By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Well-intentioned commentators argue that we should ignore the latent—and even episodically manifest—secessionism in Tamil nationalist discourse and give it the benefit of the doubt. They simplistically urge the speedy holding of elections to the Northern provincial council. These commentators have turned their backs not only on the Realist tradition but also on the best of the radical tradition. They are oblivious to the Leninist injunction of the concrete analysis of concrete conditions. These concrete conditions include not merely the ‘autonomist- secessionist continuum’ that characterises Tamil nationalism but also the ‘autonomist-federalist-secessionist continuum’ observable in many other parts of the world, as part of the post-Cold war strategy and project of the Empire.
The renowned radical scholar Prof James Petras deals with the phenomenon in his well-known essay on “Separatism and Empire Building in the 21st Century”. He argues that the Empire has resurrected the old historical pattern and practice of divide and rule. Petras pays particular attention to the destruction of former Yugoslavia right up to the secession under outright Western patronage of Kosovo, the de-facto separate existence of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, and the agitation in and over Tibet. He spotlights the use of global human rights propaganda campaigns to “weaken the central government”. In any country in which the Empire building project “cannot secure a stable client regime, it resorts to financing and promoting separatist organizations and leaders using ethnic, religious and regional pretexts”.
Petras captures the incremental character of the separatist project: “…separatist movements follow a step-by-step process, beginning with calls for ‘greater autonomy’ and ‘decentralization’, essentially tactical moves to gain a local political power base, accumulate economic revenues, repress anti-separatist groups and local ethnic/religious, political minorities with ties to the central government… The attempt to forcibly usurp local resources and the ousting of local allies of the central government results in confrontations and conflict with the legitimate power of the central government. It is at this point that external (imperial) support is crucial in mobilizing the mass media to denounce repression of ‘peaceful national movements’ merely ‘exercising their right to self-determination’. Once the imperial mass media propaganda machine touches the noble rhetoric of ‘self-determination’ and ‘autonomy’, ‘decentralization’ and ‘home rule’, the great majority of US and European funded NGOs jump on board, selectively attacking the government’s effort to maintain a stable unified nation-state. In the name of ‘diversity’ and a ‘pluri-ethnic state’, the Western-bankrolled NGOs provide a moralist ideological cover to the pro-imperialist separatists. When the separatists succeed and murder and ethnically cleanse the ethnic and religious minorities linked to the former central state, the NGOs are remarkably silent or even complicit in justifying the massacres as ‘understandable over-reaction to previous repression’.”
Petras cautions against federalism, pointing out with concrete examples, that “the shift from ‘autonomy’ within a federal state to an ‘independent state’ is based on the aid channelled and administered by the imperial state to the ‘autonomous region’, thus strengthening its ‘de facto’ existence as a separate state”.
That being the larger matrix, what is the solution to the Tamil Question? I would argue for a two stage solution. Why so? Tamil nationalism has to downsize its false consciousness and come to its senses so as to fit safely into a devolved polity. Just as a passenger demonstrating signs of being dangerously disruptive on board a flight will not be allowed to board, no entity which shows signs of a project which seeks to ‘prove that a solution is not possible within a united Sri Lanka’ can be trusted to stay within the Constitutional limits of a provincial council in our strategic frontier, across which is a historically – and increasingly—hostile element. This is not absurdly alarmist. Sri Lanka must never forget its experiences with the threat of UDI (‘external self determination’ invoked in the alleged absence of adequate transfer of power) by the North-East Provincial Council of Chief Minister Vardarajaperumal.
Thus, in the Sri Lankan context today, devolution cannot be open-ended: there must be closure; the ceiling and ‘final status’ must be agreed upon and guaranteed before (re) activation, especially in a hostile sub-regional neighbourhood.
