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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2370

Re-embracing the Original Sin

BY Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Excess is universally pernicious, in abstinence as well as gluttony, in parsimony or profusion”.
Voltaire(The Philosophical Dictionaries)

The controversial SLFP proposals were amended last week, to make them more in accordance with the main demands of the JVP and the JHU. The unitary state is in, formally, by name, and Buddhism has been granted the primacy of place. Even as he pandered to the Southern extremists, President Rajapakse made it crystal clear that moderate opinions are of no consequence to him. Obviously the pleas of democratic Tamils for enhanced devolution will go unheeded. Vellupillai Pirapaharan has been granted a much needed political lifeline. How can Tiger Eelam be justified except as a response to a Sinhala supremacist Sri Lanka?

On the North-East issue, the two extremist positions are occupied by the Tigers - who deny any possibility of a political solution to the ethnic problem - and by Sinhala hardliners - who deny any need for a political solution. The LTTE argues that separation is unavoidable because the Sinhala establishment will never share power with the Tamils.

The Sinhala hardliners opine that the North-East issue is reducible to a terrorist problem, which precludes the need for a political or a politico-military solution. Each side bases itself on a different narrative of the post-independent history of Sri Lanka; each side has ever used the other’s position and conduct to justify one’s own existence and doings. Having incorporated the main suggestions of the JVP and the JHU, President Rajapakse has declared that the SLFP’s political proposals will not be amended to suit ‘other parties’. With that declaration he has positioned his party firmly in the corner occupied by Southern extremists.

The Tigers and their supporters have persistently preached to the Tamils that they can expect not justice and equality but subjugation and humiliation at the hands of a victorious Lankan establishment. The LTTE and its camp followers have tried to portray the anti-separatist war as a war against Tamil nationalism. A political proposal was needed to prove these Tiger arguments groundless; sadly the SLFP proposal has done the opposite. Just as the regime’s cavalier attitude towards human rights undermine its claim of waging an anti-Tiger war to liberate the Tamils, the SLFP proposal, through its juxtaposition of LTTE separatism with Tamil nationalism, reveal itself as a Sinhala rather than a Lankan ‘solution’. The proposal clearly indicate that Mr. Rajapakse’s aim is to impose a Sinhala peace on the Tamils, unilaterally rather than working with them to develop a Sri Lankan settlement; if the Tamils behave themselves, this peace will be benevolent; if they do not, if they, like Oliver Twist ask for more, it will become a punitive one.

The hope of a political solution to the ethnic problem could not have shattered at a worst time. The need was to weaken Tiger separatism by compromising with moderate Tamil nationalism. However the SLFP proposals, by treating Tamil nationalism as much of an enemy as Tiger separatism, places Sri Lanka firmly on a collision course with a majority of the Tamils and the international community. The ramifications of this step could be glimpsed in the hardening of American and Indian attitudes towards Sri Lanka, as manifested in the recent remarks by US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher and Indian Defence Minister K Antony.

Counter-solutions

The SLFP proposal is not a way out of the quagmire; on the contrary it drags the country deeper into the quagmire because it has been designed to satisfy the voracious –and insatiable - appetites of Southern hardliners. The SLFP proposal has destroyed all expectations of a moderate solution which can satisfy non-LTTE Tamils and the international community, without antagonising the middle of the road Sinhala opinion. The APC may flounder for a while more, but only the most delusional optimist could believe in the possibility of a constructive conclusion. Even if some of the participants develop a consensus on based on democratic devolution, it will meet with the same fate as the Majority Report of the Experts Committee. The reformist path is being eroded from within and this cannot but lend credence to non-solutions from the other extreme, be it the ISGA or de jure separation. This is the outcome the Tigers are waiting for.

Any government that is seen to be guided by ethnically motivated policies run the risk of becoming an international outcast, especially if that government is of a small third world country. That is a danger Sri Lanka is facing today. This image problem began with our conduct of the unofficial Fourth Eelam War; the SLFP’s revanchist proposal has exacerbated it. The more uninterested we show ourselves to be in providing a modicum of security to civilian Tamils and in satisfying their reasonable political aspirations, the greater the danger of international involvement in Lankan affairs. In such a context we will find it hard-pressed to protect our sovereignty; legality alone will not suffice, once legitimacy is lost through the abdication of the moral high ground.

The corner we have backed ourselves into over human rights is symptomatic of the current crisis and indicative of the way the country is headed. If the regime carried out a credible investigation into one or two high profile incidents and framed charges against the suspects, the international community would have been content to limit its reaction to an occasional statement. However our obvious unwillingness to take any concrete measures either to punish the guilty or to protect the unarmed civilians not only opened the door for international involvement but provided it with a powerful justification. Organisations with impeccable anti-Tiger credential such as the UTHR have documented, time and again, the various official/quasi-official attempts to suppress evidence and intimidate witnesses; consequently our argument that investigations are being hampered by the absence of witnesses lacks credibility.

