Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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A Sinhalese political parachute

by Dr. S Sathananthan, September 1, 2010

Instead, and carried away by ‘Sinhala-only’ aggression fed by anti-Tamil jingoism, most Sinhalese civil society individuals and organisations unwisely and illogically equated the centralised power in Colombo to democratic Sinhalese governance. They haughtily dismissed ITAK’s initiative, darkly imputing an anti-Sinhalese ‘hidden agenda’...

The autocracy Sinhalese society groomed to decimate Tamil nationalism has acquired a destructive life of its own, Frankenstein-like, and is turning back on its maker...

Mouthing ‘devolution’ – an idea dear to Tamil hearts – [today] is a cheap trick to conjure up the illusion of supposedly ‘progressive’ sections among Sinhalese eagerly waiting to make common cause AFTER Tamils begin agitations for reform.

Devolution: the Tamil project

In the early 1950s the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) launched the first and only non-violent movement to date to achieve internal de-colonisation through devolution of power. The party sought to mimic the essentials of the Indian model of linguistic states that contributed to partial democratisation; so it proposed similar devolution to future Tamil and Sinhalese linguistic states to introduce a democratic federal system of government in Sri Lanka. Their overriding aim was to modernise the bankrupt unitary State, which British colonialists had originally imposed in 1832 and monopolised power through it to dominate and plunder the island. Tamil civil society solidly backed federalism and, by extension, agreed to internal de-colonisation.

Chauvinist Sinhalese ideologues and intelligentsia – one often shades into the other – with rare but woefully inconsequential exceptions were utterly incapable of recognising the democratic content of ITAK’s suggested constitutional reforms. Nor did they grasp the obvious – that the reforms would disperse the powers British colonialism centralised in Colombo, benefit the Sinhalese grassroots equally, if not more, and crucially undermine the institutional basis for a future authoritarian rule.

Instead, and carried away by ‘Sinhala-only’ aggression fed by anti-Tamil jingoism, most Sinhalese civil society individuals and organisations unwisely and illogically equated the centralised power in Colombo to democratic Sinhalese governance. They haughtily dismissed ITAK’s initiative, darkly imputing an anti-Sinhalese ‘hidden agenda’.

The Sinhalese-dominated Left too sabotaged ITAK’s de-colonisation efforts; they joined the bourgeois chauvinists to oppose federalism, spouting the vacuous slogan ‘parity of status’.

None of the factions – either on the Right or the Left – offered a credible alternative path to democratic internal de-colonisation. Sinhalese civil society as a whole vehemently rejected the collective or national rights of Tamils; instead they dredged up the liberal shibboleth of equality between individuals as citizens essentially to entrench majoritarian Sinhalese domination. The Left purveyed utopian fantasies of a socialist revolution carried out jointly by the Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Up-Country workers and peasants.

That set the stage for the LTTE-led armed struggle, which is the second campaign for internal de-colonisation by Tamils. The movement employed force; it sought to either cleave through the colonial, authoritarian powers centralised in Colombo to carve out an independent Tamil Eelam or to weaken them through the introduction of a federal system (the 2002 Oslo Declaration).

The ideologues cried ‘Tamil terrorism’ and Sinhalese civil society by and large joined the chauvinist braying, which gained apparent credence after the events on September 11, 2001 in New York. The Sinhalese Left followed suit and, with characteristic duplicity, castigated the LTTE as an instrument of western imperialism when it has been blindingly clear India and colluding western powers and Japan have been striving to liquidate the LTTE from at least as far back as the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord.

Still worse, Sinhalese from almost every shade of politics, aided by supine Tamil hangers-on, helped the regime to destroy the only countervailing force – the military capability of Tamil nationalism – that could have internally de-colonised and reformed the dictatorial State inherited lock, stock and barrel from colonialism.

The opposition to the Tamils’ devolution project dragged into focus two important structural rigidities obstructing devolution within Sinhalese society.

