Election monitoring in Lanka

Weapons captured from the LTTE stand on display in front of Sri Lankan sources.

They were a kind of solution.
What does all this sudden uneasiness mean
And this confusion? (How grave their faces have become!)
Why are the streets and squares rapidly emptying,
And why is everyone going back home, so lost in thought?
Because it is night and the barbarians have not come;
And some men have arrived from the frontiers
And they say that the barbarians don’t exist any longer.
And now what will become of us without barbarians?
They were a kind of solution.
They were a kind of solution.
-- Constantine Cavafy[1]

By Michael Cooke

September 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- For 25 years of the country’s existence there has been a war between the Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). For many Sinhalese, the ‘barbarians’ at the gate have been the LTTE. The LTTE were officially vanquished in May 2009. The government has reclaimed the territory held by the LTTE and the leaders of the LTTE have been either killed or captured. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians have been displaced by the war.

Estimates of those who have been killed in the war vary from 60,000 to well over a 100,000. In the most recent phase of the conflict (2006 onwards) tens of thousands of civilians perished and around 6000 Lankan troops were killed. Have the lives of the people been improved and the democratic space been opened up now that the chubby spectre of Velupillai Pirapaharan has been literally lopped out of the political scenario?

I am getting ahead of myself. What follows is my understanding of that history intertwined with my recollection as a tourist, an admirer of its rich cultural history and stunning landscape and my two sojourns in 2001 and 2005 as an election monitor and as a researcher and writer of a political memoir.2I also remember vaguely my father Clarence talking about being stationed in Colombo during the Second World War and the bombing of the Colombo docks by the Japanese air force in April 1942. Most of what I read, conversed about and saw was coloured by a society in the throes of a civil war. 

About Lanka 

Flying to Lanka after an interval of over 25 years in late 2001, I did what all good travellers do; I consulted my Lonely Planet Guide.3 I read that Sri Lanka has a land mass of around 66,000 square kilometres, it is comparable in size to Ireland or Tasmania and is found about five degrees above the equator. It lies off the southernmost tip of India, and is an island shaped like a teardrop. Its close proximity to India has played a part in the history, culture and psyche of its people. 

Climate and topography have created marked regional, occupational and political differences. The littoral area and the north and eastern area are flatlands. Parts of the centre of the island are densely forested mountains. The south-west and the central highlands are the wet zones of the island. Here there is heavy rainfall and the soil is fertile. In contrast, most of the south-east and the north comprise the dry zone and are subject to little rainfall and are prone to droughts. 

The island is any traveller’s idea of an island paradise, a verdant landscape with coconut trees, magnificent sandy beaches and the bluest of blue seas. It is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-faith country that consists of Sinhalese (the majority), Tamils, Moors and Burgers (Eurasians). Its religious practices include: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Yet the constitution and the makeup of it political elite is skewed towards the majority Buddhist community. 

My first memories of Sri Lanka were not of a country scarred by war and by social and economic inequity, but of an island that had a less puritanical democracy than India’s. I got this impression from listening to Radio Ceylon. One of its offshoots was its All Asia Arm that broadcasted popular Bollywood songs and American and British pop songs which were denied to us by our national broadcaster All India Radio. It was probably where I first heard and was corrupted by the hiccup harmonies of Elvis and sweet trilling of the fab four. Radio Ceylon evoked for us in the late fifties and sixties a culture not only of hedonism but also of a sophistication we were dying to emulate. Coming to the cultural wasteland that was Australia in the 1970s, my nostalgia for all things South Asian was heightened by a large billboard opposite the main railway station in Melbourne advertising the island’s most famous export, tea. 

In Colombo 

So it is with great excitement I disembarked at Bandaranaike International Airport. The first thing one is struck with is the heat. Like a junkie I felt it course through my veins waking me up from my torpor that a long plane ride engenders. The humidity and the heat gives everything an extra sheen. Peoples’ skin gleam in the sun, chrome and concrete makes the eyes squint. The heat of the sun is intoxicating, warming your body and seducing your senses. Next, one becomes aware of people. Many people doing many things, talking, walking, carrying things, running here and there and lugging enormous amounts of luggage. One hears a low hum on the tarmac but as one enters the checkout area the volume of the noise increases to the point of bedlam. At first you are bewildered by the noise, the amount of people and the movement, but in time, one discerns an order in the chaos, as baggage and people are shunted out of the customs area. 

Next, one is struck by the sheer variety and classes of people. Dark skinned to wheaten coloured, dressed in western clothes, native dress, Islamic vestments and saris. Their wealth and status not being determined by the clothes they wear but in the way they carry themselves and the deference they demand and receive. Getting out of the airport and getting into a taxi to Colombo (the airport is 30 kilometres from the city centre) one is assailed by the sights and the sounds of the tropics. 

Colombo, a city of over 650,000 souls, is the largest city on the island and was till the recent past, the capital. Like most large Asian cities Colombo hides its charm behind a thick veneer of pollution; the insistent cacophony of cars, buses and scooters and the omnipresent shimmering ‘brutal’ concrete buildings that is modern architecture’s gift to Asia. Colombo’s famous canals with their phosphorous green patina, emit a slightly menacing glow. As Tim Elliot puts it: 

Flat and congested, the city sits swaddled in its own steamy juices: a blend of exhaust fumes, humidity, human odours and sea spray; a thick, sticky haze that wafts in from the Indian Ocean.4 

It is hard to believe that the Dutch in the 1600s had large cinnamon plantations in Colombo. This also happens to be the name of Colombo’s most salubrious suburb, Cinnamon Gardens (Colombo 7) where the rich live in leafy streets in large houses whose grounds are surrounded by large walls, one presumes to keep the ‘hoi poloi’ from prying.

But the pollution and heat and the density of the population is more tolerable than other major South Asian cities like Dhaka, Delhi or Calcutta. On the day I decided to wander the city, the sky was overcast thunder pealed and echoed across the city and suddenly it poured with rain, scattering people and animals from the pavements and streets. The rain washed the veneer of modernity, the temperature cooled, the pace of the city slowed down, the concrete was cleansed and the canals gleamed less ominously. One became more aware of the people and their courtly manners and the glimpses of greenery. 

Galle Face Green is near the centre of the city and faces the sea. Calling it green is a bit of a misnomer as it is a piece of bare earth. It is where city dwellers promenade. On any given evening one can see lovers huddling and cuddling, awaiting the anonymity of the night. Street stalls are selling all kinds of delectable food and beverages; families strolling on the shore, their voices rising and falling to the rhythm of the waves lapping the ocean front; beggars; street performers and just to remind you that you are in a modern metropolis, a ubiquitous jogger or two. The fading colonial charms of Galle Face Hotel with its elegant white pillars and clean neo classical lines tempts one to enter its grounds, one does and orders animboopani (fresh lemon juice with soda and a dollop of sugar). It seems the perfect place to see the sun set over the horizon. For a while one can have the illusion of being a colonial waited on with the appropriate deference and civility. The illusion is soon pricked and one moves on a bit guiltily to embrace the charms of Galle Road. 

