cost of the unitary state’s internal colonialism
By keeping away from the Tokyo donor conference the Liberation Tigers have drawn attention to the specific nature of the problem that is afflicting Sri Lanka.
Had they attended then their mere presence plus the customary political pleasantries by Mr. Balasingham would have helped the Sri Lankan state to bury the stark truth about the Sinhala polity’s constitutional intransigence even deeper into the quicksand of political obfuscation.
But following the LTTE’s boycott, it has now begun to emerge very sharply that the Sinhala polity is fundamentally unwilling to let go of its hitherto undisputed control over the country’s wealth and to share its immitigable monopoly on executive, legislative and adjudicative powers.
Today, the true nature of the inflexibly unitary Sinhala Buddhist state stands stripped of its immensely obfuscating layers of liberal democratic legalese and euphemisms. The hitherto deceptive fangs of its constitutional intransigence are coming into sharper focus.
The problem is something that cannot be boiled down to the politics of any Sinhala political leader such as Ranil or Chandrika.
It arises from the fact that Sri Lanka’s constitution is an expression of the Sinhala Buddhist elite’s desire to completely monopolise the bases of state power.
Here one should briefly look at the real nature of the modern nation state.
The state is one of the most enduring social organisations in human history. Most pre-modern types of states have been founded upon varying degrees of a group’s military and financial hegemony over subordinate or affiliated centres of political and coercive power.
But the modern nation state, which arose in Western Europe in the 16th-18th centuries, is predicated on the hegemonic group’s ability to establish monopolies on taxation (extortion), organised violence and adjudication over a defined territory.
Nation states such as England, which tried to expand these monopolies by force to peoples who had their own historical uniqueness, defined and shaped within indigenous, traditional centres of political,f inancial, military and adjudicative power, became unitary states.
The British model of the unitary state was therefore essentially shaped by the compulsions of inevitably repressive internal colonialism.
The British unitary state arose on the subjection by military force of the Scots, Welsh and the Irish.
However, the ideology of liberal democracy was upheld and propagated so effectively by the British the world over that few could see through to identify the essentially repressive and culturally assimilative nature of the unitary state of the United Kingdom.
Sri Lanka is unique in that it further refined and fine-tuned the unitary system that it inherited from the British in 1948 and made it utterly inflexible.
Therefore this state as defined in the 1978 constitution has very strong, inbuilt structural compulsions to repress or subsume any non-Sinhala claim to an equitable share of the island’s wealth and resources. Only those non-Singhalese who do not or cannot demand a legitimate share of the national wealth, territory, political power proportionate to their social strength would find their accommodation within this type of unitary state unchallenged.
The abject condition of the hill country Tamils and the plight of Muslim political leadership illustrate this well.
Therefore the Sri Lankan state, unless it is radically restructured and shorn of all aspects of its unitary character, can and will function among non-Singhalese only through assimilation, repressive internal colonialism and other covert or open means of non-consensual rule.
The concept of the Sri Lankan state being the sole birthright of the Sinhala Buddhists was sustainable politically as long as the so-called moderate Tamil leaders were contained with negotiations and deceptive concessions.
But today the concept is no longer physically tenable because the LTTE has neutralised the Sinhala Buddhist state’s ability to sustain itself through military and non-military means of internal colonialism.
Prof. Jeyaratnam Wilson, writing in 1988, said: “the concept of Ceylon being the birthright of the Sinhalese Buddhists has ended less than forty years after the island obtained its independence from Britain in 1948. The argument of centuries of foreign oppression of the Sinhalese Buddhists …….and that Tamils received favoured treatment during Britain’s rule cannot be the true reason for the present repression of the Tamil people…..The real reason therefore lies elsewhere. A people, an elite and a leadership unaccustomed to the exercise of sovereign power (they had not even fought for it like the heroes of the Indian freedom struggle), believed that they could cut corners and use state power to exercise a monopoly of the polity and ‘Sinhalise’ it. To an extant they succeeded in misleading and deceiving a trusting Tamil elitist leadership. That Tamil leadership has now been forced to share political power with radical youth from the Tamil community. The latter realised only too well that constitutional agitation and peaceful negotiation encouraged Sinhalese leadership to pursue their designs of dismembering Tamil political and societal structures” (The Break-Up of Sri Lanka. Pp. 223-4)
Prof. Wilson’s words were indeed prophetic. That constitutional agitation and peaceful negotiation encourages Sinhalese leadership to pursue their designs of dismembering Tamil political and societal structures remains an inescapable fact even today.
It is inevitable that as long as the Sri Lankan state remains inflexibly unitary - the undisputable monopoly of the Sinhala Buddhist polity – it would be driven inexorably to deny Tamils their rightful share through all possible means. It wouldn’t therefore be deterred by military defeat. The inability to succeed with coercive internal colonialism will only impel the Sri Lankan unitary state to seek other means to achieve its goal of stabilising and perpetuating itself. Premier Wickremesinghe’s international safety net is the first of such means after it became indubitably evident that the LTTE’s challenge to the Sinhala Buddhist monopoly on military force, adjudication and revenue cannot be suppressed or contained militarily.
The point everyone seems to miss is that structurally the Sri Lankan state is not capable of any other course of action to deal with a legitimate challenge to Sinhala Buddhist monopoly of state power and the country’s wealth. It is not a question of the personality of a Sinhala political leader or the specific political configuration within which he/she has to operate. It is a systemic problem.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ‘international safety net’ is today the foremost example of the ‘other means’ of perpetuating the internal colonialism of the Sri Lankan unitary state. Every attempt by the Sinhala leadership to perpetuate this internal colonialism by non military means will be seen through and would give rise greater effort on the Tamil side to build a sturdy bulwark to thwart newer “designs of dismembering Tamil political and societal structures”.
What the Sinhala polity stubbornly refuses to realise is that colonialism for colonialism’s sake can be very costly. It can be made to get so costly that even the Sinhala Buddhists’ monopoly of the state may eventually be deemed not worth the effort.
Northeastern Herald, June 13-19, 2003