By Imtiyaz Razak –
Winning peace after war in deeply divided societies is daunting. It is daunting, because such peace-seeking efforts deal with the forces attached to the war and conflict, and thus their need to be genuine compromise at elite level to seek political settlements. For this reason, it is better to seek peace without engaging war and violence. But when war was fought and casualties were recorded with blood and pains, the path to peace is daunting.
This week, the regime in Colombo announced it would open a forum to receive submission from the public for the new constitution. To win peace, dominant part or parties in the conflict should have willingness for accommodation and compromise. In other words, winning truest is key to begin a process for peace. Sri Lanka experiences suggest that the Tamil Tigers, who were forced to silence their guns in 2009 wanted partition. Though the Tamil Tigers were resolutely defeated, the aspirations they shared still have a greater political influence. The major political goal of Tamil nationalism was separation. On the other hand, the key goal of the Sinhala nationalism was and is to consolidate unitary state structure. In between the Tamils and the Sinhalese are the Muslims who form their identity based on their faith. Muslim political elites would seek political accommodation that would not radically challenge the aspirations of the Sinhalese who are the majority in the island of Sri Lanka.
There is a belief that a democratic system will liberate masses from the burden of ethnic, religious, and gender discrimination. But experiences from Sri Lanka would contradict such an understanding. Sri Lankan experiences suggest that a highly competitive electoral system, due to politicians’ desire to win power at any cost, helped increase religious and ethnic tensions and hostility among different groups. Also, Sri Lanka’s experience suggests that the opening-up of political modernity in the absence of economic democracy has created destructive religious and ethnic forces that are able to manipulate sensitive emotions for political gain, and thus pave the way for instability. However, the future offers three formulas to gain stability and progress, and to strengthen democracy.
1. Conducive measures and mechanism should be introduced and implemented to prevent or ban the politicization of religion and ethnicity. This inevitably involves politicians’ commitments to non-emotional issues to win elections, and the political class needs to demonstrate some strong willingness to withdraw state patronage for Buddhism.
2. It is the responsibility of the Sri Lanka government to search for a solution beyond the current unitary political system. Such a solution can be found based on consociationalism, which proportionally allocates political power among the communities – whether religious or ethnic – according to the percentage of their population.
3. Measures to promote negotiated religious and ethnic reconciliation and compromise. This requires genuine efforts to build power-sharing measures with the minorities. The demise of the LTTE provides opportunities to commence serious discussions on power sharing with the Tamil nationalists, who would seek a comprehensive power sharing. In actual fact, power sharing could strengthen Sri Lanka’s democracy, its war-ridden economy, and religious and ethnic harmony.
3A. Any power-sharing efforts should address the concerns of Sri Lanka Muslims or Moors. There are many options, which are being put forward. One is an exclusive power-sharing arrangement, which can take care of the Muslim majority areas of the region with the legislature and the executive political arena proportionate to their demographic presence in that area, in other words, a kind of Muslim unit that would ensure administration and security of the Muslims in the region. However, it seems there is less interests for this exclusive unit for some good reasons. Establishment of Muslim unit is both impractical and recipe for further complication the conflict.
3B. As I discussed elsewhere (Imtiyaz, 2014) the Eastern province, homeland of both Tamils and Muslims, is demographically adjacent with Tamil and Muslim villages. The analogy of ‘pittu and coconut’ the traditional Tamil delicacy explains how adjacent the Tamil and Muslim villages are and how deeply linked their economic and social relations and affairs are in Eastern Sri Lanka. The purpose of the establishment of a power-sharing unit is to give opportunities to the local people to decide how they should be governed in the areas where they live. Such opportunities need market, adequate resources, and effective control for delivery. Besides the controversy of the market, uncertainties are prevailing in the areas of water, roads and other public infrastructure including government administration. As a matter of fact, regional institutions such as Muslim schools, local libraries and administrative bodies that come under the control of the Muslim unit may function well because they do not necessarily require exclusive Tamil cooperation. However, a crisis is likely when the Muslim unit begins businesses with public resources, particularly public water and roads as well as government infrastructure.
3C. Though the concept of exclusive unit was rather popular among the Muslims of the North and East during the war between the Tamil Tigers and Sinhala-dominated regime, the demise of the Tamil Tigers eased the security concerns of the Muslims of the North and East, and thus the need to have an exclusive unit gradually began to disappear from the narratives Muslim political establishment.
3D. However, degrees of autonomy can be discussed, but Muslims think they should be given an opportunity to have a greater say in how they are governed in the areas where they live. Muslims of the East would oppose to any merger of the North and East provinces. Muslim elites are aware of the Tamil demand of merger, but for historical reasons and experiences, Muslims in the region would not support any move to merge the de-linked provinces. Degrees of autonomy can be discussed, but Muslims think they should be given an opportunity to have a greater say in how they are governed in the areas where they live.
4. Democratization of economic policies to ease the sufferings of disadvantaged people. This study suggests that economically weakened masses become easy targets for irrational political slogans, employed by narrow-minded politicians and community forces. Greater economic opportunities and “interaction among people, coupled with widespread education and mass communication networks, would breakdown parochial identities of ethnic and religious groups” (Imtiyaz and Stavis, 2008: 135–152).
Sri Lanka’s Sinhala political class and politicians need to adopt progressive steps to win the trust of the minorities. Both political and economic development needs to be consolidated with greater participation of Tamils and Muslims in their respective regions. Also, measures to extricate Buddhism from politics and to take measures to ease the concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities. Such positive developments are likely to generate trust and loyalty among the ethnic and religious minorities both at the masses and elite, though it is likely Buddhism will continue to play a significant role in Sri Lanka’s politics.
On the other hand, both Tamil and Muslim political leaders should be able to go beyond their traditional dynamics. Tamils in particular should understand the concerns of the Sinhalese. If Tamil nationalists would continue to reject the comprehensive power-sharing democracy in the expectation of winning partition, it is very likely the current moves to seek peace would not go beyond a certain levels.
Imtiyaz ARM and Stavis B (2008) Ethno-political conflict in Sri Lanka. Journal of Third World Studies 25(2):
Imtiyaz ARM (2009) Eastern Muslims of Sri Lanka: Special problems and solutions. Journal of Asian and
African Studies 44(4): 404–427.
*Dr. A. R. M. Imtiyaz, native of Sri Lanka, attached to Asian Studies/Political Science, Temple University, USA. His research on Sri Lanka ethnic conflict has published in the various scholarly journals. His recent research examines issues pertaining to Muslims in Middle East and Xinjiang province, China. He can be contacted at email@example.com