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Rhyme, Reason, & Realism in Tamil Politics

Oct 12, 2010 5:11:01 PM- transcurrents.com

By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

"In Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, the Congo, Iran, Nicaragua, and Sri Lanka, the CIA armed and encouraged ethnic minorities to rise up and fight." - John Stockwell, former CIA Station Chief in Angola in 1976(The Secret Wars of the CIA, October 1987)

As far as Tamil politics go, intrinsically and as a sub-set of Sri Lankan politics, the touchstone is not the 18th but the 13th amendment. More: the dominant trend throughout the political history of Tamil nationalism has been an absence of rationality and realism. Has the TNA failed the tests of both pragmatism and principle?

A striking exception was Mr S Thondaman, a master of pragmatism and principled co-existence. He however, was not quite a Tamil nationalist politician but a Tamil working class leader who took up Tamil nationalist causes on occasion and whose rooted working class base precluded him from emplaning on the prolonged flight of fancy of Tamil bourgeois, petty bourgeois and deracinated Diaspora-driven politics.

If I may anticipate the counter-argument that Sinhala politics or Sri Lankan politics as a whole lacks and has always lacked either pragmatism or principle, let me pre-emptively counter with a reminder of the (Hegelian) philosophical categories of the Rational and the Real.

Dominant Sinhala politics may not always be rational but has been based on a firm mastery of the Real-Concrete, i.e. the possession of power which is guaranteed by demographic reality; a demographic reality which also provides the capacity to limit, survive and roll back external intervention as evidenced by the years 1987-90. In short, the Sinhala political leaders have always operated within certain core principles of power-politics.

How can the TNA (or any parliamentarian belonging to it) be described as principled when it has yet to criticise any of Prabhakaran’s fascist acts including the murder of Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam or its own fellow-travelling with the LTTE?

How can it be considered principled when it has yet to uphold unconditionally, the principle of co-existing and accepting a solution within a single, united, indivisible Sri Lanka? In Spain and Turkey, to name just two states, such a party would have found itself proscribed.

How is the TNA describable as pragmatic when it has failed to accept as the base line of any settlement, the 13th amendment which was the maximum possible obtainable for the Tamils by India in conditions that are hardly likely to return or be replicable?

I experienced two ‘epiphanies’, in the years 1986-88 which resulted in a paradigm shift in my political outlook. The second was when I arrived in the (then merged) North-East with the EPRLF leadership and the Provincial Council was set up. The Eelam Left, propelled by Tamil ultranationalist pressures from below, swiftly moved to a position of seeking to confront the state, entrench a foreign troop presence and carve up the island, despite a hard-fought reform -- the 13th amendment and the PCs, in defence of which Vijaya Kumaratunga and 117 members of the SLMP had sacrificed their lives -- remaining untested.

Among the lessons I learnt from that epiphany is that if given half a chance to reform the state and stay within it and a third of a chance to secure external support and secede, most varieties of Tamil nationalism, Right or Left, will opt for the latter, and therefore must not be permitted the possibility or capacity to do so.

If the selection of Mr Rudrakumaran as the ‘Prime Minister’ of a provisional government of Tamil Eelam or whatever, and the pickets in US and UK cities calling for boycott of Sri Lanka tell us anything, it is that we have real enemies out there, working to dismember the country. While the debate on Sri Lanka’s internal political dynamics must go on, clarity is needed on the existential threats it faces as a nation-state.

Rhyme rather than reason has ruled Tamil politics. What is truly scary is that the ‘rational actor model’, which presupposes the ability to grasp political realities and exercise restraint, doesn’t seem applicable to the constellation of Tamil nationalist politics and political consciousness. If it were, would the Tamil leaders have quit the Ceylon National Congress hoping that the advance of territorial representation and universal franchise could be stalled or rolled back and their levels of representation in an earlier phase of colonialism could be restored or approximated?

Would the Tamil leaders have thought that 50:50 was feasible and that democratic Ceylon would accept that the minorities would be allowed to punch way above their electoral and demographic weight?

Would they have seriously believed (and continue to believe) that a fully federal system a la Canada, which is not enjoyed by 70 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu (India’s is a quasi-federalism with a strong Centre), was a feasible goal for Ceylon/Sri Lankan Tamils who were a tiny fraction of that number?

Would Tamil politicians have assumed- as they still do—that it is possible to push one inch beyond that which a flight of Mirage 2000s and 70,000 Indian troops could secure, namely the 13th amendment?

