Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Where Are We Headed

by Dayan Jayatilleke, Sri Lanka Guardian, March 10, 2010

India remains our key ‘buffer state’ internationally, and if we think we can unilaterally rollback the accord and 13A without something more extensive in place; i.e. go below the 13A and continue to have Delhi in our corner, we are deluding ourselves. We don't have to implement the provision to devolve police powers right now. However, the carefully negotiated arrangements on land cannot be deleted or diluted. The problem arises when our leadership refers to "village level devolution" on an occasion as portentous as the first peacetime Independence Day in decades. It is as if we have learned nothing. If Mr. Sampanthan is not successfully co-opted with adequate power sharing, Gajan Ponnambalam’s splinter group will grow, ironically as Chelvanayagam’s breakaway Federal Party did when Colombo undermined Gajan’s grandfather’s political credibility with the citizenship move on the hill country Tamils...

However, the 1972 Constitution, the 1978 Constitution without the 1988 amendment, and the ideas of counter-reformation proposed by the ideologues of Sinhala dominance all posit a model which does not fit with any Asian framework. It is/would be the model of a non-secular, linguistically unequal, non-federal polity devoid of even provincial level devolution/autonomy. In a homogenous society, devolution is not an imperative. In a heterogeneous society, strong centralism devoid of devolution is fine if accompanied by meritocratic multiculturalism and secularism, i.e. a neutral state...Thus it does not have the necessary framework for successful globalization along Asian lines and full participation in the Asian economic miracle.

Seeing it comin’: Will the Tamils silently celebrate and the Sinhalese secretly curse the day that Prabhakaran died? With his secessionist fundamentalism and ghastly terrorism, he was the biggest obstacle to achievable autonomy for Tamils and the best excuse for the Sinhala establishment’s tardiness in devolving power to the Tamil speaking periphery. Now the North is no longer hostage to secessionism and the South is bereft of a human shield against democratic demands for devolution.

There was an old Cold War joke about the thief who broke into the Kremlin safe and stole, among other things, the complete results of the next election. Well, one of the most important results of Sri Lanka’s upcoming parliamentary election is already in or rather, is predictable: the predominance of the TNA in the Tamil majority areas of the North and East and the resultant political polarization between North and South.

While Ranil Wickremesinghe arguably has the cosmopolitanism necessary to reintegrate the Tamils into the Sri Lankan polity, that very cosmopolitanism (and his track record of appeasement of the Tigers) mean that he cannot carry the Sinhalese with him on this issue even if he becomes President someday. By contrast President Rajapakse is indispensable because he can carry the majority of the (Sinhalese) majority with him into a settlement with the Tamils, but does the consciousness of his close allies permit him to do so, on a basis other than that of unilateral imposition and total Tamil capitulation? The SLFP has reformist nationalists, and UNP, nationalist liberals, who could forge an overarching consensus, but these factions are marginalized to the point that they cannot be factored into any serious current discussion of future prospects.

The incumbent administration seems to think that all problems can be solved through political uni-polarity of a sort that would come with a two thirds majority at or after the parliamentary election (through defections). Serial victories -- in the war, in a single diplomatic arena and at the Presidential election--have given rise to a mood and mindset, ideology and project, that we have witnessed before in other more important parts of the world on a much larger scale.

We have seen politically uni-polar moments, with their attendant delusions and tragic denouements. When the USSR lost the Cold War, the US won the first Gulf war and Kosovo conflict, and went onto overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Bush administration and more precisely its two most influential components, the religious fundamentalists and the neoconservatives, were convinced the moment had come for the USA to re-mould the world unopposed and as it saw fit. Parallels were made with the Roman Empire at its height. A favorite dream theme was that of a New Middle East. It is hardly possible to recall those absurd illusions today, buried up-ended as they have been. Domestically too we have experienced the equivalent of such hubristic delusions: in late 1982, at the moment of JRJ's triumphant re-election, with a booming economy and a prostrate Opposition.

