Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Elections, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Tamil politics in Sri Lanka: Time to stop being suicidal

“For their part, Tamil leaders have not yet made anticipated conciliatory gestures that might ease government concerns and foster a genuine dialogue”– Sri Lanka: Re-charting US Strategy after the War, US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Dec 7, 2009

It was Prof Robert Pape who put it on the record: the Tamil Tigers fielded many more suicide bombers than any Middle Eastern or “jihadist” group. Suicide within the Tamil nationalist struggle was not limited to bombers, but included a death fast (Jaffna 1987) and several self immolations (Geneva & Tamil Nadu, 2009). It remains to be seen whether this suicidal tendency extends to the realm of politics.

If the Tamil minority, or even worse, the Tamil speaking communities were to abstain, present their own candidacy or vote for the main challenger at the upcoming Presidential election, they would certainly be demonstrating such a self destructive tendency even in the electoral domain.

A boycott would mean by definition, abstention and absenteeism from the political process, which is never a good idea anywhere, anytime. It would result in an election taking place on a pan-Sinhala playing field, with both candidates trying to outflank each other on that field and a winner who owes nothing to the Tamil voters. A vote for the wrong candidate – one whose only mode of interaction with them has been at the other end of a gun barrel–would be even more actively counterproductive, though an Eelam strategist in the Diaspora may think that such polarization is helpful in isolating Sri Lanka internationally and winning legitimacy for the cause of an independent Tamil state. In short this would be a repetition of the fatal error made by Velupillai Prabhakaran at the elections of 2005. The upside from a Tamil ultra-nationalist perspective would be that the world sees an ethnically polarized map of Sri Lanka, but it did so in 1977 and 2005 too. What was the positive result of that exposure or demonstration, for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka?   A Tamil candidacy would have the same effect. It would be a demonstration of ethnic demarcation but what happens after that? Such demarcation of difference may help the Tamil cause in the abstract, but surely there has been sufficiently yawning a gap between the “Tamil cause” and the reality of Tamil existence on the ground? When the state of the Tamil people, of Tamil society, of Tamil collective existence is at such variance with the Tamil cause as a state of mind, surely it is time for a change of mindset?

From hartals to hara-kiri, the history of Tamil politics in the 20th century shows a story of political failure. The first attempt was to convince the British that universal suffrage, and later universal suffrage combined with political independence, would so damage the Tamil community that the minorities be permitted representation far outweighing their numbers. This was the phase of 50:50, associated with GG Ponnambalam. The second was that of ethno-federalism, dating from 1951 to 1976, which also failed. The third project was that of ethnic separatism, from 1976 to date in one sense, and 1972-2009 in the sense of armed separatist violence and war. This too failed, with far worse damage to the Tamil people than anything that had preceded it. Today Tamil separatism is rife in the Diaspora (with a varnished ‘Vany’ replacing a vanquished Velu) but not on the ground in Sri Lanka’s North and East. Project number 4 was the investment in Indian politics, with a major effort in Tamil Nadu. The all-India voters as well as the Tamil Nadu ones wrote Prabhakaran’s death sentence with their ballots, days before a bullet blew out most of the back of his head.  The fifth project was the diplomatic one, combined with street agitation internationally, to stop the war. The vote at the UN Human Rights Council Special session in May this year and the report of the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations this December, reveal the limits of the politico-diplomatic clout of the Tamil Diaspora.

If this record of serial political and strategic failure, leading to Nandikadal and Menik farm, is not a reason for a total re-think and self-criticism, I cannot imagine what is. It is also a cautionary note written in neon, as to the propensity of the Tamil community for political miscalculation and the possibility of yet another at what is a nodal Presidential election; a veritable historical hinge.

Sri Lanka is a work in progress, a jigsaw puzzle that we have never been able to complete because the pieces haven’t been fitted together correctly. The Sinhalese and Tamil ‘pieces’ of the jigsaw want places bigger than the spaces available that would permit the whole to fit together. Both the Sinhalese and Tamils overestimate themselves and underestimate the other. The Sinhalese overestimate their local preponderance while underestimating their external vulnerability as well as the vulnerability of the jigsaw puzzle as a whole. The Tamils overestimate their external spread while underestimating their domestic weakness.

The War and the postwar elections have dramatically emphasized certain basic realities which however have been imperfectly absorbed and reflected upon by both Sinhalese and Tamils. There are four outcomes or facts that should impress themselves upon the Tamil psyche.

