Agent Orange: The Breach in Buddhist Hegemony Must Be Widened

by Tamil Guardian editorial, June 15, 2005
The political turmoil which engulfed Sri Lanka this week was utterly predictable, following, as it does, a depressingly familiar pattern that has characterized ethnic relations in Sri Lanka since independence.  Today's bone of contention is, of course, the proposed joint mechanism between the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lanka government for sharing tsunami-related aid.  But the Post-Tsunami Operation Management Structure (PTOMS) is merely a device around which a much deeper dispute, that of the status of the Tamil people in the Sinhala-dominated country, has once again emerged.  We emphasis people, because the rhetoric of pluralism as commonly deployed in Sri Lanka marginalizes the notion of a Tamil collective identity - even as the Sinhala equivalent is crystallised in the unabashedly non-secular constitution.  As such, when the four chapters of the powerful Buddhist clergy united last week to condemn the joint mechanism, they were taking a stand not only against the LTTE, but the formal recognition of the existence of political rights-bearing non-Sinhala communities on the island.

From a Tamil perspective, the events this week are strikingly similar to those of the mid-fifties (a full quarter century before the Tamils' armed struggle erupted).  Even then Buddhist monks took to the streets alongside Sinhala nationalists to harangue that government over its belated recognition of the Tamil language in the wake of its Sinhala Only policy.  Another precedent was also set by those protests - that of Sinhala leaders abrogating pacts with Tamils when pressured by nationalists.  It also marked the beginning of what some scholars have termed 'ethnic outbidding' - Sinhala political parties vying with each other to be more anti-Tamil.  Over two decades of brutal conflict and the sweeping winds of 'globalisation' have done little to alter this mindset.

A half-century after Sinhala Only, today's Sinhala leadership is in turmoil over another deal with the Tamils.  Why such anguish?  The P-TOMS is not about Tamil independence.  It is not about federalism.  It is not even about an interim administration for the NorthEast.  In fact, it is not a political agreement at all.  It is merely a procedural mechanism to distribute funds to rehabilitation projects.  But it does formally recognise that there are Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese - not merely 'Sri Lankans' - on the island.  And this is the cause of the indignation and hysteria.

But if peace and, in particular, ethnic reconciliation is to be possible in Sri Lanka, the breach made this week in Buddhist hegemony must be widened.  The international community's uncompromising insistence on the joint mechanism is thus to be welcomed, despite the political uproar that has ensued.  Without this international resolve, there is no doubt President Kumaratunga - herself a Sinhala hardliner - would have buckled to the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) and the Maha Sangha.  With the JVP's exit from government, international pressure has also had another unexpected but welcome outcome: the two main Sinhala parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), are being compelled to curb their proclivity for anti-Tamil outbidding.  Both are nervous about the rising tide of Sinhala nationalism stirred up by the monks and the Marxists, but there is little they can do.  International support for the joint mechanism has thus slowed the deepening of Tamil scepticism about peace.

But the question is what happens next?  Having safely crossed the rubicon of the JVP's exit, Kumaratunga is still prevaricating over signing the P-TOMS.  Instead, she intends to table the document in Parliament for discussion.  As up to a million internally displaced brace for another monsoon and pledged aid awaits the agreement, it is unclear what purpose the Parliamentary debate is to serve.

More importantly, there are wider concerns for the Tamils.  As Kumaratunga herself pointed out to the monks in her efforts to appease them, the actual disbursement of aid comes under state's purview.  We know that Sri Lanka's corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy is shot through with Sinhala chauvinism and riddled with clientelist networks.  P-TOMS, moreover, has only one year of life.  These factors, combined with the Sinhala leaders' manifest reluctance to equitably distribute aid amongst the island's communities raises serious doubts as to whether those needing aid will actually receive it.  Nevertheless, from a Tamil perspective, with the splintering of Sinhala resistance to sharing aid, there is decidedly more cause for optimism this week.

Let Live and Live: Colombo’s aggression will undoubtedly be matched

Amid the political turmoil in Sri Lanka, the shadow war between Army-backed paramilitaries and the Liberation Tigers continues unabated.  The almost daily violent deaths in the island's restive east and in Colombo are taking place, moreover, amid deepening acrimony between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE.  The mobilization of the Special Task Force (STF) in recent weeks amid LTTE accusations the unit is also launching cross-border raids, suggests things are going to get worse before they get better.  One reason the situation has deteriorated this far is collective failure in the peace process to deal firmly with those aspects of the February 2002 ceasefire agreement concerning the numerous paramilitary groups nurtured by Sri Lankan military intelligence.

In this context, the pointed demand this week by the co-chairs of Sri Lanka's donor community that Colombo "take decisive action to ensure that killings are stopped and paramilitaries are disarmed immediately as required in the Cease-Fire Agreement," is welcome.  It is not a question of whether Sri Lanka does so or not.  The peace process stands on better ground if the fictional 'intra-LTTE violence' is replaced by a pragmatic recognition of ground realities.  As the Co-Chairs are aware, the 'paramilitary' concept encapsulates the broader problem of the Sri Lankan armed forces subverting the ceasefire and continuing a campaign of targeted assassinations of LTTE cadres and supporters.

The question is whether the Sri Lankan armed forces are under political control?  If President Chandrika Kumaratunga is unable to leash the dogs of war, then the viability of the Norwegian initiative must be in doubt.  On the other hand, if her authority is respected, then the activities blamed on the paramilitaries - including the 'Karuna Group' - can be curtailed relatively quickly.  The question arises, moreover, amid increasing belligerence by the military.  Harassment and attacks on the officers and offices of the LTTE's Political Wing and even on the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) have risen sharply.  There are efforts to trigger conflict between Tamils and Muslims in both Trincomalee and Batticaloa-Amparai.

The Co-Chairs have demanded the LTTE halt its counter-campaign to the Army's targeted killings.  The LTTE is manifestly keen to expand its political activities and broaden support for its policies.  The movement is well aware of the political costs - both internationally and domestically - stemming from engagement in the shadow war.  But as long as the armed forces continue to make determined efforts to kill senior LTTE leaders while murdering other cadres, the movement will be compelled to defend itself vigorously.  The fortunes of the peace process are thus utterly dictated by the trajectory of Colombo's shadow war.

Simply put, if it ends, peace advances.

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Posted June 17, 2005