Galle Road sometimes called by the locals as the ‘backbone of Colombo’, is one of the main thoroughfares of the city. Walking along it can be difficult given the heat glaring off the asphalt and the concrete, mixed with the roar of the traffic and the pollution it generates. But in time these inconveniences become background noise as one finds many enticing restaurants, shops selling a variety of goods and office workers hustling and bustling their lives away. 

Jaffna 2001 

As I had come to be an election monitor for the 2001 parliamentary elections in Jaffna I had to acquaint myself with my fellow election monitors and get some idea on the political and cultural lay of the land up in the North of the Island. Jaffna lies over 300 kilometres from Colombo and is the cultural heartland of the indigenous Tamils. Before the civil war there was a railway line that linked Jaffna to Colombo. It not only provided an economic lifeline to the North but also provided the means for the Tamils to have some daily intercourse, be it economic or social, with the rest of the country thus providing one of the major means by which both communities used to communicate and socialise with each other. As Dharmasena Pathiraja’s elegiac documentary: In search of a road depicts: the train was alive with people returning to Jaffna from Colombo or vice versa, for holidays, marriage celebrations, business deals and people going on pilgrimages to sites that were holy to both communities. Jaffna station perhaps served as a metaphor for the health of Sri Lankan civil society, a derelict edifice, of a much loved and functioning social organism. Its fine classical lines now home to goats, overgrown weeds and crumbling masonry.5 As the line was no longer functioning I was forced to get to Jaffna by a roundabout route. 

I and my fellow election monitors went by van. Travelling out of the urban confines of Colombo, one saw a continual stream of people, huts, shops, stalls, tea and food cafes and commercial buildings built at the side of the highway. At the back there was either farm land, paddy fields or the original tropical forests. We passed the palatial estate of the Bandaranaike family. We embarked at Trincomalee for the next stage of our journey. 

Trincomalee is one of nature’s finest deep water ports. It was always prized for its strategic location and was coveted and conquered by the Portuguese, Dutch and English. In post independent Lanka, it has been eyed by its giant neighbour India, the United States of America and now the Chinese. Its population is a mix of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese with the Tamils in terms of numbers having a slight majority. The port at the time (2001) was coveted also by The Tamil Tigers as part of claim for a Tamil homeland (Eelam). So the most strategic part, i.e. its spectacular harbour and its surrounding land was occupied by the Lankan navy and out of bounds to mere gadabouts like me. The rest of the town is a dusty, tumble down affair with markets, lanes and houses in varying stages of upkeep. There were military and police roadblocks dotted across the town. The town, when we were there, had a strong undercurrent of tension as there had been some violent clashes between the indigenous Tamils and Sinhala settlers who had been relocated from the south as farmers. They had been lured over by irrigation schemes like the Mahaweli Development. In practice these schemes did not create Edens in the dry zone, leaving the Sinhalese settlers as poor as they had been in the South with the added ingredient of resentment against indigenous Tamils. 

Before we boarded a ship bound for Jaffna, we had to line up to be searched and questioned by personnel from the Lankan navy, a precaution to ensure we were not smuggling arms and succour to the Tamil Tigers. Most of the passengers were women and children who had packed their meagre belongings in string parcels or cheap suitcases. Their belongings, food and gifts bought in the big smoke were strewn on a long trestle table. Both sides had a communication problem as they were not conversant in their respective mother tongues. Being more privileged than the natives we were allowed to while away our time in the officer’s mess whilst they were seated on rows of wooden seats on the ship’s prow. 

Disembarking on a clear bright morning we saw a long beach, acres of green vegetation and war damaged buildings. This was Point Pedro, the northernmost part of the island, allegedly named after a Dutch sailor with the distinctly Spanish sounding name of Pedro. We were escorted off the crumbling harbour bearing all the signs of an aerial and or sea bombardment, its walls in places showing irregular holes with parts of walls/building/homes looking like giant sores littering what would otherwise have been quite a charming landscape. We were quickly herded by a platoon of soldiers to a suite of old buses with the windows charmingly blocked by chintzy tattered curtains. This was because the port and its environs were seen as a strategic military site. As there was no glass on the windows, when the buses spluttered into life and started chugging along, the breeze made the curtains sway thus affording us an intermittent look at the place. An army cantonment was there and we could see glimpses of what looked like a couple of warships. Mostly what we saw were scenes of desolation and destruction. The fighting that had taken place must have been fierce. The streets were narrow, the houses were your typical colonial bungalows painted in what I can best describe as regulation Dutch yellow. Some of the houses and walls were just stumps, others were pockmarked with gunfire and around the gardens all one saw was debris and weeds. The place had an eerie feel to it. It was a ghost town with an absence of people except for the occasional platoon of soldiers and their armour. The army deposited us at the local bus stop where we boarded a bus for Jaffna. 

Jaffna is to many expatriate and indigenous Tamils their cultural heartland. Before the civil war started in earnest in the mid 1980s its population was around 118,000, nestling in a peninsula of 750,000 people. What struck one, most noticeably in Jaffna, was the silence. Unlike other South Asian towns, the charm of the place was not punctuated with the discordant sounds of horns or the coughing and spluttering of buses, trucks, cars, scooters and motorbikes. It was a town denuded of vehicular traffic. Apart from the army the majority of cars I saw thundering around its picturesque streets were the four wheel drives of the UN and various aid agencies. The few private cars running were old and seemed to be English relics from the 1940s and 1950s. I am not sure what they were running on and how, as I never saw a petrol station or a motor mechanic shop. Most people got around on bicycles. By 8pm the streets were empty and most of the lights were turned off as it was the start of the curfew. The monotony of the nights was punctuated by the staccato sounds of machine guns and the dull roar of artillery. 

The war had devastated most of the peninsula’s lucrative fish exporting business and many farmers were afraid to go out and cultivate their crops as the fields had been mined. The streets were clean and most houses had walls surrounding their premises. Not many had escaped the scars of war. It was common to see buildings and walls pockmarked with bullets and many houses, mere skeletons of their former glory. Around the outskirts of the town many refugee camps had sprung up for people who had been displaced by the war; their poverty and desperation hidden by the brightness and greenery of the tropics. Electricity was intermittent. It was not uncommon to have a power failure or two each day. I am not sure how they collected wood and gas cylinders for cooking, it must have been hard. 

The market surrounds the main bus station. It is like any Asian market with a haphazard combination of stalls, hawkers, stray cattle and dogs and ‘proper’ shops. A virtual cornucopia of goods and edibles were on display. On the day I visited, unlike many other similar markets in Asia, there were not many customers. From the market it was an easy stroll to the Catholic Cathedral. Its imperial Romanesque facade was peppered with bullet holes and mortar.

Nearby, one could see the outline of the unfinished rebuilding of the Jaffna library which was destroyed in 1981by the Lankan police. The loss of its books, treasures, artefacts and ancient scripts was immeasurable. The outrage at this cultural vandalism intensified the anger already felt by Tamils as a result of discriminatory laws, repression of peaceful protest, and anti-Tamil pogroms. It deepened the alienation of Tamils from the Lankan state, and boosted support for militant groups fighting for Tamil Eelam. 

