At the time of writing, a fundamentally important process of discussion and drafting is underway, shaping a united Tamil political stand on a matter that has ‘intermestic’ (Kissinger) implications. ‘Intermestic’ denotes matters ‘at the interface’ of the domestic and the international.
Whatever is contained in the document due for release around New Year 2022, the adoption of a common or consensual political stand on the part of the Tamil political parties would be of cardinal significance since a unified Tamil political platform has not been seen for decades, after Thimpu in 1985.
Much effort has gone into the drafting, negotiations and the convergence, and it would not be fair to single out this or that personality for the progress of the effort, one personality stands out. Tamil politics being notoriously fissiparous, not even India could have brought the Tamil parties together. The convergence around a common Tamil stand and its manifestation in a draft document would not have been possible without President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. No previous President was able to achieve this.
The entire effort has taken place solely because of the political behaviour of President GR, in what he has not done as well as what he seems about to do. He is the first Sri Lankan President who didn’t have a political dialogue or even a single substantive political meeting with the elected Tamil representatives. He is the first Sri Lankan President to have publicly signalled including in conversation with the Indian government at a high-level, that he views the 13th amendment critically and may delete what he considers negative about it. He is the first Sri Lankan President whose Ministers have publicly opined without subsequent contradiction, that the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord (ISLA) of 1987 is null and void.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the sole Sri Lankan President committed to a new Constitution, the draft of which is due to be submitted to the Cabinet in January, which in all probability decreases if not ‘disappears’ the powers devolved to the Provincial Councils as per the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and its outcome, the 13th amendment.
In that concrete context, the Tamil convergence is a defensive one. While the bottom-line, literally and metaphorically, of the document is a strong call for the full implementation of the 13th amendment, the document is on the theme of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the aspirations of the Tamils.
The body of the draft text reiterates the Tamil commitment to federalism as the political solution to the Sri Lankan ethnic question—an entirely legitimate long-term aspiration which will take at least another generation of Sinhalese before it becomes a serious political proposition, and therefore should not divert the analysis or the ensuing discussion. The text rightly regards the 13th amendment as the child of the Indo-Lanka Accord.
Most important of all is the addressee of the document. The draft text is in effect a petition or appeal to the Government of India, the architect and co-signatory of the Accord from which the 13th amendment issues and of which it is the outcome.
The implicit argument is that insofar as the Gotabaya administration is reneging on the 13th amendment and is apparently on the cusp of scrapping it, it is reneging on the Indo-Lanka Accord, and the Tamil parties which supported the Accord due to their trust in India, have no recourse but to turn to India to intercede to save it, ensuring the full implementation of the 13th amendment, without which the Tamil people will be left with zero-provincial autonomy and political space.
President Gotabaya’s project and deducible from his discourse and trajectory seems to be to push the Tamils back to 1980 or to put the clock back to before the shuttle diplomacy of 1983-’84 of Gopalaswamy Parthasarathy.
Will the Modi administration allow a unilateral roll-back on its watch? Whatever the circumstances of the Accord, it is a bilateral agreement and its hub is indeed the devolution of power as a settlement of the Tamil question.
Is President GR willing to bet that after the Chinese ambassador’s assertive visit on a Sri Lankan Navy gun-boat, to the islands bordering India, Delhi will disregard the Tamil request—especially with an election coming up in Tamil Nadu?
GR does have China in his corner in general terms, but is he willing to wager that China will go the distance—and in literal terms, can go the distance—on this particular issue?
Does he need this problem to come between him and India when he needs the maximum economic and diplomatic (Geneva March 2022) help he can get from the neighbour?
The military card
Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to create national unity, one country, without the intermediate stage of provincial semi-autonomy, and boy, has he fulfilled that election pledge. From Hambantota to Ampara to Iranamadu, the peasants of all ethno-linguistic and religious groups are protesting against the presidential policy on fertiliser-weedicide-pesticide and its clear, obvious, heart-rending failure in the fields. The President was always for out-of-the box solutions, and that’s certainly one way of uniting the people across all barriers.
