The Grip Of Power

0 What’s the feeling in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo right now?

Sunanda Deshapriya: There are celebrations going on. Sinhalese people are jubilant about the Government defeating the Tamil Tigers, but Tamil people are not taking part in any of the celebrations.

Is it really that clearly divided along ethnic lines? Are Sinhalese people happy and Tamil people aren’t — or are some Sinhalese also anxious about what’s going to happen next?

Maybe a minority but they are not vocal at this time. You only hear the ones that are supporting and celebrating. I haven’t seen any dissenting or critical [Sinhalese] voices on the situation.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has indicated that a political solution to the conflict is now necessary — Associated Press reported that he has said he will "negotiate some form of power-sharing deal". What is that likely to look like?

In his speech to parliament after the Tigers were defeated, the President spoke in Tamil first and that was kind of reaching out to the Tamil people, but he did not mention anything about a political solution.

What he said was: we do not want a foreign solution, we have defeated the Tigers, we can find our own solution now. The argument against federalism has actually always been that it was a foreign solution. So he used the same standard argument, and he did not mention [the]devolution [of power to local Tamil authorities in the north and east], but he did say that he would develop: [so he has promised]not devolution, but development, of the north and east regions.

He didn’t say anything about power sharing, he didn’t use anything that came close to power sharing.

AP also quoted him as saying: "We must find a homegrown solution to this conflict … That solution, which would be based on the philosophy of Buddhism, will be an example to the whole world." Is that not a provocative thing to say to the Hindu Tamil population?

I don’t think that would have been offensive to the Tamil people — it wouldn’t mean anything to them. At this point their main concern is the internally displaced people. Everyone is talking about what is going to happen to the IDPs. Their immediate issue is to settle the IDPs as soon as possible, and the question of how soon they can go back to their villages. Politics will come later.

What’s your understanding of what the civilian death toll is at the moment?

The UN said it was more than 7000 [since the start of this year]before the last four to five days. The issue is that there has been no independent verification of figures. Either you have to accept what it says on the LTTE website, or … the Government has not given any casualty figures of civilians, or casualty figures for the soldiers, they are only giving the casualty figures for the Tigers.

Going by the UN figures it may come close to 10,000 people [this year].

Is that acceptable to these Sinhalese people who are now celebrating in the streets? Where or how does that sit with their joy about this "victory"?

The Government has not accepted that, it has said the figures are not reliable. But I think among the Sinhala people, their main concern is that the war has come to an end — that there won’t be bus bombs and they can live in peace … Actually that is their main concern: war has come to an end after [more than]20 years.

How do you feel about the death toll, as a Sri Lankan person? It seems like a hell of a lot of people had to die for the Tigers to be defeated. Is that acceptable to you?

No. I always took the position that no matter how long it takes, a peaceful solution is the best solution. I still think that if we had some kind of peace agreement for 15 years we would have much better relations between the Sinhalese and Tamils, and that would help develop the country. But you know, you always have different options and the LTTE never took any peace negotiations seriously. They treated all negotiations as a joke.

I still think a peaceful solution — if you could have negotiated with them — would be much better, but the LTTE only said they were ready for that at the last minute, when everybody knew they were going to be defeated, when they had been backed into a square kilometre of land, that’s when they became interested in a practical solution.

This conflict has polarised the country permanently, and our scars of war will take a long time to heal.

To wage such a large scale war for the past three years, the Government has had to base themselves on a platform of militant Sinhalese nationalism. The strength of force that that campaign has created within the Government will go against any meaningful [power-sharing] now.

The argument from the militant sections of the Government will be: we have won the war, why do we have to give devolution to them? Why do we have to give them anything?

Would you include the President in that camp: is he also of the view that he doesn’t need to compromise now that the conflict has been "won"?

He has been a very militant Sinhalese leader — from day one he said that he would defeat the Tigers. Many people thought that was not possible and the international leaders said "you can’t do this". Well now he is saying: we have done it, so now we can find our own ways and means to solve this problem.

Previous governments have acknowledged that the Tamil people have legitimate grievances, but not this one. The Government’s official line has been there is no ethnic issue in this country. There are administrative and economic issues and once we solve those — that means the language, and development — there won’t be any problem. Their official line is that the Tamil people have no specific grievances.

[In law, Tamil is an officially recognised language in Sri Lanka,] but in practice, I would say the military is 90 per cent Sinhalese, maybe even 99 per cent. There are a few Muslim people in there, but the Tamils are not in the army at all I don’t think. The police are also predominantly Sinhalese. And now, since the defeat of the LTTE, even administrative services in the north and east are run by Sinhalese army generals.

