Groundviews

Groundviews during a Cold Peace

Photography by James Morgan

Groundviews emerged in 2006 when a war, that brought misery as well as meaning to many on both sides of the political divide, gripped Sri Lanka. A site where part of the battle of thoughts and ideas raged during the war, Groundviews has continued to be a necessary space for discussing the cold peace that arrived with the conclusion of the war in May 2009.

It was only in late-2009 that I wrote to Groundviews, although I had started publishing in the papers by mid-2007. During much of the initial phase of its existence (2007-2008), I was professionally attached to the State (and though different, one may even say the ‘Rajapaksa-regime’), identifying myself with the pro-war camp. Thus, I was largely opposed to the political project which most of the contributors to Groundviews as well as civil society groups, such as the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), represented: a project which insisted, inter alia, on the need to negotiate a political settlement with the LTTE.

This opposition was based on what appeared to be an inability of the Sri Lankan ‘civil society’ to recognize the inherently separatist character of the LTTE and thereby acknowledge that a peace with the LTTE was impossible. For those in the pro-war camp (which wasn’t, however, a monolithic entity), the LTTE was fundamentally and essentially separatist in character. And it logically followed therefore, that for any kind of peace to prevail within an undivided country, the LTTE had to be defeated. The inability to acknowledge what was an obvious fact was viewed very critically; as a sign of supreme naivety, political immaturity, and even dishonesty. Furthermore, the so-called ‘moderate’ civil society came to be viewed as being more dangerous than the ‘extremist’ elements which promoted separatism. At least the latter appeared to be honest about its political objectives. As regards the NGOs, one never knew on which side their bread was buttered.

Yet, this was all part of the political struggle and the inability of NGOs or civil society actors to expressly denounce the LTTE as an entity with which peace was impossible, was perhaps understandable. The myth (which had paraded as fact), that the LTTE cannot be militarily defeated, was too strong to be set aside; to imagine a post-LTTE era was simply impossible. If the LTTE was meant to survive, it followed that its presence would have to be acknowledged in any peace-making initiative with the Tamil community. Negotiating with the LTTE was the only option, whether one liked it or not.

It was this belief which the Rajapaksa-regime was questioning with ferocity and unprecedented confidence. In asking ‘what if the LTTE can be defeated?’, the Rajapaksa-regime was posing a question which non-state actors were not ready to answer. And as the months passed, it was clear that for the first time in many years, the belief that the LTTE would survive had been severely shaken. Lacking in confidence, some merely went through the motion of repeating what now appeared to be an old and losing mantra: the need to halt hostilities and engage in negotiations with the LTTE.

In short, it was not that all the actors which opposed the state were uncritical of the LTTE. Many were critical, not just of the LTTE’s violence but also of the political proposals of the LTTE, i.e. the Interim Self-Governing Authority [ISGA] proposals – as prominent members of the CPA had once critiqued. Yet, it was impossible for these actors to take such critique to its logical conclusion. Because they may have suspected (and if they did, correctly so) that it was not just the LTTE that was being defeated here. With it, many other ideas, approaches and solutions that non-state actors had advocated for so long were going to get buried, at least in the near future.

Contrary to popular perception then, the end of the war in May 2009 did not provide the grand opportunity for a negotiated political settlement with even the democratic Tamil polity, based on federalism or an extensive devolution of powers. An era had come to an end, the politics of peace-making had effectively changed.

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However much one may philosophize about it after the event, war is essentially about winning or losing. That is how the main drivers of the war see it. And any conclusive result of a war (when such conclusive results are achieved in rare occasions) brings with it serious and deep consequences which are bound to be felt for years, if not decades, to come. As the first decade ends and a new one begins for Groundviews, Sri Lanka is faced with a formidable array of political, social and economic challenges – and it can be seen that many, or all, of these challenges have something to do with the result of May 2009. As the cold peace, our post-war inheritance, is poised to get colder in the months and years to come, four key challenges (though there are many more) would cause anxiety to many. It is only a few brief observations pertaining to these challenges that will be set out below.

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The first and the most immediate of those issues is: Constitutional reform.

