18 May, 2024


The Age Of Identity

By Mervyn de Silva

Mervyn De Silva

It was just the other day that Dr Ponna Wignaraja reminded me that the ‘Lanka Guardian’ was closely associated with the United Nations University (UNU) South Asian Perspectives project from its inception. That is correct. Professor Shelton Kodikara, I recall, was the other Sri Lankan who joined this ‘task force’ on nation building together with many other distinguished representatives from the region.       

Needless to add, Dr Wignaraja’s reminder was part friendly persuasion, part polite blackmail. I was asked to look back, pick up some of the main strands of the ongoing discussion, and put down something on paper – which I did, almost overnight. So much by way of explanation and apology. Anyway, it’s the next two days’ exchanges that really matter.

The coincidence was fortuitous. The ‘Lanka Guardian’ was launched in 1978, the year in which the new constitution established an all-powerful Executive Presidency. Mr J.R.Jayewardene, leader of the United National Party (UNP) had assumed office as prime minister in July 1977. The conservative UNP, the strongest party in the island, had won a massive 5/6th of the parliamentary majority, albeit on 52% of the popular vote. Using that overwhelming majority, he installed himself as the first executive president of Sri Lanka, a former British colony that since independence in 1948, had earned itself a reputation as a comparatively stable and lively democracy, with a high PQLI rating. Prof. Jeyaratnam Wilson, one of the best known Sri Lankan constitutional pundits, described the new structure as “Gaullist”.

The declared rationale for this unusual political-­constitutional exercise, described by some critics, as a “constitutional coup” was “instability”. Political stability, it was argued, was a prerequisite for “rapid economic development”. The model was Singapore, the target a “second Singapore”. Though the opposition denounced the exercise a “constitutional coup”, the vision of a second Singapore on a larger scale did excite the popular imagination. Yet a Gaullist president did not deliver. The Singaporean ideal proved elusive. Why?

For all its parliamentary strength, and the executive power and “emergency powers” it soon acquired, the Jayewardene regime failed. One of the major reasons being state policy and party politics, but most of all because of the mishandling of a fundamental problem – the inter-communal relations. It was an experts’ symposium in Singapore, which concluded, “Yet, as elsewhere around the world the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union have swept like an eraser across the blackboard of South Asia’s security equations, the only exception being Sri Lanka’s bitter feud between Tamils and Singhalese”.

At the I.I.S.S. conference in Seoul, Prof. Sir Michael Howard said in his keynote address, on ‘Old Conflicts and New Disorders’, “In South Asia, the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir seems no nearer a solution, and racial tensions still tear apart Sri Lanka apart. No doubt you can think, we shall be hearing of many more.”

My focus is therefore on the Sri Lankan crisis in which the ethnic conflict is the defining issue. It was the presence of Tamilnadu, the South Indian state, which forced us to broaden the discussion and our perspective. Hence we took a sub-regional approach. If the arrival of a 60,000 strong Indian peace-keeping force did nothing else, it certainly did compel us to widen the range of inquiry even further. Now we speak in the dark shadow of Ayodhya. A regional perspective is inescapable given the sub-continental cultural matrix and history. At a time when national borders are vanishing, the borders in our own mind need to be erased in the interests of serious inquiry and discussion. After the slight detour, I return to the 1978 constitution.

That constitution, its supporters argue, did represent an unparalleled concentration and centralisation of power, but it also performed a necessary and urgent national task ­accelerated development. The 1971 Sinhalese youth insurrection was a warning; now, the Tamil youth had taken to violence and the incipient Tamil terrorism in the north-and­east had to be stopped. Only rapid economic growth and an expansion of job-opportunities could pre-empt a Tamil (separatist) insurgency.

The “Lanka Guardian’ did not agree. It warned that the “Gaullist constitution” could become the scaffolding of the authoritarian State. In any case, the concentration and centralization of power was surely the anti-thesis of devolution and decentralization, which were regarded as the most hopeful pre-emptive courses?

The question is, do we need therefore to dismantle the post-1978 structure? Or does that constitution have, in the light of our current tribulations, some virtues that need to be preserved? 1993 and 1994 will see provincial, parliamentary and presidential polls. So the question will remain an important item on the agenda.

My own approach to the core issue – the harrowing Sri Lankan crisis – betrays, I admit an internationalist bias. But in this age of ethnicity, break-up of nation-states, steady erosion of national sovereignty, preventive diplomacy, humanitarian intervention and a global communications system that steadily shrinks the world, I do not need to apologise for this line of inquiry.

What we witnessed after Ayodhya is interaction of a much vaster canvas. It involved India’s two largest neighbours­ Bangladesh and Pakistan. The emotional fall-out was so alarming that the prime minister of India, the second largest nation in the world and the most populous democracy could not travel to Dhaka for “security reasons”. The SAARC summit had to be postponed twice. So, even the formal ceremonies of SAARC, the world’s newest regional organization, have to be abandoned on account of a dispute concerning the history of a temple and a mosque.

The question is, how would this post-Ayodhya crisis impinge on the politics of India’s neighbours, especially those neighbours with a large or sizeable Muslim population? But for better or worse, we are once more confronted by the centrality of India. Neither the student nor the policy-planner can discuss an on-going project or a new proposal without reference to this socio-political context and the highly charged Indian situation.

By a fortuitous coincidence, the post-Ayodhya events have extended the perimeters of the South Asian discussion. The Islamic factor extends the perimeter both ways – Moslem countries in South-East Asia, but more decisively in West Asia. The West Asian angle is the more crucial since Pakistan has now joined a new group that not only involves Iran and its Arab neighbours, but the Central Asian Moslem republics of the C.I.S. (former USSR) which includes at least one republic that has access to nuclear weapons. The new complicating regional factors are made more complex by the increasing involvement of non-regional major powers with new security concerns – the US and Russia are both disturbed by a resurgent Islam, and nuclear proliferation.

