Colombo Telegraph

The Ethnic Issue: Fantasy Vs Reality

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

“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.”—Mervyn de Silva, The Age of Identity, 1993

As in life, there are no guarantees in politics. One can only avoid the most obvious mistakes and cultivate the wisdom to manage things prudently. A Constitution cannot function as a prison house. Countries, like people, stay together because of consent and mutual agreement. The “stability” that most Sinhala “patriots” (actually ultranationalists) crave, cannot be ensured by rigidity and unilateral imposition. The stability of the whole can be achieved only through dialogue and consensus, involving mutual compromise and concessions, between the component parts. That is surely the logic and spirit of the Social Contract.

It is impossible to adopt a policy that is so constricting as to be rejected by all political representatives of a given community, simply because the majority community thinks the status quo of provincial devolution too risky. If one cannot persuade a single political organization of the Tamils to accept the district as the unit of devolution, how is it going to be put into policy and practice except by unilateral imposition, and why would anyone in their right minds think, after the experience of 1987 and given the current globalization of the Tamil issue and the unremitting external pressure on us, that the majority community is going to be permitted to unilaterally impose a political settlement upon the Tamils?

One of my late father, Mervyn de Silva’s ceaseless endeavors was to educate both the West-centric elite and the parochial ‘patriotic’ upper-middle and middle classes in the realities of Sri Lanka’s ethnic question in “the new global environment” as he put it, thereby freeing them from their shared myopia. It is obvious from the discourse of many Sinhala “nationalists” that the points he made need to be repeated. Since my father’s death I have realized that it is my task to share his insights in an effort as to prevent the cycle of the island’s tragic contemporary history from repeating itself. The effort may prove a Sisyphean burden, but it is part of my social and intellectual responsibility; the voluntarily accepted burden of a role that is an inheritance, part of my heritage.

(1)

To begin, Mervyn insisted that the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka had two dimensions, not just the one (Crisis Commentaries, pp. 55-67 and p 99):

“We found ourselves incapable of taking a firm grip on the problem, its dual nature, that is, the internal and the external, and the integral connection between the two.” 

“If the Northern situation is no longer a Northern problem but a profoundly national crisis, it is equally clear that the still unresolved problem has been ‘externalized’ and taken beyond our borders. Thus it has become a foreign policy issue too…”

(II)

He went on to make a fundamental critique of the parochial Sri Lankan mindset, a critique which comes to my mind while reading the discourse of most of those who regard themselves as Sinhala nationalists (Crisis Commentaries, p 71): 

“My flippancy I trust will be excused when I raise a fairly serious question…How could a nation of educated people, proud of its 2,000 year civilization, seek to establish its identity in the world outside, blithely unmindful of who we are, what we are and where we are?”

(III)

He spells out exactly what he means (Crisis Commentaries, p 78):

“What Sri Lanka’s national crisis—and it is clear that the unresolved ethnic issue is at the core of that crisis—has ultimately compelled us to come to terms with our identity. Questions like who we are (the product of a history of migrations from India), what we are (a multiethnic society), and where we are (an island separated from the continental landmass by a 25 mile expanse of water), have been raised and answered.”

(IV)

He explained in a 1993 lecture, how and why the framework of analysis in viewing our ethnic problem had to change, and how “the borders in our own minds had to be erased” (Crisis Commentaries, p 170):

“My focus is therefore on the Sri Lankan crisis in which the ethnic conflict is the defining issue. It was the presence of Tamil Nadu, the South Indian state, which forced us to broaden the discussion and our perspective. 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…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.”

(V)

Mervyn made a quite basic point about the life of a state, and indeed about life in general, in response to those who propose fantastic “home grown” solutions with no takers beyond Vavuniya and in the regional or global environment (Crisis Commentaries, p 78):

“As in other fields of policy-making, choice is the essential question; not only the choices open to us, but the choices likely to be taken by others.”

(VI)

To those who would cry out in complaint that this is unfair and a violation of our sovereignty, Mervyn sets out the facts of life in the global environment (Crisis Commentaries p 74):

“To amend Orwell, all countries are equal and sovereign but some more sovereign than others. While in principle all nation-states enjoy equal sovereignty, the effective exercise of such sovereignty is contingent on several factors, some permanent and unalterable. These include the size and population of a country, its economic resources, its industrial and military strength and most of all, its geographic location and therefore the geo-political environment.”

(VII)

He applied that general proposition to our specific situation, underscoring our reality, including our inability to be a second Cuba, itemizing why Sri Lanka will hardly pay, nor can impose, the price that revolutionary Cuba can on any interventionism (Crisis Commentaries p 75):

“If this island were located next to Papua New Guinea, the Palk Straits and Tamil Nadu’s fifty million people would not be a source of anxiety. So any sensible Sri Lankan foreign policy has to be centered on an axiomatic factor: the nearness of our huge and powerful neighbor. Does this mean that a small nation must necessarily be subservient to its big neighbor, that it cannot pursue a policy independent of its big neighbor or even hostile to its neighbor? Not at all. It can. But it must recognize and be ready to face the consequences of such a hostile relationship. We have a perfect example in Cuba…”

(VIII)

After a decade or more of warfare and intervention, and with the encyclopedic knowledge he had about politics around the world, Mervyn’s bottom-line prescription for Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem was contained in his 1993 UN University talk. His precise phraseology indicates that he knew there were no guarantees; no absolute safeguards, only a chance to “head off the next threat” (Crisis Commentaries, p175):

“Through effective de-centralization and power and resources devolved to provincial councils, it may be possible to head-off the next threat…The devolution of power should be matched by new economic growth areas.”

The Buddha’s Middle Path

Applying Mervyn’s doctrine as set out above, I would say that any attempt by Colombo to roll back the 13th amendment, scrap the province and introduce the district as the unit of devolution will be met, in the first instance, by ceaseless satyagrahas in the North and East, and any violent crackdown by the state (especially under a more nationalist government) will be instantly transmitted globally by camera phones, triggering a global media tsunami of denunciation, resulting in an Indo-US response–against which China is too far away to defend us, should it be so inclined.

To shift my point of reference to an authority on an incomparably higher plane, the argument for recognition of the province as the unit of devolution and indeed for devolution as an approach to the question, is an application of the Middle path doctrine of the Buddha. The correct approach and perspective on pretty much most things in the world, was contained in the Buddha’s words in the Parable of the Lute:

“And, tell me, Sona, when the strings on the lute were too taut, was then your lute tuneful and easily playable?”

“Certainly not, O Lord.”

“And when the strings on the lute were too loose, was then your lute tuneful and easily playable?”

“Certainly not, O Lord.”

“But when, Sona, the strings of your lute were neither too taut nor too loose, and adjusted to an even pitch, did your lute then have a wonderful sound, and then was it easily playable?”

“Certainly, O Lord.”

“Similarly Sona, if energy is applied too strongly, it will lead to restlessness, and if energy is too lax, it will lead to lassitude. Therefore Sona, keep your energy in balance and balance the Spiritual Faculties…”

The Parable of the Lute is contained in the Anguttara Nikaya, the fourth of the five nikayas in the Sutta Pitaka. Devolution only to the district within a unitary framework would be akin to a lute the strings of which were too taut. Federalism and merger of the North and East to constitute a single linguistic region would be akin to a lute whose strings were too loose. The province as the unit and provincial autonomy within a unitary state as manifested in the (graduated and conditional) implementation of the 13th amendment, would constitute a solution that is neither too tight nor too loose.

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