Groundviews

Normalising the Abnormalcy: Reflections on Self-Determination, Justice and Peace in Post-War Sri Lanka

Mamanithar Late Prof C.J. Eliezer AM Memorial Lecture
Monash University, Clayton Campus, Melbourne, 12 June 2016

I am deeply honoured by this invitation to deliver the Maamanithar Prof Christopher Jeyaratnam Eliezer’s memorial lecture for the year 2016. It will be pretentious for me in these preliminary remarks to claim an understanding Prof. Eliezer’s achievements in the field of mathematical physics. Despite coming from a family of physicists, physics or any of the natural sciences never rubbed off on me.

Thankfully for me the reason why we are remembering Prof. Eliezer today is not necessarily for his splendid achievements in physics but for his contribution to public life and particularly to the Tamil public sphere in Australia. One of his towering achievements in public life was the establishment of the organisation that organises this memorial lecture and the Tamil schools that it runs in Melbourne. Prof. Eliezer was also a vocal advocate of the cause of Tamil self-determination and lent his credibility to various initiatives that sought to highlight the plight of the Tamil people and their legitimate right to self-determination.

It occurs to me that one of the biggest takeaways for young activists from Prof. Eliezer’s life was his willingness, given his stature and social status, to ‘dirty’ his hands so to speak and dabble in political advocacy. The conventional wisdom for academics that you stick to your academic terrain, do not venture out of your field of expertise, and even if you are an expert in the field, keep clear of politics because it is too dirty to be involved, is deeply rooted. The fear of the stain, the desire to be on the right side of history and a non-existent notion of neutrality which is better described as aloofness, has engulfed the academia. Very rarely do academics take positions on controversial issues. I do not want to over emphasisie or self-gloat the importance of the academia, it is important that we know our limitations, our class privileges and that we particularly don’t technicalise what should be open and public discourse. But academics precisely because they are a privileged class should take the front line of advocacy, I believe, during difficult times.

On the other hand we also live in an extremely toxic political culture. Political debate and discourse has been deciphered by labels and camps and not really content. Rather than engaging in debates about what is the right thing to do we are permanently looking for hidden motives and intentions. Our political discourse has become one of spins and counter spins of conspiracy theories. Vicious personal attacks have become the norm of political discourse and it is no surprise that academics are discouraged by this. But I do think it is precisely because of this environment that academics must step up to the public intellectual role. Prof Eliezer did make this choice. A celebrated mathematics physicist of international standing he did not seek the comfort of a quiet life in the academic. This I think is what makes him a Maamanithar[1].

I wish to organize today’s lecture around the theme of what I shall call the normalization of abnormalcy in Tamil collective existence and politics in the post-war context in Sri Lanka. By normalization of abnormalcy I refer to the forced transformation of the unacceptable into the acceptable as a consequence of deep-seated oppression that is all pervasive and that which is both subtle and deliberate. Gramsci’s definition of hegemony as ‘a successful process through which the dominant group presents their definition of reality, their view of the world, in such a way that it is accepted by other groups as ‘common sense’ is particularly useful here. I will explore this theme under three different issues – the everyday life in post-war North-East, accountability for crimes committed against the Tamil collective and resolving the National Question.

The normalization of the abnormalcy of the everyday lives of Tamils in post-war Sri Lanka.

Last week I took a motorbike ride to Mandaitheevu, a small island off Jaffna city. The main roads from Pannai Bridge to Jaffna’s islets are now well laid and the less than 10 km ride took less than 15 mins. The Jaffna islets are such a beauty that they will parallel the South’s Bentotas quite easily. But that’s where I want the comparison to end. I hope the islets aren’t taken over by corporate tourism businesses as they have in Bentota and in the process driving out local communities. This is besides the point that I wanted to make. The signpost to turn to the road towards Mandaiteevu doesn’t emphasise on the name of the village. It refers to the huge SL Navy base called ‘Welisumana’ on the island. As you travel inwards and take one of the byroads to the Mandaiteevu Veppaththidal Muththumaari Amman temple just outside the temple walls there is again a sign pointing to the SL Navy Camp. Next to the temple is a water container that reads ‘community service by Sri Lanka Navy’

The identity of Mandaiteevu is today inescapably linked to the SL Navy Base.

Mandaiteevu is just one such village in the North-East that is quite deeply penetrated by militarisation. But of course villages like Mandaiteevu don’t figure in the national or international discourse on demilitarization. The hotspots of the land grab such as Valikamam North in Jaffna and Sampoor in Trincomalee are the focus of international attention. Progress with release of land in these areas are considered the markers of whether the new Government voted into power in January 2015 and hailed by the US Ambassador to the UN recently as a global champion of human rights is doing enough to justify its support. I stress that the support isn’t conditional. The support only requires justification for its international and local audience.

