festers.

There were many mothers and fathers who pawed at their chests in agony as this ache consumed them at the war’s end five years ago. They were helpless in the face of death.

We are programmed to believe we can protect our children from anything. We would die trying. But each time, death cheats us of this imagined privilege. So grief is laced with anger; with a sense of injustice; with a why-me or why-my-child; with a sense of a tale untold.

This narrative isn’t mono-ethnic. You can’t cover a story for twenty years and not see, or acknowledge, that. There is grief in everyone that suffered through the countless air raids, the shelling, the shooting, the bomb blasts, the ambushes, the massacres and the relentless, pointless, endless to-ing and fro-ing between the two sides.

In early May 2009, I visited a Sinhala village in the Anuradhapura district. Nearly every household there had given up a son to the military. Nearly every household was in mourning.

Yes, those TV adverts had been enticing. Joining the military was shown to be a glorious act, perhaps more sanctifying even than joining the clergy. But there was little glory in the bloody end.

And so, with the fighting drawing to a fevered pitch, grief hung over this impoverished village like a dense, grey cloud just before the rains. The cemetery had fresh graves, all of young men. There were white flags, white streamers and white banners with rough, black lettering, wishing the dead eternal peace.

A mother who had lost her son to the fighting the previous week held on to his framed photograph so tightly that her knuckles were white. Her weeping was raw, guttural and intense. The boy had only been sixteen, she said. He had lied to get into the army. Her body writhed as she cried, as she leant against the doorpost and slid to the ground.

I have witnessed the same grief in the eyes of other human beings. I have felt throbbing agony in the vacant stares of Tamil mothers and fathers as they speak of their dead or missing children, regardless of whether they had been LTTE fighters or unarmed civilians. For, what earthly difference could that possibly make to a parent? I have seen how desperately sad these Tamils are, how they have no support to handle their emotions and how they are forced to keep quiet for fear of “stepping out of line”.

I have seen how men and women are picking up the pieces of their lives and moving on but how the pain bubbles on, just beneath the surface—under control but only just.

When many of them left the war zone, they hadn’t had the strength or stamina to drag anything but their weary, battered bodies out. Yet, photographs were non-negotiable. Black-and-white photographs, taken for identity cards; coloured photographs, taken in studios with their artificial potted plants and standardised backdrops; photographs taken on birthdays with mothers, fathers and children beaming joyfully; random photographs taken in gardens or in some part of the house, almost always on special occasions.

Everyone that experienced this war at a range close enough to experience death feels the same grief. Grief has no race, creed or colour. There is no Tamil grief or Sinhala grief or Muslim grief. Tamil grief isn’t more unbearable than Sinhala grief or Muslim grief. Sinhala grief isn’t more unbearable than Tamil grief or Muslim grief. And Muslim grief isn’t more unbearable than Sinhala grief or Tamil grief.

How can it be? Grief is grief. Death is death.

Why, then, does this government insist upon packing loss into separate boxes and giving them ethnic labels? Why does it prescribe how Tamils, Sinhalese or Muslims should grieve when that isn’t their business? Why does it say where you can or cannot light a lamp, where you can or cannot conduct religious rites, where you can or cannot commemorate your dead when it isn’t their prerogative?

The military has encroached into everything else. Why won’t it leave grief alone?

If that woman in Anuradhapura wanted to honour her dead son, she could mobilise her entire village to do so and nobody would bat an eyelid. They could gather at the playground, at the cemetery, at the temple, at the school, anywhere they wished. They could light lamps, scatter flowers, hold religious ceremonies or invoke blessing upon any number of Sinhalese men or women who had died in the war.

Why can’t Tamils do the same?

Five years after the war, politicians have taken ownership of how survivors should remember their dead—how many numbers can congregate and where and when and how. In Jaffna, they have deployed the military to do their bidding.

It is the same military against which there is so much hostility, even five years after the war ended. Now, there will be even more hatred, even more bitterness, even more resentment. No amount of tweeting by Namal Rajapaksa from the hinterlands of the north—no amount of bicycle donations, no amount of road-building—will change that. The gulf is widening. The cycle is beginning again.

