Sri Lanka: Serendipity or Shutter Island?

By Dayan Jayatilleka

(April 21, Singapore City, Sri Lanka Guardian) One hasn’t the slightest inkling at the time of writing but one does hope that President Rajapakse’s choice of a Cabinet will be heavily laden with the most popular and qualified among the true-blue ‘middle path’ SLFP moderates, which would not only reflect the balance of forces in the government and the country at large, but be a vehicle for the tasks that face the post war, second term Rajapakse administration. The three most important posts are those of PM, Foreign affairs and education. If popular, well-positioned SLFP personalities feel that there is no point in aspiring to the top post someday, it could make for internal dissonance over time. If the Foreign Minister is not drawn from most sophisticated and educated SLFPers, it would be counterproductive and burdensome. If education is not in the hands of a tough minded meritocratic, modernising reformer, Sri Lanka will never catch up with the rest of Asia and fulfil its potential. It is these latter posts, of foreign affairs and education, that will enable the country to compete with and prevail over the bitterly anti-Sri Lankan project of the secessionists in the Tamil Diaspora, especially in the First world.

What are the tasks and challenges facing President Rajapakse? Simply put, it is to complete what SWRD Bandaranaike and JR Jayewardene respectively started but failed to do. Mr Bandaranaike rode the wave of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and populism (what the late Regi Siriwardena called ‘ethno-populism’ and what others might term ‘majoritarian populism’) to power and then, just the next year, attempted to balance this off, supplementing without neutralising the ’56 social achievement. This he attempted by signing the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact which made for modest devolution of power to ‘regional councils’, which he hoped to twin with a bill for the ‘reasonable use of Tamil’. When SWRD was forced by agitation successively by the defeated UNP and the Buddhist clergy affiliated with his own coalition, to tear up the agreement, he predicted that rivers of blood would flow and that we would regret that day. In the 1970s when the separatist movement made its appearance, the ubiquitous sentiment that was heard from the post-independence parental generation of the liberal-progressive intelligentsia was “if only Banda had been allowed to implement the BC pact!” (followed by invective about the two extremes, the UNP and the hard-line Buddhist lobbies).

President Rajapakse, having done the political and military equivalent and more of what Bandaranaike achieved in ’56, now has to complete what the latter wished to but failed to in 1957: restore the balance by an equation with the Tamil leader in parliament, on the basis of moderate power sharing at the periphery.

SWRD was not allergic to Mr. Chelvanayakam’s federal stand, though he obviously did not concur with it and signed a pact for far less, namely a measure of provincial self rule. Originally and briefly a federalist as a young politician, SWRD was far too literate to confuse and conflate federalism with secessionism or consider it extremist and communal, warranting exhibitions of hysteria. He had himself mentioned Switzerland as a possible model for Ceylon. However as a mature politician he rightly considered it inappropriate for his country. Given the recent experience of Bolivia (not to mention former Yugoslavia and the USSR) I believe it still is. Autonomy within a unitary state is altogether another matter.

Some opine that President Rajapakse’s main task is economic development, pure and simple. This is what JR Jayewardene attempted, postponing his manifesto’s pledge to summon an all parties’ conference to discuss Tamil grievances (which it listed). When he got around to it, the drag effect of internal division and conflict had rendered his impressive initial economic take-off unsustainable. Had President Jayewardene built in his District Development Councils of 1980 into his new Constitution of 1978, or implemented the BC pact in 1982 just as he won the presidential election, Sri Lanka, which opened up its economy one and half decades before India, would not be languishing as it is today, on the periphery of the Asian economic miracle.

This is why President Rajapakse must move to put the Tamil question (or the Northern Question as I have called it, a la Gramsci’s Southern Question) behind us and restore domestic ‘harmony’ ( to borrow China’s vocabulary), so that Sri Lanka can move on and be internationally competitive. This is why he must do what SWRD should have but couldn’t do and JR Jayewardene should have but didn’t do (until far too late). This is also why he needs a moderate, SLFP dominated cabinet of ministers.

