18 May, 2022


Problem & Solution In Sri Lanka

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Of the two paradigms of managing conflict, the Realist and the Idealist, the Realist paradigm would tell the Government that Mahinda Rajapaksa is such a power-center, such a polarity in a multipolar game, controls such an extent of political real estate, that he simply has to be drawn into the equation so as to manage a risky reform process and ensure stability. That means formally recognizing his irreducible sphere of political influence.

The Idealist ‘conflict transformation’ paradigm would tell them that confidence-building should be undertaken, and Mahinda should not be left out in the cold as a disgruntled potential spoiler or wrecker, but reached out to, drawn in and accommodated as a key stakeholder. Mahinda is the Godfather of the Sinhala ‘greater South’. He holds a veto.

The JO and the social forces undergirding it are just too robust and growing too rapidly to be politically maltreated without adverse consequence, but are systemically and institutionally too disempowered and dis-incentivized to regard themselves as responsible stakeholders in the system and politically behave as such. This is the consequence of the outrageous absurdity of a 54 member Opposition formation being fraudulently deprived of the role of the official Opposition and a 16 member party which openly allies itself with the Government, being conferred that role.

All attempts to suppress this Opposition and its leader, war-winning and postwar developmentalist President Mahinda Rajapaksa, are doomed to fail. With a lower growth rate today (under 4%) than in wartime, social disaffection is growing exponentially, and in such a setting, no legal suppression of the Rajapaksas (brothers and/or sons) can turn back the tide. 

The Government does not get that you cannot marginalize, alienate and seek to suppress the overwhelmingly largest segment of the Southern opposition, led by probably the country’s most popular figure, and expect it not to be tempted/provoked into playing spoiler.

Meanwhile the Tamil nationalists do not get that the majority Sinhalese on this small island so close to Tamil Nadu (and India), are existentially committed to a state with a strong center. The Sinhalese have a unitary ethos.

Similarly, the Sinhala nationalists do not get that it was possible to beat the world’s most formidable terrorist army but it is impossible to get the Tamils to submit politically. Tamil cooperation and partnership is feasible; Tamil submission to political, ideological and social domination is not.

One would have thought that 8 years after the successful end of Asia’s longest war, the Sinhalese nationalists would have understood what it was about, or bothered to find out. Instead, they keep asking questions such as “What are the Tamils complaining about? Where is the discrimination that they speak of? What’s not to like about us the Sinhalese and the way Sri Lanka is? Aren’t there Tamil in high places?” They should pause to ask themselves why Scotland came close to seceding through a referendum despite the fact that the UK had a Scottish Prime Minister, Gordon Brown!

Sinhala nationalists should look around—Ossetia and Abkhazia, Crimea, Scotland, Catalonia, Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s trending. The problem is how to contain it. The famous author Giuseppe de Lampedusa said in his classic novel The Leopard that “things must change if they are to remain the same”. Sinhala nationalists just don’t get this. A ‘smart patriot’ would.

The Tamil problem was never really about discrimination/equal rights/integration or economic development, or had long ceased to be about them. The issue is that the Tamils feel, rightly or wrongly (in my view, inaccurately) that their community is not an ethnic minority, but a nation, nationality or a distinct people possessing an intrinsic right of self-determination and sovereignty.

Why did the Tamil youth sacrifice themselves for thirty years, including as suicide bombers for twenty? Where did the fanatical self-sacrificial commitment come from? What motivated them must have been deep and authentic collective emotion, however distorted and misplaced.

The Sinhala nationalists do not understand that a Constitution is not and cannot be handcuffs or a straitjacket on the minority communities; it can only be a Social Contract, negotiated, not imposed.

If the Sinhala nationalists including the Sinhala Diaspora pressure groups want to know what it is the Tamils are aggrieved about and think they are struggling for, they only have to do two simple things instead of making embarrassingly obtuse and surreal remarks in public fora. The first is to study the LLRC Report. The second is to have a serious chat with some leading anti-Tiger rebels who were valuable allies of the Sri Lankan state, such as Karuna and Douglas Devananda. Then, comprehension of the truth may finally, belatedly, begin to seep through: the Tamil Question is about ALIENATION; it is about the relationship between the Tamil community and the Sri Lankan state, and the sense of prolonged alienation of that community from the Sri Lankan state. They feel it is not their state. They feel it is a state they are under, not one they fully belong to or fully represents them. They view the Sri Lankan state as The Other and feel the Sri Lankan state views them as the Other.

If the Sinhala nationalists wish to learn another reason why there has to be a political (not merely economic) solution based on some sufficiency of territorial autonomy, they only need to watch/read the impassioned speech made by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar (which should be re-telecast these days) made in Parliament while introducing the August 2000 Draft Constitution, imploring the legislature to help him in the global campaign he was fighting for this country against Tamil secessionism, by providing him with an answer to the question that foreign ministers and leaders asked him in every capital he visited: what is the political reform that the Sri Lankan state is offering the Tamils as an alternative?    