Though a grand promise of the newly elected ‘Yahapalanaya’ government (or the Yahapalanaya-regime), constitutional reform – as understood by the left-liberal ‘civil society’ in Sri Lanka – was always going to be an arduous task in a post-war era. The war didn’t end in a way which made that kind of a constitutional reform project a convenient one. Therefore, if constitutional reform is to have any chance of success in post-war Sri Lanka, it would have to have the most dedicated support of the political leadership in the country.

This is the case especially if the proposed referendum on a new Constitution is going to be held, as promised. It is still unclear whether the present regime would be able to muster the required 2/3rds majority if a draft Constitution is presented to Parliament (Budget-voting is not the most accurate indicator of how things will proceed on a more politically charged-up issue). But if a draft does get passed with such a special majority and goes for a referendum, it will not be just another referendum on the acceptability of a Constitution. Rather, it will also be a referendum on the legitimacy of the present regime. A loss would be a serious blow to the present regime’s legitimacy to govern. It would further delegitimize some of the legislative developments witnessed during recent past (e.g. the Act of Parliament establishing the Office on Missing Persons [OMP]). A loss at a referendum wouldn’t lead to a change of government the morning after, but it would most likely cripple the ability to govern with any stability.

At present, there is hardly any way in which the Yahapalanaya-regime can win a referendum. If it is to have any hope, it will firstly need to initiate a forceful campaign canvassing support for a new Constitution, led by President Sirisena and a selected group of more energetic and popular Parliamentary Members from the SLFP/UNP, with the participation also of key (Sinhala) members of the Provincial Councils. The task is still a very challenging one, for this campaign will need to convince a majority why it needs to embrace the principles and values underlying the new Constitution, without which there wouldn’t be even a minimum guarantee of the sustainability of a newly adopted Constitution. Secondly, however, the present regime will realize that it may have to rethink the constitutional framework it is going to place before Parliament and a referendum. It may have to abandon the plan to abolish the Executive Presidency, if it is concerned about retaining political power. It may also find that the only question relating to devolution is the question of how the Concurrent List can be reformed (i.e. how certain subjects in the Concurrent List can be distributed to the Provincial and Reserved Lists while maintaining the former). In the absence of a political leadership convinced about the need for greater devolution, these are the political realities confronting the camp supporting a new Constitution.

Meanwhile, the movement opposing a new Constitution – including the Joint Opposition and critical sections of the Sangha community – is not simply anti-Constitutional reform. It is for reform, but of a different kind. On the one hand, it insists that only the Executive Presidency and the electoral system need reformation. On the other hand, it continues to critique the 13th Amendment: a critique which is a confluence of two or three views – one being a view against the 13th Amendment or any devolutionary mechanism, another being a view in favour of retaining the 13th Amendment without further improvement or perhaps without land/police powers. Thus, the simple retention of provisions in the Constitution which guarantee the unitary character of the state and the foremost place of Buddhism are inadequate. After all, the Sinhalese would totally reject the 13th Amendment if given the chance. Therefore in the most general terms, the forces opposing a new Constitution need only to show that the provisions that can keep the Provinces under the firm hold of the Centre are missing.

These political realities seem to have had some impact on the present regime, already. Reportedly, a new ad hoc Sub-Committee has recommended that the only negotiable issue is the powers concerning the concurrent list. It was also reported that the UNP has decided to retain the Presidential system. Furthermore, there appears to be some discussion about introducing piecemeal reform rather than an entirely new Constitution. What we may be witnessing is a replay of the constitutional reform process of 1995-2000, with the only possible difference being that this time, if and when drafts of a new Constitution are finally presented to Parliament, it will not be the UNP which burns those drafts.

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The second issue of continuing relevance is the issue of accountability; which has been a challenging one, not only because it is an issue that needs to be addressed but is also one which cannot be addressed in any manner that satisfies all the ethnic communities in the country. Here too, like in the case of a political solution, the famous claim that a solution should be ‘acceptable to all’ is a myth.

The total defeat of the LTTE meant that the resulting peace was always going to be a victor’s peace, the resulting justice a victor’s justice. Partly an issue that affects reconciliation, partly a strategic question that needs to be managed, all Sri Lankan governments will come to see accountability as an issue that needs to be addressed locally. The only serious questions will relate to the character of the domestic investigation, the timing of its establishment, and the cases that need to be investigated. As for a hybrid court, such a court is possible if by ‘hybrid’ what one means is mere ‘technical assistance’ by foreign experts. That, however, is not what is meant by a hybrid court.

