'Political deadlock caused by Sinhala supremacist thinking'

In March, when the UN Human Rights Council session was in progress, the Sri Lankan State media launched a scathing attack on the rights activists who were attending Geneva sessions. They were accused of 'orchestrating a plot to destroy Sri Lanka’s reputation’. A government minister publicly named the activists and threatened to break their limbs.  Nimalka Fernando was one among them.

When asked how she felt the heat, she laughs it off. “There is nothing exciting about these sorts of hate campaigns” says Nimalka. “Anyone who insists on the necessity of finding a political solution to the national question and anyone who tries to promote human rights and peace has always been branded as 'traitors.'”

An attorney-at-law and a long standing human rights activist, Dr.Nimalka Fernando serves as the President of the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR). In conversation with the JDS, she elaborated her views on rising human rights violations, the state of political reconciliation and the plight of the war survivors in the Tamil areas. 

JDS: During the war time, the 'patriot / traitor' dichotomy dominated the mainstream political discourse in the south. Unless you prove that you are a 'patriot by embracing the government's military approach, you run the risk of being condemned as a 'traitor.'  Now, in a conventional sense, the war has ended. Nevertheless, the same logic still seems to be governing the southern political landscape.  As a Sinhalese who have been a constant victim of this 'naming game', how do you explain the politics behind it?

Dr.Nimalka Fernando: 'This kind of 'labelling' has been a constant characteristic in our political system at least for last few decades. This violent and exclusivist tendency has to be understood as a barefaced manifestation of fascism. I am not trying to blow things out of proportion. What I mean is that it contains an extremely destructive potential which shares common ground with fascism. So, what we have seen so far is how the state as well as non state political actors work mutually to strengthen this 'patriot/traitor' dichotomy. We always get entangled in heated arguments with National Heritage Party (JHU) and Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) as parties complicit in such labelling. But the fact of the matter is that they are just acting on the periphery. It s the state itself that plays the central role in instigating such hatred and attacks. Today these attacks are supervised and openly promoted by the Ministry of Defence.

Having said that, I would like to point out the real irony of this naming game. You never know, how far this can go and how absurd it can sound. For example, earlier the 'patriot / traitor' categories were applied to differentiate between people who supported and opposed the war. But now, it is been applied even to target the people who back the recommendations put forward by government's own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation commission (LLRC). If you support the recommendations of the LLRC, you end up by being called as a 'traitor.' It is their own commission. They themselves handpicked the commissioners, construe their mandate and even controlled the flow of evidence. But since the commission came out with their recommendations, the government and its' allies have been busy organizing the opposition to it and vilifying the commission. This is political cannibalism where you end up eating your own kind.

JDS: Do you mean to say that this kind of behaviour is unprecedented?

NF: No, what I mean is that the level of madness is unprecedented. We all remember how the same methods were employed even during the time the of the United National Party (UNP) and Peoples Alliance (PA). They too vilified the pro-peace groups who advocated a negotiated settlement and used the same 'patriotic' argument while glorifying the military.  But now this has has gone beyond every predictable limits. We now live in a situation where members of a government are accusing people of treason, for simply backing the recommendations of a commission appointed by the very government. But we need to understand that underneath this seemingly mad behaviour, there lies a sinister motive as well. The aim of the government is to create false tensions which can be utilized to justify their march towards an absolute totalitarian state. They have already designed and refined the constitution that makes it more possible. They will further curtail democracy and fundamental freedoms by keeping the masses in a permanent state of fear, saying that everyone should remain patriotic - i.e loyal to the president - in order to defeat treacherous conspiracies of an 'unknown number of forces.'

JDS: But, as far as a negotiated settlement is concerned, there is a widespread belief that it is the Tamil parties that have become a stumbling block....,

NF: I tend to disagree with such absolutely baseless and false assumptions. The inability to find a solution has nothing to do with the political stance taken by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) or any other Tamil political party. The current political deadlock is caused totally by the supremacist thinking of the Sinhala political leadership. The Tamil parties, organizations and even sections of the Diaspora have made reasonable proposals and suggestions that need to be considered in a decent manner. If you remember the past, you may recall that during the ceasefire period, even the Tamil Tigers came out with proposals expressing their willingness to consider a solution based upon internal self determination. But it never worked out.

Now, there is a manufactured controversy over a statement made by the TNA leader, Mr.Sambanthan. The whole aim of this vicious attacks on Sambathan is simply to deter and terrorize any political dissent that might come from within the Tamil society. It's a calculated move.

