Groundviews

‘Long War, Cold Peace’ & the Return of Dayan Jayatilleka

After what seemed to be a brief but palpable and conspicuous absence from serious public engagement (in late 2012), Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka has returned from Paris; a return marked by his characteristic interventions in the press and the release of a book, titled ‘Long War, Cold Peace: Conflict and Crisis in Sri Lanka’ (Vijitha Yapa, 2013). The book, his second major publication on Sri Lanka, brings together most of his writings on Sri Lankan affairs which were published in the papers during the past few years.

This is a timely intervention; not only because the author was a former diplomat who had staunchly and successfully defended the country overseas, but mostly because his views on numerous domestic and foreign policy matters seem to run counter to the dominant ideological positions adopted by the present regime. The confluence of these factors makes Jayatilleka’s intervention a coruscating and critical one, with the delightful (or dangerous?) potential of irking the regime; especially a firm and unflinching political administrator like Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, than a seemingly indecisive political leader like President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

But how does Jayatilleka’s approach differ from the regime’s, on some of the critical problems confronting the country? Is there a mismatch in these two approaches, or is it a mere chimera?

Armed conflict, investigations and human rights

The regime’s understanding about the consequences of the armed conflict, about what had to be done to avert international pressure, was always problematic. Its propagandists considered the bloody and necessary confrontation with the LTTE to be a ‘humanitarian mission’, with zero-civilian casualties; therefore, investigations were considered wholly unnecessary, and calls for human rights protection were often dismissed. But these were never going to be convincing arguments in the diplomatic arena, especially in the long term. The conflict was, at best, only partly ‘humanitarian’, and a policy of ‘zero-civilian casualties’ was simply that, a policy.

Jayatilleka, to be sure, was a staunch defender of the crushing of the LTTE. He had advocated the need to defeat the LTTE for a long time (even in his 1995 book, ‘Sri Lanka: The Travails of Democracy). And he argues in his latest book, rather unsurprisingly, that “at no time were civilians wittingly targeted as a matter of policy” and that issues pertaining to “accountability will be dealt with by each society at its own pace” (p. 348). But Jayatilleka begins to adopt a different and useful stance when he advocates the need to carry out investigations into specific incidents or allegations of crimes (as he once informed Radio France Internationale). The war, as the LLRC Report showed, was not squeaky clean; and Jayatilleka has had no problem in endorsing it. This is unlike the regime’s approach; a regime which is determined to undermine the relevance of the LLRC. Ironically, the regime has decided to appoint a member of the LLRC as Jayatilleka’s successor to Paris at a time when the country is being censured for not properly implementing the LLRC’s recommendations.

Jayatilleka also rejects cultural relativism. He writes: “Human rights are not a Western invention or booby-trap, to be decried and shunned like the devil. Though there is a constant attempt to use human rights as an instrument to undermine national sovereignty, the answer is not to shun human rights or to pretend that these are intrinsically inscribed in our culture and therefore automatically observed, but to protect them ourselves and to maintain verifiably high standards of human rights observance nationally” (p. 351). Therefore, there is support for “a strong, independent Commission on Human Rights, Equality and Elimination of Discrimination headed by a person with international credentials and of acknowledged international stature” (p. 349). Furthermore, Jayatilleka seeks to uphold international law while continuing to regard state-sovereignty and sovereign states as the cornerstones of the world order (an approach similar to the late Lakshman Kadirgamar’s).

Sri Lanka, the West and the UN

The current regime has a dubious relationship with the West, wherein the latter configuration is often regarded as an ‘enemy’. The regime despises the West, but it also wants to impress them. Sri Lanka is part of the UN, but it is also famous for its mindless and insipid attacks on the UN and its representatives, who come to be often viewed as ‘terrorists’ or their foreign representatives.

Jayatilleka is an anti-imperialist – a strong admirer of Che and Castro – and a believer in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). He was also a most forceful critic of the West’s attempt to pass a resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in May, 2009. Yet, he advocates the need to avoid being polarized on Western-centric and isolationist lines, and thereby attempts to chart a middle course which is globalist (especially in its outlook on politics, security and culture). Adopting a more pro-NAM, pro-Asian approach, he argues for a “successful project of Sri Lankan social democracy” which needs to synthesize Asian concerns with uneven development into “an Asian social democracy, which is marked by a communitarian inflection, not a deracinated transplant of pro-Western liberalism” (p. 64).

More importantly, Jayatilleka recognizes that the West does not constitute an ‘enemy’; however divergent the views and interests of Sri Lanka and certain members of the West may be. This approach has many advantages. It helps the country to be both critical of the West or the UN, but not be seen as an ‘enemy’; to be mindful of the politics of its representatives, but without relapsing into inelegant and unnecessary attacks which antagonize them; to be critical of selective, Western-inspired, attempts to hold Sri Lankan leaders accountable, but also be clever to ensure that by rushing to hold the Commonwealth Summit it is only attracting increased scrutiny and attention (as Jayatilleka has pointed out in a recent interview). There is, in such an approach, a realistic appreciation of the strength of the country, its size and place in the world; an appreciation that is totally lacking at present. 