Taking into account the above picture, as well as the impact of certain global developments (e.g. the rise of Donald Trump), the present Sri Lankan regime, or its leadership, will see (as President Sirisena has already seen) the present moment as providing an opportunity to ‘re-negotiate’ the terms of the 2015 UNHRC resolution; while the task before the Tamil political leadership and other actors (such as civil society groups, Tamil groups based overseas, etc.) would be to ensure that Western-pressure is maintained. A Trump-administration would severely diminish the impact the US and Western powers have over the accountability process in Sri Lanka, though politics in the US may work in different ways, given that it is more of a system than an individual that decides what foreign policy is. Yet in ‘re-negotiating’, the present regime would seek to get more time and space for Sri Lanka to address the question of accountability (sequencing) and/or receive more concrete US-support for a purely domestic process (and not a hybrid court).

The immediate big question concerning accountability in 2017, however, would not be whether the Tamil people’s demands for accountability can fully met. Rather, it will be whether the present regime has the required leadership as well as policy coherence to engage in a re-negotiation of terms with the US (and more broadly, the Western powers). It is unclear whether such coherence is possible under the present regime. Continuing to depend on the support of the UNP for his survival, the President just might leave questions of foreign policy to be decided by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. The only problem here is that the views of the latter (especially of Minister Samaraweera) run against not just the regime’s mainstream view on accountability but also the view held by President Sirisena.

If the present incoherence and the lack of direction on these matters are to continue, the 2015 UNHRC resolution – co-sponsored by Sri Lanka and the US – will be increasingly viewed as a freakish decision that has to be quickly overturned, along with all other measures that were seen to be taken to further accountability and reconciliation (such as the establishment of the OMP). While the Sinhalese would continue to see in this resolution (and other related developments) a concerted attempt to delegitimize the victory achieved in May 2009, the Tamils will continue to see in all of this the hopelessness which often envelopes a defeated people.

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The third issue that will continue to befuddle many is the issue of inter-religious harmony, and the impact of groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).

Ever since it appeared as a political entity, the BBS has been sought to be dismissed either as an aberration, a fringe element, or as a fascist movement which was planning to take over the State. It has also been alleged by some that these newly-founded ultra-nationalist groups have been funded by the defence establishment, especially during the previous regime. These, however, are constructed theories which are meant to give meaning to a development which is still incomprehensible to many. But the emergence of groups such as the BBS need not have shocked us too much. In a context of increasing economic hardship, in a society where the Muslim minority in particular is viewed with some suspicion (religiously, culturally and economically), and in a global context of rising anti-Muslim sentiment, the BBS and other such groups were part of an inevitable outgrowth of the deeper prejudices and fears embraced by a majority – though the violent activities of such groups cannot be condoned.

Today, the BBS is perhaps stronger than it was during 2013-2014. It is not only because the movement is seen to be giving expression to, albeit in a dangerous and violent tone, certain dominant fears held by a majority. It is also because many believe in the more serious claims made by the BBS – especially its claims about the spread of Islamic extremism (‘Wahhabism’) in certain areas of the country, and the distribution of printed material that ridicule the practices of other religions, such as Buddhism in particular. The aspect which many find difficult to digest is that no outfit can survive on an absolutely false agenda or false allegations, for they get easily exposed. In other words, all accusations leveled by the BBS need not be true (and are not true). But only a few need to be true or reasonably serious. Possessed with what it considers to be valid evidence, the BBS is confident (as are those who publicly and privately support it) that some of the accusations deserve the most urgent attention of any government in power.

Furthermore, the popularity of monks such as Ganansara thero has grown over the past few years. Widely perceived as an eloquent and forthright voice, Gnanasara thero is now regarded as a ‘leader’ or a rebel of sorts, a pillar of strength to the more vocal and politically engaged junior monks within the Sangha community. It is an identity that is slowly maturing. The meetings held by the Justice Minister in Parliament as well as the President conveyed that message.