Others are waiting in the wings to take advantage of this. Tamil politicians have also taken ownership of grief, for their own reasons, to meet their own agendas and those of others who don’t even live here. They too are prescribing how people should grieve. When politics infiltrates into people’s lives, things lose their original purpose. They become twisted, disfigured and unpleasant. And human beings become pawns. Just look north.

This is the politics of grief in Sri Lanka. But amidst the rhetoric and the lobbying for advantage, real sorrow continues to exist. It goes unaddressed. People are suffering.

You can’t stop that by marching out the army. You can’t achieve something great or beneficial by stamping out a flame lit to the dead. You can’t prescribe how a population should grieve as a means of ensuring that only your own sanitised versions of the war survives. You can’t deny a people the right to their memories, their pain or their loss.

Victory parades won’t make the other story disappear. But you need magnanimity and empathy to see that. This government knows much about road construction but it has no idea how to build bridges.

“Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.”
(The Dhammapada)

I saw the monks going into casino boss’s restaurant

Photo credit:The Sunday Times. Pic by Mangala Weerasekera
Photo Credit: The Sunday Times. Pic by Mangala Weerasekera

I was late.

Two colleagues were waiting at the Orient Club for me to return from a press conference.

We had another appointment in an hour. I was late because I had spent my morning taking down notes while leading religious dignitaries censured government plans to expand the casino industry in Sri Lanka.

So as I approached the Orient Club in Colombo 7, I was running. After dashing in through the open gate, however, I wasn’t certain whether to turn right or left.  

There were two buildings in the compound—one had a fresh coat of paint and coloured windows; the other looked older and more in need of maintenance. I had been to the Orient only once before and I couldn’t remember which way to go.

I’ll go right, I decided, making my way quickly towards the swankier edifice. But I stopped short.

At the entrance to the building—which I later discovered was a new Indian food restaurant called Maharaja—was Ravi Wijeratne, the local partner of Australian casino king James D. Packer and the chairman of Rank Holdings (Pvt) Ltd. He owns the Casino Marina on Marine Drive in Kollupitiya.

And alighting from vehicles in their saffron robes, to be cordially greeted at the entrance by this same casino boss, were some Buddhist monks. In an instant, I recognized Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera who, only 30 minutes ago, had been blistering about the government’s casino legislation!

I also made out Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera and Ven. Ittapana Dhammalankara Anunayake Thera among the collection of robes. I was later told that, from among the leading monks who had been at the press conference, Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera and Ven. Banagala Upatissa Thera also attended the meal at Maharaja.

To say I was stupefied would be an understatement. In that split second, I also had time to feel intensely and acutely dismayed and disappointed.  I had, in all good faith, gone to their briefing and written copious notes. I had recorded their voices so that I would not miss a word of what they said. And the leaders had made some convincing arguments against a spread of casinos.

But here they were—half of the number of senior, most eminent Buddhist prelates who had been at that briefing. They were having their feet washed by Wijeratne and his minions before tripping up the red carpet into the restaurant.

Now what?

I didn’t approach the gathering because both the prelates and Wijeratne knew me. I had asked four questions at a press conference attended by all of five journalists. As for Wijeratne, two international colleagues and I had met him for an interview at Casino Marina just the previous night. I wasn’t sure how they would react if I went forward and showed my face.

The place was swarming with Wijeratne’s men. There might or might not have been a safety issue and I didn’t want to risk finding out which of these two was fact. Besides, I wanted them to complete what they had come there to do and to not modify their actions merely because a journalist had sighted them.

So I did what any self-respecting reporter in those circumstances would do—I dived behind a tree and watched. They all went in. When they emerged some time later, Wijeratne’s men were carrying gifts for the prelates which they loaded into their cars.

The Sunday Times has photographs. The newspaper’s report, with one photograph, can be seen here:

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/131020/news/religious-leaders-denounce-moves-to-set-up-more-casinos-66414.html

Here is a transcript of the conversation the Sunday Times had with Ven. Muruththetuwe Ananda Thera, who was among those present at the lunch.

Q: Swaminwahansa, did you attend a special lunch after the news conference on Thursday?

A: It was an almsgiving.

Q: Who was giving this almsgiving?

A: I don’t know.

Q: Who invited you?

A: It was Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera.

Q: Was anything discussed there about casinos?

A: Not a word.

