By Malinda Seneviratne –
On the face of it, the referendum held last week on the future of Scotland and therefore the future of the British union, has some relevance for Sri Lanka. After all it was about separation. This is why it excited the Eelamist commentariat. The fact that the Scottish people chose, by majority, to remain in the union need not dampen their enthusiasm because the ‘unionists’ bent over backwards to offer concessions and the ‘losers’ can demand that they deliver.
The analogy applied to Sri Lanka would run on the following lines: ‘Those in Tamil areas demand a referendum. If they win, that’s Eelam on a platter. If they don’t, they can prevail on Sri Lanka “unionists” to deliver on concessions pledged during the election campaign’. In other words, a win-win situation.
That’s where the comparison stops, though. In the first place what Scotland is to the British Isles is not what ‘Eelam’ (as defined by the LTTE, TNA and others) is to Sri Lanka. More than half the Tamils in Sri Lanka live outside the boundaries of the Eelam Map. The ‘traditional homeland’ claim is at best dubious. Historical evidence doesn’t support the contentions. Archaeological evidence rebels against such fantasies packaged as ‘history’. There was never ‘annexing’ by one party of another, apart from invasions from what is now South India and adventures by the land-grabbing likes of Velupillai Prabhakaran. The lines have no basis in any history apart from the whims and fancies of a pen pusher in the British colonial government. There were no ‘Tamil areas’ which even the wildest imagination coincide with creative Eelamist cartography.
But there are lessons to be drawn from the Scotland vote. Thrishantha Nanayakkara makes some valid points. First of all, he alerts us to the value of the main political parties (i.e. those that are not ‘ethnic’ or ‘regional’) having a strong footing across the country and among ‘minority’ groups. He observes that if conservatives and labor were not strong among Scots, Scotland would today be an independent country.
There is a lesson there. Neither the SLFP-led UPFA nor the UNP have any support worth mentioning among Tamil voters in the Northern and Eastern Province. They’ve gone in general for coalition options in elections. The inability to ‘move’ in the way Labor and Conservative have in Britain could stem from multiple factors. First there is a manifest reluctance to engage with Tamil nationalism in a civilized and democratic manner, especially when Tamil politicians adopted racist, chauvinistic and unreasonable political positions. The pernicious communalist lines adopted by many Tamil political entities have not helped either. They’ve more often than not played to what could be called a primordial angst of that community at not having a ‘country’ that is Tamil-made of the by Tamils, with Tamils and for Tamils kind. In this respect, the Scottish National Party does not have a political equivalent among Tamil political groupings in Sri Lanka.
Thrishantha points to ‘a remarkable level of integrity and moral high ground that is associated with the SNP’. They did not feed a Scottish version of an embryonic LTTE the way the TULF and before them the Federal Party did in Sri Lanka. Indeed, the values of democracy and tolerance championed by the SNP found currency in the imagination of the Scottish polity; again something we have not seen in the Tamil community here in Sri Lanka. Perhaps this is why the Conservatives and Labor could sanction a referendum where they would naturally seek a preservation of the union. In Sri Lanka neither the main parties nor the ‘separatist’ have operated in a manner made for ‘democratic-trust’ if you will.
Another interesting element in the Scottish vote that is relevant to Sri Lanka is the economics of resources and control of the same. Scotland is resource-rich in a way that would-be Eelam is not. The ‘union’ had a commercial stake in keeping Scotland in its folds. What Scotland would gain from remaining in the union is not too clear at this point. But in Sri Lanka ‘resources’ hardly constitute the heart of the matter. It is more about identity, belonging (or lack thereof) and also a convenient garb for problems that are not peculiar to the Tamil community.
This is why when the TNA wants international observers present in the event of talks with the Government, it is logical to either reject it due to the bad experience with such ‘facilitators’ or to demand ‘local observers’ too for the TNA was after all the proxy of a terrorist organization and the people of THIS country have a far greater stake in observing negotiations than any non-Sri Lankan entity. The Scottish affair did not at any point require third-party presence but this was not on account of mutual distrust being absent. Different contexts, different modalities – it is as simple as that.
Still, it is not enough to blame the TNA and the previous avatars of Tamil communalism. The question of belonging has not been addressed in a manner that the Tamil community finds satisfactory. Grievance, perceived or real, deserves the ‘grievance’ tag and in a democratic polity there has to be space for articulation and address. This, more than anything else, will force everyone to substantiate claim and if this is not possible for such claims to be struck off the agenda. The weight of evidence is against the positions generally taken by Tamil nationalist elements at least to the extent that even devolution (forget separatism) to lines drawn by the British advantageous to expansionist visions of Tamil communalists is untenable.
Indecent as the British have been over the past several centuries including that country’s support of genocide by clinging to Washington’s coattails, the way ‘Scotland’ was handled is of a kind that is far superior to how the political leaders of Sri Lanka engaged with (or refused to do so) with territory-based demands of Tamil nationalism. Now that’s a plum that can be picked from the Scottish political pie.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com