I write this on the 32nd anniversary of the beginning of Black July, the anti-Tamil pogrom, that saw the country move towards an exacerbation of separatist terror and a most violent internal armed conflict that lasted nearly three decades. Having been and seen through that period of national shame and tragedy, it can best be remembered with the determined hope that it shall never be repeated in any manner in this country, ever again.
Just now we are in the midst of a general election campaign, which provides a very good opportunity for the people to ensure that forces in any way able to encourage the rise of forces such as those that caused Black July, will never again be in any position to direct our people to such violence and brutality in our own society.
In the past six months, since the Silent Revolution of January 8, we have seen clear signs of the reduction of the fear psychosis among our people, and a greater desire to be understanding and accommodating among communities that may speak different languages or have different faiths.
In this context, it is useful to think of what the National Peace Council has said in its statement on this anniversary of Black July. The NPC states that: “However, the early dissolution of Parliament on June 26 due to the political deadlock between the government and opposition means that many of the unresolved issues that existed prior to the presidential election continue to be present for exploitation by racist extremists.”
This is indeed a good thought to ponder upon, as the campaign between two main political rivals gets hotter as each day goes by, and there are possible dangers emerging to the public commitment to democracy and good governance made on January 8 this year. It is good to bear in mind that it was not long ago, in June 2014, that the events at Aluthgama and Beruwela gave us a shocking reminder that the mindset that led to all that took place in July 1983 was very much alive among sections of our people. Even worse was the fact that there were, and possibly are, political forces, parties and groups that would like to encourage such thinking and action, too.
We have still not seen the condemnation of the Budu Bala Sena or Sinhala Ravaya by the political parties that encouraged them when these parties and their single leader was in power with all the strength of dictatorship, obtained through a purchased majority in Parliament; and the democratic principles of the Sri Lankan Constitution, first badly dented in 1978 and almost destroyed with the 18th Amendment in September 2010.
Thirty two years after Black July and six years after the defeat of the LTTE’s separatist terror in May 2009, political leaders in the current election campaign have a great opportunity to move public thinking and attitudes definitely away from the path of confrontation between communities, whether ethnic or religious, and build genuine national unity. The beginning of this was clearly given in the manifesto that saw the election of the Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena in the Presidential Poll of January 8 this year. This showed there were political parties and civil society organizations that were prepared to take the country in the new direction of understanding and reconciliation and the rapid rise of genuine democracy.
Cause for doubt
Yet, as the campaigns get going, and we see more of the UPFA leadership in action, there is serious cause for doubt whether there is a search for national unity in this election, rather than determined efforts to bring about more of disunity, and seek to take the country back to the period of ethnic and communal mistrust moving on to hatred, and wiping out the victories that democracy scored on January 8.
The man who led the country towards division among the people, although having achieved geographical unity with the defeat of separatist terror, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his unquenched thirst for power, is clearly pleased to give leadership to the forces that carry on the torch of communal and religious mistrust and hatred in the current poll campaign.
There is more than a touch of farce in his electioneering with the mention of the need for reconciliation and understanding among communities, and support for such moves, in his address at the UPFA’s inaugural rally at Anuradhapura. He has obviously picked up the words from the victorious manifesto of Yahapaalanaya Campaign that saw his defeat on January 8. He knew the value and impact of the words, being the experienced politician he is. Yet, the words were used with no explanation as to how a UPFA majority parliament would act to ensure the progress of reconciliation and understanding among communities.
The question that arises is what this former President, who was responsible for appointing the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) did to implement the many important recommendations of this commission, in the period he was in office, which would have made great strides in the building of reconciliation and understanding, and also help the country avoid the antagonism of the international community on issues of human rights and allegations of war crimes and humanitarian law.
The reports of the speeches made by Mahinda Rajapaksa and his key political vocalists on stage such as Weerawansa and Gammanpila, as well as the inputs coming from his brother Gotabaya who was very much instrumental in enforcing policies of non-reconciliation, show little change from the campaign that was seen in the Presidential Poll that he launched in November last year, to extend his term in office.
What we continue to hear is about the LTTE being revived, how the Tamil Diaspora threatens the sovereignty of Sri Lanka, of international conspiracies that support minority causes against the majority, and a whole host of dangers that threaten the Sinhala majority from the activities of minority groups in the country.
White Van diversion
The latest in the campaign is the ‘White Van” episode at Mirihana, with a variety of allegations being made to show that this is yet another LTTE move against Mahinda Rajapaksa. This is despite the van being one seized from the LTTE in the days of Mahinda plus Gotabaya, and now in the possession of the Army. The allegations that are being made, and by Gotabaya Rajapaksa and GL Peiris too, show that the UPFA has no policy other than arousing fear of a revived LTTE to present to the people, who seek a new path of progress in the country.
What is significant in this White Van episode is that for once the Police have seized a suspect white van, which was never the case when they were used so often to punish, threaten or get rid of those who were considered the enemies of the Rajapaksa’s authoritarian power.
The sheer size of the promises being made such as a Rs 25,000 wage hike to all public servants, and the provision of employment to so many lakhs of people, give the impression that they are made with the knowledge they will never have to implement them.
With barely four weeks left in the general election campaign, and the main manifestos coming to the public by next week, it will need a truly giant effort by Mahinda Rajapaksa, to show that what he is fighting is for the betterment of the country and the people, and not for sheer thirst for power and the important need to protect both kith and kin, both in the family and politics, from the charges that lie in wait against them on fraud and corruption.