Colombo Telegraph

The GTF Conference in London: Who Is Afraid Of Sinhala-Tamil Unity?

By Kumar David

Prof Kumar David

In an amazing turn of events the LSSP has prioritised its toadying to Mahinda Rajapakse above its relationship with the Tamil people. Let me explain. The Global Tamil Forum (GTF), a diaspora organisation little known in Sri Lanka, but not connected to the LTTE-rump, and whose programme is to win the rights of the Tamil people in a democratic Lanka, is organising its annual conference at the House of Commons in London at the end of this month. The theme is challenges to democracy in Lanka, since this has a grave bearing on the future of the Tamil community. As a writer I am watching with keen interest and as a Marxist I have a stake in Sinhala-Tamil unity to fight authoritarianism. Several Sinhalese lawyers, political figures, trade unionists and journalists were invited, including leading LSSPers from both factions; some accepted. Then a ghastly thing happened; the LSSPers were forced to withdraw at the last minute because the party barred participation. Here is a typical reply: “I deeply regret that I will not be able to accept the invitation to the GTF conference as my party (LSSP) has not approved it.  If I act in breach it will affect my struggle within the party.  Please pardon me.  Sorry for disappointing you”.

As a party man for decades I accept bowing to party discipline provided the objective is to engage in decisive inner party struggles. To bow to party discipline as mere formality, without credible political objectives, is empty. Hence the jury is out on the LSSP Left-wing’s effort to defeat the leadership – all toadies of Rajapakse whose sole motive is personal opportunism. Admittedly this is not an easy task since the quality of party membership has declined appallingly from the old days. If the Left-wing does not make significant headway now, where the rottenness of the regime lies exposed for all to see, then it is time to change strategy, fundamentally.

It is the left movement that for decades preached the need for Sinhalese-Tamil unity; it is the left that opposed narrow nationalist disunion. V Karalasingham, in the days when he was still a fine Marxist, wrote a pamphlet entitled “The way out for the Tamil speaking people” in which he argued that Tamils must not hitch their wagon to rotten Sinhala governments but unite with the left in common struggle. Now the Tamil community (the LTTE is non-existent internally, and a minority in the diaspora) is calling for unity to protect democracy, but the Dead Left is fleeing to Mahinda screaming “Rape! Rape! Save us from the Tamils”. Poor Karlo must be turning in his grave! Tissa et al have turned the tables on him. It is not the majority of the Tamils, but the Dead Left, that is now a slave to reactionaries.
Who’s afraid of national unity?

In a hard to believe reversal of fortunes, those who want Sinhala-Tamil unity and those who oppose it have changed places. The Rajapake government fought a bitter and costly military campaign to defeat the LTTE because it was Eelamist and wanted to divide the country. Some Tamils supported the LTTE, some opposed it and many were neutral. Now most Tamils have come to appreciate that abandoning democracy is a grave threat to them. As a national minority they have seen what happens every time authoritarianism is entrenched and military power rides rough shod over the people. It is the minorities that become the easiest targets and suffer the most. If the Rajapake strategy of making this country an autocratic fiefdom of the family succeeds, it will be curtains for the minorities. The Muslims still shut their eyes to this reality because of Rauf Hakeem’s treachery, but the Tamils, since they are outside the pale of the regime’s protection, are well aware of the danger. Yes, I agree that the Tamils are seeking unity with democratic Sinhalese not because they have read the latest enlightenment tomes on liberty, but out of a sense of self-preservation. What’s wrong with that?
Why is the regime opposed to unity across the ethnic divide? From where comes the slander that the GTF Conference is an Eelamist gathering? Why is every independent (of the regime) Tamil slandered as a Tiger in sheep’s clothing? Why is everybody who is an obstacle to its authoritarian ambitions (against 18A, Impeachment, Divineguma, potentially opposed to 19A) labelled a foreign agent if Sinhalese, a terrorist if Tamil? Because unity of Sinhala and Tamil (and Muslim) peoples, will inevitably, be an alliance against encroachments on democracy. Hence in a turn around, the Rajapakses oppose unity but the majority of Tamils see that their protection depends upon it! As a Marxist, this is where I see the importance of the Conference, if done properly.

