The Drivers and Scenarios in Post-War Sri Lanka

My focus in this essay is not what happened in the past but what can be envisioned in the near future particularly with regard to the national question in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan security forces comprehensively defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) one year ago. However, the transformation of peace writ small that was achieved in May 2009 to peace writ large has yet to be achieved and the steps taken in that direction are, in my opinion, inadequate. Although the simultaneous operation of so many variables in complex situations makes predictions almost impossible in social science, it is possible to identify possible future scenarios through the analysis of key drivers that undergird future changes. Here I identify four key drivers and four scenarios, though one is a very remote possibility.

Context and Drivers

(1)  Vacuum in Tamil nationalist politics: Comprehensive military defeat of the LTTE and the decimation of its entire leadership have created almost an unbridgeable vacuum in Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. All other trends in Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka revolved round their attitudes towards the LTTE when the latter enjoyed an unchallengeable military capability. The two options that were available to other Tamil nationalist parties were either to be a proxy to the LTTE (TNA) or to be an opponent of it (EPDP, TULF, TMVP). When the LTTE were decimated, none of these two tendencies were in a position to present a viable Tamil nationalist political position. There are no signs that this political vacuum will be filled in the immediate future.

(2)  The rise of exclusive Sinhala nationalism: The second contextual factor that is a determinant in future scenarios is the presence of Sinhala exclusivist nationalism, the manifestation of which may be traced in the mid-1990s. Since the first years of this century, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Hela Urumaya have been in intense competition to emerge as the most prominent and vocal Sinhala party. Although electoral strength of the two parties are not that significant, it is interesting to note that both have been capable of influencing the two main political parties, the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, to change their stand on national question.

(3)  Over-securitization of the state: Prioritization of state security is a natural growth of nearly 30 years of armed conflict that totally disturbed the equilibrium between civil society and military in favor of the latter. Although the armed conflict between the government security forces and the LTTE came to an end a year ago, the involvement of the military in political decision-making remains undiminished. Hence, it is not only a phenomenon but is also an attitude. The government seems to look at almost everything from the prism of its own security, which deeply influences its practices and policies in many spheres.

(4)  External relations: Under the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, there has been a paradigm shift in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. As Gotabhaya Rajapaksa recently outlined, three main elements of Sri Lanka’s new foreign policy are: (1) Sri Lanka is non-aligned country, so that it maintains friendly relations with all the countries in the world; (2) Sri Lanka has shifted the focus of its foreign policy from Western countries (USA and EU) to countries in the region; (3) Sri Lanka maintains special relations with India so that its foreign policy decisions will be consistent with the security concerns of India (limited external self-determination). While these three pillars will remain unchanged, it seems that the government will make a serious attempt to re-win the support of the West, as it is imperative especially from the point of view of economics.

How will these conditions and drivers affect the way in which Sri Lanka deals with the national question post-war? In one of my previous articles, I envisioned that Sri Lanka was heading towards East-Asian type of democracy. The post-election scenario appears to have strengthened the movement in this direction. The way in which the new cabinet was formed signifies that Sri Lanka is now heading towards the adoption of the American style of cabinet-making rather that of the Westminster system that is party based. I do not intend here to discuss possible changes in political landscape at macro level, but confine my analysis to how these changes will impact deliberations on the national question in Sri Lanka.

In what follows, I identify four possible scenarios and assume that the actual developments may combine the characteristics of all these four. Although the fourth scenario is a very remote possibility, we may not be able leave it out completely at least in a theoretical exercise as militant organizations have shown high degrees of resilience. How the first three elements will evolve and morph will also depend on the strength of non-Sinhala nationalisms, the democratic forces, the activities of the opposition parties and the pressure from external actors.

(a) Developmental welfarism: Some section of the ruling coalition and Sinhala elites appear to think that there is no separate or specific Tamil national problem. The problems the Sri Lankan population has faced are, to them, problems of underdevelopment that include poverty, unemployment, regional inequalities and class-based inequalities. These problems are common to the Sinhala population in peripheral regions and to Tamil populations living in the Vanni, Mulathivu or Mannar districts. Tamil youth took up arms as Sinhala youth took up arms in 1971 and 1987-89. According to this view, a specific ethnic/national expression was given to it by the Tamil separatists backed by imperialist forces who sought the destabilization of the region. Now this terrorist threat has been defeated. So, what is imperative now is to address the general and common issues of underdevelopment. Of course a protracted war has made the Northern and Eastern provinces more underdeveloped because the circumstances did not permit the implementation of development projects that took place in other regions. So, special attention to these areas in new development strategies is warranted. This is quite a strong notion within as well as outside the ruling coalition. A large part of the business community also thinks in the same way. Negenahira Udanaya and Uthuru Wasanthaya are concrete expression of this developmental welfarist perspective. The strength of this strategy is that it emphasizes basic material needs of the majority of people that have to be satisfied. However, its main flaw as demonstrated in the last elections lies in the fact that people have basic needs like security, identity and the recognition of identity that are also of an equal existential importance. When those non-material needs are neglected, the experience shows that people tend to interpret the lack of physical and material needs in ethnic terms.

