Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Some Remarks on International Involvement, a Political Solution, the Merger Issue and Muslim Factors

by Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz, Department of Political Science, Temple University, USA

Muslims are at the crossroads and their elites need to make their choices very carefully. They need to be aware of both the international political environment and the pressures of the conflict on the progress of Sri Lanka, as well as their fragmented reality both in the Northeast and South.

In modern state affairs, international elites play a large role in deciding the fate and destination of local affairs. These elites usually devour liberal/neo-liberal agendas, and support all kinds of political decisions, including war and peace, and endorse all kinds of political actors, both liberal and non-liberal, as long as those local actors recognize the agendas of the international elites agendas.   

One may find difficulties to accept this political science theory, but reality does not oppose my understanding.     

In Sri Lanka, since end of the cold war, both the west and India have been sharing common agendas, which oppose both a separate state and a Sinhala-Buddhist dominated unitary state. These actors, including India, have deep political, strategic and economic interests on Sri Lanka, which is located in the strategically important Asian region. Besides, China, a rising Asian power, has burgeoning interests in the region.   

Thus, to avoid increasing China's influence in the region (with or without Pakistani support) and to consolidate their interests in war-torn Sri Lanka, the west and India are more likely choose compromise over confrontation with the Tamil Tigers, who have already earned great deal of attention due to its policies.

The Tamil Tigers, who claim Sinhalese discrimination against the ethnic Tamils, well know that there will not be another new state in their part of South Asia. The doors for new states were closed in 1971 as East Pakistan produced the linguistic based state of Bangladesh. So, practically, it is not possible to witness another state in the region, mainly due to the current international geo-political environment. For that reason, to pacify the Tamil Tigers and to consolidate their interests, these elites, including India, would like to see a political solution to the ethnic civil war in Sri Lanka.  

Whether one likes it or not, such a political package should be based on wider power-sharing for the Northeast. As we all know, India would not support less than the 13th Amendment, which introduced a temporary merger of the Tamil areas in 1988. India, a rising economic elephant in the region, consistently has been opposing a referendum on the fate of the temporary merger, and will oppose any such move by Colombo. Realistically, Sri Lankan political elites cannot afford to infuriate India.

India has been cautiously observing the increasing Pakistani military involvement in Sri Lanka against the Tamil Tigers, particularly its Air Force in the ongoing military operations against the Tamil Tigers, and will not bless such military cooperation between Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Likewise, India will not definitely endorse any concrete military actions against the Tamils for several reasons (India's Tamil constituencies, its own interests, etc), so it is highly likely India would oppose de-merger and would pursue political solution just below the level of a separate state, but a little beyond the 13th Amendment of 1988.    

Will the West, principally the US, go against India parameters on Sri Lanka? According to accepted wisdom on Sri Lanka, one cannot think pessimistically. India is a regional power and, in fact, nothing can be realistically done against its interests.

Even China knows this fact, though it is trying to expand its influence through the parties like the JVP in Sri Lanka and the Marxists rebels in India and Pakistan, as well as Bangladeshi ruling elites in Bangladesh. But regional actors such as China know the reality and, thus, China has been trying to be on board South Asia to expand its interests.

The Tamil Tigers, who allegedly burned their fingers by killing Rajiv Gandhi in 1990, now seem to increasingly regretting their blunders, while Southern Sinhala-Buddhists have been doing their homework to engage India. Also, Muslim elites, including the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), have been maintaining very good relations both with Western players and India. The SLMC contacts with India go back to 1988. The SLMC is a recipient of India's generous help for a while and also has been enjoying similar support from Western actors, including Norway.   

The bottom line is that actors in Sri Lanka cannot go against the interest of India due to the global order.   So, it is impossible for political actors in Sri Lanka to close their eyes to India in their struggle to seek a political solution undoing the North-East merger. Any feasible political solution will come up or will have to with the merger.

Sri Lanka's desperate Sinhala political elites who have been outbidding their opponents on anti-Tamil or anti-minority issues since independence, will attempt to employ so-called 'Muslim factors' to disturb such political moves for their own electoral benefit. These Sinhalese elites have played a considerable role in the past to disturb ethnic unity among Sri Lankans, particularly between the Tamils and Muslims, and will continue to do so. The JVP and JHU have been playing the primary role to de-link the merger in the name of patriotism, and will do the same through their new organization to gain Sinhalese support to outbid their Sinhala opponents in the UNP and SLFP camp for electoral gains.    

