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The Two Thirds Target

* Parliamentary Election 2010: The Best Case Scenario

By Dayan Jayatilleka

(April 04, Singapore City, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Coen brothers’ movie with Javier Bardem was called No Country For Old Men. What should we begin to call this one? I mean the country, not the movie.What do you call a country in which an unarmed young woman, a woman who has not harmed anyone, is detained in a police station for writing a book, and a book which does not call for violence against anyone? As Marvin Gaye, another non-home grown cultural inspiration, kept asking What’s Going On? Where, when and how will this end? It is against a backdrop of such preoccupations that I view the April 8th election.

The government wants a two thirds majority in order to replace the constitution, it says. The UNP opposition hopes to form a coalition with other opposition parties. It would be unhealthy for the body politic if the electorate were to grant the wish of either side. What would be healthy is for the opposition to have strong enough representation in the legislature so that a two thirds majority is out of reach for the government even by means of defections.

The most authoritarian administrations we have had have been those with a two thirds majority and the worst experiences we citizens have undergone, have been at the hands of governments enjoying a two thirds majority. Of the three constitutions we have had, those produced in 1972 and 1978 were far less enlightened and prudent than the one we started off with at Independence, the Soulbury Constitution.
The government wishes a two thirds majority to ‘protect the country from foreign conspirators’. With the Executive in safely patriotic hands, this is surely far more a question of the right foreign policy — and foreign minister — than a two thirds majority in the legislature.

Does the government need a two thirds majority so as to effect ethnic reconciliation between our constituent communities by radically reforming the structure of the state? Hardly, because the President himself has ruled out a federal system and is unwilling to go beyond the 13th Amendment making for provincial autonomy, minus police powers. Which may be fine, but this is already part of our existing constitution.

What of the UNP’s favourite scenario, of a replay of 2001? After our last experience of Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister I do not think the electorate should or would risk a replay which would amount to an erosion of the gains of our military victory over the Tigers. This would be so if he were to become PM with the support of the TNA. Wickremesinghe has already pledged irresponsibly on a visit to Jaffna, that he would remove all military camps except for Palaly. That is not his decision to make even if he were to be elected PM, because the portfolio of defence remains in the hands of the Executive. Matters would be different if the UNP were able to secure a majority to form an administration with the DNA – or the DNA as well as the TNA — which scenarios are exceedingly unlikely.

The best case scenario is if the governing coalition were able to secure a two thirds majority not on its own volition or by means of defections, but solely by means of negotiation with the main Southern and North-Eastern oppositions, namely the UNP and the TNA. It would compel the incumbent to revise the present equation, include the aspirations and ideas of the opposition, thereby balancing the influence of the small chauvinist parties in the government’s ranks and establishing something close to a broad national consensus which could be reflected in the architecture of a new basic law; a new constitution for a post-war Sri Lanka. Such an equation could not only revive the practice of serious multiparty deliberation in Sri Lankan politics, but also generate the synergies needed to restore rationality and propel reform.

Tamil political dimension

The TNA’s demand that troop levels be reduced to the pre-1983 level, i.e. the pre-conflict level is absurd, because no sane defence policy can base itself on a return to the vulnerabilities of those times. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is wrong to pledge the withdrawal of all military camps in the north except for Palaly, because many of those were set up precisely to protect Palaly. There is a pocket of hostility in Tamil Nadu, just a strip of water away. Future threats are of Fourth Generation War, i.e. small unit war by offshore networks, which could include an infiltration from overseas by a well trained and equipped terrorist cell (the Mumbai attack is a model) that can rocket or mortar Palaly or use MANPADS against landing planes.

This is not to say there is no problem with our troop presence, but it lies elsewhere. Ours is a mono-ethnic, mono-lingual, mono-religious army. An entrenched troop presence in any part of India of its multi-ethnic army, the mailed fist of its secular state, is a very different proposition and far less contentious. A Sinhala armed force in the North, if rotated back to base in the South, would not be as much of a problem as one replete with permanent housing for families. If we go down that road will we hear the phrases ‘creating facts on the ground’ and ‘natural increase’, and can we afford to play act at being Israel without a superpower as our axiomatic subsidiser, supplier and supporter?

