Democratic way to peace, or peaceful way to democracy?

“The Diaspora understands the signs and language of the international community much better than the LTTE leadership, and the larger Tamil polity and society in Sri Lanka. It is also much more than the way they want the international community to understand and appreciate the plight of the Tamil community back home.”

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

(September 15, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Democracy is the only answer for sustainable peace in war-torn Sri Lanka, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama told the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, in a recent interview. Preceding this, you had Science and Technology Minister, Dr Tissa Vitharana, who is also the Chairman of the All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) for finding a political solution to the ethnic issue, airing similar views to his South African hosts.

It is a view that the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa had prescribed as an agenda for finding a lasting solution. In doing so, the Government has drawn a distinctive differentiation line between 'LTTE terrorism' and the 'political aspirations' of the Tamil community. Bogollagama reiterated the Government's resolve to end 'LTTE terrorism, militarily. In turn, Vitharana presented the Eastern Province elections earlier in the year and the assumption of chief ministerial office by TMVP's S. Chandrakanthan, alias Pillaiyan, as a jewel in the democratic crown for the Tamil areas.

The fact however remains that war against 'LTTE terrorism' is making progress and is also bringing in fresh laurels for the armed forces and the Government every passing day. Similar progress has not been recorded on the political front, however. The implementation of the 13th Amendment, which was the hallmark for the Government – and benchmark for others – in terms of democratic devolution of political power to the Tamil areas remain tardy at best.

Democracy, in the Sri Lankan context, could at best be a tool for sustainable peace, with devolution of powers as its goal. Democracy cannot be a substitute to devolution, and cannot thus usher in 'sustainable peace' over the long term. In a nation in which the State on the one hand, and the Tamil polity on the other have always taken one late step too often in the past to arrive at an all-acceptable solution to the ethnic issue, delayed devolution could only harden political and societal feelings.

Such hardened feelings had not remained exclusive to one side of the ethnic divide, and it would not be so, this time too. If anything, it could be worse still in the 'liberated East', where democracy has ushered in fresh hopes – that cannot be allowed to remain only as hopes, and thus whither away, too.

'Political justice', like 'legal justice', should not only be done but should also be seen to have been done. No time is a better time than now for starting off the process, where intentions do not automatically translate into actions unless there is demonstrable initiative. The 'initiative' in this case rests mostly with the Sri Lankan State though the Tamil polity cannot remain aloof or unaffected. It needs to take the initiative that is otherwise missing from its side. This in turn has reduced the 'Tamil initiative' on power-devolution to the role of Her Majesty's Royal Opposition – no responsibility to contribute to the political process, with only accrued and assumed rights for protesting and opposing whatever is on offer. A divided polity in this case is as much dismissive of other initiatives as it is dis-spirited. The loser, ultimately, would be the Tamil society, and the Tamil polity cannot escape the shared blame, now as in the past.

It is in this context that the ruling TMVP's call in the Eastern Province for the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora to help find a political solution to the ethnic issue assumes significance. A large section of the Diaspora in particular has been a source of encouragement and of resources for the LTTE. It now has a larger role to play, to help the dis-spirited and mutually unengaged sections of the Tamil polity and society to identify shared concerns and concretised proposals that friends of Sri Lanka could work on, for helping the nation and its population to find an acceptable solution to the ethnic issue.

The ethnic war, as things keep evolving, otherwise seems slipping out of the hands of the Tamil community and polity. Friends of Sri Lanka, who naturally are also friends of the Tamil community, too have been underlining the need for them to come together for a common agenda, if not on a common platform. No time is better time for them to do so, but then the next time could prove too late if the news from the battle-front is any indication.For his part, Chandrakanthan after assuming office as Chief Minister of the Eastern Province had mentioned on assuming office that re-merger of the North and the East was a desirable course. Given the size and shape of the divided Tamil polity in the island-nation, the Diaspora, taking a bird's eye view of the ground developments from a distance, could encourage the polity that they once looked upon for sustenance could tell them a few home truths.

For right reasons or wrong, the Tamil community has problems trusting the international community. Their disheveled polity in their turn too has problems acknowledging the constant and continuing engagement of the international community in their affairs. A.D. 2008 is not like A.D. 1956 or A.D. 1983. They have their anxieties, yes, but then they need to acknowledge that the 'international safety-net' in this case extends to both sides to the 'ethnic issue', though not of the 'ethnic war'.

Yet, the Tamil political discourses on the ethnic issue continue to be confined mostly to the past. Where there is a reference to the present, it is confined to armed forces' attacks on civilian targets and to such other human rights violations and denials by the Sri Lankan State. There is hardly any talk of the future, which they say is dark and bleak as ever. The Diaspora, sections of which had been associated with the drafting of the ISGA proposals of the LTTE in the past, has a role cut out for itself. It cannot fail itself, or fail the Tamil brethren back home.

The Diaspora understands the signs and language of the international community much better than the LTTE leadership, and the larger Tamil polity and society in Sri Lanka. It is also much more than the way they want the international community to understand and appreciate the plight of the Tamil community back home. They cannot, thus, fail the community again – by being uni-directional in their approach, and expecting that global opinion is a one-way street, now and ever.

The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Indian policy think-tank headquartered in New Delhi.
- Sri Lanka Guardian