Q: What was this lunch in aid of?

A: It was a sangha danayak.

Q: Was everyone who attended the news conference present at the lunch?

A: There were a few of them.

Q: Do you know (the businessman)?

A: I have no connection with him.

Q: You don’t know him?

A: I have no recollection of him.

The Sunday Times contacted Ven. Dr. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera to verify that he had, indeed, extended the invitation to Ven. Muruththetuwe Ananda Thera.

Q: Swaminwahansa, did you go to a restaurant for lunch on the invitation of (businessman) after the news conference on Thursday?

A: I was invited to an almsgiving at the restaurant. I didn’t know anything about a casino connection. We went to the almsgiving and came away.

Q: Did (businessman) invite you?

A: The invitation came from (associate of businessman).

Q: Do you know the (businessman)?

A: We didn’t know him. We went into the restaurant, we had our offerings and left.

Q: Ven. Muruththetuwe Ananda swaminwahansa said you had invited him to the almsgiving. Is this true?

A: I didn’t invite him. He was also invited by (associate of businessman).

Q: When was the invitation extended?

A: About two weeks ago.

Q: Did you discuss anything about casinos at this restaurant?

A: Nothing. We did not think so much… that he’s connected to casinos.

Q: When you were invited to an almsgiving, you did not ask who the person is?

A: When we are invited, we don’t try to find the origins (agak mulak) of the person who is inviting us. We go and consume the offerings and come back. Some websites are trying to sling mud at us.

Representatives of other religions in the Congress did not attend the almsgiving.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

Nobody begrudges a monk an almsgiving, be it at a temple, in a house or, for that matter, in a restaurant.

But when you summon a press conference explicitly to protest against gambling—and, in particular, a new casino to be set up by Ravi Wijeratne and James D Packer—it smacks of extreme hypocrisy to partake of a luncheon supplied to you by that same Wijeratne 30 minutes later.

It does not look right to afterwards to drive away from the venue with car boots brimming with gifts.

It does not sound right to later tell the reporter who attended your press conference that you did not speak a word about casinos at the said lunch; because that gullible hack might have been hoping, to save your face and hers, that you went to this spread with the intention of telling Wijeratne where exactly he could stuff his casinos (given you had spent the morning doing just that).

It does not do justice to the leaders and representatives of other religions—Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, Javed Yusuf and Brahmasri S. Kuhanantha Sarma—for you to be hosted by Wijeratne in their ignorance.

One of these representatives was so appalled at the occurrence that he called me the next day to check whether I’m absolutely certain of what I had seen. I told him that, even if I weren’t, the camera doesn’t lie.

It is not believable that none of the eminent, learned, distinguished prelates knew who was offering them alms. 

It is not proper to decide—after the news is published—that you will hold a press conference to reaffirm your opposition to casinos, and then promptly cancel it saying, “We have achieved our objectives as the government has withdrawn the bills”. 

A representative of the Congress of Religions telephoned on the morning of 22 October and said Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera wants to summon another briefing; by afternoon the plan was off.

As for Wijeratne, he lost nothing. He committed an act of merit by offering alms to these prelates. Sure, his plans suffered a temporary blow but that isn’t necessarily because of the events of that day.

And will the government call off the Packer deal because of it? Not on anyone’s life. One way or the other, those casinos will be built. It’s only the packaging that will change.

What a country. What a reality. What abject hopelessness.

As a journalist, I am increasingly aware that nothing is ever what it seems. We write stories which we think are truth. But the truth lies several layers below.

Those in control of the truth feed us elements of the story and inveigle us into believing that we know all of it. They even let us write this semi-story and lead us on to believe that, by god, we’re ruddy smart.

But we’re not, really. We are suckers. If I hadn’t stumbled upon the party the other day, I’d have spent yet another day being a sucker.

PS: That afternoon, I mentioned to UNP MP Mangala Samaraweera (with whom my colleagues and I had an interview) what I had seen. He said he wouldn’t tell anyone. By nightfall, it was all over town. 