Firstly the utter military defeat of Prabhakaran and the Tigers, who were thought invincible by the Tamil community.

Secondly, the ability of the Sri Lankan state/the Sinhalese/the South, to impose a defeat on the Tigers without a political package as prerequisite, parallel or postscript.

Thirdly, the inability or unwillingness of the international community/world opinion – Western and regional—to either halt the military offensive and drive the Sri Lankan state either to the negotiating table or a devolution package.

Fourthly, the disappearance of the pacifist neoliberal candidate (Wickremesinghe) and the emergence instead of a bipartisan consensus of sorts, with two Sinhala nationalist candidates, the one populist and the other militarist, neither of whom will compromise on secession, terrorism, and the unitary state.

The Tamil politicians and intellectuals, here and in the Diaspora didn’t get it at all. They neither foresaw the decimation of the Tigers by the Sri Lankan armed forces (relatively swiftly in this last war, I might add) nor the opening up of democratic space that would inevitably follow. I say ‘inevitably’ because that was what I told the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams in early 2007, in the presence of President Rajapakse, several Cabinet Ministers, senior officials and Church personalities including Bishop Duleep de Chickera.  I gave a brief run down on the war as satisfying the major criteria of Just War theory (which was of course originally just war theology – Leo Strauss’s pet aversion, “political theology” at its best). While un-contradicted by the clergymen (Sinhala, Tamil and British) in the room, I was posed a question by Dr Williams for whom I had great respect because of his formidable intellect and his high profile opposition to the invasion of Iraq. His own work on Just War had made him focus on a just outcome, so did I think that this war would lead to one and if so why?  I replied the Archbishop saying that in the wake of the military defeat of the LTTE by the armed forces of the state, the inevitable reopening of electoral space and the re-enfranchisement of the Tamil voter, would, in the context of a highly competitive Presidential and parliamentary elections and proportional representation, give the Tamil people the leverage to re-insert their issues and demands at the very centre of Lankan politics. I recall saying, only half jokingly, that “President Rajapakse and his rival, whoever it may be, at the presidential elections will trip over each other to woo the Tamil voter”, as would the two major parties, because the administration that issues from a parliamentary election would be coalitional in character. In a postwar peacetime election, neither of the presidential candidates could get 50.1% nor could the major parties (under proportional representation) prevail on the basis of Sinhala Buddhist votes alone. These prognoses have been validated by events.

For their part, the Sinhalese must learn a lesson from the ironic spectacle of both Mahinda Rajapakse and Sarath Fonseka promising to go beyond the 13th amendment, to implement 13 Plus or even 13 Double Plus, mere months after the former was in effect talking “13 minus” and the latter was decrying the attempt to implement the 13th amendment in any form on the grounds that his boys didn’t give their lives for devolution! Even the EPDP which was willing to settle for the 13th amendment is now seeking to go beyond it. This turn of events is particularly amusing to me, since I was denounced by the Sinhala chauvinists for advocating the immediate postwar implementation of the 13th amendment from a position of strength, and possibly lost my job also because of that factor. The same Sinhala chauvinists, now divided, are gathered around two candidates, both of whom are pledging to go beyond the 13th amendment, something I never advocated.

So while the Tamils must learn from their military defeat that there are certain things that are unfeasible given the huge Sinhala preponderance on the island which the Sinhalese when roused will not hesitate to deploy to the full, the Sinhalese must learn from the political bargaining power of the Tamils even after their chosen or self appointed vanguard was decimated, that the ethnic Other will just not go away and cannot be cowed or reduced in significance beyond a point.

This is the ideal moment then for both sides to arrive at a realistic compromise. But will they? The Sinhalese presidential candidates have, at least at the level of rhetoric, come some way – and in practical terms the IDP situation has verifiably improved. However, one cannot say the same of the dominant tendency within Tamil politics, represented by the TNA. It may be said that they are no longer asking for a separate state but that’s a joke: separatism has no chance on the ground and the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s latest report shows that there are no serious takers in Washington DC either, for anything that is not squarely within a united Sri Lanka. Even so, neither the pro-Tiger elements in the Diaspora nor the TNA have repealed the Vadukkodai Resolution which called for the setting up of a separate sovereign independent state of Tamil Eelam. This is tantamount to the destruction of the Sri Lankan state in its current scale, scope and contours.

Some TNA MPs call for federalism as the basis of negotiations with both Presidential candidates. This is a perfectly legal and legitimate position, but it is lamentably foolish, because there will be no takers, and is yet another example of Tamil nationalist politicians pricing themselves out of the market.

