Groundviews

How we can have a just peace: The postwar discourse in Sri Lanka

The last part of the background note  prepared for the first session of the Marga Institute’s panel discussion on ‘Long War, Cold Peace’ contained  the conceptual framework which  Dr Jayatilleka uses for his assessment  of what he describes as  the post war crisis – “ the  cold peace” on which he focuses in Chapters 3,  4 and 5 of his book.  A war which he argues was fundamentally just for the reasons he has given is followed by a peace which is flawed by “the delay or inability … to make  the transition to a stable and  just framework for durable peace and successful nation building.”

This formulation of the conditions of peace gives us the point of entry to our discussion. The author closely examines the nature of the post war crisis. He goes on to analyze the manifold character of the crisis, distinguishing five major components of the crisis. He then elicits what we might identify as the five fundamentals of peace and nation –building.  He does this in the chapters 3, 4, and 5 and distinguishes five major components of the crisis which he highlights in the overview he provides in Chapter 1 “The Lessons of the Thirty Years War. These components contain the main issues pertaining to a just peace. Let us recapitulate the main elements of this conceptual frame (which we reproduced in the note for the first session).

These are the strategic issues we need to address. The five facets of the crisis are as it were integral parts of a pentagon.  We can use this structure to locate where we are at present and the spaces that have to be covered if we are to achieve a just peace. There is a resonance in the chapter on “Lessons of the Thirty Years War”.

The book is complementary to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and its report.   It is in this context that the authors book “The Long War, Cold Peace” comes to us. The  LLRC  calls  for a shared vision “ of an interdependent, just equitable open and diverse society based  on the acknowledgement of loss and suffering   on the values of empathy and solidarity” The Commission  emphasizes that “relationship – building between communities , addressing issues of lack of trust prejudice and intolerance……is the essence of reconciliation” .

Dr Jayatilleka’s narrative and analysis tells us   how difficult it is to develop such a shared vision. He gives us a realistic appraisal of the hard political and institutional barriers that have to be overcome. He calls for unequivocal political and moral judgments and commitments in our adjustment to the past – a clear recognition the fascist totalitarian terrorist character of the LTTE and the essentially just purpose of the war waged to eliminate terrorism. He pleads that the post war discourse must be based on a foundation of political and moral clarity if we are to address the post war crisis and achieve a just peace that is durable.

Let us briefly examine the approach taken by Dr Jayatilleka on each component of the crisis.  In Chapter 5 he analyses the central role that ethno- nationalism has played in rupturing the unifying national identity that was emerging at the time of independence. He describes the Ceylon National Congress as a rainbow coalition — multi ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi- caste. Most analysts   have pointed to this fragile formation during the colonial period, a unifying Ceylonese consciousness. The Donoughmore and Soulbury Commission saw this Ceylonese identity as the foundation of the new nation state that they were helping to form. For these colonial constitution makers ethnicity was the greatest obstacle to nation-building. The Ceylonese society must rid itself of its “communalism”; ethnic identities must be removed from the political arena; a new secular civic identity must take its place. This nation-building exercise which the Colonial rulers attempted was conducted within a paradigm which governed their own thinking and which ordered their own polities and societies – the liberal secular paradigm that gave birth to the secular state and multi-party democracy. However the recipe that   Donoughmore and Soulbury provided was indigestible in the Asian and Sri Lankan context. Both ethnicity and religion were central to the paradigm which governed and ordered the Sri Lankan societyGiven these circumstances what the democratic institutions that the British rulers introduced into the country succeeded in doing was to enable the Sinhala identity to assert its political and cultural hegemony and in effect usurp the national identity.  The Tamil people, who up to that time had defined their ethnic identity as a minority in a bid to share power at the centre, reacted by assuming a more assertive ethno –national identity with aspirations for greater autonomy in their habitats.  From a minority fighting for their rights as equal citizens in a united Sri Lanka as envisaged by the Soulbury Commission they were transformed into a nationality seeking autonomy for a homeland.

