Colombo Telegraph

Tamil Autonomy, Lee Kuan Yew Line, Putin Policy

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

“Machiavelli… brusquely remarks that a state undergoing these changes would fall victim to a stronger neighbour before it could have time to complete the cycle.” – Introduction to ‘Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy’, University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. xxxviii

It is good of Prof GH Peiris (‘Prophesies on Sri Lanka’s Global Vulnerability: A Critique’, The Island, June 14-15, 2013) to “spell out the essence of [his] perceptions on the issue” of province-based devolution. He writes that: “I believe that any constitutional provision which conforms to or perpetuate the ‘Two Nation Theory’ and the idea of the northern and eastern parts of the island constituting an ‘exclusive traditional Tamil homeland’ is detrimental to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation-state of Sri Lanka.”

While that statement is in and of itself, utterly unexceptionable, it is also profoundly irrelevant to this debate. Which constitutional provision conforms to this description? None! Certainly not the 13th amendment! If it were even a close approximation, the Tigers would not have rejected it. The facts that the TNA rejected the 13th amendment in 1988 and continues to refuse to accept it as the solution to the Tamil question, and that the entirety of the Tamil Eelamist Diaspora network as well as Gajan Ponnambalam’s TPNF treat this constitutional provision with angry scorn, makes nonsense of Prof Peiris’s contention.  Let us, however, leave interpretation aside for a moment and examine the ground on which the 13th amendment and its wellspring the Indo-Lanka Accord are based.

Far from being based on any two nation theory, the Accord delineates it foundation by

acknowledging that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual plural society consisting, inter-alia, of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims (Moors) and Burgers; recognising that each ethnic group has a distinct cultural and linguistic identity which has to be carefully nurtured… conscious of the necessity of strengthening the forces contributing to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, and preserving its character as a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi- religious plural society, in which all citizens can live in equality, safety and harmony, and prosper and fulfil their aspirations…”

Now this recognition of Sri Lanka’s multiethnic, multilingual, multi-religious and plural character may sound like a ‘two nation theory’ to Prof Peiris, but that’s his misperception. Neither the Accord nor the 13th amendment defines the North and East as an “exclusive traditional Tamil homeland”, as Prof Peiris alleges. What the Accord does say is the following: “…also recognising that the Northern and the Eastern provinces have been areas of historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil speaking peoples, who have at all times hitherto lived together in this territory with other ethnic groups…”

How can a clear statement to the effect that the Tamil people in the North and East “have at all times hitherto lived together in this territory with other ethnic groups” be an assertion of an “exclusive traditional Tamil homeland”?  On the contrary it is the opposite, the negation, of any notion of exclusivity or even prior occupation of the North by the Tamils (“have at all times hitherto lived together in this territory with…”).

Prof Peiris charitably clubs my stance with that of the signatories to the Vadukkodai Resolution right through to the late unlamented Velupillai Prabhakaran. Here his categorisation is slightly at variance with that of Anton and Adele Balasingham, writing as Brahmagnani, in the paper published by the LTTE until its retreat from Jaffna in late 1995.  Devoting a full page  to a full-on critique of the very book (‘Sri Lanka, the Travails of a Democracy: Unfinished War, Protracted Crisis’, Vikas 1995) that Prof Peiris quoted from earlier in this debate, they opined that: “Sri Lankan political discourse, in recent times, has produced an amazing variety of political theorists and analysts whose main vocation seems to be to produce denunciatory criticisms of the politico-military strategy of the LTTE and offer ideas or solutions as to how to end the so-called terrorist menace. Among these political theorists Dayan Jayatilleka stands out as a unique character in his irrational and ruthless criticism of the LTTE.” (Inside Report – Tamil Eelam News Review, June 30, 1995).

The problem, its origins, and its present status as well its solution has been captured by one of the earliest and longest-standing critics of Sinhala majoritarianism and its tragic consequences, not least for the Sinhalese. That critic is no Tamil, Westerner, Christian, Marxist or NGO ideologue – those creatures of the night that haunt the Sinhala xenophobic imagination– but precisely a man recognised almost universally as one of the most outstanding minds and political leaders that Asia has produced in modern times, namely Lee Kuan Yew.