There is in Jaffna a lovely little guesthouse called Manattrii. In the garden of this enchanting, refurbished 19th Century abode are two large jam fruit trees, their branches spreading out over its neat little garden.
Their velvety leaves rustle whenever a breeze rises and bees take turns at visiting their white flowers throughout the day. The first thing you notice about Manattrii (after the signboard) is one of those trees. It stands near the gate. Taller people have to negotiate past its low branches and foliage to reach the entrance to the guesthouse.
I love jam fruit trees. They take me to my childhood. For me, jam fruit trees are associated with happy memories; of straining my neck staring at its branches while my taller friend, Upekha, hunts for ripe fruit; of begging adults to interrupt some other, bland, errand to pick a few; of hanging on its branches which are ideal for climbing; of listening to the birds that gorge on its delights; and of whiling away the hours seated in its soothing, fragrant shade.
Jam fruit trees demand limitless patience. Their fruit are small and scattered everywhere. They are not easy to find but it is a delight to search for them… and an even greater thrill to stumble upon the ripe ones. They have a distinctive taste and are just the right size to keep you wanting more. A short burst of sweetness and it’s gone.
It isn’t only the red fruit that is tasty. The ripening ones are just as good. Whenever you think you’ve plucked the last one, the leaves shift and you discover, to your delight, yet another red hued jewel. That’s the magic of the jam fruit tree; a magic I rediscovered in Jaffna this weekend.
For in Colombo, I don’t have time to squander under jam fruit trees. In Colombo, there is always somewhere to rush to, always something else to do.
Jam Fruit

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Tigers kill democracy in Batticaloa. Written in 2005.

Blatant, relentless child recruitment

by Namini Wijedasa

Under the shade of a leafy tree, four alert young men are keeping watch – LTTE cadres, by their clothing. A sharp knife glints in the hand of one man. Another holds a heavy pole. Two motorbikes stand ready.

The dry, dusty ground is blistering hot. Glaring sunshine blinds the eye. A morose breeze occasionally disturbs the sullen atmosphere but Vakarai gets little respite.

An old, sarong-clad man on a rickety bicycle slowly pedals towards the four men. He must bypass them to access the main road. One of them casts a menacing remark at him. Incensed, the man shouts: “You’re here to take our children. Go on, take them. Why harass me?”

A cadre darts forward and tries to wrench the bicycle from the sun-burnt villager. He resists. The man holding the pole strikes him hard – and repeatedly – on the legs. The villager struggles onto his bicycle and pedals a short distance, before toppling off. He limps towards a hut, dragging the bicycle alongside.

Two of his assailants leap onto a motorbike, stop near the hovel and follow him inside. Two others join them, swinging more heavy poles. They exit a little later, laughing and bragging that they had “hammered the old man good”.

Abduction intersection

The four men take up their original positions, waiting… watching. On their right is the village school. Nearby, the Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) has a field office. Foreign NGO-workers in fancy SUVs coast past, occasionally peering at the flag-decked Tiger memorial that’s opposite. A monument to martyrs.

Not far away, the sun beats down angrily on rows of white tombstones. More Tiger heroes. An illustration, done in black paint, catches the eye. It depicts an armed LTTE cadre leading two young children by each hand.

Symbolic, chilling, accurate.

“They take children all the time,” says an impoverished, desolate woman living in a tsunami-camp at Kandalady, Vakarai (under LTTE control). “Even yesterday…. they took away a fifteen-year-old boy.”

From where? “From there,” she says, pointing in the general direction. “Near the school.”

For many villagers, this particular junction in Vakarai – near the school, the TRO office and the Tiger memorial – is the abduction intersection. But children are also vulnerable in every other corner of the Batticaloa district. Any unaccompanied child risks being kidnapped. And many, many have been done so during the past few months. Blatantly, fearlessly, repeatedly.

Relentless increase in conscription

“Basically, the situation is really, really bad,” says an NGO coordinator in Batticaloa, opting to remain anonymous. (No names can be cited because those interviewed risk being assassinated). “Just this morning I spoke to a friend of mine who’s missing a relative, a fifteen-year-old boy. Nobody knows where he is.”

The issue of child abductions comes up regularly at NGO meetings, he revealed. But they don’t even minute these discussions for fear of reprisal.

Father Harry Miller is an outspoken Jesuit missionary and former rector of St Michael’s College, Batticaloa. When he was apprised that the Tigers had abducted a boy in Vakarai the day before, he replied: “I would be surprised if they only took one. They had a recent temple festival in Batticaloa and they took a dozen. All these festivals are under the control of the LTTE now.”