Another landmark which had also been destroyed was the famous Jaffna fort. Jaffna, for an expatriate would be a dispiriting experience. It was sobering to think that the Jaffna of just yesterday (1983) now lives only in the memory of its older inhabitants. All its landmarks were either decaying, destroyed by the conflict or out of bounds. 

Intertwining this remnant of better times was the Lankan army. Every few yards there was a checkpoint where people were frisked and checked. The checkpoint was usually in the form of a pillbox built of wood and sandbagged all around with a machine gun or two poking out and half a dozen soldiers in full armour and semi-automatic assault rifles. The outskirts of the city was also ringed in by military outposts. The shoreline was patrolled by the Lankan navy. It was not unusual to see small patrols of troops cautiously fanning out and checking the roads, drains and buildings for mines and other incendiary devices. 

Most of the Tamil political parties in Jaffna in 2001 were pushing for peace and argued that as a precondition one of the main participants of the war the Tamil Tigers, like the Lankan state, had to be key participants. This seemed startling, surprising and poignant at first, given how ruthless the Tigers had been in eliminating their leaders and cadres in their quest to be the sole voice of the Tamil People. However, like their constituents, they were also exhausted by the almost continual and brutal warfare, abductions, murders and economic poverty that the civil war had wrought. This was reflected in the deeply ambivalent view they took of the boys (i.e. the foot soldiers of the LTTE). They were, one felt, prepared to settle for the devil they knew, instead of one that did not speak their language or appreciated their cultural and religious mores. In addition in their eyes the security apparatus represented a state that had set up legal, constitutional and ideological discriminatory structures against them. 

In this stifling and complex political environment it was suicide to take a political line that was inimical to the LTTE. If one did, then one became beholden to one of the two bourgeois political parties that have run the country since independence. This is what makes the political career of Douglas Devanada so tragic. He is leader of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP). As a teenager he was heavily influenced by his father, who was a member of the Communist Party and his uncle, who was a leading trade unionist. In the mid-1970s he got involved in student politics and became a founder member of Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS). 

He was twice arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Under this Act: 

  • A person can be detained incommunicado for up to eighteen months;
  • The detained person can be subjected to such conditions as deemed necessary by the Minister of Defence, not the Minister of Justice; and
  • Confessions made to the police are admissible in court, even if retracted during the trial.

He was detained in Welikada prison when the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom began. On 25 July 1983, while Colombo was under curfew and helicopters were circling the prison, between 300 and 400 armed Sinhalese prisoners massacred thirty seven Tamil political prisoners who were being held under the PTA having been transferred to Colombo for security reasons’. Two days later this horror was repeated, with another eighteen Tamil prisoners being butchered. Before the second massacre, the prisoners knew they were going to be attacked, so they stored away their curry and rice to throw at their assailants and prepared small weapons made with tins and plates in a desperate attempt to defend themselves. The mob came armed with axes, long jungle knives, pounding poles and iron bars and attempted to open their prison cells. The inmates put up a spirited defence and because of this a number of them survived, including DouglasDevananda.7 

After this incident, like other young Tamil revolutionaries, Douglas was based in Tamil Nadu and became embroiled in the ruthless and murderous campaign by the Tamil Tigers to become the sole legitimate voice of indigenous Tamils. He has survived around ten attempts on his life by the Tamil Tigers. The most infamous one being when he was visiting Tamil detainees in Kalutaraprison in 1998. One of the prisoners, a Tamil Tiger inmate shoved an iron bar into his eye in an attempt to kill him. So it is no wonder that to survive and resurrect his career, he chose the ‘expedient’ tactic of aligning himself with the People’s Alliance led by the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. When I was there in 2001, he was Chandrika’s man in the North. He had been appointed Minister of Development, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of the North and Minister of Tamil Affairs, North and East. 

This gave him control of the purse strings of government largesse in the North and the support of the army, police and the intelligence forces to further his political ambitions. His headquarters was in the main cinema in Jaffna which was at the back of the main market. The cinema had been transformed into a fortress with roadblocks, jeeps and sandbags surrounding the front of the building. The entrance had a number of armed cadres lounging around. In the hallway there were the usual political hangers-on awaiting an audience with Douglas. We were thoroughly frisked before meeting Douglas in the main hall of the cinema. 

Douglas’s line was that ‘through war we can achieve peace’. We must first ensure (he went on to argue) that the people are properly fed and housed and helped in ‘practical ways’, then we can discuss democracy. Then he went on to assert that before the EPDP’s presence in Jaffna, ‘people had lost their freedom of speech and expression’. When asked why no other political parties apart from the EPDP were allowed access to the neighbouring Kayts Island, he asserted that the bond between the islanders and the EPDP was like ‘flesh and nail’. Other political groups wanted the islanders to become part of the armed struggle. He was the most charismatic and dynamic political figure I met, during my sojourn in Jaffna. His rhetorical mix of revolutionary politics, political pragmatism, spin, criticism of the Tamil Tigers and confidence was an exhilarating and at the same time a depressing and troubling experience.8 

The election in Jaffna was relatively trouble free as the Tamil Tigers through their political allies expected to win the majority of the seats, which they did. The EDPD lost one of their seats but retained Kayts. Most of the intimidation, vote rigging and violence came from one source, the EPDP. They were the only ones armed and organised, who had the means to do this. In most instances, they did this blatantly and with impunity.9

Batticaloa 2005 

Four years later I was back as an election monitor for the crucial (though I did not know it at the time) 2005 Presidential elections.10The main contenders were the current President Rajapaksa and the current leader of the opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe. Travelling from Colombo one became aware of the different climatic conditions on the island. The south was lush and green but as one approached the North East the vegetation though green was not as lush and had a patina of dust and the soil was noticeable more sandy. The roads in the East were full of potholes and in many instances not sealed. The buildings were more dilapidated. Also there was an enormous military presence, every few hundred yards there was a military outpost or fort. A lot of the trees had been cut down so that the army could get an unimpeded view of the landscape. The east of Sri Lanka has a subtle tapestry of communities who speak Tamil, with differing political and religious aspirations. Unlike in the North, the dominant caste is the fisher folk, who till the oceans not the fields. Batticaloais the largest town in the district.

It is picturesquely situated on one of the largest lagoons that are a geological feature of the region. To enter and leave the town, one must enter or leave from one of the causeways or bridges that festoon the town. The town is noted for its legendary singing fishes. They were, I was reliably told, heard on a full moon night on the lagoon. As the nights in Batticaloa, when I was there, were given over to sounds of gun and artillery fire and assassination; I did not venture out to hear their pleasant tunes. 

The Eastern commander of the Tigers, Colonel Karuna had just defected to the government. Some people argued that it was sheer opportunism as he was given carte blanche in the east and had been bribed quite handsomely. Others while not denying that this had taken place, said that the impetus for his defection was because he feared that Pirapaharan wanted to kill him as he saw him as a rival, given his increasing influence and prestige in the organisation. What was beyond dispute was that between Karuna’s forces and the military, the Tamil Tigers had been effectively routed in the East. 