Dr Jayatilleka’s places the rise of ethno- nationalism in Sri Lanka in its  global context  and  explains how the ethno- nationalist phenomenon  has had a fissiparous impact of a far reaching character on the whole process  of nation-building and state formation  – the two major facets of the  Sri  Lankan crisis. Dr Jayatilleka’s analysis however shows that we cannot retrace our steps back to a civic identity, free of ethnicity. We need to construct “an inclusive stable successful Sri Lankan identity,” an identity which recognizes our diversity and multi-ethnicity and contains them within an overarching Sri Lankan identity. The question “What does it mean to be a Sri Lankan?” has the vitally important corollary “to whom does Sri Lanka belong?”

He goes on to state that the idea that  Sri Lanka is “ a country that belongs and must be  ruled by an ethno-religious or ethno-lingual majority, is something that will have to be transcended if we are  to heal and progress as a country and a people.” The final pronouncement is clear and unequivocal.  Sri Lanka belongs not to the few as in the time of the pre-independence Ceylonese elite, not to the many as in the hegemonic and majoritarian Buddhist and Sinhala model that followed. Sri Lanka belongs to all.

He goes on to state that the “The idea of the equality of citizenship, that Sri Lanka belongs equally to all of its citizens” is the bedrock on which the national identity has to be structured   and must rest The author’s analysis shows us how difficult and yet how necessary it is to get to that process of “healing and progress”. The question, then, is how do we construct such an identity? How do we reach to that bedrock? The richness and sensitivity of Dr Jayatilleka’s language reaches with empathy to the innermost fears and distrusts of both parties.  He dissects the two “ national consciousnesses”- Tamil and Sinhala- and depicts on the one hand the deep rooted sense of alienation in the Tamil community under a democratic dispensation  where the Sinhala majority is permanently in power and the Tamils in a permanent minority ; on the other hand he draws our attention to the  apprehensions and suspicions of the Sinhala people, their intense sense of ownership of the only  piece of earth where the Sinhala language is spoken,  the  oppressive overhang of separation and division  of the country, their  atavistic dread of the threat from the North  both internal and external – an autonomous North  and a belligerent Tamilnadu.  The author recreates the two national consciousnesses and the intractable problems they present to any post war effort to forge an overarching inclusive national identity based on the premise that Sri Lanka belongs equally to all of its citizens.

Dr Jayatilleka examines the other parts of the crisis and shows us how difficult it is for us to accomplish these tasks with all the burdens of our past. These other parts of the crisis- the crisis of the state, the crisis of the party system are tightly linked to the issue of national identity. For us to achieve an inclusive Sri Lankan identity, the state has to be a state which holds the scales between the different communities, a state that is neutral and can mediate between them. The Western countries grappled with this problem in the context of religious diversity and solved it with the concept of a secular state. With it came the separation of religion from politics and from political power. While this model may have some relevance for the issues arising from the Sinhala Buddhist ethos, our fundamental problem is not religious identities but ethnic identities, and ethnic identities pose a more formidable challenge.

Dr Jayatilleka discusses the solutions that are being offered – the unitary state, devolution provided in the 13th amendment, the Indian quasi- federal linguistic model, the US full federal model. He then considers the various positions that are taken in the prevailing post war discourse on power sharing and focuses on the three major variants.

“ The predominant  if invisible subterranean perspective in the state and Southern Sinhala society seems to be that Tamil separatism should not only be uprooted but that the soil in which its seeds germinated should be upturned…” This perspective leads to a unitary state with a diluted 13th amendment or no 13th amendment.

“ There is a contrary view … that Tamil separatism can be pre-empted only by a more liberal approach which goes beyond the 13th amendment to explore federal or quasi- federal alternatives”

The author rejects both these positions and opts for what he describes as a “realist approach” for re -structuring the state. It  combines three elements (a)  the essential  security measures for safeguarding territorial integrity and national sovereignty ( b) the fullest powers of devolution within the unitary state under our present constitution with the  13th amendment  undiluted and  (c)  improvement on the human rights and humanitarian fronts.  He argues that given the continuing threat of the separatist agenda, the aspirations that have been articulated by the TNA, and the regional and international pressures, it is this combination that offers the best pathway for moving forward towards a just peace.

The third facet of the crisis is the socio-economic part – what might be regarded as the development dimension of the crisis. Although this policy dimension does not come within the scope of Dr Jayatilleka’s book he draws attention to the socio-economic crisis resulting from the devastation caused by the war, the enormous loss of physical and human capital. It is important to keep this in mind.  Making good the losses that have occurred over a thirty year period and bringing the North and East into the mainstream of human development is vital for peace, reconciliation and national unity. But at the same time the development dimension must not be perceived as a substitute for addressing the other fundamentals of peace and reconciliation.