(b) Assimilationist Strategy: President Mahinda Rajapakse announced in his speech to the Parliament after the conclusion of war last year that there is no division in the country hereafter between the majority and minority, and the division that actually exists is between the people who love the country and those who do not. He reiterated the same idea in his exclusive interview with the Editor of the Hindu, N. Ram. Of course, this statement should not be interpreted to give the meaning that the President wanted all to be integrated into one single community shedding their cultural differences. What he implied was an overarching Sri Lankan identity making other identities subordinated to it. Assimilationist strategy gains its strength in my opinion from two sources. First, it flows from the idea of civic nationalism that has been constantly identified with democracy. While accepting the presence of different cultures, it posits, what Habermas called, constitutional patriotism. However, in real politics, civic nationalism except in exceptional cases tends to be defined from the prism of majoritarian cultures neglecting or marginalizing pluri-cultural characteristics of the society. Hence, there is a possibility, in highly divided societies, that non-dominant communities may come forward to resist such an overarching identity. Secondly, it appears to be fitting into prevailing demographic realities of the island.

(c) Power-Sharing Arrangement: Since 1987, two major political parties in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party accepted that some form of power-sharing is needed to satisfy Tamil nationalist demands. When the President announced that his government would implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution fully until new proposals are ready, many believed that this would be the point of departure or benchmark in future constitutional reform. In the Parliamentary election in 2010, the UPFA made an appeal to the voters that the UPFA be given a two third majority in the Parliament so that it could initiate long awaited constitutional reforms. However, the UPFA did not reveal what would be the major changes that it proposed to introduce in making new constitution. Changing the electoral system was the only aspect that was stressed during the election time. Prior to the election, three suggestions were flagged. The suggestions were: (1) full implementation of the 13th Amendment (may be with some minuses); (2) the introduction of a second chamber; and (3) a bill of right that was initiated by Milinda Moragoda as a former Minister of Justice. The negative signs are visible in the arena of real political practice. First, there is no genuine effort to implement the 13th Amendment. Secondly, the implementation of many development programs is done by the central government, almost completely neglecting elected provincial bodies. This is clearly visible in the Eastern Province. Thirdly, the President has so far not taken any action against the activities of the Governor in the Eastern Province whose own actions are under constant contestation from the elected provincial council. Finally, there has been a significant Sinhala national opposition within and outside the government to any kind of power-sharing arrangement. The recent statement by Minister Wimal Weerawansa against Indian Foreign Secretary’s statement demonstrates this anti-power-sharing sentiment in government.

(d) Back to Confrontational Politics: If the government gives into Sinhala exclusive forces and assumes that the large section of the Sinhala masses are against any kind of consensual politics, are totally unconcerned about the Tamil national issues and the issues relating to other numerically small nations and ethnic groups, the re-emergence of exclusive Tamil nationalist politics may be unavoidable. The epicenter of Tamil exclusive nationalist politics has been now transferred to the diasporic community. Although it may not happen in the immediate future due to the high magnitude of the defeat suffered by the LTTE and continuing vigilance of the security establishment, the presence of trained combatants and stockpile of arms hidden in various places may facilitate an emergence of militant groups like in the late 1970s.

This is based on the talk given at Center for South Asian Studies, in Chennai.

End of War Special Edition

  • gambit

    ” Vacuum in Tamil nationalist politics”: Tamil nationalist??? as long as these racist parties and views are there this problem will never end. No party should be allowed to have racist name JHU, Tamil this/that..

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    The attention span of an average reader on blogs is smaller than that of a gnat.

    It would bode well for bloggers to bear this in mind. Brevity is good unless you profess love to someone or you are paid grants to pay for your PhD.

    Having said that bloggers are sending endless posts on how the post-war scenario could be enacted.

    Nothing has changed. This govt. like its predecessors are biding its time while exalting in the euphoria it vanquished the LTTE.

    The LTTE may be a spent force but the aspirations of Tamils are still awaiting redress.

    We can talk about reconciliation and re-building till the cows come home.

    What needs to be done is that it engages the minorities (Tamils, Muslims, Malays and Burghers) who are as indigenous as the majority Sinhalese.

    Unless and until we understand this stark reality nothing will change. And we can expect militancy in one form or another.