Sri Lanka’s never-ending political deadlock

by Vasantha Raja

Sri Lanka’s present administration is a “dictatorship masquerading as democracy” observed Prof. John Neelsen from the Institute of Sociology in Tuebingen, Germany. His judgement is not far from the truth. In this paper I shall argue that a virtual ‘Sinhala-Buddhist dictatorship’ has emerged in Sri Lanka as the outcome of the brutish military campaign that resulted in a humanitarian tragedy of scandalous proportions. Also, I shall show the colonial connection, particularly the British rule that sowed the seeds for the present political impasse in Sri Lanka.

Let me start with a brief description of the war that culminated in the destruction of the Tamil Tiger leadership along with its Tamil mini-state in Sri Lanka’s Tamil habitat.

Successive administrations in Sri Lanka succeeded in branding its nearly thirty-year war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as war on terrorism. This formula worked well in getting the foreign countries – to which hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled for protection – to ban the Tiger Movement and choke the flow of funds to the Tigers. Following the ‘9-11’ US tragedy, Sri Lanka nicely touted its war as part of Junior Bush’s ‘global war on terror’.

The Sinhala nationalist movement in Sri Lanka, on the contrary, correctly identified the Tiger leadership as the zenith of the Tamil minority’s struggle to establish its own Tamil state in the north and east.

The Sinhala/Buddhists saw the island as rightfully theirs. For them, the Tamil struggle is a continuation of the historic Sinhala/Tamil wars in a new form. The army commander, General Sarath Fonseka, in a recent interview articulated the Sinhala perception as follows: “I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese; but, there are minority communities and we treat them like our people…we being the majority of the country, 74%, we’ll never give in and we have the right to protect this country…They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.” [My emphasis]

In a similar tone, the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said: “In any democratic country the majority should rule the country. This country will be ruled by the Sinhalese community which is the majority representing 74% of the population.” In the same vein, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa, seeing the onrushing victory, said: “Soon the lion flag [VR: Effectively, the emblem of the Sinhala Buddhists] will fly from every house-top from Point Pedro to Dondra Head, from Colombo to Trincomalee.”

All three quotations above – from interviews and public speeches made by the top most personalities of the Sri Lankan state just prior to the final military victory – reflect the general mindset of Sri Lanka’s majority community that has primarily been fuelling the war all along, not terrorism. Terrorism was just a symptom both sides resorted to during the conflict.

Victory celebrations began to spread like wildfire in the Sinhala south shamelessly displaying the hubris of annihilating the Tamil separatists, rather than terrorism. Chief monks within the Buddhist clergy and the Sinhala press were openly referring to Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Sinhala king who should rule the country for good. Some are even suggesting turning the country formally into a Sinhala-Buddhist kingdom. Any sociologist who would study the post-war celebrations in the ‘Sinhala south’ would clearly see an entrenched supremacist mindset in action, nothing less.

All pre-war talks of ‘devolving power to the Tamils’ had vanished. The president was calling upon the people to discard the concept of ‘ethnic minority’ altogether and see everyone as a citizen of Sri Lanka.

However attractive this slogan may seem on the surface let me explain why this approach fails to appreciate Sri Lanka’s social realities; and how in practice this would amount to the defence of Sinhala/Buddhist domination in Sri Lankan politics.

The fundamental fallacy in the Sinhala-Buddhist perception results from the failure to distinguish between ‘ethnic minorities’ and ‘minority nations’. The fact is: Tamils in Sri Lanka are a minority nation trapped within the post-colonial straitjacket of a unitary state. [Later I shall show there can be forms of unitary structures that are capable of accommodating trouble-free coexistence of more than one nation.]

