Uncle Wills’ Cabin
By Professor C Suriyakumaran
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, however modest, was his own, and fashioned within the means and the liberties allowed to him by his masters. Ambassador Ashley Wills in Jaffna in early March had himself provide a cabin for the Tamil community, rushing in doing so. Lacing his presentation with quotes from Salman Rushdie, W.B. Yeats, and reference to Odysseus and his country’s motto, not all of which were related, he categorically expressed himself in favour of some unique views on Tamil identity and Tamil conceptions. Coming from him, despite his disclaimer of the capacity of American power, it is a situation in which he placed the Tamil community with certain pre-conceived frames of thinking and therefore no choice but to live in the “Cabin” that he had devised.
Nearly 150 years ago, when the Big White Chief in Washington requested Chief Seattle, one of the last vanishing people, to sell his land, the latter simply said. “The Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land”. He also sends us words of friendship and goodwill. We know that he has little need of our friendship in return, but we will consider his offer, for we know that if we do not sell, “the White man may come with guns and take the land”.
No one would wish more than this writer, who had written repeatedly so, for opting for one country and a solution within that. And Ambassador Wills is certainly right, that a principal aim must be to find a way to make the Minorities feel secure, while assuring those who are worried about Separation that territorial integrity shall be kept. This is not new thinking, indeed it is the core of everything from the beginning of this sad history, of nearly 50 years now. What is helpful would be to express even handed thinking on what it takes to do so, since this is precisely what has bedeviled perceptions and solutions.
It was the late Ernest Gellner formerly of the L S E and later founder of the World Centre for the Study of Nationalism at Prague, who declared that what caused reversions to Multi Community was not the concept of nationalism “but the proceeding and continuing failure of democracy itself. The ethnic brand of nationalism triumphed because the civic one was scarcely given a chance by those who ran the State”.
Any facile association of a Nation state with uniform identity among a Society’s constituents is thus a confusion, when conditions have been created or allowed to rise for a community to seek its own self-expression, as this writer wrote years ago, the diminution of a Nation State by crisis is under any circumstances not of nationality but of the particular state not fulfilling the needs of nationality. Ambassador Wills has been categorical, somewhat similarly, in recommending the way to negotiations for solutions.
He does not believe that Sri Lanka, or any part of it, was the preserve of any one community, and has missed both ancient history and more recent Colonial history in doing so.
Not ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Tamil’ as labeled now – pre Wijaya Lanka had neither community, under those names – but Naga and Yaka, the latter an uncharitable word for the more indigenous group that lived close to Nature (‘Iyatkayar’), were the main groups. The former continued to manifest under various identities. In the Northern regions it retained this right up to the current era, with a culture, language and heritage that became increasingly separate during the transformations of the rest of the country into the ‘Sihala’ - Pali-Buddhist tradition, which created the separate, outstanding, civilisation of the Sinhala people. Ambassador Wills notwithstanding, the Northern Regions continued to preserve and to protect their inheritance.
Like Chief Seattle, they held, as indeed our Sinhala brethren do every Sinhala/Tamil New Year, that “the wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sign, and must also give our children the spirit of life”. At the same time, beyond the usual skirmishes of contiguity, there was remarkable amity, partnership, mutual help and understanding, between those who came to be known as the Tamils and the Sinhalese through history, right up to the Colonial periods beginning the 16th century. The Tamil invaders who ruled in Sinhala country for long years were not from the North.
The first two Colonial powers continued that tradition, but the last, the British, through reforms for a unitary framework following the Colebrooke Commission of 1832, created a unified country under Western modes of administration, with one Capital City, leading for the first time to what we take today as if it were always so, namely the creation of a visible, permanent and growing Tamil community in the South. Historical Tamil migrations from India to the South became Sinhalese - witness the Salagama or Ponnamperumas and so many others, even as Sinhala migrations to the North became Tamil over time. Having done so, neither the British, nor especially on the eve of independence and after, the Sinhalese saw all the political counterparts to the implications of this phenomenon for the preservation of a United Sri Lanka.
Unlike the Unity and understanding that prevailed up to the time of arrival of the British colonial power, Ambassador Wills has taken an instantaneous photograph of the latest situation without being aware of this long and continuous past.
“Accommodative Pluralism”, not “Confrontational Pluralism”, I called it in a writing. In a second instant observation, Ambassador Wills labels the LTTE as a Terrorist organization. He also does not consider it the sole representative of the Tamil people. No one wants or supports anything terrorist, least of all this writer who has been the first on repeated occasions to abhor all terrorism. It has escaped Ambassador Wills’ mind that this terrorism arose from another terrorist spectre that began long before the LTTE emerged.
