By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Like President JR Jayewardene before him, President Rajapaksa will win the (re) election and lose the crisis. In these days when ‘homespun’ is all the rage, one may well resort to the Sinhalese saying “do not fall in broad daylight, into the pit one plunged into at night”. The Rajapaksa regime is about to take a long jump in broad daylight into the same pit that his most illustrious predecessor President Jayewardene plunged into at night as it were, in the 1980s, culminating in the traumatic events of 1987.
How does one define political reconciliation in Sri Lanka? I regard it as the problem of the reconciliation of collective political identities in a manner that permits a larger, shared political identity to be negotiated or evolve.
That definition was the easy part. The effort at political reconciliation must take place on the terrain of reality, not of abstract concepts or ideologies. How does one define reality? Reality in this case denotes the realities of power relations, which in turn derive from and reflect, in some considerable measure, external and domestic geopolitical realities. This must be the framework, parametric more than prescriptive, of the discussion.
The unreality and unreason of the Sri Lankan discourse, in both its (state/govt) policy and (civil society) critical commentary manifestations, never ceases to amaze me. Reading the opinions on political reconciliation and the obstacles to such, in the commentary on the fifth anniversary of the end of war, I am struck by the representatives or ideologues of the Sri Lankan state who take up postures which ignore that we are vulnerably located in a uni-polar South Asian region and on the doorstep of the pre-eminent (or hegemonic) regional power. I am similarly struck by the number of holders of postgraduate degrees as well as aspirants to them, who are able to pontificate confidently on what needs to be done in and by Sri Lanka, without mentioning, still less taking into very serious account, the factor of a 300,000 (Plus) strong battle-hardened military. These errors have tragic antecedents.
In the 1980s, the arrogant pro-western UNP elite underestimated India and wound up with intervention which triggered a bloodbath in the South. Earlier, in the post independence years, its precursor, the pro-Western Ceylonese elite was completely blind to the newly emergent social forces until they took the form of the Pancha Maha Balavegaya in 1955-’56, displaced the old elite and established their durable dominance. Today the military is the most important new social — and electoral—force, or the armed vanguard of the Pancha Maha Balavegaya.
I find any discussion with strategic implications, be they external relations, ethnic or electoral, which does not factor in (a) the Indian state and (b) the victorious post-war Sri Lankan military, except to bewail and bemoan either ‘external interference’ or ‘militarisation’, to be a waste of time and indicative of the vacuum of serious thinking, analysis and intellection in general that characterizes Sri Lanka today, unlike in the first four or five decades after Independence. Both errors stem from the same root: absence of Realism which in turn represents an insufficiency of Reason, of rationality, since a rational analysis would yield a realistic assessment and conclusions.
Any discussion on political reconciliation must start with its post-war nature. The subject is post-war political reconciliation, which indicates that the experience and outcome of the war cannot be wished away. Any post-war reconciliation formula must reflect the post-war realities as well as the larger ones in the region and the world outside.
At the risk of reductionism, I would assert that a meaningful discussion of the roadmap for post-war political reconciliation in Sri Lanka must have as its nodal point, the intersection of the strategic and security interests of the Sri Lankan and Indian States. Put slightly differently, the strategic and security interests of the Sri Lankan and Indian states must constitute the basic parameters of the discussion of political reconciliation. Those are the boundaries of the roadmap for reconciliation. The discussion and resultant formula must be lie within those boundaries. Beyond them lies bloodshed and tragedy.
What follows is my attempt to find a formula for political reconciliation which may lie within those parameters.
Is there perspective which could accommodate the principles of democracy, non-discrimination and non-domination, reconciling realism with fair play in a new, post-war Social Contract? Perhaps the inspiration could come from common corporate practices, those of shareholding and partnerships, or the concept of ‘multi-stakeholderism’ most recently popularised by Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff (in the global discussions on an alternative internet).
The Sri Lankan state and society must be re-envisioned, not as Sinhala-Buddhist or Sinhala Buddhist dominated, but as a multi-stakeholder partnership between all of the island’s constituent communities. The Sinhala nationalist notion of monopoly of power and decision making must be eschewed in favour of the recognition that there are stakeholders and they are multiple, with the Sinhala Buddhist being one such. These multiple stakeholders are placed on the same plane and an equal footing, but it does not mean that each has equally-sized stake in state power.
A majority shareholder and a minority shareholder are neither equals nor in a hierarchical relationship of domination and subordination. A minority shareholder cannot expect to be equal to the majority shareholder in terms of decision making, but the fact that there are minority shareholders does not place them on a lower plane. The majority and minority shareholders are treated with equal respect but have unequal decision-making weight around a common, shared table. Inequality in a horizontal relationship does not mean the relationship is a vertical one.
Partnerships are often unequal but that does not mean a partnership is between a super-ordinate and a subordinate.
