By Izeth Hussain –
I must first of all make some clarifications on the point I made in my last article that India might someday impose a Cyprus-style solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka: Indian troops invade Sri Lanka, carve out territory in the North-East for the separate state of Eelam, and hold the frontier thereafter. That process would be comparable to what happened in Cyprus: Turkish troops invaded that country, carved out territory for the Turkish Cypriots, held the frontier, and the de facto division has held for four decades.
The way we think is shaped to a substantial extent by the experiences we undergo, and very probably I would not be thinking along these lines at all if not for the fact that I went as Ambassador to Moscow in 1995. The political question that preoccupied me above all else at that time was this: how was it that so few foresaw the collapse of Soviet Communism despite all the expertise on that subject in the decades since 1945? It happened that I was in Sochi and Moscow attending a UN Conference in 1989, and I actually saw the collapse at its incipient stage. Howard Wriggings, one-time US Ambassador in Colombo and a political scientist by vocation, was also a delegate to that Conference, but he was also part of a group of Kremlinologists who were observing what was going on in Moscow. He told me they were stunned by the almost unanimity of the open denunciations of Communism by the Russians they encountered. My thinking was that the Soviet Union would go through a process of transformation similar to the one initiated in China by Deng Hsiao-ping’s economic reforms of 1979: a process of economic liberalization together with pluralism not amounting to democracy. I thought that that process would fit into the convergence theory of Raymond Aaron and others, which was much in vogue in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, but came to be forgotten later. According to that theory the Western democracies and the Communist world would come to resemble each other because the latter would find itself forced to adopt the strategies required for the progress of the industrial society. Wriggins agreed that it was time to revisit the convergence theory.
But instead of the gradualism that I expected there was an abrupt cataclysmic collapse of the Communist system, followed two years later by the voluntary dismantling of the Soviet Empire. As far as I was aware that collapse was foreseen by only two persons, one of whom was Daniel Moynihan, a former US Permanent Representative to the UN, and the other was the French political scientist Emmanuel Todd who brought to bear his expertise as a demographer to make his forecast. Actually there was a third, George Orwell, who wrote the following in his 1946 essay on James Burnham: “It is too early to say in just what way the Russian regime will destroy itself. But at any rate the Russian regime will either democratize itself, or it will perish. The huge, invincible, everlasting slave empire of which Burnham appears to dream will not be established, or, if established, will not endure, because slavery is no longer a stable basis for human society”. Orwell showed the prescience of genius, particularly in his remark that “the Russian regime will either democratize itself, or it will perish”. I have long believed that the process that led to the collapse of Soviet Communism began with the Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation of 1975. It was that that led the Soviet regime to try to democratize itself. It failed to do so, and perished.
I come now to the explanation for the striking fact that despite all the expertise on Communism, its sudden collapse in the Soviet Union was foreseen only – as far as I am aware – by the two political scientists I have mentioned above, and by Orwell, an essayist/novelist who focused largely on politics. A book by two American scholars who addressed the question of that failure on the part of the experts came up with what seems to me to be at least a partly valid explanation: futurological exercises tend to extrapolate past and present trends into the future without giving sufficient weight to the possibility that what seems today to be a relatively unimportant factor could suddenly become the catalyst for abrupt cataclysmic change. For the most part, it is true, past and present trends do extend into the future, with the same sort of things going on and on. But the unexpected can suddenly erupt as in the case of the Soviet Union.
How does all that apply to the case of Sri Lanka? The political unity and the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka seem to be quite secure at present, but we can’t be sure about the future. Tamil Nadu restiveness over the unsolved ethnic problem could intensify and spawn separatist movements that might come to be seen by Delhi as threatening India’s unity. In that situation the imposition of a Cyprus-style solution cannot be ruled out. We must think also of the possible repercussions if international investigations into alleged war crimes get going. Charges will be made against the President and Gotabaya R and top armed forces personnel including Sarath Fonseka. Much bitterness and hatred will be generated, and it cannot be ruled out that things could get out of hand resulting in another July ’83. That could lead to a fateful Indian intervention. I have always thought of the break-up of Sri Lanka as no more than a “remote contingency” and as something that could ensue only from “a worst-case hypothesis”. But we now have the shadow Foreign Minister of the BJP declaring “Eelam is a distinct possibility”. In a recent development there seems to be a chance that Jayalalitha might be the next Prime Minister of India, and she seems certain that under any new Government Tamil Nadu will have powerful decisive influence in New Delhi. What we can learn from the unexpected collapse of Soviet Communism and recent developments in India is that it would be unwise of us to let the ethnic imbroglio drag on indefinitely.
But unfortunately there is not the slightest prospect, at present, of our moving meaningfully towards a political solution and ethnic reconciliation, and the overwhelming sensation one has is of darkness at noon. If the threatened international investigations into alleged war crimes really get going we can expect Sri Lankan society to be rent apart. Here is what I wrote in my article The Ban Ki-moon conspiracy in the Island of May 2, 2011, that is two years and eight months ago: “ ….. any serious enquiry necessarily has to be a very protracted one, leading to charges and counter-charges and recriminations, and possibly rousing undying hatreds. All that will necessarily mean that a political solution and ethnic reconciliation will have to go into abeyance for many years. Can anyone in his right mind be really confident about the eventual outcome? It could well be a further bout of war. Does the international community, by which I mean the UN membership as a whole, really want that for Sri Lanka, a small country that is incapable of harming anyone but itself? It would surely make better sense to go for a political solution now, and some measure of ethnic reonciliation before holding a serious enquiry”. Unfortunately, it is only since a few weeks ago that our Government has started stressing the incompatibility between on the one hand international investigations into alleged war crimes and on the other moving towards a political solution and ethnic reconciliation. But no one believes that the Government is sincere about the latter.
How do we grope our way out of this darkness? A new Government in Delhi might provide an opening. The BJP may say that “Eelam is a distinct possibility” but it won’t be in a hurry to impose Eelam on us, regarding that only as a last resort, something to be attempted only if every other option fails. Its first preference would certainly be for the full implementation of 13A. The problem about 13A at present is that the TNA wants much more than that, while the Government – contrary to all its pretences – really wants a political solution without any devolution at all. Delhi cannot exert pressure on us beyond a certain point, but it can certainly exert decisive pressure on the TNA because without the backing of Tamil Nadu and Delhi our Tamils will today be no more than a conquered people, and they will be treated like most conquered peoples have been – that is to say, like dirt. So the TNA can be made to accept 13A, but our Government will at the best accept it only in a truncated form without land and police powers.
Is there a way out? Not, it would appear, if we conceptualise a solution and ethnic reconciliation as coming about only through Constitutional changes and the setting up of certain institutions, but there could be if we think of it in terms of a process of organic growth. What I have in mind is a new version of 13A+ – that is 13A+ full democracy together with certain attitudinal changes. Devolution alone cannot satisfy the aspirations of all the Tamils because of the substantial proportion of Tamils who will be outside the North-East. Their aspirations can be met only through full democracy. Furthermore 13A, even in truncated form, cannot possibly succeed with the present Government’s quasi neo-Fascism and racism which privilege the Sinhala Buddhists over all the minorities. We need more and more and more democracy, bearing in mind the observation of the great American journalist H.L.Mencken that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. However, I don’t believe that anything will ever succeed on the ethnic front without the attitudinal changes of the sort that I outlined in my last article. With those changes – and provided that we can avoid a break-up – the dawn is certain.