Colombo, Constitutional Reform, End of war special edition, Identity, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War


Interestingly of the four best pieces I have read on the first anniversary of the war, three are by Indian analyst/commentators, of whom two are military professionals: Gen Ashok K. Mehta’s Manekshaw paper No 22 for the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (New Delhi) on ‘How Eelam war 4 was Won’ (which cannot be read by any patriot or anti-fascist without a lump in one’s throat or mist in one’s eyes), the piece by Col R Hariharan in The Hindu and by PK Balachandran in the Indian Express. The fourth is by a youthful security researcher Sergei de Silva Ranasinghe writing in the respected Australian periodical, The Diplomat.

Within Sri Lanka and among Sri Lankans, the debate on the war may be differentiated into four positions:

  1. Those who condemn both the war and the voices that justify it and approve of its results (such as mine),
  2. Those who applaud both the war and its aftermath, condemning both the critics of the war and the post-war present.
  3. Those who criticise both the present policy of the state and the past of the Tigers, while either criticising or observing a vow of silence on the last war and the politico-military leadership that took it to success. This position is both intellectually dishonest as well as a-historical: it seems to assume that Prabhakaran and his Tigers were whisked away by a magician or wished away by pious preaching.
  4. Those who advocated and supported the war and still do in retrospect, refusing to allow a reversal or revision of the ‘correct historical verdict’ that it was a necessary and Just war, while simultaneously seeking and struggling for a just peace.  This stance holds that external-internal (chiefly but not exclusively Indo-Lanka) dynamics would open space for the transition from a Just War and victory—which requires consolidation– to a Just Peace.

This last position (which I hold) is hardly represented on GV and may seem unrepresentative to the GV constituency, but its fundaments (‘we supported Sri Lanka’s war and are pleased you won, but you must not waste time, and should move towards a sustainable peace based on a political settlement with the Tamils’) are shared by all those states which supported the Sri Lankan war effort by military, economic and politico-diplomatic means, i.e. the majority of states in the international system, including all of Asia. More pertinently, all public opinion surveys, including the most recent (Colin Irwin’s surveys of 2009 and 2010 for the Univ of Liverpool) reveal that in respect of its basics, this is indeed the position of the vast majority of Sri Lankans (anti-Tiger, pro-war, pro-victory, pro-Mahinda, anti-federalism, pro-enhanced provincial devolution within a unitary system). A trawl through GV archives reminds us of a 2007 MARGA institute opinion survey introduced and summarised by Godfrey Gunatilleke, revealing complete congruency with the Irwin surveys of 2009-2010. In 2007:

  • the large majority — 84% — favour a total military defeat of the LTTE and recapture of the territory presently held by it
  • While only 22 % approved a federal solution, most of the respondents — 87 % — were in favour of the provincial council system. 51% wanted the two provinces to be de-merged and continue as separate provinces

What is utterly significant is that no mainstream political formation, leadership, or intellectual tendency comes close to this binary view. The government reflected and implemented the first part, which no preceding administration did.  The CBK administration ignored the majority view on the second aspect, and toyed with the minority view, possibly under the ideological influence of the peace lobby. The Sinhala ultranationalists ignore the preference for provincial devolution, as do their targets and foes, the cosmopolitan liberals, who go for the federal model.

This brings us to the challenge of today and tomorrow. Provincial autonomy must be fought for because there is a serious danger that it will go by the board. It is a battle that can be won because there is a bed-rock of public opinion in favour and the realities of external factors and forces  pushing (or at least nudging) in this direction.  Ironically, the ‘moderate’ TNA and ‘enlightened liberal’ opinion is not for it; preferring to push for a federal or quasi-federal outcome.  The problem is that there is no significant public support for it and enormous public opposition to it.  As philosophical method cautions us, ‘Is’ cannot be derived from ‘ought’. Realism teaches us on the contrary that ‘ought’ must bear relation to ‘is’, by which is meant that in order to be feasible, the ideal aim — ‘ought’ — must not be simply a wish-list, but a projection of the most progressive tendencies and probabilities of the present.