Now is the time. I recall Martin Woollacott, the great foreign correspondent who covered Vietnam, predicted the Vietnamese final offensive and went on to become the editor of The Guardian (London), telling my father and myself after a visit to Jaffna in the mid 1970s, that a peaceful deal would be possible only while SJV Chelvanayagam was still alive. He was right. The Sinhala establishment didn’t give a damn and we had thirty years of war, death, dismemberment and destruction. Now the cycle has come around: we must settle while R Sambandan is still at the helm and able to deliver. The balance of forces is just right on both Tamil and Sinhala sides. Knowledgeable and respected political commentator DBS Jeyaraj has set out the ITAK’s solid electoral achievement. The fact that all three seats in Jaffna went to the EPDP (not the SLFP) and Devananda is the top preference-vote taker, outstripping the ITAK’s candidates, gives President Rajapakse a moderate card to play in Tamil politics. As for the South, the most extremist party secured merely two seats – to say, the TNA’s twelve -- and failed to head the preference votes anywhere. All this means that there is the possibility of a final status agreement for moderate power-sharing, which can be built into a new Constitution, and can compensate for any customised tailoring in other matters.

The ITAK for its part has more than a bit of work to do. The balance of forces, including the tight parliamentary field placing being what it is, a further moderation in Tamil discourse is necessary. The ITAK must lose any reference to self-determination and anything that smacks of a two nation theory. It must unilaterally and unconditionally pledge itself to a solution within a united Sri Lanka. The role model of parliamentary conduct for every ITAK MP should be the non-rhetorical, sober, studious speeches and dignified, non-confrontational deportment even under provocation, of the late Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam (victim of a separatist suicide bomber).

What are the consequences for the Sinhalese and Tamils if this path of mutual moderation and convergence is not taken or deferred? The parliament will become the site of sharply confrontational discourses. The theatre in the legislature will run parallel with the ‘creation of facts on the ground’ (along West Bank lines). With the Southern ‘Sangh Parivar’ trying to compensate for the erosion of its democratic representation, Tamil civil disobedience could be met, as in the past, with violent countermeasures. Both communities will pay heavily. The Sinhalese will find that any use of coercion against unarmed federalists meets globally and regionally with a reception entirely unlike cracking down on armed secessionists (who murdered a neighbouring former Prime Minister). A restive Tamil Nadu will cause Delhi concern once again. If we begin to lose the ‘legitimacy war’ (Emeritus Prof Richard Falk’s phrase) we will find ourselves becoming an easier target for a combination of international players (far and near) who see us as a pawn in the ‘grand strategic’ power struggle (especially maritime) in and for an emerging Asia. Our best friend China is too far away to project power and in any case does not allow itself to be provoked into conflicts which will disturb the great harmony it requires in its external relations, for its overarching economic purpose.

President Jayewardene and his UNP assumed that Ronald Reagan’s US would come to our assistance in the mid 1980s. Washington sent instead, General Vernon Walters with a two- point message, one tactical, one strategic. The tactical message was that Sri Lanka could receive some limited security assistance by proxy (“let the Israelis handle it”). The more important strategic message from the US administration to the pro-US administration of JR, which thought it had cannily positioned itself in the New Cold war against a pro-Soviet neighbour, was a terse one: “settle with the Indians”. It was a cold shower for Colombo, and it got colder two years later in 1987.

We must not waste this moment to settle with the elected Tamils, only to receive some day, a visit from a Vernon Walters from Beijing.

Contrary to ill-read Marxists, Marx and Engels did not only project a victorious proletarian outcome in the Communist manifesto, but also an exceptional scenario, “the mutual ruin of the contending classes”. If post-war Sri Lanka misses this chance at political and ethnic reconciliation through prudent reform and modernisation, the outcome will not be a victory for the Sinhalese or Tamils as hawks on both sides hope for, but the mutual ruin of the contending communities on the island.