Respecting the history, culture and needs of the Tamils will bring about some healing.
Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz
Sri Lanka’s ethnic civil war involving the two major ethnic groups, or for that matter the two nations – Tamil and Sinhala, seems to be moving toward an imbalanced politico-military conclusion, favoring the government led by Mahinda Rajapakse who came to power in 2005 by effectively employing anti-Tamil and anti-peace slogans.
Some expect this to be the end of the Tamils’ quest for justice, and thus the Tamils need to (1) accept the generosity of the Sinhala south or the Sinhala political leadership for their political and social survival, in other words, some sort of political surrender to the Sinhala nation, or (2) radically re-visit its past, in order to form a new Tamil movement. This article gives some thoughts on these two scenarios to understand the Tamil question.
The first advice about the surrender may not be helpful nor would it not simply serve the interests of the rebelling Tamils. One key reason is that the ethnic identities are filled with some powerful symbols such as flag, national anthem, history of group, myth of motherland and fatherland. These symbols often give group-pride, and thus dangerously motivate oppressed groups to stand against the oppressive forces. The identities associated with the Tamils are emotional in nature and they are regularly being employed both by the Tamil moderates and militant Tamil nationalists in their quest for justice.
Sri Lanka‘s Sinhala forces may defeat the Tamil Tigers who are the by-product of the anti-Tamil policies of the successive Sinhala political class to win the Sinhalese vote since independence. But this would not in any way convince the Tamils to seek a generosity from the ruling Sinhala political class led by Mahinda Rajapakse who conscientiously use the Sinhalese symbols to execute the war and to consolidate his power among the South Sinhalese.
It is, therefore, politically nave to expect or demand the Tamil nation to surrender their struggle for justice and equity, expecting generosity from the Sinhala political leadership, and to tell the truth, they will not do it.
The Tamil resistance will survive even without the Tamil Tigers for two reasons: First, Sinhala polity’s excessive reliance on ethnic symbols such as a violent Lion flag, national anthem, history of mythical Vijaya and myth of motherland to influence the Sinhala masses to win and hold power. These symbols are violent in nature and illiberal in its goals, that is to say the goal of the Sinhalese symbols is to transform the island in to a highly theocratic state with Sinhala democracy, otherwise called as Dharmacracy, and second, the Sinhala polity’s pure disinterest to treat the minorities, particularly the Tamils humanely.
In other words, in a way the Tamils can exercise internal self determination; if I put it in pure political science language, power-sharing and group autonomy. Such political mechanism denotes the participation of representatives of all significant ethnic groups in political decision making at the center, while allowing ethnic groups to run their own internal affairs in their traditional homeland.
The advice too recommends stringent reform to accommodate new strategies and to absorb more politics to weaken the militarised Tamil resistance movement. Ethnic movements progress when there is willingness to understand a new politico-social reality, and to adopt progressive ideas and strategies. Therefore, the doors to changes need to be opened widely and meaningfully to adopt a new thinking and strategies to pursue the major goals.
To make this possible, the Tamil resistance movement needs some gutsy leaders who can fearlessly demand the Tamil demand. It would not bring any productive changes within the movement nor would it effectively pressure the Sinhala polity to reform the state structure, in order to offer an irrevocable political solution to the Tamil ethnic question if it is led by wrong and weak leaders.
This is, in fact, a daunting task. If reformists who expect mercy from the Sinhala political leadership, in plain words, some Tamil quislings occupy the leadership of the future Tamil reform movement, I assume it would be politically disastrous for the oppressed Tamils, because they would not resist the Sinhala brutality or demand a political solution of power-sharing democracy, above and beyond; they simply aspire perks and privileges for them and to their friends and would paint a rosy picture about the Sinhala polity and its ruling class. Will these acts satisfy the Tamils, particularly the conscious Tamils?
The point is that any new experiments on reforming the Tamil movement would go wrong when new policies or new leadership points towards a negative political accommodation with the Sinhala polity, in other words, a sort of political policy to take, without any questions, what the Sinhala polity offers. Such a Tamil reform movement may not calm the powerful Tamil symbols nor can it give effective leadership to the Tamil resistance.
The biggest challenge for the Tamil reformists is to win positive political accommodation from the Sinhala polity. If the Sinhala polity and politicians stand for serious and sincere willingness to accommodate the needs and aspirations of the Tamil nation, and they translate them into specific actions through reforming the current unitary state structure, which is one of the key political symbols of the Sinhalese, in that case, a kind of progressive cohabitation among the minorities, particularly between the Tamil and Sinhala nations is possible.
This is politically beautiful because polity offers a progressive accommodation. However, this sort of political accommodation is likely only in societies where political class can formulate policies beyond the irrational symbols. In other words, Sinhala polity should reflect liberal values, and its institutions such as defense, justice, parliament, media and police should support and execute non-racial policies.
Theoretically speaking, if states are not liberal by their ideology, if they are not economically secure and politically established democracies, they tend to reject the option of accommodation to the demands of ethnic groups. Sri Lanka, indeed, cannot be cited as an example of accommodative democratic societies because its policies and ideologies are primarily pro-Sinhalese, and thus they are not winning the minorities.
No evidence supports that the Sinhala polity would make the life of the future Tamil reform movement very easy. The precise prescription for the collapse of the future Tamil reform movement is the Sinhala hostility against a political solution that aims to go beyond the unitary state structure. The Tamil leadership, whether it is moderate or extremist, needs to focus on basic Tamil demands such as genuine political autonomy. They would not win credible Tamil sympathy either at home or among the Diaspora when they prepare to depend on the generosity of the Sinhala political leadership.
When the Tamil reformists choose negative accommodation with the Sinhala political leadership, one consequence may be to witness the re-growth of Tamil radicalism. The one form of Tamil radicalism, led by the Tamil Tigers, may be defeated, but as long as the Tamil polity is led by some quislings who behave like the political prisoners of the Sinhala polity, and there is the Sinhala polity that continues to refuse justice and political equity to the Tamil nation, it is plainly nave to assume that the future belongs to the quislings.
The Sinhala polity still can effectively deny the reasons for the Tamil militancy, if it embraces some meaningful interests and genuine commitments to seek political reform aimed at providing a substantial political autonomy at the regional level and power-sharing at the center with moderate leaders.
The demand for separation becomes strong when a power-sharing arrangement is not possible. That is to say, if the Sinhala polity is not interested in power-sharing, partition, as an alternative, should not be discarded. Some fear that partition will further strengthen the ethnic hostilities between the two nations, but even if it provokes a period of violence, it would offer the separated ethnic groups much-needed stability and security in the future.
In other words, partition can reduce the ethnic fear and offers social and political security, as well as stability, to the different ethnic groups. The separation of Pakistan from India, Eritrea from Ethiopia, Bangladesh from West Pakistan, and Greeks from Turks on Cyprus all demonstrate that partition can be helpful, even if it is not completely successful in terminating violence.
The world recognises that if the people of deeply divided ethnic nations do not want to co-habit in the same polity, then partition should not be automatically neglected as a solution. This might be one way to manage the Tamils’ demands for political space since 1977 and to neutralise the pro-Sinhala agendas of the Sinhala political establishment that explicitly risk the existence of the minorities.