Thursday, August 04, 2011

Sri Lanka: Sinhalese refuse to accept historical errors and crimes that made war unavoidable

By Tisaranee Gunasekara | Transcurrents

“A historic victory can wreak as much havoc as a historic defeat”. Tony Judt (Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten 20th Century)

The road to Black July (and the long Eelam War it rendered unstoppable) was paved with avoidable errors and needless crimes. Amongst this litany, arguably one of the most poignant is the fate of the inaugural political initiative of the newly formed Tamil United Front’s (TUF).

The 6-point proposal presented to the United Front government by the TUF in 1972 was a model of moderation. Yet, neither Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike nor her left (LSSP and CP) partners felt that the TUF’s proposal merited even a formal rejection. The TUF proposal was rudely and insultingly consigned to the dust-heap of historical might-have-beens’.

In brief, the TUF proposal asked for the parity of Sinhala and Tamil languages and a constitutional guarantee of the citizenship right of all Tamil speaking people (‘The state shall have no power to deprive a citizen of his citizenship’). It argued for a secular state with equal protection for all religions and requested that the state should guarantee the equality and the ‘valid fundamental rights’ of all persons and ethno-cultural groups. It advocated a constitutional provision abolishing caste and untouchability and asked for administrative decentralisation (positing that ‘peoples’ power’ rather than ‘state power’ is the necessary corollary of a ‘participatory democracy’).

There was nothing separatist in these demands, nothing racist, nothing that any reasonably intelligent Sinhala nationalist could have objected to, rationally. These proposals were profoundly democratic. Every one of them could have been implemented within a unitary Sri Lanka. The newly formed TUF was careful not to mention such emotionally-charged and divisive terms as power-sharing or federalism. Moreover the UF government had the requisite two-thirds majority to change the constitution, if necessary.

Objectively, rationally, there were no bars to the acceptance and the implementation of the TUF’s unbelievably moderate proposal. And yet it was condemned to die an unnatural death through malign-neglect.

Four years and many peaceful protests later the TUF changed its name to the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and adopted the Vadukkodai Resolution, advocating a separate state. Had the UF government possessed the intelligence and the foresight to deal with a moderate TUF and its unobjectionable demands, the subsequent tragedies may well have been averted. But a combination of Sinhala supremacism and opportunism, augmented by a hubristic blindness and a stupefying arrogance, prevented the UF government from opting for the path of peaceful democratic resolution, bringing the country several leaps closer to a devastating war.

Sri Lanka had one more opportunity to avoid the looming catastrophe. In its classic 1977 election manifesto, JR Jayewardene’s UNP acknowledged the existence of a Tamil problem and promised to resolve it: “The United National Party accepts the position that there are numerous problems confronting the Tamil-speaking people. The lack of a solution to their problems has made the Tamil-speaking people support even a movement for the creation of a separate state.

In the interests of national integration and unity so necessary for the economic development of the whole country, the Party feels such problems should be solved without loss of time. The Party when it comes to power will take all possible steps to remedy their grievances in such fields as education, colonisation, use of Tamil language and employment in the public and semi-public corporations. We will summon as All-Party Conference as stated earlier and implant its decisions”

That promise too was broken, to the detriment of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans.

The Jayewardene administration committed several historically unforgivable errors. One was to proscribe the JVP, unfairly, on the false charge of instigating the Black July. But the Black July itself resulted from an earlier seminal mistake: the President’s failure to honour the promise he made in the 1977 Election Manifesto to implement a political solution to the Tamil issue. The landslide victory scored by the TULF (with the Vadukoddai Resolution as its main electoral platform) in 1977 indicated the extent of Tamil discontent and the urgent need to alleviate it. But in this essential matter, the Jayewardene administration proved to be as disastrously obdurate as its unlamented predecessor.

If in the aftermath of his massive electoral victory Mr. Jayewardene had summoned an APC and commenced a dialogue with the TULF, a reasonable resolution could have been found (perhaps something akin to the 13th Amendment). The armed groups, though in existence, were still too weak to veto or wreck such a solution which could have been used to isolate and debilitate them still further. A majority of Tamils, still law-abiding, still desirous of a dignified normalcy, would have accepted a Jayewardene-Amirthalingam Pact.

Moreover, in 1977, the UNP had a mandate from the South to offer a political solution to the North. The SLFP was reeling from its unprecedented defeat and the JVP was in the most moderate phase of its history. Thus a political solution could have been offered without significant Southern opposition.

But that possible J-A Pact never happened. That critical absence conferred immense credibility on the argument for an armed struggle for Tamil liberation. The ‘armed struggle for separation’ argument gained further vigour with the violent DDC polls and the burning of the Jaffna Library and became indisputable with the blood-letting of Black July.

