By Laksir Fernando –
If political realism is any indication, Sri Lanka again is in trouble waters after the three PC elections and the polarization between the two nationalisms, Sinhala and Tamil, is higher than what it was before the commencement of the war. If the NPC election was held in 2009, soon after the end of the war, the situation could have been averted. It is not for convenience that the two other PC elections in the Central and the North Western were held along with the Northern PC, but as a signal or a ‘mirror’ to the North. The results show the polarization of the country between the TNA and the UPFA, in the North and in the South, and any subsequent PC elections would show the same trend perhaps by enhanced majorities for the UPFA, given the nationalist polarization.
The slogan of ‘regime change’ is the first casualty whether we like it or not, unless something miraculously happens in the coming future. ‘Tamil self-determination’ instead would cover the political bill board of the country. At the elections, the TNA received 78.48 per cent of the votes for the NPC, winning 30 seats out of 38 in the Council. The UPFA, received 59.53 per cent and 66.43 per cent respectively, in the Central and the North Western Provinces, while the UNP managed only 38.65 per cent and 24.21 per cent in the same two provinces. The Democratic Party of Sarath Fonseka emerged as the ‘third party’ in the two provinces, relegating the JVP to a much lower position.
If the Rajapaksa regime was sensible, it could have behaved differently on the question of ‘reconciliation’ after the war. It didn’t. The holding of the NPC election was determined not as a mark of magnanimity or accommodation but mainly as a result of the international pressure or concern. The UPFA did not have to go for much nationalist rhetoric during the elections but it was there and understood by the people as the hegemonic political force of the Sinhala Buddhists at present. Nevertheless, the UPFA rhetoric included the victory over the LTTE, of which Sarath Fonseka also shared the credit, and attacks on the TNA manifesto.
The role of the TNA however was significantly different. It had to be overtly nationalist perhaps as the ‘underdog.’ The invocation of Thimphu principles and the ITAK’s founding aspirations (1952) in the recent TNA manifesto was not mere election propaganda or accidents. There is a considerable resurrection of Tamil nationalism in the North today. Tiger symbolism during the campaign, and in fact in the manifesto, were only icing on the cake. The drafting of the manifesto does not appear to be a ‘cut and paste’ job as some commentators attributed. The leaving out of any reference to the Vaddukoddai resolution also was deliberate.
In my reading of the TNA Manifesto, it does not call for separation, but asks for more than federalism and perhaps Confederation as its main objective while a form of federalism as a possible fall-back position. Confederation should be understood as a ‘loose union’ between two or more entities but never has worked in any country for a long period given its natural uncertainties or contradictions. This would be the anathema of the Rajapaksa regime, prone to centralized thinking and action both in political and economic matters. At the Jaffna press conference after the election victory, the Chief Minister elect, CV Wigneswaran, has said “We urge the Government to grant the council the powers that are legitimately ours in line with international covenants and agreements.”
He was not referring to the powers of the Council on the basis of the 13th Amendment, but in ‘line with the international covenants and agreements’ whatever they might be.
It is unlikely that Sinhala nationalism which is quite strong and embedded within the state system with equally strong military would allow Federalism let alone a Confederation at least in the near future. On the other hand, Tamil nationalist aspirations, even if we discount the Diaspora factor or the Tamil Nadu influence, would not be satisfied within the limitations of the present provincial council system however we sermonise them. This is why Sri Lanka is in troubled waters.
Having assessed the impending realities in terms of confronting nationalisms what are the possibilities of averting a major disaster? I would say quite weak in the short to the medium term unless there is some rethinking on the part of both parties and/or purposeful interventions and assistance from outside. It is unlikely that the parties would rethink their nationalisms. That is not the way things usually proceed in respect of aroused nationalism. Intellectual or academic discourses might be useful as supporting elements but those are not decisive in the real world. Academic discourses also would emerge, and already have, not only to appease the situation, but also to exacerbate the conflict. The confrontations most likely would drag on for a foreseeable future.
It is unlikely that the TNA leaders didn’t mean what they said in the manifesto or during the election campaign. The nature of nationalism is such when emotions or aspirations are unleashed there is no easy way of turning back. The conditions in the North would not allow them to do so, largely created by the Rajapaksa regime itself. Anyone who appreciates reconciliation would have liked the TNA to stick to the 13th Amendment at least for the time being. But that does not appear to be the case. The TNA rhetoric is quite abstract and ideological. They may say it is concrete.
The only possibilities of averting a disastrous confrontation are primarily, if at all, in two spheres. First is the international and the other is economic.
There is no question that the international community that we talk about is not a cohesive entity. Unless there is a major security reason, the Security Council cannot intervene and given the divided nature of the present SC on the Sri Lankan issue, an intervention is most unlikely. There is no reason for that either. The Human Rights Council could of course pass resolutions but it would not have enough teeth to implement anything tangible other than persuade and pressure the parties involved. This is also largely limited to the state parties and not entities like the TNA or the NPC.
International ‘intervention’ or rather assistance also could mean India or Japan participating as a mediator with the backing of concerned international players including the US and possibly China. The US should try to involve China in the process. This means Sri Lanka may need to go again for a peace process. Norway is virtually out of the equation, unless as a concerned party. Sri Lanka cannot go for a war again and therefore it should go for a second round of the peace process and this time it might succeed. My best candidate for the task would be Japan with the blessings of India. One may argue that it is too early to talk about mediation or a peace process but it is unlikely that the government and the TNA might resolve the issues on their own under the present circumstances.
The other possibilities are in the economic sphere. Sri Lanka at present is a middle income country with the prospects of advancing from the lower level to a higher level. In an expanding economy, there should be more possibilities of accommodating different interests of different sections, if the emerging realities are rationally thought through. If rationalism and not narrow nationalism is any guide, Sri Lanka should be in a position to accommodate the aspirations of not only the majority ethnic community but also the minority ethnic communities if not for the obstructions of extremist sections. Sri Lanka is capitalist, whether we like it or not. Capitalism does not or should not give priority to ethnicity but to merit and entrepreneurship whatever quarter it comes. Unless the ruling party moves away from its narrow ethnic mindset, it might not be able to develop the economy to the next level.
The initiatives, if at all, for a breakthrough including involving a mediator, should come from Colombo and Jaffna should positively respond. As a gesture of change, the President could change the Governor and preferably the Jaffna commander of the military. It is likely that the TNA might indicate its willingness for negotiations from the point of strength as it has symbolically obtained more than two thirds of seats in the Provincial Council. Just demanding powers from Colombo might not work.