“The Tigers are recruiting large numbers of children,” he maintained.

Father Miller said he had even confronted LTTE political wing leader, S P Tamilselvan, with reports of child recruitment. “He told me they’re not doing it anymore,” he related. “I told him not to tell me that because I knew they were continuing conscription. He replied that they were only taking children at the age of 17. I told him that he must have the consent of parents.”

What was Tamilselvan’s response? “He changed the subject,” Father Miller said.

There are also “believable reports” that the Karuna faction has recommenced child recruitment but these were not being documented.

UNICEF has statistics of conscription but warns that these are only reported cases. There are countless others. The last two months have seen an unrelenting increase. June recorded fifty-nine cases of underage recruitment; in July, 111 (one hundred and eleven) children were taken. Fifty-six were from Batticaloa.

“Any time, it can happen,” said a man at a transitional tsunami camp, also at Kandalady. “They pull children off bicycles, on the way to school or anywhere. We are scared to send our children outside, even to the roadside to buy something from the boutique.”

“Mothers don’t like to leave their children at home,” said another woman, whose 25-year-old son-in-law had also been forcibly taken by the LTTE. “Parents don’t like to go out to work.”

Why don’t they try to get their children back? The woman snorted, incredulous at the question. “We can’t approach the LTTE,” she said. “We don’t know where the abducted children are. They won’t tell us. We can’t get them back.”

These parents don’t have two coins to rub together. Most cannot afford the journey to government-controlled areas, where they can at least lodge a complaint with reporting agencies like UNICEF or the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). Still others donknow that these avenues are available to them.

Desperate

Despite obvious peril to their lives, these men and women were willing to have their names published. Trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea – grimy, appallingly poor and thin – they were desperate enough to throw caution to the wind. Upon reflection, however, this writer opted not to identify them.

A peek into their stifling temporary shelters proves that the villagers have little or no possessions. If they were poverty-stricken before the tsunami, they’re worse off now. But none of them wanted their children recruited as fighters. It was evident both from their words – and from the helpless, anxious look in their eyes – that they would rather keep their kids than lose them to the LTTE.

Army protection

Back in Batticaloa town, at the Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya, a group of government soldiers stand guard over displaced persons. Most are Burgher families from Dutch Bar, Kallady, but members of the Tamil community also live at the school. They expect to be resettled shortly at Thiraimadu.

“We were deployed here because the LTTE are abducting children from camps,” explained the senior-most soldier, after initially refusing to speak. “People wanted protection. The LTTE have taken children from several places. Everyone knows. But we are usually informed too late so we can’t do anything.”

“We can catch them if we are told in time,” he continued. “On the other hand, we are in a difficult position. If we try to stop the LTTE and a dispute starts, we will be punished for threatening the cease-fire.”

A stone’s throw away, a naked toddler sat in a water-filled basin, cheerfully bathing herself. Two others returned from school, holding hands and grinning cheekily. Another munched on a bun. An older child read a book, legs folded Buddha-style. Some others played catch, threw around a ball and harassed their mothers. Though displaced, these kids were unquestionably luckier than their counterparts in Vakarai.

Inadequate reporting

Meanwhile, concerned parties in Batticaloa complain about inadequate reporting of child conscription. “We are worried that the pathways to getting information are no longer working very well,” said an NGO worker, who predictably opted to remain unidentified. “The problem is quite acute but only isolated incidents are recorded.”

“You will find a drop in the number of reports,” he continued. “That’s a major issue right now. The perpetrators are aware that child recruitment is a public relations faux pas and are intimidating the public to prevent reporting.

“The official numbers absolutely do not reflect reality. The reporting agencies must be proactive.”

Vilja Kutvonen is SLMM spokesperson. “Of course, it’s always so that many of the underage recruitments are never reported to us or no complaints are made,” she averred, emphasising that it was important to inform civilians about SLMM’s role in recording incidents. “The public must be educated,” she reiterated.

Even then, the SLMM can only document information. They do make inquiries but are prevented from going any further as they do not have police powers. And if threat or intimidation is preventing the public from reporting abduction, there’s nothing the SLMM can do.