The generic Kashmir conflict, the war in Afghanistan, Islamisation of the Palestinian struggle, the establishment of Indo-Israeli relations, the advent of E.C.O. (a new regional organization) and President Yeltsin’s visit to India are all of a piece. Islam, oil, ethnic and other conflicts make the region the most important in geostrategic terms. Poverty, identity conflicts and the free flow of arms make it the most explosive region.

The dimensions of the Sri Lankan conflict were dramatized by a single incident recently. The Indian navy seized an LTTE vessel on the high seas. It was carrying sophisticated arms, including anti-aircraft guns from Burma to Sri Lanka’s Tamil north. On board was the London-based Kittu, one of the LTTE’s top military commanders. He committed suicide while some of his comrades were arrested by the Indian authorities. The LTTE claims that the ship was in international waters. The Tigers have sworn that the Indian leadership will pay for Kittu’s death. Assassination attempts and retaliatory terrorist actions in both Tamilnadu and Delhi, the capital, are doubtless on the LTTE’s latest agenda. A separatist movement in the north of a tiny, off-shore island, is now a serious security threat to India and its government.

The enormous economic price that Sri Lanka has paid and continues to pay is the most disturbing outcome of the continuing low-intensity conflict.

The Tamil revolt was not the first generational challenge to the state. In 1971, the JVP, a romantic Guevarist movement launched a quixotic insurrectionist adventure hoping to overthrow the newly elected government of Mrs Bandaranaike who had the island’s two major Marxist parties as her coalition partners, and the left leaders as cabinet ministers. It was swiftly snuffed out by the army and the police.

We live in the age of ‘identity’. In its next attempt at seizing power, the JVP was not Marxist or Guevarist but intensely “nationalist or Sinhala-Buddhist”, the majority Sinhala answer to the Tamil separatist LTTE. Its Marxist camouflage made it Pol Pot-ist, not Guevarist. More significantly, its popularity and its appeal to more than just the Sinhala youth, lay in ultra-nationalist challenge to a regime that could not crush the Tamil “Tigers” and had handed over the task to Indian troops. The JVP revolt was a “patriotic war”.

It is economic dissatisfaction however, which explains the current popularity of the JVP, and on the campuses, of ‘Jathika Chintanaya’, an ultra Sinhala-Buddhist ideology described by its Leftist critics as “neo-fascist”. Led by supporters of this movement, student unions have forced the government to close campuses.

In an article published in the ‘Lanka Guardian’, Eduardo Marino, an expert on Latin American insurgencies, observed, “The old JVP quest for revolution found in the Indo-Lanka accord a new opportunity – nationalist than social”. The Indo-Lanka “accord” brought to Sri Lanka an Indian Peace Keeping Force (60-70,000), much larger than the Sri Lankan Army. In the hope of mobilizing Sinhala nationalist, the JVP now reappeared in the garb of Pol Pottism, say its more orthodox Marxist critics.

A far more important example of mobilized identity, that is of a re-assertive ethnic or religious identity, responding to an immediate challenge, is the emergence and quite spectacular rise of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. The Muslims hold the balance in the strategic eastern province where the Tamils are 42% and the Sinhala-speaking constitute 25%. Since the LTTE insists on a North-East merger (“the traditional homeland”), the east is the most vital issue in this “war” over land with rival historical claims.

The Tamil separatist advocates presumed that language not religion would compel the Tamil-speaking Muslims to join their struggle against “the common enemy” – the dominant group of the Sinhala-Buddhists.

Islam, however, is one of the most dynamic mobilizing forces throughout the world. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, a new political party, answered Muslim aspirations while providing also an autonomous platform from which the Muslim elite could advocate the distinctive Muslim causes and pursue Muslim interests. And now the region itself lives under the long shadow of Ayodhya.

Last year, Gerald Segal of the I.I.S.S. ranked Sri Lanka 3rd among 22 Asia-Pacific defence-spenders. Sri Lanka spends 5.9 % of its GNP on defence. Only development, distributive justice and participatory democracy can together help prevent another Sinhala generational explosion.

To marginalize the rural and semi-rural youth from either the developmental process or the participatory democratic process is to invite disaster, especially when the short-term burdens placed on the lower income groups by IMF’s structural adjustment strategy (whatever its long-term benefits) are certain to be quite oppressive. Growing unrest among these groups is already visible. Through effective de-centralisation and power and resources devolved to provincial councils, it may be possible to head-off the next threat, which may be more anarchic than an orderly challenge to the elected administration.

The devolution of power should be matched by new economic growth areas. Although the current agitation on the campuses and some rural, semi-urban sectors is politically motivated and often engineered, it would be foolish to underestimate the crisis, which is in many ways, multi­dimensional.

*Mervyn de Silva 84th Birth anniversary Sept 5th  – Talk delivered at a United Nations University seminar 20 years ago, in 1993, reproduced from ‘Crisis Commentaries: Selected Political Writings of Mervyn de Silva, ICES 2001, pp 168-175  

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Latest comments

  • 0

    What insight, and that was 20 years ago!

    Mervyn’s son Dayan is gallantly carrying his father’s flag.

    Sadly, the commentaries of neither father nor son appear to have had an impact on the powers that be.

    As we know politics is politics…with the attitude “the dogs may bark, but the caravan rolls on..!”

    • 0

      What is the Pointof all this erudite Writing? The present Politicians cannot understand English or logical arguments. The only language they understand, is ‘How to earn the maximum amount of money’ while they are in Power.

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