By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“The Tamil Tigers…were the most supremely deadly and effective terrorist group to emerge at any time in the second half of the 20th century…There is no overall moral equivalence between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tigers.” – Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor, The Australian, ‘Sri Lanka’s Path to Peace’ Sept 13, 2013
When the most authoritative commentator on Tamil politics, DBS Jeyaraj exposes (in his latest piece) proto-secessionist and pro-terrorist discourse on the part of the main Tamil parliamentary party the TNA, it gets my attention. It would take an idiot to ignore it. (‘Wigneswaran Praises Prabhakaran at Velvettiturai’, Daily Mirror, Sept 14th 2013).
The TNA is not a secessionist party, but when it is reliably reported that it has not broken with the secessionist paradigm and even flirts with dangerous secessionist discourse and symbolism, it must be recognised that Sri Lanka simply doesn’t possess the geostrategic space to regard the signs as unthreatening and unproblematic.
A call for a measure of ‘self-rule’, ‘self-government’ or ‘self-administration’ within a united country is entirely legitimate. The demand for the full implementation of the existing provisions for a measure of self rule within a unitary state, as enshrined in the 13th amendment, is also entirely legitimate. However, this isn’t all there is to it, as DBS Jeyaraj reveals:
“…Tamil nationalist politics in Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and within the global Tamil Diaspora continues to be under the shadow of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)notwithstanding the fact that the Tigers are no more in Sri Lanka. Despite the LTTE being a non-entity in the Island, many Sri Lankan Tamil politicians of the Tamil National Alliance refuse to be liberated from the residual hold of the Liberation Tigers…
…There is no open articulation of ‘‘Tamil Eelam’’ by frontline contestants. Substitute code-words for a separate state however are in use.
…All these terms and phrases are outwardly innocuous and can be explained away as being within the ambit of elections to a provincial unit. Yet the context of such usages on electoral platforms evoke a secessionist mood and fervour very much alike the 1977 campaign of the Tamil United Liberation front (TULF) that sought a mandate for Tamil Eelam.” (‘Why and How Ex- SC Judge CV Wigneswaran Praised LTTE Leader Prabhakaran as a Great Hero’)
The TNA is not duplicitous as many Sinhala political personalities and propagandists argue. It is however, dualistic and vacillating. The positive side of the TNA and its forthcoming victory is seen in the excellent interview that Justice Wigneswaran has given Meera Srinivasan of The Hindu, in which he says that Tamil Nadu political elements have no right to say that a bickering husband and wife, i.e. the Sinhalese and Tamils, should divorce. The negative aspect of the TNA is of course manifested in its manifesto (pun intended).
The TNA manifesto is not secessionist. It does however keep the door ajar for secessionism. It does so not by calling for federalism or identifying the North and East as a homeland. Federalism and the idea of a Tamil homeland are entirely debatable but legitimate. What is tricky is the combination contained in the manifesto of the notion that the Tamil people, rather than the citizenry, the people of the island as a whole, are the repository of sovereignty, and the unqualified claim of the right of self determination.
Those of us who live in South Asia know exactly what this can mean, because this was the basis on which Jinnah seceded and more pertinently, the basis on which the struggle for secession is waged in Kashmir. This is why India does not accept any right of self-determination of peoples within a country’s borders. Within India, self-determination is one of the red lines of the central Government and therefore it remains a red line in diplomatic forums where Kashmir is mentioned.
The TNA’s leaders are sufficiently educated to be aware that it is perfectly possible to call for a federal system without embedding or invoking the right of self determination and that hardly any federal system (with exceptions that you could easily count of the fingers of one hand) recognises the right of self-determination. This is truer still of systems of devolution and regional/provincial autonomy.
The TNA leaders also know that without explicit and unambiguous qualification to the contrary, the right of self determination per se extends to the right to political independence.
Irresponsible Tamil politics will render toxic the social atmosphere and rip the social fabric of coexistence on the island. DBS writes:
“… Utilising the political space of the election campaign the LTTE is being praised and the current situation deplored. Prabhakaran’s reign is being projected as the ‘golden phase of the Eelam Tamils’.
An important method of such mobilisation is the use of songs. Propaganda efforts for the Tamil armed struggle have led to the usage of a number of popular songs. These range from the borrowing of appropriate songs from mainstream Tamil films to songs specifically written, composed, sung and recorded by the LTTE or its front organizations. Most of these songs were not heard of publicly after the LTTE military defeat of May 2009.But now these songs were being heard again and heard loudly, under the auspices of the TNA election campaign. Even a new audio CD of former pro-Tiger singer ‘Thenisai’ Chellappah has been specially commissioned for the elections.”
“…Last week saw Wigneswaran in Valvettithurai (VVT) the native village of LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran and the cradle of armed Tamil militancy. Wigneswaran delivered a thundering speech to an audience consisting mainly of people from VVT and neighbouring areas.