But even in these hotspots when land is released the army camps remain. In Sampur the navy camp has been relocated to a new adjoining land larger than the previous area it occupied. In a village in Valikamam North in Jaffna last year lands were released with the army camp very much left intact right in the middle of the village. There have been very few areas released accompanied by dismantling of army structures even when they have been so dismantled they have been relocated close by.

The new Government is promising to release lands without demilitarising. It reassures its constituency in the South repeatedly that it will not dismantle any camps. In essence the message being sent is that the Tamil people will have to learn to live with the military. The presence of the military will be a fact of life that has to be digested and internalised in the everyday lives in the Tamil majority North-East. Organizing reading camps for school children, organizing village development committee meetings, conducting pre-school teachers training, recruiting farm workers and preschool teachers into the civil defense force to work in Sri Lankan army run farms and Montessori schools, filling teacher shortages are example of projects through which the Army seeks to normalize its presence in the North and East.  The objectives of the militarisation project were quite clearly self-articulated by the Jaffna Security Forces Commander in an interview that he gave in 2013 to the state-owned Sunday Observer:

Our concern is for the betterment of the people, knowing their true problems by getting close to them…Today we understand that the Jaffna people see us as a positive force. Even during a case of domestic violence, the wife runs to the nearby camp not to the police station. Our officers coordinate with the police to sort out the matter legally. That’s the level of understanding we have with them. It is futile to convince political parties. Because they know as long as separatist ideas are kindled among the public, they can survive…But the people have a problem with politics. We have to capitalize on that. (28 July 2013, Sunday Observer)

Demilitarisation was deleted from the UN Human Rights Council’s 2015 resolution that otherwise referred to release of land. It will be remembered that Sri Lanka was a co-sponsor of the resolution. The Government on this particular issue has been quite clear and can’t be accused of rhetorical flourish.

The long term effects of militarisation are of grave concern. It directly and indirectly hampers free thought and expression.  It impedes self-development, interest in community affairs, public life and politics. Involvement and articulation in the public sphere is greeted with a ‘why bother’, ‘why-invite trouble’ attitude from one’s own kith and kin. The long term objectives of this suppression mediated through the community’s internalisation of the oppression is the normalisation and transformation of politics. The struggle is converted on realist terms to one of daily survival and not of self-determination. In fact the impression is being forcefully created that seeking self-determination will be inimical to the very survival of the Tamil community. Self-determination politics it is argued will provoke the military and hence that we should remain quiet.

I have only referred to one aspect of the troubles of the everyday life in the Tamil North-East of Sri Lanka. I am going to assume that you will be able to draw parallels to the other aspects of the normalisation issue from my treatment of the militarisation issue. The question then is what do we do about it? How do we campaign against militarisation and for demilitarisation? Is it likely to be effective and deliver results particularly in the current context where international pressure is more on the Tamils not to resist than on the Government to deliver? Is it likely to work in the context of a politics of hopelessness reinforced by a politics of realism that believes in taking what is given? I will attempt to answer these questions towards the latter part of the lecture but permit me now to focus on the quest for a political solution to the national question.

Normalisation of politics and the quest for self-determination

Last week, a very senior foreign official who had previously served as his country’s top most diplomat in Sri Lanka during the height of the war told us in Jaffna that according to him the present moment in Sri Lanka constitutes the best opportunity to find a political solution. He also added that unlike in the pre-2009 context a political solution had to be worked out through the existing political system and could not be found at the negotiating table.

The talk of opportunity is quite viral in Sri Lanka. Every diplomat who visits Sri Lanka suggests it. Even the main Tamil political party the Tamil National Alliance characterises it as such and expressed hope during the election campaign last year that by the end of this year a political solution would have been found.

Why is the current moment being called an opportunity? The frequently heard answer is answer is that it is an opportunity because the two main Southern parties are in the same Government.

It is true that both main parties are in Government and that this has never happened before. But this assumes that a political solution in Sri Lanka has not been arrived at owing to bi-partisan elite driven Sinhala politics. It assumes that it is the opposition of the day that has impeded a political solution that the then sitting Government was willing to settle for. They argue that this problem is resolved by having both the main two parties in Government. This however is a reductionist way of looking at the history of constitutional politics in Sri Lanka. It misses the point that in the Sinhala Buddhist consciousness a united Sri Lanka is firmly identified with a unitary Sri Lanka. Any constitutional arrangement that deviates from the unitary character is understood to threaten the territorial integrity of the state. The Sinhala Buddhist attachment to a unitary state is driven by larger social forces that have been fed by insecurities that are deep rooted in the everyday life of the Sinhala Buddhist community. These Sinhala Buddhist forces are hugely influential in electoral politics and there is no political party in the South that is not affected by its influence.

