As the Sri Lankan general election approaches, there is an effort among pro-UNP media to raise an intriguing argument. This argument goes as follows: Voting the JVP is thoroughly unadvisable, because JVP MPs will side with Mahinda Rajapaksa, when the UNP-led government moves towards ‘reforms’, especially with regards to the ethnic question. Articles of this nature, published in outlets such as Lanka E News, first appear in Sinhala, and then in English. In the Sinhala articles, the term ‘balaya bedeema’ is used, when referring to the steps that a UNP-led government will supposedly take, in addressing Sri Lanka’s ethnic question. Civil society activists in Colombo’s English-speaking, West-oriented non-governmental lobby, who rely on funding from Western sources for their projects, have long advocated the term ‘balaya bedeema’ in their Sinhala language documents, media engagements and public events. This was also the preferred wording of Chandrika Bandaranaike, who held the executive presidency from 1994 to 2005, and engaged in repeated efforts to bring about political reforms to the ethnic question. Back in 1993-1994 and during her first few years in office, the term ‘balaya bedeema’ was regularly used when referring to a set of political reforms that would help address the political grievances of the Tamil community. When programmes for awareness raising and mass mobilisation, such as sudu nelum and thavalama were launched, the Sinhala documentation explaining the rationale for such initiatives also included the term ‘balaya bedeema’.
In what follows, this writer argues that the above-mentioned anti-JVP position of pro-UNP media is all but a hollow and desperate bid to woo swing voters. By castigating the JVP as prone to take the side of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sinhala nationalists in the face of ‘progressive’ balaya bedeema reforms, the pro-UNP media demonstrates that they either a) have no clue of the political evolution of the JVP and the party’s present-day situation, or b) they are fully aware of the JVP’s rising popularity and present-day position on the ethnic question, and are therefore desperate to engage in last-minute fear-mongering. In order to get to the bottom of this argument, it is necessary to take a minor detour, recapitulating the regional and international implications of the issue of political reform.
Political Reform: international ramifications?
Six months into the presidential election of January 2015, it is clear that external powers, especially the India-USA-EU consensus, played a role in the political developments that facilitated the political changes of early 2015. Such developments involved Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of a political party since 1994, with a strong track record of being ‘unmarketable’ at elections, taking a back seat. Through the mediation of Chandrika Bandaranaike – who, just like Wickremesinghe, is a trusted ‘friend’ of the West – a much more locally marketable ‘man of the people’, Maitripala Sirisena, was chosen to contest for presidency on behalf of a common front, headed behind the scenes by the Wickremesinghe-Bandaranaike duo.
One of the key reasons that led Delhi to endorse a process of regime change in Sri Lanka was the Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s reluctance to fulfil a pre-May 2009 promise to Delhi- that of implementing political reforms that would address the fundamental demands of the Tamil polity (read the Tamil leadership represented by the Tamil National Alliance), which Delhi could eventually market in Tamil Nadu to appease the province’s Tamil nationalist sentiments, and to enhance Delhi’s profile in Tamil Nadu as devoted to the cause of the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The failure of this plan was at the heart of strained relations between Delhi and Colombo. Some media reports referred to an angry President Rajapaksa returning from Delhi after attending Narendra Modi’s swearing in ceremony, the reason for presidential anguish being Modi’s reiteration of Delhi’s demand for political reforms in Sri Lanka. Irrespective of the truism of this claim, it is clear that Delhi was, and continues to be, deeply interested in witnessing some form of ‘political reform’ taking place in Sri Lanka vis-à-vis the ethnic question. It goes without saying that Delhi’s position influences perspectives on Sri Lanka in Brussels and Washington D.C.
The report on Norwegian engagement in the Vth Peace Process, produced by the Christian Michelsen Institute in Norway, reveals, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s zest to implement market reforms raised concern even among Western diplomats. Under a Ranil Wickremesinghe-led government after #gesl2015, there is a likelihood that Colombo would be receptive to the Delhi-led call for political reform, and get itself involved with a balaya bedeema discourse with the TNA.
