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Tamil Leadership must understand the True Nature of the Sinhala mindset

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By Vishnuguptha

“The incentives toward reactive ethnic voting are strong. When voters of one group choose, in effect, not to choose, but to give their vote predictably on an ethnic basis to an ethnically defined party, they put voters of the other group who do choose among parties at a collective disadvantage. All else being equal, such voters will seek to reduce their disadvantage by concentrating their votes in a comparable ethnic party. In such a situation, ethnic votes tend to drive out non-ethnic votes.” – Donald Harowitz

The present regime, it appears, is not interested in moving beyond the euphoria of the war victory to resolving the real problems of the Tamil community. The evidence is overwhelming. From the time the guns fell silent, thanks mainly to the brilliant and persevering efforts and tactics of the commanders of the three forces – Army, Navy and Air Force – the President and his Cabinet of Ministers are perpetually engaged in triumphalism, an ego-trip beyond the pale.

Rekindling patriotic passions

No meaningful debate has been initiated by the regime to involve the interested parties towards seeking a lasting solution. No constructive dialogue has been encouraged in order to bring the main grievances of the Tamil people to public awareness; no signal has been given as to the government’s stance on a number of core issues of the Tamil population in the country – Tamil homeland, implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, devolution of land and police powers to the provinces, so forth and so on.

The euphoria that emerged with the war victory continues, branding every notion of fair-minded argument for a just and fair settlement for the Tamil grievances not only as unpatriotic, but tracing them as well to international conspiracies. With the forthcoming Provincial Council Elections in the Eastern, Sabaragamuwa and North-Central Provinces, these patriotic passions will be rekindled on election platforms, not only by President Rajapaksa, but also by his ministers and PC candidates. This is not the random behaviour of a certain group of like-minded politicians in power, but on the contrary, it is the outcome of a well-orchestrated mechanism intended to deceive and brainwash a thinking public. Their sole aim would be to win the elections and show the world that a great majority of the people endorse these policies.

They have learnt their lessons from the best in the art of deceit and lies – Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s infamous Minister of Propaganda. Firstly, repetition of a lie over and over again makes it look like truth and secondly, wrapping the most dastardly of crimes in an acceptable lingo such as ‘final solution’ for the mass murder of Jews. The finest examples of these are ‘zero casualties’ for an armed conflict that devoured tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians and ‘humanitarian operation’ for the most brutal warfare conducted between two parties in modern Sri Lankan history.

However, as in most cases, history is chronicled by the victor. Consequently, at least for the time being, the ruling junta decides what and how facts are presented to the world. But unlike the ancient times, there is something called instant relay of news in the twenty-first century. What’s happening in the warfront is brought before our very eyes in our drawing rooms via television and mobile phones in a matter of hours, if not minutes. I don’t think that the present rulers have factored that in.

Right to Information Act ‘not necessary’

In the last week of June 2011, President Rajapaksa told, of all audiences, the media, that the Right to Information Act was not necessary. How confounded, confused and conceited is that? The arrogance and condescending attitude of the regime is immeasurable. One can understand if this is coming out of the mouth of a military dictator or a monarch, but to realize that it was your president who was elected by your own free vote, is tragic-comic to say the least. What is even more perplexing is the silence of the so-called free media in the country. May be the situation has to get much worse before it starts getting better!

Almost from the earliest phase of this crisis, the fundamental demands of Ceylon Tamils remained the same. They were very well defined at the time of the Thimpu Talks that were held in July 1985. The four preliminary demands of Sri Lankan Tamils were:

1. To be recognized as a distinct nationality

2. The recognition and guarantee of the territorial integrity of the traditional homelands of the Ceylon Tamils

3. The right to self-determination of the Tamil nation, and

4. Recognition of citizenship and Fundamental Rights of all Tamils who regard Sri Lanka as their home

The bone of contention for the Sinhalese would be the third demand, the right to self determination of the Tamil nation. However, in this writer’s view, this demand does not necessarily mean a separate state, nor would it pose a threat to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. If the objectives of a self-determined Tamil nation could be met via a province or an amalgam of provinces into one with extensive and effective devolution of powers from the Centre to the Provinces with land and police activities included, then that could be the turning point for the building-up of the united Sri Lanka that everyone seems to desire.

If the President can coax the vociferous group of Sinhalese chauvinists in the government to concede this, I am sure he can sell a viable solution to the country at large, despite some strong protests that might emanate from the less broadminded segments of the Buddhist clergy.

Committed to the devolution package

The Line Ministries will have to be honestly committed to the devolution package without any reservations and this is where the goodwill of the President and inherent strengths of the presidential powers will be tested and tried. Does the current Commander-in-Chief have the will, the desire and the courage to persuade his Cabinet and other parliamentarians to go along with it? If not, the J.R. Jayewardene Constitution of 1978 will have failed in the most fundamental way.

Surely the very reason that this Constitution was invested with wide and extensive powers to the Executive was for the holder of that office to be able to harness that power to bring about a resolution to one of the most crucial problems the country has faced in its storied history.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution has given even more extensive flexibility and almost dictatorial powers to the President. If President Rajapaksa and his Government opt not to use these powers to bring about a lasting solution to the country’s most nagging problem, and instead uses those same powers to enrich themselves while keeping the populace misinformed, then it tells a totally different story.

J.R. Jayewardene used the same tactic to frustrate the then civilian Tamil leadership as well as the militants in order to appease the Sinhalese chauvinists in his Cabinet. However, when all the chips were down, Jayewardene still used his presidential powers to sign the Jayewardene/Gandhi accord and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is the result. This made J.R. Jayewardene unique in that he also happened to be the prime mover behind the sabotage that propelled the Buddhist clergy to pressurize S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to abrogate the Bandaranaike/Chelvanayakam Pact in 1957.