Provincial level devolution (the retention of which I remain an advocate and defender of) may perhaps be best put on the backburner in the first stage, until the subjective conditions ripen. The first stage could be one of creating a new Sri Lankan society, consciousness and citizenry, based on the equality of citizenship, integration and pluralism, multiculturalism and meritocracy, and the elimination of racism and racial discrimination in all its forms. The second stage could be that of activating the existing Constitutional provisions for devolution, with mutually agreed upon modifications (such as redistribution of the concurrent list). Why a second stage if the first stage can be successful? The answer is that the project of an equal citizenship can only succeed fully in a secular state, and that seems far too radical a transformation for Sri Lanka. Thus a second stage of irreducible autonomous political space at the periphery may be necessary for a successfully re-negotiated Social — or (ethno) Political– Contract.
The solution may reside in LLRC plus 13th Amendment (not 13 Plus); but LLRC first, 13th amendment second. It would constitute a combination, but taken sequentially, not simultaneously. An interim council appointed by the President, consisting of the elected local government authorities and/or MPs representing the Northern Province, may serve as a bridging sub-stage or transitional phase between the first and second stages.
While everything is debatable, not everything is negotiable. Some things, a few things, simply must not be negotiable. The territorial unity and integrity of the Sri Lankan state, Sri Lanka as a single indivisible country, must never be up for negotiation. Whoever we negotiate with and whatever we negotiate on, must know and understand this from the outset. Every political community has boundaries which constitute red lines that should not be crossed.
What can be negotiated are the specific arrangements, structures and forms within a united Sri Lanka. Nothing should be treated with or entertained however, if that discourse or enterprise rejects, is ambivalent on or fails to commit unequivocally and unconditionally to the parameters of a united, single, indivisible Sri Lanka. Within a united Sri Lanka anything should be negotiable– though it may be unrealistic, given the balance of forces, including public opinion over the long term, to expect to convince Sri Lanka that the North and east should be re-merged and the state should abandon its unitary framework.
There are those who may think that such a commitment is unnecessary and that cumulative external pressure from far and near could coerce or crack the Sri Lankan state. At one level this is belied by the evidence of thirty years, which includes savage, sustained suicide terrorism and an episode of large scale external intervention—both of which Sri Lanka survived intact.
At a deeper level, even that demonstrated resilience and tensile strength are of secondary importance. What is little understood is that at least since 1965, a significant ideological strand in Sri Lankan politics and society has envisaged a situation in which the state and ruling elite will be unable to defend the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, and that this task will devolve, as it did in China, Vietnam and Latin America, on anti-systemic forces. This is fed by the sense that Tamil secessionism has historically been beneficiary and extension of external hegemonism and has an abiding affinity with Empire. This militant ideology was most prominently articulated by Rohana Wijeweera and bloodily manifested in the second Southern insurrection. That was suppressed by the System reconfiguring and re-legitimising itself by retrieving the patriotic platform from the JVP. Had Premadasa not done so, the System would have been overrun– as would be the case at any time in the future that externally induced ‘regime change’ may install a neo-comprador, capitulationist-collaborationist leadership which permits reversal of the historic victory of 2009.
When faced with a threat to or erosion of national sovereignty and territorial unity, the Sri Lankan social formation reshuffles its power elite until it arrives at a leader capable of retrieving lost ground.
There is a new factor. Towards the end of the war there was a steely determination among those who were fighting that any external intervention to thwart victory would be resisted by kinetic force. That manifested itself at the command level of the armed apparatus in a post-war threat projection of a hostile external environment. That threat perception that seemed grossly overwrought at the time may prove to be otherwise. While this hostility is due also to myopically lost opportunities in the war’s immediate aftermath, the Sri Lankan state is more sinned against than sinning–or is as much sinned against as sinning. The new factor recessed in the hard-drive of the Sri Lankan state means that even if the shell of regime and state are cracked someday by cumulative, coercive external pressure, there will be a convergence and re-grouping of anti-systemic and systemic forces in a project of protracted asymmetric resistance waged by a ‘people-army’ embedded ‘at the base of the nation, in the minds of the people’ (Gramsci) – the ‘deep nation’ rising to resist the spatially and arithmetically extensive forces of external encirclement.