As the TNA and the newly elected MPs from the other Tamil parties ready to assume their seats in the 2010 parliament, they must straighten out their relationship with the Tamil Diaspora. For the Sinhala people and the Sri Lankan state, the role of the Tamil Diaspora is clear: it is secessionist and actively engaged in soliciting Western support for its goal. Its ideology is strategic Prabhakaranism without Tiger tactics. At best it is analogous to the relationship between Cuba and the Miami Cuban community — and the greater the pressure from Miami the tighter the defensive crackdown in Havana. Of course, the Tamil Diaspora doesn’t have the political clout of the Miami Cubans: our giant neighbour is anxious to invest in our economy, not impose sanctions on it.

At worst the hawkish pro-secessionist majority of the Tamil Diaspora is the external, existential enemy of Sri Lanka as state and political community. But what of its relationship with the Tamils of and in Sri Lanka; the voter base of the Tamil parties including the TNA? For too long, the Diaspora tail has wagged the dog, and even the Tiger. The LTTE would have been able to disaggregate into small units, disperse and engage the advancing Sri Lankan forces in guerrilla warfare for a considerably longer period, had it not been for the Tigers’ need to play to the spectators of the Tamil Diaspora and meet its expectations; expectations which were themselves the phantasmagorical manifestations of overblown Tamil self-regard and self-centeredness. On the other hand the Tamil Diaspora was not able to fulfil any of the expectations of the Tigers and save them in their dying months, because those expectations were based on a myth of being a player or wielder of influence in the international system.

It would be unrealistic to expect the TNA to cut links with the Diaspora because these relationships are in fact, precisely that — relationships, in the sociological and familial sense. What is needed and possible is an inversion, where the Diaspora takes the cue from the elected Tamil representatives — who themselves must realise that they have to settle with Colombo, not London or even Delhi (as Prabhakaran and Perumal realised).

Gajan Ponnambalam’s outfit has said that “There is legal space for the policy of ‘One Country, Two Nations’ and such a system embodies sovereignty whereas a ‘Nationality’ does not include same…sovereignty could only be attained when the Tamil Nation achieves the stage of a nation with its own land”. (TamilNet 30.03.10)
The more raucous such agit-prop for ‘sovereignty’ and ‘self determination’, the more determined and accelerated will be the State’s pre-emptive action to transform the realities on the ground, including the demographics, that permit such a slogan. Plainly put, the only way to stop the Sinhalese from settling in the Tamil majority areas is for the Tamils to settle with the Sinhalese.

Conversely the Sinhalese must realise that collective Tamil identity cannot be pounded into a composite Sri Lankan one as if by mortar and pestle. Tamil compliance with a united Sri Lanka can be insisted upon by law and enforced by the state, but Tamil allegiance to a common Sri Lankan identity cannot be enforced; it can only be accomplished through the earning of Tamil consent. Both the Sinhalese (especially the Sinhala Buddhists) and the Tamils have to make concessions if they are to enjoy a benefits of a larger, common Sri Lankan identity. The TNA has made a positive shift to “One Country, with Two Nationalities”, rejecting Gajan Ponnambalam’s “One Country, Two Nations”, but stood opposed to “the 13th Amendment and a political solution based on a unitary form of governance”. (TamilNet 30.03.10)
This simply will not work. Tactically the Tamil politicians need to make three moves: unite under a single umbrella, reviving the Tamil United Front of 1972 (not the Tamil United Liberation Front of ’76); abandon the Vadukkodai resolution of 1976 and adopt instead as a moderate common platform, the May 1972 Six Points sent to the Constituent Assembly by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam (but ignored by Sirima Bandaranaike); and coordinate with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and others in a bloc of minority parties which can work flexibly with both southern formations.

(The writer is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore. He was Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva. These are his personal views.)

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