If the regime is incapable of ensuring the security of the Tamils – as citizens in general and as witnesses in particular, then the way is open to the international community to cast itself in the role of the protector of the Tamils. The more we claim that human rights violations are unavoidable in the context of the war, the more we justify the Tiger claims of a racist war against the Tamils. The end result would be a cash starved regime succumbing to international pressure for a resumption of the 2001 (appeasement oriented) peace process.

The President at his recent meeting with the media heads has declared that Sri Lanka can get by without international development assistance. Whether this is bravado or a sincerely held conviction remains to be seen. Given the economic structure and needs of Sri Lanka, we cannot get by without foreign assistance. Any attempt to radically alter that structure and needs overnight will send the economy and society in to a crisis similar to the one we experienced under the United Front of 1970-77. The nature of the Tigers and the nature of the military strategy favoured by this government makes inevitable a many-fold increase in the defence expenditure; on top of that more and more monies are expended to keep up with the ever expanding demands of our supremely indulgent political class. The most recent case in point is the proposal to grant pensions to provincial governors. The fact that the President can entertain the thought of such measures in the midst of a growing financial crisis indicates his incomprehension of simple economics. And it is the masses – including non-commissioned officers and men – that will have to bear the brunt of these acts of economic and financial adventurism.

Rhetoric and spin doctoring apart, we are back to where we were in the mid 1980’s with a government that is uninterested in devolving power to the minorities and is cavalier about their fundamental rights. We are also faced with a severe financial crisis. If a reversion to the full blown unitary state of the pre-Accord days is President Rajapakse’s idea of a ‘home grown solution’, it increases the danger of a non-home grown solution being imposed on us from outside. The possibility that the JVP (and some in the JHU), are working towards just such an outcome cannot be denied. Just as a Sinhala racist government is the LTTE’s dream come true, an ‘unpatriotic’ and a corrupt government would be the JVP’s ideal enemy.

Back to the 1980’s

Extremism is insatiable by nature and this is as true of the JVP and the JHU as it is of the LTTE. The JVP affiliated Patriotic National Movement (PNM) has rejected even the amended version of the SLFP proposal. Clearly the JVP is adopting more and more extremist positions in order to depict itself as being more patriotic than the regime. It has also begun campaigning against the high cost of living. What is even worse than the unbearable price levels is the regime’s attitude to the problem. The government leaders either deny its existence or declare that they have solved it. If there is a fair distribution of sacrifice, then sacrifice becomes sustainable. But the regime seems intent on continuing its financial orgy; the handing over of the Ports and Aviation Ministry to older brother Chamal Rajapakse is only the latest and the most outrageous example of this Presidential policy of ‘Lucullus feasting with Lucullus’. And as the war drags on with no appreciable victories to show for it and as prices escalate, the JVP will – with some justification – blame all economic difficulties on the regime’s waste, nepotism and corruption, thereby benefiting from patriotism and economic populism.

The UNP is incapable of performing its function as the main opposition party because of its weak and ineffective leader. Mahinda Rajapakse, understandably, would do his utmost to keep Ranil Wickremesinghe where he is for that very reason. This is a situation tailor made for the JVP and already it is positioning itself to play the role of the main critic of the Rajapakse administration. As winning a free and fair election becomes more and more difficult given escalating economic hardships, the government will be tempted to use undemocratic methods to maintain its grip on power at the local, provincial and national levels. The UNP will find itself increasingly unable to face this challenge since the party’s organisational structure is in disarray. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s decision to appoint two or more organisers for one electorate is causing confusion and demoralisation. In this context, the JVP will be able to come forward as the only entity capable of withstanding the strong-arm tactics of the SLFP. The dénouement may happen as early as next year at the provincial council elections.

The North-Eastern problem can never end if we, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, remain imprisoned within our opposing narratives. The Sinhala supremacists see the Sinhala Only as a moment of liberation, after a period of colonial subjugation. The question as to why this reassertion had to be at the expense of our fellow Tamil citizens and their language is not considered. Wanting to replace English with Sinhala is understandable. But why did we oppose treating Tamil equally? Why did we insist on Sinhala primacy over Tamil as well as English? The Tigers instead of liberating the Tamils have enslaved them even more. Thanks to the LTTE, Lankan Tamils are becoming known in the world not for their cultural or academic attainments but for suicide bombers and child soldiers. By succumbing to the lure of extremism we have short-changed ourselves. Extremism was our original sin and re-embracing is can only bring about mutually assured destruction.

- Asian Tribune -

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