Of course, this gives the democratic parties, especially those of a progressive orientation, a chance of engaging in some unifying activity of their own. Instead of being trapped in the box of devolution vs anti-devolution, those on both sides of that argument can surely transcend it, and build bridges of unity, north, south, west and east, where the President has already created similarity of experience, i.e., a shared experience of despair due to the failing crops. All-island unity can be built not only from above, but more imperatively and surely, from below. There can be no unity without solidarity.
The Sunday newspaper, that is the newspapers of the last Sunday for this year 2021, ran three stories all of which have as a reference point, the defence dimension or a military marker, which, taken together, may constitute a clear pointer of the direction in which we are headed and the outcomes in the year that is about to be born, 2022.
One was the interview of Ven. Galagodaatte Gnanasaara thero, hand-picked by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the chairperson of the One Country, One Law Presidential Task Force. As a tweet from the newspaper’s editorial offices read: “Ven. Gnanasara thero insists to hand over the regime to the military. Virakesari Sunday edition 26/12/201. Interview with Yasiharan.” On further inquiry it turns out that Ven. Gnanasaara had opined in a full-page interview (a thumbnail photo of which accompanied the tweet) that in the context of the economic crisis, authority should be transferred to the military for a limited period so as to overcome it and until it is overcome.
So that’s Exhibit A. Meanwhile Ven. Gnanasaara and his Task Force are holding public sittings in the Central Province, entertaining public representations. Given his views on One Country, his tour is perhaps quite useful in giving the hardcore Sinhala racist base a platform to vent as well as an opportunity to rally that hardcore in service of whatever nation-building project that the good Thero and his appointing authority have in mind.
Ex-President Trump is being investigated about his role in inciting the uprising by a loose Far-Right, neo-confederate and proto-fascist movement on 6 January 2021 on Capitol Hill. What if the US Constitution didn’t have the guardrails it does and the US military lacked the deep civilian ethos that it possesses (at least in relation to its own country)? What if the efforts of Mike Flynn had been successful, and supported by the formation that rioted on 6 January?
Exhibit B is a news item from the Daily FT’s sister paper, which I shall reproduce below, and in its entirety, without comment.
“President holds gala ceremony for 1,090 military officers.
A 1,090 strong military contingent from the tri-forces were the stars on Wednesday night at a gala ceremony at the President’s House.
There were drinks and dinner hosted for them by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Commander-in-Chief and Defence Minister. The guests included one-time Navy Commander Wasantha Karanagoda–now Governor of the North Western Province, Rtd. Air Chief Marshal Jayalath Weerakody, Rtd. Air Force Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke and one time Navy Commanders Daya Sandagiri and Thisara Samarasinghe.
There was no formal ceremony associated with the event where military bands from the three armed forces took turns in playing background music. One participant surmised that the event concerned those who were recruited to the Navy and to other related services after 1971. They had all been associated with Colonel Rajapaksa at different times. There were a few absentees too apart from their ‘absent friends’–those who had died in action or were not in the country over the years.” (https://www.sundaytimes.lk/211226/columns/going-to-the-imf-waiting-for-basil-waiting-for-godot-466813.html)
Exhibit C is perhaps the saddest and most telling of all.
“The Registrar General’s Department has issued a circular making a Security Clearance Report mandatory in the event of a marriage between a Sri Lankan citizen and a foreigner. The department said the circular has been issued following the instructions received from the Defence Ministry as a measure to ensure national security…” (Security clearance required when a Sri Lankan wishes to marry a foreigner – Top Story | Daily Mirror)
It is one thing to say that those occupying certain high posts with security implications, e.g., the upper ranks of the armed forces, intelligence services, and the foreign service, should obtain security clearance when marrying a foreigner. It is quite another to extend it to the whole populace. This is an intrusion into the most private aspect of the private life of a person; that of his/her emotional life, life choices and decisions about partnership.
Sri Lanka and earlier, Ceylon, was always an open society though not quite a liberated one and indeed rather conservative in many ways, areas and social strata. However, there was a fundamental respect for personal decisions such as marriage, leaving approval and disapproval to parents, relatives, etc., which was the only barrier that romance and indeed love had to overcome. As my parents’ wedding photo album shows, my grandparents didn’t attend. But the state never got in the way, and no one had to obtain prior security clearance.
