Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

An Allergy To Self-Criticism In Dominant Tamil Discourse

In hard science when an experiment repeatedly fails and finally blows up the lab with it, the very assumptions which form the basis of the experiment are reassessed and often abandoned.  The empirically evident track record of Tamil nationalist politics in Sri Lanka is that of repeated failure capped by defeat. However the dominant tendency in Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist politics, including in this postwar moment, has been quite other than one of critical self scrutiny.

As I explained in several articles during the CFA and at Georgetown’s CSIS in November 2005, when placed in a comparative historical context, even the dramatic military victories of the Tigers disguised a great strategic failure. First rate guerrilla movements of national liberation (Mao’s PLA, Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, Aferwerki’s EPLF, Nasrallah’s Hezbollah, to name a few) had achieved their objectives in far shorter time frames, while Prabhakaran who commenced the armed struggle in 1972, could neither retain Jaffna (’95) nor re-take it (2000).  The broadest control he exercised over the North and East was not the product of solid military achievement i.e. a liberated zone set up through militarily vanquishing the enemy forces (e.g. Fidel in the Sierra), but precisely during and due to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s CFA. The hollowness of this achievement was evidenced by the three year roll-up of a thirty five year old armed movement.

In short, the hallmark of –and the trouble with– Tamil nationalist politics in Sri Lanka and therefore the underlying Northern Tamil social consciousness, is the sheer unwillingness to take responsibility. The responses to my pair of recent articles on Tamil politics reveal the same old narrative of blaming the Tamils travails entirely or mainly on the Sinhalese, the Indians, the international community, i.e. anyone but themselves, their attitudes and their leadership. Self awareness and self criticism seem alien to the Lankan Tamil temper.

The “best and brightest” of the Tamil Diaspora are not immune from these flaws of intellectual and ethical character. I refer to the latest report of the UTHR Jaffna ( “Let Them Speak”, Dec 13, 2009), which blithely concludes that “…the key to military dominance lay not in brilliant strategies, but in an utter disregard for the lives of civilians and combatants alike, driven by their leaders’ single-minded pursuit of personal power”. The subtext through which the pathetic racist myth of Tamil superiority is perpetuated is that “the key” to the Tigers defeat was not “brilliant strategies”– instead the Southern side won because it was more barbaric! Now unfortunately for the UTHR and its Sinhala fellow travelers, not a single military commentator with credentials anywhere in the world has said this or is likely to, whatever the criticisms they may have of the Lankan armed forces heavy handed tactics. The UTHR-J report’s own survivor testimonies prove that whenever the Tigers mounted or attempted a counter attack and breakthrough, they found themselves drastically short of ordnance, unlike in earlier campaigns. Now the UTHR-J may think absurdly that this was due to “an utter disregard for the lives of civilians and combatants alike, driven by their leaders’ single-minded pursuit of personal power”, but every sane analyst knows it was by means of a strategy which deployed Sri Lankan naval assets in unprecedented blue water operations which interdicted and destroyed the LTTE’s much vaunted logistical chain, sustained by its shipping network and guarded by the Sea Tigers. Secondly, this report asks the Lankan people and the world community to believe that the Sri Lankan armed forces were more barbaric than Velupillai Prabhakaran and its Tigers. Thirdly it ignores the great number of states whose far better armed militaries would have as little or less compunction in using massive force against separatist terrorists, but haven’t yet succeeded in eliminating them militarily. Fourthly it ignores the actual ongoing use of firepower with a ghastly rate of collateral damage by some of the world’s superpower/major power militaries (98% civilian casualties in drone strikes), without achieving anything like the success of the Sri Lankan security forces.

The UTHR-J report also argues that after the liberation of Kilinochchi, the Sri Lankan state should have resorted to a political solution. This begs the question of what political solution short of immediate, unconditional and total surrender, would have been acceptable to any state and any army in that situation, and which state would not press home its advantage and maneuver to militarily crush and destroy an enemy as fanatical as the Tigers after thirty years of war studded by peace talks wrecked by that enemy.

