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The Day the Worm Turned
Northeastern Monthly - December 2005
Those who purveyed the so-called ‘peace process’ in Sri Lanka are reeling from the earth shaking double blow dealt by the 17 November presidential election.
First, the election revealed Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy in all its nakedness and enthroned it as the ruling doctrine, personified by the new Sinhala President Mahinda Rajapakse. In one fell swoop, the Sinhala-Buddhist majority unceremoniously dumped ‘inclusiveness,’ ‘pluralism,’ ‘devolution’ and the rest of neo-liberal shibboleth.
Rajapakse underlined this in his inaugural address on the 19th. “During the presidential election,” he confirmed, “the overwhelming majority of the people said that the country should not be divided.” All familiar with Sinhala-chauvinist politics know the meaning of “should not be divided.” It means the unitary state must be preserved; that there shall be no political power sharing because a Tamil nation does not exist on the island; and that at best there can be only territorial decentralisation of administrative authority to provinces and/or districts.
So Rajapakse’s position on the Tamil National Question is a throwback to the 1956 Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam (BC) Pact, which his father – a founder member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – had a hand in crafting.
The second blow is that Tamils walked away from the election. They refused to carry on the charade of anointing a Sinhala politician as the leader of the whole country.
This has profound implications. In his 1977 election manifesto, the United National Party’s (UNP) first executive president, J. R. Jayewardene, claimed to have discovered Tamils have “legitimate grievances,” which, he glibly promised would be resolved through an All Party Conference; and Tamils voted in the Sinhala president. In 1988, UNP candidate R. Premadasa flamboyantly offered: “Eelam nahe; Ellaam ouw,” (“No to Eelam; yes to everything else”); and Tamils voted in the Sinhala president. In 1993, the next UNP president, D. B. Wijetunga, appointed after Premadasa’s assassination famously compared Sinhala and Tamil peoples respectively to a tree and the vine that creeps on it; mercifully he didn’t seek election. In 1994, SLFP’s Chandrika Kumaratunga emphatically asserted: “Peace at any cost;” and once more Tamils voted in the Sinhala president.
Consequently, every Sinhala president (except Wijetunga) was able to masquerade as a representative of ‘all communities’ – including Tamils. This allowed each to disparage the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a so-called ‘terrorist’ fringe. Because Tamils voted for them, all presidents sanctimoniously claimed to ‘know’ that Tamils want to be ‘liberated’ from the ‘clutches’ of LTTE.
After harvesting Tamils’ votes, each Sinhala president let loose unbridled state terrorism and launched genocidal wars to ‘liberate’ Tamils by killing and maiming them. Every Sinhala president’s hands dripped with Tamil blood. Indeed Kumaratunga presided over Tamil mass graves – a gruesome first in Tamil history.
And Tamils learnt a valuable lesson. Their votes may decide which Sinhala politician is elected president, but absolutely nothing more. So, Tamils made the obvious deduction: there is no ‘parliamentary path’ to secure Tamil national rights.
And most Tamils in the Tamil-majority North East Province (NEP) took the lesson to heart. On the 17th they turned away from the Sinhala presidential candidates for the first time. Tamils refused to vote.
They made Rajapakse sound pathetically hollow, when he alleged he is, “the president of all communities of my country” in his inaugural address. Hereafter Rajapakse is a SINHALA president who will represent Sinhala interests when addressing Tamils and their leader, Veluppillai Prabakaran.
This has sent shock waves of tsunamic proportions irreversibly altering the political landscape.
“Once the (presidential) elections are held we have to sit down with the parties and lay out what we can do,” the Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store had said on 28 October. “Then it will be up to the parties to invite us in to continue to play that role (of facilitator). We are ready to contribute but,” he emphasised, “it really has to be owned by the parties.”
What precisely are the parties apparently unwilling to own? Are the LTTE and the Sinhala government having difficulty in grasping the superior Norwegian logic? Is he lamenting the parties are not grateful to the Nordic state for its self-proclaimed altruistic search for ‘peace’ at its own cost in a distant, small South Asian island? Does he mean the LTTE ought to believe that the Norwegian government’s role is unconnected to the seismic tests for offshore oil reserves carried out by Norwegian experts in south Sri Lanka? Or that Japan is a disinterested do-gooder oblivious to Ilmenite deposits on the northeast coast?
From the Tamil perspective, the political power struggle (so-called ‘peace process’) has nothing to do with justice and, therefore, wholly irrelevant to sustainable peace.It was a three-cornered contest. The Sinhala and Norwegian governments (and their international backers) occupy one corner; the Indian government in the next; and the LTTE-led Tamil National Movement is in the third corner. The toothless Colombo-based Tamil politicians shuttled between the three.
In this power struggle the primary objective of the Sinhala government – assisted by Norway – is to re-establish the monopoly of armed power of the Sinhala state. For this, successive Sinhala governments had relied on brute military force to crush LTTE’s armed power, which had shattered that monopoly in the mid-1970s.
The UNP presidents cut loose a series of military campaigns from July 1979 through the 1980s up to the early 1990s; the SLFP president similarly unleashed the armed forces between 1995 and 2002. Both parties exploited the fig leaf of ‘talks’ to justify the military aggression supposedly to ‘soften up’ the LTTE but in fact directed primarily against the Tamil people. They all ended in catastrophic defeats for the Sinhala state.
The Norwegian government, however, attempted a nuanced anti-Tamil political agenda in the garb of ‘talks;’ and sought the assistance of Sinhala politicians to reach a key strategic objective – to undermine the widespread Tamil support for the LTTE.