As for UNICEF, its spokesman Geoff Keele said the agency was “in discussions at district level with the LTTE”. “We have name lists of children and are trying to get them released,” he explained. “This is happening in all districts.”

Asked whether UNICEF has had any success, Geoff said they had reports of eleven children being released to their parents. “But we have no confirmation of that yet,” he added.

Everybody knows

Batticaloa is a mess. It is a tangled web of fear, suppressed speech, assassinations, lawlessness and, of course, child conscription. Everyone, except those parents, is scared to speak the truth. The silence is complete. One of the NGO workers earlier quoted said there had been 200 assassinations during the first two months after the tsunami. “Every other day, there is a killing,” said a Muslim trader from Eravur. “They take a man, ask a few questions and finished.” Pointing two fingers to his head, he said: “They kill him.”

The fact that nobody – except those desperate parents in Kandalady – wished to be named is a story in itself. Even members of foreign NGOs opted to keep their identities secret.

As Father Miller put it: “Everybody knows it but nobody will tell you.”

How much impact are these anonymous voices having on the LTTE? Evidently none. Child conscription is glaring, obvious and undeniable.

International collusion

The international community has had no effect either. Whatever statements the four co-chairs of the Tokyo donor conference – the European Union, Japan, Norway and the United States – have issued are watered down, half-hearted pronouncements that reveal a lack of genuine interest in child or human rights. There have been few or no statements isolating and condemning exclusively child recruitment. The issue has always been smuggled in with a host of other subjects.

It’s unclear why the international community will not slam the LTTE on such a clear-cut case of abuse. They must know that silence amounts to collusion. A single threat to withhold aid dollars from the LTTE could result in compliance but the co-chairs and other donors have balked at stating fact, demanding answers and issuing sanctions. As a result, the LTTE is confidently continuing to breach global child and human rights laws — committing the type of offence that makes them eligible for prosecution before the International Criminal Court.

And what of international NGOs? Batticaloa is teeming with expensive vehicles and do-gooders of all hues. They, like everyone else, know the truth. But even outside the confines of the terrified town that is Batticaloa, they remain silent. Why? Has the Tiger killed democracy?

Where is freedom if speech is stifled? What is the peace process? Just a couple of ‘p’ words that have given the LTTE a licence to deny children their parents, their childhood and their innocence.

For those who ask what I wrote about the Tigers. Just one example.

 

Penned in The Sunday Island of August 2005, after the killing of Lakshman Kadirgamar. Used a pen name because of security threat, since I was travelling frequently to LTTE-controlled areas. Also used a pen name to protect my sources. 

The way of the Tigers
By Chetana Dirithi

 

In September 2002, when our self-styled truce was still in the first rosy months of its questionable life, a scared Tamil man from Jaffna sought me out at my private residence in Colombo.

I’m restrained from naming him, from describing him or even revealing his profession because the LTTE would kill him. What I can say is that he was a respectable citizen without affiliation to any political party or group. A man who loved his country and his people but quaked with fear at what the future held for both.

Nervously, he settled into a chair and started speaking. He had nasty purple bruises and congealing cuts on his body and face. Just weeks before, he had been snatched from his home by the LTTE and beaten mercilessly for no other offence than publicly expressing an opinion dissimilar to that of the Tigers.

“I didn’t know whom to confide in,” he confessed, quietly. “I can’t trust the Tamils. I used to be able to trust the Sinhalese. But I can’t anymore. They may sneak to the LTTE.

“I hope you won’t betray me.”

Choking Jaffna

The LTTE was choking Jaffna, he lamented. They had entered the city for “political” reasons but were slowly controlling every aspect of civilian life. They were dictators, he claimed. Views contradicting their own were not tolerated. A word out of place would result in severe punishment. The Tigers had a death grip on government officials. Everyone had to toe their line. In the meantime, each family in Jaffna had been surveyed, with details of their income and property meticulously recorded. No business venture — not even a roaming salesman — was free from LTTE extortion. Or “taxes”, as they preferred to call it.

“The LTTE is about money and money is about the LTTE,” he said. “They only want money. Please expose them. We have no hope.” This was 2002. Long before direct negotiations broke down and well in advance of Karuna’s defection.