Hence it was not surprising, early this year when the resolution to set up a constitutional assembly was being debated on, a section of the Government and their party colleagues in opposition insisted and succeeded in deleting a reference in the preamble that the new constitution would aim to resolve the national question. Hence it is also not surprising, the Prime Minister and President have repeatedly insisted that Sri Lanka would continue as a unitary state.  But irrespective of any of this the, Tamils are consistently being lectured about how this moment constitutes an opportunity.

The difficult truth is there is no short cut to a constitutional reform process. But constitutional legal engineers in Sri Lanka currently working with the constitutional process are actively looking for such short cuts. One such attempt they believe is to avoid any labels – unitary or federal. While it is true that the unitary and federal models aren’t waterproof tight compartments in constitutional law, there are certain characteristic features of what constitutes unitary and federal that are fundamental which provide reasonable basis for such general categorisation. For example a unitary state would necessarily mean that the powers, if any, that are devolved to the periphery are exercised by the periphery at the discretion of the centre. Federalism would generally mean the contrary  – that there is no such hierarchical relationship between the different tiers of government and that each is sovereign within its own sphere of authority. Hence there is a very important distinction between what is understood as a unitary state and a federal state that cannot be avoided by merely avoiding the label. Most recently in their report on the public consultations that they carried out throughout the country, a majority of the Public Representation Committee on Constitutional Reforms have recommended a no-label approach to the problem. I submit with respect that this is a lazy attempt at avoiding the real debate that informs the unitary vs federal debate. It is also insincere in that it avoids the serious social conversations that we need to have to move towards a genuinely plurinational Sri Lanka.

But there are others conscious of the Sinhala Buddhist attachment to the unitary terminology who are looking for alternative definitions to the term unitary as a way out of the problem. These pragmatists know that avoiding the label is not an option when it comes to the majority community. This is reflected in the views of 6 of the members of the public representations committee who suggest that the term unitary be retained in the constitution with unitary being narrowly interpreted as meaning an undivided Sri Lanka with multiple tiers of governance.  This school of thought also shared by the small team of lawyer-politicians involved in the constitutional drafting process, is keen to appease and address the fears and insecurities of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community via-a-vis the discourse around federalism but has no such regard for the need to respond to the sensitivities that surround the Tamil dislike for the term unitary. But more importantly there is fundamental disregard for the need to tackle the real problem behind what the insistence of a unitary state means in practice – the existence of a hierarchical state with the Sinhala Buddhist nation on top which is the primary question that informs the discourse on the national question. This in my opinion is indicative of a serious problem of avoidance in the current discourse on the National Question even from amongst the so-called progressive and liberal sections of Sri Lanka’s South. There is an assumption that a democratisation discourse based on the notions of good governance and rule of law will be adequate to respond to the National Question. The public representation committee’s report on many other aspects such as control over land, police powers are indicative of such an attitude. The ideas presented in the public representation’s committee is not very far from those found in the Rajapakasa appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Report which argued that in the post-war context the ‘minorities have to re-position themselves to accepting the state’. The state on the other hand the LLRC report insisted must ‘reach out to the minorities’. Advertently or inadvertently the LLRC conceded that the ‘minorities’ were the ‘others’ in the Sri Lankan state; the state is being identified with the Sinhala Buddhists, and these ‘others’ who are not integral to the understanding of the state, had to be ‘reached out’. The state will not do anything to re-position itself, but it is these ‘minorities’ who have to re-position themselves – re-position themselves to accept a hierarchised state driven by Sinhala Buddhist ideology. This I argue is the normalisation of Tamil politics that is being sought in the post-war context.

Hence it is no surprise that the lobbying and advocacy efforts of the local and international do-gooders, whom the Tamils are expected to trust, are directed at the Tamils. The advice for compromise is not directed to the Sri Lankan Government but rather to the Tamils. The Sinhala Buddhist preoccupation with a unitary state it is argued needs to be appreciated and understood. Advocacy of federalism and self-determination are portrayed as being provocative and disruptive. The advice for compromise asks Tamils to be realistic and to settle down for a constitution that is slightly improved on the existing system of devolution of powers to the provinces within a unitary state and to make best use of the little powers contained in the current scheme of devolution of powers utilising the ‘favourable climate’ of good governance prevailing in the South. There is a systematic political campaign that portrays politicians and civil society activists from within the Tamil community who resist this change of narrative as spoilers and extremists.

