Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Morning After Thoughts and The Local Authorities’ Elections in Sri Lanka
Photo courtesy Eranga Jayawardena/The Associated Press
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga always wrote well and spoke eloquently when she resisted a propensity to be overly loquacious. While her recent peroration contains many intelligent and valid points, her credibility and their validity comes into serious question because she is not an independent observer or a reformist leader –in-waiting, but precisely a two term president who won by record majorities, and was indeed the immediate predecessor of the present incumbent. Most ironic is the fact that many of the ills she identifies or attributes to present day Sri Lanka stem directly from her political sins of omission and commission. What is conspicuously lacking in her discourse, is any sign of reflexivity; of self-criticism.
My criticism pertains to four vital spheres (including those of her current concern), namely viable devolution, a less discriminatory society, the role of radical Sinhala nationalism/ultra-nationalism and of course defeating terrorism and reunifying the Sri Lankan state.
Having been elected by an unprecedented majority, CBK could have easily pushed through reforms making for moderate power-sharing if she had activated one of five options feasible at the time: the 13th amendment, the Mangala Moonesinghe Select Committee Report (to which one of the signatories was her mother, Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike), the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact, promulgate an Interim Administration as per the 13th amendment or improve modestly on the 13th amendment through majorities in the provincial councils. She did none of these. Instead she headed off on a wild goose chase of an overly ambitious ‘union of regions’ package. And having done so, what is her credibility and ethical standing in criticising the government of the day?
CBK is concerned about a more inclusive, non-discriminatory society. I believe this to be sincere. However why she did not move in this direction by implementing her own Equal Opportunities Bill? Why did she withdraw it? Having done so, what is the credibility of her contemporary social critique?
President Kumaratunga laments the role of the Sinhala hawks. Fair enough, but who empowered them? By picking Justice Sarath N Silva over Justice Mark Fernando, CBK surely helped tilt the balance.
During the dark days of appeasement under the CFA, I was invited by her as the main discussant at a meeting of the SLFP parliamentary group, held at the President’s Pavilion in Kandy and chaired by her. I articulated the perspective that a united front of the centre-Left with the JVP was necessary but that the centrist SLFP must be firmly hegemonic and that the JVP really had nowhere else to go. I also recall Mahinda Rajapaksa as being most critical and pessimistic about a bloc with the JVP. In the event the SLFP under President Kumaratunga’s leadership conceded a massive slice of forty seats to the JVP! It is this parliamentary bloc that President Rajapaksa inherited and had to keep together while fighting the war. It is precisely the JVP that threatened to withdraw or actually withdrew from the APRC after its Experts Committee which had produced a constructive report on devolution. Apprehensive that his parliamentary majority may be in jeopardy, the President hit the brakes on the entire exercise.
Sinhala extremism was re-legitimised by her insistence that Vijaya Kumaratunga had been killed by Premadasa, rather than the JVP and the JVP alone. It fed off her erroneous choice of a peace mediator, at the wrong time too. She chose Norway, with its strong Tamil lobby, and did so in the late 1990s when the Sri Lankan military could have gone on the counter offensive , and persevered with the ‘ peace process’ after the assassination attempt on her and the events of 9/11, which taken together would have provided her the external conditions to smash the Tigers. She crippled her own military’s capacity to go for the kill by continuing with the Sudu Nelum movement, an anti-war movement which could and did conduct its campaign only in the Sinhala majority areas, thereby cutting into recruitment for the military in such a manner that it could not hold the territory it liberated and go onto liberate more.
Southern extremism and fundamentalism were fuelled by the Sudu Nelum phenomenon and the role of Norway, both CBK inputs.
The Sinhala ultras received a major, if unintended contribution from President Kumaratunga in the shape of her PTOMS proposals, which were challenged by the JVP and frozen by the Supreme Court—and quite rightly too, as its crucial middle tier gave the Sri Lankan state 3 slots and the LTTE 5!
As to the core issues of defeating terrorism and reuniting the territory of Sri Lanka, President Kumaratunga made some signal contributions but failed to capitalise on them and went onto partially reverse some of them. She could have continued the offensive following the admirable liberation of Jaffna by her, and her no less admirable defence of Jaffna in year 2000. Yet, she did not. Furthermore, at the time of the strategically critical Karuna split, she permitted Prabhakaran’s forces to make a sea-borne landing in his rear area, passing through Sri Lankan navy lines.
Sartre once said that what matters is not what is done to us but what we do with what is done to us. Mahinda Rajapaksa inherited a divided territory and a military whose spirit was debilitated. With these, he achieved that which no leader achieved for three decades. He defeated the Tigers, reunited the island’s territory and reopened the electoral political space for the revival of democratic Tamil politics including Tamil nationalist politics.
The TNA’s Northern success, running against the ruling coalition in an area with a heavy military ‘footprint’ means one thing above all else: Sri Lanka remains a functioning, competitive, multiparty democracy. All thinking and policy within Sri Lanka and about Sri Lanka must stem from recognition of that basic fact. Yet, will the critics of the incumbent administration and of this country grant us that much? Knowing them as I do, I shan’t be holding my breath.