The new regulation is totalitarian in nature, in that it strives for greater control over the private lives of citizens. Going by this regulation the defence authorities get to decide on whether or not to give clearance to a marriage between a Sri Lankan domiciled in Sri Lanka and a man or woman of Sri Lankan origin who is classifiable as a foreigner because he or she is a second-generation member of the Sri Lankan diaspora.
This new regulation will further damage the image of Sri Lanka as an island of freedom and romance. As an island-nation, Ceylon/Sri Lanka has a history of romance and marriage between foreigners and Sri Lankans, just as Ceylonese studying or travelling overseas have often fallen in love with and married those they have met while abroad. That’s who we were and who we are. No defence bureaucracy or President has a right to change that.
If the Bar Association and other civil rights associations are worth their salt, they would petition the Supreme Court against this regulation which is the thin-end of the wedge of totalitarianism.
‘Self-coup’ from above
I have a book in my library titled Story of a Death Foretold, authored by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera. It is about the coup against President Salvador Allende. It’s not published by a leftwing publishing house but by Bloomsbury. The good news is that whatever story is being written in Sri Lanka, it is not that of a coup against an elected President such as Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The bad news is that a story does not have to be one of a coup against an elected President for it to be a story of a death foretold.
Democracy can be killed in more ways than one. While one method is a coup (‘golpe’ in Spanish) against a President, another is a coup by a President (a ‘self-coup’ or ‘auto-golpe’ as they put it in Latin America). Uruguay pioneered the model in which President Juan Bordaberry declared a State of Siege and created a military-civilian junta as it was called. Iconic film-maker Costa-Gavras recreated the moment in the movie ‘State of Siege’ with Yves Montand (which I caught as it opened in London in 1973.) An early Latin American prototype was the State of National Security as the Brazilian military junta called its model.
It can happen here too, and can succeed politico-militarily but not socioeconomically. No military-civilian/civilian-military junta can run the economy. What it can do is to crush what it thinks are the impediments to the harsh economic measures needed to solve the crisis. The farmers will “be seized by the throat by the military and forced into organic cultivation” (as President GR said he could get done but didn’t wish to), with the fertiliser being produced by the military or under military aegis.
The same measures that are being pushed at every panel discussion which is driven by the big corporates or free market fundamentalist think-tanks, will be implemented at gunpoint. A corporate-military-Rajapaksa oligarchic bloc will wield power. As the renowned Uruguayan editor and writer Eduardo Galeano wrote with bitter incandescence in The Cemetery of Words, referring to Milton Friedman’s Chicago Boys who took over the Chilean economy after Pinochet’s coup, “in the global South, Adam Smith needs Mussolini”.
It won’t prove sustainable though. Sanctions and the pullback of tourists will cripple the Sri Lankan economy; China won’t be able to pick up the slack though expenditure will be held down to mere subsistence at gunpoint; and the embittered farmers and other working people will sustain and propel a low-intensity guerrilla movement. Though this may help the military by creating a ‘security threat’, it won’t help foreign investment (and Chinese factories may become targets).
Can the ‘self-coup’ scenario be stopped? Only by determined deterrence. It was the USSR’s Maxim Litvinov who insisted, during the diplomatic mobilisation against fascism, that “peace is indivisible”. In the 21st century, so too is democracy. If the democratic world powers do not unambiguously signal the dominant elements of an administration on a strategically-placed island, that the cost of an ongoing shift from democracy, however flawed, to outright autocracy will be unacceptably high and transcend the limits of the backstop provided by the world’s autocratic powers, then global autocracy and authoritarianism would have succeeded in the oldest democracy in Asia.
There is also the geostrategic dimension. If this negative, qualitatively retrogressive event takes place at a nodal point in the Indian Ocean which is a gateway to the Pacific, the Indian Ocean will prove to contain, or to be, the weakest link of the Indo-Pacific.
The Quad, AUKUS and the Summit for Democracy will be shown up as “paper tigers”, while “the East Wind is prevailing over the West Wind” (Mao, 1957).