The singers, not the song

The objective of Sri Lanka’s new government is ostensibly to foster unity but, argues Neville de Silva, certain actions already smack of widening the gulf between communities

Colombo is getting all spruced up for the grand occasion: February 4, Sri Lanka’s 72nd Independence anniversary. This will be a historic celebration, for never before have two brothers jointly headed the country’s government.

The Brothers Rajapaksa now sit at the helm, with Gotabaya the newly elected president and twice- president Mahinda the prime minister.

The armed forces on parade will be all spit and polish on the day, with full police and military honours in tribute to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. As a military officer in an earlier avatar and later as defence secretary under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, he oversaw the defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in May 2009 after along war lasting nearly three decades.

Sri Lanka’s national anthem will be sung with gusto and pride before the military parade in Independence Square, no doubt watched by millions of citizens on television.

But elsewhere in the country, particularly in the Tamil minority dominated regions of the north and east, people will be singing a different ‘tune’. After a meeting attended by several ministries and state institutions and chaired by the Minister of Public Administration in charge of Independence Day arrangements, officials told the waiting media that Sri Lanka’s national anthem would be sung only in Sinhala, the language of the majority community.

This decision was considered an affront by many in the Tamil community and a deliberate slight by other Tamils, though still others could not care less who sang what. After all, they said, the national anthem has been sung in Tamil at some previous independence celebrations.

It was not just sections of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community that reacted angrily to the government’s decision. While Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa intervened later to downplay the announcement, saying the government was yet to decide on it, the initial decision caused shockwaves beyond Sri Lanka’s borders.

Two political parties in India’s Tamil Nadu state, on the other side the narrow Palk Strait separating Sri Lanka from India, laid into the new Rajapaksa government for its ‘Sinhala only’ decree.

Officials told the media that Sri Lanka’s national anthem would be sung only in Sinhala

M.K Stalin, President of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), went as far as calling on India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar to intervene with Colombo and prevail on it to mend its ways.

Such ‘majoritarianism’ by Sri Lanka would lead to the isolation of the Tamil people, Mr Stalin claimed. And Colombo cannot ignore the strong reaction of politicians in Tamil Nadu to what they perceive as demeaning the status of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community.

After assuming office, President Rajapaksa appealed to all the country’s ethnic groups to come together to carry Sri Lanka forward into a new era. He said he was president for all Sri Lankans, or words to that effect.

Since the advent of Gotabaya Rajapaksa into central politics there has been frenetic diplomatic activity between the new government in Colombo and India’s Modi administration. It is still ongoing, with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa due to visit New Delhi, possibly later in February, for more talks with the Modi government and perhaps to patch up differences between them.

We have already witnessed several top-level visits in both directions, starting with Modi’s hurried invitation last November to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had assumed office only two days earlier.

Prime Minister Modi then rushed his External Affairs Minister Jaishankar to Colombo with a special message to the new president, and inviting him to New Delhi. Before November was over President Rajapaksa was in New Delhi for wide-ranging talks centring particularly on each other’s national security concerns and strengthening intelligence cooperation.

For the new Sri Lankan president national security is an imperative after Islamic extremists bombed three churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo, killing some 270 locals and foreigners, on Easter Sunday last April.

In January this year Sri Lanka’s new Minister of Foreign Relations, Dinesh Gunawardena, managed to sandwich a visit between President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Rajapaksa.

New president Gotabaya Rajapaksa (l) and his brother Mahinda, who is now prime minister
New president Gotabaya Rajapaksa (l) and his brother Mahinda, who is now prime minister

A few days later, on 18 January, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval flew to Colombo for talks with the Rajapaksa brothers. Mr Doval discussed strengthening military links between the two countries and widening maritime links with neighbour states.

With Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa also due in New Delhi sometime in February on his first foreign visit, cementing bilateral relations between the neighbours has taken centre stage.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa underlined the importance of good neighbourly relations when, during a media conference in New Delhi, he reiterated, in the presence of Prime Minister Modi, that he intended to raise relations with India to a ‘very high level’.

But this new relationship cannot be one-dimensional. While peace in the region and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean remain key because of heightened big power naval activity in the central Indian Ocean, India and Sri Lanka have a long-standing political issue that remains unresolved.

That is the question of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, in which India considers it has a stake. Given the close historical, ethnic and cultural affinities between the Sri Lanka Tamils and some 70 million Tamils in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, and India’s own involvement in Sri Lanka’s national question, New Delhi believes it has a role to play.

This was raised by Minister Jaishankar in Colombo and made more specific by Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi. India expects the Sri Lanka government to ‘take forward the process of reconciliation that meets the aspirations of the Tamil community for equality, justice, peace and respect’.

More importantly, Prime Minister Modi added that ‘this includes the implementation of the 13th amendment’ to the constitution. This amendment dates back to the days of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, signed in Colombo between President JR Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Accord brought Indian Peace-Keeping Forces (IPKF) to Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominated north to disarm and tame the ‘Tamil Tigers’, but failed to do so.

According to some closely associated with the negotiations on the Accord, Sri Lanka was force-fed and had to accept the outcome.

The 13th amendment resulted in provincial councils being established in Sri Lanka to devolve powers to the periphery, particularly the Tamil areas. But the powers of the councils – which included establishing their own police forces and control over state land– were not handed down to them in full. This is what Modi now wants implemented so that the Tamils will have greater control over their local affairs.

But this is precisely what successive Sri Lanka governments have failed to do. Colombo is concerned over authorising councils to enjoy police powers, having suffered the consequences of armed terrorism originating from the Tamil-dominated areas.

SHOW OF STRENGTH: Sri Lanka’s 2019 Independence celebrations
SHOW OF STRENGTH: Sri Lanka’s 2019 Independence celebrations

While India and some local politicians in Sri Lanka want more devolution of power, Sri Lanka is reluctant to do so. Some Sri Lankan politicians are even pressing for the abolition of provincial councils, saying they serve little purpose except to fatten crooked politicians.

President Rajapaksa has stated that devolution is not the answer. The Tamil people will be better off and their livelihoods enhanced if there is socio-economic development, and job creation as a result. That is why he has called on all Sri Lankans to join hands in developing the country.

Some Tamils I have spoken to argue that if this is the new government’s objective, it would be more logical to allow the national anthem to be sung in Tamil too, instead of widening the gap between the communities. They argue that the government is trying to pay back the Tamils for voting overwhelmingly against Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November’s election (over 80 per cent in the north voted for the opposing candidate) by isolating them.

It is this perceived humiliation that has stopped the national anthem being sung in Tamil. It is the singers who are being punished, not the song – so I was told.

While Indo-Sri Lanka relations will be strengthened over national security issues, the real bone of contention will remain Sri Lanka’s national question and the tardy progress towards reconciliation.

Next month the UN Human Rights Council will take up Resolution 30 on Sri Lanka for discussion. It will access what progress, if any, has been made to implement some of its recommendations, such as accountability trials for violation of international humanitarian laws during the last stages of the anti-LTTE war.

Whatever position India takes on this in Geneva, the major sticking point in India-Sri Lanka relations will continue to be on home ground and will be played out here. It is the ‘singers’ that Colombo will worry about, not the song.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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