Sri Lanka in “Recession”

by V. Gunaratnam

It is seems naive to be seeking a solution in troubled waters, when Sri Lanka's democratic system is under siege. But the way it has evolved leaves no other choice. Devolution is going to happen anyway, and when there are those ready to work with it, won't it be better to be on the inside and watchful?

In the beginning

(December 22, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka is in a state of “democratic recession” since about the time it started annihilating the Tamils, democratically that is, to safeguard democracy in the name of the people, the Sinhala majority.

In the process they, the Sinhalese, stayed silent as their precious democratic privileges, the ability to speak freely, write anything they fancied, and say what they liked, were artfully taken away in a democratic manner, by a democratic government, and all in the name of democracy.

The Tamils started with hope, then it was hope and faith, soon it became hope, faith, and devotion, but when even this was found wanting, it became hope, faith, devotion, and self-sacrifice, and finally hope, faith, devotion, self-sacrifice, and courage (1). But somehow, it never got them to the home of their desires.

Like a cricket team, they accompanied leader DS (2) and his delegation to Whitehall in London, to tell the British that they were all a team, one happy family, ready for independence. But all that goodwill soon disappeared like a mirage.

If independence was what it meant, the Tamils reckoned it was a good time to get recognition of their right to manage their own affairs, language, culture, and religion, that bound them together as a people with their traditional homeland.

But the Sinhalese, mired in twisted politics, probably never saw it that way, even though it was no different from what they had given themselves, and were taking for granted.

Tamil language

What is a language right but the simple need to understand and be understood, make it easier to learn in one's own language, and not be disadvantaged in any way when doing business with the state, or hauled before the courts, like all what the Sinhala Only Act was doing for the Sinhalese?

In their magnanimity they allowed for the “reasonable use of Tamil” and the Tamils thought that was a very reasonable gesture, even though little or nothing reasonable was done to implement it in any reasonable way to have any utility value for the Tamils.

It was a time of Tamil bashing, and the sad feeling was that the Sinhala parties never looked on the Tamils as a people, a constituent community, and an integral part of the nation.

SJV (3) proposed a simple solution that would have freed the country to grow in ways only imagination could have filled at that time. Look at how Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan have prospered in the intervening years, in a freer society founded on fairness, and equality. Think of the horrendous cost paid in human lives, displacement, suffering, and destruction that could have been avoided.

B-C Pact

It was 1957 when SJV came to town to get a Federal Union of Ceylon proposal accepted. Banda (4) was receptive, but JR (5), the UNP leader, and a bunch of bikkus wrecked it, even the most innocuous watered down regional council version that was hurriedly drawn up under pressure to replace it. With that a great opportunity to resolve the Tamil problem peacefully was lost forever.

They taught in school that the first step was always the hardest, and so it was with winning Tamil political rights. That first step was never allowed to be taken. The Tamils waited in vain for a solution that never came. The Sinhalese did not yield to any political accommodation with the Tamils after that. But there was a recurring theme to it.

It was insane politics that destroyed everything. The two main parties, the SLFP and UNP, never joined hands to solve the most pressing national problem of their time. They destroyed each others' attempts at finding a solution. Today, the Tamil question remains just a curiosity, more than six decades after independence, because they could not sit at the same table to sort things out.


But how do we deal with the problem now? Is there a way forward?

It's not as if the click of a reset button will take us back in time to restore the amity and goodwill that existed at one time, or remove the politics that poisoned every attempt at deal-making.

The Tamils are in the doghouse today. They have no leverage. Their chances for doing anything has vaporized. There is deep apprehension about security, and their economic wellbeing. They worry about kith and kin who cannot be accounted for after the war. Life drags on, waiting for a better tomorrow. In the meantime, democracy was taking a big hit in Colombo.

Political landscape

The political landscape has been completely transformed after the war. Extending the term of the presidency, with increased powers, was nothing but a perversion of democracy, driven by the needs of absolute power, because the presidency was already invested with unimaginable powers.

Strangely, but not surprisingly, the public were not given time for discussion of the constitutional changes. It was done in a mighty hurry, and looked like a conspiracy when the supreme court obliged by declaring a referendum was not necessary. It all seemed so convenient, and arranged.

But all this would have come to naught if not for that uniquely Sri Lankan political game, the ritual of opposition MPs 'crossing the floor' in droves to prostrate themselves before the other side and vote with them, for nothing but personal advancement and enrichment, it appeared.

Parliamentary opposition and the public

The opposition in parliament has been reduced to cinders, as it were. And the people are going around with heads down as if forced into into submissive ways by an authoritarian regime.

With the public muted, the press subdued, the police distracted from law enforcement, the courts cooperating with the administration, and the opposition robbed of its ability to offer any kind of opposition in parliament, it's like being in the dark shadow of democracy. But as if that were not enough, the 'white van' continues to roam freely to ensure no one and nothing gets out of line.