The   fourth crisis that Dr Jayatilleka identifies is the crisis of the party system. His account of recurrent policy failures of political parties both when they came to power as well as when they were in the opposition is a truly appalling record. While these failures were partly failures of leadership they also derived from deep seated flaws in the system of party politics as it has evolved in our democracy. Dr Jayatilleka’s analysis must be read with the critique of Sri Lanka’s party politics made by the LLRC.  The LLRC points to the highly adversarial character of Sri Lankan politics which creates conditions in which consensus on national issues of overriding importance become impossible. Both the analysis in Dr Jayatilleka’s book and the LLRC report  demonstrate that there is need for  the parties to undertake a radical self appraisal   and make systemic  changes  in the present system  to ensure  political accountability  and give substance to the concept of  the sovereignty of the people . This has to be an essential condition of the post war political dispensation   to achieve “a just peace.”

The final component in Dr Jayatilleka’s framework is the crisis of transition and transformation. This crisis is, in part, the sum total of the other four crises. The total process of transformation subsumes the transformations that are envisaged in the other four parts. But over and above the substantive elements of the crisis, the overarching crisis lies in the nature of the post war discourse on issues of war and peace.  Here, Dr Jayatilleka reverts to the theses with which he commenced. He argues that we need to gain a full understanding of the nature of the thirty year war and emphasizes that the post war discourse must move to a just peace based on the recognition that the war was just.  Dr Jayatilleka  insists  that there has to be agreement on certain  fundamentals regarding the  war,  the character of the LTTE ,the inevitability of the  war , the action of the state to protect  national sovereignty and territorial integrity,  if we are to rewrite the political contract with the Tamil community that would  ensure a stable and just peace.

At this point we need to recall some of   the observations made during the first session of the Marga Institute’s Panel discussion on Dr Jayatilleka’s book. There was agreement in regard to the necessity and inevitability of the war but many participants demurred at the use of the term “just war”. There was a concern that it might contain an element of insensitivity to the immense suffering of the Tamil people   particularly those who inhabited the battleground over the long thirty year war.  Some participants  called for a  discourse that  conveyed an awareness of  that suffering ,of  the need for  collective  atonement  and  mutual  forgiving , thereby drawing  on the  values  that informed the  LLRC  chapter  on reconciliation. Here the participants were introducing a dimension which is not explicit in Dr Jayatilleka’s approach. However his scrutiny of events and actions are always through a sharply focused moral and ethical lens. What we encounter here  is the  inherent dilemma  of reconciling  an ethos of compassion which is all inclusive  as in the conclusion of the Mahabharatha with  the clarity and realism  of  Krishna in the battlefield.

How then do we purify  the language of  our  post- war discourse  to  make it fully inclusive , to  promote reconciliation and peace  and  move towards  the over arching Sri Lankan identity  ?  How   do we move away from the litany of mutual recrimination, the pejorative overtones, and the language of hate the accents of   anger and distrust that are part of our current discourse?  Part of the answer  lies  in the framework  of values  and language of  the LLRC report –  the   language of empathy and solidarity , the  values of atonement , forgiveness  and reconciliation. The LLRC directs us  to the core  spiritual values , the ethical and moral centre   shared  by the four great religions  that  have found a home   in Sri Lanka and  identify  them as major resource for developing the  overarching Sri Lankan identity .

The discussions in the first session also questioned the wisdom of an approach which attempts to seek consensus and write a single story of our past. There is no one single story, no sole angle of vision on the path we have travelled.  The post war discourse must provide space for the plurality and diversity of the Sri Lankan situation and the sharing of experiences and recollections within that plurality. To illumine the reality, the spotlight must come from different directions. There can be one text but it has to be a text which reflects a shared understanding of our plurality. Dr Jayatilleka’s approach takes account of this plurality and makes space for it. What he is passionately opposed to is the moral and political equivocation that denies the real character of the actors   and distorts the perception of what happened.

Finally, the post war discourse which Dr Jayatilleka envisages is one which must address the strategic issues related to the five crises. The discourse that develops around these crises and the related issues is also the process that will help in forming the new Sri Lankan identity.

Godfrey Gunatilleke is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Marga Institute