By Rajan Philips –
The 1980s were the most tumultuous decade in 21st century Sri Lankan politics and history. It was the first full decade of the open economy. Politically, it had everything, mostly the bad and the ugly. There were two presidential elections (1982 and 1988), the chicanery of a referendum in 1982 that served to postpone parliamentary elections by 12 years, and a single parliamentary election (1989) in a span of 17 years. The country suffered ethnic riots again in 1981 – a second time in four years, and a major conflagration in 1983, which internationalized sri Lanka’s internal affairs and India took its license therefrom to intervene. Tamil political violence escalated from isolated to killings to major attacks and counter attacks. President Jayewardene’s captive parliament passed a dozen constitutional amendments at his behest and for his convenience. The 13th Amendment and Provincial Councils came out of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. India sent a Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to defend the Agreement and to disarm the LTTE in the north. That set the stage for the JVP’s second coming (1987-1989) in the south.
None of the above was inevitable. Most of them were the doings of one UNP government and two UNP Presidents in a single decade. The rest were consequences. The die for the open economy was cast mostly outside Sri Lanka than within Sri Lanka. For the west, the 1980s were the decade of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and their transatlantic dominance vigorously pursuing the downsizing of governments and the deregulation of markets. For the non-western socialist world, the 1980s unfolded as they should not have. The Soviet Union imploded, while China successfully changed direction towards a socialist market economy. Market globalization became a global fact of life, but opening up at the same its own antitheses both nationally and globally, and manifesting themselves in multiple forms: minimum wage insistence and basic benefits demand, opposition to corruption and cronyism and calling for accountability, checks on monopoly and profiteering, pro-democracy campaigns, and human rights monitoring.
Politically, for most of the 1980s, the Sri Lankan government and its supporters were in thrall to the Reagan-Thatcher leadership in the world. On the economic front, the Sri Lankan economy was opened up but not in structurally productive ways. The established trade unions were smashed rather than aligning them to the new openings in the economy. There was more mimicking of the experiences of other countries in economic policy than the modernization of Sri Lanka’s traditional economic sectors and their diversification. Opportunities were lost while corruption and cronyism thrived.
Again, politically the government would not brook any criticism or opposition to its economic policies. And whenever the government was put on the defensive on the economic front, it would lash out on the ethnic front. This ambidextrous approach came naturally to the government and its principal leaders. The late Lalith Athulathmudali said it best. To paraphrase, Mr. Athulathmudali said that the government can always ignore the criticisms of the open economy by the Buddhist clergy, but it will always listen to them on any real or perceived ‘concessions’ to Tamils or other minorities. This might have been a clever political tactic, but as a national strategy it set the country on ethnic fire for the entire decade and deprived the country from realizing the full benefits from the government’s economic policies.
The government started on the wrong foot right from the word go with the new (1978) constitution. Leaving aside whatever understanding there was between President Jayewardene and the TULF leadership at the time of 1977 election, there was widespread expectation and widespread support for the unqualified recognition of Tamil language rights in the new constitution. Rohana Wijeweera, newly out of jail, was in support of enshrining equal language rights in the constitution. But that was not to be. What would be done ten years later in the 13th Amendment was too early for inclusion in the original constitution. The lack of positive symbolism was aggravated by the government’s aggressive put down measures.
The 1979 Emergency Rule in Jaffna was both high handed and ham fisted. One thing led to another and everything came to a head in 1983. There were major political fallouts from the catastrophe of 1983, whose ramifications have continued to this day: the consolidation of Tamil political violence that would go on for the next 25 years, the emergence of the Tamil diaspora, internationalization of Sri Lanka’s hitherto internal problem and India’s involvement in it, and the second coming of the JVP primarily in opposition to Indian involvement. The JVP’s second coming ended even more violently than the first, but the JVP has since transformed itself into a non-violent political party. Indian involvement also provided the impetus for the growth of a new strand of Sinhala nationalism with independent organizations outside of the two nominally national but substantively Sinhalese political parties – the UNP and the SLFP.
President Jayewardene’s knee-jerk reaction to the 1983 calamity was to pass the Sixth Amendment which effectively shut the TULF out of Sri Lanka’s parliament and packed them off to Tamil Nadu and New Delhi. The Tamil democratic political space in the island shrank and became the monopoly of Tamil militants whose politics was all about violent confrontations. And Tamil Nadu became the site and New Delhi the landlord for all Sri Lankan Tamil political activities – democratic and undemocratic, non-violent and violent. Much has been said and much more will continue to be said about India’s motivations and designs on Sri Lanka. But it should be clear that it was never possible for India to countenance the breakup of Sri Lanka at any time after 1983. Purely for practical reasons, a permanently broken Sri Lanka would have been a worse neighbourly headache for India than a country perpetually at war within itself. A breakup of Sri Lanka would have created problems for India’s own internal stability.
