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Sinhala leadership must be based on co-optation, consensus and pre-eminence and not on dominatio...

Jun 14, 2010 6:17:10 AM- transcurrents.com

by Dayan Jayatilleka

Sri Lanka has peace but is not yet at peace with itself. The critics who say that peace has not yet arrived in Sri Lanka are wrong. For anyone who has lived through thirty years of war, the absence of war deaths, of organised armed violence against the state and society is peace. But it is a cold and bitter peace on the island and a cold war outside, with elements in the Diaspora supporting the separatist cause

The man known variously as the Sage of Singapore and the Oracle of Asia, Lee Kwan Yew, is critical of ‘Sinhalese extremism’ in a brand new book, predicting that though the Tamil Tigers have been killed and things are alright ‘for now’, Sri Lanka’s problem is not settled, and the Tamils, a ‘capable’ community, will not remain ‘submissive’. Watching BBC’s Hard Talk and listening to an uprooted peasant about to leave the camp for his devastated home, one could sense the irreducible collective identity and spirit of these people. As Stephen Sackur later said to a hidden ex-Tiger combatant, these Tamils detest the Tigers and never want to see them again. Still, as the destitute farmer told Sackur, the problem is not solved unless the Tamils have “some solution [of]... self rule...within the Constitution”. The ex-Tiger’s answer to Sackur and to these disenchanted Tamils was the wager that “two three years from now, these same Tamil people will want to start a new war because the Sinhalese government which has never given the Tamils anything, will not give them anything”. It is up to Colombo and the Sinhalese to prove him wrong, because if there is a renewed conflict, the world – including our Asian allies-- will stand aside, telling us we had a chance to solve the problem after the victory but failed to do so yet again.

The victory in war needs to be defended and consolidated but what is not understood is that paradoxically, this may need exactly the opposite qualities than those honed in war. A warm, productive peace, a sustainable peace requires tolerance, generosity and reconciliation, informed by a correct vision. What should that vision be? There are three views on how Sri Lanka should be; three ways on how to run Sri Lanka, which some may consider options, but I would list as models.

I. Sinhalese sole ownership of the island: ‘This is a Sinhala Buddhist country’.

II.Co-equal Sinhala and Tamil ownership: variants on a spectrum being 50:50, ‘Tamil Eelam and Sinhala Rata’, confederation, the CFA, the ISGA, the PTOMS, full ethno-federalism with ‘self determination’.

III. Equal citizenship, unequal co-ownership: strong unitary state, devolution of power, autonomous provinces, Tamils as ‘minority partners’ in the state. This is a Sinhala Buddhist country but not only a Sinhala Buddhist country – and the political identity of the State is multiethnic, not primarily or solely Sinhala Buddhist.

As a Realist, I stand for the third model or option. Even if Model I were to be considered desirable, it is not feasible. If Model I is unfeasible because of the irreducible collective identity of the Tamils, then Model II is unfeasible because of the irreducible collective identity of the Sinhalese, plus their enormous demographic weight on the island. Neither the Tamil and their allies, nor the Sinhalese and theirs, can impose and sustain Models I or II on each other. The evidence of history shows that the Tamils could push but never maintain a permanent control south of a certain point of the island while the Sinhalese could never roll the Tamils back beyond a certain point in the North of the island.

The geostrategic lessons seem to me to be twofold: (a) the Wanni has to be controlled by the state as solid buffer zone, while the sea has to be securely patrolled and (b) the state and state power will and must remain controlled in the final analysis, by the Sinhalese (Singapore is finally controlled by the Chinese), though there must be no Sinhala monopoly of power.

Model III is the sole sustainable one. Its essence resides in the answer given by Lee Kwan Yew, about a similar problem in another place, far more successful than ours: “If they change in a pragmatic way...keeping tight security control and not allowing riots and not allowing rebellions and at the same time, easing up, giving more provincial authority...it’s holdable” (Tom Plate, Conversations with Lee Kwan Yew, p73)

The decades long failure of the federalist politics and propaganda, taken together with the cumulative weight of public opinion over a fairly long period of time (12 years of survey data) and the complete absence of any political formation of significance at the centre (a contender for state power) which stands for federalism, tells the realist in me that the balance of forces leaves no room for a federalist perspective. If however, there had been a significant body of opinion or some serious political current with a chance of success, which stood for federalism, I’d spend more time on it, rather than consider it the utopian abstraction that I do.