Travelling through Batticaloa and its environs one was first struck by the devastation caused by the tsunami, which hit the Sri Lankan coastline on Christmas Eve 2004 like a sledge hammer, causing the deaths of over 30,000 people and making a million people homeless. Twelve months later one could see the destruction it wrought. Being a lagoon most of Batticaloa is surrounded by water and it is not unusual to see water lapping near houses and roads. The force of the wave was such that it even flattened buildings in the centre of town. But it was around Batticaloa’s beautiful beaches one saw its destructive force. Tree stumps, branches, vegetation and building debris was strewn across the beaches and the surviving vegetation had the dazed and scared look of someone who had been punched and was expecting to be punched again by George Foreman in his prime.

Tin roofs were clattering in the wind as parts of the buildings they were supposed to have covered had collapsed. Some building structures had miraculously remained intact; the only things missing were their roofs. Other buildings had cleaved in two, others had been shattered and bits of buildings were forlornly scattered, while others were just rubble. I also saw some partly completed new buildings, which for some strange reason had not been completed, as there were no construction workers or building supplies to be seen. The most surreal sight was a temple dedicated to Siva. At first glance it looked like a Spanish galleon that had been violently thrown to shore from the sea with its prow proudly intact. On closer inspection its back half looked as if it had been sliced from it. It was still a living temple and one presumes that the simple structures that sprung up surrounding it, is where the guardians of the temple were now living. 

The only reconstruction work that the locals could point out was the resettlement of many of the refugees of the tsunami in temporary shelters and the delivery of new fishing vessels. A whole flotilla of these boats was moored near one of the bridges, bobbing uselessly to the waves lapping under their prows. It seems they were inappropriate for the task in hand. The new housing for the refugees was just as controversial. In a sandy treeless stretch of road that is prone to flooding one saw dozens of makeshift huts, some built with thatch with aluminium roofs, others all built in aluminium. Aluminium even to my untutored eyes was not an appropriate building material given the tropical climate in Batticaloa, as the huts would heat up like a sauna. At the side of the road a trench had been dug which became the communities sewer with the debris of ordinary life floating unpleasantly on the surface of the water. The buildings were not what the refugees wanted. But the costs of the buildings had been trimmed by the contractors and this was the only land the government allocated to the refugees. Their lives seemed harsh when I visited and one can only assume when the rains fell it would become unbearable and uninhabitable.

The LTTE areas that I was allowed to visit, and where one was chaperoned at all times, seemed a neat and ordered oasis to the seeming chaos outside. Each settlement had a memorial to the dead. These were circular and had the pictures of the dead heroes of Eelam, usually young men. On top of one of these memorials was a young armed Tamil Tiger soldier in uniform with a placid tiger looking up to him. There was also a well-tended cemetery to the dead. The officials I spoke to always remained ‘on message’. One felt that what was just beneath the surface of their civility, the poignancy of their monuments and the neatness of their buildings was an autocratic ethnic political theocracy. Beaming over everything was the image of the late Pirapaharan, resplendent in military uniform.

The east has a substantial Muslim population who were not only flexing their political muscle in the two main parties but also in the formation of rival Muslim parties. This was reflected in their reassertion of Islamic identity. It was not an uncommon sight to see women in chadra and men wearing long shirts, Islamic caps and long beards without moustaches. The only new buildings I saw in the Muslim dominated areas was a new mosque and school which dwarfed its surroundings. The roads were mostly unpaved and the sewers open. Towns seems to ‘magically’ spring up on the highway, with shops mostly being holes in the wall, people got around on foot, bicycle and scooters. The sewers on the main road were choked with the debris of modernity. In one particular shopping precinct the sewers were literally clogged with plastic bags. 

The countryside seemed in places to be empty of people, there were fallow paddy fields and the forests and trees had been chopped down so that the military could better defend themselves from attacks by the Tamil Tigers. In some of these felled areas, people had left their cattle and goats to graze. Batticaola and its surrounding countryside were dotted by forts both small and large and the highway at times seemed choked with military personnel, armoured cars and tanks. The troops when they left their forts wore body armour, US-style helmets and one of the soldiers carried a rocket launcher while another one a heavy machine gun. Sometimes they patrolled on foot, other times in giant armoured vehicles, which to my untutored eye looked like jumbo sized humvees. The military had the area battened down as tight as the skin of a kettle drum. Still the place was drenched in violence and fear. I witnessed in the distance a fire fight. Karuna’s forces were pursuing some lightly armed men, presumably LTTE cadres. Suddenly a helicopter hovered overhead and a number of trucks full of soldiers veered off the highway to provide support. 

The Tamil Tigers called on the populace to boycott the election. Come election-day, people believed to be Tiger cadres or those sympathetic to its aims did try to disrupt the election. Two young men on a motor scooter threw a couple of grenades into a polling booth which was being guarded by the police. I was a few hundred yards away. I heard a couple of low thuds followed by screams and gunfire. To the right of me a couple of detachments of heavily armed soldiers lumbered towards the polling booth and further small arms fire was heard. By then the perpetrators had well and truly disappeared.11

I visited the hospital and documented the injuries. Batticaloa hospital like others in South Asia was dilapidated and under-resourced in terms of personnel and medical supplies and equipment. There were two young doctors present, both Sinhalese, who were providing exemplary service to the victims who were all Tamil. There was one seriously hurt young man, whose leg, head and abdomen was all bandaged up; there was no bedding to speak of, no nurse in attendance; the usual tubes were in place and he was writhing in pain. Others, including an old woman, had been sprayed by shrapnel and the debris caused by the two explosions. There were over half a dozen traumatised and very scared people with lesions and cuts to their heads, legs and abdomens. All this, the result of two grenades; imagine the carnage of a full scale battle between two ruthless heavily armed groups with hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the middle. 

A number of executions took place under the watch of the military. Two men had been shot and their bodies dumped on the side of the road. All that was left was two big pools of blood and a white cotton scarf. This was within sight and earshot of a military fort. The official line was that they had been shot by the Tamil Tigers. When pressed, the local constabulary said words to the effect: ‘that the military is in charge and they will determine what happens’ .The morgue was in the local hospital. To call it a hospital would be libelous -- it was a ramshackle of a building full of patients, mainly women and young children waiting stoically to be seen by one of the doctors seconded to the hospital. It was dirty and run down. The medical officer in charge seemed bored and indifferent to his surroundings, allowed me to view the bodies. 

Next day another two bodies were discovered, the only difference being they were axed or bludgeoned to death. Their faces almost unrecognisable because of the force of the blows on the back of their heads had distorted their jaws and their mouths were ajar. Flies were darting in out of their mouths. Adding to the tens of thousands of nameless people killed in a very dirty nameless war, in a tropical paradise noted ironically for its hospitality. Even the simple truth of who killed them, or what organisation was behind it, would never be known. 

Being an election monitor – a tentative assessment 

As an election monitor I was acutely aware of the ambivalence of my position. I could provide a flicker of light on the way power that is not accountable and seemingly omniscient in its reach impacts on a civilian population. I was also aware of my impotence and limitation in actually helping its victims. I could neither provide concrete evidence on those who committed these crimes or any closure to the bereaved. 

