A Nelson Mandela statue in Colombo: No laughing matter!
Posted on May 15th, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala

A news report in The Island of May 9, 2020 under the heading ‘One location for national heroes’ (by Zacki Jabbar) says that Media and Higher Education minister and co-cabinet spokesman Bandula Gunawardane told a news conference held at the Information Department that a cabinet decision was taken on Wednesday (May 6) to locate statues of national heroes in one place so they wouldn’t stand scattered across the island. This, the minister explained, was for introducing a uniform policy  with regard to honouring those who had served the nation in outstanding ways. I for one don’t at present see any special merit or demerit in establishing a single sculpture garden or park dedicated to the memory of national heroes, nor do I have any idea about the circumstances that caused the caretaker government to worry about where to stand memorial statues of national heroes. 

However, what really stirred my curiosity was the simultaneous announcement that the Cabinet of Ministers had also made a decision to allocate some space in the Colombo Municipal Council premises for the erection of a statue of freedom fighter and former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela at the request of the South African High Commission in Colombo. Why a request had to be made by the diplomats of a friendly nation to have their late national hero honoured by Sri Lanka in this way is hard to guess. The costs are to be borne by the South Africans themselves, it is implied. On the other hand, does Sri Lanka owe Nelson Mandela or South Africa special thanks or grateful acknowledgement for any outstanding services done to her in the past? It is true that South Africans have played a tenuous supplementary role in the interventionist Western interest in Sri Lanka’s internal problem between the state and the Tamil separatists. That role was not the sort that earned the respect or gratitude of Sri Lankans. It only contributed towards paving the way for UNHRC resolutions 30/1 (2015), 34/1 (2017) and 40/1 (2019) pushed against Sri Lanka at Geneva during the previous Yahapalanaya, from whose co-sponsorship the country recently withdrew with the change of government subsequent to the election of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in November 2019. 

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) provided a truly heroic leadership to the longdrawn struggle for South Africa’s freedom from the White supremacist Apartheid system.  He spent a gruelling 28 years in detention and in jail (1962-1990) because of this. He proved more powerful as a prisoner than as a free person in turning world opinion in favour of black South Africa’s emancipation, and he had already become a globally celebrated freedom fighter by the time of his release from prison in 1990. The last Aparheid president F.W. de Klerk held a series of negotiations with Mandela between 1990 and 1993. De Klerk’s government took a number of unilateral steps and arranged for the country’s first non-racial election in 1994, which Nelson Mandela easily won as leader of the African National Congress. He led South Africa as president from 1994 to 1999. Mandela won great sympathy as well as great admiration from Sri Lankans, who also had experienced the inhumanity of Western imperialism for over four centuries.

 As far as I can remember, South Africa started showing an interest in Sri Lanka’s domestic problem around 2007 during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first term as president, and continued to do so during his second term as well. Of the 58 million SA population, over 80% are native black, about 8% white, and only 2.6% Asian Indian citizens. Tamils form a large proportion of the last. This factor seems to have enabled the interventionist West and their minions the Tamil diaspora to imagine a false analogy between South Africa’s ending of the Apartheid system in 1994 and  Sri Lanka’s termination of the separatist civil conflict in 2009, which they wished to exploit to force Sri Lanka to adopt South Africa’s model in resolving ‘reconciliation and accountability’ issues (which, in reality though, seems to have left the dispossessed blacks in no better economic position vis-a-vis the White minority. It is said that the White 8% still possess 80% all arable land in South Africa!). Whatever the proffered wisdom of the South Africans meant, the ultimate aim of those antinationalist forces and their local proteges seemed to be the achievement, through political, diplomatic, and constitutional skulduggery, of the separatist aim which they couldn’t realise through armed terrorism. The fact that prominent UN functionaries Yasmin Sooka who drafted a damning report on Sri Lanka based on unreliable evidence and Navaneetham Pillay who served as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (2008-14) were both from South Africa, would have been a morale booster for the aforementioned Sri Lanka baiters (that is, the meddling Western powers and the Tamil diaspora). 