The State Terrorism over years, including right inside Jaffna, culminating in the emergence of that other ‘terrorist’ organization in the form of the LTTE, in the late 70’s. Most unfortunately, while all good people would be sad, given the authoritarian States’ terrorism was the means to resolution in many parts of the world, whom Ambassador Wills and others I am sure, have honoured subsequently in South Africa, pre-natal Israel, Palestine, in innumerable other places in History. While the State here has since advanced in its human rights records, Ambassador Wills would have been more even handed if he had recognised this causality and this duality. It is this that all good thinking people must get over and work towards, through a political solution. If the causes remain, the LTTE will remain, and that would not be a matter of our choice.
The US march across history, perhaps with less justification was not less significant with populations mowed and flag hoisted, fortified by slave labour at home and accompanied by a pollution that would have a WTO, if it had existed, calling for sanctions that the US now wants out of context for the Developing world. Other instances of terrorism can be repeated endlessly. The allied phosphorus bombs of 1943 over Hamburg that wiped out 37,000 people in one day, the trench warfare of 1914 where any private hesitant was shot on sight and no questions asked, or the 1960s civilian massacres and forest defoliations of Vietnam.
As mentioned, Ambassador Wills in a further thought does not believe that the LTTE is the sole representative of the Tamil people. Unfortunately, this does not make any other Tamil Group to be a credible representative either and as the President stated in the 1994 negotiations, the LTTE was the ‘ground reality’, and the issue of who represents the Tamil people, as seen through a ballot box, had not come in at this point in history, or here now.
Ambassador Wills has apparently forgotten that the leaders of the American Revolution for Independence against the British did not first go through a ballot box; nor those who won Irish Independence, that Ambassador Wills refers to, in 1916. So the present fighters in Northern Ireland, the First French Revolutionaries in the 1790s in South Africa, in the pre Israel forties, later the Palestinians, Vietnam against the French and Americans, and innumerable other instances (if for convenience one may omit the Soviet Union and China). We shall all be at first to call unequivocally for electoral courses in free and fair fashion to be put in place immediately, in mutual formulation of solution to Sri Lanka’s problem.
As for the LTTE, it is still fighting for liberation from threat of a “Second Colonialism” (After the British, against whom all ‘fought’). Ambassador Wills has perhaps not recalled that the annual so called victory speech by the LTTE leader for the last 3 or 4 years has always insisted that they were prepared to give up the concept of Eelam if the Sri Lankan Government would come up with a “Viable Alternative” and would fight for and get Eelam for themselves, only in its absence. It is this “gap” that has failed to be addressed so far. The present constitutional proposals fashioned in the South, including the UNP’s excellent suggestions for the four Commissions, are no, repeat no, substitute for the challenge of producing a “Viable Alternative”. It is this more than anything else that he may have called leaders in the South to address themselves to. Ambassador Wills’ somewhat imperious call to his audience to take his message to the LTTE was certainly not needed, perhaps somewhat theatrical, perhaps carried away by himself.
Missions have carried messages to the LTTE whenever they wanted to. As the LTTE has emphasised, and Ambassador Wills has averred, solution can be found though a mutually satisfactory political system. For ourselves, we have indeed frequently emphasised and re-emphasised in writings that a constitution that provides “for true participation by the minorities in Central Government” would not only assure Unity as a country but confidence against Central domination of the North and East from a Parliament that is now determined by a ‘Permanent Ethnic majority’, instead of a ‘Majority Divided on Issues’. All the rest will follow. Given certain Constituent bodies at the centre of both Communities, for resolution of ‘working differences’ during implementation, full self-expression to the ‘minorities(!)’ in the North and East and ‘the best assurance’ to the ‘majority community’ against separation would follow. This will demolish also totally and for good the oft repeated shibboleth that a solution on these lines would mean no Sinhala Community in the North East or vice versa.
What there will not be are the years of recent history, documented by Sinhala writers as well, with governments directing Sinhala Colonists Settlements under State patronage and sowing immediately the seeds of conflict. One danger in the way that the Conciliation and intended ‘negotiating’ processors are going on now seems to be that
the Government will proceed to the negotiating table without much beyond its own so called Constitutional proposals leading only to break down of negotiations, incrimination again and (hopefully not at all) back to battlefields and disaster for all. One has the picture for instance of the Oslo inspired peace programme begun long ago in Palestine, only for all of us to be witnessing the bloodiest
killings and tragedy still. That is why Ambassador Wills, in such a speech as he delivered of himself, should have addressed the Sinhalese as much as he did the Tamils. To me we are all brothers, as Chief Seattle told his Big White Chief. Statesmanship is required on all sides, including not least our foreign well wishers. Awareness, for total thinking on all issues fairly, and courage to look at
arrangements that really solve, rather than bringing arrangements not formulated for this purpose and trying to fit them, is what we need. Thereafter, there will happily also be no Uncle Wills Cabin, and we may all wonder how, and why we all took so long.
Views, and possible solutions, expressed in this article are those of the author and does not necessarily reflect those of the Sangam - Editor
Courtesy: The Weekend Express [12-13, May 2001]