As for the Tamil nationalists, they must know that the contradiction between their reality as an ethnic minority/minority community on the island and their self-perception as a globalized nation cannot be sustained open-endedly and the latter imposed upon the Sinhalese. They must realize that for the Sinhala community, a majority on the island and a minority outside it, a strong central government as enshrined in the unitary form of state, is nothing less than ontological.

The Sinhala language, Theravada Buddhism and the unitary state are markers by which the Sinhalese stamp their unique way of being on this island and in the world, demarcating themselves from neighboring India. The Sinhala majority which refused to give up unitarism and convert to federalism even in the face of foreign intervention and repeated military defeats, is hardly likely to accept it now, having won a protracted war with tremendous sacrifice. With electoral safety valves shut down and economic pain widespread, a de-unitarizing/federalizing experiment could explode.

Machiavelli said that the enterprise entailing the deadliest risk in politics is to try to institute a new order, and to be a new ruler while doing so (“a new prince in a new principality”). To be a relatively new government trying to introduce a new political system in a polarized, poly-ethnic society with low economic growth, is as fraught an undertaking as one can imagine. The Government is intensifying the volatility of reform in every possible way.      

The solution is a triangulated compromise: neither federalism nor an unreconstructed unitary state, but a unitary state with power devolved to autonomous provinces. Mahinda Rajapaksa and R. Sampanthan aren’t the problem; nor are the JO and the TNA. If they are part of the problem, they are a far larger, indispensable part of the solution. No solution is possible against or without either Mahinda or Sampanthan. What the process –and the moment–needs is a respected domestic facilitator/mediator who is above the fray.

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Latest comments

  • 1


    I appreciate your initiative!
    What we need is negotiation skills those who have lot of patience and willing to go forward inch by inch.

    it need not be a single person but an independent group with necessary skills could.

    timing is also crucial just after an election may be an opportune moment.

  • 0

    Dayan again proves that he is a shallow thinker. We are all very very very disappointed with MS/RW, we are also looking for a solution but an MR-type solution is the last one in our mind. Dayan unashamedly thinks that MR is the ONLY solution.
    In the ultimate para Dayan says ~ “……….Mahinda Rajapaksa and R. Sampanthan aren’t the problem………”.
    If MR did NOT do what he did, he will be a nobody particularly wealthwise. Had Sampanthan deviated from his commitment, he would be wealthy and living it up. Dayan just cannot think laterally.
    Dayan sagaciously concludes ~ “……..What the process –and the moment–needs is a respected domestic facilitator/mediator who is above the fray…..”.
    Dayan. Please start searching for this mythical facilitator and while at it, do not write DO NOT WRITE DO NOT WRITE. Do you hear me?
    While you are at it look for a Buddhist. During this search you will find the proverbial hen’s teeth. Keep these.

  • 0

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 0

    We have tried all approaches you suggest and more. It is not the negotiators. It is that no one has come up with the solution. Everyone know the problems. No one wants to compromise. Democracy where there is a 75% majority ethnic community never works. When that community controls the armed forces there will be no compromise or democracy.
    If the current efforts fail then we descend into chaos. Whether it is one Domestic or many we need to find and agree on the criteria of the solution.
    Devolution of powers to the periphery in a state, or within a community or family goes against the primitive instinct in our DNA to survive and multiply our own DNA. HOW DO WE OVERCOME IT IS THE CHALLENGE.

  • 0

    The real problem is that the country had a monarchy for most of its history. Along came foreign imperialists and imposed a Westminister style government. The “coolie class” they tried to create to administer the country couldn’t control the masses. Now the masses have reverted to nationalism. While the intellectuals, mostly left a long time ago for economic reasons.

  • 0

    Dear Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, side stepping what is contained it in the parenthesis, you did correctly stated that:
    ” The issue is that the Tamils feel, rightly or wrongly (in my view, inaccurately) that their community is not an ethnic minority, but a nation, nationality or a distinct people possessing an intrinsic right of self-determination and sovereignty.” This is the core issue and you hit the nail squarely on the head. A lasting and just solution is embedded therein.

    Of course, for Ceylon Tamils it is rightly (not wrongly) held position that was not properly understood by the Sinhala people, and the fault was with the Tamil leadership just prior to the independence. SJV Chelva understood and articulated for the federal state but by then the die was cast.

    It is imperative to comprehend that Ceylon Tamils who has lived in that soil over two thousand years has distinct social, political and family set up, and legal system has nothing like across the Palk Straight. The only common item is the language and that again it is the old Tamil, being separated by the sea forever.

    Until the arrival of British colonialism two nations have been living amicably and defending the nations against the foreigners. The last king of the Jaffna Kingdom was taken as prisoner to Goa by the Portuguese and murdered. And when the British left they gave a label to this valiant people as ‘minority’, lumped with actual minorities Christians , Muslims and upcountry Tamils.

    Distinction must be understood between minorities and a distinct people who has the right to self-determination. Back in the 1920s a sharp-minded young man by the name SWRD Bandaranayake stated in Jaffna that independent Ceylon will likely to have a federal system.

    While Tamils and Sinhalese are fighting figuratively and literally for the last seventy years, Nehru and others smartly structured a Federal India leading to a stable land. If one of the person who can bring a sense in today’s Sri Lanka, it must include Dayan.

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