Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Foreign Relations, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation

Post-war reconciliation and nation-building in a global context

There have been three civil wars fought against the Sri Lankan state: 1971, 1986-89, 1979-2009.  The Sri Lankan state prevailed in all three. These three wars settled three basic questions. The first uprising was about the character of the State, society and the economy and it was settled in favor of the market economy and multiparty democracy. The second civil war brought up the same questions but placed at the forefront the issue of centralization or devolution and power sharing (Wijeweera’s 300 page magnum opus was all about it), and with the victory of the state that too was settled in favor of the post Accord structural reform, the 13th amendment and provincial autonomy, with all parties including the militarily defeated JVP actually contesting the PC elections. This reform remained dormant because of the full-scale war waged in the North East by the Tigers.

The third civil war, just won, settled the question of one state (country) or two, in favor of the former.  The armed Tamil Eelam project lost the war which was the last in a series of Tamil Eelam Wars spread over 35 years, and Tamil separatism will never successfully re-emerge as a serious armed challenger to the Sri Lankan state, i.e. as a parallel contending army or militia.

While the global Tamil Eelam movement also lost the war, it was not quite as decidedly as the Tiger army did. That struggle is still on.

Existential politics

The problem may be said to be existential. The reality of Sri Lanka’s multiethnic character is such that the challenge of accommodating Tamil identity and reconciling it with Sinhala and Muslim identity will remain. To borrow a phrase of SWRD Bandaranaike, it is “a problem within a problem”. The Tamil issue remains a problem of collective identity and the state, located within the overall problem of nation-building.

How does the state reconcile the identities of the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims and accommodate them within an overarching Sri Lankan identity?

One of the basic errors of Sinhala ultranationalists’ discourse is the conclusion that Tamil ethnic politics or identity politics died on the banks of the Nandikadal.  There can be a military victory over a military challenge but there cannot be a purely military victory over a political challenge. An enemy army can and must be defeated, an armed opponent can be killed, but a political challenge requires a political response and an idea can be defeated only by another idea. The idea of Tamil Eelam can be defeated only by the counter-idea of a reformed and restructured Sri Lankan state which may remain unitary but contains an irreducible autonomous political space for the Tamil people of the North and East. Armed Tamil secessionism can and has been defeated, but the politics of collective Tamil identity cannot be militarily defeated or suppressed; it can only be politically addressed and managed.

It will be necessary for any government to negotiate with the Tamil parliamentarians who will be present in greater numbers after next year’s parliamentary election, due to the system of proportional representation.

A grand bargain already exists. It is the 13th amendment. The Sinhalese have every reason to be securely reassured by thedouble guarantee of a united country and a unitary form of state, while the Tamils will enjoy self rule within those parameters and inevitable national security “red lines”. The 13th amendment, however elasticized, will remain the saddle-point between the Sinhala insistence on a unitary state and the Tamil demand for an authentic degree of self –governance.

It is true that political and cultural space are obtainable without a geographic referent, but that is only in where the state is secular, citizenship is equal, no ethnic community is constitutionally privileged over any other, and culture is open and in the process of constant incorporation. There is no Tamil party, however anti-Tiger and moderate, that is willing to accept a purely non-territorial formula for political reconciliation and anything smaller than the province as the unit of devolution. The recognition of a solution with a territorial unit has little to do with separatism. The Tamil Eelamists, the secessionists, explicitly rejected the 13th amendment as well as President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s proposals of 1995, 1997 and 2000. The Tigers’ interim slogans were the ISGA and PTOMS, while the TNA’s bottom line was CBK’s1995 package Plus (all three of which I have consistently opposed in the media).

Reform and reconciliation

The 13th amendment is historically significant and currently indispensable because it is the only structural reform of the centralized Sri Lankan state which devolves power, makes for some measure of autonomy and thereby provides a basis for the reconciliation of the Sinhalese and Tamil communities within a united and unitary Sri Lanka. Furthermore, it is the only such reform to take place after exactly three decades – since the abrogation of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact of 1957 which sought to establish Regional Councils.

My support for the 13th amendment is also because it is already in place and does not have to be (re)negotiated. It has only to be implemented, and Sri Lanka’s military triumph would be politically reinforced instantly. Tamil nationalism  would be split between the hyper-nationalists who reject it and the moderates who accept and participate, the Tamil Diaspora would be divided, the North-South gap would have a bridge, a renewed cycle of conflict would be much less likely or possible, the impressive weight of India in the world system would be solidly with us, the international pressure on us would lift somewhat, our allies and friends in the international system would be relieved and vindicated, external financing would be more readily available,  the anti-Sri Lanka global campaign would be severely weakened and the attempt to encircle Sri Lanka internationally would be defeated. All these strategic benefits are obtainable right now.

