Colombo Telegraph

Betting Against The House

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

As the Sinhalese and Tamils, or more precisely the Sinhala and Tamil nationalists, will eventually learn, there were rather good reasons that the Temple at Delphi bore the inscription ‘Nothing in Excess’, while the Buddha urged a Middle Path and Aristotle, the Golden Mean.

Less than six months before the Commonwealth summit, the Government is engaged in a pincer move. One is a move to circumscribe the 13th amendment and the other to straitjacket the media.

That these moves can be made with impunity in the run-up to CHOGM reflects a weakness of the Commonwealth, which by stark contrast with ASEAN, has been unable to cause a change for the better in the behaviour of the regime as ASEAN was able to do as the price of entrusting the chairpersonship to Myanmar/Burma. It is not that the Commonwealth should boycott Colombo or Hambantota. It is that compliance and conformity with Commonwealth standards and norms should have been and should be verifiably in place before the summit as during Sri Lanka’s incumbency as chair. This is especially so with respect to the freedom of the media, treatment of religious minorities, post-war political reconciliation, adherence to democratic governance and the rule of law.

The opposition and the dissenting intelligentsia have yet to understand the dimensions of the move on the 13th amendment. The formalisation of the de-merger is, to my mind, fairly unexceptionable because the Supreme Court had de-merged the provinces and the constitutional amendment merely gives constitutional status to a situation that is not only de facto but also de jure. In any case the merger of the North and East was not part of the progressive (UNP-democratic Left) consensus of the Political Parties Conference of mid-1986 and was criticised by the principal Sri Lankan supporters of the 13th amendment itself, namely JR Jayewardene and Vijaya Kumaratunga.

What is dangerous is the new clause that it is only a majority of the councils rather than all of them, that need to give their concurrence to any legislation that may impinge upon the powers and functions devolved to them or shared with them. This is a whittling away of devolution through ‘salami tactics’ as the old Cold War phrase went, denoting the systematic and sequential slicing off of democratic power – death by a thousand cuts—rather than by at one fell blow. More significantly, it will affect not solely the Tamils but any democratic opposition party, be it UNP, SLFP or JVP, which may be elected to office in a Provincial Council at any time in the future, while most of the councils remain with the incumbent administration.

Of course the moves against the media and the provincial councils have been made possible by the mistakes of the UNP and the TNA. In far worse times and against the far more formidable administrations of Sirimavo Bandaranaike and JR Jayewardene, the parliamentary opposition of the day, fielding a mere eight members,  resisted with enormous dynamism under the leaderships of JRJ (and Premadasa) and Anura Bandaranaike, respectively. Even when they failed to prevent the regime juggernaut, they never fell silent and imposed a high political and social cost on the arrogant administrations of the day. Given that the UNP parliamentarians have chosen to retain their present leader and remain under his ‘leadership’, they are politically and ethically responsible for the regime’s attempt at the murder of the media and devolution. The UNP leader’s erudite and ebullient father, faced with the threat to press freedom, campaigned and manoeuvred with lightning speed and efficacy, in a world in which the media were far less powerful, diverse and globally networked.

No less responsible is the TNA which failed to defend the 13th amendment, remains uncommitted to it, refused to support those risky efforts made by Chandrika Kumaratunga to go well beyond it, and often lurches rhetorically beyond it (lending credence to charges of potential political putschism). Tamil nationalism, including the TNA just didn’t know to quit while it was ahead. It bet against the house when it continued to bet on the LTTE, and lost. The ongoing constriction of devolution is the price that it has to pay.

The same is true of the question of the military presence in the North. While I certainly urge a recalibration of our military’s role  and a reduction of the military footprint, my sense of historical and psychological realism reminds me that in earlier times and for most of history, when an army has fought long and hard, shedding its blood copiously to liberate or conquer – I would say the former, the FUTA President, the latter—a territory, when it has fertilised the soil with its blood and bones, it regards itself as having a claim, a moral right, to that territory at least as legitimate as that of the original inhabitants who for the most part supported or did not actively resist the enemy.