Tamils are in many ways similar to Scots in Scotland or Welsh in Wales. Tamils don’t see themselves as an ethnic minority living in the Sinhala/Buddhist country, just as Scots don’t see themselves as a minority living in the English country. Both Scots and Welsh perceive Britain as a voluntary arrangement by three nations for mutual benefit. The English-dominated state, for instance, conceivably cannot ban the separatist Scottish National Party driving them underground, send an English army to crush Scottish separatism and hoist the English flag all over Scotland. Why not? Because, the political value systems in the west have evolved too far for that; the atmosphere isn’t conducive to such behaviour.

The Tamils have a very long history along with the Sinhalese, though the latter has been the dominant political and cultural force through out Sri Lankan history. When the western colonialists arrived in Sri Lanka [formerly, Ceylon] over four centuries ago there existed one Tamil kingdom and two Sinhalese kingdoms in the island which the colonialists systematically dismantled. The British finally defeated the last Sinhala kingdom in Kandy and imposed a unitary state structure uniting the island for administrative purposes. [Ironically, the last king of the Sinhala kingdom, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, who confronted the British forces, was a Tamil; and that indicates the present extreme form of the supremacist mindset is essentially a post-independence phenomenon.]

During the Colonial rule both Sinhala and Tamil cultures were brutally suppressed, and parallel revivalist movements erupted independently of each other in the 19th century – in the Sinhala south to protect Buddhism and Sinhala culture while in the Tamil north to defend Hinduism and Tamil culture. These movements eventually snowballed into powerful anti-imperialist campaigns for freedom.

Unfortunately, these social realities and the robust aspirations of two nations were not reflected in the British-imposed state-structures at Sri Lanka’s independence. On the contrary, the British introduced a rigid unitary system paving the way for Sinhala domination that immensely contributed to future conflicts. There were no mechanisms for the Sinhalese politicians to fulfil the Sinhala-Buddhists’ justifiable economic, political and cultural aspirations without antagonizing the Tamils. [The so-called 29th Clause of the first post-independence constitution to protect the ‘minorities’ – which was contemptuously discarded by the Sinhala majority eventually – was pathetically inadequate to protect the Tamils from discrimination.]

The post-colonial political system, in effect, motivated the Sinhala politicians to whip up anti-Tamil sentiments as the easy way to secure the majority’s vote base. This factor along with the dragging feudal consciousness in Sri Lanka proved to be a lethal combination.

The latter point, I think, deserves a brief explanation: In countries like Sri Lanka, capitalism did not organically evolve from feudalism. Unlike in Europe – where capitalism grew within the womb of feudal society systematically challenging all aspects of feudal consciousness and institutions – Sri Lankan capitalism was arbitrarily imposed by colonialists on a feudal society. Therefore, the feudal consciousness continued to persist in various forms. The Sinhala politicians’ pathological failure to politically solve the Tamil Question, I believe, is partly a result of that.

True, for a developing nation – battered by imperialism for centuries – the glorious memories of a bygone past may be useful to sustain a nation’s badly needed self-confidence. But, they could easily turn into a toxic force, as happened in Sri Lanka, when mixed with political structures that encourage racism.

In fact, the language and the symbolism used during the post-war victory celebrations could, I believe, provide fertile fields for anthropologists to study a very important social phenomenon. Virtually everyone in the Sinhala/Buddhist ‘camp’ – including the president, military leaders and government ministers – perceived the Tamil Tigers’ demise as the modern version of the historic defeat of the Tamil king Elara at the hand of the Sinhala/Buddhist king Dutugemunu.

The real content of the Tamil struggle, the war and the eventual Tiger defeat, however, is vastly different. As I have already explained, it is very much to do with Sri Lanka’s post-colonial state-structures’ inflexibility to even-handedly deal with the political, economic and cultural aspirations of two nations emerging from colonial oppression.

