Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Politics of Ethnic Deception

Will it lead to peace?

by Prof. A.R.M. Imtiyaz, The Sunday Leader, Colombo, December 6, 2009

Two questions need to be answered in order to understand the future of the island of Sri Lanka; are we winning peace and has Sri Lanka’s Sinhala political establishment the political will to seek a solution that meets the basic aspirations of the Tamils and other minorities in Sri Lanka?

The post-cold war political climate is vulnerable to identity-oriented tensions, caused by both primordial and constructed political strategies.  These tensions, due to political need, create deadly militants.   But they are the by-product of the socio-political moves, and often they win political legitimacy when political moderates disastrously fail to deliver.  The question in ethnic politics is not how deadly these non-moderates are, but whether the central authority will deliver peace.

The end of the ethnic civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-dominated security forces had encouraged some to hope for peace and ethnic reconciliation between the Tamils and Sinhalese. The destruction of the Tamil resistance movement led by the LTTE was the primary reason for this glimmer of hope. In fact, war itself destroys the possibility for ethnic cooperation.

Two questions need to be answered in order to understand the future of the island of Sri Lanka; are we winning peace and has Sri Lanka’s Sinhala political establishment the political will to seek a solution that meets the basic aspirations of the Tamils and other minorities in Sri Lanka?

A political solution needed to ease communal tensions

Sri Lanka needs to seek a political solution to the ethnic crisis.  It seems global pressure is not strong enough to push the Sinhala political class to negotiate power-sharing democratic solutions with the Tamil nationalists.  If the international community has any suspicions about the Tamil nationalist agenda, they should pressure the island’s Sinhala political class to conduct an internationally supervised referendum on the future of the Tamil nationalist agenda.

Any political attempts to ease ethnic tensions between the Tamils and Sinhalese should recognise the political aspirations of the Tamil nation. Such attempts should also recognise and appreciate the special problems of the Muslim communities living in the north and east.  Both academic and political discussions aimed at seeking political solutions grimly deny these basic facts.  Though post war Sri Lanka is at a cross-road it is not the end of the world as far as the island’s future is concerned.  The Tamil nation’s non-moderate leaders were the result of post independence politics.  Politics of violence was not their initial choice either. But the question is, are we trying to ease tensions?

Politics of deception

There is no sensible answer unfortunately since the politics of deception are being practiced in the name of peace and ethnic reconciliation.  Examples are seen in recent gatherings of the minority leaders in Zurich. There are no clear political goals as far as the Tamil nation is concerned. There is no sign that these kind of gatherings have clear political commitments to seek non-unitary political solutions to the Tamil question. Nor were such meetings aimed at brokering human solutions to the ethnic conflict that unreasonably affected the Muslim communities of the north and east, partly due to the narrow politics of accommodation of their Colombo-centered leaders with the Sinhala nation.

What is extremely disquieting is that the strong body of the minority politicos are increasing their levels of trust in Sarath Fonseka, the former military General of Sri Lanka’s brutal war machine.  The logic of their move is politically adolescent. These moderate politicos need to remember one simple fact that Fonseka is a strong representative of Sinhala hegemony and his behaviour and politics were and are compatible with the interests of Sinhala goals. Ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka are the direct product of such a narrow and exclusive mentality. But again, these Tamil and Muslim politicos are not angels, their simple aim is power and they will win that power at any cost and promise wonders in order to stay in power.

Such power politics can efficiently weaken democracy, and discourage the masses towards democracy. Political science literature on elite politics suggest that this sort of rip-offs cause uneasy political tensions among the masses and between the masses and elites.  As such Tamil moderates need to move carefully.

As I argued in the article on Ethno-Political Conflict In Sri Lanka, Journal Of Third World Studies, Fall 2009), if there is resistance from the Sinhala political establishment to offer power sharing, the final option is partition.  The demand for separation becomes strong when a power-sharing arrangement is not possible.

Some may fear that partition may further strengthen the ethnic hostilities between two nations, but even if it provokes a period of violence, it would offer the separated ethnic groups much needed stability and security in the near future.

In actual fact, the demand for separation would not be in vain if separation reduces ethnic fear and offers social and political security, as well as stability, to the different ethnic groups.

Separation can work

The separation of Pakistan from India, Eritrea from Ethiopia, Bangladesh from West Pakistan, and Greeks from Turks in Cyprus,  all show that partition can be helpful, even if it is less that completely successful in terminating violence.   The world recognises that if people do not want to co-habit in the same polity then, partition should not be automatically neglected as a solution. This might be one way to manage Tamils’ demands for political independence.

(The author teaches Ethnic Politics and Foreign Governments and Politics at the Department of Political Science, Temple University, USA.)