The government members keep repeating that 'we need to find a solution which is acceptable to the Sinhala people.' So, whose fault is this then? Tamils have over and over proposed what is acceptable to them. If the government think that it will not be accepted by the Sinhala people, it's not the fault of the Tamils. But my belief is that the government is simply buying time to maintain the tensions in order to remain in power, to strengthen their absolute authority and to increase the repression. From the side of the Sinhala leaders, I don't see even a single genuine effort aimed at finding a solution.

JDS: Speaking about the increasing repression, you have repeatedly emphasized in several occasions that 'Sri Lanka has become a fully militarized national security state.' Can you elaborate a bit more on this?

NF: This is a quite a serious development. Today, the whole island has been subjected to an intense militarization process. Where ever you go, you see military occupying every bit of public space virtually governing every thing in our life. They evict slum dwellers and demolish their houses, construct buildings, sell vegetables, manage public theatres and cricket grounds, run administration, oversee and control most of the government projects and so on. Even the normal policing work, which was so far done by regular police officers, have been taken over by the military. Such a intense militarization policy could have far reaching consequences. What we are losing is the space we had in the public sphere to exercise our fundamental rights - practice our basic freedoms. But unfortunately, very few seem to have realized the impending danger.

The biggest threat is not the militarization process itself, but the public approval it receives in the south. The masses have been brain washed through massive propaganda operations to persuade them to believe that the military can provide solutions to each and every social problem. But on the contrary, the military itself  is part of the problem.

The Tamil people in the northeast have been living  in a heavily militarized environment for several decades. The harsh conditions faced by the Tamil people is thousand times worse, when compared to what we are witnessing in the south.

JDS: But if you say that the Sinhala masses have expressed a certain collective consent to live in such a militarized space - with or without realizing the consequences - what are possibilities of changing the status quo?

NF: The problem with the Sinhala society is that their false belief has produced a certain kind of political anaesthesia. They have lost their shared collective memory. Therefore they have lost their grip over their own collective fate. Their past and their present is now occupied by a living 'president'. He is not only occupying the physical space - as you see on massive bill boards, city walls, newspapers, televisions etc. But he  occupies the mental and emotional space too. No one can break the spell, unless we are able to uncover the truth about our own miserable existence.

Anyone who tries to expose the truth will end up by being 'white vanned'.  The rate of crime is rising. Violent abuses against children has reached unprecedented levels. Corruption is flourishing. But as the flow of information is controlled, filtered and manipulated by the government, nobody speaks about any of these things.  You cannot even talk about the surviving victims of the war, as it is seen as treachery.

The crimes committed by the members of the military hardly get reported in the mainstream. Even if reported, every effort would be put to hide the relevant context in order to present it as an isolated incident. If a crime committed against a woman living in Jaffna or Vanni or in the east, to whom she should go and complain? Even if we manage to gather the necessary evidence or information on such a crime,  what can we do about it? If I am to follow the due procedures, I should reveal her identity to law enforcement authorities. Do you think I can do that, without fearing about the victim's safety? How can I convince myself that she will not be harmed as a consequence of my complaint? The law of the land has not given me the confidence to act accordingly, despite I being a Sinhalese myself.

When the evidence of war crimes and other atrocities was presented to the LLRC by a respectable and eminent individual like most reverend Bishop of Mannar, what happened? The Criminal Investigation Department officers started visiting and tormenting him. That's what the law of the land means.

JDS: According to a recent international media report, there seems to be an alarming tendency of war widows turning to sex work in the northeast, due to extreme poverty. Have you got any evidence to support such claims?

NF: Of course, it is factually true. I have personally met and spoke to some of the women in Mullaithivu and several other areas, who were forced into such a state.  They admitted it by saying that it is the only way they could buy a loaf of bread or a packet of milk for their children. Listening to them is so heart breaking.  We have gathered information at least about 300 war widows who have turned to sex work. Some others have been taken to Colombo after being promised employment opportunities in the apparel industry. We were told that some of their families have not received any information about them afterwards. 

Some tend to believe that crimes may have been committed during the war and now we have to move forward by simply brushing aside such things happened in the past. But what about these crimes? The crimes that are being committed right at this moment? Forcing war widows to become sex workers is a crime. Grabbing their ancestral land is a crime. Deciding against their will and dumping them in highly militarized areas and forcing them live there is a crime. 

These people live simply because they didn't die. Everything belonged to them have been destroyed by the time the war ended. But the crimes didn't stop at that point. It still continues.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.