Parliament is completely under government control, with the cross-overs giving it the added clout to tinker with the constitution at will. It still looks like democracy, but with everything going one way, it is deceptively unreal. Sri Lanka is still not Myanmar yet, where a 450,000 strong army ensures everything is done the way the generals decree, but they are getting there.

For starters, they are going with Marie Antoinette's “Let them eat cake!” The betting in Colombo is that it is soon going to be Chinese noodles instead of paan, the local bread, a staple next to rice. They have made a great beginning by taking the 'paan' out of paan by banning wheat flour in bread making.

Right time

But is there something else in all this that concern the Tamils? It looks that way.

Notwithstanding anything that has happened, India has a stake in the future of the Tamils that needs no elaboration. Sri Lanka has to work within certain confines, respecting India's concerns, because of the reverberations it will create across the Palk Straits in Tamil Nadu politics, with the impact carrying all way to the center in New Delhi.

So this might also be the right time for Sri Lanka to take a bold step forward, without being stalled by party politics, and bikkus, after the Mahasangha's wings were clipped trying to intervene in Gen. Sarath Fonseka's prosecution, and being forced to abandon it after a bomb threat by hired bald-heads.

There was a time when the Mahasangha's word was like a command, but they went along when the Tamils were being killed, journalists kidnapped and assassinated, and government excesses in other spheres went without condemnation. Inexplicably they did nothing.

They never proposed or supported a 'middle path' as a solution to the Tamil problem. Their silence was monumental. It was a laxity, a tragic departure from the common humanity that was part of their Buddhist makeup, which has now reduced them to ineffectiveness.

It seems naive to be seeking a solution in troubled waters, when Sri Lanka's democratic system is under siege. But the way it has evolved leaves no other choice. Devolution is going to happen anyway, and when there are those ready to work with it, won't it be better to be on the inside and watchful?

The 13th Amendment and devolution

Nothing is going to be done beyond the 13th amendment at this time to devolve power to the provincial councils (PCs) of Sr Lanka. But it makes sense to think the PCs will eventually get more power.

The war is over, but there are lingering questions about war crimes. Tamils would want to know what went wrong after three decades of jawing, warring, death and destruction. There are no answers yet, but it would help for Tamils to think about what happened in South Africa and Northern Ireland.

Aung San Suu Kyi, after her recent release said she's sure democracy will come to Mayanmar eventually, adding "I don't want to see the military falling. I want to see the military rising to dignified heights of professionalism and true patriotism." And the Dalai Lama's words: “To reduce hatred and other destructive emotions, you must develop their opposites – compassion and and kindness,” and “I don't blame the Chinese, and I don't blame myself.” All words reflective of ancient wisdom.

The fighting, dying, and destructive madness never ended. The fighting for the Tamils was not an end in itself, but a strategy to win concessions at the negotiating table. But tragically nothing materialized, not even a standby agreement. In the end the Tamils fell to the most horrendous illegal weapons of war, without any consideration for international humanitarian law and human rights.

Some, if not many, will argue that it is better now to swim with the tide and see where it takes them; at least, the first steps would have been taken. Why not play politics, exercising the power of votes in parliament; use the strength of the diaspora to advantage; take the konjam, konjam, approach and advance. It is politics, the Tamils will not be alone, there will be other PCs too clamoring for power.

India's role

India has everything to inspire the confidence of the Sinhalese - and Tamils. It has always been a sea of serenity, a cultural and religious oasis for them. It is the home of the Buddha, where he was born, and attained enlightenment; it is where Mahatma Gandhi lived his inspiring life; and uniquely, it is the land of the confluence of all the major religions on earth.

The Sinhalese and Tamils may have endured many irritations and setbacks in their relationship with them over the years, but it has survived the test of time. India tried hard to bring about a settlement with the Tamils some years ago, but without success.

India wants to ensure that devolution of power in Sri Lanka does not become a cause for turbulence within its union. While that fear has now receded, it has to bring the saga of the Tamils to an end, and countering China's attempts to undercut its influence in the region.

It remains the key to finding an acceptable solution to the Tamil question, never before as now. It will come with the barest of provisions, considering the status quo, but with the prospect of emulating the Indian model in time to come. No other rational solution seems possible at this time.

The waiting period is nearly over for Sri Lanka, to clear its decks and be properly entrenched, to roll out a solution with India's blessings, but with a “made in Sri Lanka” stamp.

Democratic recession?

But it will still be democratic recession in Sri Lanka, until the Sinhalese get the will, the impulse, to regain what they lost when the state intruded into their lives.

(1) Adapted from RS Laxman's cartoon of January 23, 1953, Chennai, India.

(2) DS Senanayake, first PM of Sri Lanka.

(3) SJV Chelvanayakam leader of the Federal Party.

(4) SWRD Bandaranayake, PM.

(5) JR Jeyawardane, UNP leader. Tell a Friend