All those who wrote that democracy had died in Sri Lanka with the 18th amendment, not to mention those who cannot write a paragraph about Mahinda Rajapaksa without an obligatory reference to Nazi Germany, should tender apologies to the reading public or at the least wriggle in shame in private, at the TNA’s performance in the Northern and portions of the Eastern province. But again, knowing them as I do, I shan’t be holding my breath.
An emerging ‘pivotal power’, Turkey, much admired for its secularism, moderate Islamic political party and independent foreign policy, has faced a long standing problem of secessionism from its Kurds. Today Turkey is in a better place, not only because of its admirable leadership, but because there is unprecedented space for the Kurds. Since Turkey hardly has a federal state or regional autonomy for the Kurds, what exactly is that space? It consists of several Kurdish language radio and TV channels, over 30 members of parliament, and many mayors in the Kurdish majority areas.
All this the Tamil people and the TNA have now. This should not be scoffed at, nor should Sri Lanka’s post-war achievement in opening that space and keeping it open.
The election results confirm that which I had told the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the presence of President Rajapaksa, in 2006 or early 2007, when he asked me how sure I was that what I had defined as a Just War, would result in a Just Outcome. I answered that with the North and East liberated by the military from the Tigers’ totalitarianism, electoral and political space would re-open and the Tamil people would be re-enfranchised, enabling them to democratically re-inscribe their grievances and aspirations in the political agenda, albeit within a united Sri Lanka.
Today the domestic geopolitics of the island are clear: the UPFA is the pre-eminent force among the vast majority inhabiting two thirds of the island while the TNA is the pre-eminent entity among of the Tamil people. The UPFA preponderates at the centre, the TNA at the Northern periphery.
This reality is the antechamber to another reality. The TNA cannot dream of another political negotiating partner other than the UPFA. An alliance with the UNP makes no sense because that party lags so far behind, it cannot deliver anything in the foreseeable future, and furthermore, any alliance with the TNA will hurt the UNP’s electoral chances, not enhance them, as candidate Fonseka found out to his cost. The UPFA is the only real game in town among the Sinhalese. Similarly, no dialogue with the Tamils is possible without the TNA or bypassing it. Any consequential political dialogue must have as its main axis, the UPFA and the TNA.
That second reality results from a third, or bottom line reality. Neither the Sinhalese nor the Tamils can prevail over one another. The Sinhalese could not be pushed beyond a point and they proved it with the victory in war. The Sinhalese will keep the country as a united territory and the single state, however long it takes, whatever the odds, and whoever the foe, internal or external or any combination thereof. Those located or having regrouped overseas who, having lost the war for Tamil Eelam are trying to regain what they lost by enlisting the support of erstwhile colonial patrons, will learn that what the Sri Lanka state has liberated and reunified, it shall hold, under whichever leader, flag or generation and “by whatever means necessary” (Malcolm X). The Tamils for their part will not relinquish their collective identity and search for dignity.
A sustainable peace is not possible exclusively on the terms of either one or the other community. There will neither be a Tamil state (separate or federal) nor a Sinhala peace over the Tamils. There will have to be a modus vivendi. And such a modus vivendi can only be found along the Buddha’s Middle Path or the Aristotelian Golden Mean between what Sinhala and Tamil nationalism wish.
With the election results we have a new balance of forces; a new conjuncture. It is not and cannot be an equivalence or perfect equilibrium, given abiding demographic realities and the decisive results of a thirty years war. However, it provides a chance for a fresh look and a new realism.
Have we been here before? In 1977 the electoral map was fairly similar, with the UNP enjoying more than a two thirds majority while the TULF dominated the North and pockets of the East. The difference is that the War of Secession has been fought over a prolonged period, and lost. Yet there are lessons to be learnt from the avoidable tragedy that resulted from delay on the one side and delusion on the other. Let us not make the same mistakes again.
Of course, today we are in another place. Any illusions of a separate state as inspired by the Vadukkodai resolution have been burnt or buried at Nandikadal. Any illusions of imposing silence on the Tamils and eliminating their cultural and political resolve have been dispelled by the electoral map that has unrolled with the parliamentary and local government elections. Both communities have thrown their best or worst at each other and both are still standing. What resilience and resolve! Both the Sinhalese and Tamils should not only be proud of themselves but of each other, because we are inhabitants of one island, and share the same DNA: we are brothers and sisters. What we could achieve together! I am glad we won the war, but sorry we ever had to fight one. Now, we have attained some kind of balance. If the TNA pushes too hard or overshoots the mark, opinion will harden in the bulk of the island, and vice versa. There can be no solution to Tamil grievances which are unacceptable to the majority of Sinhalese, just as there can be no deep-rooted, peace without Tamil consent. Now is the time to reach out to each other in mutual respect and realism, and establish a durable peace.
In the face of external threat and pressure, we must erect and maintain a rampart of granite and steel, but in domestic politics, including or most especially ethno-politics, we must make a paradigm shift from the politics of confrontation to the politics of peaceful coexistence.