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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2555

De-merger dilemmas, devolution dialectics

De-merger dilemmas, devolution dialectics

By Dayan Jayatilleka

The many retrospectives on the 5th anniversary of 9/11 had one thing in common: Clinton’s former Counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke came out best in all the reconstructions. Interviewed on Australia’s ABC, Dick Clarke summed up his philosophy on counterterrorism, which should be a touchstone for any Sri Lankan politician or military man, policy maker or police official in assessing any possible move on either the LTTE or the Tamil issue.

Clarke says that terrorist insurgencies should be seen as consisting of three rings or concentric circles.

1. The active terrorist fighters and cadres. In the case of the jihadis, he estimates them at around 10,000 - which to my mind is an approximate figure for the LTTE too.

2. The sympathisers, supporters and financiers.

3. The potential constituency or population base. In the case of the jihadi terrorists, this is the enormous Islamic and Arab populace.

Clarke says that the first or inner circle, that of terrorist cadres, must be decisively destroyed through killing or capture, but the policy towards the other two circles must be drastically different, indeed the opposite. Harsh measures would widen the second and third circles, while the policy should be to progressively shrink them.

Richard Clarke’s criticism of the Iraq invasion is that instead of destroying the first circle by focussing exclusively on Afghanistan and Bin Laden, the Bush administration widened the target to include Iraq, and thereby broadened the second and third circles, by acting in such a manner as to confirm everything that alQaeda said in its propaganda against the West.

Applying Clarke’s circles

In the matter of the merger/de-merger, or any other, Sri Lankan policy /decision makers must ask themselves whether the first circle is being targeted and destroyed, and whether the second and third circles are being shrunk or expanded. My fear is that by abrupt de-merger without a comprehensive settlement of the ethnic problem involving a more generous sharing of powers, the second and third circles will be expanded, not contracted.

The case for de-merger may be sound, but the consequences must be calculated. Let me illustrate my point: it is perfectly justifiable, desirable and necessary that we advance towards Elephant pass and recapture it, but it would be stupid to repeat Operation Agni Keela and take heavy casualties in ambushes which make us retreat. The issue of de-merger is rather similar. The objective may be desirable but the road is heavily mined and we haven’t calculated the consequences of our proposed actions.

There are three circles of landmines and Claymores:

i) All Tamil parties including those allied with the Sri Lankan state and the present government, stand opposed. Thus it is not a question of taking on the Tigers whose only interest in the issue of de-merger is as a propaganda tool, but of antagonizing Tamil nationalism as a whole, barring perhaps Karuna. Simply put, there isn’t a single Tamil party or politician, even the most anti-Prabhakaran, who will step forward and publicly endorse a de-merger, and that includes Karuna! We risk alienating all or almost all Tamil opinion, at a time we should be winning it over and isolating the LTTE.

ii) The government of India (GOI) feels that the Indo-Lanka Accord, the only achievement on behalf of Sri Lanka’s Tamils it can display to Tamil Nadu, is being unilaterally rolled-back. We are strategically vulnerable to and dependent upon our giant neighbor.

iii) The Co-chairs who have spoken out against unilateral de-merger. These include the world’s sole superpower, the USA.

Thus the rush to de-merge does not strike me as a particularly intelligent move, while the fight with the LTTE is ongoing and has yet to reach its most decisive climactic stages.

Why concern ourselves with what the USA and India have to say, one may well ask. My answer is that without the FBI crackdown and India’s tip-off, SA 18 antiaircraft missiles would have reached the Tigers, or, more accurately, reached our aircraft and helicopters!

New Historical Context

The challenge is dualistic:

a) To decide upon a set of powers and units which are sufficient to win over Clarke’s ‘third circle’ (the Tamil people, Tamil Nadu, India, and the West), neutralize the ‘second circle’ (the Tamil Diaspora) and isolate the first, inner circle, permitting it to be outflanked and militarily crushed.

b) To do so in a manner that the resultant autonomous unit does not become a shell or springboard for secession at a future date.

This is no fanciful imagining. Later this year the US and the West will hold a referendum in the autonomous province of Kosovo which could pave the way for independence, a prospect that has triggered alarm signals as far a-field as in the hardnosed realist decision-making circles of China! (‘China’s Yugoslav nightmare’, Christopher Marsh and Nicholas Gvosdev, The National Interest, summer 2006. Incidentally the journal has, as co-chairs, Henry Kissinger and James Schlesinger). In response to the prospective Western move, Serbia is about to ratify a new constitution which reiterates that Kosovo is an inalienable part of Serbia.

The Kosovo question amply demonstrates the necessity of autonomy and the dangers of excess in either direction. The unraveling of Yugoslavia under Milosevic began when in response to Serb chauvinist pressure he rolled back the autonomous status of Kosovo, while today’s Western plan to facilitate Kosovo’s independence is based upon its autonomous existence of the past several years. This latter could well have been the case in Sri Lanka too, had the ISGA (beloved by the UNP and its peace-freak chorus) or the PTOMS (which Chandrika greedily agreed to – having already helped Prabhakaran in his offensive against Karuna on Good Friday 2003) been allowed to materialise.

Meanwhile in Bosnia, the Serb majority entity is renewing its striving to secede and join Serbia in a greater Serbia. In Iraq, the West is considering a nominally federal state with a tripartite division – Shia, Sunni, Kurd.