Clearly, the unitary state has been instrumental in pushing the two communities towards head on clash, rather than helping them to see the benefits of coexistence. The successive governments’ one-sided efforts to promote Sinhala language and Buddhism, for instance, turned out as blatant anti-Tamil discrimination. The Sinhala-dominated state’s biased approach against the Tamil regions in infrastructure development is visibly clear. Just like the colonialists who were only interested in developing their central economic hub, Colombo, and related areas, the post-independence governments also neglected the crucially important north and east in the distribution of national wealth. Consequently, the Tamil regions remained undeveloped forcing the Tamil youth to migrate to the Sinhala south for jobs, businesses and prosperity. Thus, the poverty-ridden Sinhala majority increasingly began to perceive the Tamils as a threat to their jobs and businesses. Accordingly, communal riots and anti-Tamil pogroms became a striking feature of Sri Lanka’s post-independence history.

Tamils’ non-violent campaigns for a federal state were brutally crushed by the successive Sinhala governments – a trend culminated in the banning of Tamil representatives from the parliament using draconian laws. The Tamil armed-struggle for a separate state was a direct result of the Sinhala state’s violent efforts to put down Tamils’ Gandhian campaigns. Tamil Tigers’ determined venture to build a Tamil mini-state and militarily protect it was a logical development in response to the Sinhala state’s violent approach.

Now that the Tamil Tigers’ mini-state strategy has been defeated, the Tamils internationally have responded with their new strategy to create a “transnational government” based on the numerically and financially strong Tamil Diaspora that may eventually raise a formidable ‘global’ challenge to the Sinhala state. Whatever the viability of the Tamil leaders’ high sounding objectives abroad, at least a solid movement could emerge to consolidate the Diaspora’s unprecedented energy erupted in response to the war. Thus, it may prove to be a powerful counterpart to the political developments in Sri Lanka itself.

Does the Sri Lankan government have the vision to handle the new developments by politically solving the Tamil question? Highly unlikely, I should say.

After the Tamil Tigers’ military defeat, Sri Lanka’s president Mahinda Rajapaksa made it amply clear that he is not going to devolve power to the Tamils as a separate unit living in the north and east of the island. As mentioned earlier, for him there are ‘no ethnic minorities’ in Sri Lanka to devolve power along ethnic lines. Tamils grievances could be addressed within the existing unitary structures, he said.

However, the Rajapaksa-friendly Tamil politicians – who are getting discredited among the Tamils by the day – and the international community keep pressurizing the government to give in on this issue. [Reportedly, at the recent UN vote on a ‘possible genocide probe’, the government has covertly hinted its readiness to implement an improved version of the 13th amendment – the brainchild of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 – as a devolutionary package to the north-east Tamils. However, such misleading signals appear to be part of Machiavellian tactics to hoodwink the UN. The harsh reality is that the president is struggling hard to avert the devolution issue altogether paying lip-service to a possible ‘home-grown’ solution in the ‘near future’]

President Rajapaksa’s post-victory speeches indicate a pluralist vision of the Sri Lankan society in which members of diverse social groups develop their traditional cultures or special interests within a common civilization. Thus, he seems determined to avoid any solution along ethnic lines.

This approach seems attractive to many Sinhala intellectuals too, because of its obvious modernist connotations, as opposed to outdated nationalist prejudices. But, in a country like Sri Lanka with a ‘minority nation’ of highly evolved nationalist aspirations, the pluralist vision has many pitfalls as its post-independence experience has graphically illustrated to its detriment.

Even in an economically advanced country like Britain pluralism has not worked. How imprudent it is to believe pluralism to be the answer in a poor country like Sri Lanka after decades of brutal war to crush a minority nation.

Perhaps, it is time to learn a lesson or two from the architect of Sri Lanka’s unitary setup, Britain. How did Britain deal with Scottish and Welsh separatism? The London parliament offered a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, both explicitly based on Scottish and Welsh right to self-determination. [The British proposals were put to the Scottish and Welsh people separately in the form of referendums for their approval]

Of course, Sri Lanka cannot copy the British answer to separatism from word to word. Sri Lankan situation is quite different. In Britain, for instance, the central administration is far more advanced than its counterpart in Colombo; therefore, whether the British Prime Minister is English, Scottish or Welsh is irrelevant where as in Sri Lanka, at present, a Tamil or a Muslim President is an unthinkable quantity. Also, still the English majority has not strongly felt the need to rush for a regional English Parliament, though the existing lopsidedness of the British state structures is widely being acknowledged.