What is the meaning of ‘done properly’? The GTF certainly does not need to hide that it is primarily a Tamil entity concerned with justice and fairness to the community. It does not need to conceal that it is seeking an alliance with Sinhalese and Muslims to make common cause on democratic rights; communities standing for democracy for their own protection. The GTF should not fight shy of publicising its programme about a democratic solution to Tamil concerns. It has insisted that it is neither a rump nor a bearer of LTTE ideology, this is essential if it is seeking inter-ethnic alliances (LTTE ideology was separatist, hence it rejected such alliances; I say this as a matter of fact, not morality). However, since chauvinists attempt to obscure this, GTF has duty to publicise its identity in ways that reach people in Lanka. Above all the Conference must be a genuine multi-ethnic gathering with international participation. The Conference must proclaim its objectives and publish its conclusions; it must stuff the mouth of the chauvinist state.

Most Sinhalese pull out

I am not a GTF member but an outsider who sees these developments in the Tamil community as valuable and welcomes positive responses from Sinhalese; but have heard that many Sinhalese invitees have pulled out. If true, the reason in all likelihood is racist slanders by chauvinists, and fears of reprisals by the state. If a Sinhalese engages in action in unity with a Tamil, he/she is mocked as a demala-lover. Narrow prejudices are common in the petty-bourgeoisie; progressives, Marxists and liberals, come under persistent ideological attack. It is not surprising that some progressive Sinhalese fear association with anti-Rajapakse Tamils, even of the anti-LTTE variety. Marxists like Bahu and strong personalities like Vijaya Kumaratunga have no difficulty in relating to Tamils, but most liberals, and nearly all soft-leftists, are bashful of alliances with Tamil organisations, even democratic ones.

In part, however, the blame also lies with GTF, which has not done enough to highlight its identity and publicise its own programme among people living in Lanka, especially Sinhalese. How many people know the difference between democratic Tamil groups and the LTTE-rump? GTF must be bold in asserting its identity, if an alliance of Tamils and Sinhalese for democracy, is to be a core element in its programme.

Liberal democracy

Left inclined folks like me usually see liberals as people of limited courage and partial objectives. Considering what is happening to the Dead Left, an example being the story in my opening paragraph, and the difficulty that the JVP and the Frontline (Peratugami) have in taking up a Marxist position that will be unpopular with the chauvinism of the Sinhala petty-bourgeoisie, it is idiotic to be snooty about liberals. Sure there are still are elements frightened to stray beyond talk-only or write-in-English-only, and who avoid anything that faintly smells of action; horror of horrors, Gothabhaya might notice their existence!

However, anyone who has followed the campaign against the regime’s drive to autocracy cannot but be impressed by the determination and courage of certain sections of liberal society. Many in civil society movements and in business chambers are contributing to the struggle without concealing their work. Which leftist does not shrivel in embarrassment at the mention of Vasudeva? So who dare deny that certain liberal groups and intellectuals are openly defying the would-be dictator? I will not mention names since many lobbies are at work on parallel tracks; naming names will not be comprehensive.

International assistance

Where there is a substantial threat to democracy – Burma in the past, Syria acutely, and Sri Lanka obviously – international questioning and pressure is welcome. A criticism of Obama is that he is not making a decisive intervention in Syria and finishing off Assad. (This would be in the best interests of the Syrian people, but will have tangential consequences not in America’s best interests; obviously the latter is Obama’s priority). Similarly, the assistance the international community will afford us, will be what is in its own interests. But the crucial point is this: At times there is a convergence of interests, and this is the case at the moment. Defeating burgeoning dictatorship is vital for the people of Lanka; but if Lanka goes under the jack-boot, in the long run it will be costly and dangerous for the international community, including China. The Chinese have learnt from the mistake of backing brutal dictators in Burma, Libya and Sudan. A more nuanced foreign policy approach is likely from the new leadership in Beijing. Furthermore, involving human rights activists and the UNHRC in Lanka’s democratic campaign will be fruitful. A helping hand from governments, rights groups and UN bodies on terms defined by Lanka’s peoples’ organisations (obviously not the Rajapakses), is desirable.

The reason for discussing international assistance in this essay is that human rights bodies, the British opposition and political leaders from the governing coalition are slated to address the Convention. But a final assessment can be made only after the event. The criteria are: Did the conference build Sinhala-Tamil unity in support of democracy? Will the conference contribute to winning the rights of the Tamil people and mobilise Sinhalese support? Did it contribute to a healthy relationship between the people of Lanka and the international community? The answers to these, not vile chauvinist slanders, are the acid test.

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