Mind your language

by Dayan Jayatilleka
Courtesy The Official Govenment News Portal of Sri Lanka

Unfair criticism must be met with fair counter-criticism. If the criticism is private, so too should be the counter-criticism. Insofar as the criticism is public, so too should be the defence, and the counter-criticism. No self respecting state can respond in private, to criticism of it in public.

The British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was gracious enough to issue a statement on Sri Lanka's 60th anniversary of Independence. He said:

'The 60th anniversary of Sri Lankan independence is a time to reflect on the health and welfare of the nation and its people as it moves forward in the 21st century. The cycle of violence in Sri Lanka has worsened in recent weeks. Civilian lives have been lost from all communities and regions of Sri Lanka. The end of the formal 2002 cease-fire agreement does not remove the obligation of all parties to the conflict to protect civilian life.

'I wholeheartedly condemn these attacks upon civilians and those responsible. My thoughts and condolences are with the victims of the attacks, and their families. I call for an immediate end to practices which target civilians or put them in peril. I urge all in Sri Lanka to take steps to safeguard the civilian population and find ways to reduce the violence.

'Violence can never provide an answer to Sri Lanka's problems. People in Sri Lanka need to find space to realize their many similarities, rather than becoming further polarized by their differences. A sustainable solution to Sri Lanka's conflict can only emerge through a just political process involving all communities.'

The statement does not congratulate or wish Sri Lanka well on its important Independence Anniversary. It moves straight into a little homily commending reflection, a reminder from the former colonial master on the need for such a practice. While it bewails and bemoans civilian deaths, the three paragraph statement makes no reference to the LTTE, terrorism or separatism. It contains not the slightest hint of solidarity in the struggle against terrorism, from a fellow democracy. It concludes with the unctuous observation that "Violence can never provide an answer to Sri Lanka's problems." This leaves one wondering if violence can ever provide an answer to Iraq's or Afghanistan's problems, because in both countries British troops are present, engaging in the practice precisely of violence! Neither country is part of Britain. In both countries British troops are invaders. Neither country did any harm to Britain. In the case of one, Britain led the pack in lying to the world and its own people about WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) as a prelude to invading and occupying it.

Sri Lanka is fighting a war that is just by any criteria. It is a war against separation of a small island. It is a war of a democracy against an enemy that is both totalitarian and terrorist.

How well are the Sri Lankan armed forces doing against the LTTE? The evidence is in a professional, four page, diagrammatically illustrated special report in one of the most respected and arguably the best known South Asian magazine, India Today. Check out the latest issue with its frank interview with President Rajapakse and its report on the war and the Sri Lankan armed forces, entitled 'Getting Prabhakaran'.

It is said that each generation has to re-fight the battles not of their fathers but of their grandfathers. The matter is all rather simple. Sri Lanka is fighting a war to prevent separation, to unite the country, to maintain it as a single territory, to make the writ of the state run from West to East, North to South of our little island. This is a struggle undertaken by many societies at an earlier stage of their history. It is part of what is known as the bourgeois democratic revolution, i.e. those tasks undertaken or completed by the rising bourgeois class of those nations. In the global South, this task of national unification often comes up against the opposition of the Western powers (as it did in China). This seems to be the case in present day Sri Lanka too. In such historical situations, the tasks of national unification combine with the struggle to win or defend national independence and sovereignty.

The task of national-territorial unification intertwine with the left over or reactivated task of defending national independence against Western intervention, hegemonism and diktat, or in a word - old fashioned but accurate - imperialism. It is a term that David Miliband's highly (and deservedly) respected father, Marxist political theorist Ralph Miliband, was not afraid to use. In these twin tasks, the national capitalist leaderships of the East play a role, sometimes a leading role, unlike those in the West. This is what led Lenin to speak paradoxically of an "Advanced Asia and Backward Europe". Even more striking was the development of this idea by Stalin, who concluded in the 1920s, that inasmuch as he stands up against Western imperialism for his nation, despite his ideological backwardness, "the Emir of Afghanistan is more progressive than the British Labour Party". This is certainly true of many a Third World and Eurasian leader including those of Sri Lanka, in relation to the British (New) Labour Party!