Today we are experiencing yet another such moment; one in which the Southern hawks, the Sri Lankan equivalent of the neoconservative populists, think that a Sinhala solution can be imposed upon the Tamils; a Southern solution on the North and East; a solution which entails the rollback of the Indo-Lanka accord and the 13th amendment and its substitution by something else amounting to something less. The argument seems to be that having won the war which was itself an outgrowth and logical culmination of Tamil nationalism, that nationalism can be totally rolled back and we can (re)write our own Sri Lanka as if it were a tabula rasa. For these ideologues, ‘Sri Lanka’ and ‘Sri Lankan’ are, (as it perhaps was in the spirit animating the 1972 Constitution), but a synonym and mask for ‘Sinhala Buddhist’—and not a negotiated or evolved synthesis of the identities of all the island’s citizenry, albeit with a natural ‘core’ status and function for the Sinhala Buddhist civilization. One may observe parenthetically that the conversion from ‘Ceylon’ to ‘Sri Lanka’ and ‘Ceylonese’ to ‘Sri Lankan’ didn’t stop at ‘Lanka’ and ‘Lankan’, as in the Lanka Sama Samaja Party or the Lanka Guardian.

Thus the political deadlock in the North-South relationship continues while the war, the armed conflict, has been won. The April 2010 parliamentary election takes place in a context that is postwar, post-victory and post-presidential election, but not post-crisis. If one defines the conflict not as a military one but as a political conflict, then we may be living in a moment that is not yet ‘post-conflict’ and is even describable as ‘pre-conflict’. The upcoming election must be viewed as embedded within this situation. Its real consequences go beyond the arithmetical outcome and reside in how the electoral outcome impacts upon the larger context of the long-running crisis. The commencement of the crisis of Sri Lanka’s political identity was obviously not 1983. The Vadukkodai resolution calling for the establishment of an independent sovereign secular socialist state of Tamil Eelam was in 1976, while JR's UNP manifesto of 1977 said that "the Tamil people have been driven even to seek a separate state" -- and the TULF swept the North on this single issue at the watershed elections of that year.

The TNA has undergone a partial yet welcome reconfiguration; partial because it entails personalities rather than political line and policy platform. Welcome, because the most pro-Tiger elements have been shed and the party looks more like the old TULF, TUF, or Federal party. It is not that the TNA has no radicals or militants in its ranks. Suresh Premachandran is one, but though he was pro-Tiger, he was never a Tiger and is originally from the EPRLF stream of Tamil militancy. The reconfigured TNA is rather like the UPFA would have been without the JHU, but only the NFF. Premachandran is probably best seen as the TNA’s counterpart of the UPFA’s Ranawake or Weerawansa. Gajan Ponnambalam’s breakaway grouping which seems to have the support of the hard-line elements of the Tamil Diaspora and organs such as the TamilNet, are the JHU equivalent, and they are no longer part of the TNA.

Still, there is a major problem which will contribute to the exacerbation of the situation. One part of the problem is that the TNA has not yet officially and formally abandoned the secessionist Vadukkodai resolution. That platform may have had some historical validity or comprehensibility at that time, and after July 1983, but it has been unjustified and obsolescent since Indian mediation commenced, serious negotiations started and the Indo-Lanka Accord produced a reasonable reform as alternative. It would be a wise and legitimate stance were the TNA were to unilaterally renounce secessionism, formally return to a federalist platform, while settling for autonomy within the unitary state of Sri Lanka. The other part and no less troubling aspect of the problem is that the Southern establishment is not staunch in its commitment to authentic provincial autonomy within a unitary state; not even the autonomy contained in the country’s Constitution and derivative of a bilateral agreement with our most indispensable international ally.

After the election, the TNA will put forward demands that dominant Sinhala opinion may think excessive but world opinion and many Governments find unexceptionable. If President Rajapakse contents himself simply with not giving in, rather than keeping the TNA engaged but off balance with a counterproposal at least the rest of Asia will think reasonable, the TNA will go the Chelvanayagam route of peaceful agitation. This will be stimulated by competition from Gajan Ponnamabalam’s grouping and pressure from Suresh and such others within the party.

It is unlikely that there will be a Southern consensus, given the basic two party split in Sinhala society. The Rajapakse administration’s response will also be tangentially affected by the Sarath Fonseka factor: a caged, wounded lion in the basement or dungeon does not make for sociopolitical stability and a generous, consensual response to minority issues.

If the state cracks down on, or elements in the South react violently and with impunity to, peaceful and democratic non-secessionist Tamil demands, the global diplomatic reaction in this YouTube age will not be the same as in 1956, 1983 or 2009. The TNA will be armed with democratic legitimacy in the eyes of the world, from West to East. The Tamil Diaspora and its ex-colonial Western patrons will exploit the gap between MR's nativist ideological constituency and the globalised world. That's when the Tamil Diaspora's serial referenda campaign will have set the stage, and the British connection (not just Labour’s Blair-Brown but the Conservatives’ William Hague) which is a bridge to ‘human rights crusaders’ in Washington DC will kick in. We won the diplomatic battle in Geneva not only because of our friends but also the nature of our enemy: the Tigers and the Tiger-flag bearing Tamil Diaspora demonstrations. The same strategy and tactics will not work against a democratically elected TNA option, unless the latter remains formally and demonstrably secessionist while we for our part have implemented the 13th Amendment. Our Eastern friends helped us against armed Tamil separatism but they regard the Tamil community as a respected, productive component of Asia's citizenry and will not back us in a confrontation with the democratically elected representatives of the Sri Lankan Tamils of the North and East.

