Machiavelli said that the enterprise entailing the deadliest risk in politics is to try to institute a new order, and to be a new ruler while doing so (“a new prince in a new principality”). To be a relatively new government trying to introduce a new political system in a polarized, poly-ethnic society with low economic growth, is as fraught an undertaking as one can imagine. The Government is intensifying th evolatility of reform in every possible way.
The Government does not get that you cannot marginalize, alienate and seek to suppress the overwhelmingly largest segment of the Southern opposition, led by probably the country’s most popular figure, and expect it not to be tempted/provoked into playing spoiler.
The Tamil nationalists do not get that the majority Sinhalese on this small island so close to Tamil Nadu (and India), are existentially committed to a state with a strong centre.The Sinhalese have a unitary ethos.
The Sinhala nationalists do not get that it was possible to beat the world’s most formidable terrorist army but it is impossible to get the Tamils to submit politically. Tamil cooperation and partnership is feasible; Tamil submission to political, ideological and social domination is not.
The JO and the social forces undergirding it are just too robust and growing too rapidly to be politically maltreated without adverse consequences, but are systemically and institutionally too disempowered and dis-incentivized to regard themselves as responsible stakeholders in the system and politically behave as such. This is the consequence of the outrageous absurdity of a 54-member Opposition formation being fraudulently deprived of the role of the official Opposition and a 16-member party which openly allies itself with the Government, being conferred that role.
All attempts to suppress this Opposition and its leader, war-winning and postwar developmentalist President Mahinda Rajapaksa,are doomed to fail. With a lower growth rate today (under 4%) than in wartime, social disaffection is growing exponentially, and in such a setting, no legal suppression of the Rajapaksas (brothers and/or sons) can turn back the tide.
Of the two paradigms of managing conflict, the Realist and the Idealist, the Realist paradigm would tell the Government that Mahinda Rajapaksa is such a power-centre, such a polarity in a multipolar game, controls such an extent of political real estate, that he simply has to be drawn into the equation so as to manage a risky reform process and ensure stability. That means formally recognizing his irreducible sphere of political influence. The Idealist ‘conflict transformation’ paradigm would tell them that confidence-building should be undertaken, and Mahinda should not be left out in the cold as a disgruntled potential spoiler or wrecker, but reached out to, drawn in and accommodated as a key stakeholder. Mahinda is the Godfather of the Sinhala ‘greater South’. He holds a veto.
One would have thought that 8 years after the successful end of Asia’s longest war, the Sinhalese nationalists would have understood what it was about, or bothered to find out. Instead, they keep asking questions such as “What are the Tamils complaining about? Where is the discrimination that they speak of? What’s there not to like about us the Sinhalese and the way Sri Lanka is? Aren’t there Tamils in high places?”They should pause to ask themselves why Scotland came close to seceding through a referendum despite the fact that the UK had a Scottish Prime Minister, Gordon Brown!
Sinhala nationalists should look around—Ossetia and Abkhazia, Crimea, Scotland, Catalonia, Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s trending. The problem is how to contain it. The famous author Giuseppe de Lampedusa said in his classic novel The Leopard that “things must change if they are to remain the same”. Sinhala nationalists just don’t get this. A ‘smart patriot’ would.
The Tamil problem was never really about discrimination/equal rights/integration or economic development, or had long ceased to be about them. The issue is that the Tamils feel, rightly or wrongly (in my view, inaccurately) that their community is not an ethnic minority,but a nation, nationality or a distinct people possessing an intrinsic right of self-determination and sovereignty. Why did the Tamil youth sacrifice themselves for thirty years, including as suicide bombers for twenty? Where did the fanatical self-sacrificial commitment come from? What motivated them must have been deep and authentic collective emotion, however distorted and misplaced.
The Sinhala nationalists do not understand that a Constitution is not and cannot be handcuffs or a straitjacket on the minority communities; it can only be a Social Contract, negotiated, not imposed.
If the Sinhala nationalists including the Sinhala Diaspora pressure groups want to know what it is the Tamils are aggrieved about and think they are struggling for, they only have to do two simple things instead of making embarrassingly obtuse and surreal remarks in public fora. The first is to study the LLRC Report. The second is to have a serious chat with some leading anti-Tiger rebels who were valuable allies of the Sri Lankan state, such as Karuna and Douglas Devananda.
Then, comprehension of the truth may finally, belatedly, begin to seep through: the Tamil Question is about ALIENATION;it is about the relationship between the Tamil community and the Sri Lankan state, and the sense of prolonged alienation of that community from the Sri Lankan state.They feel it is not their state. They feel it is a state they are under, not one they fully belong to or fully represents them. They view the Sri Lankan state as The Other and feel the Sri Lankan state views them as the Other.
If the Sinhala nationalists wish to learn another reason why there has to be a political (not merely economic) solution based on some sufficiency of territorial autonomy, they only need to watch/read the impassioned speech made by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar (which should be re-telecast these days) made in Parliament while introducing the August 2000 Draft Constitution, imploring the legislature to help him in the global campaign he was fighting for this country against Tamil secessionism, by providing him with an answer to the question that foreign ministers and leaders asked him in every capital he visited: What is the political reform that the Sri Lankan state is offering the Tamils as an alternative?
As for the Tamil nationalists, they must know that the contradiction between their reality as an ethnic minority/minority community on the island and their self-perception as a globalized nation cannot be sustained open-endedly and the latter imposed upon the Sinhalese. They must realize that for the Sinhala community, a majority on the island and a minority outside it, a strong central government as enshrined in the unitary form of state, is nothing less than ontological.
The Sinhala language, Theravada Buddhism and the unitary state are markers by which the Sinhalese stamp their unique way of being on this island and in the world, demarcating themselves from neighbouring India. The Sinhala majority which refused to give up unitarism and convert to federalism even in the face of foreign intervention and repeated military defeats, is hardly likely to accept it now, having won a protracted war with tremendous sacrifice. With electoral safety valves shut down and economic pain widespread, a de-unitarizing/federalizing experiment could explode.
The solution is a triangulated compromise: neither federalism nor an unreconstructed unitary state, but a unitary state with power devolved to autonomous provinces.
Mahinda Rajapaksa and R. Sampanthan aren’t the problem; nor are the JO and the TNA. If they are part of the problem, they are a far larger, indispensable part of the solution. No solution is possible against or without either Mahinda or Sampanthan. What the process — and the moment — needs is a respected domestic facilitator/mediator who is above the fray.