People say that J.R. Jayewardene’s legacy is marred by what he did not do during the crucial days that followed the ’83 July riots, but thanks to him and only him, there is at least the 13th Amendment, which extended some degree of autonomy to the Northern Tamils in Sri Lanka. It is true that the spirit of the 13th Amendment was never adhered to by the Centre, through many devious means such as withholding adequate funds and not devolving any powers through their Line Ministries.

President Rajapaksa is doing the same, and he does not seem to be in any way, inclined towards extending any concessions to Tamils. Now, with General Fonseka out in the open as a free man, President Rajapaksa should show the country that he is no Sinhalese-chauvinist and that he has the will, the desire and the determination to do the right thing by our Tamil brethren.

True nature of the Sinhalese mindset

At the same time, the present Tamil leadership too must understand the true nature of the Sinhalese mindset – if you push too hard, you are not getting anywhere. They also should consider the untold misery that the war brought about on their own people and that history is always changed by peacemakers and not warriors. Yet, the speech of R. Sampanthan, the much-acclaimed Tamil Leader, at the last ITAK convention in Batticaloa, did not sound conciliatory at all. His claim during his speech and at later press interviews that the ITAK stands behind a ‘united’ Sri Lanka as distinct from or instead of a ‘unitary’ Sri Lanka raised many an eye-brow in the South.

Exactly what kind of an audience that Sampanthan had in mind when he addressed his party convention in Batticaloa, we are not certain. Many apologists of Sampanthan claim that he had to pacify the Tamil hardliners, especially from the diaspora, and from whom his party is allegedly receiving funds for its political survival. If so, that certainly is an excuse, not a valid reason.

‘Mahawansa’ myths

If Sampanthan demands statesmanship on the part of the Sinhalese leadership, then he himself must reciprocate by displaying his own statesmanship and boldness. Waving a Sri Lankan Lion Flag alone would not qualify him to be perceived by the large majority of the Sinhalese population as a true fellow Sri Lankan, nor would it hoodwink them to apathy. Mere symbolic gestures do not matter, unless they are backed by honest utterances of policy and principles.

The Tamil leaders should realize that not only do they have to convince the party in power – for they are the ones that would ultimately wield authority to grant any concessions – but the country at large too needs to be persuaded by their logic. Not only Sampanthan, but all Tamil leaders at all levels, be it Parliament or Provincial or Pradesheeya Saba levels, must realize that the defeat of the LTTE has caused an irrevocable difference to the course of the ethno-political journey and their collective voice must essentially echo the sentiments of the times. They need to reconcile themselves to the sometime unpalatable political reality that the majority Sinhalese mindset is deeply rooted in the ‘Mahawansa’ myths.

If any concessions are to be made, they must emanate from the very depths of the Sinhalese psyche. It might take another generation or two, to erase the memories of atrocities committed by the LTTE and other terrorist organizations that are etched in the collective mind of the Sinhala Nation.

Tamils too may realize how difficult it would be purge similar sentiments from their own conscience. And it needs to be borne in mind by everybody that there is always a middle ground. Examples for such middle ground, on which disparate parties had met and reconciled many apparently irreconcilable differences and disparities in history, are ample, yet we humans refuse to learn. And the flow of human follies continues.

Statesmanship

In such a context of confusion and ethnic tension, statesmanship is what is most called for, but is exactly what is not forthcoming. If those who occupy the leadership stratum do not respond to the crying need of the hour, one has to look outside the system for solace. Is it solely due to the insensitivities and arrogance of those who wield power or is it owing to an anomalous system that in itself is inherently faulty and insensitive and not capable of producing such statesmen?

Ethnic tensions did exist long before the Executive Presidential system was introduced in Sri Lanka. Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda in an article published on the website of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR) states thus: “The Soulbury constitution of 1947, drafted mainly by the advisors of the outgoing British colonial state, contained a crucial provision that prohibited the Sri Lankan parliament from enacting discriminatory legislation.

However, the socialist-nationalist constitutionalism that came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s radically disagreed with the liberal constitutionalist perspective of minority rights as collective rights. Thus, the 1972 Constitution removed the collective rights clauses of the Soulbury Constitution and subjected minority rights entirely to the will of the legislature, the majority of which were under all circumstances, members of the ethnic majority.” The resulting radical change of mind, especially among the majority Sinhalese population whose vulnerabilities were exploited to the hilt by narrow-minded politicians led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and his nationalist bedfellows, contributed to the escalation of tensions and violent propensities of the minority Tamils.

The breakaway group of G.G. Ponnambalam’s Tamil Congress that formed a new political party in the late 40s advocated a more intense position on the Tamil question and painted themselves into one extreme corner, while the non-political leaders of the majority kept on pressurizing Bandaranaike to tow a more pro-Sinhala agenda. One followed the other until it reached quite unmanageable proportions in the late seventies and early eighties. Sinhalese leaders were left with no choice, but to satisfy the masses whose overwhelming majority was already brainwashed in the ‘Mahawansa mindset.’ Executive Presidency gave added impetus, although the legal arguments for and against it were confined to the Colombo drawing rooms and social clubs crowded by the elites of the country.

Many arguments are being made for the legitimization and validity of the Executive Presidency system; amongst many of which is the winning of the war against the LTTE. In this regard, I propose to make my submissions in the next week’s article. COURTESY: CEYLON TODAY

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