The misplaced arrogance of narrow Northern Tamil nationalism is also manifest in the comments on websites concerning my advocacy of S Thondaman as a role model and my underscoring of his success. The remarks attribute Thondaman’s success to – unsurprisingly – the Northern Tamil struggle and depict it as a by-product of that struggle. This smug self congratulatory interpretation, once again confirmatory of the inflated self regard of the narrowly nationalist Tamil psyche, begs the question of how S Thondaman was able to achieve something out of the Northern Tamil struggle while the Northern Tamils and their leadership were not! For instance, Ceylon’s independence was a by-product of the giant struggle of the Indian masses for Independence, but that latter goal was achieved, and it was not the case that Ceylon, the by-product, succeeded, while the main struggle, of an in India, collapsed—while in Sri Lanka, the hill-country Tamils succeeded in regaining citizenship while the Northern Tamils could not get a single one of their demands, however justifiable or not, starting with “fifty: fifty” and (a bit) later, federalism, and winding up with Tamil Eelam and the ISGA! The Tamil responses to my remarks on Thondaman also focus on the continued poverty of the hill country Tamils. What these arrogant observations choose to obscure is that S Thondaman did not lead to comfortably off ethnic community to totalitarian rule and then military rule and IDP status, as did the nationalist Tamil leadership.  He did not lead a community from functioning households into shellfire devastated and mine-ridden neighborhoods without the compensation of victory or even an honorable truce. S Thondaman led a community that was disenfranchised and in semi-serf conditions, to full political citizenship. Northern Tamil nationalism led an enfranchised community to conditions on quasi-occupation, and yet its ideologues posit and foster a sense of superioriority to the achievement of S Thondaman, a great leader of his community, the working class movement and a recognized national figure.  The ideologues of Tamil nationalism would do well to regard his achievement with humility.

Contrast this with the behavior in the South, within the Sinhala social formation, in my lifetime. After the uprising of April 1971 and its brutal yet inevitable suppression, the intelligentsia went into a mode of self searching, ranging from LSSP’s theoretician Leslie Gunawardene in the Daily News to Leel Gunasekara’s short stories, originating in his experience as a public servant involved in rehabilitation. No area was insulated from this self critical gaze. Policies changed and new institutions arose.

Then again after the anti-Tamil attacks of 1958, 1977, 1979 and July 83, enlightened responses from among the Sinhalese ranged from and were reflected by Tarzie Vittachi’s Emergency 58, MIRJE, the SSA’s volume on ethnicity, Gananath Obeysekara’s ‘The Institutionalization of political Violence’ and his reflections on ‘Dutugemunu’s Conscience’, the seminal debate on Jatika Chinthanaya in the newspapers, to the huge volume of material published mainly in the Lanka Guardian, and contained in Dr Kumar Rupesinghe’s two volume bibliography.  Wilhelm Reich was mandatory reading for any discussion of the behavior of the Sinhala mob.  Mervyn de Silva kept critiquing and satirizing “the Sinhala psyche” and the “Mahavamsa mindset”. Latter day explorations into role and function of Sinhala Buddhism include the path-breaking The Work of Kings by Prof HL Seneviratne of the University of Virginia.

To provide one last example, the hideous carnage practiced by (and later, on) the JVP’s during its second insurrection, led to excavations of violence in the Sinhala heritage. While London based Australian Bruce Kapferer’s was the most sophisticated of the genre, a young Sinhalese radical, CA Chandraprema got there first with a racy polemic that picked up on the sadistic scenes of Yama in Buddhist temple art. (Chandraprema’s immediately following book on the Sinhala South was both precursor of and indispensable background reading for the understanding of the Southern resurgence in its Rajapakse-ist and now Fonsekan variants).

Where are the Sri Lankan Tamil equivalents? Where are the explorations of Tamil culture and the collective Tamil psyche that have attempted to explain the justifications of the burning of TELO youth on the streets of Jaffna, the social marginalization of the Eelam Left which sought links with the Sinhala south, the cult of Prabhakaran and the suicide bombers, the reviling of the IPKF and the cheering on of Tigers’ war against it, the excuses made for every escalation of demands, shift of goalposts and unilateral walkout from negotiations,  the subordination and subservience to tyranny, the arrogant dismissal of the murdered Tamil leaders and learned victims of Tiger violence — such as, but not only Amirthalingam, Tiruchelvam, Yogeswaran, Kadirgamar, Dr Rajani Thiranagama, Mrs Sarojini Yogeswaran, K Pathmanabha and L. Ketheeshwaran? I can recall one lecture by Prof Ratnajeevan Hoole, which scratched the surface, never constituted a beginning but remained a splendidly isolated instance.

