by N Sathiya Moorthy
Unknown to the world and unacknowledged by the international community, Sri Lanka may be running to a point of no-return, all over again. ‘International intervention’ in the form of UNHRC resolutions has made the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa more vulnerable in electoral terms – or, that is the internal perception – and this has consequences for the course of the ‘ethnic discourse’ in the country.
So has international invention given ideas to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and more so the Tamil Diaspora, the latter having imbibed the duplicity of the LTTE with disastrous consequences as in the past.
The Tamils cannot but share the blame. The Government had invited the Tamil moderates for talks when ‘Eelam War-IV’ was still on. The TNA said the Government’s idea might have been to isolate the LTTE in the midst of the Tamils. The Government’s possible aim was to commence a process that could lead to a political solution when the war. The TNA was obstinate and stayed away. So, post-war suspicions lingered in the Government’s mind – and that of the majority Sinhala polity. Those who wanted an honourable political package to be offered to the Tamils after the war were not sure on what would satisfy the TNA.
In the initial months after the war, the TNA too was not sure on what it wanted. When they finally spoke, and spoke to the Government, they gave enough indications about their mind-set. Their demands were near-similar to those of the Tamil moderates’ pre-war. Or, so felt the Government, and the Sinhala polity, particularly the ‘Sinhala Buddhist nationalist constituency’. Their numbers are not many, but their voices do not end up in wilderness. To them all, the Tamil moderates’ demands had led to the war in the first place, and they would not have any of it, any more. They are wary of the Government talking to exclusively to the TNA, the LTTE’s ‘sole representative’ status having poisoned their minds enough.
One by one, the Tamil demands are manifesting a situation where memories of the past remain. The demand for the re-merger of the North and the East is only one. The Government has not helped matters by shifting the course. They are not sure where the goal-post should at all be. What started off officially as talks between the Government and the TNA was later flagged as between the SLFP leader of the ruling UPFA combine and a section of the divided Tamil polity. The decision, according to the Government now, should come from Parliament, and hence the negotiations should also be through a Parliament Select Committee (PSC).
There is a Government with a ‘minority complex’ and a Tamil alliance with a ‘majority complex’. The minority complex of the Government does not flow from ethnicity but from political realities. The proportional representation (PR) system of elections has ensured that the directly-elected President does not often end up commanding a parliamentary majority in his own right – which anyway could make any incumbent more despotic than even the Constitution ordained. The political complexities coupled with past experience in the handling of the Tamil leadership – militant or otherwise – means that no leader in President Rajapaksa’s place can feel confident of offering the Tamils a deal that they would love and still retain parliamentary and political support on the Sinhala side.
The TNA does not want the Tamils’ focus to move away from the party. Fragile as the internal stability of the TNA is, any division of Tamil political responsibility in finding a negotiated settlement to the ethnic issue could divide the TNA, instead. This goes beyond their devolution demands. ‘Incremental devolution’ is the way out, and the international community has to work with the Government and the TNA in Sri Lanka – and on the Diaspora Tamils nearer home, who are seen in Colombo as a stumbling block. Worse still, when the Diaspora is mentioned, the Sri Lankan State revives memories of the LTTE past – aid, arms and political propaganda in the cause of a ‘separate State’.
Since Geneva UNHRC vote, Colombo sees the international community as being biased for their own reasons and that their prime agenda is not to help find a political solution to the ethnic issue, but something as intractable as human rights violations through ‘Eelam War IV’. Having ratcheted up ‘nationalist sentiments’ that went beyond ‘Sinhala nationalism’ and targeting sections of the international community that was focussing on HR issues even then, the Government cannot be expected to mollify those sentiments on the ground without consequences. The international community, even at the time of war, was arming the Government on the one side without question and raking up HR violations, as to strike a political balance. Colombo does not understand such complex communication.
The Sri Lankan State’s memory is also one of an political solution to the ethnic issue feeding the revival of ‘JVP-like insurgency’, though the JVP itself is no more militant, nor is it relevant as much as it used to be even as a moderate political party with a substantial presence in Parliament. There is also the Sinhala right intellectuals, who have a convenient argument against every inconvenient situation. Independent of the Government leadership or their own perceptions, as perceived by the rest, it cannot take chances. Nor can it act as rashly as its predecessors, with consequences for the leadership of the day.
The concerns of the Sri Lankan State are much different from those of the Government of the day, and those of the political masters. Their continuing concerns relate to issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity that were threatened through the three decades of war, violence and terrorism. To expect the institutions of the State, including the security forces, to yield much ground on the much-misunderstood Police powers to a Tamil-exclusive Province in the North, coupled with the TNA’s current demands for re-merger with the East, should be appreciated for what they are worth.
They would require grater proof for greater integration of the Tamils in the Sri Lankan identity, which the latter have dubbed ‘Sinhala colonisation’ – and rightly so in some cases. It is for the political class in their midst to ensure that such integration takes place, and is not a forced one. Both sides have been seeing ghosts where even shadows do not exist. It suits their political class to create a mind-set in their respective constituencies, and later start believing in their own half-truths. The truth lies in between and neither side is wants to bite the bullet. For, truth hurts and hurts more.
‘Incremental devolution’, where the current concerns of the Sri Lankan State is addressed for the present, and the larger interests of the ethnic minorities are addressed over time is what a political solution should be all about. Democracy has given Sri Lanka the opportunity to revisit their rulers’ performance at every turn, and longer the period, newer would also be the constituencies.
These constituencies would have also lived without war and violence for a generation and more, and would be able to re-think their priorities in their immediate circumstances. That is where the final resolution of the ethnic issue lies. Not in present-day Colombo, not in Geneva, for sure. Anything to the contrary would be a half-way mark at best, and could go either way down the line.
That way, even the PSC can only be a via media. The Tamils’ demands are still set in the past. In the 21st century, where most of them have migrated to the West, seeking political and/or economic asylum but never to return, the demands need to be re-visited and contexualised to the legitimate aspirations of those left behind – and for good.
The post-war density of population in the North, for instance, may not justify police stations in many villages, and over time, there might not even be many Tamil youth left without a militant past to be considered for policing jobs until they had been ‘reformed’ and rehabilitated.
To ask for Police Powers for the Provinces, when the Tamils may require adequate representation in the police and the armed forces through a scheme of reservations, could be a travesty of ground realities.
On Land, another sensitive issue for the Tamils, with all Government lands in the non-Tamil areas re-distributed to the (Sinhala) landless during the war years, the 200,000 acres in the erstwhile ‘war zone’ has suddenly become a bone of contention. The issue needs to be handled with sensitivity and care if the Tamils do not have to talk about ‘colonisation’ and the Sinhala landless should not complain that their Tamil brethren are getting a disproportionately high ‘per capita’ share, only because they had fought the Sri Lankan State!
There are no simple and time-bound solutions to these and other issues. If so, the solutions could be worse than the problems. The solutions have to be as evolutionary and revolutionary as the problems. What the Government and the Tamils can do at present is to revisit the issues and revive negotiations, whatever the form and pace, to arrive at stages within an open-ended but incremental – and at times calibrated – solution. The earlier the international community understood the complexities and acted accordingly, better would it be for Sri Lanka, the rest of the region and the rest of the world, too.
(The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation for which this paper was written).