By Dr Kumar David
The much-watched rebroadcast of the Channel-4 video on an Indian TV network has heightened Indian public opinion about the Sri Lankan civil war and it is reported that a version with Tamil subtitles is being produced for broadcast on the Jaya-TV channel said to be associated with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha. It is certain to anger Indian Tamil opinion, but in Lanka, the Sinhalese in return, are becoming enraged and isolated; the government is like a caged animal under attack on all sides. The conflict is set for collision course and a quick or amicable settlement seems impossible since the protagonists on the two sides, Jayalalitha and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, are playing to diametrically opposed galleries.
From considerations of tactics and instincts of self-preservation alone, leaving aside moral judgements, it would seem unwise for the Lankan government to assail the Ceylon Tamil community at this time. Is it not suicidal to have the army break up lawful Tamil National Alliance (TNA) meetings, to attempt to rig the July 23 local government elections, behave in bestial ways by cutting of the head of a Tamil MP’s pet dog and impale it on his gatepost? To provoke a Tamil Nadu backlash by waving a red flag at a worked up Indian public seems like a death wish.
Therefore there must be immense contrapuntal forces that the government is subject to and it cannot restrain itself from engaging in certain actions that appear to spell disaster. Perhaps the government reckons the ‘play fair and square by the Tamils option’ will bring disaster in other ways? I will return to this crucial question, but after a narrative detour.
A statement tabled in Sri Lanka’s parliament
The Sri Lanka press has given little or no publicity (and that tells another story in itself does it not?) to a devastating document tabled by TNA Member of Parliament M.A. Sumanthiran about the appalling situation in the mainly Tamil north and east of the country. Below is a compressed version of a few extracted paragraphs. Nothing has been added, but deletions have been made to keep the length manageable without losing the main point.
“Every activity that takes place in the North and East first requires approval by the Presidential Task Force and the military. Lists of beneficiaries for projects in the north have to be sent to the military. Incidents have been reported of the military altering these to include as beneficiaries individuals they want assistance to go to. Families are unable to return to their homes due to official and unofficial High Security Zone restrictions. Churches and private property are occupied by the military in Jaffna, Mannar and Mullaitivu”.
“A list was tabled earlier this year on the killings, attacks and abductions in Jaffna”.
“On 16th June 2011 armed army personnel in full uniform attacked a meeting of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) at which 5 TNA MPs were present. Several MSD personnel of the MPs were also assaulted. Major General Walgama, requested that the MPs refrain from lodging a complaint with the police, and that the incident not be reported through the media. Major General Hathurusinghe issued a statement that this was a minor incident involving the army and MSD, but later claimed he had been misquoted and assured the TNA MPs that if this was done by the army he would take stern action. On 20th June, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse confirmed the army had stopped the meeting”. (MSD = Ministerial Security Division or MP’s security).
The statement runs to eight pages and deals with forcible registration of Tamil civilians by the army, land grabs, forcible creation of settlements with ethnic motives, and restriction or denial of livelihood opportunities to Tamils. The paper gives about 120 examples of land grabs, military assisted settlements, evictions, prevention of displaced persons from returning and militarily assisted allocation of the roadside for ethnically motivated businesses. Sumanthiran makes no bones in alleging outright militarisation and settler expansion into majority Tamil areas. This synopsis should give readers unable to access the full document the gist. The full text is reproduced at http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/2529.
It is also important for readers to know that M.A. Sumanthiran is an anti-LTTE Tamil and not liked by the Tigers, past or present. He kept away from the TNA during the period when it was cowed into submission by the LTTE and was forced to toe its line.
There is a vital point to appreciate about militarisation in Lanka. Is the military responsible or is it the political leadership that holds the key to militarisation? Is militarisation of society across Lanka and particularly the severe oppression of Tamils a process driven by the military itself or is it a process led by the political state? Is Lanka like Pakistan, where the political government is a puppet of the military, or is it the other way round with real power residing in the political regime? The answer is unambiguous; the source and font of power springs from the ruling cabal; there is a sibling relationship between the heights of political and military power in the country. The political regime is supreme and controls the military, not the other way round.
Whether it is placing urban development under military control, military involvement in business ventures, the army conducting university induction programmes, Kachchaitivu, desecrating funerals of slain workers, in all cases the decision is made by the national political leadership and the military is told what to do. Compared to the political summit, military corps commanders are diminutive subordinates. Much as democrats dislike the militarisation of society they should have no illusions about who runs the show – it is the national political leadership. In this sense Lanka is emphatically not a military state or a military dictatorship.
