Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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The irrational urge for one folk, one fuhrer, one fatherland

Posted by harimpeiris on July 6, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in both The Island and the Daily News of Friday 6th July 2018)

 In the context of an anemic economy and the failure of a democratic coalition to resolve the economic uncertainty and fear people felt, a proud and ancient people, turned to a former Army corporal and in a narrow win, elected the fascists to power. No, not in Sri Lanka, this was Germany in the early nineteen thirties where the failures of the Weimer Republic and its weak coalition governments created an attraction for the strongman politics and ideology, loosely defined as Fascism, to become increasingly popular. Adolf Hitler and his fascist Nazi Party promised a strong Germany, one folk, one fuhrer and one fatherland or one people, one leader and one great country.

The implementation of this vision, unleashed the horrors of the second world war on Europe and the world. The creation of one people, meant that another people (the Jews, but also Gypsies and other minorities needed to be eliminated). The existence of one leader, meant that there was no need for debate and dissent, accordingly the Reichstag (the German Parliament) conveniently burned down one night in a mysterious fire. The need for one fatherland meant that Germany needed to expand its borders, hence the annexation of Austria and the invasion of Poland as Germany tried to recreate the country according to history. Over six million European Jews and millions of others, civilians and military, including pre-independent Ceylon’s troops in the British Army, perished in the war.

The interesting fact, is that while many German people saw the excesses, the weaknesses, the flaws and the social self-destruction which the pursuit of an Aryan master race and German fascism would entail, German society provided no outlet, no space to even explore this topic, until the tragedy played out. Ethnic German nationalism extracted a unbelievable toll on Germany, Germans and the world.

Tamil nationalism and the quest for Tamil Eelam

 Fast forward about forty years after the second world war to post independent Sri Lanka and Tamil nationalism within the country had changed from peaceful, Gandhian non-violent and democratic demands for political and cultural rights to a violent armed conflict for a separate state. In the pursuit of a Tamil Eelam, Tamil nationalist leadership was captured by the “sole representatives of the Tamil people”, the LTTE, which also promised “one leader, one people & one land”. In the pursuit of having only one leader, the “Suriya Thevan”, (among other titles), countless other Tamil leaders from Appapillai Amirthalingaml, Sam Thambimuthu to Neelan Thiruchelvam had to be murdered. In the pursuit of having one people, the Muslim community had to be ethnically cleansed from the land, hence the expulsion of Jaffna’s Muslim by the LTTE. In the attempt to carve out a mono-ethnic enclave in the North and East of Sri Lanka, a violent thirty-year conflict was waged, heaping untold misery on all Sri Lankans in general and the largely Tamil civilian population of the North and the multi ethnic population of the East in particular. The cost of the LTTE and the armed conflict to the Tamil community was huge, their children conscripted, their towns and villages destroyed, their communities internally displaced, their leaders murdered, intra Tamil democratic debate and dissent destroyed, their middle class scattered throughout the West and the poorer sections of Tamil society forced across the border as refugees to India. Nonetheless, before, during and even ten years after the conflict, there is still neither the political space or will to explore and possibly condemn the astronomical human cost and the non-existent benefits of the thirst for Tamil Eelam, through the means of “one leader, one people and one land.

Sinhala nationalism should not go down the path of European fascism or Tamil nationalism  

It is Ambassador and prolific newspaper columnist Dayan Jayathilaka, who I believed first coined the phrase “the sons of ‘56” to the SLFP led UPFA administrations from 2005 to 2015. The phrase denoting that the Sinhala nationalist ideology and social direction of the post CBK SLFP led administrations. The changeover from the PA to the UPFA, was a more Sinhala nationalist, albeit moderate and modernist, exercise, than President Kumaratunga’s Peoples’ Alliance (PA) Administrations. As the focus in Sri Lankan politics turns nearly one and half years ahead to the elections of 2020 and in the context of the February local government polls victory by essentially the political forces of former President Rajapakse, there is interest and focus on what type of a “sons of ’56” Sinhala nationalism, a proposed JO / SLPP / Rajapakse third term would entail. In that context, even the mere hint of serious calls or exploration of a “strong man” rule, and seeking support for the same from ethnic identity, rather than a broader more pluralistic nation state civic identity has the potential to have similar disastrous consequences.

Sri Lanka is democratic and pluralistic. We have been let down in the past, not due to an over-abundance of either democracy or pluralism, but rather due to a deficit of the same. We had our national conflicts, including with both the LTTE and the JVP and now most recently post war with the Muslim community, due to a democratic and rule of law deficit, not an excess. If we have not developed our economy, it is not due to the absence of a strong leader, but rather the absence of checks, balances, transparency and accountability which would be common features in an open and democratic society. Sri Lanka has largely implemented an ill-liberal democracy. While we have representative government, we have not valued, cherished or developed either accountability or transparency in governance.

Accordingly the answer to the Sinhala community’s frustrations may lie in greater transparency, accountability and checks and balances through a consolidation, strengthening and institutionalization of changes brought about through the 19th Amendment, the resultant Independent Commissions and the Right to Information (RTI) Act, rather than trying to shift a democratic, pluralistic and inclusive Sri Lanka to “one leader, one people and one land”.

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