I was only a bystander and saw but a sliver of the violence and psychological damage suffered by the civilians in the North and East. Till their trauma is recorded, acknowledged and dealt with, we can only make do with the glimpses of the terror they endured from both the armed forces of Lanka and the Tamil Tigers. One of the glaring omissions in many narratives of the civil war in Lanka is the huge price civilians especially women and children have had to suffer and endure in a war situation. I cannot rectify this lacuna but what follows is another montage of the price the civil war extracted on human beings and women in particular who are absent in many of the narratives on the war. 

A mother of one of the cadres of the elite Black Tiger Unit perceptively remarked: “We could not separate ourselves from the war. We lived inside it.I did not, nor did many of the expatriates, I was accustomed to listening to who either demonised or praised the activities of the warring participants of this charnel house. The petty brutality, the increasing terror, continual disruption, the killing of loved ones, the daily humiliation of their lives are a complex dance, where civilians in a war zone make decisions on how best to survive. Compounding this trauma are different inter-generational perspectives on whether to just endure or fight back. As the mother remarks: When a child experiences too much sadness it can’t feel no more. We tolerate and bear everything. Not all children accept suffering. 

Her daughter: “Father was killed in the middle of Jaffna town. He was going to work at the post office, he was a peon. If I did not join, people will be pushed into slavery.” She ran away from home and joined the LTTE when she was 12. For her, the Sinhalese were ‘the enemy’,Piraphaharanwas“Our Leader’ and commands our ‘complete obedience’. The political equation is simple for her; the fight for Eelam is just because: ‘of the atrocities; to live in peace we need a separate state.’ 

I can dispassionately point out there have been well over 300 suicide missions, a third of which have been by young Tamil women. These missions have caused the death of many innocent civilians and hardened public opinion even more of the majority community. I could add that they were innocent victims like her father in the South. Lastly I could point out at the time she was talking (2006) the war was over 20 years old and that 70,000 people had been killed and yet Eelam was not even a silhouette on the horizon.12 But what good would that do? Instead of seeing her as a fanatic, we can try and empathise with her sorrow, pain, her very real sense of injustice and lack of rights. These are important matters which we must first deal with, instead of imposing labels on people. It is hard but there is I feel no other option. To do this civil society must be strengthened, institutional safeguards introduced and dialogue must replace the rancour that so drowns out and infantilises political discourse in Lanka. 

Life under the Rajapaksas 

Bandaranaike International airport, nine years later, July2014 -- embarking from the plane into the terminal, one walks through a corridor and your eye is immediately drawn to a statue of the Buddha and a large photograph his Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa. One is left in no doubt that this is a Buddhist country with Mahinda Rajapaksa at the helm. Driving to Colombo one’s eyes is more than occasionally drawn to the portraits of the President which give the passenger the uncomfortable analogy in terms of iconography and official hagiography with North Korea under the Kim Dynasty.

According to some mainstream media reports coming out of Lanka things are now on the mend on all fronts. Positive steps are being made in the economy and in developing inter-communal harmony under the mantle of the current President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Colombo is now a less polluted place; a number of fine highways have been built cutting down travelling times between for example Colombo and Matra. The city parks and the verges in some of the streets are being revegetated giving the pedestrian some solace from the heat that shimmers from the tarmac and the concrete. Swish new buildings and shopping centres have been built, giving Colombo the aura of other Asian metropolises like Singapore. Colombo no longer feels like a city under siege, there is an absence of roadblocks and men in khaki. 

From the political perspective of the Democratic Left Front that professes to be party of the left, the Rajapaksa government is made up of many divergent forces and is anti-imperialist. It is committed to developing a larger role for the state in economic affairs. Rajapaksa’s government has taken back the majority of shares in Sri Lankan Airlines and the Shell Gas Company. If that was not enough the government has set out a program of agricultural development primarily to produce food crops needed by the inhabitants of the island. Whilst acknowledging some of the limitations of the government, it’s polices make it a more credible alternative to the right-wing United National Party and the militarist trend as exemplified by Fonsekaand the chauvinist JVP.13 One can also add to the list the current regime’s laudable aim to make Sri Lanka a trilingual country where its inhabitants will be fluent in Sinhala, Tamil and English.14

The economic figures collated from the Lankan government are certainly impressive. Gross Domestic Production (GDP)grew by 7.3% in 2013. Retail, finance and industrial output are increasing. Inflation has also trended downward and ratio of GDP to government debt fell slightly from 79.1% to 78.4% in September 2013. Exports increased and imports declined. It seems that Lanka is having an economic renaissance.15

The government’s statistics does not reflect the increasing income disparity between the rich and the poor. The Lankan Government estimates around 15% of its citizens are below the poverty line which is calculated to be SLR 3,087 a month. These figures are contested by the World Bank who put the figure at 23 %. The United Nations figures are even bleaker; it estimates that around 45% of Lankans live on less than two dollars a day. Growth is also uneven with the Western province responsible for around half of the nation’s output. Most telling of all is that the top ten percent of income earners control around 40 per cent of the nation’s wealth whilst the poorest 10 per cent manage on one per cent.16 

In addition, if what is happening in Export Processing Zones (EPZ) is any measure of economic well-being, it does not bode well for the working class. According to the official figures exports of garments have increased by $2.7 billion in 2005 to $3.8 billion in 2013. The secretary general of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAL), Mr M.P.TCooray bemoans the fact that people are reluctant to work in the industry even though the pay is above the average wage. He blames social stigma and job security as inhibiting factors.17 The reality from the perspective of a garment worker is markedly different from the employers. 

For example in the Biyagma free trade zone most of the workers are young women who earn about $100 a month. They spend a third of their wage on board and lodging and another third is remitted home. They live in compounds that lack ventilation, electricity and running water. They are also subject to abuse and harassment. According to the international Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF), in the last ten years wages have fallen by 25 per cent while working hours have increased by a quarter. The beneficiaries of course are their employers, managers, clothing chains in the west and ultimately consumers of their products. Even though Lanka is a signatory to core ILO conventions and has assured the EU that it complies with them, it continues to restrict the rights of workers including: 

…. Freedom of association and the right of collective bargaining are suppressed in practice, discrimination and sexual harassment are commonplace, and child and forced labour persist, although they are prohibited by law. 18 

Another huge earner for the country is the remittances sent back by overseas workers back to Lanka. Remittances in 2013 were $6.8 billion up 13 per cent from the previous year. An overwhelming percentage of which comes from money sent by the people working as domestics in precarious employment conditions in the middle-east. The most visible peace dividend is the spectacular rrise and rise of tourism which jumped by a whopping 35 per cent to $1.4 billion in 2013 according to the figures released by the government of Lanka.19 Apart from the fact on who actually benefits from the influx of tourism, the haphazard way it is being developed might in the long term result inthevery destruction of things that make Lanka such a beautiful destination – its wondrous beaches, wildlife and flora. Lanka might end up being a low rent Bali.Also the intermittent supply of electricity and water shortages in the dry zones might put limits on this type of economic activity.20

Has all the ‘positive discrimination’ in the educational field made the tertiary educational section fairer for all the sectors of the nation? In 2011,4.2 million students attendedschool; 250,000reachedthe advanced level. Around 119,000 had passed in previous years with sufficient scores to enter university. Yet the universities can only admit 17,000 new students each year.21The issue clearly is not one of ethnicity but a disgraceful under-utilisation of the state resources in this vital sector. 

