by Dr.Dayan Jayatilleka
My first book had an awful title (Sri Lanka: The Travails Of A Democracy) conferred by the publisher in Delhi, but the subtitle was mine, and it was Unfinished War, Protracted Crisis. Today, that war is finished but the crisis protracts.
In a critical review of that first book, Prof A.J. Wilson, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick and son-in law of S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, kindly ventured the opinion that “Dayan… is perhaps the last liberal thinker among the Sinhalese” (Sunday Island, March 23, 1997, p14, 16).
Significantly, the same book was met with a blistering full page critique by leading Tiger ideologue and spokesman Anton Balasingham in his Brahmagnani column, in which he said: “Sri Lankan political discourse, in recent times, has produced an amazing variety of political theorists and analysts whose main vocation seems to be to produce denunciatory criticisms of the politico-military strategy of the LTTE and offer ideas or solutions as to how to end the so-called terrorist menace. Among these political theorists Dayan Jayatilleka stands out as a unique character in his irrational and ruthless criticism of the LTTE.” (Inside Report – Tamil Eelam News Review, June 30, 1995).
Indian reviewers were divided, with Partha Ghosh, then Chairman of the Indian Council of Social Sciences Research producing a very positive assessment while Prof S.D. Muni who succeeded the more liberal Prof Urmila Phadnis as the JNU’s leading Sri Lankanologist, ripped into the book, hawkishly.
While the divergent Tamil intellectual reactions, those of Prof Wilson and Anton Balasingham, demonstrate that it is perfectly possible, as a political theorist, to adopt a stance that is anti-Tiger and is yet sensitive to Tamil nationalist sensibility; that it is precisely such a stance that Tiger i.e. hard-core violent separatist ideology and strategy finds most dangerous and takes greatest exception to; and that such a stance provides basis for combating the hard-core secessionist enemy while engaging in debate and dialogue with liberal-democratic parliamentary Tamil nationalism.
There would be many who would deride both noun and adjective contained in the late Emeritus Professor Wilson’s definition of me, and they may well be right. Still, it serves as a good entry point into my subject.
If I am a ‘liberal thinker’ then I am a liberal Realist who supports the establishment of a sufficient and permanent Sri Lankan military presence on state land in the North and East. However, I am also wary of the establishment of permanent housing for military families and the acquisition of privately owned land for that purpose.
The reason for my support and opposition is security of the state and society. Sri Lanka is one country and the state has every right to establish armed encampments and deploy its armed forces wherever it sees fit. I have no problem with the exercise of that right. Yet, just as every other right it must be exercised prudently, because the unity of Sri Lanka as a single country is not the only aspect of Sri Lanka’s reality that must be taken into account.
Ours is also a multi ethnic country with a historically evolved and stable ethno-demography. The Tamils consider the Northern Province as their ancestral land, the land of their grandfathers and great grandfathers. I have met seventh generation Malaysian Tamils who are emotionally attached to Kokuvil as their native place, where their roots run back to.
The establishment of a strong military presence is necessary because the state and the citizenry can no longer be suckered. The Sri Lankan state must internalise the military lessons of all the wars it has had to fight in the North East and deploy troops in a manner that the area is strategically as impregnable as is possible to render it. The Sri Lankan military deployments in the North and East must never be vulnerable again, militarily or logistically. They must be capable of safeguarding our outer borders as well as preventing/preempting terrorism and low intensity insurgency.
The Sri Lankan military configuration in the North and East must be capable of deterring or fighting and winning future wars. But it must not be the cause or catalyst for future conflict. That would be self-defeating because it would not enhance national security; it would undermine it.
Had Sri Lanka either been bereft of an internal ethno-national question (the Tamil question) or had the Sri Lankan military been multi ethnic in composition, the acquisition of private land for high security zones and permanent housing for military families would not have been so serious a problem. We are dealing with the reality of a mono-ethnic, monolingual, mono-religious military establishing permanent housing for their families in a differently mono-ethnic area with a high degree of sub-nationalist consciousness.
There would be those who argue that a mono-ethnic army was able, against all expectation, to win a war against terrorism and separatism on the home turf of the insurgents. This is not strictly true. The achievement of the Sri Lankan armed forces was both greater than that and different from it. The Sri Lankan army defeated a rival secessionist army, a powerful militia, not a guerrilla insurgency or terrorist network. The Tigers had long outgrown those stages and hypertrophied to the socio-politically unsustainable level of a parallel armed force, fighting a quasi-conventional war.
