The Gun and the Political Solution

by Izeth Hussain

(August 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The purpose of this article is to establish that in trying to get out of our ethnic imbroglio one factor, and only one, really counts: the gun. By "gun" I refer to power in the political realm, meaning the whole range of hard power and soft power that can be deployed by antagonists. The crucial question at the present juncture is this: can the "international community" which in the present context really means the US, the EU, their allied powers, and India, deploy power against Sri Lanka of a sort that is unacceptable to the Government because it is too harmful to the national interest? If so, the Government has no alternative to stop shilly-shallying and really moving towards a political solution. In the alternative, if that is the deployment of power against us will be bearable, not something really harmful to the national interest, the Government can continue with its dilatory tactics in pursuit of a strategy of what I wound call "a peaceful solution through a process of attrition". I have in mind a process in which dilatory tactics will hopefully lead to a peaceful solution with our Tamils coming to be satisfied with the blessings of economic development and a reasonable measure of fair and equal treatment. This seems to be the Government’s strategy at present. Either way the gun will be the final determinant: either we proceed towards a political solution now because we cannot withstand the guns of the international community, or our Tamils accept the diktat of the Government because they cannot withstand the guns of the Government.

Our relations with the West have been troubled, indeed seriously troubled, for some time.
I am not basing my argument on a crude notion of realpolitik in which only power counts and morality not at all. Human beings have a moral sense, and all human societies are organized around moral systems, however crude and rudimentary they may be. It even becomes arguable – for reasons that cannot be explored here - that the moral sense is part of the human equipment for survival. Anyway morality cannot be kept out of politics. The problem is that it sometimes counts to the extent of determining outcomes, and sometimes not at all. It determined the outcome in the Vietnam War which ended with the ignominious withdrawal of the US despite all its power because the moral sense of too much of humanity was outraged. But it didn’t count at all in the more recent case of the aggression against Iraq or the Russian savaging of Chechnya. My argument is that in the case of the Sri Lankan ethnic imbroglio what will determine outcomes at the present juncture – I repeat, at the present juncture – is the gun.

I will now make some observations on the inter-play between power and morality in connection with our ethnic imbroglio. I will first take the "international community" which in the present context effectively consists of two components, one of which is India and the other the US, the EU, and their allies. Their interests in the ethnic imbroglio are not identical, but there is a conjunction of interest between them: India wants a lasting political solution because in the alternative problems of a potentially serious order can arise between Delhi and Tamil Nadu, while the West wants it as part of the promotion of a new world order in which the West is willing to accord India a role as one of the leaders. In an earlier article I postulated a benign conspiracy between the US and India for which Ban Ki-Moon was used as a puppet, resulting in the infamous Darusman report, the purpose behind which was to pressurize the SL Government into moving towards a political solution.

India’s involvement in our ethnic imbroglio arises out of the Tamil Nadu factor, as I have stated above. Therefore the Indian involvement should not be seen as interference, and that is evidently the position of the international community. However, although the involvement may be legitimate, it could take forms that amount to interference and are morally unacceptable. Here we enter into a grey area in which there are no rules to guide us, and therefore we have to use our commonsense and our moral sense. On that basis, I would say of the 1987 Peace Accords that the arrangements for devolution were legitimate and morally acceptable, but not the arrangements relating to India’s strategic geopolitical concerns. However, at that time India’s international status was uncertain whereas now India is internationally accepted not just as a regional great power, but as a great power which will participate in the shaping of the New World Order. I expect India therefore to show a greater sense of responsibility than in 1987, a greater sense of its international obligations, and a greater unwillingness to forsake the moral high ground. However, we have to always bear in mind the factor of the "gun" in our relations with India. The unchangeable geographical reality is such that no great power will intervene militarily to save Sri Lanka against India. It means that India, in a worst case hypothesis, can with impunity impose a Cyprus-style "solution" to our ethnic problem, if it so wishes. I believe that it was this fact of our total vulnerability to India that former Pakistan President Zia ul-Haq – one of Sri Lanka’s greatest friends – had in mind when he used to warn us, "If you try to solve your ethnic problem against the wishes of India, you will sink into a bottomless pit."

