24 February 2016

February 22, 2016: two versions

What happened in Sri Lanka fourteen years ago, do you remember, ladies and gentlemen? Do you remember the colour of the sky that morning of the 22nd day of February in the year 2002?  Do you remember how that day was heralded as the launching of peace and prosperity for all time and a day or two more to boot?  Do you remember when there were white doves set free, trees planted to mark the historic moment?  Do you know that on that occasion, a Prime Minister called all editors of newspapers and nicely told them not to criticize the Government or that process towards peace he had launched? 

Yes, yes, the same man who now talks about media freedom, democracy, good governance etc., openly and without shame signed a pact with a thug unlike any this country has known in the past one hundred years, giving that butcher legitimacy and virtually legitimating a monumental land-theft second only to that orchestrated by the Waste Lands Ordinance, did you know?   

Where were you on February 22, 2002, do you remember?  It is an important date in our history.  As important as June 29, 1987, when the Indo-Lanka Accord was thrust down our throats by Rajiv Gandhi, a man who responded to the then UNP Government’s abject servility to Uncle Sam by nurturing Tamil discontent into a kind of terrorism that he himself lost control over eventually. 

[That pernicious piece of legislation, presented to Parliament by Ranil Wickremesinghe in the most unethical manner, leaving out certain key paragraphs, has produced wastage and corruption, has served to turn myth into fact (regarding the notion of exclusive traditional homeland of Tamils) and been the biggest (emotional) obstacle to the deployment of rationality in resolving legitimate minority grievances.]   

February 22, 2002 was not like June 29, 1987, though, for two reasons. First it was not stuffed down our throats. We gladly stuffed it down our throats. Well, not the date, but what it signified.  ‘We’ refers to the Government of the day, which, like all governments, represented those who voted for it and those who voted against it.  Secondly, whereas the Indo-Lanka Accord continues to stymie us, the agreement signed on February 22, 2002 was voted out and politicked-out by the people. 

Today, fourteen years later, I want to paint a picture. It is a ‘what-if’ picture, the painting of a scenario where things played out differently.  I want to paint this for a simple reason; to give myself some perspective and a sense of proportion because while there are a thousand and one reasons to criticize the regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa there are things I should be very grateful about too.  Bear with me awhile; let me start painting now. 

February 22, 2016. What a day!  It is not three years since the ‘peace process’ brought us ‘peace’.  Velupillai Prabhakaran, flanked by S.P. Thamilselvan and Nadesan, is holding a media conference in a hamlet-turned-town called Manirasakulam, in a sprawling communications complex that houses a television and radio station as well as a newspaper outfit replete with a state-of-the-art printing press all built with handsome grants secured for the LTTE by Eric Solheim, Vidar Helgessen et al.  He has declared that the ‘Tamil Nationalist Struggle’ will now launch its next phase, that of ‘reclaiming’ for the Tamil peoples their ‘birthright’, political, military and cultural control over the entire island. To this end, he states, he has just declared, ‘the North and East of the island previously known as Sri Lanka, is now a separate and independent state called Eelam, with its own system of governance, own Army, Navy, Air Force, Police and civil administration, own currency and own foreign policy’. 

He adds:

‘We consider the entire island to be the traditional homeland of Tamil people but in the interest of peace and minimizing of sufferance to ordinary people of all ethnic groups, have chosen to open the door to a peaceful resolution and as such call upon the usurpers of our birthright, represented by Ranil Wickremesinghe, to peacefully concede control of the rest of the island within a period of one year.  We reserve the right to defend these, our temporary borders, fiercely and without compromise and to this end we will not rule out attacks on key facilities in Colombo and other places as deemed appropriate in terms of the aspirations of our people.’

Turn the camera to Colombo where Ranil Wickremesinghe is holding a media conference. 

‘Mr. Prabhakaran has a short while ago declared that the North and East of the country as a separate and independent state called Eelam. I believe this is an unnecessary and hasty move on his part but call upon our people to exercise utmost restraint and recognize the fact that the Tamil people do have a legitimate claim to these areas.  Moreover, I cannot over-emphasize the fact that what we require now more than anything else is political stability.  We cannot afford to execute a war with the LTTE.  We have to rebuild our economy.  While we are concerned about Mr. Prabhakaran’s intentions about annexing the entire island, we will not let our emotions get the better of us; we believe he is just being rhetorical. Thank you. I will not take questions at this point.;

That’s the North and East of February 22, 2016 that my imagination and extrapolations from different outcomes at the 2004 General and 2005 Presidential elections conjure up. Maybe I’ve used harsh colours. Maybe I should dilute. Let me try.

February 22, 2016. The North and East.  No presence whatsoever of the Sri Lankan security forces.  Trincomalee harbour is under LTTE control.  A rudimentary ‘visa’ system has been set up for those from other parts of the country to visit the North and East. The residents of the North and East no longer have ID cards issued by the Department of Registration of Persons in Colombo.  They have instead, IDs issued by the ‘Persons’ Registration Department, North-East Government’. 

February 22, 2016. Norway has entered into an agreement with the ‘North-East Government’ (legitimately, let me add, in terms of conflict-resolution agreements signed since February 22, 2002) to engage in oil exploration off the coastal areas. 

February 22, 2016.  The US Navy engages in joint naval exercises off Trincomalee with the LTTE’s Sea Tiger Force.  Meanwhile, a special team of officers and trainers of the US Air Force has arrived in Iranamadu to train a set of pilots in operating the newly acquired fleet of fighter and civilian aircraft courtesy a special grant from that country. 

Colombo. Same day.  Upon the recommendations of the IMF, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s cabinet decides to sell the People’s Bank and the Bank of Ceylon. 

The camera moves to a house in Colombo 3.  There’s a big party going on.  The air is perfumed. There’s music. Dancing.   Laughter. Conversation. All in English.  A strange wind blows through the handsomely decorated room, gathers conversation strand essence, rolls it all up and out it comes thus: ‘It is as though the British never left, how lovely!’ 

The time is now 8.43 pm.  News Flash:  a group of unidentified gunmen numbering close to a 1000 have stormed into Medawachchiya, burnt all shops, taken over the town and ordered all Sinhalese people to move out within 24 hours.

The time is now 9.57 pm.  Flash:  Ranil Wickremesinghe appeals for calm.

This is the year 2016. February.  Real life, real time, real space.  I am thrilled to be living in this Sri Lanka.  How about you, ladies and gentlemen?   

A version of this article was published in the Daily News on the 8th anniversary of the CFA, i.e. on February 22, 2010.  Changed the dates.  I believe it still holds.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com.