A sustainable peace is not easy to conceptualise. For it to be implementable it must be viable and for it to be viable it must guarantee security – both ‘national’ and ‘human’ — and be in accordance with the strategic needs of the Sri Lankan state.  It is, in short, problematic and must not merely be prescribed but ‘problematized’ by public and policy intellectuals.  Years after the war, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the two major communities on the island have lessons to learn, but are they doing so? Will they do so? It is far too late in the day to place postures of politically correct punditry ahead of the political truth, however deep one has to cut and drill down in order to get to it and however deep the truth itself cuts when expressed coldly and analytically.

Antonio Gramsci drew an important distinction between the West and the East, by use of metaphor. In the East, once you capture the main fortress, you win the war, but in the West, you may capture the fort but then you see a complex network of fortifications and tunnels etc snaking all round. This spoke to the difference between the East where ‘the state was everything and civil society nothing’ and the West, where the opposite was true. Therefore in the East you can win by war of manoeuvre and frontal assault but in the east you have to fight a long and patient war of position, capturing trench by trench, which takes time. This is the strategy of the long march through the institutions, where one accumulates intellectual, cultural ethical and moral leadership, so that you have established consensus before the final a decisive assault.

Whether they know it or not, the same experience has been undergone by the Sinhalese and Tamils. Both the Sinhalese and Tamils thought that each other resembled a relatively simple ‘Eastern’ formation (in the Gramscian sense) which could be knocked out by a frontal blow, while the reality is that both have a ‘Western’ configuration, with significant complexity and ‘reserves’.

The Tamils thought that Prabhakaran and his miraculous Tigers had punched the Sinhala armed forces into submission and always would. They did not understand that however many Mankulam ( 1990), Mullaitivu ( 1996) and Elephant Pass (2000) fortresses fell to the enemy, behind these forts and this army, were the Sinhala people who just kept resisting; refusing to give in.  Similarly when the armed forces beat Prabhakaran last year and decimated the Tigers, the Sinhalese thought that the Tamils had been decisively beaten at Nandikadal and thus it would be easy to cow them. The Sinhalese did not understand that behind the Tigers were a globalised community, the mobilised Diaspora.

In my perspective on Sri Lankan politics, especially the politics of ethno-nationalism, I have gravitated to what might be called a combination of the Realist and Prudentialist schools. While the Idealists range from Kant to Kofi Annan, and the Realists range from Thucydides, through Machiavelli, to Lenin, Morgenthau and Kissinger, the Prudentialists claim ancestry from Aristotle, Montesquieu, Pascal, and Tocqueville through to Raymond Aron. More recently the Prudentialist school became indistinguishable from the new Ethical Realist tendency (Anatole Lieven). I agree with those who consider the best post-war Western strategic and foreign policy thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr, George Kennan and Stanley Hoffman, to be Ethical Realists.

The father of the Realist school of political theory and international relations, Thucydides, tells us that as Athens grew strong there was apprehension in Sparta. Applying realism I conclude that the outbreak of the war was inevitable as was the LTTE’s defeat. The policies and practices of the decade extending roughly from 1973-83, pushed the Tamils to the brink of what must have seemed like eternal victimhood and servitude. This posed an existential threat. The Sinhalese gravely underestimated the Tamils. Given their sense of selfhood, deriving in part from their numbers in the neighbourhood, their global spread, and the status they enjoyed in other parts of the world, they decided to make a fight of it. That much was inevitable. What was not was the nature, the character of that war; its duration and its dynamics.

A Realist reading would similarly yield the following conclusion: Given the sheer demographic weight and the fact that the Sinhalese as a collective are unique to the island of Sri Lanka, it was inevitable that they would fight back, especially when, with the CFA, the ISGA demand and the emergence of the LTTE air arm, it looked like the Tamil Tigers would establish a dominant position on the island while raiding the South at will, murdering its leaders and keeping the Sinhalese in their thrall.

In this stage the Tamils and the West, underestimated the Sinhalese, and lost the war. That too was inevitable, given the numbers and the Sinhala sense that their backs were to the sea and they had no strategic space to retreat. Then, they morphed from lambs to lions, rose against the Tigers and devoured them.

The international targeting of Sri Lanka on this first anniversary of the victory in the war shows that the Sinhalese have once again underestimated the Tamils, who despite their military decimation, have a significant global ‘reserve army’ and international leverage sufficient to bring an avalanche down on the head of the  Sinhala leadership.