The Jayewardene administration did not inaugurate the Black July (some government ministers played a leading role in it, while many UNPres participated as foot-soldiers; but then so did many SLFPers, JVPers, and people without party affiliations). The regime may not have minded a mini-riot but the sheer ferocity of the conflagration took the power-wielders by surprise. Characteristically the President tried to benefit from the pogrom, by depicting the carnage as a ‘collective human sacrifice’ to propitiate Sinhala-anger. Perhaps he even thought (hoped) that the violence would terrify the Tamils into familiar submission.

The feeling of Tamils as the ‘alien/inimical Other’ was only one factor which enabled Black July; the other was the belief that Tamils were incapable of retaliating. The Tamil armed groups were not seen as a real threat (their role was that of a convenient scapegoat). The hysterical Sinhala-reaction to the apocryphal story about a Tiger attack on Colombo (the mobs ran, helter-skelter, in the opposite direction, many of them shouting ‘koti enawo’ – Tigers are coming) stemmed from the shock generated in the collective Sinhala psyche by the sudden, unexpected loss of this belief in freedom from reprisal. (That loss of impunity was one of the main reasons for the absence of any retaliatory violence, post-July 1983, despite innumerable Tiger depredations, beginning with the Anuradhapura massacre).

The long Eelam War followed. The Tigers, in the pursuit of their goal, did not shy away from barbaric deeds. Their anti-civilisational practices did much to discredit them internationally and, to an extent, within the Tamil community. The LTTE’s criminality was one of the underlying causes of its ultimate ruin.

The Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment presented one final opportunity for the two communities to come together. The Jayewardene administration had become somewhat chastened and India could have become an honest broker, protecting Tamil interests in an undivided Sri Lanka. That last chance was destroyed by the LTTE, with generous help from Southern extremists. It is instructive that the anti-Accord struggle was joined by the Tigers, and their seeming Sinhala antithesis, the JVP with the total endorsement of the SLFP.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, together with other hardliners within the SLFP, played a key politico-propaganda role enabling and justifying the JVP’s ‘liberation struggle’ against India (in reality a campaign of uninterrupted coercion and carnage focused on the South), until the JVP turned on its erstwhile sponsor. Almost two decades later Mr. Rajapaksa was to provide the political leadership to the war effort which defeated the LTTE and ended the Eelam War. In this the LTTE was once again his inadvertent ally; by conscripting children, murdering unarmed political opponents and exploiting suicide bombers, the Tigers turned themselves into untouchables, regionally and internationally.

Barbarism may have been the LTTE’s forte but it is not the LTTE’s exclusive preserve. Legitimate states too can succumb to barbarism, if they blind, deafen and desensitise themselves with a belief in their own moral-ethical and political infallibility. Almost 20 years after the Black July, the Sinhala South is back in the ‘we never did any wrong, we can never do any wrong’ mindset which enabled that old horror.

The Sinhalese refuse to accept the historical errors and crimes which made the war unavoidable; they also hide from the brutal reality of the war by parroting the zero-civilian casualty lie. (Incidentally, but pertinently, the gruesome scenes of prisoner abuse and execution depicted in the Channel 4 Documentary allegedly happened not during the war, but in the immediate aftermath of victory.

This timing makes even the argument of necessity inadmissible; what was done – if it was done – was motivated not by the exigencies of war but by a deadly combination of sadism and revenge). The Tamils focus on their defeat and their indubitable suffering, without a clear analysis of the Tiger crimes and errors which paved the way to Nandikadal and the open prison camps.

With the defeat of the LTTE, the Rajapaksa administration was offered a rate historic opportunity to resolve the political problems and grievances which gave birth to the Tigers and sustained the war. But this opportunity was not utilised.

The results of the local government election in the North clearly indicate the dangers inherent in the regime’s current Sinhala supremacist course.

Unfortunately, it does look as if this lesson is lost on the Ruling Family and its acolytes. In an interview Brother-Minister Basil Rajapaksa countered the TNA demands for greater devolution by claiming that “the President has a bigger mandate not to give these powers” (Daily Mirror – 28.7.2011). Minister Champika Ranawaka made a veiled threat to starve the North of national funds. These remarks indicate that the Rajapaksas may opt for punishment/revenge rather than reconciliation after their electoral drubbing in the North.

This Sinhala extremism can create conditions for another upsurge of Tamil extremism (as Tony Judt said in another context, “it is the myopia of the first that lends spurious credibility to the argument of the second”).

So long as the reasons which drove Lankan Tamils to peacefully and democratically endorse separatism in the parliamentary election of 1977 and support a war for Eelam post-1983 are not understood, acknowledged and addressed, the Sinhala-Tamil divide manifested in the recent electoral outcomes will not abate.

Given the proclivity of the absolute majority of Sinhala and English language media to under-report Tamil issues, the festering of this ethnic rift may happen unseen by Southern eyes and unheard by Southern ears. Until the moment of explosion arrives.

© Transcurrents

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