Sometimes the task of national unification takes a particularly enlightened multilingual, multi-religious character, but in many, even most cases, the struggle requires the mobilization of the peasantry and the nationalist intelligentsia and therefore takes a majoritarian nationalist, even religio-nationalist, character. The Year 1848 which witnessed radical democratic revolutions throughout Europe was called the Springtime of Nations and that season spilled over into a conflict of nationalisms. Uneven development dictated different ratios of Reason and Romanticism, of secularism and religiosity, of forward looking and backward looking elements in each democratic upheaval or nationalist movement.

While the American Revolution of 1776 was exemplarily enlightened, an earlier experience of enormous progressive import in English - and Western - history, the Cromwellian Revolution, had a religious charge and a dark downside in Ireland.

British Foreign Secretary Miliband's advice to Sri Lanka, which reeks of retro-chic in that it seems to forget that it is sixty years since Britain ruled us, must be matched against some excellent advice he received recently from the Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergei Lavrov, probably the most impressive Foreign Minister in service today (whose twin lectures at the UN in Geneva I greatly look forward to attending this week). Incidentally his early years as a diplomat were spent in Sri Lanka, beginning in 1972. When the British Ambassador to Moscow dug in his heels over the presence of the British Council in St Petersburg and said something to the world's media to the effect that (as the old protest song went) "we shall not be moved", the British found that in fact they were, the very next day. Commenting on the episode, Russia's Foreign Minister said that Britain had not obtained Russia's permission to set up these British Council offices. More importantly he made an observation of the statements emanating from the British Foreign Secretary and the UK govt, remarking that "this is not the language with which to speak to Russia….some people have not got over their colonial frame of mind and are still nostalgic for their colonial past."

If any country takes a stand that is tilted against us or is ambivalent in this most fundamental of struggles, then we must recognize that there exists an incompatibility of interests between those countries and ours. Such states are not firm friends or staunch allies. It should be made clear to them that their stand today directly influences the role they will or will not have in influencing the post-war, post-conflict order in Sri Lanka. Those who stand against us, who threaten or attempt to intimidate us; those who vacillate and temporize during this war, have forfeited the chance to play a role in the peace. They must be limited to a strictly diplomatic presence. There are on the other hand, states that have uncritically supported us during this war, or have voiced their misgivings and advice in private. They are the ones with whom we have a basic identity of interests. These are our friends, allies and partners. They are the extended family to which we truly belong.

Some choices are easy. The Sri Lankan people are politically among the most sophisticated in the Third World and even the newly emergent democracies of the Second World, given not only our levels of literacy but also the exercise of universal franchise from 1931. A recent Nielsen poll conducted in cooperation with the Sunday Times contained some important judgments by a representative sample of the Sri Lankan people. They rated the greatest leaders of Independent Sri Lanka in the following order: (Founding Father) DS Senanayake, President Ranasinghe Premadasa and incumbent President Mahinda Rajapakse. (I am proud to have supported and worked with two of the three).The people unerringly discern synchronicity where the pseudo-intelligentsia does not. The poll also placed President Rajapakse way ahead of his current competitors, with former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (economic neoliberal, peacenik and darling of the West) and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga (darling of the Tamil liberals) scoring a truly pathetic 1% each! Set these figures along the results of recent polls which show figures of a massive majority ( 85%) identifying separatist terrorism as the most important issue and supporting the military efforts of the incumbent, and you get the overall picture of where the Sri Lankan people stand, and just how isolated the Colombo "comprador" critics are.

What we must do is to renew our commitment to and reactivate "really existing devolution", that is provincial level devolution as contained in the 13th amendment. The issue is not whether such devolution is intrinsically desirable. The issue is that we cannot afford not to do so. If we do not want a replay in some form or the other of the bitter experience of 1987, when the advancing Sri Lankan Army under General Gerry de Silva and more famously Brigadiers Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne, were stopped in their tracks by external intervention, we must devolve. Tamil Nadu, the DMK factor, the coalitional character of governments in Delhi, and elections in India this year or next, are facts that we cannot ignore. We cannot afford South India becoming once again a safe haven or rear base for the LTTE. We can still less afford anti-aircraft rocketry being smuggled in through South India to the LTTE. We need India to play a more active role in cooperating with us to put down Prabhakaran who has cost both our countries so much. The lowest price we have to pay is the full and immediate implementation of the 13th amendment

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