I really don’t get the logic as to why anyone interested in a sustainable solution should privilege and push the federalist stand of Tamil nationalism (representing under 10% of the citizenry) over the unitarist stand of Sinhala nationalism (representing almost 80% of the citizenry), or the converse, instead of doing what I have consistently done, which is to identify and support the saddle-point, maximum devolution within the unitary state (with the 13th amendment as base line), and urge both sides to converge.

If Tamil nationalism were so metaphysically wedded to federalism, it should have succeed in convincing either India, or Sri Lanka or the LTTE to accept it-- but it could not even convince its own vanguard to do so (which would have meant accepting CBK’s union of regions package in ’95 or sticking to Oslo 2002 and voting for Ranil in 2005). Why should the settlement entail the surrender by the Sinhalese, the overwhelming majority, of their unitarism and the embrace of the federalism of Tamil nationalism – instead of a mutual compromise, which in turn cannot but reflect the realities of power, on and off the island?

In the UK, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, to name just a few, there is no serious call or political campaign involving a major political formation agitating for a federal state. I take that as a given; a fact, which is not to say that it will remain so in permanence. What it does mean is that the issue does not enter any consequential political calculus. The same is true, or even truer, of Sri Lanka.

If however, a Sri Lankan government or political formation with a proven commitment to a strong state, national security and sovereignty were to arrive at a negotiated federal solution with the Tamil leadership, I would not write in opposition to it and would support it as a risk worth taking.

It is not that one cannot conceive of a state with more than one nation. I have no problem either with a two state solution for Israel/Palestine or with a one state solution in which there would be a single, secular bi-national state. Indeed I have no problem with the idea of a multinational state. Tito’s Yugoslavia with its population distribution was one. However Sri Lanka currently does not hold two equal nations. The concrete demographic reality leads me to conclude that currently there is only one fully fledged nation on the island and that is the Sinhalese nation, while the Tamil community constitutes (at best) a minority nationality or (at least) a national minority. Even if one were to accept that both Sinhalese and Tamils are nations, it would be a fiction to pretend that they are or should be equal nations in terms of access to /distribution of power.

The challenge today is to accommodate and reconcile Sinhala and Tamil collective identities, with their enormous asymmetries of presence, within an overarching national or state identity (’Sri Lankan’). While as citizens and as between citizens there must be complete equality (and I have advocated a powerful anti-discrimination legislation and a standing commission), no progress is made by ‘whiting out’ the real and abiding asymmetries of power.

I argue that Sinhala leadership on the island is unavoidable and understandable, but if it is to be successful it must be based on co-optation and consensus, not domination/pure coercion; on pre-eminence, not monopolistic ownership.

The Sinhala chauvinists have no model of partnership with the Tamils, while the Tamils (with the significant exception of Devananda) have no realistic recognition of the possible terms and parameters of such partnership. The model I propose is as similar to Obama’s ‘ethical realist’ strategy for US global leadership as the Sinhala hardliners is to the Bush Neo-Conservative model of global dominance, or to use another example, mine is closer to the Rabin-Peres-Barak two state solution with ‘security red lines’ rather than the Netanyahu-Lieberman ‘apartheid’ Occupation model of the Sinhala hardliners. Surely there is a qualitative difference between Putin’s Chechnya model and that of the Gaza strip or the West Bank under Netanyahu?

My ‘domestic Yalta’ model must not be dismissed as essentially what we have today or a mask for the status quo. Mine is an argument for maximum devolution within a unitary state, incidentally, as pledged in Mahinda Rajapakse’s winning Presidential election manifesto of Jan 2010: “implement and improve on the 13th amendment”. To me that is the concretisation of the ‘Dutugemunu’ Realist model, which mirrors the material reality of the island’s historically evolved social formation, with Sinhala pre-eminence in state (politico-military) power in the final analysis, while moulding it in a progressive direction by devolving power to the periphery through an authentic measure of ‘self-government’ or ‘home rule’ in those contiguous areas where the Tamils comprise a compact majority. This is local autonomy or “self rule...within the Constitution” as the Tamil farmer, about to board the bus back home from Menik farm told the BBC’s Stephen Sackur.