For this scenario to unfold, Norwegians wanted the Sinhala politicians to take the first dishonest step – to propose what at least superficially seemed a federal alternative. This is the essence of the 2002 Oslo Declaration, which is crafted to nurture the mirage of a ‘parliamentary path’ for Tamils to secure their national rights. Then, on behalf of the Sinhala and Norwegian governments, the pliant Colombo-based Tamil politicians would cheerfully ‘sell’ the disinformation to Tamils who, they hoped, could be turned away from the LTTE.
An isolated and cornered LTTE could then be coerced to decommission weapons. And that would re-establish the Sinhala state’s monopoly of armed power.
But unimaginative Sinhala politicians, blinded by chauvinism, could not come up with credible bait. Kumaratunga’s 2000 draft constitution conjured up Sri Lanka as a ‘union of regions.’ But the federalist jargon was just that – jargon. There was no change in the unitary state since the draft concentrated political power in the centre while granting regions merely delegated authority. In short, the draft constitution was a crude deception. Ranil Wickremesinghe fared no better. Despite lip service to the Oslo Declaration he could not cobble together anything remotely resembling a federal alternative.
If flatfooted Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe were incapable of infusing life into the Norwegians’ Machiavellian strategy, after Rajapakse took power it is crumbling before their eyes.
Rajapakse has made a compact with the extremist Sinhala-Buddhist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). He is bowing and scraping before the fundamentalist Sinhala-Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). And, predictably, he chose as his prime minister the unabashed Tamil baiter Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, who, AFP reported on 21 November, is “a hardline nationalist who once urged the majority Sinhalese community to have more babies and produce more fighters against Tamil Tiger rebels.”
For the foreseeable future, Rajapakse is unlikely to ride the Oslo Declaration to conjure up a federal alternative. For the moment that Declaration is dead; so is Norway’s anti-Tamil agenda.Apologists for Sinhala chauvinism are responding by furiously trying to re-tool the new president on two fronts.
On the one hand, they are disgorging elaborate disinformation to discredit Tamils for exercising there democratic right to withhold their votes.
A Sinhala ‘peace’ activist began blaming Tamils on the 11th, well before the election. “If the Tamil people” he lamented, “refuse to vote in numbers, this would strengthen the extremist forces on both sides of the divide,” Are Tamils responsible for the ascendance of Sinhala chauvinism?
An Indian scribe was blunt. “The ‘boycott’ may well be a subtle ploy” he alleged, “to make Rajapakse win, because the LTTE believes that it will be able to justify its separatist agenda and even an armed struggle to the international community, if there is a hard line ‘Sinhala chauvinistic’ government in Colombo.”
To reinforce the disinformation, the apologists are reinventing Rajapakse as a ‘hawk’ and Wickremasinghe as a ‘dove.’ That Tamils have lost an opportunity to sue for peace with the ‘dove’ by refusing to vote.
And what is Wickremasinghe’s track record? He was in the UNP government that burnt down the Jaffna Library in 1981 and presided over the 1983 Tamil holocaust. He backed the successive military campaigns under UNP presidents Jayewardene and Premadasa.
After signing the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, under cover of ‘talks’ Wickremesinghe treacherously set Karuna against the LTTE to weaken the Tamil National Movement. UNP stalwarts Naveen Dissanayake and Milinda Moragoda gladly confirmed this fact. Were the Norwegians unaware of Wickremesinghe’s shenanigans? Is Wickremesinghe a ‘dove’?
The paternalistic derision of Tamils exercising their fundamental right to freely make their political choices comes from ardent erstwhile proponents of democracy! Democracy is indeed raising its ugly head!!
But Tamils know which road to take. P. Selvan, a 19-year-old in Kilinochchi succinctly explained Tamils’ position to Arthur Rhodes. “These elections are not for the Tamils. They do not care about us in the south. No matter what happens we will not get what we need to prosper and be free...both [candidates] will probably bring war. One might bring it sooner, but it will come.”
In short Tamils have shredded the ‘peace credentials’ Sinhala politicians.
On the other hand, the apologists are begging Rajapakse to limit the damage. On the 19th, a South Indian newspaper’s editorial desperately advised him “to reach out to the Tamil and Muslim minorities, and to Mr. Wickremesinghe’s voters, and assure them that he intends to work towards a just solution that will meet their aspirations within a united Sri Lanka.” Two days later, an Indian journalist helped Rajapakse ‘interpret his mandate,’ assuring he “is now in a setting appropriate for his transformation into a statesman” through “a seamless recalibration that balances his vision for Sri Lanka and the agenda of his political allies.”
The following day, Rajapakse displayed his Sinhala statesmanship; he appointed Wickremanayake prime minister!!!
Rajapakse categorically declared, “War is not my method” and championed an “honourable” settlement to the Tamil National Question. The rhetoric is of course interesting; what exactly will be his method remains to be seen.
The reality on the ground is that a negotiated solution will confer legal recognition upon the existing Tamil state structures and institutions (including the armed forces) in the NEP built by the LTTE-led Tamil National Movement. It follows that a political settlement within a united Sri Lanka will have to be based on a confederal framework that accommodates the Sinhala and Tamil armed forces.
That outcome will be an abject defeat for Sinhala nationalism. No current or future Sinhala leader would even remotely consider shouldering the responsibility for such national humiliation. Neither does Norway wish to see the political power struggle unfold in a way that confers de jure recognition upon the fledgling Tamil state.
The Sinhala pre-requisite to a negotiated settlement therefore is either to destroy the Tamil political infrastructure and military assets or to assimilate them into the Sinhala state. But Tamil’s armed strength resolutely stands in the way of both.
If war is not his method, the only option open to Rajapakse is to convince the LTTE to voluntarily decommission weapons and abandon the Tamil state structures and institutions. If he has that in mind, he is hopelessly out of touch with the ideological strength, political maturity and the psychological will to succeed of the LTTE-led Tamil National Movement.