By Izeth Hussain –
In my last article I argued that a sense of darkness could be the challenge that provokes the response of working earnestly to bring about the dawn, and further that since our ethnic minorities cannot all leave this island or be subjected to total genocide there is no alternative to our majority and the minorities learning to live together in some degree of peaceful accommodation. Regarding the external dimension of the problems facing us – the impending UNHRC meeting in Geneva – I argued that the key to what happens there lies with India. Obviously the Government should try to attain an understanding with India to help us out.
As for the internal dimension, I argued that rather than think in terms of a political solution as something that follows from Constitutional changes and the setting up of certain institutions we should envisage it as something that comes about through a process of organic growth. At present the TNA wants much more than 13A, while the Government is only willing to give much less. Suppose both agree to put all that aside and work earnestly to make a success of 13A. Much can be done through it to meet the needs of the people of the North at the grass roots level. The success of the NPC could be emulated by the other PCs, and that could be enormously beneficial for the country as a whole. Suppose also that 18A is repealed and we have a fully functioning democracy. A process of organic growth would be set in motion resulting in a political solution. There is really nothing fanciful about what I am outlining here, but we don’t really expect it to happen. Why not? I concluded my article by pointing out that to answer that question we must do much rethinking on the fundamentals of our ethnic imbroglio.
At the time I sent in my last article for publication I had not seen NPC Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s address to a meeting organized by the University Grants Commission on February 13. Its contents showed a broad convergence with some of the views sketched out in the preceding paragraph. He made a distinction between a post-conflict situation and a post-war situation. In the latter the focus is on taking corrective action over the ravages caused by the thirty-year war. By the former he means the conflictual relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils which long antedate the war between them, and which require a political solution. He clearly regards the problem of dealing with the ravages of war as something that is quite distinct from the problem of reaching a political solution. In effect, he is saying that the TNA is willing to put aside for the time being the problem of a political solution and focus on making a success of 13A.
Of course the two processes – working towards a political solution and making a success of 13A – don’t preclude each other and the two processes can go on concurrently. What is striking is that he now seems to be unambiguously positive about what can be achieved through the NPC. Back in December he said this in the course of his Budget speech: “It should be understood by all clearly that the present Provincial Council cannot be a vehicle of change for the betterment of the Tamil speaking people of the North and East”. There is nothing comparably negative in the present address, and his approach seems to be eminently practical. He emphasizes that the same programme for betterment cannot be applied to all the Provinces because the needs of the people in the war-ravaged North are very special, and accordingly a separate programme has to be worked out for them. He recognizes that the Government does not have the resources and the skills to meet the very special needs of the people in the North, and therefore recourse must be had to the resources and skills of the Tamil diaspora. I must note before passing on that in the concluding part of his address he emphasized the need to “Counter the false propaganda carried out in the Sinhalese and English media by explaining that the Northern polity is committed to non-violence and a political settlement within a united Sri Lanka”.
There is one reason, above all, that will practically compel the TNA to try to make a success of 13A. It has been vociferous, like so many others, against the Government’s mistaken strategy in focusing on infrastructure development in the North instead of focusing on the people’s needs at the grass roots level. Furthermore, that strategy was given a sound beating at the NPC elections. The Tamils in the North would therefore expect the TNA to prioritize the utilization of 13A to meet the people’s needs over everything else, including working towards a political solution. There is no way that the TNA can evade that prioritization.
What we seem to be witnessing – at least in theory – is the coming into play of part of my model for a solution of the ethnic problem: not Constitutional and institutional change but a process of organic growth through making 13 A a success, plus a fully functioning democracy. But we don’t really expect the process to lead to a solution. Why not? The mindset of the presently dominant Sinhalese power elite, a mindset that is neo-Fascist and racist, is not prepared to see the minorities flourish through their own initiative, though it is prepared to provide largesse to the minorities – as recognized by CVW in his address – to the extent thought fit and proper by the owners of this island, the Lion Race. Furthermore, CVW envisages a crucial role for the Tamil diaspora in making 13A a success. But the dominant power elite tend to see the Tamil diaspora as the posthumous embodiment of the LTTE, and the prospect of that diaspora contributing to any kind of Tamil success in Sri Lanka will only enrage that power elite. Under the present set-up – and unless President MR changes course – we cannot expect acquiescence in much more than a limited range of success for 13A.
