Colombo Telegraph

Reconsidering Ethnic Reconciliation

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

The essential precondition without which there can be no ethnic reconciliation worth the name is a political solution to the ethnic problem. Yet we hardly hear anything about it these days while the focus is almost entirely on ethnic reconciliation. Some time ago Tamils who seemed to be well-informed were assured that an understanding had been reached between the TNA and the Government about a political solution but nothing definite has been heard about it up to now. We all know that the problem is not so much that of reaching an understanding at an elite political level but that of selling it to the Sinhalese masses who have a deep enduring allergy to devolution on an ethic basis. So, it appears that a solution can be found only through a very radical modification of 13 A or by jettisoning it altogether. But that will not be acceptable to our Tamils who have long been fixated on the idea that the only solution has to be on the basis of a very wide measure of devolution on an ethnic basis. However the Tamils will have no alternative to accepting a solution on an entirely different basis if India agrees to that, while jettisoning 13 A altogether.

What I am driving at is that what we have on our hands is not a purely indigenous Tamil ethnic problem but an Indo-Sri Lanka Tamil ethnic problem, in which India arguably plays not an ancillary but a key role. I will refer to two recent developments as pointing to that fact. What happened recently at Jaffna University was a clash between Tamil and Sinhalese students, not an affray in which the latter were beaten up by the former. Yet the available details suggest strongly that it was a remarkably one-sided affray. The Tamil students began it all by attacking the Sinhalese ones; the latter sought to hide themselves and were ferreted out by the former; the five students who were injured, one seriously, were all Sinhalese; the student ring-leader sought by the police was a Tamil; and the Sinhalese students have been refusing to resume their studies there because of fear of further attacks. Those are the available reported facts. Assuming that they are accurate, it seems remarkable that members of the conquered, the Tamils, went on the offensive against members of the conqueror, the Sinhalese who furthermore have been relishing their triumphalist role in the North since 2009. Those remarkable facts point to the sense of strength that our Tamils as a whole seem to drive from the Tamil Nadu/ India factor: they are in a minority in Sri Lanka but they are part of a majority regionally, and that numerical disequilibrium, they seem to believe, is going to count in their favor some day – in favor, that is, of Eelam.

The other development I have in mind is the proposal of the Northern Provincial Council for a memorandum of understanding with the Government on the sharing of the Moragahakanda waters. It was the subject of a very important editorial in the Island of August 1, which I see has also been reproduced in a website. Irrigation is on the Concurrent List, a constitutionally grey area which carries much potential for contention – which in this case can be expected to assume an ethnic form. In my view it is a good example to show why devolution on an ethnic basis can be expected to aggravate the ethnic problem, not solve it. Anyway, what is of particular interest for the purpose of this article is the following sentence in the editorial about the TNA controlled NPC: “It never misses an opportunity to give expression to its antipathy towards the state and that practice has put paid to the country’s reconciliation efforts under the new government”. I must add that the NPC Chief Minister in particular has acquired something like notoriety for his injudiciously belligerent posturing over the ethnic problem. That is partly an expression of a burning Tamil sense of injustice – with which I am totally in sympathy. But behind it there is also a consciousness of the power of the Tamil Nadu/India factor.

I doubt very much that India will agree to jettison 13 A unless – a very unlikely eventuality – powerful members of the international community persuade it to do so after recognizing that devolution on the basis of ethnicity will almost certainly aggravate the problem, not solve it. What options are left to us? To find the answer we have to ask what ethnic problems are about. They are about perceptions of discrimination among ethnic minorities, perceptions that they are not being given fair and equal treatment. Discrimination is the core of the problem, it is discrimination that has to be eliminated, and that can be done without resort to any devolution as in the case of immigrant minorities in the West. The Tamil objection to that is that they are not an immigrant minority in Sri Lanka but a national minority with a right to self-determination, inclusive of a right to set up a separate state. But nothing in what I am proposing precludes their engaging in a glorious struggle to exercise their right of self-determination, which incidentally the international community does not recognize as a right outside a colonial context. In the meanwhile let us proceed to enact the legislation and set up the institutions to secure their rights, as in Britain, Canada and other Western countries. There is nothing inimical to legitimate Tamil interests in what I am proposing. Let them continue their glorious struggle for self-determination; let us engage in the relatively inglorious struggle to secure for them the rights recognized by the international community.

I come now to the crucial question. The proposal I am making may be sound at a theoretical level, but will effective action be taken? I believe that attitudinal changes are necessary as a pre-condition for effective action. In my article Against nonsense on reconciliation I urged that both the Sinhalese and the Tamil sides should acknowledge their own transgressions and stop blaming only the other side. Nothing can be gained by continuing to demonize the other side. In particular I wanted the Sinhalese side to acknowledge that they were responsible for starting the war: discrimination taken to a grotesque extreme was followed by State terrorism from 1977 to 1983, which made a violent rebellion unavoidable. I want them now to acknowledge that to regard the ethnic war in terms of LTTE terrorism and nothing more than that is untenable, indeed ridiculous.

Over the decades I have written more than one article arguing that case, and I must declare that as far as I can recall I have not used the term “terrorist” about the LTTE even once. I consider that it would be superfluous to write a further article on that subject, the case being simple, straightforward, irrefutable. There are now more than a hundred definitions of terrorism, and there can be hundreds more without finality ever being reached. But there is broad consensus on one point: terrorism involves the killing of innocent civilian non-combatants. That certainly fits the Pettah bomb, the Maradana bomb, the Sacred Bo Tree massacre etc but it is ridiculous to pretend that the quarter century war consisted only of that kind of terrorist action. It was war, and the horrible truth is that it was a war of national liberation, “horrible” because the LTTE stood for the most retrograde kind of ethno- nationalism that led to the Nazis in Germany and today to the apartheid Zionists of Israel.

The preceding paragraph would explain what looks like a schizophrenic attitude among Western countries towards the LTTE: on the one hand they have been ready enough to declare the LTTE a prohibited terrorist group while on the other hand they have allowed it much latitude to carry out its operations. Most Sri Lankans see that as the expression of hypocrisy and double standards on the part of Westerners who cannot forgive us for having “won the war against terrorism” contrary to their expectations. The explanation is really this: the West recognized that the LTTE was guilty of horrendous terrorist crimes, but it also recognized the LTTE as a nationalist movement though its nationalism was of a very horrible order. Anyway the important point is that if we continue to hold that the LTTE was a purely terrorist movement, that we have had a terrorist problem and not an ethnic problem, and that the war was a war against terrorism, there will be no ethnic reconciliation, not this year nor next year, nor even in a thousand years. We need to stop nonsense about terrorism, as part of the attitudinal changes from which a political solution can grow, instead of having solutions imposed on us by ignorant interfering foreign busybodies.

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