Colombo, Constitutional Reform, International Relations, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Sri Lanka at a critical crossroad: JHU and the 13th Amendment


Udaya Gammanpila, Senior Member of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), courtesy

The country stands at a crossroad. A parliamentary victory for the JHU bill will complete the negative process which commenced with Sinhala Only in 1956 and the distortion in 1972 of the laudable shift to a Republic with mono-linguistic and mono-religious hegemony. If ’56 and ’72 were paving stones for the Tamil Eelam project, the passage of the JHU bill to abolish the 13th amendment will complete the process of the legitimisation of secessionism.

A victory for the JHU will also cast a pall over the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and guarantee Sri Lanka’s defeat at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014. It will embarrass our allies Russia and China and drive South Africa and much of the Non-Aligned Movement away from us. It will irreversibly discredit and radically isolate the country and the Sinhalese, regionally and internationally. In short, in terms of Sri Lanka’s national interest, it will be the single most self-destructive act this Parliament could perform.

Conversely, a defeat of the JHU bill will enable Sri Lanka to put the stigma of majoritarian extremism behind it. Such a victory will be the necessary complement of the military victory of May 18th 2009 and the diplomatic victory of May 27-28, 2009.  Having militarily defeated the secessionist minoritarian fascism of the LTTE, Sri Lanka has a chance to defeat majoritarian extremism of the JHU-NFF-BBS politically.

In the run-up to the parliamentary battle, is a dual debate in Sri Lankan politics. The Sinhala polity is divided between on the one hand, those who wish to abolish the 13th amendment or delete land and police powers from it and on the other, those who see fit to proceed, however reluctantly, with elections to the Northern Provincial Council without attempting any drastic truncation of the powers devolved upon it. The Tamil polity is divided between, on the one hand, those who are keen to contest the Northern PC election and regard the 13th amendment as worthy of defence, and on the other, those who regard the 13th amendment as hardly worth the paper it is written on.

What is missing in the picture is any drawing together and mutual reinforcement between the moderates or pragmatists on both sides of the ethnic divide who defend, however reluctantly, the provincial council and the prospect of elections to it in September.

What is also missing is the engagement of the intelligentsia, especially civil society intelligentsia, in either supporting the Sinhala moderates in this important battle or in building a bridge between the Sinhala and Tamil moderates in defence of the existing system of devolution of power to the provinces.

The lack of a structured dialogue between the Sinhala and Tamil parliamentary moderates across Government and Opposition lines, deprives each other of vital support and partnership.

That, taken together with the absence of engagement in the ongoing battle by the intelligentsia prevents the construction or reconstitution of a zone of moderate opinion in polity and society.

The battle over the 13th amendment provides an enormous opportunity in the battle of ideas, because the arguments adduced in favour of abolition or gutting are symptomatic of the most retrogressive notions within our society ranging from the conservative to the militarist, the neoconservative to the racist. Grappling with and combating these ideas provides a fine opportunity for asserting the values of reason, democracy and pluralism.

Why then isn’t the battle being joined? The answer is political and ideological sectarianism. There are important precedents. When SWRD Bandaranaike was striving to defend the pact with Chelvanayakam, the powerful, union-based left was absent from the fray. Had it thrown its weight behind SWRD, the history of this country may have been significantly different and better.

Contemporary sectarianism takes two forms. The first is that the 13th amendment doesn’t deserve defending because the Tamil people need and deserve something considerably beyond it. The second is that the hole is on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s side of the boat, or that he is patently insincere and merely playing ‘good cop’ to the far right’s ‘bad cop’.

The first argument is easily dispensed with. The TNA should contest the election even if the council is gutted of most of its powers, just as one should not abandon even the skeleton of a house that is one’s patrimony simply because someone has made off with its roof.

The second argument, even if true is irrelevant. The opportunity for a politico-ideological battle against neo-conservatism, racism and ethno-religious fascism is far too important to be contingent upon a reading of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s politics, let alone speculation about his psyche.

The JHU’s counter-reform bill constitutes a classic ‘wedge issue’. Resistance provides the only opportunity that has arisen in years, for the SLFP parliamentary group to defeat the parties of the extremist fringe which have ideologically dominated the UPFA administration and distorted its discourse.

The battle to defeat the JHU-NFF-BBS attack on provincial devolution is thus utterly decisive. Against such a backdrop, only an aficionado of black humour would appreciate as I do, an invitation I received in the mail for a conclave at which the best and the brightest of Sri Lanka’s cosmopolitan intelligentsia are scheduled to discuss and debate such exquisite irrelevancies as “Ethical Reconstruction: Primitive Accumulation in the Apparel Sector?”, “Philanthrocapitalism, Philanthronationalism: the ethics of corporate gifts in post-conflict Sri Lanka” and “On Heterophobic and Heterophilic Casteism and anti-Casteism”. Where the topic is relevant, such as “Diplomacy at the UN Human Rights Council”, the sole designated presenter is Yolanda Foster of Amnesty International (which exclusivity is no fault of either Ms Foster or AI).

No Gramscian ‘organic intellectual’ stuff or words for a Modern Prince, here. If these are the good guys and gals and this is their discourse, no wonder the bad guys are way ahead: they have the advantage of being organic and sounding ‘national popular’.

If the bad guys win, the centre of gravity of Sri Lankan politics and society will shift still further to the right. It may even impact upon the choice of candidacy. If the neo-con project with its totalitarian notion of national security succeeds, the present dispensation will appear in a roseate afterglow as an era of tolerance and democracy.