By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“The entire Sinhalese-controlled media went along with JR Jayewardene’s reasoning. Only one Sinhalese journalist, Mervyn de Silva of the Lanka Guardian, sensed the danger. In his news analysis, titled ‘Who buried the TULF?’ in the 1 August 1984 issue he wrote: ‘How very short-sighted and stupid.’ ” – (T. Sabaratnam, ‘Pirapaharan’ Chapter 19, ‘Burying the TULF’)
If the Rajapaksa administration wanted to keep the North on a tight rein given its secessionist political impulses and thereby reassure the armed forces stationed there, it could and should have appointed retired Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva, a tough minded Sinhala Buddhist nationalist, as the Governor, instead of reappointing (retd) Gen Chandrasiri for a second five year term.
If you, as a government, treat a people or a province in a manner separate from that in which you treat the rest of the country, you are in effect admitting that the people concerned are a separate people and the province a separate entity. In short by ensuring a separate political treatment of an area and its people, you are ensuring a separate political existence and consciousness; reinforcing claims of separate nationhood and a separate state.
Even if a province has a dangerously and repulsively separatist orientation and political culture, no government should exacerbate it by treating the said province as a separate entity. Pakistan has civilian governors. Sri Lanka’s Northern Province has the next worst thing to a military governor. It has an ex-military governor.
I assume that the decision to grant the governor of the Northern Province a second term was catalyzed –though not caused–by the provocative statements of Tamil politicians including Chief Minister Wigneswaran in his media conference following the visit of South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. That’s understandable but plain dumb. The smart thing to do in the face of provocation is not to be provoked.
There is a more serious reason which may explain the decision of reappointment. It is that the state’s security agencies know the game-plan of the Tamil ultranationalists. That game plan is that of the Tamil Diaspora and is one of separation, leveraging the external factors, chiefly the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Thus the state’s security apparatuses want to keep the lid on in the North. That’s fair enough, in my book. But the retention of an ex-military governor, or a de facto military governor, will not help keep the lid on. It merely provides an enemy image for future agitation in the area while delegitimizing the state’s mode of control over the North. Since it lacks popular consent it may, over time, undermine the state’s very control of the North.
The militaristic mode of the state’s governance of the North, i.e. the retention and intensification of military control, stands in contradiction to the democratically elected Northern provincial council and the wishes of the democratically elected parliamentary representatives of the area. Soon enough there will be a collision. That collision may be triggered deliberately by Tamil ultranationalists, over the process of mass evidence about war crimes allegations. There will be a military backlash, perhaps from below rather than above. The Northern PC might find itself in lockdown or may be dissolved. An ex-military governor would more readily recommend such a dissolution than would any civilian and the President who was finally persuaded to reappoint him may find it difficult to decline.
Tamil Nadu would be up in arms and Prime Minister Modi may feel constrained to appoint a Special Envoy on Sri Lanka, as a preliminary response, just as Indira Gandhi did in 1984. A Sri Lankan state which arbitrarily dissolves the Northern provincial council would have taken a step further down the road towards externally backed secession, just as the breakup of Yugoslavia could be traced back to the dissolution of the autonomous provincial assembly of Kosovo and the abolition of its autonomous status.
The Sri Lankan government is making a second grave strategic error which compounds the potential for separation of the North and East. That error is to permit the BBS, Sinhala Ravaya, JHU et al to alienate the Muslim community from the national mainstream. This may have at least four seriously damaging effects:
(a) It would hurt the sentiments of the Muslim personnel in the armed forces and the state machine in general.
(b) It would push the Muslims of the East away from the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan state, off the fence, into the arms of the Tamil nationalists, which would reawaken the slogan of the Tamil speaking people and the demand for a single North-Eastern political entity.
(c) It would open a new front against the State in the form of armed Muslim youth who seek to defend their homes, properties and families.
(d) It would open a third front against Sri Lanka in the external arena, with the Tamil Diaspora, the West/international human rights movement/UN, and Tamil Nadu being joined by elements of the Islamic world.
