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Can the Tamil National Alliance be trusted with the Northern Provincial Council?

Sep 18, 2010 7:57:58 PM- transcurrents.com

by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

It was Jean-Paul Sartre who used the phrase “imperative yet impossible”. This is true of a negotiated settlement with Tamil nationalism. It is, or seems, imperative yet impossible.

The short answer to the question “can the TNA be trusted with the Northern Provincial council?” is “probably not”. It had a post-war year to sober up, come to its senses, disavow Prabhakaran , the Tigers and its past of collaboration; renounce the doctrines of two nations, self-determination and make a unilateral commitment to remaining within a united Sri Lanka.

It has done none of those things. Does this mean that ‘ethnic parties’ must be banned, and the councils dismantled or disempowered? The answer, again, is no - not unless we want a permanently alienated and restive North, and worse still, a less than friendly India.

This is Sri Lanka’s strategic dilemma, and is in part, a sub-set of the ‘grand strategic’ problem of balancing between India, China and the West. India has something of a strategic problem too: how to balance, in its Sri Lanka policy, between the Sinhalese (a majority on the island, a minority in the sub-region and the world) and the Tamils (a majority in the sub-region, a minority on the island)? Both Delhi and Colombo erred in the 1980s and each paid a price.

Delhi re-balanced during the last war, and is now recalibrating and re-balancing that re-balance. Delhi needs Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan Tamils but does not need a re-play of what it has with some of its neighbours, namely the hostility of a religious nationalist majority. Colombo for its part, needs Delhi as a friendly rear area and a strategic partner, and does not need renewed anti-Indianism which would only be wind in the sails of the JVP.

The vital security of Sri Lanka requires that

(a) stability be guaranteed and re-radicalisation be prevented by co-opting the Tamils through equality of rights and treatment and a measure of self-governance

(b) that this measure of self-governance and self-administration does not jeopardise strategic security by providing a platform or launch-pad for centrifugal strivings, irredentism and secessionism

(c) the Tamil Nadu area remain permanently sealed as a rear-base for Tamil secessionism

(d) India, the rising giant, remain our friend and partner, helping us maintain peace and stability, especially in the North and East, without prejudice to our relationship with China.

How can these objectives be reconciled or at least, held in balance?

This article suggests an ‘out-of-the-box’ idea in the spirit of advancing the conversation.

On her tour of the Northern Province India’s Foreign Secretary had a close encounter of the most surreal kind. A Jaffna academic accused India of letting down the Tamils. Madam Rao was too much the diplomat to respond that the Tamils had let India down many times over, by supporting and sustaining the LTTE even after it turned its guns on the Indian peacekeeping force and worse still, assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, former Prime Minister, son of Indira Gandhi and grandson of Shri Nehru.

What the encounter and, as significantly, the lack of a denunciation from within the Tamil community demonstrated is that there has been no fundamental shift in the predominant mentality of the Tamil upper, upper middle and middle classes; a mentality which spawned and sustained the secessionist Tigers. No self examination; no self criticism; no recognition of reality.

This is the mentality that expected India to forgive and forget the murder of Rajiv and intervene against the Sri Lankan armed forces, to save Rajiv murderers from their just reward. It is the mentality that split the multiethnic Ceylon National Congress to found the first ethnic organisation in reaction to, of all things, the abolition of communal representation and the advance of the franchise.

It is the mentality that collaborated with and was patronised by British Governor Manning in the 1920s, against the Ceylon National Congress. It is the mentality that keeps looking for a Lord Balfour to create its separate state, but is frustrated by the fact that Sri Lanka is located in Asia and, unlike in Mandate Palestine under British Colonialism, the West no longer controls the situation on the ground.

Today it is the mentality that hopes to widen competition between India and China, awaits closer alliance between India and the West-which would bring together the weight of Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Diaspora-and attempts to depict the Sinhalese as close to China so as to provoke India and the West to adopt the Tamils (who have never been anti imperialist) as a counterweight against Colombo. Eventually it hopes for secession or a separate existence as a de facto foreign protectorate along the lines of Cyprus or Iraqi Kurdistan.

Moderate Tamil nationalism is integrationist and constructive while it also seeks a measure of autonomy and self-administration. Radical Tamil nationalism rejects integration, regards itself not as a minority deserving of equal rights and devolution of power but as a competing majority, refuses to consider itself Sri Lankan, considers itself superior to the Sinhalese (and the Indians) identifies primarily with and is loyal to other countries outside our continent and hopes to weaken and damage the Sri Lankan state, eventually exiting from it.

Tamil Eelam is a state of mind. Moderate Tamil nationalism is not just temporarily, but congenitally weaker than radical Tamil nationalism. A two-fold policy is needed: one which strengthens moderate Tamil nationalists while containing radical Tamil nationalism.

The task and the challenge our country -state and society- face in this century are the same ones we faced in the earlier century, which we failed to accomplish and surmount: to forge a Sri Lankan identity either by the natural evolutionary fusion or the accommodation of the distinctive identities of all the island’s communities.

