Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance


Early in February we were treated to a cogent, indeed, masterful, essay by Publius [Editors note – read ETHNOS OR DEMOS? – QUESTIONING TAMIL NATIONALISM]. Locating the debate within the general difficulty that liberal constitutional theory has with sub-state nationalisms and the problems associated with the disaggregation of “nation” and “state,” Publius addressed the situation in Sri Lanka. Fully attentive to the failures of the Sri Lankan state itself and the character of the present regime, one “fundamentally hostile to the constitutional recognition of diversity, quite apart from Tamil nationalism,” Publius focused on the failures of Tamil nationalism.

In measured manner he identified two shortcomings. Firstly, he said, theoretical poverty permeates Tamil nationalist thinking, so that it displays an inability “to articulate a pervasive vision for constitutional accommodation,” a type of approach that would surely garner the support of some key international players and bolster the SL Tamil cause. Secondly, it remains tied to the LTTE’s “all or nothing strategy of secession” and does not have plan B, deeming any such fallback to be a weakening of its case. Thirdly, both the LTTE and its activists abroad have failed to “demonstrate the quality of being and representing a demos.”

The essay drew a number of revealing responses. From a position within the earlobes of the present Sinhala hegemonist regime, Dayan Jayatilleka, predictably, entered a statist and Stalinist retort (one that would surely have affinities with the leanings of Pirapaharan himself). The anonymous Aachcharya injected a series of cogent comments on the Catch 22 situation faced by the Tamils at large. Revealing himself to be fully alive to the failings of the LTTE in this realm, he forcefully stressed that the “dilemma for Tamils like me is that we are optionless.” That is, he said, the “LTTE [and its programme of monopolising power] is the only option” given “the lack of imagination” in the South.

Aachcharya did not elaborate on the “lack of imagination” because he was aware that the liberal radical audience within the groundviews circle was alive to the myopia that permeates the present regime as well as the past discriminations and atrocities directed against the Tamils by Sinhala populism and its regimes. But, in his response, Ethirveerasingam chose to wallow in the ‘mud’ of Tamil grievances and the past failures in accommodation as part of his argument that the moment for compromise had passed. In brief, he was uncompromising. In this stance he was several leagues apart from the Sinhala liberal, Publius as well as his tormented fellow-Tamil, Aachcharya. Thus Publius and Aachcharya, in my reading, had more in common with each other than with Ethir.

Aachcharya, in short, was attentive to Publius’s argument. In contrast Ethir was adamant that “separation is the only solution” and that talk of being within a multi-level state was beyond the pale, something that he (and, implicitly, many or most Tamils) could never contemplate.

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This is a mere summary and readers will be able to re-visit the full text in the groundviews archives. I was too busy in February to enter the debate. I do so now to endorse Publius’s argument and to add a few embellishments in support of his thrusts.

In the first place, I challenge Ethirveerasingam and contend that his position is politically naive. How is separation a “solution”? A solution entails peace in our time. But the emergence of Eelam in any territorial form as a juridical nation state with international recognition will lead immediately to war between Rump Sri Lanka and Eelam. This war will be at an escalated level and far bloodier than anything we have seen thus far — just as Eelam War III was worse than Eelam War II.

This is brute logic because there will be numerous issues, from that of territorial boundaries to water distribution to Trincomalee harbour among a host of probabilities, that will provoke conflict no sooner than the ink is dry on Eelam’s emergence as sovereign state. One has only to look at the history of India and Pakistan after the partition of the 1940s to confirm the likelihood of such an outcome. When these two newly sovereign states went to war in the mid-1960s the severity of outcome was restricted by the scale of their armies and the geographical spread of their boundary lines. That is, both sides ran out of ammunition in a short span of time. Today, in the 21st century and in the context of the congested and restricted battlelines in Sri Lanka such constraints do not exist. Thus, Ethirveerasingam’s “solution” means perpetual war for our children and our children’s children.

That said let me insert a caveat in parenthesis. Both his answer and my retort are deficient in other ways: they neglect India’s interest in the island’s political dispensation. India, as we all know, is the regional hegemon. It has problems with claims to autonomy in some of its own territories. The possible domino effect is in the minds of their political and bureaucratic Brahmins. An irredentist Tamil state in the island is not permissible.

In the second place let me bolster the earnest request extended by Publius for thinking Tamils to review their options. I specifically address the existential situation of the many Tamils, whether older Sri Lankan Tamils or more recent “Indian Tamils,” who reside in the southern and central parts of the island. According to figures that I have received from Gerald Peiris, the number of Tamils in these regions outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces in 2001 was 1,462,070 or 48.1 per cent of the total Tamil population. As significantly, the total number of Tamils in the Western Province was 384,955 and in Colombo District it was 270,281. One can also say that over the last twenty years roughly 25% of the total population of all ethnicities in the greater metropolitan area of Colombo – itself a “war zone’ in my reading – has been Tamil. All these figures must be read as approximations that are subject to change as a result of migration abroad as well as death and fertility rates within the island.

Within this body of Tamils today in 2008 one can, on a priori grounds, suggest that the political inclinations of these Tamils are broadly distributed in three categories: (A) those partial to the LTTE in greater or lesser measure; (B) those hostile to the LTTE and (C) those ambivalent and shifting in their leanings. I have no means of evaluating the relative proportions. But, significantly, Group A includes some long-resident Colombo Tamils of elite vintage. A Tamil intellectual from a posh Colombo Tamil family once expressed a nasty remark in a public forum about Neelan Tiruchelvam (by then long-dead, assassinated). This comment marked his pro-Tiger leanings and is significant in so far as this gentleman would never have considered foregoing his comforts to reside in LTTE domains. Thus, he would not, in my conjecture, put his body where his mouth was — unlike Ethirveerasingam who does welfare work periodically in Kilinochchi and its environs.

It is Group A and Group C to whom my comments are now addressed in ways that seek to embellish the contentions presented by Publius. My questions to them are “simple” – but are also googlies and doosras rolled into several layers. When the state of Eelam of their dreams eventuates, will they return (or migrate) to that state? Or remain in Rump Lanka? What type of citizenship will they seek or proclaim if they choose the latter course? Do they expect to live and work in Colombo as Eelam Tamils when a new, and nastier, war develops and envelopes Colombo in air raids? Can Rump Lanka allow them to remain within its terrain as free citizens (as distinct from interns such as the Japanese Americans in 1940-45)? or … ? ad infinitum.

In raising these questions and running a particular argument I am repeating myself. I refer to my essay in the Daily Mirror of 8 August 2002, entitled “THE MEANING OF EELAM.” The themes presented in that article anticipate Publius in oblique ways. Let me summarise briefly.

I drew a distinction between “Wholesale Eelam” and “Adequate Eelam.” My suggestion was that Adequate Eelam would enable the Tamils of Groups A and C to have their cake and eat it: they could live and work in the southern parts of the island, but remain bonded to the autonomous Tamil regions and be able to visit their kinfolk periodically. This is not to say that their ‘cake’ would be creamy and mouth-watering, but that it would be ‘fodder,’ that is, the lesser of two evils. To be sure there are obdurate elements in the Sinhala-dominated regions who hold the reigns of power; but there also are (a) articulate voices such as Publius, (b) an important third force in the Muslim minority (whose dispersed strength is a form of power) and (c) the trimmings, however flawed, of democratic politics that may together provide openings for reform. Publius is seeking Tamil voices and Tamil imagination to match his perspective. He is, yes, speaking from the margins. But without Tamil ingenuity of a constitutional kind this “margin” too will remain marginalised.

Michael Roberts, 24 March ’08