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Sri Lanka: Can Krishna Succeed Where Brahma Has Failed? – Analysis


By Dr Kumar David

Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and his delegation have arrived in Colombo. You must forgive people here if they treat this umpteenth visit of a high and mighty Indian delegation with ennui. How much jet fuel has India burnt, hotel rooms slept in and verbal effusion expended to no purpose? Indian readers must not think me disrespectful for noting this simple and truthful actuality.

The Mahinda Rajapakse government will not budge on its positions on the Tamil question even if the whole Hindu pantheon descends on our serendipitous island. Siva the avenger, that would have been different, if Delhi flexed its muscle at the height of the war. Now with the LTTE wiped out what reason is there for the regime to concede to the Tamils what it has refused to grant for sixty years and even when war was burning? What bargaining power do the Tamils now have? Zilch!

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

Much as I abhorred the LTTE, I always maintained (the brain dead Sonia-Singh administration never comprehend it) that if the Tigers were wiped out, the Ceylon Tamils will get nothing for another generation. This is exactly the phase of history that we are now traversing. There is no language but compulsion that the Lankan regime recognises. Sure if there was a threat of war crimes prosecutions, or a realistic possibility of a damaging resolution at the March UN Human Rights meeting, or perhaps the likelihood of sanctions, international travel constraints or foreign bank account investigations, then the regime will waver. But I don’t see any pressure on war-time accountability either from India, or the West which has become Tamil-weary and chosen to go easy. Yes, some minor factotum in the State Department, Whitehall, or maybe Ottawa or Canberra will make an insipid pronouncement, for the record, from time to time; that will be all.

Anyone with a modicum of intelligence can guess why Krishna and his cohorts are descending. No it’s not to breathe down Rajapakse’s neck, the mission is here to arm twist the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) into accommodation, if not submission. Mark my words; the flurry that will follow the visit will be skewed to enhance this pressure. No demilitarization for the north and east, no return of the High Security Zone lands to the people, no release of those illegally imprisoned under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for decades, and no meaningful devolution, that is 13-th Amendment with land and police powers and north-east merger referendum. I do not own a hat, but if any of this is conceded, I will buy one and eat it!

Brahma from the time of creation

The national question has remained unresolved for 36 years short of a century if you start counting from 1948. This is the date to start the clock since it was then that the Upcountry Tamils were disenfranchised and their citizenship robbed by the Senanayake-Bandaranaike UNP government. The history of the next 64 years has oft been retold, it is redundant to repeat. I will only flag milestones: the enslavement of plantation labour in 1948-49; Sinhala Only, and B-C & D-C Pacts, made to be broken between 1956 and 1966; the 1972 Republican Constitution, the 1976 Vattukotai Resolution and the 1978 Bonapartist Constitution; the 1983 pogroms and flight overseas of Tamils; the rise of the LTTE, civil war and in 2009 its annihilation. That’s the storyline in a nutshell.

The purpose of this summary is not to theorise the obvious, that the state in Sri Lanka, over a period of time and events, has mutated from a post-colonial liberal democratic model to a semi-authoritarian Sinhala State. Irrespective of which community is right or wrong, and which numskull politician is to blame, my point is to draw attention to the stubborn longevity of the conflict and to pose a different question. Can this conundrum ever be resolved? Does sheer persistence compel us to conclude that something is ingrained in Lanka’s DNA? Should we conclude that there is no way out, on any road we have trodden thus far seeking exit from this labyrinthine maze? I have no intention of pointing you to a preferred answer; my mind is open and I am asking you to think along with me.

The fundamental reality

If something drags on seemingly forever, surely it is not enough to blame individuals alone, it is not adequate to provide subjective explanations alone. It may be a common view, and largely correct, that SWRD Bandaranaike was a chauvinist, that JR Jayewardene an unmitigated racist and Prabaharan a psychopath. But if you say that the fundamental reason why the ethnic conflict in Lanka remained unresolved for six decades was the mind-set of some leading individuals, I cannot agree. These are the trees, and yes there are trees in the forest, but what about the woods themselves?

Let me try an analogy. Some say the collapse of the global economy in recent years is the fault of Allan Greenspan, or greedy bankers, or debt prone governments. But do subjective explanations go to the heart of the matter? Aren’t these the excuses of apologists, intellectually shallow musings? Don’t get me wrong, I am not looking for a lever for anti-capitalist rhetoric; the point I am making is that for large systemic events it is not adequate to trot out subjective explanations. It is absurd to suggest that if Bluespan instead of Greenspan had been Fed Chairman, if bankers had been prim nuns, or if governments had starved electorates instead of pandering, all wound be hunky dory. Nonsense, these alternate worthies would have been compelled to do like their prior avatars by financial and political pressures, or they would have been replaced.

If Bandaranaike and NM Perera had changed places and the former said “Parity of Status for Sinhala and Thamil” and the latter cried “Sinhala Only”, NM would have been PM and policy would have been the same as it has actually been. There is only that much that can be attributed to the role of the individual in history. The way things turn out is more to do with big picture objective facts of national and racial consciousness, class forces, and selfish struggles of communities for material goodies, and comparatively less to do with particular leaders. If Prabaharan had been drowned, as some wish, in VVT harbour by his childhood neighbours, still there would have been others to take his place, and JR’s 1983 pogrom and military atrocities in Tamil regions would have fermented armed rebellion in some form.

What then?

This brings us to the ‘What Then?’ question which has two parts: (a) Lenin’s ‘What is to be done’, or what should we do, and (b) what I have been hinting at above, that is, let us be realistic about what can be done by individual or political intervention. The second part first; one must acknowledge the sway and longevity of racist consciousness and chauvinism in Lanka’s body politic. I do not believe that it can be easily or quickly defeated in the mass arena since the problem lies with the people themselves. I do not subscribe to the ‘good people bad politician’ delusion which holds that the masses are ever so good, but rotten and corrupt politicians mislead these poor gullible sods. No! There is a more complex patron-client relationship at work. Let us take good measure of our limited cloth before we try to cut-out our work programme. Let us be realistic about what can be done even with the best of all possible efforts.

Then back to (a). What is it reasonable to aspire to in the short term? President Rajapaksa has blamed the TNA for refusing to tango with his parliamentary select committee (PSC) foxtrot.

“It is important the TNA participates with the honest intention of finding a political solution, but it is not nominating members. Sampanthan is scared of somebody; the TNA is going to America complaining. It was steered by the LTTE in the Prabhakaran era and now by the diaspora of second and third generation Tamils, worried that if a political solution emerged their host countries will send them back.”

The last comment is quite dotty! But if the TNA danced along is it reasonable to expect an outcome agreeable to both communities? If it is less than substantial devolution the Tamils won’t have it, and if the TNA agreed it will be pushed out and others assume leadership; my Bandaranaike–NM hypothesis. With the LTTE now gone a Sinhalese who calls devolution a stepping stone to secession is dissembling and does not want Tamils to enjoy self-administration for deeper psychological reasons. Let’s be frank, ethnic antipathy is embedded deep in both communities; the minority sulks, the majority controls. Hence the realistic thing is to expect no solution in the short-term. The task is then transformed; it is to expose all chauvinists the Rajapakses included, and to build people’s consciousness for the longer term. After the government changes, perhaps there will be better opportunities.

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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.

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