Wednesday, 25 February 2009

For Peace in Sri Lanka, Remember Bandaranaike

The war is almost over in Sri Lanka, the papers announced.
What war? People asked me.
The war.
The war that has been going on so long, many in the West have forgotten it hasn’t actually ended. The war that has claimed thousands of lives, caused hundreds of thousands of people to lose their homes and livelihoods. The war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. That war.

When did this war start?
Was it 1983 as many official histories claim? Was it 1976, when the Tamil Tigers first came into being? Was it even earlier, when the Tamils clashed with government forces in opposition to the ‘Sinhala only’ legalisation?
The legislation marginalized non-Sinhalese speakers – ostensibly to distance Ceylon from its former colonial masters but also actively reversing the ethno-linguistic make-up of the civil service (from predominantly Tamil to almost 100% Sinhalese) in under a generation and effectively marginalising the Tamil population.
But marginalisation leads to discontent and discontent leads to resistance. Those are the mathematics of conflict.

For now, the Tamil Tigers are still fighting. And although they are evidently losing, no amnesty has been declared, no foundation for peace has yet been laid. When the Tigers called on the international community – that inscrutable animal – to broker a truce, Colombo resisted and anonymous government sources said that this will end as it started: fighting.
So the beginning of the end for this war may actually be less of a promise and more of a statement of fact: the war will be over soon, because there will be no one left to fight against.

But not yet. For now, the Tigers are still fighting and the military are preparing for at least one more, final, showdown before the curtain falls on this conflict. Meanwhile the rest of the world had forgotten there was a war going on still. And if we forgot the war, what are the chances of remembering Bandaranaike?

PM Solomon Bandaranaike was the man behind the ‘Sinhala only movement’. Obviously this did not start the war. Obviously he did not start the war. But he is where the story starts. And now that the story is about to come to an end, the beginning is of the utmost importance. Now, when people least want to think back, is when the past needs to be re-examined.

Healing is what matters now, I hear you say. Rebuilding, not rehashing.
But when the time comes to rebuild, will anyone remember Bandaranaike?
Will anyone remember that the young Sri Lanka had a beautiful, pristine, Westminster-style democracy, upon independence?
That was the fruit of ‘rebuilding’ as well.
But in doing so, the new system did not protect itself against ethnic take-over. It did not create structures and systems that could protect minorities, ensuring that they could not be disenfranchised, that the tyranny of the majority would not occur.
Mistakes were made.
The system was abused.
’Sinhala only’ was launched and although opposition and some negotiation took place, Bandaranaike’s legacy held firm – in the shape of laws and a political dynasty: his wife Sirimavo Bandaranaike was three times prime mister, his daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga president and son Anura Bandaranaike many times minister and speaker of the house.

Don't get me wrong.
I don’t want to reduce the legacy of a political dynasty to two words. But those two words, ‘Sinhala Only’, stand for the mind-set of an entire state apparatus - the apparatus that the Tamil Tigers rose to fight against. So all I’m saying is, remember Bandaranaike. Remember where democracy was weakest, and when rebuilding, build up there first.

If government forces crush the Tigers, defeating them completely and irrevocably, there will be victorious swagger where quiet reflection is necessary.
Of course, the victors will celebrate, the vanquished will nurse their wounds, families will heave a sigh of relief and no one will want to think back.
But if nobody remembers Bandaranaike, what are the chances of a lasting peace?

Bandaranaike demonstrated how easily democracy can crumble. How can we rebuild, without remembering Bandaranaike?

To end this, we have to go back to the beginning, to the structures that made ethnic politics possible in the first place. Now that victims and perpetrators have swapped places a number of times and every home has a personal tragedy in Sri Lanka, it’s time to go back to the beginning. Amends can’t be made. But amendments can, and the whole political machinery needs to be re-jigged with two words in mind. Not ‘Sinhala only, but ‘never again’.

The war is almost over in Sri Lanka.
And it’s time to remember that history only goes round in circles when we forget the likes of Bandaranaike, when we forget how painful stories actually began.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

All together, one more time

I hate repeating myself. I hate it.
But while something remains true, it needs to be said again and again. For as long as it takes.

The Greek Prime Minister was quite clear: ‘I am not thinking about elections. End of discussion’.
Well if you say so…
The most ineffectual man in European politics hath spoken.
Predictably, nobody cared. Almost simultaneously the opposition leader announced that he is ready to be judged by the people in an election that he deemed both expedient and imminent.
Mr Papandreou said it was time he measured himself against History (whatever that actually entails). In this most critical of junctures, and sounding uncannily like his dad, Mr Papandreou spoke of his financial vision, which boils down to privatising banks and getting the ‘rich to help out’.
So, to recap, the government won’t tell us what their financial plan entails (see my post Greece 2009: welcome to the dark side), the opposition’s financial salvation plan sounds like it came straight out of a 1950’s ‘socialist government’ manual while the Greek Communist Party’s response to all this was to rehabilitate Stalin. Yes that’s right. And I don’t know what’s more outrageous: the fact that they are not dealing with any of the current problems plaguing Greece but rather speaking of a man who has been dead since 1953 or that they are publicly redeeming the reputation of one of the world’s bloodiest leaders. But then again this encapsulates beautifully the general status of Greek politics: shut the windows, turn off the TV, throw away the newspapers, keep it self-referential and make sure you don’t deal in real issues.