Given those political conditions you describe, do you really think this conflict is over? Do people really think that the defeat of the LTTE leadership is going to stop the bombs, for example, in Colombo?

I think the Government has been successful militarily against the LTTE. But we can’t really say that nothing will happen — there may be some sleeper cells, the Government knows they still need time to clear these areas [of mines], and some kidnappings are still taking place. So I think things will still happen from both sides.

Also, as an idea, I think the LTTE will remain, especially given the support they get from the Tamil Diaspora — from Tamil Nadu [in India]in particular, where you have 65 million Tamil people, many of whom are now emotionally attached to the Sri Lankan Tamil cause.

So the LTTE will remain as an idea, but the main issue is that the aspiration for a separate country, and the support for armed struggle, I think those two things have to change if the Tamil movement is to have any meaningful achievements in the future. A separate country is not going to happen — India, and no other country will support that, and military Sri Lanka will never allow that to happen.

Also, I think it will be very difficult for the LTTE to continue an armed insurgency … I think the Tamil people do not want another insurgency after what they went through in the last 30 years. And I see these signs coming also from Diaspora Tamils.

So if the LTTE don’t change these two aspirations — a separate country and armed struggle — it will be very difficult for them to come back as a force that the Government has to take seriously.

What about the individual grievances, though, that are a result of this conflict, which has resulted in, if the UN figures are correct, between 7000 and 10,000 civilians being killed just since the start of the year. Are you confident that that won’t result in acts of violence? Can that many people be killed and it not result in some level of grievance for the family and friends of those people?

That’s why we really need a reconciliation process. Currently, there’s no trust at all between the Government and the Tamil community — or between the Government and the Sinhalese community, actually. Every Tamil is still probably suspected [by the Government]to be an LTTE supporter or sympathiser.

To change this situation we really need to have an open discussion in the media as to what really happened, what went wrong, the mistakes that each side made. But that’s not happening. What you see is — and as a journalist I can say this — a one-sided campaign that says the LTTE’s terrorism was the only issue. [The media] are not discussing what has happened since the independence of this country and how we lost all the opportunities we had to solve this problem peacefully.

The victors write history. And right now, the victors are writing the history saying that it’s mainly because of the Tigers’ terrorism that all these things happened — that once the terrorism is over, things will be smooth.

Of course the Tigers did make major mistakes, and their terrorism is violent, there is no question about that, but great censorship is happening in Sri Lanka at the moment.

The Sinhalese media has not reported at all about the 7000 civilians dead. There is no discussion about how these civilians are being treated in the camps, how long they will be there. No one is courageous enough to raise these issues right now because there is so much a suppression of media — there is no space at this time for any independent critical thinking.

In recent times it seems as though it has been very dangerous to report anything that wasn’t going along with the Government line, though. Has that situation now changed? Do you expect it to change?

No, I don’t think so. The President has said there are only two types of people: one group of people who support their motherland, the others who are traitors to their country. He says there are no ethnic groups in this country, no minorities, no Muslims, no Tamils, no Sinhalese: only two groups now.

This is the same terminology used in the last three years [to justify the war on the LTTE]— the Defence Secretary said: there are two people, one’s the terrorist, the others are people who are fighting the terrorists. And even before that he said you have to take a side: you are with us or you are with the terrorists.

So the same terminology is still being used, and the message is very clear: if you don’t support the official line, you will be branded a traitor.

How dangerous is it for journalists? Are you in danger?

In the last three years 25 editors and subeditors have been killed abducted or assaulted. When you have that kind of a situation you start self censoring — no one wants to look at what is really happening, no one wants to be critical or even look at things differently.

Fifty journalists have left the country in the last few years, 20 of them this year. Five editors have been targeted: one was killed, there was an attempt made on one, one was assaulted, one was abducted, one is still in custody.

There are some journalists who try to get the other side — who try to get the view of the Tamil people. But we all feel that we have to wait, lie low, and some journalists are even saying we have to go with the Government now; that there is no use being critical of a Government that is so powerful.

What is being promoted is: country before the self — not media freedom, not human rights. That kind of discourse is being developed, of country versus rights. So critical thinking and dissenting voices will not appear in any media for some time in Sri Lanka.

This is an edited transcript of a phone interview undertaken on Wednesday 20 May 2009.

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