This agenda of normalisation of Tamil politics involves a significant toning down self-determination politics. Tamil politicians who are worthy of promotion by those seeking normalisation of Tamil politics are allowed to employ the self-determination rhetoric as and when its useful to make sure that they retain the support of the Tamil people (during election seasons), but to be worthy of promotion one needs to sign up to this normalisation agenda. The same goes for diaspora formations that are seen worthy of promotion. The promotion of such political elites is sweetened with their portrayal as politically smart and moderate.

But the problem is far more greater than that of manipulation of the Tamil political elites. My particular worry is that this normalisation of Tamil politics is being allowed to seep down to the bottom. The weariness and loss of hope in politics among the Tamil populous and the lack of real solutions, is facilitating the Tamil population’s acceptance of the normalisation of the abnormalcy of their collective political life. As Maamanithar Taraki Sivaram warned us the ultimate goal of counter-insurgency programmes is the closure of the political space that led to the insurgency in the first place. The huge influx of drugs, the growth in organised crime from within the Tamil community that have spiked as of recent times, is taking place in a part of the country that is most militarised, and hence cannot be organic. One cannot help think that these are strategies of distraction aimed at converting the Tamil struggle to one of mere survival and existence. The narrative-changers find the present environment ripe to falsely dichotomise self-determination politics with that of survival and argue for a focus on having to respond to the latter.

How do we confront this? I will postpone my responses and will turn my focus on the issue of accountability and justice.

Accountability and Justice.

Similar to the pride of place that ‘Federalism’ enjoyed during the Norwegian mediated peace process in Sri Lanka between 2002 and 2005, ‘Transitional Justice’ is the buzz word of the civil society and think tank fraternity in post- January 8, 2015, Sri Lanka. What was spoken about in ‘accountability’ and ‘justice’ language notably took the ‘Transitional Justice’ turn following the defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa suggesting that the transition had begun. The discourse on transitional justice is without a coherent understanding of what constitutes the transition. There is no one way in which political transition is conceived and understood by Sri Lanka’s divergent political communities.  There are broadly speaking there are three visions of transition in Sri Lanka: firstly the one shared by liberal sections of the Southern polity of democratic transition of the rule of law, good governance variety, secondly the one shared by the majority Tamil community of deep democratisation – transition to a pluri-national Sri Lanka and thirdly the one shared by the majority Sinhala Buddhist community that no transition whatsoever is required. The current regime is caught up somewhere in between the first and third approaches to what constitutes transition in post-war sri lanka. This significantly undermines the ability of the regime to genuinely address issues of accountability and justice.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo Government promoted by its Western allies as the liberal democratic alternative to the nationalist SLFP led by Rajapaksa, has always viewed the issue of accountability as a foreign policy management issue. There is a lack of political will on the part of the political leadership in Colombo to engage with the Sinhala Buddhist base to convince them on the need for genuine accountability based reconciliation. The supposedly liberal-democratic variant of the Southern political leadership uses the nationalist opposition as an excuse to side step their obligations towards accountability while espousing the same nationalist rhetoric (possibly a milder version) when engaging with their Sinhala Buddhist voter base. The Rajapaksa alternative’s arguments are that Rajapaksa was not to be faulted with the conduct of the war but that he mismanaged the aftermath. The reason for this mismanagement in the UNP’s assessment was not because he didn’t do well in accommodating the estranged Tamil community but because he developed relationships with China and Iran at the expense of US and India and that this back fired. The UNP’s view is that as long as transition is made in the foreign policy domain that favours the US and India coupled with the strategic use of the transitional justice norms in Governmental policy would suffice to save Sri Lanka from the accountability problem. The appropriation of international human rights norms by domestic actors with the intent of boosting their international image is not new to Sri Lanka and has been studied in other similar contexts as well.  The transitional justice strategy of the new Government in part unlike the previous regime’s policy includes accepting that certain individual war crimes took place while denying that systemic crimes (such as crimes against humanity) ever took place. Addressing these individual violations and removing those few rotten apples from the Sri Lankan Army it is being publicly argued will help restore its international image. This is promoted as the smart thing to do to the Sinhala Buddhist electorate and the adjustment required to protect its continuing dominance in Sri Lankan politics.