Thus, the British solution cannot fit the Sri Lankan situation like a glove. What is important is to learn at least the general principles of a democratic approach to somewhat similar problems.

Let’s have a brief look at some relevant demographic and geographical features of the present day Sri Lankan society: Although the Tamils identify much of the northern and eastern provinces as their traditional homeland there are hundreds of thousands of Tamils, including the Tamil plantation workers in the upcountry, live among the Sinhala majority. [Note that the Muslims also use Tamil as their first language.] Also, a substantial section of Sinhalese and Muslims have been living in the Tamil regions for generations. Therefore, considering the deep rooted prejudices prevalent on both sides, it would be in the interest of all concerned to have radical changes in the central administration. In this sense, power devolution to the Tamil regions would be of lesser significance relative to the changes at the centre.

Moreover, geographically Sri Lanka should be seen as a single unit. The water distribution, for instance, is uniquely intertwined. The rivers that fertilize Tamil lands of the north and east originate from the hills located in the Sinhala midlands. Even the climatic zones of the island are distributed as parts of a single whole.

Culturally too there have been close interactions between the two peoples that have mutually enriched each other through out history. Virtually in all Buddhist temples there are shrines for Hindu gods. Most Buddhists are devotees of Hindu gods too.

Consequently, all communities’ long term interests would be better served by designing an island-wide political transformation whatever the shortcut measures needed to solve the immediate problems. Two hostile political entities side by side would be counterproductive for both.

Thus, a realistically creative solution, in my view, should have a mechanism for Sinhala and Tamil people to fulfil their cultural aspirations in their own regions through two regional parliaments while the highest level institutions of the economy, judiciary, defence, foreign affairs etc., are secured in an equality-based centre. In more simple terms, there should be a democratically-transformed Supreme Parliament to deal with issues related to the country as a whole, while two regional parliaments look after the Sinhala/Tamil cultural and other interests in their own regions. [For, clarity’s sake I shall avoid dealing with the special interests of Muslims and other tiny communities here.]

How to transform a Sinhala-dominated supremacist centre into a democratic and equality-based Supreme Parliament is the trillion dollar question. This is the key issue to be negotiated with the Tamil political leaders. The Europeon Union, for example, has been going through valuable experiences on similar issues, and if so many nation-states can continue to build mutual confidence on such a vast scale then a tiny island with a few races should be able to do that far more easily. But, without discarding the chauvinist mindset the whole thing is a non-starter.

To start with, the government will have to abandon the “no minorities” delusion. The truth is: with entrenched nationalist aspirations and prejudices of a post-colonial society the ‘pluralist solution’ will only amount to a reinforcement of the Sinhala Buddhist domination that continues to provoke the Tamil struggle to re-emerge in a new form.

Devolution of power to a separate Tamil Unit without touching the centre could also, in my view, further deepen the ethnic divisions along dangerous lines, particularly in the context of the growing regional rivalries between China and India. There is a serious possibility of the Sinhala-dominated centre turning into a Chinese puppet-state while a northern Tamil administration gets swamped by India’s regional interests. If this were to happen, the chances of Sri Lanka becoming a playground for regional power-politics are very real indeed.

But, is it realistic to expect the Sinhala political elite to change its Mahavamsa mindset and go for a radical transformation of the state-structure along the lines I have suggested earlier? I don’t think so. The government seems determined to stick to its militarist agenda of violently demolishing the Tamils’ cry for freedom. Therefore, all fascistic trends the government has been showing in the south so far are likely to grow worse in the coming period.