In my professional understanding, Sri Lanka's conflict, which has victimized the lives of more than 80,000 people, requires a political solution. The Tamil Tigers are a product of Sri Lanka's five decades old ethnic outbidding that Sri Lanka's Sinhala political elites have employed to win Sinhalese votes. Minorities in Sri Lanka have legitimate grievances and this must be settled through political negotiations and engagements. 

I do not think the ethnic civil war in Sri Lanka or elsewhere can be settled amicably through the language of war. In fact, war will not in anyway aid to weaken the LTTE; rather military confrontations, by and large, trigger mass cooperation, support and ethnic/religious  loyalty for political movements. This has been clearly proved in the case of Hezbollah, which successfully resisted mighty Israel's 34 days failed military maneuver, which was made possible due to covert and overt help of the US.

As a matter of fact, the Sri Lankan state since 1983, controlled by the Southern Sinhalese elites, has been trying to militarily neutralize the LTTE, but what history proves is that the more the state uses violen, the stronger the Tamil Tigers are.  

In Sri Lanka, even after 25 years of conflict, the Sinhalese political classes have not come to realize that minorities, including the Muslims, have legitimate grievances that deserve honorary political solutions. As I have always said, a final solution of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict requires the reconstitution of the post-colonial unitary State. This may be, in my understanding, a good recipe to neutralize the Tamil Tigers.  

In this context, Muslim political actors, who generally maintain cordial contests with the Sinhala elites to strengthen Muslim identity based on Islamic faith and to win their own shares in Sri Lanka's polity, need to formulate good strategies to win their piece of the cake. It seems their stratagem is politically hurting the Northeast Muslims. 

Muslims are at the crossroads and their elites need to make their choices very carefully. They need to be aware of both the international political environment and the pressures of the conflict on the progress of Sri Lanka, as well as their fragmented reality both in the Northeast and the South. Northeast Muslims, whether one likes it or not, need to live with the Tamils. Practically, they cannot think of life beyond the Tamils, who have the larger say in the entire region. That does not mean Muslims need to compromise their political choices; but my point is that Muslims need to make practical demands or make demands that do not go against the fundamental interests of the Tamils.  

Also, Northeast Muslims need to begin negotiations with the Northeast Tamil leadership. Northeast Muslims cannot afford to reject the Tamil leadership while innocently and completely trusting the Southern Sinhala elites, who have been trying to play Muslim cards to destabilize the both Eastern region and a political solution. Such a situation would help the Tamil Tigers to actively pursue their agendas and to win more international legitimacy. Sadly, it seems the Muslim politico-community and intellectuals do not understand this harsh reality.

The f ollowing demands from Muslim political and intellectuals circles may help to win our share:          

  • Pressure both the LTTE and the GOSL for political solution that fulfils the needs of the minorities.         
  • Demand a separate Muslim seat in the peace negotiations. This should be done through the international actors.           
  • Engage the Tamil leadership that has been politically and militarily confronting the Southern Sinhala leaderships since 1983. Muslims need such engagements both to win their demands and to successfully operate a future Muslim unit in the east.         
  • Demand a Muslim politico-administrative unit  in a chunk of the Northeast.
  • Pressure the GOSL through the international actors to declare entire Muslim parts of East as peace zones that is literally free from the activities of Tamil paramilitary forces, i.e. Karuna.           
  • Pressure the Tamil Tigers through international actors, including India, to declare the EAST a peace zone. Muslim parts of the east should NOT be used by the Tamil Tigers for military purposes against the state forces or Tamil paramilitary forces and vice versa.         
  • Urge the JVP and JHU NOT to play Muslim cards for their political gain.       
  •  Muslim political parties and organizations - needless to say Muslim scholars - should form a common agenda and platform to pursue these demands.  

According to well received political science theories, political choices generate consequences. Whether we like it or not, the masses will have to pay a price for every choice the elite and their friends, as well as the politico-organizations, make in the name of masses. Therefore, let us hope these political forces make some good choices both to fulfill their own agendas and to give at least a bit of peace to those masses who voted them into political office.

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