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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2704

Winds of Change?

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"You suffer so much from the things that exist that you ask for what can’t ever exist." Zola(Germinal)

A great deal of interest has been caused by what the media has termed an ‘unannounced visit’ by a high level Indian delegation to Sri Lanka. Consisting of Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, Defence Secretary Vijay Singh and National Security Advisor, MK Narayanan the team reached Colombo on Friday and will be here for two days. Though the purpose is said to be to discuss bilateral issues and the SAARC Summit, the dominant belief is that there is more to it that meets the eye. The JVP and the JHU will be on alert particularly, in case this is an attempt by Delhi to compel Colombo to offer a political deal to the Tamils in time for the SAARC summit.

This speculation is fed by the impression that, post-HRC debacle Colombo is trying to accommodate some concerns of the international community. The fast tracking of the Witness Protection Bill is seen as a signal to the EU and was denounced as such by the JVP. The Bill is certainly a step in the right direction and hopefully it will not remain a dead letter. The attempts by the UNP to derail it should convince the administration that getting the Bill through and implementing it is to its own advantage.

A supposedly ‘reconciliatory’ statement by Presidential sibling Basil Rajapakse has added considerable fuel to this spark, even causing a slight buoyancy in the Colombo stock market in anticipation of a resumption of peace talks. The manner in which India’s Hindu reported the story is instructive in understanding how a section of the national and international opinion has interpreted it: “In an apparent softening of its stand, Sri Lanka has offered to hold talks with the LTTE after a two-year gap…. "The (Sri Lankan) President has already announced that he is ready to talk (with the LTTE)," Basil Rajapaksa, the powerful Special Advisor to the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, said. On whether the President has specified that he will not talk unless the LTTE lays down arms, Basil merely said "those are conditions that have to be worked out". "The government is always open to talks but the government needs to have a certain environment in which we can talk," Basil, an MP and brother of the Sri Lankan President, told the Daily Mirror newspaper. On being asked whether the LTTE represented the Tamil people, the senior advisor said "yes, they represent the Tamil people but they are not the only ones. That has been proved. "But this doesn't mean they don't have the strength or that they represent no Tamils," he said. "They (the LTTE) do represent a fair amount of Tamil people. Unfortunately their way of doing it can't be approved. Otherwise the President is always willing to have negotiations and a settlement. The best scenario is where we negotiate and settle it with the LTTE," Basil said” (The Hindu – 19.6.2008).

Is the Indian visit in part motivated by the recent threat by the government to take back the Indian owned LIOC, if it does not sell fuel at the same prices as CEYPETCO? If Minister Fowzie’s threat is serious, it would cause India considerable concern. As a potential economic giant, and one who is both conscious and proud of this ascent, India pays great attention to her regional and global economic interests. The team may also try to talk the regime into offering the Tamils a better deal in time for the SAARC summit. Pressure is building in Tamil Nadu for a more proactive Indian role in Sri Lanka. With the poor showing by the Congress Party in a number of states, the need to win/retain support of Tamil Nadu Tamils would be more critical than ever. But even if the Indian team does put pressure on Sri Lanka, nothing more than an empty promise is likely to materialise. The government, despite a few conciliatory gestures for international consumption, does not seem to be willing to abandon its ‘Sinhala First’ nation-building project.

The Competing Nation-Building Projects

After the euphoria of independence subsided, the task of fashioning a single nation out of their ethnic, religious or tribal mêlées became the desiderata and the dilemma of many Third World countries. Minority ethnic, religious or tribal groups becoming absorbed voluntarily into the majority community, on the basis of total equality, to form a single nation – this was an article of faith of progressive nationalism. Common sense and self-interest would dictate the necessity of such integration, rationalists in an Age of Reason believed.

In Ceylon/Sri Lanka there were two contending projects of nation-building - the relatively more inclusionary and equal one pioneered by the Ceylon National Congress (and the left movement in its anti-chauvinist phase) and implemented by DS Senanayake; and the exclusionary and unequal one advocated by a host of Sinhala supremacists (ranging from Anagarika Dharmapala to Sinhala Maha Sabha) and adopted by SWRD Bandaranaike. The relatively inclusive and consensual journey towards nationhood the country has embarked on since Independence (except vis-à-vis plantation Tamils) was derailed with the unexpected death of D S Senanayake (he was only 68 when he was killed in an equestrian accident) and the success of the ‘Sinhala Only revolution’ of 1956 (SWRD Bandaranaike deprived of succession formed his own party and after a disastrous showing at the 1952 election embraced ‘Sinhala Only’).

