Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Tamil politics tomorrow: Options, challenges and pitfalls

The armies clash in the night but what of the morning after?

The underlying ethno-national question, that of the relationships between the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslims and the state, remains, but it does not remain unaltered.  The war grew out of the nationalities question but it has in turn affected and altered it. Those who acknowledge the existence of the issue fail to recognize that the outcome of the war, actually wars, have impacted upon the underlying issue itself. When one gambles and fails, when one plays a zero-sum game and loses, that has consequences. On the other hand, those who stress the discontinuity, the rupture, that the outcome of the war signifies, do not concede the fact of continuity of the under-girding complex of issues. 

What is needed is a mutual realization on the part of both major communities. The Sinhalese must know the limits of the victory achieved, while the Tamils must recognize the extent of the defeat sustained.  There must be no illusions on either side. The state – sustained by the majority– has beaten the hard power of the Tamil separatist or ultranationalist cause. It has not yet beaten the soft power of Tamil separatism, which is global in scope and scale. One MIA may make up for thousands of Tigers KIA.

While Tamil separatist hard power could only be beaten by repression, by military means, its soft power can only be beaten by reform, by political methods. Is the state and are the Sinhalese capable of this shift of mode?

The State and its supportive majority must realize the importance of the global, the international as a unit of analysis, and the external as a dimension of reality, while the Tamils have to realize the importance of the national, the local, the island-wide as a unit of analysis and dimension of reality.

Which of the two are more important? Though each aspect- the international and the national—assumes a different importance over time and subject, the most important in the final analysis is the national, the local, the specific. Mao explains the importance of the internal over the external by saying that a hen may sit on a stone but it will never hatch, while an egg will, even if the source of heat is external. The external, says Mao, can only operate through the internal. As far as the internal factor goes, the preponderance of the Sinhalese and the predominance of the state must be borne in mind.

The election of December 2005, the repeated public opinion polls figures, the war and its imminent outcome all signify a seismic shift in the national/domestic balance of social forces, which the leadership of the ethnic minorities, the Rightwing Opposition and Colombo’s civil society have yet to recognize.

Therefore the Tamils have to sell the Sinhalese something they would be willing to buy at a price they would be willing to pay. The military defeat of the LTTE is not only the defeat of Tamil separatism, it also leaves no space for the older, underlying project of Tamil nationalism, namely that of Federalism. The inability of the old Federalism to stand up to armed separatism, indeed the continuum of Tamil federalism and separatism (Vadukkodai, the TULF), means that there is no life for the federalist project after the failure of the Tigers. It has to be recognized that not only has Tamil separatism failed, so have almost six decades of Tamil federalism.

This does not mean however, that the cause of Tamil autonomy has been defeated or that the case for devolution has no space. Tamil political discourse has to rediscover the heritage of Tamil progressivism. That progressive past had three generational layers: the Jaffna Youth Congress, the Marxist Left from the LSSP to the Maoists, and the Eelam Left. The Tamil Left of the earlier generation thought only of the island as whole but not as much as it should have of the Tamil majority areas. The Eelam Left thought of both the North and East and also of the island as a whole, which is why the term they chose was Eelam, not Tamil Eelam—for which they were criticized by the Tigers and the TULF.

When something has failed it is wise to retrace one’s steps back to the thinking of those who, at the time, predicted and warned against that failure. The Eelam Left predicted the failure of the Tigers, while the older Tamil Marxists foresaw the failure of bourgeois Tamil nationalism, federalist and separatist. What is necessary is the revival of two aspects of these three generations of Tamil progressivism. It is almost totally forgotten that the Tamil Marxists of the LSSP, CPSL and CCP (Trotskyite, Muscovite and Maoist) all critiqued and rejected the policies, ideology and slogans of the Federal party. Unfortunately, Tamil progressives today, mainly in the Diaspora, have forgotten this critique and the reasons for it, and have converted to federalism.

Also forgotten is the no less important fact that the Communist trend within the Tamil Left, which was the preponderant trend unlike within the Sinhala or Southern Left (an interesting asymmetry), stood precisely for regional autonomy, and after the founding of the Federal Party, indeed counter-posed regional autonomy to federalism.   