Our relations with the West have been troubled, indeed seriously troubled, for some time. Admittedly we are vulnerable on human rights etc, but there is a blatant display of double standards with much Western indulgence shown towards countries with infinitely worse human rights records. It is important that we recognize these double standards not as a temporary aberration that might go away, but as systemic: one set of standards apply normally, but another set of standards come into operation when what is at issue is the establishment of a New World Order. In the latter context, the aggression against Iraq together with the horrors perpetrated there and the tortures arising out of Afghanistan, and so on, become acceptable. So do the HR violations in Saudi Arabia etc because those countries are seen as servitors of the West in the thrust to establish the New World Order. We can see all that as really the New Imperialism, but that perception and all the charges about double standards will be no more important to the West than the water that slides off the backside of a duck. We will continue to be damned over HR violations, and also our failure to come up with a political solution to the ethnic problem.

At the moment, the alleged war crimes are the main focus in our relationship with the West. I saw the Darusman report as part of a conspiracy to pressurize the SL Government into really moving towards a political solution. Unfortunately, there is a well-known tendency for social action to lead to unforeseen consequences, and accordingly the war crimes charge has assumed an importance quite beyond the parameters of that conspiracy. That was seen, for instance, when the two former Foreign Ministers Kouchener and Miliband peremptorily demanded that SLG take quick action to investigate the war crimes charges. The US too is becoming more and more insistent on the demand for quick action, possibly because a special feature of US imperialism has also come into play. For about two decades or more the US has been uneasily conscious that its power has been declining and that the American Empire is on the way out. In this situation the US could have a psychological compulsion to show that it is still very powerful by taking on not the powerful countries which could be dangerous to the US but the weak ones such as Iran and North Korea. This case has been advanced by Emmanuel Todd in a brilliant book, published some years ago, predicting the demise of the American Empire. Is the US, perhaps, therefore experiencing a compulsion to kick Sri Lanka around? Anyway, our relations with the West are thoroughly unsatisfactory, and the West enjoys a redoubtable concentration of power in every form.

I come now to the internal actors in our ethnic imbroglio. The LTTE put itself thoroughly in the wrong both by its "terrorism" and by its intransigent resistance to every move to bring about a political solution. But the SL Tamils are not identical with the LTTE, and the international community as a whole will almost certainly favour a political solution based on devolution. Unfortunately, we non-Tamil Sri Lankans have got our thinking badly queered by the spectacular military victory against the LTTE. The Government waged what was indisputably a just war, and won. Why should the conquered Tamils have a say on the shape of a political solution any more than the conquered Germans had in 1945? The question reveals a failure to understand the factor of the "gun" in the Sri Lankan post-war situation. The point is that our armed forces destroyed the guns of the LTTE but not the guns of Delhi. As long as the Tamil Nadu factor remains – that is, as long as there is a potential fall-out in Tamil Nadu from what happens to the Tamils here – the factor of the guns of Delhi have to be reckoned with.

I believe that it is a mistake to give much importance to the supposedly diabolical machinations of the rump diaspora LTTE, which supposedly takes in the gullible West in a big way. Those Westerners are not where they are, right at the top of the world, because they are led by fools who readily swallow LTTE propaganda. In formulating their policies on our ethnic imbroglio they will give far more weightage to the sophisticated assessments made by their Embassies in Colombo than to the LTTE’s propaganda. We must treat the rump LTTE as marginal, and assess the prospects of our Tamils in the wider perspectives of the Tamil Nadu factor and the attempt to establish a New World Order/New Imperialism. We must also take into account the revolutionary changes that are going on around the globe: I have specifically in mind here what looks like a new importance that is being given to ethnic minorities. It seems to me that because of such factors the SL Tamils don’t belong to the category of ethnic minorities that can be kicked around with impunity. They have the gun behind them, and also they are on the high moral ground as the international community clearly sees them as victims, as shown by the war crimes allegations.