First, at least two generations of nationalist Sinhalese politicians (barring a few toothless Leftists), all Sinhalese political parties of any significance and the vast majority of Sinhalese people have over the past half century branded Tamil demands for decentralisation and devolution – beginning with the proposed district councils in 1957 – as treacherous ploys to ‘divide the country’ and rejected them outright. Conceding limited autonomy through the New Delhi-orchestrated 13th Amendment, let alone far-reaching devolution, is tantamount to a historical defeat for Sinhalese nationalism. No Sinhalese leader of any hue ­either current or on the political horizon ­contemplates being the architect of such national humiliation.

Second, and following in the wake of colonial practice, the centralisation of power has been the political logic. From the1952 Hartal that jolted the bovine ruling oligarchy, the rise of Tamil nationalism in the late 1950s and through the 1960s and the class contradictions and caste antagonisms within Sinhalese society that surfaced during the 1971 Insurrection led by the Sinhalese Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) exposed the Sinhalese oligarchy’s vulnerability. The oligarchy reacted by further consolidating power through a plethora of draconian Emergency Regulations under which it has repressed the country for more than half its independent existence and still continues to repress; and by also empowering the Executive under authoritarian provisions of the 1972 Republican Constitution.  The armed resistance by the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups in the mid­1970s underlined the national contradiction between the Tamil nation and the Sinhalese regimes. The ruling oligarchy in turn centralised more powers; it transformed the largely ceremonial armed forces into a professional war machine and imposed the despotic Executive Presidency under the 1977 Constitution to contain the political challenge from Sinhalese workers and peasants. Simultaneously, it rapidly Sinhalised the armed forces, bureaucracy and the judiciary to meet the fast-growing politico-military challenge posed principally by the LTTE.

Devolution and/or decentralisation, therefore, will enfeeble Sinhalese nationalism and increase the oligarchy’s vulnerability to class and national forces ranged against them. The oligarchy, of course, has no intention of committing political suicide by diluting its own powers in the Centre.

In other words, there are no sudden U-turns in life. There is virtually no political space for decentralisation, even less for devolution. The 13th Amendment is at best an empty shell.

Authoritarianism: the Sinhalese project

Sections of Sinhalese civil society’s current infatuation over ‘devolution’ must be assessed against their odious history of wallowing in chauvinism and bloodshed – they had almost in unison pronounced: ‘Tamils deserved July 1983’. Their ideologues and intelligentsia opposed tooth and nail efforts by Tamils to initiate internal de-colonisation. They severed the secular association between citizenship and the individual (liberal British model) prevailing at Independence and instead linked citizenship to ethnicity (chauvinist German model) by legislating Sinhala as the sole official language of the country and Buddhism its official religion. And they supported the war actively or condoned it passively. Not forgetting the individual but sadly ineffective exceptions, most sections of Sinhalese society were enthused primarily by justifications spewed out by their bigoted ideologues and fundamentalist Buddhist clergy to cheerfully nurture authoritarian rule in Colombo. They did so through sentiments and actions ranging from contributions to the National Defence Fund to permitting virtually every constitutional right to be trampled beneath Jackboots, in order to give the regime the freest of hand – utter legal impunity – to crush Tamils’ resistance. A Sinhalese ideologue gave the national political hara-kiri a positive sheen: he eulogised the ‘Sinhala people whose collective will refused to break’ despite blatant violations of their democratic rights in the guise of national security.                                                                    

Indeed the intelligensia helped the regime to comprehensively co-opt Sinhalese society, especially its working classes, into what they venerated as a ‘just war’. This permitted the regime, on the one hand, to corrupt the residual working class radicalism and replace it with reactionary jingoism and, on the other hand, to skilfully neutralise the collaborating intelligentsia’s political credibility for future autonomous action; and thereby close what little ideological space had been available for dissent. The autocracy Sinhalese society groomed to decimate Tamil nationalism has acquired a destructive life of its own, Frankenstein-like, and is turning back on its maker.

The realisation appears to be dawning among some perceptive Sinhalese that authoritarian rule must be reined in before it is too late. A Sinhalese activist, either of the intelligentsia or an ideologue – the difference is cosmetic – was optimistic: ‘our people will realize’, boomed she, ‘that the war is now finished and the time has come for them to win their democratic rights back.’