When a government oppresses its own nationality it’s bad enough, but when the people of another nationality see a government as an oppressor, it spells bigger trouble. At this moment it may be only Jayalalitha and the West making a fuss, but can a Sinhalese government safely assume that thanks to war victory it can ride roughshod over enfeebled Tamils who will never again dare raise their heads? These draconian calculations may be right. My guess is that the Tamils are so powerless after the decimation of the LTTE that the initial impetus for the revival of Tamil protest against excessive oppression can come only in tandem with external support – the diaspora, Tamil Nadu and the West. The wind now seems to be blowing that way.
Jayalalitha on the offensive
A commentary on 7 July in the Indian website expressbuzz.com/opinion reads as follows and illustrates mounting pressure that will unavoidably harden Delhi’s stance.
QUOTE: “Jayalalithaa has submitted a memo to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that lists demands for post-conflict Sri Lanka. She has said that the Sri Lankan regime should be held accountable for war crimes during the last days of the fratricidal war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), where thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands became refuges, Tamil areas of the north were reduced to rubble, and humanitarian assistance to Tamils denied. Jayalalithaa has asked that Colombo immediately transfers adequate powers to the north and east of the island nation so the Tamils can have autonomy of governance, a long-standing Tamil demand. Jayalalithaa has insisted that India should impose economic sanctions on Sri Lanka if it does not comply. In effect India should change its policy on Sri Lanka”. END QUOTE
Rajapakse seems to have taken fright and is sending emissaries bearing pleas and invitations to placate the redoubtable lady. She, however, is unlikely to indulge in appeasement, as it will be seen as treachery by her political base. Appeasement is impossible at a time when Delhi is already denigrated as complicit in war crimes in Lanka’s civil war. In fact she seems to have taken a leaf from Rajapakse’s own book. Chief Minister Jayalalitha is a quick learner and her current guru seems to be none other than her bete noir, President Rajapakse.
Here are the two mirror images. His version: Talk tough on terrorism, pursue war without concern for civilians, be a triumphant leader and shine (for a while) as the greatest since Duttugemanu (legendary Sinhalese king who killed Ellalan a Tamil king). Her version of the same story: Talk tough on Tamil rights, pursue Rajapakse to The Hague, play on emotions of genocide of Tamils, and keep Congress and Karunanithi at bay (for a while). These days, both men and women are from Mars! The stage is set for collision course as both play their hands to opposed chauvinist suits.
Immovable obstacles and irresistible forces
I have come back to my starting point through a circuitous route. The purpose of the detour was to drive home that Colombo is picking a fight with local Tamils, Indian and Tamil Nadu public opinion and therefore Delhi, and the West; but why? We have a paradox to explain, why pick a fight if you can’t win? One could inquire ‘Is the regime loony?’ but we must venture in search of more meaningful answers.
The answer is to be found in the socio-ethnic consciousness of communities and classes. There are pressures within the country and the government that are compelling it to this course of action. What are they? A powerful force is Sinhala petty-bourgeois sentiment and emotion, a less powerful one the reflection of this consciousness in chauvinist political forces in and outside the government. Make no mistake, the social forces are fundamental, their expression in the political domain only a manifestation. Indian readers won’t be far off the mark if they think of the social forces behind Hindutva sentiments that compel political entities to adopt irrational directions.
However circumstances are far more serious than the Hindutva parallel suggests because war victory and the triumphal mood have in not subsided. Crucially, a certain type of “solution” to the national question has taken shape in the minds of chauvinist sections of the people and certain politicians. It is best described as a Lebensraum solution; it thinks: ‘Let there be an ethnic homogenisation of all the territories, pores and corners of this land. The Sinhalese constitute 75% of the island’s population, but not in all its corners; if we spread like butter on bread then there will be no more Tamil and Muslim majority areas to worry about and this will put an end to the ethnic aspirations of the snivelling, devolution seeking Tamils’. This mood has always been present in some people, but in the background. What war victory has done is to make it more widespread and, crucially, to open up a feasible scenario in which to carry it through in some, if not large measure.
These thoughts may not be explicitly expressed in all Sinhalese minds, but the view that there is no such thing as a Tamil Homeland and there should no Tamil majority areas, is widespread. The Lebensraum formula is probably the majority view in the Sinhalese petty-bourgeois class and certainly explicit in chauvinist politicians and the military. Very likely the military feels that its war victory will be frittered away unless the Lebensraum process is completed. Rajapakse, even in the unlikely event he wished to, cannot summon up forces strong enough to stand against this tide. If Jayalalitha and Delhi are dragged in, then it becomes a whole new ball game. Everywhere we live in a global village, that’s why the outcome is still far from settled.
About the author: SAAG
SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.