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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

PRAFUL BIDWAI COLUMN Time for a new start

Praful Bidwai

Sri Lankans have made democracy's cause proud by ending President Mahinda Rajapaksa's 10-year-long authoritarian rule and electing former health minister Maithripala Sirisena. All South Asians should celebrate this defeat of majoritarianism and militarist nationalism and struggle to make our countries inclusive, pluralist democracies which accommodate diversity in religion, culture and ethnicity.
Foreign Minister Mangala Samarweera has alleged that Rajapaksa tried to stage a coup to prevent the election result's announcement. These charges testify to the climate of confrontation and suspicion that Rajapaksa created. They must be impartially investigated.
Sirisena faces tough challenges. The first is to cohere the different parts of the rainbow coalition that catapulted this low-key politician to power, including the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya, the two main Muslim parties, and arch-rivals: former president Chandrika Kumaratunga and former prime minister Ranil Wickramasinghe.
This won't be easy. Nor will it be easy to convince the Northern or Jaffna Tamils that they can expect a better deal under Sirisena than under Rajapaksa.
Over 80% of Northern Tamils voted for Sirisena. In a brilliant tactic, Tamil National Alliance leader R. Sampanthan delayed announcing support until a week before polling, denying Rajapaksa an opportunity to polarise the contest along ethnic-chauvinist lines.
Implementing the promised political reform -- replacing the executive presidency with a parliamentary system within 100 days -- would require the support of 150 members of the 225-strong Parliament. This cannot be done without neutralising the Rajapaksa brothers, whose Sri Lanka Freedom Party holds 135 seats.
Rajapaksa has surrendered the SLFP's chairmanship, but wants that all inquiries related to his family's corruption and undemocratic conduct be dropped. This cynical manoeuvre must be, and can be, scuttled.
Sirisena will have to negotiate hard with JHU and other Sinhala supporters. In the North, he must send the army back to the barracks. Many soldiers have grabbed lands belonging to displaced Tamils. Evacuating them is a precondition for defending the livelihoods of this persecuted minority.
Another challenge is arresting the drift towards neoliberalism and foreign-capital dependence for growth. During the civil war, foreign aid and Western investment dried up. Rajapaksa opened new avenues for financial flows, primarily from China, into real estate, casinos, and for-profit universities and hospitals.
This has aggravated unemployment in the Sinhala South. The North and East are plagued by a collapse of agriculture, a fall in rural incomes, and widespread indebtedness.  This comes on top of the dispossession which Tamils suffered during the war. An estimated 40,000 civilians were killed during the last phase of the massive operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, many of them in planned war-crimes.  
The Rajapaksa government always described the war as an “anti-terrorist” operation and inflicted cruelties on civilians branded “LTTE supporters.” This is impermissible under the laws of war.  Colombo has defied attempts by UN agencies to hold its functionaries accountable for war-crimes.
India failed to restrain Colombo, and supported its “sovereign” right to “defend” itself. The “all-out” war against Tamil separatism became a Right-wing, militarist-Hindutva model for what India should do in Kashmir, and how it should deal with recalcitrant minorities.
The model's proponents argue that human-rights violations and war-crimes are permissible if they deliver “results”: the short-term price is worth paying to achieve a stronger, more united nation in the long run.
This dangerously mistaken view fails to recognise that short-term excesses create discontent which feeds counter-violence, worsening the long-term prospect.
Sirisena unfortunately inherits his predecessor's “anti-terrorist” war premise. His manifesto said: “No international power will be allowed to… touch a single [Sri Lankan] citizen … on account of the campaign to defeat terrorism.” This is retrograde national-chauvinism.
South Asian governments must mount pressure on Sirisena to fix responsibility for war-crimes, if necessary through a domestic truth commission.
Such efforts are most likely to succeed if there's devolution of powers to the North and East as part of a grand inter-ethnic reconciliation. Sirisena shouldn't reject devolution proposals just because they weren't part of the terms on which the Tamils supported him.
Their support was unconditional. But it reflected the character of the election, a referendum on corruption, cronyism and family-based rule, represented venally by Rajapaksa.
Sirisena helped set up the referendum, at the right moment. He won because the people didn't want to degrade Sri Lankan democracy further.
We South Asians too can get rid of leaders who today seem invincible, as Rajapaksa did. We should at least try -- through mass mobilisation, where necessary.
Many analysts have focused, obsessively, on the election's security implications, which offer India a chance to displace China as a major source of finance and armaments to Sri Lanka. Chinese policy is of course opportunist. Rajapaksa exploited it as a shield against Western human-rights pressure. 
But the Indian state is no paragon of virtue. It regards its whole neighbourhood as its exclusive sphere of influence. India first armed and trained the LTTE, and then turned against it. India's military intervention in Sri Lanka (1987-90) was a disaster. 
India must seek a balanced, primarily non-military, relationship with Sri Lanka. Today's situation opens a good opportunity.

The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.

Source:  The Daily Star, 20 January 2015

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