But Sinhalese society shot its own foot. It has forfeited two necessary conditions for democratisation; first it now lacks a mass base, not in terms of numbers but of radicalism that could be mobilised as a countervailing force against the regime; second, it is devoid of a radical leadership unsullied by collaboration in the genocidal war in the Vanni. Another Sinhalese activist decried the ensuing political emasculation: ‘we [Sinhalese] are, after all, a country that was told not to ask questions during the war and we readily complied’ but, he lamented, ‘we are so compliant that we are still not asking.’

The people are ‘not asking’ because they are politically savvy in contrast to pedestrian Sinhalese activists. They know power will not concede anything for the mere asking. Unlike activists mired in liberal hogwash about ostentatious ‘persuasion’, the people know from their long, arduous history of trade unionism, peasant agitations and armed action by the JVP that power consolidates more power, that power has to be confronted with force to effect any significant change; that in the last analysis politics is decided on the streets.

But the neutered Sinhalese opposition, liberals and intelligentsia are incapable of providing the much-needed radical leadership; they are unwilling to stand up and be counted. Those who had sabre rattled against the LTTE, demanding ‘democracy for Tamils’, are today running for cover terrified by State repression, the same repression they had helped to institutionalise under the pretext of ‘liberating Tamils’ when it was unleashed against the Tamil national movement.

In short, the Sinhalese polity is woefully bereft of political strength to shackle the bloated tyranny that the same society had fattened during the war. The systematic physical attacks unleashed by Black-Shirt goons against questioning media organisations, murder or disappearance of dozens of principled journalists (both Tamil and Sinhalese) after 2005, unceremonious eviction meted out to Buddhist monks protesting Sarath Fonseka’s arrest and trial, naked repression of peaceful street protests with water cannons and teargas and the impending constitutional reforms foretell a tragic future.

And there is no sharper pointer to the utter moral collapse of Sinhalese civil society than their deafening silence on proposed constitutional reforms that will vest vastly more powers in the feared Executive Presidency, which two presidents (Kumaratunga and Rajapakse) promised to eradicate, and on the lifting of the term limit on the incumbent.

Meanwhile a few bankrupt Sinhalese ideologues are lost in pipedreams about Sri Lanka joining the East Asian ‘miracle’.

As for the miniscule critical section of the Sinhalese intelligentsia, the regime has terrorised, sidelined and silenced almost all of them with the connivance of chauvinist ideologues. The handful belatedly striving to salvage something – anything – out of the unfolding political disaster deserves sympathy if not understanding.

The task facing the embattled polity is to de-fang the authoritarian rule it helped to nurture and arrest the dizzying slide into despotism.

The obvious question is: How?

Changing horses mid-stream

As the first option, influential factions among the Sinhalese political class attempted a regime change to replace President Mahinda Rajapakse with Sarath Fonseka; they were to fail miserably.

During the run up to the January 2010 presidential election Sinhalese opposition and liberals and their hapless Tamil fellow-travellers piled into the Fonseka campaign wagon seeking a change of guard at the top as a pre-condition for democratisation. Put bluntly, they manoeuvred to jettison the well-entrenched President Rajapakse, since he had done the dirty work to liquidate the Tamil armed resistance, and replace him with Fonseka whom they hallucinated would be a malleable political novice supposedly amenable to rolling back repressive legislation.

Understandably President Rajapakse was not amused. He naturally has no intention of being the sacrificial lamb at the altar of democracy, the ‘fall guy’. Fonseka’s election victory would have denuded Rajapakse of his presidential powers and immunity and left him virtually defenceless against the myriad charges of violating international humanitarian laws – violations the very same Sinhalese civil society and collaborating foreign governments had viciously urged and duplicitously condoned as a necessary evil during the military campaign from 2006 onwards. Predictably Rajapakse put his re-election beyond doubt. Similarly his Sinhalese United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition tamed the opposition by winning the April 2010 parliamentary elections with a comfortable majority of 144 seats in the 225-member House of Representatives.

Devolution: Sinhalese re-discover the wheel

So, as a lesser option, Sinhalese civil society fell back on ‘devolution’ and spiced it up with the ludicrous slogan ‘winning the peace’, which bluntly ignores justice and, therefore, is a political mirage.  