The tragedy of this story is that I’m not making it up. I almost wish I were.

I’m no Sinhala nationalist. I’m not even remotely racist. I endorse that Tamil people have serious concerns that must be addressed. I don’t want the poor man’s son to die fighting my battle. When the cease-fire agreement was signed and face-to-face talks commenced, I joined many others in rejoicing that our beleaguered, sad nation had been given a second chance. I had faith in the LTTE and the involvement of a third party facilitator.

I was wrong. The cease-fire indisputably cut off direct combat but by no means was the war over. A more complex conflict had begun — one that the government is now handsomely losing at the hands of a terrorist organisation that is unashamedly pampered by an international community and a rich, well-fed, opulent, Colombo-based NGO mafia who evidently don’t care about Tamil people.

Humouring the LTTE — and not protecting the lives of ordinary civilians — has been the main thrust of this peace process. Any advantages the Tamil people receive are crumbs off the LTTE table. The Tamil community is suffering the worst casualties in this battle. First, they were victimised by the state and the military; now the Tiger is feeding on its own young.

More than 98 per cent of civilians killed by the LTTE during the past three years have been Tamil.

 Sanctioning extortion

Returning from Jaffna on a civilian flight, one day, I started chatting to the passenger seated next to me. The middle-aged Tamil man was pleasant and friendly, speaking English with a slight foreign accent. He lived in Canada, he said, and was a businessman. “I came to Jaffna after years to see my home town,” he said. “There’s a lot of destruction. I’m sad.”

He had visited Jaffna also to explore whether there were investment opportunities there. He wasn’t happy with what he saw and was returning home. One factor that had strongly discouraged him was LTTE taxation. “I don’t want to pay double taxes,” he said. “And the LTTE taxes are quite high.”

Although prohibited under the cease-fire agreement, the LTTE started extorting money quite early in the truce. In fact, they even published a list of official taxes. Jaffna boutiques started factoring these charges into their receipts and it is now accepted that every businessman must contribute a portion of their profits to the organisation.

The opening of the A9 road was a boon to the LTTE. Fees were slapped on practically everything. Tamil expatriates were liable to especially heavy payments. The cash kept rolling in, unhindered by the state or the international community. This component of the cease-fire was — and is — completely ignored.

I remember speaking to a Norwegian diplomat about the issue of extortion. I recall being particularly surprised at the nonchalance with which he treated it. “Surely you understand that the LTTE needs money?” he asked me. “They have their administrative systems to fund, their cadres to feed.” If that were so, why insert a dud clause into the cease-fire agreement?

One of the most attractive features of the truce deal was that it temporarily broke down tensions between the Sinhala and Tamil community. The two sides started reaching out to each other across ethnic divides. Ordinary Sinhala people flocked to Jaffna on sightseeing tours and pilgrimages. Tamil people started visiting relatives and doing their own tours of the south. They started speaking each other’s languages. After years of war, Jaffna assumed almost a festive air. Roving merchants started selling their wares in the north. Trinkets and little luxuries from the south were snapped up fast. It wasn’t unusual to find traders from Galle, Kandy or Colombo standing on a Jaffna street corner and canvassing business.

Manipulating civilians

Unfortunately, this didn’t last long. The visitors dried up and so did the merchants, not necessarily simultaneously. The latter had long been complaining that there were too many taxes to pay. It wasn’t worth the trouble. Meanwhile, the LTTE started controlling profitable businesses, becoming middlemen for all sorts of transactions. In addition to choking people, they started choking the economy.

Muslim returnees to Jaffna once told me that the Tigers were preventing them from resuming their lucrative scrap iron business. “They have realised that it was good money so they are preventing us from going out and collecting scrap iron,” a businessman said. “They’re doing it themselves. It’s the same with everything else. They are middlemen for fish, vegetables…. Even big companies have to either make a heavy down payment or share their profits.” The LTTE also started controlling market prices, instructing businessmen to sell their goods at certain rates.

Civilians had no escape from the LTTE. From the very instant Tigers started “political activity” in Jaffna, ordinary people have been under tight control. They have also been manipulated handsomely to suit the LTTE’s needs. The Tigers have even used school children in their protests, using them to provoke the military and placing them in grave danger. Over and over, the organisation has confirmed that civilian life is expendable.