Wigneswaran stated there that Prabhakaran the son of VVT soil was a great hero and not a terrorist. ‘‘Pirapakaran oru payangaravathiyalla. Avar Thamil Inathin Viduthalikkaaha Poaradiya oru Maha Veeran’’ (“Prabhakaran is not a terrorist. He is a great hero who fought for the freedom of the Tamil people”) re-iterated Wigneswaran on Valvettithurai soil.” (Ibid)
This campaign by the TNA will entrench the status quo, or worse, reinforce the powerful Southern hawks and their hard-line. If the LTTE’s obduracy and the TNA’s fellow travelling were responsible for the backlash that took Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Presidency, it shouldn’t be rocket science to figure out the next level to which the Tamil Diaspora driven pro-Tiger stance of the TNA will succeed in taking us—and to the benefit of which (and whose) project.
The TNA’s electoral rhetoric is in the same category that got the Basque parliamentary party Herri Batasuna gavelled out of the game by the Spanish courts. The collective mentality it represents is what made the TNA reject Chandrika Bandaranaike’s quasi-federal proposals of 1995, 1997 and 2000. It is also what made the TNA, while still engaged in post-war talks with the Rajapaksa administration, produce a lengthy exegesis of the UNSG’s PoE (‘Darusman’) Report in which it improbably accused the ‘deep penetration teams’ of the Sri Lankan armed forces of killing ‘tens of thousands of Tamils’ and follow this up months later with a near 100 page document of which the first 70 plus pages were a slashing critique of the LLRC Report (while in the last 30, the Report was “damned with faint praise”)!
The failure of Tamil communities in the liberal First World to absorb and replicate the values of these societies by producing a moderate Tamil political alternative; the fealty of even well-educated Tamils to the memory of the Hitleresque Prabhakaran; the bitter reaction to the movie Madras Cafe, coupled with a continued refusal to denounce the murder of Rajiv Gandhi by the Tigers, reveal not only the commitment of Tamil nationalism to a secessionist project but also the covertly/latently fanatical and politically fundamentalist character of Tamil nationalist consciousness itself.
The challenge to Sri Lankan leaders and policy makers is to retain rather than abolish the system of provincial devolution even in the face of such political provocation, while managing the elected Council prudently and vigilantly. One must not confuse advocacy of or support for an institution or a structural reform, with endorsement of the political ideas and project of those who would be elected to and occupy that structure. Just as the support and defence of the institutions of democracy such as the legislature in no way precludes frontal politico-ideological opposition to any administration anywhere in the world, one may support provincial devolution and the 13th amendment as imperative for the management of Sri Lanka’s inter-ethnic (and external) relations, while criticising or opposing the political discourse of the TNA. Resistance to and resolute containment of the Tamil nationalist project must not extend to repeal of the reform itself.
Over the long term, devolution will be safe only when two factors coincide: (a) the Tamil nationalism can be rendered sufficiently malleable and moderate as to elect a party/leadership which is a realistic and responsible partner (which may well be Messrs Devananda and Thavarajah’s EPDP) and (b) the Sinhalese elect a moderate patriot who is tough on sovereignty, secessionism and security while soft on minority rights.
The international community and most notably India and the West must learn the lessons of contemporary history. A reason for the failure of their successive attempts at a negotiated peace when far more dovish administrations were in office in Colombo, was that Tamil nationalist interlocutors – the LTTE’s negotiators and influential elements of Tamil civil society—were simply dissembling, taking the world for a ride. The orientation of the Sri Lankan state, armed forces and public opinion towards Russia and China is sourced in the refusal of these powers to be played for suckers. The same Tamil nationalist constituency or social formation has been doing it again; acting as secessionist fellow-travellers, singing from the same hymn sheet of perennial victimhood and renunciation of responsibility while implicitly making the case for internationally supported partition.
It is not always the case that secessionist sentiment is the result of harsh ethno-national oppression. Often it is simply a case of the awareness of a separate identity and the desire to manifest it in the form of independent political existence or the retention of an option for secession. Scotland, Catalonia and Quebec are examples.
The space for tolerant accommodation of such secessionist sentiment is strictly contingent on geographic, demographic and historical realities. What if France had been the neighbour of Quebec instead of an ocean away? What if Scotland possessed a giant neighbour of co-ethnics and English been spoken only in England rather than near-universally? What if Catalonia had a large neighbour who spoke Catalan while Spanish was not a global language? Surely the response on the part of the state and the majority of citizenry to secessionism however peaceful would not have been what it is today.
Given the realities of the demographic composition of post-war Sri Lanka, the Tamil question in Sri Lanka must not be lodged in the paradigm of self determination but in the paradigm of the rights of ethnic minorities– including that of provincial autonomy– and equality of citizenship. The Tamil nationalist insistence on the Tamils as a distinct people with the right of self-determination is a diversion from the struggle for minority rights, equality and anti-discrimination. Every effort must be made to struggle for these as essential to a just, sustainable post-war peace.
The West and even India (though less so) can afford to be taken for a ride again. They can afford to be played for suckers. Sri Lanka cannot. It will be a long cold war between the Sri Lankan state (under whichever administration) and global Tamil nationalism; a protracted struggle which may require internal regime replacement if any administration places the State, the country and future generations of its citizenry in danger of losing the existentially crucial contest.
*The author was Minister of Youth Affairs and Planning of the North-East Provincial Council 1988-89