Resolving the National Question

By: D. B. S. Jeyaraj


“Chandrika came out with her ideas on devolution on August 4, 1995. Though there were many misgivings about her behaviour towards the LTTE and the resumption of war, many people pinned their hopes on this document. In that, there was the possibility of the recognition of the Tamil homeland and a devolution of power on that basis. However this hope evaporated fast when she started discussions with Ranil instead of a dialogue with the Tamil parties including the LTTE. After five years of empty talks and a barbaric bloody war, she has emerged from talks waving a draft constitution, sans the recognition of Tamil identity or the Tamil homeland. What the left should do today is to campaign for the recognition of the Tamil nationality in the constitution and devolution of power on that basis.

- Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne
Gen Secretary-NSSP

“How do you sell a product to the Jaffna Tamils?”

The question was posed to me over 20 years ago by a Sinhala marketing manager of a prestigious firm. I was then a reporter attached to Sri Lanka’s premier Tamil daily Virakesari. The occasion was a ceremonial function to mark the launching of a new brand of tractor by the firm of which he was marketing manager. Jaffna in particular and the north in general was viewed as a prize market for the ‘new’ tractor.

“None of the conventional marketing strategies and advertising techniques for introducing a new product seem to work in Jaffna,” lamented the gentleman. “Yet if we can make the Jaffna man accept a product he will adopt it on a permanent basis” he said. He then went on to mention two types of cars [Austin & Morris], a sewing machine [Singer], a bicycle [Raleigh] and another brand of tractor. All of these were enjoying tremendous sales in Jaffna and were household names for decades. He then went on to answer his own query “The Jaffna people cannot be fooled by advertising gimmicks and intensive sales pitches. They have an uncanny ability to recognise a solid product. If they are convinced of its durability and genuineness they will accept it without any hesitation. That is what we hope will happen to our tractor too.”

Though two decades and two years have passed, I have never forgotten the pertinent observation made by that Sinhala marketing manager. He understood and appreciated the Tamil psyche and knew exactly how to sell a product in Jaffna. Nothing bogus only the real Mccoy! How sad indeed that very few of the southern politicians attempting to sell solutions to the Tamils have grasped that wisdom when trying to evolve political solutions that would redress the grievances and accommodate the aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

The latest in this long line of ‘solutions’ is the one supposedly in the making by the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga regime right now. Unlike earlier ones this solution is said to be special because it is allegedly a joint product of both the ruling Peoples Alliance and chief opposition United National Party. It is said that history was made on July 7 this year when both parties achieved “consensus” on resolving the Sri Lankan national question termed simply as the ‘Tamil problem’. For the first time in Sri Lanka the two major Sinhala dominated parties are said to have agreed on a mutually acceptable solution for this.

The contemporary political history of this island is replete with instances of the chief opposition party taking up cudgels against any meaningful attempt by the party in power to address the problems faced by the Tamils. The roles are reversed when governments change. Thus the Tamils saw the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact of 1957 being scuttled by the UNP then in opposition. Likewise the Dudley-Chelva agreement of 1965 was negated by the SLFP, shamefully supported by the LSSP and CP. Of course the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist lobby comprising clergy and laity aligned themselves to the forces in opposition. It can be argued that the development of the two party system in Sri Lanka was inextricably intertwined with and contributed extensively to the escalation of the ethnic crisis.

The difference this time is that in spite of a great deal of tension and hostility both the PA as well as the UNP have been able to forge together a tentative agreement aimed at resolving the national question. Superficially, the executive president and Opposition Leader seem to have transcended their very real incompatibility of temperament on personal and deep-seated differences on a political level. Once again, the Sinhala hardliners are opposing whatever settlement agreed upon by the PA and UNP. But with the chief Sinhala parties acting in agreement it is expected that such opposition could be overridden and marginalised.

Executive Presidency
There is of course a great question mark about the entire exercise. Given the consistency of Kumaratunga’s inconsistency there is understandable doubt whether she would really abide by her acknowledged position. There are also the problems about the transitionary arrangements. The UNP expects the executive presidency to be abolished along with the new constitution while Kumaratunga hopes to go her full term before relinquishing it. Also the PA wants to present the new draft during the term of the current parliament and deal with the implementation in the next parliament. The UNP has serious reservations about this. More importantly the forthcoming elections and its attendant consequences could affect the uneasy affinity between both parties resulting in acute hostilities. All these factors could upset the present equilibrium relating to a political consensus.

A paradoxical feature of the present political scenario is however the total apathy and to some extent the pronounced antipathy of the Tamil people towards this PA-UNP accord. Instead of being jubilant over this “historic Sinhala consensus” the Tamil political parties have only expressed misgivings. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have rejected it outright. The premier moderate party of the Tamils, the Tamil United Liberation Front, has also articulated its opposition and urged inclusion of certain vital provisions. Other Tamil parties too have either rejected it wholesale or urged modifications. Whatever the finer points of intra -Tamil differences there is no denying that the proposed constitutional draft based on a PA-UNP consensus is not acceptable by and large. Once again, there is ethnic polarisation with Sinhala and Tamil viewpoints being diametrically opposed.