Alternatively, will the government – under international pressure – go for an asymmetric devolution of power to Tamils in the north and east as being demanded by the mainstream Tamil politicians in parliament? Such a move, in my view, is highly unlikely, because that could anger the southern Sinhala-Buddhist movement that perceives it as a Tamil tactic to split the country. The People’s Liberation Movement (JVP) with a strong base on the Sinhala side has been warning against any such move. This would amount to a betrayal of thousands of Sinhala soldiers who sacrificed their lives in defence of the country’s integrity, the JVP claims.

There are major problems with the 13th Amendment which the anti-Tiger Tamil politicians might like to resolve. The North-East provincial council that existed until 2006 was just one of several councils in the country that exist at the mercy of the Sinhala-dominated centre. The centre can abolish them at will. Also, there are controversial areas such as policing – which the centre wants to keep in its hands ignoring the anti-Tiger Tamil politicians’ request.

Clearly, the 13th Amendment is worthless unless asymmetrical power devolution to the Tamil Unit with extra laws to protect it from arbitrary central interventions is secured. Already, the centre has demonstrated its domination over the provincial councils by abolishing the north-west council on one occasion. Also, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has recently nullified a cornerstone of the 13th Amendment, i.e. the merger of the two Tamil-majority provinces, as unconstitutional. Thus, a fundamental aspiration of the Tamils, i.e. to unite northern and eastern provinces, is already in jeopardy.

Moreover, the Sinhala side firmly believes that an asymmetrical devolution of power to Tamils of north & east would only be a steppingstone for a Tamil state. This was a major factor in the deepening distrust between the two sides all along. And, now that the Tamil Tigers’ mini-state project has been militarily wiped out, it might be futile to expect the Colombo administration to create a north-east council free from centre’s control. President Rajapaksa’s constant lip-service to a ‘home-grown’ solution may well be a cover to dodge the mounting international pressure to devolve power to Tamils.

However, there are at least three reasons why the government would loose its nerve unless an acceptable political solution for the Tamils is presented soon.

Firstly, the government is increasingly becoming conscious that the military victory does not mark the end of the Tamil struggle. The government has succeeded in demolishing the Tigers’ ‘mini-state project’ only to pave the way for a changed form of struggle. Consequently, the security nightmare that plagued the country for so long is nowhere near ending. And the government will go on ‘disappearing’ every Tamil showing any sign of freedom-sentiments. This will only drive the politically conscious Tamils underground, making the situation increasingly difficult to tackle.

Secondly, Sri Lanka’s dithering economy – already overwhelmed by mounting debts – is showing signs of grave problems, and the potential for social unrest in the south is very real indeed. This could turn the post-war exuberance into its opposite in no time.

Thirdly, the presently raging debate within the Sinhala intelligentsia and the left movement as to the hollowness behind the military victory seems to be gathering momentum. It may well become the catalyst for a new awareness away from the mainstream supremacist mindset. And, there are politically conscious Tamil campaigners who see the significance of relating to the Sinhala progressives. A potentially formidable unity between the rising Tamil movement and the Sinhala progressive forces would be the last thing the Rajapaksa administration would like to see happening.

There’re good reasons for the growing frustration in the south. Many thought the Tigers’ military defeat would bring peace in a perceptible way. But, in the midst of victory celebrations the military commander Sarath Fonseka in a TV interview said he was going to expand the army by 50%, surprising everyone who couldn’t understand why peace needs more soldiers than the war. Also, extending the draconian anti-terrorist law in the parliament was one of government’s immediate steps in the post-war Sri Lanka. In brief, the military victory does not seem to have brought security to the country in a tangible way.

The developments within the Tamil community both inside and outside Sri Lanka are not conducive for peace at all. Inside Sri Lanka the Tamil anger seems to be reaching boiling point by the day. Perhaps, it’s worth quoting the Vavuniya Tamil legislator Suresh premachandra’s account given on June 14 in some length.