Meanwhile, just to add to the comedy of it all, Vassili Paleokostas and Alket Rijay, serving sentences in an Athens maximum-security prison, have escaped. They were airlifted, to be precise. By privately-hired helicopter, off the prison building roof. Again. Having escaped the same way just under three years ago.

What’s the connection between the escape and the various party preoccupations discussed at the start of this post, I hear you ask?
None. None whatsoever. That’s the whole point.
Those governing don’t even bother to come up with a credible story on why things are bad or what they are about to do to make them better. The opposition is jumping up and down going ‘pick me pick me’ with no real plan beyond changing the wallpaper once they are in office and the smaller parties – that could represent the core or at least the start of civil society – are looking in, looking back and looking lost.

As lost as the security services that manage to be terrified of disruptive and violent elements, outwitted by prisoners who do not even need to vary their routines in order to escape and bring the force of the Force to bear on dissenting students, disgruntled farmers and errant teenagers. Same old, really.

And the government does not feel the need to declare elections; the opposition talk about history; and this particular story is getting way out of hand. Same old, yes.

So, I am deploring the state of affairs in Greece again.
For as long as it’s deplorable, I shall be deploring it.
For as long as it takes.

Monday, 23 February 2009

At least we have Dev Patel

Because, let’s face it, reading the British press gives me little joy otherwise.

Jade Goody, of course, all over the papers. And it is terribly sad that she is dying so young. And I appreciate what she is doing and why. But she is one of those celebrities I do not understand – famous for being famous – of which we seem to have many.

The sports pages are out, as my football team needs a miracle to avoid relegation.

The financial pages are interchangeable with the obituaries, without the warm and fuzzy memories of better times, and the analysis pieces seem hell-bent on feeding the monster that is the ‘crisis of confidence’ that they agree underpins it all. And although Gordon assured us he has saved the world, neither the world nor this particular corner of it seem saved or indeed safe.

And today the usually level-headed Guardian predicted a summer of violent street fights for the capital, with the middle classes taking to the streets to protest the credit crunch and fight with the police in the process.

What this fear is based on is unclear.
Clashes over Gaza between police and protesters in January are cited, but the comparison is hardly credible as neither the issues nor the demographics in question are inter-changeable. Plus the January clashes were an isolated incident.
But the article is adamant the police expect a ‘summer of rage’ in 2009. They even seek to scare us with the prediction of ‘a return to the 1980s’. Whether that also entails a covert threat that the police will go back to Thatcherite styles is yet to be determined.

‘Superintendent David Hartshorn, who heads the Metropolitan police's public order branch, told the Guardian that middle-class individuals who would never have considered joining demonstrations may now seek to vent their anger through protests this year.’
This is assuming that the middle classes do not demonstrate. And that issue-specific demonstrations are easy to ‘hijack’ by determined agitators. Not to mention the assumption that disgruntled and disappointed masses can and do get violent. All tall orders. All, I’m sure, backed by statistics and blind to individuality.

The fact remains, however, that Mr Hartshorn has intelligence suggesting that the mood of demonstrations has changed recently with a noticeable increase in the specific ‘intent’ to create public unrest among protesters in this country. Plus things are not rosy in the rest of Europe. Inevitably, the farmers’ road blockades in Greece are cited as a sign that this is a Europe-wide phenomenon (failing to mention that such blockades happen every few months in Greece because there the system did not need the global financial meltdown to stop working).
Still, demonstrations also took place in France and Iceland and the piece is evidently worried.

Some of the agitators are well-known, apparently, but in times of stability their message falls on deaf ears, says Hartshorn, whereas now many hitherto respectable citizens may be lead astray out of desperation.

Well, if we know who they are, why don’t we send the agitators to their rooms?
You think I’m going mad, but I’m only quoting from the latest Tory youth offender handling recommendation (‘ground them’).
An ASBO and no TV for two weeks. Sophisticated policy-making in action.

No TV for two weeks might not be a bad idea though. It may actually spare said offending youths from losing their faith in the system entirely. That way they would not hear about the thousands of people who contracted HIV and Hep C through transfusions with contaminated blood during the 70s and 80s.
Just the story the ailing NHS needed to lose even more public confidence, as doctors find themselves over-worked, over-managed and under-trusted by harassed patients.

And I can’t even take solace in the sports pages.
So thank God for Danny Boyle and his decision to receive his Oscar skipping like Tigger. Just the feel good factor we needed.
If only Parliament would close its sessions with a hug, a kiss and a group dance. Skipping is optional.