Sinhalese ideologues and intelligentsia mouthing ‘devolution’ today are about six decades and more than 100,000 deaths too late. What they (excluding the Left who are hardly more than nuisance value) are urging is at best administrative decentralisation by implementing the puerile language provisions, 13th Amendment, and so on in the decaying Constitution. The chauvinists among them transmuted into Sinhalese supremacists; they are the most voluble. At first glance, it seems a belligerent demand Tamils must submit to Sinhalese political diktat, which complements triumphalism following success in the armed phase. It is that too; but there is more to it. 

The main thrust behind their uncharacteristic enthusiasm for ‘devolution’ is the urge to dilute the power concentrated in Colombo and particularly in the Executive Presidency.

It appears a multi-pronged tactic but in fact borders on infantilism. First, they comfortingly assured Rajapakse that he could consolidate his power over the Tamil north and east by transferring a modicum of authority to Tamil satraps, who in return would reinforce and defend his rule. Second, a few unimaginative ideologues who fantasise themselves to be ‘realists’ executed flat-footed moves to entice the regime to entertain decentralisation in ‘enlightened self-interest’, which, shorn of its realpolitik frills, simply means ‘give-a-little-now-to-take-back-a-lot-more-later’. Third, they sugar-coated ‘devolution’ as a manoeuvre by which the regime in Colombo could attract India and the international coalition that backed the war on the side of Sri Lanka and isolate the Tamil diaspora.

But the President was predictably not impressed by the infantile ranting; and he did not rise to the bait. No regime will voluntarily concede in the political arena what was won on the battle field. As Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse proudly noted, ‘the government has been able to regain control over each and every inch of land’; it is arrant nonsense to assert or expect the regime would countenance control over an inch of that territory by Tamils.

Those who cheered or passively condoned the war conclusively foreclosed any chance whatsoever for devolution of power.

But many supposedly sophisticated Sinhalese civil society members bleat the regime ought to concede to Tamils through ‘devolution’ a part of what was won from them in battle. To sell this Disneyland-politics – presumably learnt at the feet of elders or in Sri Lankan universities and coarsely smeared with Gramscian and Marxian jargon – one ideologue pleaded for ‘generosity on the part of Sinhalese and pragmatism on the part of Tamils’, neither of which will materialise in real-life politics for the mere asking or through intimidation.

Tamils: the cat’s paw?

What, then, is the logic of promoting ‘devolution’?

Pro-war ideologues and intelligentsia had bayed for Tamil blood; one had hysterically urged the marauding Sinhalese army in Vanni to decimate the LTTE, to ‘cut it and kill it’; another blood-thirstily re-cast Tamil civilians – men, women and children, both aged and infirm – as ‘auxiliaries’ of the LTTE’s fighting formations and, therefore, military targets to be legitimately slaughtered at will.

But Sinhalese civil society, especially its democracy-warriors and peacemongers, are now discovering the cooperation of Tamils is indispensable to pull the country back from the brink of autocracy, which they had unwisely nurtured in the first place. It does not at all mean they are willing to stick their necks out. Rather they are scheming to inveigle Tamils under the guise of ‘winning the peace’ to launch a pro-democracy campaign.

An obvious reason for turning to Tamil society is that, as the most oppressed population steeped in the tradition of armed resistance, they are the primary repository of radical political force.

Mouthing ‘devolution’ – an idea dear to Tamil hearts – is a cheap trick to conjure up the illusion of supposedly ‘progressive’ sections among Sinhalese eagerly waiting to make common cause AFTER Tamils begin agitations for reform. Moreover, chauvinist sections of Sinhalese civil society are deluding themselves. They wish to deceive Tamils with disingenuous promises that ‘India will back Tamil consensus calling for implementation of existing constitutional provisions’, expecting Tamils would then foolishly trust New Delhi, man the barricades, confront the militaristic Sri Lankan regime and serve themselves up as cannon fodder to pull the Sinhalese people out from under the Jackboots of their own creation.

Meanwhile, the ideologues and intelligentsia presumably wish to sit back with drink in hand in the comfort and safety of their watering holes and congratulate each other on a job well done.

As the saying goes, if wishes were horses beggars would ride. 

30 August 2010


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