Another tormentor of Sri Lanka has been Louise Arbour, Canadian lawyer, international prosecutor and jurist. She made history by successfully indicting an incumbent head of state, the former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Melosevic over alleged war crimes. Arbour is currently the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General for International Migration. As former president and CEO of the South Africa based International Crisis Group that wanted to play a role in bringing about a so-called reconciliation in Sri Lanka, she wrote an article in the organization’s website on July 24, 2011 under the title ‘What South Africa can do to help with reconciliation in Sri Lanka’. She began:

‘As South Africa knows better than most, a country cannot begin to overcome decades of internal conflict without a sustained effort at revealing the truth of the past and a committed push for reconciliation. If only Sri Lanka could learn that lesson.’ 

(If only LA could understand how very different Sri Lanka is from South Africa in every imaginable respect!)

She arbitrarily asserts that the final months of the conflict saw both the Sinhala majority government and the rebels contribute to the massive loss of Tamil civilian lives, but that, instead of ‘starting on the slow painful path towards a more democratic and equal society….the post-war policies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his powerful brothers have further undermined the country’s damaged political institutions and deepened the ethnic divide’…..the government has increasingly cut minorities out of decisions on their economic and political futures, clinging to its claim that the war was about terrorism” and not an ethnic conflict….      

Louise Arbour also claims that ‘the unwillingness of the million strong Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora to recognize the brutality of the LTTE and its share of responsibility for a largely broken Tamil society has only strengthened the government’s hand’.

(Occasionally blaming both the government and the rebels in common is a feeble attempt at pretending impartiality. How misinformed or ill-informed on the subject LA is!) 

According to her ‘the process of reconciliation and accountability partly through the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was criticised as deeply flawed by a UN panel of experts that included South Africa’s Yasmin Sooka. The panel had specifically addressed the government’s claim that it had drawn on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), finding that the LLRC falls far short of that important precedent’. This panel claim must have been a fabrication, because the LLRC commissioners were not ignorant of the fact the South African experience contained no lessons that Sri Lanka could learn from.

Louise Arbour thought that ‘The country’s post-war course will not change unless the Rajapaksas decide it has to’ and that, up to that point, they had shown no interest ‘in doing anything that would diverge from the Sinhalese nationalist vision they have embraced fully as both a means to stay in power and an end in itself’. The Rajapaksas came to rule only because they got elected to do so by the people with whom sovereignty lies. How ethical was it for an ignorant prejudiced professional service provider to impugn in this way the personal honesty and the worth of the political ideal of the most successful and the most popular head of state Sri Lanka had had since independence until then?

In the article she accused the Rajapaksas of repressing the media and political opponents, while manipulating elections, and silencing civil society. The truth is that it was the Yahapalana politicians who were really guilty of those violations of democratic norms during their term. Arbour also blamed the (pre-Yahapalana) Rajapaksa government for rejecting the allegedly growing body of evidence supporting allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both sides in the final stages of the war, allegations that, she asserted, were supported by the UN panel of experts, and the Channel 4 TV documentary ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’. Arbour recommended that ‘The international community should push for a fundamental change of course’. This is unwarranted interference in the affairs of an independent and democratic sovereign nation.

This UN functionary wanted South Africa to ‘use its influence with other emerging powers and members of the non-aligned movement to advance the recommendations in the UN panel report, including their call for an international investigation into alleged atrocities by both sides. It should encourage other governments to reject Sri Lanka’s attempt to dismiss any international scrutiny of its war-time and post-war policies as a neocolonialist assault on its sovereignty….If the government would stick to its promises to ensure accountability and devolve power to the traditionally Tamil-speaking north and east, such scrutiny would disappear.’ 