The renewal of the militaristic profile of the government’s Northern rule with the reappointment of Gen Chandrasiri, the failure to stop Aluthgama and the impunity enjoyed by those who incited the anti-Muslim violence, when taken together, weakens rather than strengthens the state’s hold on the Tamil and Muslim dominated North and East.
It hardly seems coincidental that the move against the NGOs comes after the combination of civil society and the social media penetrated the cover up of Aluthgama. The anti-NGO move is an attempt to choke off the information flow and must be seen together with the earlier ban on over a dozen Tamil Diaspora organizations. That doesn’t help the legitimacy of the regime in the international system. It only helps the anti-Sri Lanka cause and movements.
We Sri Lankan citizens and most especially our armed forces paid a high price for thirty long years because the politicians, egged on by religious ideologues, messed with –and therefore messed up relations with– the Tamil minority. The Tamils are 80 million strong throughout the world. Now the successors of those religious ideologues and the successor politicians are messing with the Muslims.
There are a billion Muslims in the world. In many places some of them are killing each other as the Christians did in an earlier age in Europe, but in Sri Lanka there is no Sunni-Shia divide. Whatever militancy there may be among the Muslims of Sri Lanka is directed within their community and not against the Sinhalese. That could change. Unlike communities which are ready to kill for their religion but have no tradition of martyrdom, the Muslims are ready to die for their religion, not just kill for it. Unlike the Tamils who were hardly a globally radicalized community, the Muslim world has been in militant ferment for decades. Weapons, training and above all, inspirational role models, are far more readily available than they were for the Tamils.
The anti-Tamil riots of 1958 produced the conditions which produced Prabhakaran, the LTTE, and the first generation Tamil Diaspora (especially in the UK). Do we know what Aluthgama may produce?
For decades, Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism in and out of government pushed the moderate Tamil nationalists of the Federal Party and the TULF around, thereby paving the way for and strengthening terrorism. Then it was the TULF, now it is the SLMC. Today the mainstream Muslim politicians of the SLMC and even the SLFP itself are being vilified, as are moderate Muslim civic organizations. They are the best barrier within the Muslim community to the emergence of violent youth militancy. What will their weakening open the door to?
Contrary to government propaganda and popular myth, the Tigers didn’t invent the suicide bombers. The Islamic Middle East did. The US Marine base in Lebanon was hit by a suicide truck, with over two hundred dead, and resulting in US withdrawal, five years before Capt. Miller hit the SLA after Vadamaarachchi.
If it took thirty years for Sri Lanka to overcome terrorism from a community that had a supportive rear of 80 million, at most, worldwide, how long will it take to overcome terrorism from a community that belongs to a larger community of a billion? Just do the math. Then add to that the question of how we can hold out against highly motivated ‘jihadi’ martyrdom in a context in which we may be facing civic resistance from the Tamils in the North, Western economic sanctions over ‘war crimes’ and mounting pressure from Tamil Nadu and perhaps Delhi over the situation of the Tamils. On how many fronts—internal, external and interactive– can an island (which can easily be cut off by sea) resist and for how long? How many foes can an island resist and for how long, placed on the doorstep of an increasingly unsympathetic giant neighbor which is a naval power and has a Sukhoi SU 30 MKI air-base a few minutes away in Thanjavur?
What kind of Sinhala Buddhist ‘patriots’ would push the Muslims to the wall and run the risk of creating a situation of geostrategic suffocation for the country and the Sinhalese Buddhists? What kind of Sinhala Buddhist ‘nationalists’ would, in the same week they had been admonished for their violent Islamophobia by the Dalai Lama –perhaps the most respected Buddhist figure on the planet– go on to insult Pope Francis, one of the world’s best loved personalities and leader of over a billion Catholics, months before he visits this island? Can’t someone teach these people arithmetic…and geography, and economics?
What kind of mentality would a regime need to possess (or be possessed by), to permit religious fanatics to engage in incitement and provocation which could result in a worst-case scenario?