That the Tamil political spectrum with or without the LTTE should view the proposed draft with disfavour should come as no surprise. It would also be foolishly simplistic to attribute the behaviour of the non-LTTE Tamil political parties to fear of the Tigers alone. The real reasons are not hard to seek. A “Sinhala consensus” by itself does not warrant or guarantee a Tamil acceptance. A positive Tamil response is possible only if and when the “Sinhala offer” is worthwhile and credible.

Devolution Package
Chandrika Kumaratunga’s much touted devolution package was first presented on August 4th 1995. A joint product of GL Peiris and Neelan Tiruchelvam, the envisaged scheme was certainly the most far-reaching and progressive of its kind in the annals of Independent Lanka. It was certainly maximum devolution tantamount to federalism and the proposed change of the unitary structure of the State to union of regions central to this paradigm shift. It was Kumaratunga’s claim that the war against the LTTE was to introduce this progressive package. This helped her obtain national and international support for the so-called war for peace. This war resulted in unprecedented hardship on colossal scales being imposed on the Tamil people. As a result Kumaratunga found herself in 1999 alienated greatly from the minorities who had voted overwhelmingly for her in 1994.

The ‘package’ too was steadily diluted in 1996 and then again in 1997. Finally the watered down scheme was tabled as a sessional paper on October 24, 1997. Thanks to the prevaricatory tactics of Ranil Wickremesinghe, President Kumaratunga was able to blame the UNP for her failure to legislate and implement the devolution package. All she needed was another 16 votes to obtain the necessary two thirds and the UNP was not cooperating she complained. After shelving the package she intensified the military drive against the LTTE. After initial victories against the LTTE, the entire situation was reversed in the wake of a string of Tiger successes code named “unceasing waves”.

Offer of support
On the political front her bluff was called when in a Machiavellian manouevre Ranil offered to support her draft Constitution in parliament. Although he felt it was not the solution he would support it to prove that the UNP was not the stumbling block Wickremesinghe said. If Kumaratunga was sincere about resolving the Tamil issue then she should have grasped the offer firmly and quickly. Whatever the ulterior motives of Ranil all she had to do was present the draft in parliament and hold him to his word. Instead she took several days to even acknowledge let alone accept the offer. Then came the charade of a renewed search for Consensus. An earlier article in this column titled “PA exercise in duplicity” has elaborated in detail the mala fides objectives of the government in all this.

As a result Ranil was able to prove to the world that it was not the UNP that was obstructing devolution. On the contrary Kumaratunga was exposed as not being ready with the package in spite of claiming to have one ready. Under the guise of achieving an agreement with the UNP the draft was watered down even further from the October 24, 1997 position. As stated earlier in these columns it was apparent that Kumaratunga was using the ‘New’ search for consensus as a means to strip the draft of most of its progressive measures in a bid to appease the Sinhala hawks within and without her party. It also seemed clear that it was not her intention to formulate a package acceptable to general Tamil opinion. If the Tamil parties themselves could not find the package attractive then LTTE acceptance was not possible at all.

Kumaratunga’s approach therefore was deceptive. It appeared that all she wanted was national and international backing to promote the war against the LTTE further on the basis that the Tigers had not been amenable to a political settlement. The content of the so-called political settlement was glossed over. It was a replay of the 1995 scenario. This is quite visible now. Even before the final draft has been tabled efforts are on to harness world support against the intransigent Tigers.

The Tamil parties too contributed to this state of affairs by cooperating with Kumaratunga in her so called “New” search for a consensus. By participating in fresh discussions they allowed her to diminish the extent of devolution further. What these parties could have done was to insist upon her presenting the Oct 24th 1997 draft and then make demands of the UNP to support it. Instead they let PA-UNP discussions drag on. Now under the guise of a PA-UNP consensus the original draft has been reduced to a caricature of its former self. A case in point is the clause pertaining to structure of state. If the proposed terminology is accepted it can only result in the central government prevent actual devolution of power to the periphery. Some years ago Kumaratunga found fault with the TULF for not propagating her non-existent package. But now it is unrealistic to expect that party to lend support to this.

The blame for all this is being laid on the UNP. Government circles are telling the Tamil parties that all the progressive provisions of the original draft had to be jettisoned because of UNP pressure. Since the Tamil parties blundered by allowing such a sly move by the PA in the first place they find themselves in a quandary. The UNP is patting itself on its back for having undermined and negated many of the positive features of the original draft. It is now very much a UNP product and not the PA ‘s. The UNP’s conduct in this is understandable in the sphere of political upmanship but cannot be condoned within the context of national well being.