His oft-repeated analysis is most authoritatively contained in his memoirs, ‘From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000’. Devoting six pages to tracking Sri Lanka’s decline, he traces the tragedy thus:

“…He [SWRD Bandaranaike] had decided on nativism and…had become a champion of the Sinhala language. It was the start of the unravelling of Ceylon…”

“…During my visits over the years I watched a promising country go to waste. One-man-one vote did not solve a basic problem. The majority of some eight million Sinhalese could always outvote the two million Jaffna Tamils who had been disadvantaged by the switch from English to Sinhalese as the official language. From having no official religion, the Sinhalese made Buddhism their national religion. As Hindus, the Tamils felt dispossessed…”

“…I was impressed by his [Junius Richard Jayewardene’s] practical approach and was persuaded to visit Sri Lanka in April 1978. He said he would offer autonomy to the Tamils in Jaffna. I did not realise that he could not give way on the supremacy of the Sinhalese over the Tamils, which was to lead to civil war in 1983 and destroy any hope of a prosperous Sri Lanka for many years if not generations…”

That then is Lee Kuan Yew’s diagnosis, but what was his solution? His logic leads to this conclusion which I share:

“A political solution was the only way, one considered fair by the Jaffna Tamils and the rest of the world; then the Tamil United Liberation Front, the moderate constitutional wing of the Tamil home rule movement, could not reject it. I argued that his [Premadasa’s] objective must be to deprive the terrorists of popular support by offering the Tamils autonomy to govern themselves through the ballot box…It is sad that the country whose ancient name Serendip has given the English language the word ‘serendipity’ is now the epitome of conflict, pain, sorrow and hopelessness.” (pp. 460-466)

Consider also his remarks made to Prof Tom Plate in ‘Citizen Singapore: How to Build a Nation’, Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew, a volume in the series ‘Giants of Asia’.  In an extended conversation in late 2009, mere months after the victory, Lee Kuan Yew observes as follows:

“Another example is Sri Lanka. It is not a happy, united country. Yes, they [the majority Sinhalese government] have beaten the Tamil Tigers this time but….the Jaffna Tamils have been in Sri Lanka as long as the Sinhalese. …I don’t think they [the Tamils] are going to be submissive or go away.” (p55)

What is perhaps most crucial from the point of view of a strategy and even political philosophy is the point that Prof Tom Plate immediately makes about Lee Kuan Yew’s views on post war Sri Lanka:

“See that’s really a fascinating point, because to the extent that we have any sense of who you are at all, we think of you as this hard-boiled force-first guy. But in fact your system of government is much softer, consensual and intelligent, whereas what the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka are doing is a caricature of an LKY [Lee Kuan Yew] who never existed.” (Ibid)

This then is Asian modernity and ‘smart power’ at its best. Singapore understood and exemplifies the understanding that in a challenging neighbourhood, a strong state is a smart, supple, innovative state, sensitive to its strategic environment. This is why I urged the ‘Lee Kuan Yew line’ of Tamil autonomy through the ballot box i.e. the implementation of the 13th amendment, after the war, and I stand opposed to its roll-back today.

Contrary to the claims of Sri Lankan officials who present our victory as the first such in the 21st century, Vladimir Putin won a major war against a terrorist militia in this century a few  years prior to May 2009. So too did the Angolan government, by the way. Putin is no NGO-backed cosmopolitan liberal and is in fact reviled by them. He is however, a very smart leader who combines hard power with autonomy reforms. He implemented regional autonomy of a far wider sort than the 13th amendment, in parallel to his military drive against the Chechen terrorist militia (a drive which included the aerial bombing of targets in Grozny) and has allowed that autonomous entity to become prosperous– which is probably why there aren’t any war crimes/violations of international humanitarian law campaigns in the UN HRC in Geneva, not even on its sidelines by Channel 4 and INGOs, against Russia’s victory in Chechnya. To the horror of Tamil Diaspora ideologues and activists, in the closing year of our war and in its aftermath I had expressly recommended Putin’s policy of autonomy for Chechnya.

