Colombo Telegraph

Rethinking The Ethnic Imbroglio

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

It is widely accepted that the election defeat of President Rajapaksa shows the maturing of our democracy. But it does not signify a final and definitive victory of democracy: the impressive pro-Rajapaksa rallies at Nugegoda and then at Kandy attest to the continuing wide appeal of racist neo-Fascism in Sri Lanka. We should not, however, jump to the facile conclusion that democracy therefore is not really congenial to the national ethos. We must bear in mind the travails that democracy had to face elsewhere before finally coming through, a process that in Britain took many centuries beginning with Magna Carta. The crucial point is that in recent times we have seen a new dynamism in the Sri Lankan civil society, the essential desideratum without which there can be no democracy worth speaking about in Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately an important aspect, the ethnic aspect, of the last Presidential elections has been very seriously, and perhaps even widely, misunderstood. It has been seen as a victory of the ethnic minorities over the Sinhalese majority. It was on that ground that the former President held that he was not defeated and that the correct position is that he was unseated through a conspiracy, A bizarre argument, surely, considering that the minorities who at the most constitute 30% of the electorate could not by themselves have out-voted the former President. For that, a substantial proportion of the Sinhalese – 45% – had to join the minorities in voting against him. Furthermore, it is a fact that the vote went heavily against him in several true-blue predominantly Sinhalese areas. A most telling point is that the minority ethnic parties – the TNA, the SLMC, and others – voted for the Sinhalese candidate Maithripala Sirisena in the hope that he would end the woes to which they have been subjected by the Sinhalese racist neo- Fascists. The vote transcended the ethnic divide. The correct interpretation of the vote therefore is that it was a victory for the forces working for democracy and solutions for our ethnic problems. In other words, it was a victory for the forces working for a true multi-ethnic nation, the gestation of which we are presently witnessing.

But the process can of course be aborted. There should be no great difficulty in working out a national consensus on constitutional changes aimed at entrenching democracy. But difficulties could arise over a political solution for the Tamil ethnic problem. It seemed to most of us that the recent elections inaugurated a new period of Sinhalese/Tamil ethnic accommodativeness, but the UNHRC decision to postpone the presentation of the war crimes report by six months has been taken by the Tamils as a defeat for them. The near- unanimous rejection of that decision by Tamils both in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora is quite understandable. What is not so easy to understand is why Chief Minister Wigneswaran chose this moment to demand an international inquiry into alleged Sinhalese genocide against the Tamils since 1948, a demand that has drawn wide Tamil support. I will not go into the rights and wrongs of the genocide charge. Instead I will limit myself to making just one point, a point that is essential to the argument of this article: international inquiry into the genocide charge will not conduce to the spirit of mutual Sinhalese-Tamil accommodativeness that is essential for the working out of a political solution.

After the recent elections it seemed to be halcyon weather on the ethnic front, so that Wigneswaran’s demand came like a thunderbolt out of a bright blue sky. It was deeply disappointing, all the more so as it was unexpected. But should we not have expected something of the sort? After all there have been so many initiatives towards a political solution that came to nothing. Is history going to repeat itself? Is it that when it comes to the ethnic problem the only thing that we Sri Lankans can learn from history is that people will not learn from history? My questions point to the need for a radical re-thinking of the ethnic imbroglio. I suspect that what is needed above all is that each side – the Sinhalese and the Tamils – recognize and acknowledge certain unwelcome truths about their own contributions to the ethnic problem.

It should not be necessary to go into the entire history of Sinhalese-Tamil relations. We can conveniently begin with the period 1970 to 1977 when Sinhalese supremacy over the minorities was established beyond dispute. The imbalance of Tamil over-representation in the State sector was corrected. All that remained to be done was to hold the promised All Party Conference and work out a political solution, which may have been difficult but not impossible. Instead President JR unleashed his State terrorism on the Tamils, which reached its apogee in 1983. There is no rational ground on which the neo-Nazi genocidal 1983 pogrom can be excused. It was an explosion of gratuitous racist hatred towards the Tamils.

At this point I must make a clarification. There is law and there is morality and the two may not coincide. There are many things that are against the law but which may be excused or even approved on moral grounds. We must also take into account the moral conceptions of the international community. I don’t think that there can be the slightest doubt that the international community would have approved of the Tamils taking to the gun after 1983. The Tamils were being reduced to subhuman dirt, there was not the slightest hope of redress from the Sinhalese side, and it would have seemed at that time that the Tamils had no alternative to recourse to the gun to affirm their human status. Thereafter India trained and armed Tamil rebel groups, obviously because in the alternative the fall-out in Tamil Nadu would have been far too inimical to India’s legitimate interests. Certainly what India did was illegal in terms of international law but we have to bear in mind the moral factor. It is a significant fact that there has been no international condemnation worth speaking about of India’s counteraction.

What I have written in the two preceding paragraphs may seem outrageous to some Sinhalese. I must clarify that I am not arraigning the Sinhalese as a whole as racist. My targets here are the racists among the 1977 power elite who allowed a free hand to Sinhalese racists to go on the rampage against the Tamils with total impunity. I want the Sinhalese to recognize and acknowledge that it was those racists, not the Tamils, who were responsible for starting the 30-year civil war. One point to be borne in mind by the Sinhalese is that a huge number of their fellow-Sinhalese – maybe twenty thousand, maybe forty thousand – died in the war and that the primary responsibility for those deaths lies with the Sinhalese racists. Unless these facts are recognized and acknowledged by the Sinhalese as Sinhalese contributions to the ethnic problem there will never be any ethnic reconciliation worth the name in Sri Lanka.

I am not writing this article from a partisan point of view. The Sinhalese racists started the war, but the Tamil racists were responsible for its prolongation after 1994. In the remainder of this article I will mention only the salient points in support of my argument. Hardly anyone doubts that President Kumaratunga was absolutely sincere about a peaceful solution for the ethnic problem, going even to the extent of offering Prabhakaran lordship over the North for a period of ten years. True, she could not push things to a conclusion but the outcome could have been different if during the period 1994 to 2000 there had been a positive response from the Tamil side. The Norwegian peace initiative was rendered farcical by the LTTE insistence that no matters of substance be considered at all until the so-called existential problems of the Tamils were disposed of. Why did the LTTE deliberately sabotage Ranil Wickremesinghe’s chances of victory over Rajapaksa? The former was a soft-liner and his victory would have meant very considerable Western pressure on the LTTE to agree to a peaceful solution. The truth is that the LTTE never wanted a peaceful solution because it was convinced of a military victory and behind that conviction was a notion of Sinhalese racial inferiority. The Tamil side should acknowledge its own contribution to the ethnic imbroglio.

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