Part of this process of managing issues of accountability and justice is also managing the expectations of the Tamil people as with regard to justice. One of the major premises of a legitimate transitional justice process is that the victims have to be consulted as part of the process. The present government had put in place a consultative process 5 months back, that has made no real progress.  As June approaches wherein in Geneva the UN Human Rights Commissioner is scheduled to present his oral report taking stock of the government’s performance of its obligations under the 2015 resolution the Government is hurriedly putting together certain announcements and legislative drafts which they hope will find positive mention in the High Commissioner’s report positively. The report is as always going to highlight the positive and negatives and encourage the Sri Lankan government to do better but given Sri Lanka’s highly placed friends in the International community there is going to be very little pressure on the Sri Lankan Government. The Government hopes that it can wrap up the Geneva process with March 2017.

Supporters of the Government are suggesting that the window of opportunity to act on transitional justice is fast closing and that to keep insisting on victims consultations will be futile and counter-productive. So essentially the Government as many times before will set up a few mechanisms with which the Tamils will be asked to cooperate and failure to cooperate will be met with the labels of extremists and spoilers.

Ultimately though the Government knows that the best way of avoiding accountability issues is to give the impression of creating and setting in motion a political process that will deliver a political solution. The quest for accountability in this logic is being argued as being damaging and a distractor to both the normalisation of everyday life in the North-East and to finding a political solution. For reasons explained earlier accountability is actually been seen as a distractor to the normalisation of the abnormalcy of the everyday lives of the Tamils and as a distractor to the process of normalising Tamil politics.

If what I have described is true what should the Tamil community’s approach to accountability be? Let me now turn to some answers.

What needs to be done?

I have portrayed a very depressing picture of the current status quo of the praxis of ‘transition’ in post-war Sri Lanka and how it affects every day Tamil lives and our collective future as a political community. Let me attempt to answer some of the questions that I have posed and suggest as to what needs to be done.

Let me start with the question of resisting the normalisation of abnormalcy of our every day existence. I believe that the issue of confronting and resisting demilitarisation for the Tamil community has to start from home. We need to keep reminding ourselves that we are actually living in a state of abnormalcy. This may sound strange but this is absolutely essential and key to any resistance. It is important to learn not to live with militarisation and to internalise oppression.  The easiest path to breaking the inherent collectivity of a community is for it to internalise oppression and accept it as a way of life. We need to educate our children that what they see around them is not normal and that they should not accept it as normal. The most difficult need that has no alternative is a process of political consciencitisation. I truly believe that this is necessary both in the homeland and the diaspora.

Secondly I think we need to get creative with our politics. I think for far too long we have remained reactionary and waited for external factors and actors to shape our destiny and deliver our political aspirations. We need to start believing in the democratic strength of our people and the energy that a democratic mobilisation will deliver in setting our own narrative and agenda. This can only be achieved with a bottom-up political movement.  We need to urgently understand the limitations and inherent compromises of representative electoral politics and build the space for what is known in critical democratic theory as the post-representative democratic space. We need to build up the internal energy of our democratic politics to the extent where it will be unavoidable to any external actor who wishes to dabble with Sri Lanka to avoid the agenda that we have set.

Thirdly we need to think about the struggle in the long term while engaging in a political praxis that is productive and produces tangible results in the short to the mid-term. We cannot afford to take the short term view of the struggle. That Geneva will deliver us justice or that a political solution will come in 2016. A perspective of the long term will also help us realise that we as a community are journeying through a transitional phase where-through we need to engage mostly in a nation building exercise. We need to develop our internal capacities, build sustainable and credible social, economic and political institutions that are built on an inclusive understanding of the Tamil nationalist project, build community networks that can respond to the counter insurgency challenges thrown at us but also come up with a viable plan for rebuilding our societies economically and socially. I honestly believe that we do not have to wait for institutions of self-government for these to happen. Public power can be directed through credible institutions that are set up outside the framework of the existing state institutions but without violating the framework of the legal system.

These are merely normative outlines of what should be part of a larger plan for Tamil Nation building.  I hope these provide avenues for thought and further deliberation. I also hope that we can build a critical mass of activists who will commit to engaging with Tamil politics beyond the narrow lens of electoral and organisational politics.

The end of the Tamil armed struggle signalled the end of an era of revolutionary armed struggle for liberation globally. The way in which we nurture the Tamil struggle in the present circumstances with a blend of continuity and change will define not just the lives of Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka but also be instructive for oppressed peoples all over the world. Our capacity to think and act from our experience and the experience of those similarly situated to us will be a test for the maturity of our struggle thus far and will define our collective existence in these challenging times.

[1] The Tamil community has benefited from the work of many public intellectuals some of whom have even lost their lives in such a pursuit – for example Taraki Sivaram and Rajani Thiranagama. My lamentation about the academia is from a perception of the present context.