On the issue of democracy and accountability – One of the bastions of a secure democracy is the health of the press and its ability to tell uncomfortable truths to those in power. Lasantha Wickrematunga, the well-known editor of the Sunday Leader and a critic of the current regime was murdered in 2009. He is in a long line of journalists who have either been imprisoned, made to disappear or have been killed for their criticisms of the government’s handling of the civil war. As a result of these abductions and deaths Reporters Sans Frontier in 2009 rated Sri Lanka just above the countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (162 out of 175) in terms of the safety of the press.

In January 2010 the current incumbent Rajapaksa taking advantage of the ‘war euphoria’ sweeping the land won the Presidential elections by a wide margin over his main rival Sarath Fonseka, a general who led the government forces to victory over the LTTE. Less than a month after winning the election he had Sarath Fonseka arrested and court martialled and jailed. He was released in May 2012.

After winning a huge parliamentary majority in the April 2010 elections the president amended the country’s constitution (the 18thamendment) which removed the presidential limit of two terms. There has also been a change in how elections are to be conducted. No longer will there be an independent commission, but one in which the President has full control. The vital oversight committees on how public monies are allocated and spent were usually under the chairmanships of the opposition parties. It is now under the control of ministers appointed by the President.22 His executive powers are considerable, have been expanded to encompass the selection of the judiciary and the armed forces. Adding spice to the mix is that three of the President’s brothers (all democratically elected, I hasten to add) preside over five key ministries: defence, finance and planning, economic development, ports and aviation and highways. In addition they hold the office of defence secretary and parliamentary speaker.23 Lest we forget, democratic politics in Lanka has largely been a family affair. 

What do you do with such a large military force in peace time now that the enemy has been vanquished? In Lanka’s case they have not been demobbed and rumours abound that their size has in fact increased. Tens of thousands of them are still deployed in the North and the East of the country. Military personnel have been seen painting public buildings and been engaged in beautifying Colombo. Army trucks have been spotted selling vegetables as part of the war on food inflation. The army buys vegetables directly from farmers and sells them cheaply by absorbing the cost of transport. Leaving, the long term structural issues of: pricing of food; land distribution; and procurement amongst other structural inequities to either fester or to be dealt with at a later date. 

A worrying development is the militarisation of democracy. A number of serving and former military personages have been appointed to head state institutions and diplomatic missions. Military personages have also been appointed governors of the politically sensitive northern and eastern regions and also now popping up as ambassadors around the world. The important Urban Development Authority is now under the aegis of the Defence Ministry. There have been reports that the military was involved in the forcible evictions and the razing of slums in the urban areas.24

The spectre of the moribund LTTE was conjured up when the government invoked its emergency powers and detained two trade union leaders based in the plantation sector in the latter part of 2010. The government seems to have a wider agenda. In September 2009, hundreds of thousands of estate workers demanded a SLR 750 (USD 6:50) daily wage, the two main unions capitulated and accepted SLR 450 instead. But thousands of workers refused to accept this and continued their go slow campaign for a number of days. It was in this context these two trade union activists were arrested.25 

The health of a democratic country can be best discerned by the robust nature of its civil society, a bellwether of which is rights of workers and their legitimate representatives in the form of trade unions. The Government Nursing Officers Association of Sri Lanka (GNOA) initiated a legal symbolic three hour stoppage to protest at the lack of response from their employers to bargain collectively in good faith. The government in response began a campaign of intimidation and threats on those who were involved in the stoppage.26 

What about the lives of those pinched and precarious inhabitants of the North and the East that I glimpsed in 2001 and 2005? Has the end of the civil war and the defeat of the LTTE made their lives any better and safer? If newspaper reports are anything to go by, the precariousness of their existence is still a material reality. The government claims it has spent $3.2 billion dollars between the years 2010-2013. It has proudly claimed it has cleared many of the landmines and housed most of the displaced civilians which has been buttressed by an economic revival in the North and the East. Then why are the unemployment and poverty rates in the North and the East significantly higher than the rest of the country? Some commentators claim it is double the national average. The government of Lanka even though the civil war has ended has expediently increased its military spending27.In the north, violence in the form of extra-judicial killings, abductions and burglaries from unknown perpetuators are still too common an occurrence, even with or because of the presence of tens of thousands of heavily armed troops.28 

Also credible evidence continually comes to light of the indiscriminate killing of civilians through widespread shelling during the war, the denial of humanitarian aid and the summary execution of LTTE cadres and the rape and murder of Tamil women by the Lankan security forces. Likewise credible allegations have been made of the LTTE abuse of human rights of the civilians that came under their jurisdiction. It is estimated that between thirty to sixty thousand people were killed in the last phase of the war. The current government has made no real attempt at investigating these credible allegations or making any genuine attemptsatreconciliation.29 

This disturbing human rights record of the current regime makes the Abbot’s government’s support and the provision of warships to the regime politically suspect. Also reprehensible is the current Minister of Immigration, the honourable Scott Morrison’s hard line of sending Tamil refugees back into crucible of the North of the country on the advice of the Lankan security services, which have been accused of gross violation of the human rights of not only Tamil civilians, but also of human rights activists, journalists and trade union activists. 

Concluding thoughts 

The future of Lanka I am sad to say, if left in the hands of its traditional political leaders and parties, is bleak. On one side you have the Tamil diaspora whose leadership is mainly made up of well to do former inhabitants of the Jaffna peninsula, who are still banging on the annihilated and politically bankrupt drum of the LTTE. The voices of dalits and lower caste communities and their needs get drowned out in the din for Eelam. The leadership of the expatriate Tamil community must be democratised and be more open to other alternative solutions and political currents. The Lankan state must also encourage the seeds of democratic thought and practice and not demonise or sideline them as they are currently doing.

The crimes and political mistakes of the militants including the LTTE must be discussed openly and new political ideas must be brought to the table. Otherwise the legitimate political claims of the Tamil community will stew in a fetid brew of resentment and past military glories.

The Wikileaks cables have laid bare the perfidy of the Lankan state and their allies like China and the USA in how the Rajapaksa regime suppress and have suppressed their population’s democratic rights. Instead of using this information as a catalyst to protest and demand democratic and economic change from their political leaders, like they did in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the reaction in Lanka has been muted with the usual denials and anger at US meddling. As the cables makes clear, the USA had no intention of prosecuting the current government; it was more concerned with what it saw as undue meddling of China in Lankan affairs.30

On the economic front if we strip bare the tinsel and glitter surrounding the economic revival of the island and its bourgeoning tourist industry we have an economy that is not earning enough revenue to pay off its debts, pay for its large military apparatus, fund the lifestyle of its elite and raise the standard of living of the majority of its inhabitants.A pertinent example of this of how the government is trying to hide the increasing reliance on debt to fund its economic program, Dr Savarananthan: 

The declining budget to GDP ratio and public debt to GDP ratio was achieved NOT through any deceleration in public expenditures or public borrowings. There is an “innovative” (albeit high risk) trend of coercing the state-owned and private commercial and specialised banks and state-owned enterprises to borrow in international capital markets.31 

This can result in many of these companies and institutions racking up debts that could make them financial insolvent.