It is also to be observed that the BBS, in more recent times, has added some complexity to its operation and rhetoric. There is a growing willingness, evident in the many speeches and statements made by its leadership, to demand dialogue as the main approach to seeking solutions to problems affecting the respective religious communities in the country; though the highly inflammatory character of their speech remains. The BBS is challenging its critics to engage directly with them, though its critics are largely unwilling and unable to do so. It is an inability which will be used by the BBS to argue, on the one hand, that its critics cannot meet the accusations raised by the BBS, and on the other hand, that force, if used, would be only an inevitable response in the face of provocation and an unwillingness to resolve disputes through dialogue. The BBS also appears to have grudgingly realized that another ‘Aluthgama’ would be disastrous to its cause, though it is never an easy task to contain the forces of a movement which is so emotionally charged up.

In a country which is predominantly Sinhala-Buddhist in character, such groups or movements can only be contained. However what is clear for the moment is that in the coming months and years, the BBS would continue to be a presence in Sri Lankan politics, a presence which no political leadership would be able to dismiss. Critics who are ready to take it down can only hope, ironically, that a disaster equal to or greater than that which struck Aluthgama is repeated – in which case it is believed that swift action would effectively weaken and end the run of groups such as the BBS. This may be an optimistic hope, for there will always be divergent views about ‘who threw that first stone’. Even then, it may be useful to realize that the BBS is not even the main front or face of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. There are more experienced and intelligent monks at work, providing greater ideological leadership and guidance to the project.

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Fourthly, and finally, the predominant question that will concern many is the question of political leadership.

Here again, two factors deserve to be briefly mentioned. Firstly, it is that a certain perception of political leadership was significantly solidified with the end of the war in 2009. It was a moment when a model of strong leadership or the need for it – which was always part of the Sinhala Buddhist imagination – became strengthened (though the idea of a strong leader is also central to Tamil nationalist politics). This was partly explained by the relative ‘silence’ with which the 18th Amendment was welcomed by the Sinhala populace. The change of leadership in January 2015 did nothing to alter this model. What that change only reflected was that the Sinhalese, in particular, would be willing to accommodate any individual as long as his mode of leadership, albeit with suitable modifications, fits into the model in place. This explains to a great extent the reason why the present leadership is so unpopular today.

The second factor, however, is that there is much cynicism that the present leadership has generated during the past two years. ‘Yahapalanaya’ was a necessary myth constructed to oppose the Rajapaksa-regime. But it was also a dangerous myth, for it ended up promising a country which was unattainable. More interestingly, however, the new regime is overwhelmed by its own myth that it is unable to assess more accurately what the Sinhalese were actually critiquing about the Rajapaksa-regime. What was essentially problematic about the post-war phase of the Rajapaksa-regime for the Sinhalese was the feeling that it was mismanaging affairs, both domestically and internationally. Thus, while the Tamils demanded a radical reformation of the State, the Sinhalese by and large demanded a reformation of the status-quo. And the problem for the present regime is that it is not only incapable of introducing radical reform, it is also appearing to be incapable of reforming the status-quo with any finesse and sophistication, in a manner acceptable to a wider population.

With no clear or firm political leadership in sight, Sri Lanka may begin to appear as a country which no one rules. For those people who had never given up on the model of a strong leader, dedicated to the stability and security of the country after three decades of war, the result of January 2015 may come to be increasingly and drastically felt as a hopeless mistake. But as the popularity of the new regime wanes, there may also be a greater slide towards authoritarianism (which has already begun). As the comforting grip is slowly lost, the beneficiaries of the new regime who had once railed against the Rajapaksa-regime will be driven to desperation. Practices they had once detested will suddenly begin to appear necessary. However in attempting to be like the old one, the present leadership might not realize that it is looking more absurd than the new and real thing which is waiting to enter the scene.

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In the months and years to come, one hopes that Groundviews will continue to provide many with the necessary space and freedom for democratic discussion, debate and engagement, as it has always done, ever since its emergence in 2006. This would not lead to a greater truth or a final resolution of human conflicts. But in a world of avoidable and unavoidable miseries, Groundviews will provide some of us the useful and necessary freedom with which we may suggest, with some humility, which of those miseries may be avoidable and which of them will unfailingly and always be with us.