The main aim of Government policy and of the “international community” in relation to Sri Lanka is said to be “political reconciliation” between the Tamils and Sinhalese through accountability and constitutional change.
An accountability push runs counter to a reconciliatory national consensus. The Good Friday Accords which brought peace to Northern Ireland did not have an accountability overhang. The legendary civil war in Spain in the 1930s continues to have as an insurmountable legal taboo, official investigation into the events and casualty figures of over eight decades ago.
Reconciliation requires putting the war behind us, while accountability means remaining mired in the war; revisiting, reopening, reliving and reviving it.
Reconciliation requires that the Sinhalese and Tamils recognize that they’ve been both victims and perpetrators; that no community has a monopoly of victim-hood and virtue, or guilt and sin. And yet, accountability for the last stage of the war does not get us to the whole truth, only a misleading portion of it -- burying the rest. It attempts to lay a guilt trip on the Sinhalese and the military while entrenching the myth of virtuous Tamil victim-hood. But these are hardly Holocaust survivors; this side supported the Fascists! The Tamil community and consciousness stayed largely loyal to a totalitarian-terrorist movement and for the most part regards its Hitlerian head as a martyred hero. Tamil political and civic leaders here and worldwide, still refrain from condemning Prabhakaran.
Reconciliation requires the armed forces to be on board as stakeholders of political and constitutional reform, while accountability runs contrary to this imperative, targeting the military and the most glorious chapter of its history, through special courts, foreign judges and foreign prosecutors.
If accountability were the sine qua non of reconciliation and peace, the Catholic Church wouldn’t engage in protracted deliberation (lasting decades, sometimes centuries) to acknowledge many dark chapters in its history. It does so because the impact on the institution, its social base and very long term future have to be taken carefully into account, with complexity, context and historical responsibility for the larger totality considered holistically as against one-dimensional accountability. If reconciliation were the highest value, the Catholic and Protestant churches would have been reunified decades ago—but Rome knows there cannot be unconditional reconciliation; reconciliation whatsoever the cost. How truer is this of a non-spiritual organization such as the State—including the Sri Lankan?
If there can be no reconciliation without accountability,why hasn’t the West itself practised the doctrine and urged it on its allies other than Sri Lanka?Is it because it regards Sri Lanka not as an ally and partner but as a satellite or vassal State governed by a leadership which would do as the West preaches rather than practices? Or is Sri Lanka being singled out because the Tamil community, with its Diaspora archipelago and Tamil Nadu rear-base, is being treated as an exception, having been adopted as a favourite and potential proxy by the West?
While broad-gauge accountability is the first obstacle to political reconciliation, a close second is political dogmatism. The TNA wishes to dump the unitary category and content, while the Sinhala nationalists wish to stick with the most tight-fisted interpretation of the term ‘unitary’. The North wishes to go beyond the 13th Amendment, eschewing it as a start-line, while the Southern opposition -- including the JVP -- harbours a long-standing wish to dilute or dismantle 13A.
Beneath this deadlock lies a radical contradiction in collective perceptions. The Tamils will not settle for real and complete national integration based on anti-discrimination plus devolution within a unitary State, because they do not see themselves as a national minority in Sri Lanka but rather as a nation and more: a contingent of a pan-Tamil global community, a veritable Tamil ummah, upwardly mobile in the West and backstopped by Tamil Nadu, a powerful State in neighbouring India, itself a sub-superpower. This ‘Greater Tamil Eelam’ project (the term ‘Tamil Eelam’ was actually used) was first articulated, as Prof. AJ Wilson pointed out, by Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam almost a century ago, in 1922.
This perception provides an exceptionalist-expansionist perspective and a sense of entitlement well beyond the real configuration of communities on the island. The Tamil thrust is for de-facto federalism and self-determination, which is far beyond what the Irish Catholic minority under radical, ex-urban guerilla political leadership, settled for in the Good Friday Accords, despite the contiguity with the southern, Catholic majority Irish Republic.
The Sinhalese are acutely aware of the larger demographic asymmetry and are apprehensive of the centrifugal/irredentist dangers of excessive decentralization. The Sinhala response to the Tamil claim of nationhood is that it be recognized and located where there is a preponderance of Tamils, namely Tamil Nadu, embedded within a shared religio-cultural matrix -- largely Hindu India -- rather than on the small island which is the only place on the planet that the Sinhalese can call home. So far, this island has avoided being the weakest link in the chain of global Tamil habitation -- where an independent Tamil Eelam incubates, evolves and emerges.
Though American federalism is not ethnic based, the US exports the federal model to far older, complex, ethnically driven societies. Pro-US local elites import and implant the model. Rejecting ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ in 1988, Fidel Castro said of Cuba:“we are not 90 miles from Odessa, but 90 miles from Florida… We are not in the middle of the Black Sea but here in the Caribbean Sea…” Federalization of the Sri Lankan State may have been feasible if this island had not been located 19 miles from Tamil Nadu (with its 80 million Tamils), a proximity underlying a long history of incursion, occupation and colonization. In Sri Lanka’s unalterable geographic setting, “shared sovereignty” in the form of federalism or excessive regional autonomy would deepen the island’s ethno-regional fault-lines, causing fissure and disintegration. Only a strong single centre of sovereignty, which may devolve power within an integrated State, can safeguard national unity and territorial integrity.
In a memorandum handed over to Prime Minister Modi in August 2015, Jayalalitha, the Chief Minister of a neighbouring State containing almost 80 million co-ethnics of the populace of this island’s North called for “The process of securing the right to self-determination, through democratic decentralization by the 13th Amendment...should be the springboard for Sri Lankan Tamils to eventually realize the aspiration of Tamil Eelam…”If, by Jayalalitha’s admission, the 13th Amendment bears a centrifugal or irredentist potential, how much more dangerous would be the removal of the unitary definition of the Sri Lankan Constitution, especially in the context of a downsized executive presidency? How much bouncier a “springboard”for Tamil Eelam would Chandrika’s “union of regions package” be?
A lasting political settlement is not one that would unilaterally “satisfy the aspirations of the Tamil minority”(as Mangala Samaraweera crassly put it in Geneva), but one that would achieve the broadest cross-party, North-South consensus. This means revisiting the 13th Amendment,re-examining the concurrent list for possible swaps, while remaining within 13A rather than “going beyond” or extending it into a “springboard” for secession.
The Sinhala nation is the overwhelmingly largest autochthonous formation on this island. It is also unique to the island. Therefore it must not be politically and strategically weakened. The viable, realistic formula for national reconciliation is “Sinhala nation plus Tamil and Muslim minorities plus anti-discrimination, equal republican citizenship and devolution within a unitary State equals Sri Lankan nation.” A new constitution must not offset and overturn the natural balance of power on the island through a bloc of combined minorities, re-demarcated regions and re-merged North-East, and a beachhead for the Tamil Diaspora. Constitutional change aimed at reconciliation must accommodate the existential concerns and guarantee the core security interests of the Sinhalese, with no dispossession from or deprivation of politico-strategic space.