Would Vardarajah Perumal have threatened the Sri Lankan state with an UDI?

Would Prabhakaran have turned his guns on the Indian peacekeepers and murdered Nehru’s grandson?

Would Tamil civil society have expected India to forgive and forget and intervene to save Prabhakaran from the Sri Lankan armed forces in 2009 as it had done in 1987 and been repaid by savage assassination of India’s Jack Kennedy?

Would the TULF/TNA have rejected Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s political packages of 1995, 1997 and 2000? Would the LTTE have boycotted the 2003 Tokyo summit and recoiled from the 2002 Oslo understandings?

Would the Tamil polity expect something more than the Provisional IRA and Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority agreed to in the Good Friday agreement (no federalism; devolution within a unitary state)?

Would the TNA today reject the 13th amendment as an insufficient base line for negotiations?

Would the former Chief Minister of the NEPC, now based in Sri Lanka, tell the press earlier this month that "The 13th amendment is not a good law; it prevents proper devolution and leads to more centralization". (Sunday Lakbimanews, Oct 3, 2010)?

Neelan Tiruchelvam was the epitome of Reason in Sri Lankan politics, albeit a trifle utopian in his idealism. He was murdered by the Tigers. The congenital weakness of both rationality and realism in Tamil politics means that there is no guarantee that rational realists like Devananda will be elected to lead the strategically vital Northern Provincial Council.

When deliberating on the vital issue of the post-war architecture of the State, Sri Lanka must not permit an institutional space which can be used as a base for any territorial unit to challenge the centre, still less breakaway. Nor must there be a structural space which can be used as a base for external actors who can be leveraged for such purposes.

A state cannot count on the goodwill of existing political actors. It cannot count on good intentions. It must look at capability. There must be no institutional capability or capacity for a re-play of what happened with Perumal’s North East Provincial Council. Even if one were to factor in intention, how is one to conclude that those Tamil parties which still do not recognise the 13th amendment as adequate or the start-line for talks do not have the intention of going beyond it if elected to office in the Northern Provincial Council?

Furthermore, how are we to be sure that a moderate Tamil party with good intentions will not be pushed or tempted by ethnic nationalist pressures from the grassroots and competition from its rivals, into converting the Provincial Council into a separatist platform? It cannot be forgotten that Tamil Nadu is next door, with its sizeable pocket of hostility to Sri Lanka. It can exert a pull on the Northern PC.

This means that the issue of devolution and autonomy must be looked at in terms of strategy and security. There must be no possibility for an internal actor or an external actor, or any combination, to try a Kosovo or Southern Sudan on us.

This is also why the faddish phrase ‘internal self-determination’ cannot be treated with, still less accepted. As the Kosovo and Southern Sudan prove, what is ‘internal’ today can become ‘external’ self-determination tomorrow.

However, that also means that the institutional arrangements must be adequate enough to keep our relations with India on an even keel, and also to prevent a feeling among the Tamil people that their backs are to the wall and they have no political space.

Does ethnic autonomy prevent secession or facilitate it? Is it a safeguard against it or a stepping stone to it?

Even when it does not act as a platform, does it act as a preventive, or does it not?

The evidence swings every which way, and it is arguable that in certain cases the remedy is more autonomy, in certain others it is less, and in still others the status quo is best.

Take Aceh and the Punjab for an optimistic reading and Kosovo or Kashmir for a pessimistic perspective. My ‘analytical judgement’ (to borrow a phrase from Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical revaluation of the Enlightenment) veers between ambivalence and agnosticism.

One standard Southern answer is small unit devolution. Both as Prime Minister and President, Premadasa was more inclined to make the district councils or Pradesheeya Sabhas the principal unit of devolution, an idea picked up and (pragmatically) put down by President Rajapaksa. This notion is in keeping with the EU doctrine of subsidiarity i.e. the idea that maximum power should go to the lowest possible unit and it is only those powers that it could not effectively wield that should be held at higher levels of the state structure. The problem is, can an ethno-regional nationalism or sub-nationalism be contained by a district sized receptacle?

The solution must surely correspond to the size of the problem; there must be an approximate fit. Therefore the Provincial Councils must stay unless we want a permanently alienated and restive North, and worse still, a less than friendly Delhi. Tamil Nadu state assembly elections are due next April-May. Colombo needs India, including South India, as a secure rear area and a strategic partner.