The 1956 Revolution represented a contending nation-building project which was the antithesis of progressive nationalism. It was, by self-definition and self-proclamation, a project aimed at reclaiming Lanka from the foreigners (and their local lackeys) for her ‘real owners’, the Sinhalese. With ‘Sinhala Only’ as its battle-cry, this nation-building project had as axioms that Lanka was the country of the Sinhalese, ‘nation’ was coterminous with the Sinhala race and in this ‘nation’ the language, religion and culture of the majority community are pre-eminent. Those Tamils who did not want to be absorbed into the ‘nation’ on terms of humiliating inequality were regarded as potential traitors. Some left; some protested; many tried resignation but became disillusioned and alarmed as efforts at creating a more just modus Vivendi failed and successive governments used legislative tyranny to strength majority hegemony. With the enthroning of the Rajapakses, the ‘Children of ’56’ came into their own. Under President Rajapakse a revanchist mindset took hold and several achievements of the Indo-Lanka Accord were rolled back.

Do the remarks by Basil Rajapakse signal a halt to this retrogressive process? Is it a signal that the administration wants a political solution? Or is it an attempt by the Richelieu of the regime to regain some international support with a show of flexibility? Is change in the air or is it another delusional hope caused by desperation?

Ranil Wickremesinghe presided over the most permissive of the peace deals with the LTTE for two years. Yet Tamil people made no real gains during this time. True there was an absence of war, but child conscription and other human rights violations by the Tigers targeting Tamils reached new heights during this time. No devolution plan was approved or even seriously discussed. Instead focus was not on devolution but on practical matters of interest to the LTTE politically, economically and militarily (such as the status of the Sea Tigers, the existence of high security zones, the recognition of the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamils, its right to impose taxes).

The Tigers are not interested in devolution, not even as a half way house to Eelam as, some Sinhala supremacists fear. The LTTE knows that if there is a decent half way house, the Tamil people will want to stop there and the world will actively encourage them to do so. Since a political solution will nullify the Eelam cause the Tigers naturally do not want one. Therefore even if there is a resumption of peace talks, it will not result in a political solution to the ethnic problem. After all Basil Rajapakse does not talk about devolution in his interview; like his brother he too has reduced the problem to one of peace vs. war and the solution to negotiations vs. military victory.

Given the government’s commitment to the ‘Sinhala First’ nation-building project this depiction of the Tamil issue is understandable. Consequently a brief ceasefire with the LTTE will be far more acceptable than a devolution package for the Tamils. As Minister Nimal Siripala Silva said with admirable candidness, “First thing we wanted to do was to finish off LTTE terrorism from the country. After that we want to find a good solution to the North like the East. Now we have introduced Pilliyan as a Symbol of Democracy in the East. It will be model for our next step….We can’t accept the APRC proposal. It should be changed to conform to the Mahinda Chinthana policy” (Sri Lanka Guardian). The aim of this war is not only to defeat the LTTE but also to complete the nation-building project based on Sinhala supremacism. The minorities will be incorporated into the Sinhala dominated ‘nation’ as junior partners; the unitary state will be restored and the North and the East pacified by two Tamil Chief Ministers, faithful enforcers of the regime and war lords to the people.

Human Rights and the War

The LTTE has a global presence and it cannot be defeated conclusively without cutting off those international tentacles. This is why the backing of the world is a sine qua non for a successful anti-Tiger struggle. As the recent actions by Canada and Italy demonstrate, yet again, with the possible exception of Norway, the international community is not pro-LTTE; but it is decidedly pro-Tamil because in the Sri Lankan context civilian Tamils are the main victims. They are powerless and threatened from all sides – the LTTE, the Lankan state and those anti-Tiger Tamil parties which are armed. Therefore they are in need of protection, in need of friends who espouse their cause.

Causes do not respect international barriers. Mahinda Rajapakse, as the Chairman of the Sri Lanka-Palestine Solidarity Committee, would have made demands and statements on the Palestinian issue regarded by the Israeli government as interferences in its internal affairs. The left, more than the right, has a record of interesting itself in international causes. It is a natural, human impulse, as the Princess Marie Radziwill said during the Dreyfus affair, “French papers ask why foreign countries take such an interest in the Affair, as if a question of justice did not interest the whole world” (quoted in The Proud Tower – Barbara Tuchman).

Sri Lanka is no David battling Goliath (If there is a David in the Lankan saga, it is the civilian Tamils). Sri Lanka was never the cynosure of all eyes as a country resisting a Behemoth; she gained notoriety in July 1983 as a country in which the majority community launched a killing spree against the minority, with impunity. And though many international players have learnt to be wary of the LTTE, they are committed to seeing justice being done to the Tamils, via an improved human rights environment and a political solution to the ethnic problem. This distinction between backing the LTTE and supporting the Tamils must be understood and borne in mind; else we will antagonise the world unnecessarily mistaking the second for the first. Needless to say this is a distinction that is structurally incomprehensible to the Sinhala supremacists who regard Tamil to be coterminous with Tiger (an identification with which the LTTE is in perfect accord and on which the appeasement process of Ranil Wickremesinghe was based).

Unless there is an improvement in our Human Rights record and a political solution to the ethnic problem it will not be possible for the world – and India – to support Sri Lanka adequately, irrespective of the atrocities of the LTTE. But does the government have the political, electoral and psychological capacity to eschew its Sinhala supremacist path? If that tectonic shift is not made, a change for the better cannot happen.

- Asian Tribune -

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