In the first place inequality is not at the level of the individual: neither the majority shareholder/partner nor the minority shareholder/junior partners are superior or inferior as citizens, still less human beings. Sinhalese and Tamils must have equal rights and equal treatment as individual citizens.
In the second place, even in a collective sense i.e. as communities, political inequality does not necessarily mean and must therefore not be taken to mean political or social domination and subordination.
The nationalist Sinhalese, especially the Sinhala Buddhists, seem to believe that their superiority in numbers entitles them not merely to a larger share in decision making around the table but to a two tiered structure in which the Tamils either hold inferior shares or none at all.
The Tamils feel that mere admission of the reality of minority shareholding will doom them to an inferior status. Therefore, irrespective of the vast asymmetry of numbers they should wield an equal share of power and decision-making as the majority shareholders.
The Tamils are willing to be partners only on the basis of complete equality while the Sinhalese Buddhists believe themselves to be entitled due to their arithmetical superiority to a superiority of status which Tamils, Muslims and Christians must reconcile and subordinate themselves to.
Both the Sinhalese and Tamils conflate majority with superiority and minority with inferiority. Both confuse the horizontal and the vertical, the social with the political. Neither has a democratic notion of partnership. A co-pilot is not the absolute equal of the pilot in his role and function, but is in no way dominated or discriminated against by virtue of the role and status. A minority shareholder is not by any definition marginalised by that status; nor must she be made to feel so or feel herself to be so. Similarly, the struggle against marginality and marginalization cannot be a project to equalise the unequal; to regard a minority as a majority, or a majority as a minority. The South African whites cannot as a community regard themselves as the political equal of South African blacks (the post-apartheid South African Constitution-makers rejected federalism), while they are certainly equal citizens of the new South Africa. As in the case of the US Civil Rights movement, the fight against discrimination and marginality is a fight for integration as equal citizens— not ‘back to Africa’ or ‘self determination for the Black Belt’ (the contiguous states in the US with a black majority).
Imagine the Sri Lankan state as a circle. That circle has a centre. The Sinhalese Buddhists, by virtue of being the arithmetical majority, must not be placed closer to the centre of the circle than the Tamils, Muslims or Christians, simply because they are minorities. The problem has been that the Sinhalese nationalists conceive of the state not as a single circle with a single centre, but as a series of concentric circles in which they are closer the centre than the ethnic and religious minorities. It must also be recognised that though there must be equidistance between the centre of state power and policy making and all the communities of Sri Lanka, i.e. while the radius remains constant, the size of the slice or share of seats that each community occupies will be proportional to their democratic electoral representation and ultimately their demographic weight. Thus equidistance from power/to power there must be, but equidistance does not mean equal shares of power, just as an unequal share of power does not mean difference in distance from the System’s centre.
Historical realism indicates that after a Thirty Years War which culminated in a dramatic and decisive victory, the Sri Lankan military has also to be recognised as a legitimate stakeholder in the state and the decision-making process. The danger which must be resisted and rolled-back, is the granting of a golden share to the military, thereby encroaching on and shrinking the sphere of sovereignty of the democratically elected civilian leadership.
Verticality does come in, but not between the communities. Verticality is pertinent as a power relationship between the centre and the periphery. While the periphery must have irreducible autonomous political space, the autonomous periphery cannot be placed on the same level of equality as the centre. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly the centre represents the whole while the periphery represents the part, and the latter must not be placed on the same plane as the former. This is especially so when there is an executive president elected directly by the citizens of the country as a whole, which gives the office a more inclusive and representative mandate, a much broader degree of popular consent of the citizenry and therefore a higher degree of legitimacy than an elected regional or provincial assembly.
Secondly the centre is the seat, the engine and the guarantee of the centripetal, which must take precedence over the centrifugal. The geopolitical realities are that the Scottish, the Quebecois and the Catalans do not have vast numbers of co-ethnics next door (unlike the Tamils of Sri Lanka’s North and East) while English and Spanish are spoken not only by ethnic natives in their mother countries (as is Sinhala)! Furthermore the Sinhalese cannot afford to abolish the strong executive presidency, convert to de jure or de facto federal arrangements, recognise ‘internal self determination’, permit referenda on separation and live in a permanent state of collective angst.
The New (Post-war) Social Contract must be based on the following platform or pillars: (A) zero tolerance not merely of terrorism but also secessionism (B) the complete elimination of discrimination by the legal and constitutional implementation of the UN Durban Declaration and Programme of Action against Racism, Racial Intolerance, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance (C) a horizontal relationship between the constituent communities of Sri Lanka; one of democratic multi-stakeholder partnership (D) an irreducible measure of provincial autonomy.
*Dr Jayatilleka was Chairperson/Rapporteur of the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the United Nations’ Durban Declaration & Programme of Action against Racism, Racial Intolerance, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance (2008-2009). He was a Minister in the first Cabinet of the North-East Provincial Council in 1988-89, created by the 13th amendment (1988) following the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987.
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