While the Eelam Left could realistically conceive of an alliance only with an internationalist Southern vanguard or proto-vanguard (in reality, focos), the earlier Tamil Left, especially the Communists had conceived of its demand for regional autonomy as part of a programme for the broadest possible national democratic united front of anti-imperialist forces. (This was the line of the 4th Congress of the Ceylon Communist Party held in Matara in 1950 and heavily influenced by Dr SA Wickremesinghe’s encounter with Mao ze Dong at the World Federation of Trade Unions Congress in Beijing the previous year). It is this latter understanding of the need for integration with the Southern anti-imperialist, nationalist and progressive mainstream, that has now to be revived by a realistic Tamil politics.

The politics of exile hardly works in a functional if damaged and distorted democracy. If Diaspora-driven or off-shore sourced (Tamil Nadu), Tamil politics will remain a virtual reality or theme park. If the Tigers are crushed we shall see Diaspora politics gradually becoming as irrelevant as those of the Irish, the Khalistanis, and the Chechens.

If tomorrow’s Tamil political interventions within Sri Lankan territory are pro-Tiger, para-Tiger or Tiger proxy projects rather than authentically post-Tiger/non-Tiger projects, they will be legitimately suppressed by the Sri Lankan state.

What is needed is a grassroots, from the ground up, Tamil political project which is democratic, reformist, autonomist and simultaneously integrationist.          

Tamil politics after Prabhakaran’s defeat must be governed by stone-cold Realism. Realism dictates that Tamil political leaders identify the political space actually open to them; understand its contours and boundaries. This is the political space on the ground in Sri Lanka, not in the suburbs of Chennai, London or Toronto, which are irrelevant except for the emotional gratification of the Diaspora. Tamil Nadu agitation shows no evidence of causing a relaxation of the resolve of the Sinhalese and/or the state; on the contrary it hardens opinions and shrinks space. As the case of Cuba demonstrates, a blockaded island finds unaffordable, concessions and compromises containing the slightest risk of the centrifugal.

The optimal conditions for the Tamil nationalist project were when the Sri Lankan state had morally discredited itself after July 1983, and India (not just Tamil Nadu) was supportive of the Tamil armed movement. Those conditions have not been present for decades and are unlikely to return. Even in those highly favorable circumstances the maximum that could be obtained for the Tamils was the Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, making for Provincial autonomy. Nothing further was possible, despite 70,000 Indian troops being on Lankan soil. Today and tomorrow, the struggle must be for the preservation of these gains. All Tamil politics must be in the context of the full implementation of the 13th amendment. Any slogan which goes further will not only be Utopian but may provoke a backlash and a rollback of even this space.

The tragedy of Tamil politics is that both the Tigers and the EPRLF failed to recognize that the 13th amendment represented the limits of the possible. The Tigers stand was rejectionist and violent, but even the EPRLF declared the 13th amendment as inadequate before they entered the Provincial council to work it. Therefore they never really settled in to work within those parametric constraints.

The a priori argument of insufficiency of the unitary system or the 13th amendment does not hold water. Following decades of armed militancy and civic resistance, against the backdrop of centuries of struggle, the Irish Republicans accepted a settlement that entailed internationally supervised decommissioning of arms, the retention of the Constitutional monarchy, no Troops Out, a retention of some British troop presence, no Republic or even a promise of it, no federal arrangement with Great Britain, and the explicit preservation of a unitary system, albeit with the devolution of power. If devolution within a unitary state is good enough for Irish nationalism, it should be adequate for Tamil nationalism.

Tamil politics must concentrate on the electoral space that will re-open at all levels. This re-enfranchising of the Tamil people in a system of proportional representation will give Tamils considerable representation in Parliament. If they opt wisely to form a coalition with Mahinda Rajapakse, they can neutralize and outweigh the influence of the Sinhala hard-line parties and dark fantasies of settler-colonized permanently Occupied Territories, ensure the full implementation of the 13th amendment, prevent any unjust legislation, push for the elimination of all forms of discrimination, and accelerate the economic development of their areas. If they ally with the Rightwing Opposition which is tarred (perhaps for generations to come) with the brush of appeasement, they will continue to find themselves at a political dead-end.       

(These are the strictly personal views of the writer)