It is legitimate to ask the question if the Tamil militant groups and the LTTE in particular would or could have gone as far as they did without having sanctuaries in Tamil Nadu and without support from New Delhi. It is equally legitimate to ask whether successive Sri Lankan governments could not have acted smartly, wisely, and indeed generously towards Sri Lanka’s minorities, and avoided giving any excuse to India for getting involved in Sri Lanka. India was inextricably implicated in Sri Lankan affairs from the time the first UNP government after independence disenfranchised the domiciled community of Tamil planation workers of Indian origin, and unilaterally made them an Indian transnational problem and not a Sri Lankan demographic problem. The 1964 Sirima-Shastri Pact over repatriation did not quite solve the problem but cemented India’s stake in the matter. The UNP government after 1977, while technically solving the citizenship problem opened a new window for India’s concern by failing to protect the plantation Tamils from communal violence against them in 1977, 1981 and 1983.
It is also appropriate to ask if President Jayewardene could not have forestalled India’s intervention or meddling after 1983 by farsightedly including in the 1978 Constitution at least some of the provisions that were included nine years later through the 13th Amendment at India’s bidding. In the end, President Jayewardene’s belated turn to India for help exposed him to criticisms and opposition among the Sinhalese and precipitated the second coming of the JVP and the consolidation of a new Sinhala nationalist constellation. After Vietnam, Afghanistan (by both superpowers), and Iraq, India’s Sri Lankan experience also shows the inherent pitfalls in external interventions to resolve internal problems.
But it was not India’s foreign presence alone that complicated Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. Rather, India’s involvement was exploited by different vested interests for their own reasons and to their own ends. The government itself was a house divided. President Jayewardene nearing the end of his second and final term as President, had no control over his government or even his cabinet to reach broad consensus, let alone unanimous support, for his agreement with India and the 13th Amendment. Prime Minister Premadasa and his chief cabinet rivals found that opposing their president’s agreement with India was the strongest starting point in the race to succeed the same president. It was not principle but opportunism that informed their opposition.
Outside the government, the official SLFP saw no electoral advantage in defending JRJ’s agreement, even if the SLFP leadership was ready to overlook what JRJ had done to Mrs. Bandaranaike in suspending her civil rights. From the old United Front, the Left Parties supported the agreement and even though their support did not carry anything of a following in the country, their remaining followers became targets for JVP attacks. Vijaya and Chandrika Kumaratunga were prominent supporters of the agreement.
Vijaya Kumaratunga paid with his life, 1988, for the principled position he took, leaving his widow to defiantly raise her fists in a political statement at his funeral. Within six years, Chandrika Kumaratunga would spearhead a movement to oust the UNP from after its 17-year rule. The point is that Vijaya and Chandrika Kumaratunga demonstrated that there is enough space in the Sinhalese political society for an alternative political course from what the JVP did in its second coming and others would do as successors to Chandrika Kumaratunga. Both the JVP and Mahinda Rajapaksa who succeeded President Kumaratunga were beneficiaries of a different alternative perspective and thinking in Sinhalese society, namely, Jathika Chinthanaya.
Jathika Chinthanaya (JC – the ‘way of thinking of a nation’) emerged as an influential source of opposition among Sinhalese Buddhist intelligentsia and cultural figures to the UNP government’s open economic policies and cultural alienations. Operating outside the formal political parties, JC has been more a school of thought than a movement. But it has provided cultural fuel and ideological support to political organizations who would operationalize its thinking in the political arena. JC’s emergence initially filled the vacuum created by the withering away of the Old Left. Its initial preoccupation was also against the UNP government’s economic policies and the culture of privileging western cosmopolitanism.
Invariably, however, JC went on to address another need as the vehicle for the Sinhalese intelligentsia to counter the political onslaught of Tamil separatism. In a sense, it was a common response in a majority community, or nationality, to counter insistent self-determinism on the part of minority nationalities. The kind of response that Eric Hobsbawm used to warn as the danger of confronting nationalisms. This was when the break-up idea was becoming fashionable in the British Isles and elsewhere after Tom Nairn’s celebrated book, The Break-Up of Britain, published in the 1980s.
*To be continued…