Today, the state must deploy the armed forces in the North and East in a manner that deters and prevents future conflict and rather than sows the seeds for it, either in the forms of terrorism, guerrilla cells or unarmed civic resistance. The establishment of permanent military bases strictly within state (‘Crown’) land is doubtless imperative to guarantee the first objective, but the acquisition of private land and the settlement of military families could trigger the latter.
The permanent settlement of military families means places of religious worship, schools, shops, cinemas, services, etc, and the first sign of protest would also mean widening the zone, narrowing access to the civilians of the area, perhaps new access roads and the proliferation of checkpoints.
This may seem an excellent method of population mixing, but that works as a method of conflict transformation only if population movement is as a result of natural economic factors, not unilateral state policy. The Tamils in Wellawatte were not brought there as part of state policy.
These ideas for the North and East are not new — and nor is the critique. A read through the Lanka Guardian and The Island’s ‘Kautilya’ column of the 1980s would show the repeated warnings by Mervyn de Silva, who was, among other things, widely acknowledged as the country’s leading expert on Israel/Palestine and the Middle East, about the ideas of a wing of the J.R. Jayewardene government of the time.
These ideas, identified with then Minister of National Security but also shared by the President’s son and security advisor Ravi Jayewardene, located in and derived from an irrelevant external matrix, were dangerously inapplicable to Sri Lanka, would worsen the ethnic problem and generate a backlash from the regional power, warned my father.
‘In an age of identity, ethnicity walks on water’ he said, pointing to inflamed sentiment in proximate Tamil Nadu and the increasingly influential Diaspora, of which the Sinhalese had no equivalent or counterweight to. As it turned out, it was not the Tamil Tiger insurgency which put a halt to Minister Athulathmudali’s and Ravi Jayewardene’s importation of ‘the West Bank model’ as the Lanka Guardian called it, but precisely the ‘geo-political realities’ – the absence or furling of a superpower umbrella in the event of an abrupt assertion by the regional power — that Mervyn de Silva had tried to drum home into the ruling elite, to no avail, until the external ‘seismic shock’ of mid-1987.
Sri Lanka is today at a crossroads. One road leads to reconciliation and a fresh start which enables us to integrate with Asia’s march to modernity. The other leads to a new and prolonged cycle of conflict.
The right kind of security policy for the North and East, a policy which derives from the best practises globally, a policy which is scientific and professional rather than driven by wrong interpretations of history and ethno-religious motivations, will enhance and ensure security. The wrong kind of security policy for the post-war North and East in which Sri Lankan armed forces cantonments become interlinked oases embedded a hostile local population, may turn the entire area into a high insecurity zone.
Realism tells us that the North and East have to be secure over the long term. It tells us that the Sri Lankan security forces will remain overwhelmingly mono-ethnic at least in the short term. Realism, which is drawn in large part from world history, further tells us that in such a situation, a policy of permanent encampments and fortifications must be accompanied by alliances with the local elites and a degree of local autonomy. That autonomy must not be so large as to be dysfunctional to security and strategy but must be sufficiently broad to preempt local disaffection. This has been the policy of successful empires from Rome to Britain.
Sadly, it would seem as though Sri Lankan policy projections do not involve this latter aspect of sufficient local autonomy, and that the security aspect is designed to overlook, override, bypass or undermine that local autonomy should it be implemented under external pressure or internal political compulsion.
The great Asian strategic thinker-practitioner Mao Ze Dong advocated a policy of ‘walking on two legs’. We seem intent on marching forward on one. The increased alienation of the Tamil people of the North and a widening gulf between the collective psyches of our main communities cannot be a pathway to stable security and permanent peace. The so-called demographic solution is no solution, as has been proved even in its conceptual birthplace — and notwithstanding a superpower blank cheque that Sri Lanka will never have.
While ‘facts are being created on the ground’, if the elected representatives of the Tamil people remain divided, with some dreaming of self-determination and others of federalism, and still others refuse to talk to their erstwhile comrades who are in government, instead of collectively pressing for the reasonable demand of the ‘turnkey’ re-activation of the existing constitutional provisions as reiterated in bilateral statements and international undertakings, then these Tamil representatives will have only themselves to blame for the continuing and perhaps irreversible Tamil tragedy. Thus, the war is won, the conflict is recessed and latent, but the crisis looks set to continue.