New economic and political formations and relations are necessary if the cycles of violence, war, defiance, repression, corruption and communal disharmony are not to be repeated. A worrying reminder of this seemingly never-ending cycle of communal resentment reminiscent of the 1958 anti-Tamil riots is the recent violence perpetuated on the Muslim community by a number of Buddhist monks and their supporters, who are covertly supported by a section of the current government. 

One hopes, that the continual exposure of government misdemeanours and the political bankruptcy of the LTTE will encourage a new generation of activists. They will prise open the increasingly closed democratic spaces in Lanka from the two bourgeois parties that have choked political discourse on the island for too long. There are number of organisations and brave individuals who are doing just this, telling the truth not only to political and business elites, but also to the population of this lovely island. It is my fervent hope that in time, their political activities and exposure of the misuse of power will find fertile ground. 


Arnestad, B. and Daae, M. (2007)My daughter the terrorist. Snitt Film Production. 

Asian Development Outlook: Economic trends and prospects in developing Asia: South Asia – Sri Lanka. Retrieved from: http://www.adb.org › Publications › Asian Development Outlook 

Banu, Zarina (2014) An economic renaissance for South Asia’s ‘finest island’ hinges on a visionary green tourist policy posted in Al Jazeera 4 May 2014.Retrieved from: www.aljazera.com/sri-lanka-economic-comeback

Cooke, M. (2011).Rebellion, Repression and the struggle for justice in Sri Lanka: The Lionel Bopage Story. Agahas.

Cooke, Michael (2001)Notes on an Interview conducted with Douglas Devanandaon 1/12/2001 

Cooke, Michael (2001)Notes from my election monitoring report for the electorates of: Point Pedro,Udupiddyand Jaffna, December 2001. 

Democratic Left Front (2011).The Political Report. Democratic Left Front’s Newsletter – October 2010-27 January 2011.

Guardian Weekly.(2011).Sri Lanka needs to regain its trade concessions but workers must benefit. Published on 20 January 2011.Retrieved from:http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jan/20/sri-lanka-free-trade-zones 

Elliot T. (2004). Sri Lanka. In MacDonald, S. (ed.).Come Away with me. Bantam Books 

Hoole, R. (2001).Sri Lanka, The Arrogance of Power: Myth, Decadence and Murder, UTHR (Jaffna), 125 to 143. 

Hughes, R. (1993).Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America. Oxford University Press 

Journalists of Democracy in Sri Lanka.(2011).Extra judicial killings, abductions, burglaries haunt Sri Lanka’s North. Published on 7 January 2011.Retrieved from:http://www.jdslanka.org/2011/01/extra-judicial-killings-abductions.html 

Lanka News Web (2010).Restriction of right to strike and violations of the principles of ILO Conventions – No. 87 and 98 – Sri Lanka. Published on 30 November 2010.Retrieved from: http://www.lankanewsweb.com/news/EN_2010_11_30_009.html 

Lonely Planet (2001).Sri Lanka. Lonely Planet Publications 

Maliyedde, Chandrasena (2013) Sri Lanka’s economy after 65 years in The Sunday Times: February 24, 2013. Retrieved from: www.sundaytimes.lk/13022/business-times/sri-lankas-economy-after-65-years 

Nagaraj, V. (2011).The Sri Lankan army is selling vegetables. In The Guardian of 28 January 2011.Retrieved from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/28/sri-lanka-army-military

Notes and Documents: Human Rights violations in Sri Lanka(1984) in Race and Class, Summer 1984 – No:1Institute of Race Relations 125.

Pathiraja D. (2006).In Search of a Road

Punchihewa, S.G. (2010).Sri Lankan constitution and democratic rights. In Sri Lankan Guardian of 10 October 2010.Retrieved from: http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2010/10/sri-lankan-constitution-and-democratic.html 

Ratnayake, K. (2010).Wiki leaks document exposes US complicity in Sri Lankan war Crimes. Published on 4 December 2010.Retrieved from: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2010/dec2010/sril-d04.shtml 

Sarvananthan, Muttukrishna (2014) Illusory Economy versus the Real Economy of Sri Lanka – A Rejoinder to the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in Groundviews4 September 2014. Retrieved from: http://groundviews.org/2014/04/09/illusory-economy-versus-the-real-economy-of-sri-lanka/  

Sri Lanka: Remittances rise 13% to $6.8 billion(2014) in Arab News 22 March 2014. Published by Agence France Presse .Retrieved from: http://www.arabnews 

Vasanthan, V. (2010). Sri Lankan government detains plantation workers. Published on 19 November 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2010/nov2010/sril-n19.shtml

Warushamana, Gamini (2013) Apparel Industry will overcome challenges – Secretary General, JAAF in Sunday Observer – 5 May 2013. Retrieved from: www.sundayobserver.lk/2001/pix

Weiss, Gordon (2011) The Cage: The fight for Sri Lanka & the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers. Bodley Head

Wedaarachchi, L.S.A. (2010). A trilingual nation by 2020, Lanka’s target. In Sunday Observer of 21 October 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2010/10/17/new20.asp.


1 Hughes, R. (1993). Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America. Oxford University Press, USA, 80

2 Cooke, M. (2011). Rebellion, Repression and the struggle for justice in Sri Lanka: The Lionel Bopage Story.  Agahas.

3 Lonely Planet (2001). Sri Lanka. Lonely Planet Publications

4 Elliot T. (2004). Sri Lanka. In MacDonald, S. (ed.). Come Away with me. Bantam Books, 221.

5 Film: Pathiraja D. (2006). In Search of a Road.

6 Notes and Documents: Human Rights violations in Sri Lanka (1984) in Race and Class, Summer 1984 – No:1 Institute of Race Relations 125

7 For the details of this sorry affair, see Hoole, R. (2001). Sri Lanka, The Arrogance of Power: Myth, Decadence and Murder, UTHR (Jaffna), 125 to 143.

8 Notes on an Interview conducted with Douglas Devananda on 1/12/2001

9 Notes from my election monitoring report for the electorates of: Point Pedro, Udupiddy and Jaffna, December 2001.

10 Most of what follows is culled from my notes as an election monitor and a video diary of my time in Batticaloa and its environs.

11 They could also have been related to the electoral contest between the UNP and SLFP. Such interparty violence is common during election time in Lanka.

12  All the conversations and statistics are from the documentary: Arnestad, B. and Daae, M. (2007) My daughter the terrorist. Snitt Film Production.