Isn’t this plain blackmail unworthy of an international dignitary? Louise Arbour concludes her International Crisis Group article of July 24, 2011 thus:

‘Finally, South Africa should resist the government’s attempts to gain undeserved legitimacy by comparing the LLRC with South Africa’s TRC. Such a comparison is, frankly, an insult. Sri Lanka desperately needs a fair accounting of its violent history to avoid repeating it. The Sri Lankan people should not have to settle for anything less’.

Who or what was Louise Arbour to determine that the then Mahinda Rajapaksa government didn’t have legitimacy? The war winning Mahinda had been returned to a second term as president only a year previously (2010) with a majority of 1.8 million votes (the largest ever in a presidential election) beating his commander-in-chief Sarath Fonseka conspiratorially fielded against him under the auspices of the meddlesome international community that Arbour serves. The three decade persecution of all communities by the LTTE had united the nation under Mahinda Rajapaksa. Peace reigned for five years 2009-14. The destabilizing forces succeeded in toppling him in January 2015 with his second betrayal at the hands of his own closest partners. The so-called Yahapalanaya worked to polarize the electorate as minorities vs majority. The result was that Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency with a convincing majority of 1.3 million only on the strength of the Sinhala voters, not without substantial support from minority voters, nevertheless. So much for the contribution made to ‘re-con-silly-ation’ in Sri Lanka by the so-called  international community including South Africa.   

What does this all mean? In the final analysis, what this old conscienceless salary-paid foreign jurist and international civil servant, completely ignorant of the history, the culture, the population composition, the demographic distribution, the geography, etc etc of the island nation, is trying to do is to hold the 22 million citizens of the country to ransom through the medium of South Africa, for the sole purpose of dividing the country on ethnic lines, which was the goal of the defeated LTTE. 

The LTTE was militarily defeated, but its ghost ideology has not been exorcised. The Tamil National Alliance was not the largest partner of the later disintegrated Yahapalanaya coalition; but it was the most influential in the dodgy circumstances in which the Yahapalana misrule managed to survive for four and a half years, and also the clearest in its head about its goal, i.e., separatism (temporarily camouflaged as federalism). The TNA today is led by the senile R. Sampanthan possessed by the separatist ideology, but he himself is guided (i.e., led) by M.A. Sumanthiran, former MP. He was reported to have met with the prime minister recently and offered to work together on condition that a devolution model, i.e. a federal solution to the so-called Tamil national question would be adopted. Needless to point out that this runs counter to the ‘unitary Sri Lanka’ stand that Gotabaya is espousing; but the ‘devolution model’ (euphemism for federalism) is exactly what the international community supports. 

Meanwhile, Sumanthiran appeared in a Sinhala language TV interview a day or two ago and pretended to denounce the LTTE. He belittled, in the eyes of  some northernTamils, the  separatist cause that it fought for.  Sumanthiran uttered the falsehood that the northern Tamil youth took to arms because of economic deprivation and joblessness. He also claimed that the LTTE killed more innocent civilians than the Sri Lankan security forces did. He must have been uttering these things with an implicit knowing wink at the incredulous Tamil viewers. The veteran TULF leader V. Ananda Sangari, of probably the same vintage as Sampanthan, in an immediate response, says that Sumanthiran is only play-acting to hoodwink the Tamils. 

Extremist racist minority politicians like Sumanthiran and Hakeem will never see eye to eye with nationalists. At the next parliamentary election, nationalists will definitely find favour with the ordinary Tamils and Muslims who are led by young minority politicians like  former LTTE deputy leader Karuna Amman and Mohamed Musammil of Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP) led by Wimal Weerawansa. Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will not alienate the latter group of fresh thinking young minority politicians (actually they are national politicians) by trying to be politically correct with the former group of fair-weather friends (belonging to the communal regional group of politicians).

The South African High Commission’s gratuitous request for a Mandela statue to be erected in Sri Lanka could be an importunate reminder of the so-called international community’s past strategic reconciliation efforts, apparently still not abandoned, but waiting to be re-launched in pursuit of its so far aborted agenda. Cabinet ministers of a caretaker government shouldn’t act as undertakers.

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