Given the antiquity of the languages and cultures, the first path is unlikely, which leaves the latter option, a construction of an overarching identity, however broad or loose, as the sole realistic one.

Nationalist Tamils in whom an Eelam state of mind still exists assume that their slogan of federalism represents great moderation and immense forbearance. That doesn’t sound too bad, except that this means there will be an ethno-federal unit in a security sensitive border area of this island, separated by a narrow strip of water from a landmass which has not only been a launch-pad of invasions historically, but also where a not insignificant number of persons support Tamil separatism.

Geography, history and demography combine to make ethno-federalism (federalism based on the current provinces or a North-East re-merger) a ‘bridge too far’ for the Sri Lankan state and its citizens.

The conversion from unitary to federal would doubtless require a referendum, any political party which sticks to the federal slogan obviously expects a majority to support it or does not give a whit about what the majority thinks. In either case, this is not the profile of a stable peace partner, with a firm grasp of reality.

Despite thinly veiled sympathy for the Iraqi Kurds, even the US occupiers couldn’t force a federal Constitution down the throats of their Iraqi allies, the Baghdad government, or knew better than to try.

Two of the points Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao quite correctly made were salient to our discussion: puzzlement at the failure of the Tamil parties to come together and a salutary cautioning that this was not 1987, much water had flowed under the bridge, imposing limits on the politically possible.

The Tamil moderates mustn’t try to outflank the TNA on its terrain. The Tamil Political Parties Forum (TPPF), in its 11 point programme presented to Nirupama Rao, calls for the full implementation of the 13th amendment as “a first step towards a political solution”, which raises the questions: As a first step towards precisely what? What is the last step envisaged?

The country will be lucky if that step is taken and the 13th amendment fully implemented -because a measure of self-government and autonomy are indeed necessary. However, as far as the domain of devolution goes, that is not merely a first step - it is also, pretty much the last. There can be half a step beyond it, and probably will not be any second full step.

The half step will take us to 13 Plus. The political solution does not lie beyond the 13th amendment and 13 Plus. 13 Plus means those measures needed to improve on the 13th amendment, as promised by JR Jayewardene to Rajiv Gandhi and recommended more recently by the APRC.

There has to be a transparent final status settlement of the Tamil ethnic issue. The Tamils must be assured it won’t go below the 13th amendment and will include the full implementation of it while the Sinhalese must know it will not exceed the 13th amendment qualitatively.

The 13th amendment will be the baseline of the devolution component of the final political settlement, while the rest must consist of Constitutional guarantees of and firm institutional arrangements for equal rights and anti-discrimination.

It is strategically vital not to place Sri Lanka in the vulnerable position that the former Yugoslavia found itself in, where the international community accepts as international borders, the former administrative or provincial boundaries.

With a mono-ethnic Northern Province, the temptation to secession or irredentism (merger with Tamil Nadu) and the opportunity to do so exist. That temptation must be removed.

This in no way means that the State or para-statal agencies should strive for a ‘demographic solution’ in which populations are sought to be mixed by surreptitiously displacing Tamils and introducing Sinhalese settlers.

The country’s progress cannot be held to ransom. We have lost just too many decades to allow the Tamil parties to do what they usually do, which is to pitch it too high, generate and await the Sinhala ultranationalist reaction and continue to wallow in their collective victimhood. It is time to break the cycle, which is actually a downward spiral.

If the Tamil parties do not get their act together fast, and agree on a moderate and acceptable set of demands within the parameters of recent Indo-Lankan understandings, the Sri Lankan state should set a time line and beyond that time line, move unilaterally to change the game.

Sri Lanka’s North and East are not recognised by anyone in the world system as ‘occupied territories’ nor are they ‘disputed’. They are an integral part of Sri Lanka. They are also sensitive perimeter areas. Therefore the state can entertain measures which would be unacceptable or risky in the context of occupation or dispute.

My suggestion is not a demographic solution but a cartographic one. It does not entail the drawing of new boundaries because that requires a delimitation commission and is a long and messy process. My suggestion is simply this: club or bundle together existing adjacent provinces, so that there are large regions or zones, all of which are multiethnic and multi-religious, and the country has no mono-ethnic provinces, the boundaries of which can be recognised by any outside entity as the borders of a separate state.

I suspect the ensuing picture would be similar to the five province demarcation of the Colebrook-Cameron Commission of 1833. Bring together the Northern Province NOT with the East, but the Northwest or North Central. Make all ethnicities in an area, stakeholders in peaceful ethnic co-existence and devolve power so that each region enjoys authentic autonomy (not federalism): 13 Plus, or as recommended by the APRC, or even the provincial powers contained in the August 2000 Constitutional draft.

Every province can be as pluralist in its composition as the Western province and every provincial council can be as multiethnic as the Sri Lankan parliament. That doesn’t need a single Tamil to be displaced or a single Sinhalese given someone else’s land. It eschews the temptation and pitfall of the settler-colonial ‘model’. All it requires is a ‘tipex’ (white-out) and a map.