Unfortunately, civilians were not happy under army control either. Past experiences had left them extremely bitter and rightly so. Any attempts by the military to change its image were challenged by the LTTE, which was leading efforts to distance the civilian populace from state forces.

Home truths

This wouldn’t be so bad had the Tiger alternative been any better. But it isn’t.

I once visited the Jaffna political office of the LTTE for an interview with area chief, Ilamparathy. Outside, seated on rows of chairs, were rows of civilians. Sari-clad women and men in sarongs. What were they waiting for?

“They are unhappy with the military and the Sri Lanka police,” claimed Ilamparathy, speaking through a translator. “They are waiting to lodge complaints with the LTTE. Some people have land disputes. Some people want to report about the army and police. They want the military to leave High Security Zones.”

Outside, I asked a civilian why he had visited the office. “I was called here to provide details of my family and income,” he said.

The LTTE were registering people, taking down information ranging from the extent of property they owned to the number of family members abroad. The data was to be used for extortion purposes.

Little, if any, of the LTTE’s own vast treasury is used to fund social welfare. The Tigers keep hoarding and hoarding, while expecting the donor community and government to dole out more and more. I remember meeting a feeble, aged man on the road to Kilinochchi. He was so poor that he cried when he spoke of his hunger. His wife, equally gnarled and emaciated, wept too. His children and grandchildren were nearby, in a shack that an NGO dog wouldn’t live in. Some were drying fish in the sun.

“The government doesn’t care for us,” the old man said, tears running down his cheek. “Neither does the LTTE.” Frankly, that’s the truth.

Repression of free speech

But why repeat all this? These are home truths. Stuff that the international community –and the NGOs that feed off them — prefer to blank out.

Most dangerous is the repression of free speech in all parts of the north and east. The basic tenet of democracy is free speech. Before anything else, one must be able to think and declare one’s opinion. One must be at liberty to support whatever party that most echoes one’s ideology. The LTTE has never — and will never — allow this. How does the international community respond? They collude, at the cost of those Tamil civilians they claim to support.

I once spoke to a government official in Jaffna about the LTTE. He claimed stiltedly that they were “very nice”. Even when they ordered him around, they did so “nicely”. He started parroting propaganda, as everyone does in Jaffna. I couldn’t get one spontaneous comment out of him.

Until I tried reverse psychology. “Fine, if you don’t care about the LTTE’s behaviour, why should we?” I said, dismissively. He stopped short, a look of concern on his face. “It’s not that we don’t care…,” he said, and bit his tongue.

Nobody can talk. Those who don’t agree with the LTTE are, plain and simple, killed. Civilians who aren’t brainwashed into believing that Prabhakaran is God are terrorised into accepting it. I have seen adults and children pledging allegiance to him, hands in air, Hitler style. One such ceremony was witnessed at a Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) orphanage in Kilinochchi, where I learnt it was a daily routine. Doesn’t this scare the international community? Doesn’t it hark of grimmer times?

Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar is just one corpse in a pile of growing bodies. The killings started before Karuna defected, although Tiger propaganda machines claim it was after. In fact, the first military intelligence officer to be assassinated in 2002 was killed even before the cease-fire was signed. Lance Corporal Clarice alias Gadaffi was murdered on 9 February 2002.

One of the first known army informants to be felled was V. Vithiyaratne (alias Vithiya alias Nithi), killed on 20 January 2002. As for members of alternate political parties, the first to be killed in 2002 was Selliah Kandiah of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front. He was murdered on 19 July 2002.

The list only grows longer. Now, we’ve lost count.

Making a mockery of democracy

The LTTE are not democratising. They are not showing the slightest inclination to do so. To openly say this is not to talk war — but to speak sense. To support a peace process, a man need not be blind, deaf and mute.

The UN this week learnt a lesson. A group of 60 people forced their way into the UN compounds in Kilinochchi and hauled down UN flags that were flying at half-mast as a sign of respect for Kadirgamar. The Tigers are now confident enough to tread on UN soil and violate their property. They do so without fear of sanctions. Just as they mass-recruit children and violate the human rights of their own people.

Be warned. The time to act is now.