India remains our key ‘buffer state’ internationally, and if we think we can unilaterally rollback the accord and 13A without something more extensive in place; i.e. go below the 13A and continue to have Delhi in our corner, we are deluding ourselves. We don't have to implement the provision to devolve police powers right now. However, the carefully negotiated arrangements on land cannot be deleted or diluted. The problem arises when our leadership refers to "village level devolution" on an occasion as portentous as the first peacetime Independence Day in decades. It is as if we have learned nothing. If Mr. Sampanthan is not successfully co-opted with adequate power sharing, Gajan Ponnambalam’s splinter group will grow, ironically as Chelvanayagam’s breakaway Federal party did when Colombo undermined Gajan’s grandfather’s political credibility with the citizenship move on the hill country Tamils.

The issue of Sri Lanka’s collective identities is hardly likely to be resolved by integration through economic development. If economic development alone would do the trick, the UPFA would not have lost the East so badly at the Presidential elections. Indeed this formula puts the cart before the horse. A viable option for Sri Lanka would be the Asian model of globalization, but the dominant ideology, mindset and policy framework of the incumbent administration is far from the paradigm of the New Asian modernity. The experience of Asia reveals broadly five formulae or models for handling diversity, though one could also envisage a suitable combination of aspects of these models:

1. Meritocratic multiculturalism; a level playing field and a managed market economy (the Singapore model)

2. Secular state, constitutional guarantees of equality, and quasi-federalism (the Indian model; the secularity of the state/central govt. is not contradicted by sporadic outbreaks of ethnic or religious violence at the sub-national, local or civic level).

3. A secular, unitary/non-federal state with suitable regional/provincial autonomy arrangements (China, Indonesia, Philippines)

4. Non secular, federal state (Pakistan)

5. Secular unitary state ( Bangladesh)

The relevance of secularism is that it is symbolic of the state’s/central government’s neutrality or non-alignment in relation to the constituent communities/collectivities of that society, irrespective of the sizes of those communities and ratios between them. Thus the state stands above the communities, able to reconcile them. The Soulbury Constitution would have put us closest to model 1. If the existing Sri Lankan Constitution inclusive of the results of the Indo-Lanka accord, i.e. 13th amendment were fully implemented, the Sri Lankan state would arguably be a variant of model 3: non-secular, not a level playing field, but with an offsetting provincial autonomy. However, the 1972 Constitution, the 1978 Constitution without the 1988 amendment, and the ideas of counter-reformation proposed by the ideologues of Sinhala dominance all posit a model which does not fit with any Asian framework. It is/would be the model of a non-secular, linguistically unequal, non-federal polity devoid of even provincial level devolution/autonomy. In a homogenous society, devolution is not an imperative. In a heterogeneous society, strong centralism devoid of devolution is fine if accompanied by meritocratic multiculturalism and secularism, i.e. a neutral state. Conversely, a secular meritocracy – a neutral state -- is not necessary, and the dice can be loaded in favor of the majority perceived as historically underprivileged, provided there is a compensatory counterweight at the periphery in the form of federalism or regional/provincial autonomy (Malaysia). Sri Lanka does not have a homogenous society. Its minorities are mixed in with the majority in some areas and preponderate in another. Yet Sri Lanka today neither has a neutral state (secular or meritocratic multiculturalism) nor a federal system nor active devolution within a unitary framework. Thus it does not have the necessary framework for successful globalization along Asian lines and full participation in the Asian economic miracle.

This threefold asymmetry between (A) Southern and Northern political choices; (B) social reality and political structure; and (C) the dominant paradigm and reform imperatives for fulfillment of the country’s potential, constitute the core of the Sri Lankan crisis and the fault-lines which will be exploited by those who do not wish the country well. Meanwhile, we may well reflect with Jeff Bridges playing (Kris Kristofferson-esque) Bad Blake in ‘Crazy Heart’ as he sings:

“Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’/ For a little while”.