The third example of the obduracy of Tamil nationalism is the demand that the Sri Lankan armed forces withdraw to the pre conflict, i.e. pre July 1983 positions in the North and East. It is one thing to oppose any attempt at Sinhalization and the setting up of military settlements outside of currently held state land. It is also reasonable to seek some significant shrinkage of High Security Zones.  However it is absurd to demand a return to the pre-war status quo. After a bitterly fought war, no responsible state can withdraw to pre-war lines, because it is precisely the vulnerability of those pre-war deployments that were amply demonstrated during the war! Though the context is different – one of a foreign war – and the arrangements as they evolved are those of solid alliance, it must be noted that there are US bases on German and Japanese soil. Postwar deployment of the Sri Lankan army must ‘permanently’ prevent any possibility of the repetition of the LTTE’s military maneuvers.

On the one hand there must be no policies or deployments that smack of Occupation, Palestinianisation, or Sinhala Buddhist-isation by settler-colonialism. On the other hand the force posture of the Sri Lankan armed forces in the North and East, must, for the long duration, be one of prevention and preemption of separatist terrorism and irredentism. While there can be partial retrenchment, there can be no principle of pullback to pre-conflict lines.

The real chance for a revived Tamil politics is at the parliamentary election which will fairly swiftly follow the presidential one. The broader the bloc of the Tamil parties or of the Tamil–speaking parties (Tamil and Muslim), the greater the possibility of neutralizing the Sinhala ultranationalists, but only if their negotiating stance with the major Southern formations is a prudent one.

If the Tamil parties price themselves out of the market with their federalist fundamentalism, a tragic situation such as that of 1972 will obtain, where the two major parties sat smugly in a parliament turned Constituent assembly and myopically ignored the demands of the Tamil United Front.   Certainly the Sinhalese and Sri Lanka suffered dreadfully from this absence of dialogue but none so horribly and at such colossal comparative cost as did the Tamil community.

What then should be the stance of a pragmatic Tamil politics? Any attempt to go qualitatively beyond the 13th amendment will, even if agreed to by this or that candidate will be shot down at a popular referendum, unless the pathway adopted is that pointed out by Prof Lakshman Marasinghe, in which case the degree of enhancement will have to be suitably modest. Far more prudent is a two point program: (a) insist upon the implementation of the 13th and 17th amendments to the Sri Lankan Constitution within an agreed upon time frame, coupled with (b) an anti-discrimination thrust as concretized in the revival of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Equal Opportunities Bill of year 2000.   

Contrary to the caterwauling of the crackpots, the Zurich conclave of the Tamil parties was on balance positive, because any political conversation is better than none and the more inclusive the better. Best of all though is the tacit political and programmatic convergence of the PLOT, EPDP, EPRLF and EROS in support of the Rajapakse candidacy. This is the bulk of the historic “Eelam Left” as distinct from the federalist/separatist Tamil nationalist trend, the dominant one in Tamil politics, as represented by the TNA.  If only this tacit confluence turns into a solid political bloc and adopts a policy of unity and struggle in relation to Mahinda Rajapakse, the ruling coalition may be shunted along Congress lines and Sri Lanka may be nudged along a more pluralist, National-Democratic path.

What then of the TNA? On present form, there is still the danger that the main party of Tamil nationalism will, like the Palestinians, once more demonstrate its propensity never to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.   This may be true of the Sinhalese as well, but given the demographics, natural resource endowments and strategic competition (read the US Senate Foreign relations Committee report), they may be able to afford it for a while longer.

The Tamils have to decide whether they wish to be like the Palestinians and keep insisting on first principles, or be like the Catholic minority of Northern Ireland. Irish Republicanism has arrived at a settlement, without the achievement of any of its historic aims and demands: independence from the UK, the unification of the 26 Counties, the removal of British troops and liberation from the British monarchy. Even those responsible for the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972 have yet to be punished. If after 450 (taking the long view) or 30 years of struggle, and the failure of the British army to eliminate the IRA militarily – in contrast to the decisive Sri Lankan military achievement—the Sinn Fein and the Northern Ireland’s Catholics have settled for devolution and economic prosperity within a unitary state, why shouldn’t Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority? What’s good enough for Gerry Adams and Martin Mac Guinness should surely be good enough for the leaders of the Tamil National Alliance– and as they say in Parliament, if not, why not?