Throughout the war, Tamil nationalism displayed two alternating mentalities: one of false superiority or over-lordship and the other of eternal victimhood. “Over-lordship” manifested itself in the Tigers’ conduct during the anti-IPKF war, CFA, the demand for the ISGA, the themes of the Pongu Tamil demonstrations, the various Mahaveera celebrations all over the world, and the demand (voiced in Tamil Nadu itself) that India intervene to stop the war notwithstanding the unapologetic stance of the pro-Tiger Tamils regarding the murder on Indian soil, of Rajiv Gandhi.  “Eternal Victimhood” manifested itself even after the brusque sequestering of the Sri Lankan armed forces in the North and East by the Indian peacekeeping force in pursuance of the Indo-Lanka accord which empowered the Tamil people of that area. It continues shrilly in the dominant Tamil discourse in the West from MIA to Vany Kumar, and this day in the Lankan Tamil nationalist mainstream: all failures and defeats are the fault of the Sinhalese, those who supported them and those who have failed to support the Tamils sufficiently (as if India didn’t pay the price in Perumpudur, for such support and trust, with most Tamils justifying the war against the IPKF and the assassination itself). Sometimes aspirations of over-lordship and protestations of victimhood fuse in the bombast of ideologues writing and speaking from London, the belly of the neo-colonial beast.

In the dominant Tamil discourse, no minority is as oppressed, self sacrificial and deserving as it is. While any politically literate person would remember the policies and practice of mass internment without trial and the dirty protest “death fasts” of Bobby Sands and his comrades in Northern Ireland, for most Tamils, a Good Friday type settlement which is good enough for Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority (devolution within a unitary state) somehow wasn’t and isn’t good enough for them.

Northern Ireland’s Catholic church and its priests condemned the terrorist use of violence (violence against noncombatants and unarmed civilians) by the Provisional IRA but Sri Lanka’s Catholic and Protestant Churches (and priests and nuns) in the North never went on the record doing the equivalent. Instead, the correct postulates of liberation theology were distorted to justify terrorism and opt for Barabbas.  As a Christian, I trust that the moral failure of collective Tamil nationalism in worshipping evil, not in the form of the Golden Calf but of the Black Tiger, is understood to have resulted in a classically Old Testament outcome in Nandikadal.  In fact the trust of the community was placed in the collection of colossal amounts of money and the supposed superiority of the suicide terrorism: thus in laying the Golden calf before the Black Tiger (until the lions came along and ate them both).

The critique I have mounted in what has turned into a triptych of recent pieces was preceded a few months ago by a series in similar vein in The Island, by Victor Ivan, yet another Sri Lankan Sinhalese progressive (of a Christian background) who had stuck his neck out supporting the Tamil struggle at the same time I began to, the late 1970s, in the pages of the Lanka Guardian newly launched by Mervyn de Silva. Mine pertains solely to the nationalist/ultranationalist tendency of Tamil politics in Sri Lanka; that tendency which has long been dominant.  It does not extend to the Tamil Left from the 1940s onwards, except when it fell under the ideological force field of and became a fellow traveler of Tamil nationalism (the EPRLF during the NEPC). The abiding errors of the Tamil Eelam Left were, in the case of one main organization, internal violence, and generically speaking, sectarianism which prevented it from forming a countervailing bloc to Tamil nationalism and divided its Sinhala allies as well.  That apart, the Eelam Left or the Tamil New Left has contributed two of the most able personalities and survivors of the Thirty Years war: Douglas Devananda and D. Siddharthan. The former is the only Tamil leader with the potential of becoming, someday, a Northern Saumyamoorthy Thondaman.

Devananda’s is a story that any community or movement anywhere in the world can be proud of: that of an uncompromising opponent of Prabhakaran who consistently cautioned the Tamil people of the consequences of following his evil path; a survivor of both Sinhala racist violence and Tiger violence; a veteran, according to the US State Dept, of 11 assassination attempts by the Tigers; a politician who has nursed his constituency and worked for the people’s welfare under harsh wartime conditions, having made the transition from guerrilla commander to a Minister under successive administrations.

Having talked substantively to Martin MacGuinness more than once, and having known Devananda and Siddharthan for decades, I’d say that this latter pair is the closest that Northern Tamil politics comes to the cannily tough-minded Northern Irish republicans. In the final analysis, the test of serious politics is that of survival, success or failure in the realm of power. So far, the result of that test has been the repeated and sustained defeat and failure of the Tamil nationalist political project, capped by the extinction of one phenomenon. The trajectory and success of Tamil politics in the crucial postwar decade depends considerably on whether or not the Tamil voters recognize and reward the role and potential of this duo of strong minded survivors.