Following in the tradition of Thucydides, a Realist reading would remark that there are three strategic perspectives for and of the island. Some among the Sinhalese hold that though the island holds more than one community, given the overwhelming superiority of numbers and the civilizational-linguistic uniqueness of the Sinhalese, they must enjoy sole ownership of the island, while the minorities remain as tenants. The second perspective is that of many Tamils who hold that given their numbers off the island and their cultural-civilizational antiquity and achievements, they should have co-equal sovereignty with the Sinhalese over the island — that being the animating spirit from 50:50 to the ISGA/PTOMS.

The third perspective, which is the Realist-Prudentialist one that I share, is that given the existence of more than one community on the island, power and sovereignty must be shared between them all; given the Sinhalese specificity and huge demographic preponderance on the island  that power and sovereignty cannot be shared equally and must of necessity be unequal and hierarchical; and given the external ( regional and global)  spread and demonstrated leverage of the Tamils, that unequal sharing cannot be quite as unequal as the Sinhalese would wish.

So the Realist-Prudentialist perspective would conclude that the solution is for both communities to accept that there will be neither sole ownership nor equal partnership but there will be shareholder ship by all communities; a shareholding in which the Sinhalese will have a majority but now quite as overwhelming as they would wish. The Tamil share or stake will not be merely tokenistic but they will be minority shareholders, even in combination with other minorities.  This is the case because the domestic balance of power is such, and the Sinhalese have a much bigger stake, existentially, in Sri Lanka than does any other community. They cannot but be the major stakeholders of and in the island. This is a consociation model of sorts but I would prefer to see it as uneven, hierarchical sharing of political space and power. It is not a model of Sinhala political monopoly, but of Sinhala political pre-eminence (hegemony?) in power relations. This is not to be mistaken for unequal rights the level of citizens: all citizens must have equal rights, in law and enforcement, be they Sinhalese, Tamils or of any other ethnicity.  This is a model of equal citizenship but of unequal political power and influence; a domestic Yalta model. It is a model that is neither a hyper-centralised unitary one (1972-1988), nor a federal, still less con-federal one, in which the units have a veto (union of regions package, ISGA). It is a strong state, unitary not federal, centralised but not hyper-centralist, with a degree of autonomy that is sufficiently broad to be authentic and centripetal, but sufficiently circumscribed not to be centrifugal.

After the war, the only serious conversation should be about negotiating the degree of unevenness in a necessarily, inevitably hierarchical of power relations in a structure of shared power and sovereignty among the citizens of our common island home. My personal perspective is that the deliberation should take place somewhere within the square constituted by the 13th amendment (1988), the draft Constitution of August 2000, the APRC Experts Committee ‘majority report’ (2007) and the APRC proposals of 2009.

Some may observe critically, that mine seems an ethnic if not primordial perspective, and that this is not the way things are in other parts of the world. However I am a universalist who has grown to respect the Aristotelian contribution of focusing on specificity and particularity, in historical time and geographic space. For instance, India has many nationalities and is thus multi-polar while Sri Lanka’s demographic and power distribution is bi-polar, if not strictly on the island, then in a sub-regional frame. Our problem is to prevent the bi-polar distribution from becoming a perpetual zero-sum game. Singapore has four national languages, but its communities (Chinese, Malays, and Indians/Tamils) have a regional or global presence. The Sinhalese do not. The Tamils do. This means that the Sinhalese feel they cannot afford a level playing field. They are apprehensive about a trade off, in which they retain an uneven playing field with politico-cultural space at the periphery, because of the proximity of Tamil Nadu and the fear of osmosis. This is why under Mahinda Rajapakse there is dawdling on movement in either direction: equality at the centre or space at the periphery.   For better or worse, the Sinhalese do not have the external component of national strength and power, to avoid making reform on one or the other, without a world of pain being brought down on them. This past week’s international offensive is just the arrowhead.

The Sinhalese simply do not have the strategic space to afford the generosity of conceding equal power on the island, but they do not have the strategic weight globally to retain sole power or sole ownership of the Sri Lankan state. They are simultaneously too strong (on the island) and too weak (off it).  The Tamils are too strong off shore, to be crushed as a collective under the Sinhala jackboot though Prabhakaran was, but they are too weak on the island to carve out the political arrangement that fulfils their self image and self-esteem. A prudent, pragmatic compromise is imperative.

