Deja vu in Colombo

Published : Aug 02, 2017 12:30 IST

A. Amirthalingam.

A. Amirthalingam.

WELL over 30 years later the glare of the July mid-morning sun on the Galle sea face in Colombo was as unchangingly harsh. The blare of the traffic along it had a new insistent edge to it. A mammoth Chinese initiative of a sprawling port city being built into the sea, reclaiming it, was a reminder of the new South Asian economic power politics and rivalry on the island nation. The Taj Samudra, the quietly and elegantly luxurious hotel on this stretch, seems to be uneasily anticipating a brash new five-starrer by ITC just adjacent to it. The wattalappam dessert at the Taj coffee shop restaurant had the same divine jaggery melting-in-your-mouth quality as three decades back, although, there being no need for the distress sale of the war years, the room on the property now cost almost five times the special rate of $30 or so in the late 1980s.

“The war”, as it is cryptically referred to, is over, but politicians, civil society and media commentators continue to be conflicted, even nervous, about what it has left in its wake and what is in store ahead. And July, in the Sri Lankan calendar, evokes ominous associations. An editorial in Daily News of the government-run Lake House group in the last week of the month talks about the sense of “hoodoo” captured in the local term “July hathai”. It was in July that the two big anti-Tamil riots took place, that of 1958 and the devastating “black July” pogrom of 1983, which saw the ascendancy of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) into a “conventional army”. It was in July 1977 that, according to the editorial, “the nascent terrorist movement in the North also first emerged” with Inspector Bastianpillai being killed. While deploring the “mindless orgy of murder and arson” of July 1983 and blaming “a minuscule minority of the majority community” and “the country’s political leadership (who) looked on... with tacit approval of the mayhem unleashed on a defenceless community”, the editorial also deplores that it “gave India a free hand to interfere in the affairs of this country, ostensibly due to the kinship of the Tamils of Sri Lanka with South India but in reality to make JRJ (J.R. Jayawardene), who was flirting with the USA, to fall in line.”

“In furtherance of this,” the editorial continues, “an Accord was foisted on the country in the name of devolution of power to the North, which also saw the merger of the North with the East and for the first time since the exit of our colonial masters an alien army known as the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) set foot in the country which, in turn, added fuel to the smouldering embers of terrorism in the South.” That take on the IPKF’s role in Sri Lanka may upset South Block’s sanctimonious understanding or posturing about why our soldiers went there and what they did there but serves as a reality check on what to, or not to, expect by way of a testimonial or certificate from the purported beneficiaries. It is also not all that surprising that the helping hand was seen as a clenched fist because the peace offensive, as we hailed it ourselves, was, more often than not, just plain offensive to the local population. During my many visits to Colombo, and to the North and the East in the late 1980s to film and understand and report on the situation on the ground, it was obvious that the IPKF was neither winning hearts nor the war being waged against it, guerrilla fashion, by the LTTE, thereby defeating, one would have thought, the whole purpose of this grand military initiative across the Palk Straits.

Those were, in contrast to the what-you-hear-is-what-you-get sound bite dominated media obtaining now, times of extensive, detailed and nuanced interviews. Memories of quite a few done by me with quite a range of players in this phase of political flux continue to be vivid. These were often veiled exercises by the respondents, as important for what they sought to be seen as conveying as what they were dodging or actually saying on record. There was that with President Jayawardene, who was, in a not unfriendly sense, referred to as the old fox and who dwelt on the Indian legacy of Gandhi and Nehru, primarily, it seemed to me, to keep Rajiv Gandhi out as much as possible in our conversation. The opposition leader Chandrika Kumaratunga took pains to ensure that a photograph of Indira Gandhi on the side table next to the chair she was seated on in her drawing room was constantly included in the camera frame. Her husband, Vijaya Kumaratunga, film actor and politician in his own right, was more forthright about the trouble brewing at home. The hard-line politician Lalith Athulathmudali, if memory serves me right, actually traced his antecedents, on one of his parent’s side, several generations back to north Kerala. The suave Gamini Dissanayake’s manner and home and wife were all grace and charm.

There were some of the finest minds who stimulated a more politically intellectual understanding of what was happening, ranging from the elderly wistful Trotskyite Colvin R. de Silva to the young brilliant and forward-looking Neelan Tiruchelvam. And a variety of leaders of militant and moderate Tamil outfits and political parties, including the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) founder Uma Maheswaran and the Tamil United Liberation Front’s (TULF) A. Amrithalingam. These discussions may not have been as memorable but for the drastic nature of the politics that overtook these personalities. Most of them were to be killed, mostly by the LTTE, not too long after their interviews were canned or within a decade or so after.

All that and the conditions that led to all that, one would have thought, had been left behind so many years after the conclusion of the war in May 2009, which marked the brutal and ruthless elimination of not only the LTTE but a good section of the population of northern Sri Lanka. But, it seems there is no closure yet to the symptoms that fuelled the linguistic and communal distrust in the first place. The truth and reconciliation agenda that was tom-tommed around in the aftermath of the war seems up in the air now.

Although the Office on Missing Persons has been signed into force by President Maithripala Sirisena, it is already being seen in some quarters as anti-army and anti-police. In an open letter in July to the top Buddhist religious body of the Mahanayake Theros, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has raised strident concern about, among other things, the power of this “office” to raid “without warrant at any time of the day or night any police station, prison or military installation and seize any document… they require”. However, newspapers are at the same time also reporting about the chilling revelations in investigations into systematic abductions and torture by those in army and police uniform from 2000 onwards, including a systematic racket by naval officers of kidnapping schoolgoing youth to extort ransoms running into millions of rupees from their parents.

Rajapaksa also seizes on incidents such as the recent botched attempt on the life of a Tamil judge in Nallur in Jaffna, in which the police escort died, to raise the alarm about a possible resurgence of the LTTE because the suspect who is in police custody has been identified as a former LTTE cadre, although initial police reports suggested he was acting under the influence of liquor when he snatched the gun of the judge’s bodyguard to try and fire at him. Simultaneously, we hear and read about the reappearance here and now of the dreaded white van. Such vans without licence plates date back to the crackdown against the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna under the Jayawardene government but became synonymous in a systematic manner with the heavy-handed Rajapaksa regime. They would whisk away a suspect to undisclosed torture centres, and the victims were never heard of again, were “disappeared” so to speak, adding to the roster of missing persons. The phenomenon was so real and so not random that “white vanning” has become a coinage in the terror lexicon associated with the state. Imagine then the ripples caused in Colombo when just this last week a white van with plainclothesmen rather than uniformed police drew up before striking medical faculty students in Colombo to take away their leader, thought the attempt was foiled by the demonstrating students. There seems a disconnect between the assuaging political rhetoric of reconciliation from the corridors of power and the actual use or abuse of power on the ground.

The coalition in power seems, for all its comfortable majority in Parliament, to be constantly looking over its shoulder to see where Rajapaksa is at and what he might be up to. There is talk of impending defection from the ranks of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, although a senior Minister of the party pooh-poohs it as a dream. On such yet unsettled, if not shifting, terrain constitution making or constitution building is a difficult if not futile exercise and may well turn out to be a chimera.

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