A convoluted topic: parameters and public perceptions of political reform in Sri Lanka
In implementing political reforms with regards to the ethnic question, one can notice similitudes in the challenges that successive governments have faced. During the heyday of the LTTE, attempts at negotiation, mediation, external facilitation, confidence-building measures, and discussions on extensive devolution and quasi-federal reform were all perceived with scepticism in the Sinhala nationalist lobbies. The reason for that scepticism, from the Chandrika Bandaranaike proposals for a draft constitution to the Wickremesinghe-led, Oslo-facilitated Vth peace process and the aborted P-TOMs initiative, were the same; they were all deemed as measures that would ‘divide’ the ‘country’. The Sinhalese appellation ‘rata bedana salasum’ was tagged onto all the aforementioned reform initiatives. Political opportunism put aside, a substantial segment of the polity and Sinhalese society perceive extensive devolution and quasi-federal reforms as inimical to the interests of the Sri Lankan state. If a government, on the basis of a parliamentary majority, international support or the strength of an influential leader, seeks to ‘force in’ such reforms in the absence of public support, that government and its leader are prone to face a political crisis and a challenge to its power base, paving the path for wider protest and unrest.
Managing the Reform Challenge?
When considering political reforms, any future government needs to take past precedents strongly into account. Secondly, and most importantly perhaps, it is essential to take stock of public attitudes to political reform. A crucial question pertains to the domestic and international actors who are demanding political reforms. At home, the TNA is very keen to obtain a set of reforms from Colombo, which it can then market to its northern electorate, and reinforce its power base for posterity. Delhi’s keenness on political reforms was evoked earlier in this article.
At this point, it is of importance to highlight a crucial factor. It is not this writer’s objective to adopt a Sinhala nationalist stance and maintain that political reforms are unwarranted. This has been, for instance the position of the Jathika Hela Urumaya. This writer strongly believes that political reform, inspired by a context-specific amalgamation of elements from consociational power-sharing models and integrationist perspectives of political reform, would be extremely suitable and useful in enhancing the existing structures of governance (i.e. the Northern Provincial Council, municipalities and pradeshiya sabas).
Yet, this understanding of the suitability and worth of political reform does not blind this writer to a vital reality – that of the practical feasibility of implementing political reform in a context of asymmetric power, between an ethno-national majority and numerical minorities. On top of that, the Sri Lankan polity is marked by repetitive instances when political reform projects failed due to varying forms of majoritarian opposition, from the BC Pact of 1957 to the P-TOMS proposals of 2005.
Given this reality, if a programme of political reform is to be successfully negotiated, agreed upon, ratified in parliament and implemented in full, there is an earlier preliminary step to be dealt with – that of developing broad-ranging consensus on the necessity and usefulness of such reforms in managing minority rights and ethnic relations. The collective failure of all past leaders who attempted political reform lay in an inadequate appraisal of this preliminary necessity. Taking past precedents and the present-day political configuration into account, it can be noted with certitude that Sri Lanka has not yet entered the phase of implementing devolution or federalism-based political reform. If this reality is ignored and reforms are to be introduced directly, it amounts to putting the cart before the horse and abject pointlessness.
The real issues at hand?
How, then can a future government seek to reconcile this situation, and adopt a workable approach?
As a first step, a future government should imperatively recognise the fact that the Tamil people of northern Sri Lanka are concerned with priorities that go beyond political reforms, which neither the TNA nor any other Tamil political parties are keen to prioritise. An incomplete list of issues, which the next government imperatively ought to consider as absolute priorities, include the following:
- The full implementation of the national language policy (especially in predominantly Tamil areas),
- Developing a medium and long-term programme of support to war widows, single-parent (especially single mother) households
- A national programme for the welfare of orphaned children and young adults
- A plan of action to address drug proliferation, alcoholism and gender-based violence
- A strong initiative to ensure gender justice, with short, medium and long-term goals
- Steps to address the issue of caste-based discrimination in all aspects of life
- Ensuring an equitable policy of land distribution, returning acquired land to their rightful owners
- Ensuring fundamental human freedoms, including the right for political engagement, of upholding political views of one’s choice
- Ensuring, and fully guaranteeing the right of Tamil people to commemorate war victims, including fallen LTTE combatants, who, after all, happened to be disgruntled citizens of Sri Lanka
- A transparent national mechanism to examine wartime disappearances, deaths and acts of violence
Social reform instead of political reform?