Departing further from postures of politically correct pedagogues, I would argue that a Realist re-reading of Dutugemunu (a reading I had ventured in print slightly a decade ago) would trace the contours of such a pragmatic compromise. Dutugemunu of Mahavamsa legend evokes polarised responses: hero to the Sinhala chauvinists, anathema to the cosmopolitans. In a pioneering and valuable critique Gananath Obeysekara homed in on the consolatory episode in which the dying king is assured that his pangs of conscience are not in order.  While I agree with Prof John Richardson that this prevented the ‘Dharmasokan turn’ on the part of Dutugemunu and thereby Sinhala Buddhism, my own point is the facile resolution of the question of violence prevented the wrestling between religio-philosophical ethic of non-violence and the state imperative of the use of violence, which in the Christian case resulted in the theology of Just War, which has become a part of secular political philosophy. But I digress: the Dutugemunu legend contains a doctrine which I believe to be the viable strategic solution of our dilemma.

The Dutugemunu doctrine is twofold:

  1. The Indian ocean at our back and a Tamil kingdom in the North (with a Tamil hinterland further back) gives us little strategic space; given this strategic situation, a rival Tamil power centre on the North of the island will always be strategically intolerable and will have to be eliminated; The island’s geopolitical situation dictates strategic uni-polarity. Thus, a unitary state, not federalism still less con-federalism.
  2. The Mahavamsa legend has it that having won the war Dutugemunu appoints a Tamil ‘sub-king’ to rule the area ‘in accordance with the traditions and customs’ of the area and its people. Thus devolution and autonomy, not demographic incursion.

Now, the cosmopolitan liberal idealists refuse to accept the grand strategic validity of Proposition (1), and the contemporary Sinhala chauvinists fail to practise, indeed do not accept the validity of proposition (2). The fact that Sinhala chauvinism has deviated from Dutugemunu is a massive vulnerability which cannot be exploited ideologically because there is no one to do so, since that would require acceptance of and adherence to Proposition (1), in order to have viability and legitimacy, and indeed strategic soundness. The two propositions constitute an inseparable, organic strategic unity; a strategic synthesis. What makes matters more interesting is that public opinion surveys from 1997 (available in a PRIO bibliography) right up to the University of Liverpool’s survey of 2009-10 conducted by Prof Colin Irwin, reveals majority support precisely for the combination of the two propositions of my Realist reading of the Dutugemunu doctrine: strong centre, unitary state, no federalism or Indian model, tri-lingualism, zero tolerance of a parallel Tamil army, improved devolution and provincial autonomy.

I am a universalist-modernist who is also a pluralist, because I recognise uneven development.  The universal is an abstraction which is mediated by the particular in order to become real-concrete. Some think that world history is heading in one political direction – which I do not, preferring to think that each model has its advantages and disadvantages and that history remains open. Even though I respect and applaud genuinely universal norms and standards, I am enough of a votary of uneven development to know that not every state or society is at the same level of development as the other and that states have to go through a process of evolution. A reading of the Springtime of Nations, namely Europe in 1848, would reveal a picture of ethno-lingual nationalism as the propellant of nation building and a zero-sum game with minorities, rather like post Independence Sri Lanka.  That first great wave of European nationalism and state-building left an unfinished problem of internal ‘national questions’.

Sri Lanka, like many societies in the periphery, was impacted by colonialism with paradoxical results: one the one hand, internal development was retarded, holding back certain changes that would otherwise have come about, and on the other hand, accelerated certain processes ‘artificially’ as it were, rendering their results rather rootless in the native soil and consciousness. This is so in the matter of nation and state building. There are stages of political growth and Sri Lanka and many states in the global South at different stages of politico-historical development from those in the First world. Therefore, notions of nation, nationalism and nationality and concepts of citizenship are rawer and rougher edged, less refined and evolved.  Is Demos of mature or mid- modernity, Ethnos of and in early modernity?  We have a historical journey to complete, towards a universalism which accommodates pluralism; towards modernity, guided by Reason.

End of War Special Edition