By Izeth Hussain –
For several weeks the emphasis in regard to the ethnic problem has been placed on the setting up of four institutions beginning with the one to deal with missing persons. All four have to do with the past, not with the future. But for long it has been axiomatic that our future requires as an essential imperative the finding of a political solution for the ethnic problem. Strangely, nothing is heard about that these days. The situation seems to be identical with what prevailed under the last Government from 2009 to 2015 when the question of a political solution was in practice put into abeyance. The probable reason for the present government adopting the same strategy is identical: the difficulty, may be the practical impossibility, of finding a political solution on the basis of 13 A.
Therefore to find a way out of the imbroglio we have to go outside the framework of 13 A. For this purpose we should first take count of what seem to be the fundamentals of the ethnic problem. The fact that we have had a quarter century of war at a cost of a hundred thousand dead might suggest that what we have on our hands is a deeply intractable problem. In a recent article on the Partition of India I have suggested in the brief concluding paragraph that the war was a contingent development, not the inexorable working out of historic forces – not of irreconcilable Sinhalese-Tamil hostility and so on. The war was set off by the State terrorism of the period 1977 to 1983, which was most certainly not inevitable. We must bear in mind a fact of supreme importance: there were no ethnic riots from 1958 to 1977, not even one, but just three weeks after President JR assumed power riots took place with one hundred to three hundred Tamils being killed. The State terrorism was the consequence of the fact that JR was a man of blood, in Eric Fromm’s terms a death-driven necrophiliac. The war was therefore the result of the contingent and the fortuitous, not of inexorable historic forces. We can now look forward to establishing the political solution that was available to us in 1977.
I believe that the foreign presence in our ethnic problem has been far too intrusive. The Indian presence in it has been legitimate: the fall-out in Tamil Nadu of what is done to Tamils here is of legitimate concern to Delhi. But Rajiv Gandhi’s intervention of 1987 though well meant went horribly wrong. It is worth reiterating – even endlessly reiterating – that there was no imperialist intent behind that intervention: otherwise we cannot explain the withdrawal of Indian troops with nothing, absolutely nothing, to show for the 1,200 IPKF men who were killed here. All the same, I believe that the Tamil Nadu/Delhi factor is proving to be harmful to our Tamils. They know that if not for that factor there will be no Tamil ethnic problem in Sri Lanka today, but they seem to be giving it excessive importance. That factor certainly means that there will be no further necrophiliac pogrom as in 1983: we can be sure that there will be quick Indian intervention, with solid international backing, to stop it. That does not however mean that India will back our Tamils in any and every one of their demands. I believe that India couldl come to recognize that devolution on an ethnic basis will be the worst fate that can befall this unfortunate country. It could come to recognize alternatives that are just and feasible.
I seem to have been under-estimating the US factor in our ethnic problem, seeing the US as not much more than an auxiliary of India. Probably the US will give primacy of place to India over our ethnic problem if India insists, but otherwise it would want also to play its own independent role, strutting about and kicking people about in its avatar of sole super- power. India however is in desperate need of the US as an ally to contain China, its historic ally Russia being too preoccupied with its near abroad and the Middle East to have much time for South Asia: India has therefore to allow some leeway for the US in Sri Lanka. An important point is that we are today witnessing the American Empire in its decrepitude. Chalmers Johnson in his The Sorrows of Empire points out that the Americans are today the practitioners of a new form of empire, an empire of bases. I believe that the reason for this is that though the US has the power to blow up the globe several times over it doesn’t have the power to dominate the peoples of the globe, and therefore it has to satisfy itself with a so-called empire of bases. Also relevant for the purposes of this article is the observation of Emmanuel Todd in his After Empire that since the American Empire in its decrepitude cannot take on the big powers it harasses negligible powers like Iraq and Iran pretending that they pose grave threats to the rest of the world. As part of the same strategy the US has fostered the myth of universal terrorism, according to which it led the world’s counter-attack against terrorism in as many as sixty countries. The UNHRC Resolution of last year, behind which the main driving force was the US, might also be explained in terms of the syndrome I am outlining here: Sri Lanka a small powerless country is being harassed. That Resolution promotes a spirit of vengefulness, not of reconciliation, and instead of meliorating the ethnic problem it serves to aggravate it. But it projects the image of the US as a mighty super power that has the power to intervene here, there, and everywhere to build a better world. I think it is time for our Indian friends to tell our American friends to lay off Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem for a while.
I have never had the slightest doubt that Norway was impelled by nothing but the noblest motives in playing a leading role in the peace process. An incapacity for gratitude where gratitude is due does not speak well for the moral quality of a nation. We will do well to bear in mind that Norway retained the explicit and total confidence of India and all the others involved in the peace process right to the end. But, except for India, they were tragically mistaken about the LTTE. Arguably they helped prolong the war by fostering the myth of the military invincibility of the LTTE, and failed to understand that the LTTE was never sincere about reaching a political solution – something that was well grasped by India, which significantly did not want to be a Co-Chair.
On the whole therefore foreign helpfulness over our ethnic problem has not helped but hindered. It is time for foreigners to stop breathing down our necks all the time and allow us to find our own equilibrium where their helpfulness has too often promoted disequilibrium. It is time for India to tell our Tamils to stew for a while – I won’t be surprised if that indeed is India’s present strategy because we don’t hear anything about our Government being pressured to get going towards a political solution. The way out of the ethnic imbroglio cannot be through devolution on an ethnic basis, as I have argued earlier. The best option would be through a fully functioning democracy together with safeguards against discrimination towards the minorities as in the West. But there is also another option to be considered.
One of my Tamil readers has pointed out that one of the attractions of 13 A is that it enables the appointment of Tamils to the administrative structure in the North and East. If 13 A has to be jettisoned, an alternative might be a system of proportional representation in the State sector: thirty per cent or whatever to be reserved for minorities in the Cabinet, Parliament, the Judiciary, the Administration, the Police Force, the Armed Forces, and the entire gamut of the state sector. I believe that something like a system of proportional representation was tried out in Lebanon, and it did provide a high degree of ethnic stability for several decades. I don’t know whether that will be feasible in Sri Lanka, but some objections spring to mind. At present the minorities are heavily under-represented in the State and the system proposed might amount to what has been called “positive discrimination” and “affirmative action”, which in the US and India has proved to be more harmful than beneficial in the long run. I don’t know whether that and similar objections would apply to what my Tamil reader has in mind.
However my basic objection to his proposal is that it places a heavy emphasis on ethnic identities. Both the Sinhalese and the Tamils are intensely racist people – as I have found to my cost – for which reason I cannot believe that any political system based on ethnic identity is going to work smoothly here. It is more likely to aggravate the problem. But we did show a capacity to transcend our identities when several decades ago we had a smoothly functioning democracy and a relatively high degree of ethnic harmony. In the changed context of today we need to bolster a fully functioning democracy with safeguards for minority interests as in the West. I don’t see any reason why that model should not succeed here as well, provided we are in earnest about it. A probable desideratum for that success is that foreigners should leave us alone for some time.