Marx and Engels cautioned that one should “never play at insurrection”. Of course the Tigers and their vast supportive networks weren’t playing, but the point is clear: the cost of defeat is high and you may wind up way below that point from which you started. So, never fight a war and hope to win against an enemy which consists of and can draw upon 75% of the population. Never place all your bets on anyone who does so, which however is what Tamil nationalism did. Always get out from under and put distance between yourself and such fanatical adventurism, which is what the TNA and TPNF have yet to do in the form of a frontal denunciation of Prabhakaran and the Tigers. If the TNA can author a critique of the LLRC report of all things, which took up 70 pages of a 100 plus page document, surely it can spend a few pages on the Tigers who killed so many of the leaders of its constituent parties?

Thus the TNA cannot expect to go back to the proposals it failed to endorse and support when they were on the table. It cannot expect the rest of the country to write off its reluctance at the time to terror of the Tigers when it hasn’t denounced Tiger terrorism even now.

Nor can it expect to go back to a situation on the ground in the North that prevailed before the war on the basis that the war is now over, because a war changes things as almost nothing else does, except losing one. One side lost when it could have stopped fighting in 1987 (Accord), 1990 (talks with Premadasa), 1995 (CBK) or 2005. The Tamil nationalists supported or did not dissent from that side. They could have dissented from the safety of the West (or Delhi), been protected, and returned untainted to politics after the defeat of the Tigers but they chose not to.

Tamil nationalism and the international community must learn the lessons of Guatemala and Argentina, where Rios Montt and Jorge Videla have been jailed for life. Justice and accountability are indeed achievable but only as the result of domestic processes and dynamics, which take decades, and must earn the consent of society and the armed forces as an institution.

Resisting the regime requires correct analysis. In the eyes of the regime, all dissent and criticism forms part of a seamless web of conspiracy, local and global. For the regime’s critics, the Establishment is no less monolithic and politics is no less of a seamless conspiracy, only this time by the Rajapaksas. One conspiracy theory deserves another, and one type of political paranoia mirrors the other. Lacking in both camps is the recognition of contradictions. There is a complete absence of a dialectical analysis of reality. While Karl Kautsky spoke of an integrated ‘ultra-imperialism’, Lenin by contrast understood the ‘inter-imperialist’ contradictions and could thus strategise change. Similarly Nicos Poulantzas saw through to the subterranean contradictions, factional struggles and policy differences that traverse the ‘power blocs’ of seemingly monolithic or totalitarian systems. He asserted that states and regimes were themselves terrains of contestation rather than bastions that had to be or could be assaulted frontally from without. His work helped as that of no other intellectual, to predict and understand the several great waves of democratisation that opened up or swept away impregnable authoritarian systems from Portugal, Spain and Greece to the Philippines, from the USSR and Indonesia to most of Latin America.

The Sri Lankan regime is not going to get clean away with what it is doing and attempting. An article hardly fairly critical of Sri Lanka authored by Tamils for Peace, a US based lobby, has just been featured on the website of the CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS. Susan Rice will be the new National Security Advisor to President Obama, while liberal interventionist crusader Samantha Power, who concerned herself sufficiently with Sri Lanka to pay an official visit, will be the US Permanent Representative on the Security Council. India has elections next year. Just as the Tamil nationalists did, the Sinhala nationalists are betting against the house, only it is the White House (and the Rashtrapathi Bhavan).

The pendulum has swung against the Tamil nationalists but it will swing back against the Sinhala nationalists too, and hopefully settle somewhere in the middle range.

The internal contradictions will be ‘overdetermined’ by external realities until they condense; fuse to the point of rupture. However, the problem in an endgame will remain one of electoral agency. The bottom line then remains: “It’s the election, stupid!”

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