I concluded my last article by pointing out that we must do much rethinking on the fundamentals of our ethnic imbroglio. We have had a very long period of “ethnic conflict” – according to the conceptualization of CVW – followed by thirty years of war, followed by four years of peace, and instead of sighting a political solution and ethnic reonciliation round the corner, we have started talking about the possible outbreak of yet another war. Obviously a rethinking of the fundamentals – including a new thinking that questions the older thinking on the subject – should now be regarded as an urgent desideratum on the ethnic front. The conclusion of CVW’s address – in a further convergence – had this: “As Einstein said fundamental problems we face today cannot be solved by the same level of thinking we were at when we created it. What is needed now is a shift in paradigm and you are best placed to provide it”.
What I am envisaging is that a political solution could emerge through what I call an organic process: by making a success of 13A, plus a fully functioning democracy. Both have to be seen as going together, as being integrally connected, because unless the Government is fully democratic it will not allow a success to be made of 13A – for the reasons that I have indicated above. Furthermore, a substantial proportion of the minorities will remain outside the North-East, and their needs and legitimate aspirations can only be met through a fully functioning democracy. I would advocate that a fully functioning democracy in a multi-ethnic society should explicitly acknowledge the rights of the minorities. That requires a recognition that democracy involves much more than the will of the majority, a problem that was sorted out at the very inception of democracy way back in the eighteenth century but which the Sinhalese racists have still to learn. I would advocate further that in Sri Lanka we bring about a paradigm shift in which we think of our so-called ethnic problem in terms of a paradigm of racism, and that a fully functioning democracy requires special legislation and institutions to safeguard the rights and interests of the minorities.
But all that – as well as other prescriptions to solve the ethnic problem – will not amount to much more than utopian fantasizing with little or no relation to reality unless there is the will to bring about the necessary changes. That means that attitudinal changes have to be brought about. As a first step we have to stop demonizing each other. In an earlier article I proposed the following: the Sinhalese acknowledge that after the period of State terrorism from 1977 to 1983 the Tamils had either to acquiesce in their own dehumanization or take to the gun; the Tamils acknowledge that they made the continuation of the war unavoidable by rejecting every proposal for a solution on the basis of devolution, and making a farce of the peace process; the Sinhalese recognize that the LTTE was not just a terrorist group but represented a nationalist movement of the neo-Fascist variety.
I will now cite a piece of demonization that has played major havoc with our ethnic relations. I refer to the Mahawamsa mindset according to which this island belongs to the Sinhalese who have a very special relationship with it, a belief that has allegedly made ethnic accommodation impossible. It is seen as an essential part of the Sinhalese psyche that has persisted unchanged down the millennia, but it is in truth the product of a racist essentialising habit of mind. This notion of the Mahawamsa mindset was probably behind the Tamil insistence in the past on either Eelam or a wide measure of devolution amounting to a confederal arrangement. It has probably contributed in no small way to our ethnic tragedy.
The truth in reality is that nations and peoples do have characteristics that can persist over long periods, but they can change all the same. I will cite a convincing illustrative example. The traditional image of the Germans all over Europe was that of romantic dreamers, poets and musicians, with nothing martial or aggressive about them. That changed abruptly after 1870 when German troops sliced through France like a knife through butter, to the vast surprise of the whole of Europe including the Germans themselves. The image of the romantic dreamer was transformed into that of the martial and aggressive Prussian, an image that persisted until after the Second World War. Now the German is seen as a peaceful democrat, on the whole a friendly force for good in the contemporary world. Nothing sublunary can resist the process of change. So, it makes sense for us to work for attitudinal changes – disregarding the Mahawamsa mindset – in struggling for dawn on the ethnic front.