“250,000 Tamil civilians are held in camps. Over 1000 were killed. A large number was injured. Children have no parents. Mothers have lost children. Wives have lost husbands. Pregnant mothers and others lack healthcare. No houses; no water. Bathing is limited once in four days. No food; no toilets. One cannot go out since a Sinhala Army has surrounded them. No connection with the outside world. How can the people be happy?” he said. “In Jaffna, we cannot get out of the houses. Checkpoints are everywhere. 600,000 Tamils are ruled by 40,000 Sinhala Army. One cannot come to Colombo at least for an emergency. An air ticket is Rs. 20,000. A-9 road is closed. Roads in Jaffna are closed at any moment the Army patrols on them. Tamils are suppressed day by day.” And in a warning tone he added, “Both sides have the patriotism.”

In a mood of utter frustration he said: “Youths are arrested from camps. Parents cannot go to complain to police. Human Rights organizations are denied access. We cannot do anything. We are also not allowed. Six MPs including MP Srikanthan wrote a letter seeking permission to visit camps. But no reply. MP Kishore sought the President’s permission over the phone. Then the President asked him to join the government. I cannot go at least to my birth place. I cannot look into the welfare of people that voted me. This government is engaged in an opportunist politics violating the human rights and democracy.”

The Tamil MP was describing the situation in the Tamil north. The government says there’re thousands of Tigers at large in the south. Also, there are hundreds of thousands of Tamils in the south who live in fear, as second class citizens, and in constant worry about their relatives suffering in the detention camps. Thus, the question is: how long this state of affairs is going to last without blowing up?

There is no sign of pacification within the Tamil Diaspora either. Quite apart from the protests and lobbies, the think-tanks are busy debating the ways of rebuilding the Tamil campaign on a global scale. As already mentioned, the some Tamil leaders abroad have already begun forming the ‘transnational government’ and strengthening their global campaign. They may try and manoeuvre India’s growing nervousness over China’s systematic encroachment into her outskirts using Sri Lankan state’s predicament. On the other hand, even China – with its ‘global-superpower’ ambitions – may want to build its moral-image globally, and put pressure on the Colombo administration to get its act together.

Also, there are others who encourage the Tamils in the country to join progressive Left parties en masse and compel the Tamil political parties to come to a united front with the Left, anticipating a socio-political turmoil worse than the recent Iranian crisis. The deteriorating economic conditions in Sri Lanka, they think, would be the additional factor.

This last point needs some elaboration:

Sri Lanka is a tiny part of the global economy that is almost entirely dependent on exports and imports for its survival. There’s no viable internal market for capitalists to thrive on. Its foreign exchange earnings have been primarily centred on tourism, tea, garment/textile exports and the ‘export’ of labour mainly to the middle-east for the inflow of foreign exchange remittances – all of which have been drastically affected by the global recession. During the past few decades, easily available global credit facilitated Sri Lanka’s economic and political survival. The global credit crunch has badly affected the major pillars of the Sri Lankan economy causing unexpected problems for the economic pundits.

The war cost has been totally beyond the capacity of a poor country like Sri Lanka. The coffers are empty and the government is totally dependent on foreign loans and aid. The war forced the government to borrow untold quantities of domestic credit too that kept the central bank’s printing machines very busy indeed. Colossal amounts of paper money now circulating within the economy can be seen forcing the living costs to rise uncontrollably while the foreign exchange reserves have slumped to dangerous levels. The dragging global economic doom is not helping the situation at all.

Thus, the continuing triumphalist conceit could soon run out of steam. Economic catastrophe, social unrest and political dissent may well be on the cards. In such a scenario, I think, the spectre of possible link up of Sinhala/Tamil aspirations on a common platform, could become more real than many appreciate at present.

In conclusion, let me briefly mention the essence of the analysis: The post-colonial state-structure – initially floated by British imperialism – was the albatross that reinvigorated a dormant mindset. The political process since has now reached its logical end: a virtual Sinhala-Buddhist dictatorship. However, it has also created the conditions and the potential for a social revolution that could eventually bring about the real democratic transformation Sri Lanka is crying for.

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