By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Chief Minister Wigneswaran has just made, or made explicit, a basic political claim which escalates the political conflict and places or retains Sri Lankan Tamil politics on a road to a dead end. Meanwhile, the state authorities have made two wrong moves in recent weeks, both of which stem from a single error, and will have negative repercussions for some years to come.
The Sri Lankan authorities have cracked down on what it claims is a plot to revive LTTE activity. If the story is true, then a crackdown is certainly warranted if it is conducted in a manner that does not alienate the Tamil people further and thereby help the LTTE in its planned activities. In short, an intelligence-led covert surgical operation is the instrument to use rather than an overt and heavy security blanket which disrupts the progress made by the state in providing a relatively normal life for the people of the area.
One must be pardoned though for wondering whether the overt and widespread nature of the crackdown is inspired by the Israeli doctrine in the Occupied Territories, namely that of periodic roundups to stay on top of the populace, keeping it off balance.
A related problem is the arrest of Jeyakumari, followed by Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen. The LTTE operative Gobi is a strange fellow, seeking shelter in the house of a prominent activist who is almost certain to be under surveillance. Even assuming this to be true, the Prevention of Terrorism Act is intended for hard targets, not for the likes of Ruki and Fr Praveen, not to mention Azath Sallay, Kumar Gunaratnam, Lalith and Kugan, and very probably Prageeth Eknaligoda.
It is the inability to distinguish adequately between hard and soft targets that has placed the Sri Lankan state in the crosshairs of an international probe.
Even if the confusion between hard and soft targets was understandable in the fog of war, it is crassly counterproductive in peacetime, not least because it undermines credibility and legitimacy. In a situation in which the Sri Lankan authorities are under international scrutiny and will be subject to an UN-mandated inquiry, this clumsiness is almost suicidal, and enhances the Tamil ultranationalist narrative of persecution and victimhood.
The latest move of the authorities has been to proscribe as foreign terrorist organizations, a number of networks embedded within the Tamil Diaspora. Many of them are indeed terrorist (LTTE) affiliated and deserve to be proscribed. The others are diaphanously veiled secessionists— the GTF Charter calls for a “self-governing Tamil Eelam”, as distinct from an autonomous Northern Province or North-East region. However, not every secessionist is a terrorist and unless the state can credibly show a link between the GTF, BTF and the LTTE or an offshoot bent on violence, the former can be proscribed under anti-secessionist legislation but not as foreign terrorist organizations. To brand non-terrorist secessionists as terrorists risks an erosion of legitimacy internationally which lets real terrorists get away (since crying “Tiger, Tiger” has the same result as crying “wolf, wolf”).
Now for the flip side. Chief Minister Wigneswaran has made an important speech in Colombo, on the occasion of the commemoration of leading (and much liked and respected) LSSP personality Bernard Soyza. The Chief Minister strives to make a fundamental point. He says quite rightly that there is an important distinction between state and nation, and that the Sri Lankan crisis stems from the refusal to recognize that the Tamils of Sri Lanka are a nation. He reassures us that the Tamil nation in Sri Lanka is fully committed to a single Sri Lankan state.
This statement has several things wrong with it, but I must preface my critique with the admission that I had argued much the same point about Tamil nationhood in a series of articles in the Lanka Guardian in 1979 (under the pseudonym ‘Chintaka’) which resulted in an interesting polemic with Prof Kumar David. In my defence I must clarify that I was an undergraduate in my very early twenties— and a dogmatic adherent of the scripture according to Lenin. It was also before the war really broke out.
After 30 years of a brutal civil war, let us hear the ‘lessons learnt’ by the most learned and moderate member of the TNA and the indispensable Chief Minister of the Northern Province:
“…To me it is a question that deals with the Nations in Sri Lanka- the question that has arisen on account of the non-recognition of Nations in Sri Lanka.
The Tamil speaking people of the North and East of Sri Lanka are a Nation without a State…
…The Tamil Speaking Peoples of Sri Lanka constitute a Nation from an objective standpoint and consider themselves to constitute a Nation.
…The National Question has arisen on account of our inability to understand the reality of the existence of two nations, or two states as Dr. de Silva said, in this fair Island of ours…
…All these actions stem from the failure or refusal to recognise the existence of two nations. Violence emerged as a response to the persistent and pernicious refusal to recognise the existence of distinct nations. However, the violence took the form of espousing the formation of distinct States. This led to a violent and brutal war that ravaged this country and particularly and overwhelmingly, the Tamils.
How then should we answer the National Question? The short answer is by the simple recognition of the existence of distinct nations…
…After certain so called procedural shortcomings the Northern and Eastern Provinces were divided by the Supreme Court. No steps have been taken so far politically to rejoin the Provinces in terms of the 13th Amendment….
In summary let me say that the National Question arises from the refusal to accept the presence of distinct Nations in Sri Lanka. A solution could be worked out only if the majority community is prepared to accept this fact. All recent activities on the part of the Government are geared to deny the existence of such a reality…The Tamils have unequivocally committed themselves to the State of Sri Lanka.”
(‘Brother Bernard and the National Question’, Justice C.V. Wigneswaran, Chief Minister, Northern Province Speech delivered at Bernard Soysa Centenary Commemoration Meeting at Tamil Sangam Hall, 57th lane, Colombo, Colombo Telegraph, March 31, 2014)
The problem with the Chief Minister’s assertion is that the ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ are slightly under 4% of the island’s population, while the Sinhalese are roughly 74%. (The CIA World Factbook, a source with which the TNA can surely have no problem, says the Sri Lankan Tamils are 3.9%). There would be chaos if every country were to accord the status of nationhood to every ethnic group which is 4% and above, not least because the status of nationhood brings with it the claim of the inalienable right of self determination up to and including political independence. Though a kindly and generous soul like Mr Wigneswaran swears eternal fealty to a single Sri Lankan state and his more radical and younger colleagues would be willing to reassure us that they only wish to assert the right of internal self-determination at the moment, the recognition of two nations on this small island is not a risk that most Sri Lankans would take. This is especially so when the good Chief Minister himself says, in a political Freudian slip, that “The Tamil speaking people of the North and East of Sri Lanka are a Nation without a State.”
Which country in Asia, especially South Asia, would take such a risk?
There is also the question of logic or the absence thereof. If an ethnic group which accounts for 4% (or just under) of the populace, is defined as a nation, just how small does an ethnic group have to be, to be recognised as a national minority or minority nationality? Are there no such entities as minorities, in the Chief Minister’s scheme of things?
Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s “two nations” theory is the same concept that underlay the British-inspired partition of India and Pakistan.
The dangerous upshot is that it lends credence to the cautioning of the defence hawks that there is a latent secessionism or a secessionist project by incrementalism, aimed at establishing a state for “a nation without a state”. Therefore, say the hawks, devolution should be denied or delayed.
Perhaps still more negative is the other consequence of Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s thesis. By classifying the Tamils of Sri Lanka as a nation without a state rather than a minority without autonomy or equal rights, he deflects the achievable goal of minority rights, devolution of power and anti-discrimination, pre-empts a civil rights movement and locks the Sinhala and Tamil communities into the protracted zero-sum game of a struggle over nationhood — an eternal tribal conflict— on this small island.