India and 13th Amendment

Sri Lanka and India are currently in a tensed relationship. Sri Lanka believes that China will be there to rescue her, even if it means that China has to jeopardize its relationship with India; but what Sri Lankan policy makers fail to realize is how deluded they are, or how more intelligent China is. Furthermore, the regime’s views on devolution are confusing; wittingly or unwittingly. The President promises the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, while Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa rejects the need to do so; and at present, it is inconceivable how the President of the country can override the wishes of the Secretary of the Defence Ministry. The regime’s current policy is to remind India about how it provided arms and training to the LTTE and other groups promoting secession in Sri Lanka in the 1980s; a useful reminder no doubt, but not in the form of a daily mantra.

Jayatilleka’s, to be sure, has been a very contrasting approach; which is partly why he got sacked from Geneva. He has not denied India’s responsibility for exacerbating the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, and there is a useful critique of the understanding of the Sri Lankan conflict by Indian diplomats and policy makers such as KN Dixit (p.167-77). Yet, Jayatilleka believes strongly in the continuing relevance of India’s goodwill, and the need to ensure that the Indian centre does not capitulate to the whims of Tamil-Nadu. He understands more clearly the dangers confronting the country, in the context of BJP’s threatening stance and the 2014 Indian elections. For Jayatilleka, this is a diplomatic game which needs to be played with the 13th Amendment; i.e. by implementing it, not simply by promising to do.

Jayatilleka correctly acknowledges that Sri Lanka “is the only homeland that the Sinhalese as a collective, have” (p. 365). But he also points out: “What we must prevent is the break up of the country based on monopolistic ethnic ownership of the North-east… we cannot deny the Tamils right to co-ownership, and such recognition is the only means to prevent separate ownership” (p. 263). It is necessary to have a Sri Lanka “which remains unitary but contains an irreducible autonomous political space for the Tamil people of the North and East” (p. 265).

Within this overarching plan, Jayatilleka believes that the “struggle to implement the 13th Amendment fully remains as progressive a task as it ever was” (p. 267) – that the implementation of the 13th Amendment is to be regarded as a progressive task perhaps tells us where we are. Adopting a realistic and practical approach, he notes that his support for the 13th Amendment is largely because “it is already in place and does not have to be (re)negotiated” (p. 268). Why? “Anything else would be too risky. Open up the issue again and the Sinhalese may offer less, the Tamils may ask for more and the world may see an even more divided island” (p. 271).

But Jayatilleka is not blind to the nature of Tamil politics which, according to him, has failed to adopt a realistic approach. Given the TNA’s dismissal of the 13th Amendment and its belief that a solution even within a united Sri Lanka may not be possible, he argues for “both the retention of the 13th amendment and the freeze, pause or slow-motion movement of the electoral process to the Northern Provincial council unless and until there is verifiable proof of a change of paradigm on the part of the ITAK/TNA” (p. 297). If there is a greater threat, it would even be necessary to dissolve the Northern council; as he points out in a recent article (‘TNA President’s Avurudu Gift to the Hawks’, Daily Mirror). It is only later then that there can be any compensation for the loss of the de-merger by suitably amending the concurrent-list (p. 420).

And, such a policy has to be implemented only in a way that safeguards Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; a matter which is non-negotiable by any means whatsoever (p. 298). Security, therefore, is of utmost importance; reform of the Sri Lankan State should be “underpinned by a prior guarantee of security” (p. 65).

Sri Lankan Identity

Finally, what of Sri Lanka and its identity-crisis? Here again, the regime cuts a pathetic figure given the political patronage it provides for groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) which are increasingly whipping up anti-Muslim hatred. The regime is confused on the question of how a Sinhala-Buddhist majority should accommodate the minority communities within the country.

Jayatilleka is opposed to the present trend; he was never your Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist, anyway. Therefore he has been comfortable in critiquing the BBS, and usefully so. And in broader terms, Jayatilleka points out that “‘we’ had failed to become ‘us’”; therefore, building an “overarching Sri Lankan identity” and belonging to “an extended Sri Lankan family” needs to take place “while we belong to our particular ethno-national ones” (p. 23). The inability to build a truly Sri Lankan identity, Jayatilleka believes, is “the key, the most crucial problem” confronting Sri Lanka today (p. 429); with the “only pathway to build a successful Sri Lankan identity” being “equality of citizenship” – “the idea that Sri Lanka belongs equally to all of its citizens” (p. 432). Here too, Jayatilleka’s attempt has been to tread a middle course, between what he often describes as Sinhala chauvinism and Tamil chauvinism.