Indian factor

Those who say that the Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th amendment were “hurried” and “externally coerced” forget the fact that from another point of view, they amounted to a Caesarean surgical intervention, bringing forth a power sharing solution that had been thwarted from 1957, through the District Councils of 1966 and the Indian facilitated negotiations of 1984 (APC/Annexure C) to 1986 (December 19th Chidambaram proposals).  It is important to recall than none of these proposals for moderate power sharing were voted down democratically. They never had a chance to be. Our elected leaders such as SWRD Bandaranaike were besieged by extra-parliamentary lobbies and the parliamentary process aborted by extra-parliamentary agitation. A structural blockage enforced by domestic coercion was removed by external coercive intervention – an “externally propelled re-composition” of the state I had predicted 3 years before the Accord, while in my late twenties. (D. Jayatilleka, “The ethnic conflict and the crisis in the south”, in Committee for Rational Development, Sri Lanka: The ethnic conflict, New Delhi, 1984).

Some critics of India’s role make the point that India’s intervention precipitated the deaths of 60,000 youths in the late 1980s. That’s a partial truth.  If Sri Lanka had devolved power in 1957, 1966, 1981 (DDCs), 1984 (Annexure c) or 1986 (Chidambaram), there would have been no Indian intervention.  If the 1987 accord had been resisted by the JVP peacefully, there would have been no call for the Sri Lankan state to defend itself violently. In a striking mirror image, both the LTTE and the JVP violently opposed the 13th amendment and the North East provincial council.  Both movements have been militarily defeated.  It must also be recalled that the JVP took up the gun before a single IPKFjawan had appeared on Sri Lankan soil. Colombo university student leader Daya Pathirana was murdered in November 1986, and the entire left placed under violent siege for supporting devolution which was luridly portrayed as secessionism. This was the JVP’s second time out as an insurrectionary force, the first being in 1971, with no Indians around and a freshly elected centre-left administration in place. Thus the JVP’s violent denouement was in its very programming.

The death of 60,000 youths, of whatever ethnicity, is a tragedy to be mourned. That which is true of the JVP is also true of the LTTE: these were youths who took up arms courageously, but wielded them barbarically and after a point, needlessly. They paid the inevitable price at the hands of the state, indeed the self-same Sri Lankan armed forces, including its top brass. That’s what a state is and what a state does.

Sri Lanka in the world system

Internationally things have changed: we have a universally respected US president (with a “transformational mystique”) who commented on Sri Lanka in his remarks on the White House lawn, we have UN Security Council informal briefings and a press statement on Sri Lanka; we have rumblings from Chile to South Africa and Mauritius.

The global campaign to de-legitimize the Sri Lankan state took a step forward in the last weeks with a statement by Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Prize winner and respected acquaintance of President Obama (who accompanied the latter to Buchenwald on June 5th, was referred to in Obama’s speech and in turn made a speech in President Obama’s presence). The campaign took a further step with the joint anti-Lankan letter to the US President by four organizations including The Carter Centre.

We must understand that there is an international system or world system. If during the Cold War, there were two systems, capitalist and socialist, and the international system consisted of the contradictory unity of these two systems, today there is one single world system, with all its unevenness and contradiction ( North/South, East/West).  Sri Lanka is a peripheral unit of this world system. We can reduce the domination of and our dependence on the West by balancing off our natural allies the global South and East against them, but all this takes place within the world system.

Those who encourage us to implement the 13th amendment are not those who lectured us on federalism and the need to accommodate the LTTE. Those folks talk of war crimes tribunals, unfettered access, an UN role in political reconciliation, economic sanctions etc. These are the folks who were defeated in Geneva on May 27th. We are being encouraged to swiftly implement at least the 13th amendment, precisely by those who did not belong to that camp, and stood by us, helping us in various ways during the war. It is these friends who will be undermined and who will pull back if we fail to, leaving us vulnerable to the Tamil Diaspora driven West and a possible Indo-US policy pincer.

There are three perspectives on Sri Lanka’s external relations and role in the world:

  1. De-linking, involution, isolationism, coupled probably with a belief in the chimera of a co-religionists’ bloc of states
  2. Return to the UNP- JRJ-Ranil-CFA mode of dependency on and appeasement of the West
  3. A multi-vector policy generally identifiable with the SLFP, which engages the West (especially the USA) while maintaining Sri Lanka’s dignity, anchored in the neighborhood, the rising Asian region, and the Non aligned Movement/G77, while practicing a policy of multi-polar balancing to maximize our autonomy and defend our interests.

Perspectives 2 and 3 (and I am an adherent and practitioner of 3) take place within the framework and mainstream of the international system, unlike Perspective 1 which takes us outside it. While some international players (especially in “global civil society”) may wish to go beyond it, the implementation of the 13th amendment and concern for reform that accommodates Sri Lanka’s Tamils in a power sharing arrangement, is a bottom line consensus within the international system as a whole.

(These are the strictly personal views of the writer)