The most advisable strategy for a future government to adopt is to take a social reform approach, which focuses not on the Tamil polity, but on reforms ensuring social justice for Tamil people. Developing a national plan of action to address the above-mentioned and related issues, with the participation of a broad range of civil society activists, victims’ support groups, religious leaders, academics and researchers, advocates of reconciliation and human rights activists is an absolute national priority. It is also a step with a lesser risk of a Sinhala nationalist backlash.
Instead of such a programme that focuses on people and society, the next government could repeat the past error of focusing exclusively on political reform, in a dance to Delhi’s current tune. If this path is pursued, past precedents indicate the inevitability of a political crisis. A programme of this nature is bound to strengthen the Sinhala nationalist lobby, which could mobilise around Mahinda Rajapaksa. It would be a birthday present to Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balaya and all other Sinhala nationalist entities.
The JVP: a strategic reaction is perfectly normal
Given the absence of public support to a UNP-led internationally influenced project for political reform involving the TNA, its connotations of being a concoction of pro-Western politicians and the of western-funded NGOs, the JVP, a national-level political movement that stands for ethno-national harmony within a united Sri Lankan state, cannot be expected to endorse such a reform drive. The JVP cannot be blamed for a decision of this nature, as the fundamental priority of any political movement is that of ensuring its vital support base and enhancing its electability.
Requesting the electorate to not to vote for the JVP, due to the probability that the JVP will oppose political reforms – a favourite pastime of pro-UNP media – is puerile at best. Let’s consider, for example, the (unlikely) hypothesis that the JVP does not perform well at the general election and is not represented in parliament. Even in the JVP’s absence from the legislature, a Sinhala nationalist backlash against Delhi-Ranil Wickremesinghe-TNA political reforms is inevitable. That backlash, if past examples are anything to go by, will take place within the legislature as well as on the streets, spearheaded not by the JVP, but by an assortment of Sinhala nationalist hardliners who have MR to rally around.
The advisable course of action?
It is in the UNP’s best interests to bring this issue up with its Indian and Western allies, and reach an understanding on the substantive political risks of pursuing the path of satisfying the demands of constitutional Tamil nationalism, represented mainly by the TNA. Beyond a set of cosmetic political reforms that it can market in the North, the TNA harbours no interest in the day-to-day problems affecting the Tamil people and especially the class and caste dimensions of such problems. The West is engulfed by the perception that the TNA is the main Tamil political entity, commanding the largest support base. The TNA wins elections with relative ease in the North due to a basic reason: there exists no viable and credible alternative to the TNA in the predominantly Tamil electoral districts of northern Sri Lanka. It will be in the best interests of a future UNP government (and indeed its Indian and Western backers) to proceed on a social reform agenda, and also take concerted steps to open more space for political participation, and help build alternative political voices that challenge the TNA’s electoral monopoly.
The present-day TNA is all but a Vellalar gentlemen’s’ Club, an unwelcome space for those from other castes and for rehabilitated ex-LTTE combatants, and for the most vulnerable segments of society. In this context, it is an absolute necessity in terms of basic democratic politics to help develop credible, fully democratic, non-violent and inclusive political alternatives to the TNA in northern Sri Lanka. A process of that nature would also provide a useful basis to launch a conversation on topics such as devolution of powers and institution building. International observers need to take adequate stock of this reality.
Delhi, Washington D.C. et al: set your priorities straight!
Unless Delhi and the West wishes a future return of the Rajapaksa regime, it is in their best interests to support a social justice-based reform agenda in northern Sri Lanka, which also involves an effort to strengthen democratic politics, diversifying political representation and enhancing inclusivity. Instead, adumbrating a commitment to practically non-feasible and politically risky political reform is proven hara-kiri and a love letter to hardline Sinhala nationalism. As the pro-UNP media does, singling out a political party striving to emerge as a decisive force in national politics fit to be the official opposition and/or to assume governmental office, amounts to all but petty fear-mongering and a growing fear of the JVP’s popularity.