Realist approach

Jayatilleka’s, then, is a ‘progressive realist’ approach, and he believes that a “progressive Realist must work with what exists, not what might have existed – and he/she must do so precisely in order to transform that reality for the better or to avoid its turn for the worse” (p. 294). In adopting such an approach, Jayatilleka strives to show consistently the “reality within which one [has] to situate oneself and work” (p. 296). It is such a realist perspective that he urges the Left to adopt: a “radical realism” which is also ethical.

But Jayatilleka is also a pragmatist; and there seems to be much of Rortyan pragmatism in his work. Perhaps he would agree that apart from Antonio Gramsci, a critical and more pragmatic left and/or social democratic formation would do well to read Richard Rorty too. And one reaches the zenith of Jayatilleka’s realist-pragmatic approach when he writes: “the Tamil ethnic/national question can never be resolved. It can only be addressed and managed i.e. partly co-opted, partly accommodated, partly contained, partly confronted and combated” (p. 424). It is a statement which throws up a number of questions that cannot be discussed here, even though it is one statement of the book which I fully endorse.

Limitations and concerns

The first limitation of Jayatilleka’s account is also his strength: the realist approach, one which he is extremely fond of. The problem here is that like most ‘realist’ approaches, Jayatilleka’s too is one which is constructed and determined by his own political preferences. Now, this is fine; for no political approach is neutral or objective (and any political analyst who calls himself ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ should not be trusted). But given the uncertainties of politics and the flexibility with which a realist-approach needs to be constructed, such an approach will tend to be seen as an ever-shifting one.

This is perhaps best exemplified in an important essay titled ‘Tamil politics’ (p. 278-301); wherein Jayatilleka advocates the implementation (and freeze) of the 13th Amendment (p. 297), but also goes on to advocate a policy of ‘LLRC first, 13th Amendment second’ (p. 301) [I believe this has happened due to the fact that this particular essay is a synthesis of a series of articles Jayatilleka wrote about the TNA, and the two policies came to be highlighted in two different articles]. Also, Jayatilleka was somewhat supportive of the government’s intention to establish a Parliamentary Select Committee to address the Tamil question (p. 277); a policy which he may view with greater suspicion today than he did when serving in Paris.

If then, what is necessary is not the abandonment of a realist-approach; rather, it is to realize that there is no inherent advantage in adopting the realist-approach given that it needs to constantly shift in an ever changing political environment. Jayatilleka’s claim that his is a realist-approach therefore need not be uncritically endorsed, however alluring the call for ‘realism’ tends to be.

Secondly, even though Jayatilleka is perhaps the best foreign minister President Rajapaksa never had, he was one of the best diplomats the latter had. This, however, reminds one how marginal Jayatilleka’s voice has been, even unsuccessful, in bringing about any kind of serious reform of the regime’s domestic and foreign policies. That even the likes of Jayatilleka who were close to the powers that be have failed in this regard reminds one of the unimaginably complex and gargantuan task of reformation that confronts the people.

Thirdly, this in turn suggests that Jayatilleka now has to take his critique to another level wherein he will need to argue that this current regime is indeed unable and unwilling to reform itself. But here, I admit that Jayatilleka has initiated such a critique; the best piece of evidence being his speech at the seminar organized by the Young Journalists Association in which he both critiqued the regime and noted the impending necessity of a possible (peaceful) regime change at the next election.

Yet, wouldn’t Jayatilleka’s advocacy of regime change be conditional? And understandably so, because any serious claim for regime change would need to be mindful of, for example, the kind of opposition that confronts the regime, the kind of threats the country confronts especially from external forces, and whether the oppositional formation is to be perceived as being in a better position to meet such challenges than the current regime. It might even be necessary to factor-in the hopeless choices one gets to make during election time. What, also, of the schisms within the regime itself? Given, for example, the way in which certain Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists seem to be rallying behind Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, would Jayatilleka feel that the first call needs to be for a change within the regime and not the regime itself, given also the hopelessness that has come to define the opposition? These are perhaps questions that can only be answered as and when they arrive.

Conclusion

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent and eloquent political analysts; a scholar who has also made a useful contribution to the global debate on ethical violence. And engaging with Jayatilleka’s work has been an interesting and challenging enterprise. I have supported some of his views, while also critiquing him on certain occasions; an approach I will continue to adopt. As with the writings of any analyst or political commentator, vigilance, or constant revaluation, is required when following Jayatilleka’s work. As is the case with many of us, he too has come to change some of his views over the years, and might continue to do so in the years to come.

Yet, ‘Long War, Cold Peace’ is a useful reminder that one can, while defending the defeat of the LTTE, still adopt realist and pragmatic approaches to problems confronting the country which are different from those adopted by the current regime. Jayatilleka’s critique, in a sense, unmasks the mediocrity that has come to define this regime. But precisely because it does so, the title of the book might also define the very nature of Jayatilleka’s relationship with the current regime. It might not be a long war, but most certainly a cold peace, as always.

For now, however, Jayatilleka is back after a few years of thankless service in the diplomatic arena, back in Sri Lanka where it all began, and perhaps back with the feeling: this is how the ship sinks.