The current UNP has none of these factors going for it and is a throwback to the three one-term wonders: 1952-1956, 1965-1970 and 2001-2004. Such UNP administrations usually have a profile which triggers two types of backlash—nationalist and populist—which then converge with devastating political results for the incumbent.
By sticking to its neo-liberal guns, it is going against the global ideological tide of nationalist populism, just as it did in 1955-’56. With the 2015 Geneva accountability/transitional justice resolution and the TNA’s push for a new quasi-federal Constitution, today’s UNP has an added drawback.
A look back at the island’s political history shows that the excessive political push from Tamil nationalism and the latter’s over-identification with the comprador capitalist UNP as well as imperialist interventionism and hegemony brings in its wake a Sinhala backlash. It has always been the nature of that power bloc-- the profile of the comprador bourgeois UNP plus the minorities—that has led to a Sinhala backlash.
In 1951-52, and during the Hartal of 1953, the newly-formed SLFP defined itself as social democratic, and had no ethnic or majoritarian tendency. However, the combination of the Kotelawala UNP and the stridency of the Chelvanayakam FP shunted the anti-UNP struggle onto the majoritarian rails. The same goes for 2001-2004. Minoritarianism breeds majoritarianism.
How to break the cycle? What the North has never had is a two-party system, as in the South, with a centre-right formation allied to the UNP and a centre-left to the SLFP/JO/SLPP. The Tamil polity has produced the TNA which is allied to the UNP and dissidents within and outside the TNA allied to the Diaspora, the UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s office, and Tamil Nadu!
The Tamil Left was almost wiped out by the Tamil Right, the LTTE. The Tamil Left never united despite all my entreaties dating from 1984. The ones who weren’t wiped out, converted to Tamil ultra-nationalism. Not only was the gravitational pull of Tamil nationalism too great for the Tamil Left to resist, the very character of that Tamil nationalism was quite different from say, Irish Catholic nationalism. It was maximalist, fanatical and politically fundamentalist. It was akin to fascism or more charitably, the right-wing of Zionism.
Prof. Urmila Phadnis, the doyenne of Delhi’s Lankanologists put her finger on the politically perverse peculiarity and differentiated the DNA of Tamil nationalism from other sub-nationalisms in South Asia. Having published an article called “Tamil Bangla in Ceylon” way back in 1972 (March 6th to be precise), by the time she wrote her last book in 1990 she had identified the phenomenon as “an autonomist-secessionist continuum”. A feature of Tamil political culture was exposed when people more or less supported the LTTE through all its depredations and incredibly, even during the LTTE’s war against the Indo-Lanka accord and IPKF, and the subsequent killing of Rajiv Gandhi.
Even today, there is no Tamil progressive or moderate tendency in or outside Sri Lanka that is willing to denounce the LTTE, Prabhakaran and Tamil Eelam openly. Tamil politics has remained self-referential and pan-Tamil in character. Tamil nationalism is psychologically separatist even when it isn’t politically separatist.
It is as if there is no acceptance that we have to build a home on one small island and to do so, the majority has to consent to the changes proposed.
From 1988 onwards Tamil politicians Right, Left or Centre are not really interested in forging a sustainable bloc of Southern and northern progressives for a reformed Sri Lankan state and society (perhaps with the exception of Douglas Devananda).
What makes the problem intractable is that the Tamil nationalists are incapable of accepting they represent a minority on the island and are entitled to all the rights guaranteed by the UN to national minorities—but are not a nation with a right to self-determination. Since the problem remains intractable, it cannot be resolved, only managed.
In 1988, the Southern Left of which I was an active member had lost its finest personalities to JVP murder squads because of their fidelity to anti-racism, devolution and peace. But the Tamil parties including those on the Left never moderated their demands so as to persuade the Sinhala masses or allow us to do so. By contrast the Sinn Fein/IRA dropped most of its historic demands and accepted devolution within a formally unitary British state, precisely because it did not wish to rock the boat for its partner Tony Blair and the Labour Party. Thus the Good Friday accords were endorsed in a set of referenda.
Speaking on the vote of the Ministry of External Affairs, TNA parliamentarian M.A.Sumanthiran made a pitch for a new Constitution, indicating that this was the raison d’etre of the January 8, 2015 electoral regime change and that promises had been made. A TNA delegation followed this up by meeting President Sirisena and calling for a brand new Constitution instead of piecemeal reform of the existing one. Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan, speaking in parliament called honourably for a referendum.
All this convinces me that once again, Tamil nationalism is going to sink its Southern political partners.
It was Israel’s smartest and most liberal Foreign Minister Abba Eban who said that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Ditto this island’s Tamil politicians. The Tamil nationalists are missing the opportunity to protect and preserve the broadest alliance sympathetic to ethnic reform, by burdening it with the kind of reform that require a referendum which the Government is almost certain to lose. This is not January or August 2015.
I continue to regard the 13th Amendment as the unsurpassable basis for a realistic settlement. What can be negotiated is the Concurrent List. This does not mean abolishing it by transferring all powers to the Provincial Councils. It means a swap, with some powers remaining shared ones and therefore on a slimmed down Concurrent list. Pan-Tamilism is also why the Sinhalese must understand that the abolition of the 13th Amendment and the striving for zero-devolution, is a non-option.
We must return to the view laid out in considerable detail by the democratic Left of Sri Lanka in July 1986, at the Political Parties Conference. Vijaya, Colvin, Pieter, Vasu, et al drew up a progressive reformist blueprint which was officially accepted by President Jayewardene (and printed as a book by the Government publishing house). It did not call for the abolition of the executive presidency. It was for provincial devolution albeit without merger.
It must be recalled that neither JR nor Vijaya Kumaratunga, who were willing to fight for devolution, stood for a North and East merger. Marx, Engels and Lenin were implacably against federalism, but Engels made a single exception after Marx’s death, on the question of Germany, while adding an important proviso. Reluctantly agreeing to federalism as an option for German unification, he insisted that Prussia be divided in two, because a Prussia that remained unified would be too large and therefore dominant within a unified Germany. The same logic holds for Sri Lanka’s North and East.
Federalism/quasi-federalism is untenable and the unitary framework is a strategic imperative.Feasible and sustainable devolution is one that recognizes realistic limits. The Tamil Question remains essentially as Lord Soulbury perceived it, not only in the 1940s but also in his reply to C. Sunderalingam in 1964. So far, there hasn’t been any suggestion of building a Sri Lankan nation on the basis of integration through equality and centripetal devolution. Sri Lanka could draw up a New Social Contract in which national minorities are integrated on the basis of equal citizenship and non-discrimination while assured of a reasonable sufficiency of autonomy through the devolution of power within a Unitary State.