Prof Gerry Peiris and I shall have to agree to disagree on Yugoslavia, India and Geneva. As for my own role in Geneva May 2009, it is best not to be detained either by my protestations or the critiques of my ‘detractors’ or indeed by Prof Peiris’ curious reconstruction, and look instead to more authoritative and independent sources. The Economist (London) described by Karl Marx as “the most intelligent defender of capitalism” referred to in its August 6-8, 2009 issue to “…Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Geneva, who warded off the threatened UN war-crimes probe in May [2009]…”

Thanks to Wikileaks what is now known beyond doubt is that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instructed its Mission in Geneva to throw its weight behind the move on Sri Lanka at the UN HRC Special Sessions in 2009. She sent the following explicit instruction:

“Mission Geneva is requested to convey to the Czech Republic and other like-minded members of the HRC that the USG supports a special session on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and related aspects of the humanitarian situation. Mission is further requested to provide assistance, as needed, to the Czech Republic in obtaining others, signatures to support holding this session…Mission is also instructed to engage with HRC members to negotiate a resolution as an outcome of this special session, if held. Department believes a special session that does not result in a resolution would be hailed as a victory by the Government of Sri Lanka. Instructions for line edits to the resolution will be provided by Department upon review of a draft.” [Cable dated 4th May 2009 from Secretary of State (United States)]

So the US was hardly absent from the equation and was ‘leading from behind’. After the special session failed to obtain the prescribed outcome, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay said to Susan Rice: “Sri Lanka and its allies…simply outmanoeuvred the EU”.  [Cable date 25 June 2009]

To quote another source hardly supportive of Sri Lanka’s accomplishment in Geneva, Gordon Weiss describes my role in the concluding chapter of ‘The Cage’: “Dayan Jayatilleka, one of the most capable diplomats appointed by the Rajapaksa regime, had outmanoeuvred Western diplomats to help Sri Lanka escape censure from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. (p 256-7)”.

So there we have it then: that’s the story as seen by critical observer-analysts. It is rather different from Prof GH Peiris’ grotesque comic-book version.

As for the votes on the Sri Lanka resolutions of 2012 and 2013, Prof Peiris will find that his explanatory framework cannot accommodate the votes against Sri Lanka cast by Non Aligned members who voted with Sri Lanka in May 2009 or abstained, do not have Tamil voters, and are by no means allies or economic dependencies of the USA and the West—such as Brazil, Uruguay, Peru and Argentina (all oriented to the Left). Nor can he explain the abstentions of similar states which voted with us in May 2009, such as Angola. My own reading is that Sri Lanka’s narrative is losing out globally. If, on the contrary, the slide was entirely due to India’s shift, then surely Sri Lanka has to press the re-set button and restore the relationship, and if the shift in India is due to domestic political compulsions then it is in Sri Lanka’s interest to help Delhi offset those pressures, especially in an election year, by moving positively on devolution.

Contrary to Prof Peiris’s claim I do not consider the legendary US diplomat, the late Richard Holbrooke as “a fount of wisdom”. Nor however, do I regard him as Prof Peiris does, with the misplaced superiority and coarseness common to Sinhala xenophobes, as “a bumpkin”. My point was that Sri Lanka’s dominant discourse (of which Prof Gerry Peiris’ is a literate example), characterised as it is by an antiquarian historicism and delusions of Sinhala exceptionalism and superiority, fails to convince the world community and especially its most powerful members such as the world’s sole superpower and the world’s most populous democracy, both of which are Asian powers and one of which is our neighbour. My further point was that Holbrooke’s response to Milosevic’s invocation of pre-modern historical claims prefigures the likely response of the world system (and world opinion) to Sinhala Buddhist revivalist ideology propels the dominant discourse today. I tend to recall the grimly cautionary note often struck in the pages of the Lanka Guardian by Hector Abhayavardhana, one of Sri Lanka’s most penetrating minds, who said that “the Sinhalese are the Serbs of South Asia”.

I must add that I have never once said that “in the US the mainstream is a sewer”. That phrase was minted by distinguished retired Ambassador N.M.M.I Hussein and it referred to Sri Lanka, not the USA. I have always been an admirer of the US ‘mainstream’ while being a critic of certain aspects of US foreign policy. The closest I have come to using the phrase Prof GH Peiris attributes to me is that “in Sri Lanka, the lunatic fringe is the mainstream”. Having proved precisely that point by his polemic, he can look it up in my first book which he quoted in an earlier intervention.

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