Dayan Jayatilleka has made some pertinent points regarding conflict resolution and the seemingly vexed issue of Tamil grievances/aspirations and relief sought in an article titled ‘Constitution-making and the North-South political cycle’.
I have an issue withe the term ‘North-South’ so let me first get it out of the way. It is a ‘break’ that has been used frequently enough to give it legitimate political currency. Erroneous, however. It has come to the point of ‘goes without saying’ which automatically assumes ‘came without saying’ and therefore pushed deliberately. What does ‘North’ taken for and what is ‘South’? They have acquired proxy status for Tamil and Sinhala respectively and imply, following the geographical reference, a land that is divided by a line moving from West to East where the ‘North’ is of (and a legitimate claim of) Tamils and the South of the Sinhalese. A ’50-50’ that is a gross distortion of historical and demographic realities. Language, needless to say, is not innocent.
With that out of the way, let’s consider the implications of Dayan’s more serious and more legitimate contentions.
“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.”
The above claim is followed by an expression of disappointment regarding the lack of interest on the part of Tamil politicians to forge a bloc with ‘Southern’ progressives.
Theoretically, a Tamil chauvinist or even nationalist retort could take the following form: ‘Sinhala politics has remained self-referential in character. Sinhala nationalism is psychologically unitary-fixated even when it talks of devolution.” It follows that a Tamil version of Dayan’s lament regarding ‘Progressives’ is also possible, although that would still leave us without an answer to the question ‘What is progressive?’
Even if we were to put aside the strong objections based on history, geography, demography and doability to the Tamil separatist project and all devolution proposals that do not take issue with current political boundaries for their arbitrariness, their implicit subversion of separatist claims, the very existence of positions as detailed above gives credence to Dayan’s claims about things intractable and therefore the necessity of ‘management’.
This is why I am in agreement with the first part of Dayan’s vision expressed as follows:
‘Sri Lanka could (should?) 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.’ The reservations about the second part (regarding devolution) are principally on the issue of boundaries and economic logic of the same. As mentioned above and as stated by President Maithripala Sirisena the current boundaries upon which the separatist map has been crafted, with quite some stretching on the Western coast were arbitrarily drawn by the British. Secondly, given the reality that close to half the Tamil population live outside the so-called ‘Traditional Homelands’, devolution cannot assume to resolve any ‘Tamil issue’ in and of itself.
Power-devolution is theoretically a democratizing proposition, but in Sri Lanka’s context, given the intractabilities mentioned above, it is a non-starter or, as the 13th Amendment proved, guaranteed to trigger bloodbaths and generate further complications, primarily because the foundational logic is flawed and therefore the edifice is necessarily weak. A different kind of devolution might make sense, for example one where the entire provincial boundaries are re-drawn in a way that makes sense in terms of geographical realities and takes into account current resource anomalies among the existing provinces, but again that’s not even an element that anyone is willing to entertain, leave alone discuss.
This brings us back to ‘integration on the basis of equal citizenship and non-discrimination’. That is a tough cat-belling, so to speak, but right now it’s the only logical starting point. It would be about guarantees. It would have to take into account the issue of religion and the ‘special place for Buddhism’. Not easy since histories count, historicities count and these things have eminent toy-value for extremists and real, on-the-ground relevance. For example, would the removal of the tokenist privileging of Buddhism in the Constitution accompany an erasure of customary laws that are relevant to Islam and those relevant to Tamils who can cite the Thesawalami Laws? Would we discuss the pruning of customary ‘Buddhist holidays’ from four to three (the sathara poya to pun-poya) and the privileging of Christian holidays (Sundays — 52 of them)?
It is not easy, but it is a discussion that has to take place simply because resolution is for the most part about managing and balancing insecurities, whether or not they are legitimate. That’s where the audit must begin and not with rhetoric. And that’s exactly what has not happened. This is why solutions (like the 13th) fail(ed). The true dimensions, in other words, of all the relevant issues have been ignored. There are no mechanisms proposed to ascertain these. Small wonder that the entire reconciliation exercise is floundering. In the absence or rather the improbability of magnanimity by all (and not some) the players in the story.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.