The other internal actor, the SL Government, won the war splendidly and in the more than two years that have elapsed since then seems grimly determined to lose the peace. The underlying problem is that the Sinhalese power elite have an allergy to sharing power with the Tamils. In fact the members of that elite have an allergy to sharing power even with their fellow Sinhalese, as shown clearly by the failure to implement fully the 13th Amendment in the predominantly Sinhalese Provinces. The familiar argument against power-sharing through devolution is that it will lead inevitably to separation. A Sri Lankan academic who teaches abroad has recently cited as examples the cases of South Sudan and Kosovo. But surely there are all the other cases in which devolution has helped contain and solve ethnic problems. I believe that the decisive counter-argument is that the record shows that separation takes place only under two conditions: either a government comes to agree to separation because in the first place there was no sound case for unity, or it has not been able to deploy sufficient force to prevent separation. In Sudan the Government was unable to quell the rebellion even after many decades, while in Kosovo the Serbs were unable to withstand the deployment of external force.. In Sri Lanka the deployment of force successfully quelled the rebellion, so that Sri Lanka is about the last country in which it can be held that devolution will inevitably lead to separation. Other fanciful arguments are also advanced against devolution, and we can expect such arguments to keep on proliferating because of the underlying allergy to power-sharing.

There is of course another way of dealing with ethnic problems, what might be described as a liberal democratic way in which the focus is not on power-sharing and devolution but on the direct unmediated relationship between the individual and the State. I have in mind Western special legislation to deal with ethnic complaints, and the setting up of institutions such as Race Relations Boards.

Just over a decade ago the mooted Equal Opportunities Bill had to be abandoned because it roused fury among the Sinhalese power-elite, showing that it was allergic also to the liberal democratic way of dealing with ethnic problems. I am afraid that the international community will not see the Sri Lankan state as occupying the moral high ground on our ethnic imbroglio. What about the "gun", the factor of power? Sri Lanka’s power stops at its maritime boundary. There is only one country that it has the power to harm and wreck: itself.

I have provided above data on how the factors of power and morality apply to the main actors in our ethnic imbroglio. I believe that it will be generally agreed that arguments and appeals made on moral grounds will not enable us to get out of the imbroglio. Only the appeal to the gun – meaning the whole range of hard and soft power - will enable that. This is not because only realpolitik counts in international relations. It is rather because the Sri Lankan Government has given the impression that for it only the gun counts in solving the ethnic problem. It has won the war, and has given the impression that it is not all in earnest about offering a political solution because there is really no need to concede to the Tamils more than what has already been conceded. Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse is reported as having stated the following in an interview with the Indian television channel Headlines Today: "The existing Constitution is more than enough for us to live together. …. So, devolution-wise, I think we have done enough. I don’t think there is a necessity to go beyond that." (Lakbima News, August 21).

In this situation it seems to me of crucial importance for the Government to undertake a responsible assessment of one question: will India and the West use their power to the detriment of our national interest to an extent that will not be acceptable to the Government and people of Sri Lanka? If the answer is in the negative, the Government can continue with its dilatory tactics in the expectation that a political solution will be reached through a process of attrition, with the Tamils coming to be satisfied with rising living standards and a reasonable measure of fair and equal treatment. I must add that dilatory tactics will be much admired in Sri Lanka – and perhaps nowhere else – as a manifestation of brilliant Machiavellian diplomatic skills.

But I believe that that optimistic assessment will be proved to be wrong, not just wrong but catastrophically wrong. I believe that India will do everything, everything humanly possible, to bring about a political solution because its vital and primordial interests are involved. I have argued the case before and I will not go into details here. The point is that an unsolved ethnic problem in Sri Lanka can cause serious problems between Delhi and Tamil Nadu, which – in a worst case hypothesis – can even threaten the unity of India. In recent weeks a new factor has entered the situation, which is that Jayalalitha and the AIADMK, and indeed Tamil Nadu as a whole, are showing more militancy over our ethnic imbroglio than ever before. I am wondering whether this is a manifestation of a global revolutionary process in which ethic groups are showing a greater and greater assertiveness. Anyway, prudence requires that we now proceed to implement 13A. Alternatively, we could enter a disaster course in which breakfast with Nirupama Rao will not help.

(The writer can be reached at )

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