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A pragmatic Tamil consensus would put moral pressure on the state

Jul 6, 2010 5:44:09 PM- transcurrents.com

By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke

The UN Human Rights Council has a new president, the ambassador of Thailand. A serious minded and senior diplomat, he is a fine choice indeed. The uninitiated may wonder how this honour went to Thailand, which was the unanimous Asian choice, so shortly after the bloody denouement of the streets protests in Bangkok, the extensive coverage in the global media and the sharp criticisms of the western media and western ‘neo-colonialism’ by influential members of the Thai administration.

The answer lies at least in part, in the national reconciliation dialogue that was initiated by the Thai Prime Minister Vejajit Abhijiva in the immediate aftermath of the lethal crackdown on pro-Thaksin Opposition demonstrators. That outreach has recently crystallised into a National Reconciliation Roadmap which has been formally commended by the US legislature.

Whatever one may think of the domestic politics of Thailand, one cannot but admire the speed, deftness and creativity of this move as a measure of crisis stabilisation, damage limitation, restoration of the country’s international image, and neutralisation of external pressure. The Thai authorities swiftly followed up the effective exercise of hard power, the successful military crackdown, with the exercise of soft power—the national reconciliation roadmap—in the use of ‘smart power’, and all in the national interest of Thailand.

Here then is an Asian example, and from a Theravada Buddhist culture, that we can use. What could be more Buddhistic than to understand the need for national reconciliation, followed up by a call, an actual outreach, a dialogue and a specific roadmap? There are of course, obstacles to national reconciliation. If ‘the defences of peace are erected in the minds of men’ and women, the obstacles reside in collective mindsets. We still have literate Sinhalese who wonder what was so unequal about the post 1956 dispensation that it would take devolution to correct it.

My initial reaction to statements of that sort is the same as that of Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong, when after a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, he was accosted by a blue-blooded British lady who asked him: “Do tell me, Mr Armstrong, what is jazz?” Satchmo growled back “if you’ve gotta ask, lady, you’ll never know”.

That’s when I’m in my less charitable mood. More charitably I’d say the best person to answer that question about ’56 is long dead, shot by an ex-Buddhist monk at the prompting of one in robes. I refer of course to SWRD Bandaranaike, our most erudite leader and the architect and hero of the ‘Silent Revolution of ’56’ who promptly attempted to rectify the resultant inequities by moving a bill for ‘the reasonable use of Tamil’ and signing a pact with the Tamil federalist leader SJV Chelvanayakam for the devolution of power to regional councils.

If after thirty years of war, thirty-five years since the serious rise of secessionism, and over fifty years since ’56 and ’58, any Sinhalese still wishes to know what problems the Tamils had and have with Sinhala Only in 1956, he or she should try actually having a conversation, preferably a political conversation, with a Tamil. This may be a close encounter of a third kind for those whose cultural comfort zone as comprised by friends, acquaintances, and comrades from the cradle to date, do not seem to have included any Tamils (or Muslims).

Yet another drastic experiment for those who wonder about why the Tamils feel unequal, would be to assume the guise of a journalist and actually interview a Tamil opinion maker or even a peer, on the subjects of 1956, devolution etc. (That’s if one considers the prospect that any Tamil could be one’s peer, despite one’s sense of cultural and civilizational superiority).

The third method of seeking the truth about the Tamil Question would be to expand one’s library, read some decent scholarly books, written in an international language by authors with internationally recognized credentials on the subject of ethnicity, state and nation building, and modern Sri Lankan history.

Honesty and reason are the best guides. Are we a society with equal rights? Are we all equal as citizens? Why not ask Sarah Malanie Perera who is on trial for writing two books detailing her conversion to Islam, and whose case has just been postponed by five months, to November this year? I do wonder whether anyone had the smarts to think of how this news, carried in Gulf newspapers, may or may not affect the conduct of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in the United Nations when we solicit its support against the UNSG’s panel.

Certainly there are societies which are far more stringent and intrusive on matters of religion, but these are acknowledged ‘confessional states’ or theocracies, guided by fundamentalist interpretations of religions.

Which then would be easier and faster? Reactivating and implementing a provision of Sri Lanka’s existing Constitution that makes for modest devolution, as a solution to a decades-long ethnic question, or going through the convoluted and contentious process of gouging out those clauses of a ‘ rigid’ Constitution that confer unequal status on our citizens in accordance with language and religion? Obviously, the former—which is why I advocate it over a utopian, and protracted if not foredoomed venture at changing the basic law.

Too many people get hot under the collar when they hear the phrase ‘ancestral areas’ or ‘areas of historic habitation’ of the Tamil people. In a disgraceful sleight of hand, this is immediately taken to mean ‘exclusive traditional homelands’ of an ethnic grouping, even if the word ‘exclusive’ never entered the discourse. The reality is that the ethno-demography of the island has shown certain long term concentrations and patterns, with the Sinhala speakers chiefly occupying the Southern two thirds and the Tamil speakers, the Northern (and partially the Eastern) one third.

None can eradicate another person’s or community’s sense of belonging to a geographic area, those are their roots, but this does not mean that this area is felt to belong exclusively to that collective. Do my books belong to me? Are they mine? Most certainly – but they also belong to my wife, and no less so, which does not mean they do not belong to me.

All however is not lost. There is good news to be had, North and South. Champika Ranawaka, the leader of the most hawkish of Sinhala parties went to Jaffna and delivered a halfway decent speech. There is a time for picking up the sword and there is a time for sheathing the sword. Minister Ranawaka’s tentative gesture of outreach and the tentatively positive coverage in the Tamil media (even TamilNet) deserves commendation.

Champika Ranawaka was in the company of a personality who has been crossing the ethno-regional divide and communicating with Southern audiences for decades, namely Minister Douglas Devananda. His most recent initiative also deserves applause and encouragement. Douglas has conducted two rounds of talks with Tamil parties in order to construct a Tamil consensus on the immediate needs of the Tamil people as well as a political resolution. PLOTE’s D Siddharthan, the EPRLF’s Vardarajaperumal and Sritharan, TELO’s Sri Kantha, Mr Sivajilingam et al must be warmly congratulated on transcending the long curse of sectarianism which has had such fatal consequences for Tamil politicians and politics.

Of course the TNA/ITAK has so far, not joined this process. This is a pity because a Tamil consensus would accelerate a process of political dialogue with the state and a pragmatic Tamil consensus would put moral pressure on the state just as it would help those Asian friends and funders of Sri Lanka who wish to accelerate political reconciliation through moderate devolution.

Frankly, I do not see the TNA/ITAK joining the Devananda initiative, nor initiating a similar process themselves. No matter. At the worst of times, the Sinhala parties did not unite in a formal consensus, but never were they as fissured as the Tamil parties are. Tamil politics veers between monopoly (the LTTE) and quasi-anarchy. Monopoly runs the risk of placing all one’s eggs in a single basket, while anarchy renders one hopelessly ineffectual. Most efficacious for any people or community is a two-party or two bloc configuration, as the South has long evolved. Even if the TNA remains outside and forms one polarity, the Devananda dialogue, if successful, would lead to the long overdue emergence of a two party system in Tamil politics.