Colombo Telegraph

Seizing The Time…..

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“The Bird of Time has but a little way, To flay – and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing” – Omar Khayyam (Rubaiyat)

The struggle for devolution in Sri Lanka can be equated with a medley relay. A combination of factors, internal and external, is needed to ensure the success of each of its phases. The pro-devolutionary moderates succeeded in winning the last phase in this contestation thanks to two conjunctural – and thus transitory – factors: the Colombo Commonwealth and Indian elections.

The participation of the Indian Prime Minister in the Colombo Commonwealth is of extreme importance to the Rajapaksas. Delhi obviously used this handle to ensure that the Siblings did not postpone the Northern PC election via a legal shenanigan; or turn the election into another ‘Humanitarian Operation’. The Rajapaksas would have also realised that had the Commonwealth Observers came up with a totally negative report about the manner in which the Northern election was conducted, even the ever-obliging Kamalesh Sharma would not have been able to save their Colombo-bash.

The Manmohan Singh government will complete its term on 31st May 2014. National elections will take place thereafter. This timetable has enhanced the political clout of Tamil Nadu, tremendously. If national elections had not been impending, the Congress administration could have afforded to ignore the Tamil Nadu factor. With national elections round the corner and with the BJP invigorated by the leadership of the execrable but popular Narendra Modi, the Congress cannot afford to alienate the Tamil Nadu voters, too much. A largely free and fair election resulting in a TNA-led provincial council was the basic minimum requirement to satisfy the moderate majority in Tamil Nadu (and isolate the pro-Tiger hardliners).

Delhi has achieved that, for the Congress, for the Tamils and for Sri Lanka.

The window of opportunity created by this fortuitous combination of Colombo Commonwealth and Indian elections is strictly time-bound. The Rajapaksas will not make any new anti-devolutionary moves until the Colombo Commonwealth is over. But Delhi will not be able to prise out more concessions from the Siblings, as is evident from the zero-outcome of the Salman Khurshid visit. President Rajapaksa did not promise to implement the 13th Amendment – let alone go beyond it – as he regularly used to do during the war. Instead he recycled his classic time-buying exercise – the parliamentary select committee.

In Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, foreign policy is determined by familial interests/desires.  In normal democracies, foreign relations are determined primarily by national interests. Australia cannot afford to boycott the Colombo Commonwealth because it needs Rajapaksa cooperation to prevent a refugee onslaught (possibly in a related development, an Australian Company has bought a Lankan company which owned a mineral sands ‘exploration tenement’ in Puttalam[i]). The importance of the Lankan market to New Zealand’s diary industry became evident during the curious ‘milk crisis’. The Rajapaksas reportedly used ‘Rolls Royce Diplomacy’ to prevent a British boycott of their Colombo Extravaganza (agreeing to purchase 10 aircrafts with engines from the British Rolls Royce Company plus talks to purchase 50 Rolls Royce limos for the Commonwealth)[ii]. Canada can afford to stand up to the Siblings because its geographical location and economic strength have made it invulnerable to Rajapaksa blackmail/persuasion.

Indian pressure on Sri Lanka will remain until Indian elections are over. But India’s capacity to obtain further concessions will diminish post-Commonwealth. Once elections are over, preventing the Rajapaksas from gravitating even more into the Chinese-orbit (rather than ensuring Tamil rights/winning over Tamil Nadu) will become Delhi’s real priority, irrespective of the political complexion of the new government.

Incidentally, Indo-Lanka ties cannot be reduced to the China factor, let alone the Tamil/Tamil Nadu factor. For instance, last month, the Indian Defence Minister admitted in parliament that Sri Lanka is one of India’s defence suppliers[iii].

Once the Commonwealth is over, the Rajapaksa vulnerability to Indian pressure will return to near-zero. Once Indian elections are over, the Tamil/Tamil Nadu factor will regress to the backburner (unless there is a hung-parliament making the new government totally dependent on regional allies for survival).

Thus the next phase of the struggle for devolution will have to be waged primarily on the national front.

Moderation and Unity

Last week the Eastern Provincial Council voted overwhelmingly to strengthen the 13th Amendment[iv].

The motion, asking the government to strengthen and not dilute the 13th Amendment, was tabled by the SLMC amidst the vociferous opposition of the SLFP Chief Minister. The Tamil and Muslim acolytes of the Rajapaksas in the council refused to vote for it. But the TNA, the SLMC and the UNP voted for the proposal, ensuring its success.

The passing of the motion was of considerable significance; the political alignment which enabled its victory even more so. A UNP-TNA-SLMC alliance is a necessary precondition for any successful effort to stymie the coming Rajapaksa assaults on devolution – and democracy.

A multi-ethnic, multi-religious society cannot remain peaceful and stable, when there is a dichotomy between democracy and devolution.

If democracy or devolution causes the dominance of an anti-pluralist entity/ideology, a pluralist country will plunge into crisis and conflict.

In Ceylon/Sri Lanka, democracy, in its majoritarian form, was used to undermine minority-rights, repeatedly. Subsequently, the sole representative fallacy became a threat to democracy. This deadly dichotomy between devolution and democracy, created and sustained by Sinhala extremists and the Tigers, needs to be overcome, if Sri Lanka is to escape the twin (and mutually sustaining) ills of majoritarian despotism and minoritarian separatism.

In the midst of the Impeachment crisis, in his address to the Annual Convention of Judicial Service Association, Mr. Wigneswaran told the attending judges, “You must continue performing your duties however challenging they are, bearing in mind the need to be balanced. You must continue to remain together, for you can be certain that there will be moves to split asunder that unity”.

Justice Wigneswaran’s excellent advice to the officials of an embattled judiciary would be of utmost relevance to Chief Minister Wigneswaran as he seeks to save the NPC and promote Tamil-rights, in a political playing-field totally skewed in Rajapaksa favour and in a regional/international landscape characterised by Indian/Western indifference/lip-service.

Maximalism is a mindset, a way of looking at the world and living in it. It is a habit that dulls the eyes, stops the ears, blunts the intellect and silences the conscience. It is also profoundly counterproductive to intelligent self-interest.

Moderation; the first step in achieving a political solution exceeding the 13th Amendment is preventing the further erosion of the 13th Amendment. The new APC would be a time-buying exercise, but in order to expose that the TNA might have to participate in it, at least initially.

The Rajapaksas are anti-democratic and anti-devolutionary because both impede the total concentration of power in the familial fist. They use opposition to devolution as a façade and a justification for their anti-democratic project.

Unity; Tamils cannot promote devolution without Sinhala and Muslim support any more than the Sinhalese can prevent the further erosion of democracy without minority-backing. Hopefully, the EPC vote on the 13th Amendment is not a political fluke but a forerunner of that alliance of moderates without which neither devolution nor democracy can be restored.



[iii] This is reportedly a reference to Solas Marine Lanka (Pvt.) Limited (a subsidiary of the Dubai-based Solas Marine Services Group) building 80 Fast Interceptor Crafts for the Indian Navy in a shipyard near the Hamilton Canal


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