13 Democratic Left Front (2011). In, The Political Report. Democratic Left Front’s Newsletter – October 2010-27 January 2011

14 Wedaarachchi, L.S.A. (2010). A trilingual nation by 2020, Lanka’s target. In Sunday Observer of 21 October 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2010/10/17/new20.asp

15 Asian Development Outlook: Economic trends and prospects in developing Asia: South Asia – Sri Lanka. Retrieved from: www.adb.org › Publications › Asian Development Outlook

16 Maliyedde, Chandrasena (2013) Sri Lanka’s economy after 65 years in the Sunday Times: February 24, 2013. Retrieved from: www.sundaytimes.lk/13022/business-times/sri-lankas-economy-after-65-years

17 Warushamana, Gamini (2013) Apparel Industry will overcome challenges – Secretary General, JAAF in Sunday Observer – 5 May 2013. Retrieved from: www.sundayobserver.lk/2001/pix

18 The Guardian Weekly. (2011). Sri Lanka needs to regain its trade concessions but workers must benefit. Published on 20 January 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jan/20/sri-lanka-free-trade-zones

19 Sri Lanka: Remittances rise 13% to $6.8 billion (2014) in Arab  News 22 March 2014. Published by Agence France Presse. Retrieved from: http://www.arabnews

20 Banu, Zarina (2014) An economic renaissance for South Asia’s ‘finest island’ hinges on a visionary green tourist policy posted in Al Jazeera 4 May 2014. Retrieved from: www.aljazera.com/sri-lanka-economic-comeback.

21 Op. cit. Democratic Left Front - Sarath Fernando (2011)  RE: university student agitation – media statement made by the Democratic Left Front on 8/11/2010.

22 Punchihewa, S.G. (2010). Sri Lankan constitution and democratic rights. In Sri Lankan Guardian of 10 October 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2010/10/sri-lankan-constitution-and-democratic.html

23 Nagaraj, V. (2011). The Sri Lankan army is selling vegetables. In The Guardian of 28 January 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/28/sri-lanka-army-military

24 Nagaraj, op.cit.,

25 Vasanthan, V. (2010). Sri Lankan government detains plantation workers. Published on 19 November 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2010/nov2010/sril-n19.shtml

26 Lanka News Web (2010). Restriction of right to strike and violations of the principles of ILO Conventions – No. 87 and 98 – Sri Lanka. Published on 30 November 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.lankanewsweb.com/news/EN_2010_11_30_009.html

27 Sarvananthan,  Muttukrishna (2014) Illusory Economy versus the Real Economy of Sri Lanka – A Rejoinder to the Governor of  the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in Groundviews 4 September 2014. Retrieved from: http://groundviews.org/2014/04/09/illusory-economy-versus-the-real-economy-of-sri-lanka/

28 Journalists of Democracy in Sri Lanka. (2011). Extra judicial killings, abductions, burglaries haunt Sri Lanka’s North. Published on 7 January 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.jdslanka.org/2011/01/extra-judicial-killings-abductions.html

29 Weiss, Gordon (2011) The Cage: The fight for Sri Lanka & the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers. Bodley Head

30 Ratnayake, K. (2010). Wiki leaks document exposes US complicity in Sri Lankan war Crimes. Published on 4 December 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2010/dec2010/sril-d04.shtml

31 Opp cit: Sarvanthan, Muttkrishna (2014) Illusory Economy versus the Real Economy of Sri Lanka et al.

Submitted by Chris Slee (not verified) on Fri, 10/17/2014 - 21:48


Michael Cooke says:
"The future of Lanka I am sad to say, if left in the hands of its traditional political leaders and parties, is bleak. On one side you have the Tamil diaspora whose leadership is mainly made up of well to do former inhabitants of the Jaffna peninsula, who are still banging on the annihilated and politically bankrupt drum of the LTTE. The voices of dalits and lower caste communities and their needs get drowned out in the din for Eelam. The leadership of the expatriate Tamil community must be democratised and be more open to other alternative solutions and political currents. The Lankan state must also encourage the seeds of democratic thought and practice and not demonise or sideline them as they are currently doing"

In my view this passage is quite confused. The middle class composition of the Tamil diaspora (at least in Australia) is due to Australia's immigration policy, which keeps out non-white people unless they are well educated. Given the association between education, class and caste, Australia's intake of Tamils is probably weighted towards the upper castes. (Those who come "illegally" by boat may be an exception).

I am not aware of any evidence that lower caste Tamils were less supportive of the LTTE than upper caste ones, or that they are today less committed to an independent Tamil Eelam than upper caste people. If Michael has any such evidence he should present it.

I have no problem if Michael wants to argue that the demand for an independent Tamil state should be dropped in favour of the demand for equal rights within Sri Lanka. I personally favour a referendum to decide the issue, but if Michael wants to argue that this is unrealistic, and a distraction from attainable goals, fine. But this argument should not be based on dubious sociological analysis.

It is not the leaders of the Tamil diaspora who silence the voices of the lower caste Tamils. It is state repression that does this.

On the island itself, a lower caste/class Tamil who is too vociferous in criticising the government is likely to be taken away by the army in the middle of the night and never seen again.

This can happen to upper caste/class Tamils too. But the latter are more likely to have connections with people who can make a fuss in Colombo and/or internationally. This is a (slight) deterrent to the repression of upper caste/class people.

Even in Australia, lower caste/class people would be hesitant about speaking out, because of possible repercussions on their relatives at home (and in the case of those who are not Australian citizens, fear of deportation).

If lower caste Tamils in Australia are looking for an alternative to the Tamil groups controlled by upper caste people, they can either form a new Tamil group or join multi-ethnic groups such as People for Human Rights and Equality, or left groups such as the Frontline Socialist Party or the NSSP (New Socialist Party).

If the voices of the lower castes are being "drowned out", the solution is to shout louder. What prevents this is state repression.

To say that the Sri Lankan government should "encourage the seeds of democratic thought and practice" is very nebulous. We should demand that it stop murdering and torturing its opponents, and should end military rule in Tamil areas.

We should also demand that he Australian government stop deporting Tamils to Sri Lanka, free those in detention, and give them permanent residency, welfare rights and the opportunity to become Australian citizens.

Submitted by Chris Slee (not verified) on Sun, 10/19/2014 - 16:58


Michael Cooke's article contains some useful information, though sometimes he doesn't seem to see the significance of it. For example, referring to the December 2001 parliamentary elections, he says:

"The election in Jaffna was relatively trouble free as the Tamil Tigers through their political allies expected to win the majority of the seats, which they did. The EDPD lost one of their seats but retained Kayts. Most of the intimidation, vote rigging and violence came from one source, the EPDP. They were the only ones armed and organised, who had the means to do this. In most instances, they did this blatantly and with impunity."

Thus the people of Jaffna voted for the "allies" of the LTTE (the Tamil National Alliance) despite intimidation by the EPDP. This implies that the TNA (and presumably the LTTE) had very strong mass support. Michael fails to ask himself why this was the case.

Michael's proposed solution to the Sri Lankan ethnic problem is that "...civil society must be strengthened, institutional safeguards introduced and dialogue must replace the rancour that so drowns out and infantilises political discourse in Lanka".

These are all worthy goals, but completely insufficient. Michael fails say that the national oppression of Tamils must be ended. The army must be withdrawn from Tamil areas. Land seized from Tamils must be returned to its rightful owners. There must be a referendum amongst Tamils on whether they want to be part of a unitary Sri Lanka, or have their own separate state, or some intermediate option such as federalism.