The Ethnic & the Existential

Federalism has two variants: one in which the constituent units are demarcated on a basis other than ethnicity or language (e.g. USA, Australia), and another in which the units are virtually mono-ethnic or have an ethnic/linguistic majority (ex-Yugoslavia, ex-USSR, Switzerland, Canada). The latter is designated ‘ethno-federalism’. Any discussion of federalism for Sri Lanka has to take on board the new historical realities in which we live: the crack-up of ethno-federalism in Yugoslavia and the USSR precisely along the lines of the pre-existing units, the necessity of a strong state to mitigate the harshness of neo-liberal globalization, the tendency for the undermining of sovereignty through the doctrines of “humanitarian intervention” and “failed states” (denounced in the final declaration of the NAM Havana summit).

Any deep-going reform of Sri Lanka’s polity must also take into account the specific conditions of the place: a small, ethnically bi-polar or tri-polar island (unlike the huge, ethnically multi-polar India), in which the ethnic majority has no cross border ethnic kin but the larger of the two minorities does.

This island’s North-east, and more especially its North can easily succumb to the cultural and economic gravitational pull of Tamil Nadu and through it, India, thus becoming annexed, de facto, to the larger landmass. The gravitational pull of the psycho-cultural force fields of the Tamil language and the Hindu religion must not be overlooked.

The threat or temptation of pan-Tamilianism is geopolitically or geo-strategically axiomatic and existential. It can take two forms, not just the one: a Greater Tamil Eelam or a Greater Tamil Nadu. The latter form can be the “Hanuman’s bridge” to annexation with the vast Hindu hinterland.

The overemphasis on the language and religion of the majority and the embrace of the unitary state, have, to my mind, the function of widening the narrow strip of water that separates Tamil Nadu from this island; they act as an understandable, even inevitable cultural-existential differentia specifica – but having been overdone for overlong, now threaten the integrity of the island state and need to be moderated, modulated, modernised and modified.

Twentieth century experience

No devolved body in the island’s North-East or North must be able to function as a protectorate of New Delhi or Chennai, balancing between Sri Lanka and India, using the latter to pressurise the former. This is the way in which the North East Provincial Council of Vardharajaperumal functioned. (See my monograph The Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka 1987-1990: The North-East Provincial Council and Devolution of Power, ICES & United States Institute of Peace, 1999). When it called itself the “North-east provincial government”, Premadasa (and Ranjan Wijeratne) reminded it brusquely that while there were several provincial councils or administrations, there was only one government in Sri Lanka! There must be no room for such games under any contemplated scheme of devolution.

Before the fighting erupted with the Tigers on Oct 10th 1987, the IPKF in Trincomalee tilted against the Sinhalese and even shot a Buddhist monk, while throughout its stay it did not go all out against the Tigers and therefore could not finish the job. It would not have, even if it had been allowed to remain. The Sri Lankan armed forces were confined to barracks, sometimes coercively. Meanwhile the LTTE was able to penetrate the highest Indian circles, including the RAW, a penetration that permitted the murder in Tamil Nadu, of Rajiv Gandhi. Today, India does not wish Sri Lanka to fight a quasi-conventional threat from a quasi-conventional enemy, by conventional means! Much of this is perhaps traceable to cultural affinity.

De-facto annexation was already taking place not so much owing to the Indo-Lanka Accord but rather the prolongation of the IPKF presence, and it is this that President Premadasa reacted against, thereby making nonsense of fatalistic geopolitical determinism and successfully restoring the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. I recall being at a peace and conflict resolution seminar in Uppsala when the news broke that he had requested the IPKF to leave, and of all the delegates present at the breakfast buffet, it was only Dr Akmal Hussein (a distinguished Pakistani Marxist scholar) and I who broke into spontaneous applause.

De-merger dilemmas

Partisans of de-merger do not understand that a mono-ethnic North is more, or as likely, not less so, to succumb to a secessionist temptation or its variant, permanent merger (Enosis as General George Grivas’ Greek Cypriots put it) with Tamil Nadu. A merged North-east is multiethnic, with the Sinhala presence providing a demographic foothold and ‘handle’ for the central government.

Yet a permanent merger also means that the Sinhalese and Muslims become besieged minorities in that larger province, a situation which they experienced under the Indo-Lanka accord, the IPKF and the NE Provincial council, and which I witnessed at first hand. It was - together with the fact that the council felt closer to India than Sri Lanka - reason for my resignation as a provincial minister in less than six months.

Sri Lanka needs a reformed political structure which is sufficiently liberal and de-centralised as to comfortably accommodate the collective identities of the various ethnic, linguistic and religious communities on this pluralistic island, while being sufficiently centralized to combat or pre-empt secessionist, irredentist or centrifugal drives, manifest or latent.

The answer then is neither the permanent perpetuation of the shotgun wedding of the two existing provinces, nor resort to the guillotine of de-merger. A creative compromise must be found by the SLFP-UNP talks and the all-parties conference, which could do no better than be informed by Montesquieu’s emphasis in The Spirit of the Laws – inspired by Aristotle’s path-breaking classification of constitutions, one might add - on the importance of recognizing the distinctive demographic characteristics and ethos of each land.

- Asian Tribune -

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