What the UNP has done is to collaborate with the PA and reduce the extent of devolution in both quantitative and qualitative terms. The key issue of lands is a glaring example of this. Besides the central issues of ‘Tamil identity’ have been ignored. The Indo-Lanka accord allowed a merger of the North and East and described them as areas of ‘historic habitation of the Tamils.’ But the new draft seeks to de-merge the N-E after a specific period; the focus is on managing rather than resolving the issue.

The PA-UNP bipartisan consensus is a “Sinhala” Consensus. This Sinhala Consensus has failed to take adequate cognizance of Tamil aspirations or understand their fundamental grievances. The problem is not viewed as the “National Question”. It is only being looked at as a minority issue. As the NSSP General Secretary Comrade Bahu has observed in a press release neither the Tamil identity nor the homeland has been recognized. He has also stated that the left should campaign for the recognition of the Tamil nationality in the Constitution and devolution of power on that basis. Against this backdrop the following excerpts would help shed more light on the issues.

Firstly a brief paragraph from the Indian newspaper “Deccan Herald” of July 6th. In an interview to SM Murai , LTTE political ideologue Anton Balasingham comments about the right to self determination.

“The Thimpu principles are totally misconstrued. Right to self-determination means we might choose to associate with the Sinhala government or accept federal autonomy. Sri Lanka should not see self-determination as a right to separation. It only means that the Tamil people have the right to decide their own political destiny. Accept the principles first and let us negotiate”.

Secondly a relevant paragraph from the South Asia Monitor of June 1. This is a report published by the US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. In talking of a possible solution going beyond envisaged changes the report says,

“The only chance would lie in a much more radical approach to power sharing. A loose confederation structure, with some kind of explicit recognition of the Tamils as a collective group within it, and with stronger guarantees of their inclusion in over at the national level might be more successful. Two draft Canadian constitutions proposed that certain legislative changes would require a ‘double -majority’ of both English and French-speaking parliamentarians, an analogous provision might be useful. Obviously this type of radical departure would be intensely controversial in the Sri Lankan political mainstream. But half-measures will only prolong the country’s agony.”

In an ill advised attempt to woo the Sinhala people the Kumaratunga regime tried to project its (over sharing) scheme as a recipe for peace. That an equitable settlement would pave the way for peace is true only in the long term. It is not a short-term possibility. Thus the Sinhala hardliners are able to campaign against any devolution device on the grounds that it would not usher in peace. The reality however is different.

What the Sinhala polity must be made to understand and appreciate is that envisaged settlements do not relate to the contemporary compulsions of war alone but go far beyond. It is a case of correcting historic wrongs done to the Tamils during post-independence under the pretext of correcting historic wrongs done to the Sinhala people during pre-independence times. It is also a case of not awarding concessions to the Tamils, but simply recognising their inherent and inalienable rights. It is myopic to talk of the once privileged position of the Tamils when the present situation is vastly different.

The Tamil people are greatly discriminated against and deprived of their rightful place in this Island. A typical example is employment in the state sector. The Tamils who prided themselves as being the cream of the public service are not even 2% of it now. What is needed therefore is a bold and imaginative solution that would help resolve the national question in conclusive terms. Post colonial tensions within a state whose boundaries were evolved during colonial times can be best resolved through a reinvention and restructuring of the existing state.

It is in this realm that the envisaged Constitutional draft of the PA-UNP combine falls lamentably and pathetically short. What the Sinhala polity must realise is that the Tamil self-perception now is that of being a distinct nationality. Earlier these perceptions were of different hues, but underwent a process of change aided greatly by acts of discrimination and oppression.

The 1977 elections where the TULF obtained a sweeping victory on a separatist platform was a watershed in Tamil consciousness. The upheavals and tribulations that the Tamil people have experienced and continue to experience as a result of the ongoing war have only reinforced their feelings of alienation from the Sri Lankan state. This mind set cannot be altered by feeble attempts of political reform. The cliche “an idea can only be defeated by a superior idea” is very much true. There must be genuine power sharing between the Sinhala and Tamil people on the basis of true equality in any envisaged settlement.

So once again to the wisdom spouted by the Sinhala marketing manager. Let the Sinhala people and their leaders understand the true Tamil position and extend a genuine hand of friendship and equality. Let not war weariness among Tamils be misconstrued as an indication of their willingness to accept permanent second-class status. If a genuine and durable product is offered by the south, the north would accept it. In the absence of such a product no amount of sophistry or gimmickry would help sell it. If it is to be imposed by force alone then resistance as in the past would be inevitable.

The need of the hour is for the PA-UNP bipartisan consensus to be translated into a meaningful and far-reaching power sharing formula that would treat the ethnic issue as the national question and not a minority problem.

Courtesy: Sunday Leader. 16 July 2000