Colombo Telegraph

Winning Tamil Votes Without Losing Sinhala Votes

By Jude Fernando

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The traditions of all dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living—Marx (1852).

I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer—Abraham Lincoln.

Like Professor Laksiri Fernando, I initially found Maithripala Sirisena’s decision not to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) shocking. Though in hindsight I think, an MOU with concrete policies on the ethnic issue is premature and counter-productive to the immediate goals of the opposition. Such a move is unlikely to increase the Tamil vote and runs the risk of alienating both the Sinhalese and Tamils. The Tamils will view an MOU as condescending and opportunistic. History provides them with little reason to trust that MOU pledges will materialize.

The Sinhalese voters also run the risk of falling prey to the ruling regime’s claim that the MOU is a foreign conspiracy against the country. The regime has already made reference to an MOU, which, according to TNA parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran, is non-existent and an attempt to misguide and manipulate Sinhalese voters (CT, December 18, 2014). An MOU runs the risk of disintegrating the opposition coalition, given its ideological diversity, and making Sinhala voters anxious about the stability of a government under the opposition. Demand for an MOU could very well be a trap set up by those “sinister elements” against regime change! The TNA’s position that boycotting the election is “favouring Mahinda Rajapaksa who is abominably worse for Tamils” and asking Tamils to vote for Maithripala, a less flawed candidate, is a prudent choice.

The Tamil vote is indispensable for regime change, and the opposition cannot take that vote for granted. The ruling regime’s trepidation over potential unity between the Sinhalese and Tamils is evident in President Rajapaksha’s claim in Mullaitivu that “he cannot allow an Arab Spring in Sri Lanka” (DM 18/12). Rajapaksha himself is fast becoming a source of the public’s fear of the Spring’s chaos and instability. The deep and inescapable quandary for the opposition is how to increase Tamil votes without sacrificing Sinhala votes. The current political culture’s legitimacy rests on intentionally polarizing the political consciousness of the Tamil and Sinhala communities. The same means used to create this culture is now militating against the regime and opposing the development of a shared political consciousness. Regime change is a non-negotiable prerequisite to find ways out of this quandary, the opposition insists.

It is naïve for the opposition to assume that current dissent against the ruling regime is evidence of a shared political consciousness between the Tamils and Sinhalese regarding the issues and solutions specific to the Tamil community. Why hasn’t a shared political consciousness between them evolved, even though they suffer equally under the executive presidency and the country’s political culture? What could the opposition do in fewer than 30 days to increase Tamil votes and prevent what Champika Ranawaka referred to as “sinister” attempts by certain groups to defeat the opposition by asking Tamils to boycott the elections?

For any opposition to be effective, it must overcome the current political quagmire – a quagmire caused by polarized and competing political narratives that exist among the Sinhala and Tamil communities. Thus, an alternative, unified campaign narrative needs to emerge. To get there, however, an effective opposition must first answer three basic questions: a) how do people remember the conflict vs. how the state wants them to remember it?; b) how do people make sense the post-war actions of the government in the areas of development, reconciliation, and rehabilitation?; and c) how are Tamil and Sinhala communities allowed to commemorate this shared history? The trick is to figure out how these three things continue to polarize political groups, and develop an effective political strategy to cultivate a shared political consciousness and action.

Contested Narratives

How do people remember the war? Sinhala and Tamil communities greeted the war’s end with a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, each group remains stuck in its own narrative – the same stories that led to the conflict. Developing a shared political consciousness (a common, shared story) is a daunting but essential task for the opposition. The alternative is to allow the government to tell and sell its ‘official history’ of the conflict – a story that exploits both Tamil and Sinhalese, alike.

The history of the conflict predates the emergence of Tamil militancy. Its origins lie in the communalism and racism that prevailed in the nation building process, and the failure of Sri Lanka to become an inclusive democratic nation. In the process of the country’s transition from a parliamentary system to an executive Presidential system, the ‘nation’ was reduced to ‘community.’ The dominant voices of the time insisted that the ideological, cultural and psychological foundations of the nation must rest on impeccably Sinhala Buddhist provenance. In response, minorities built their political agendas on their respective religious and racial identities. To the surprise of many, the country’s exposure to globalization and capitalism, did not make it’s ethno-religious nationalism obsolete, instead it was institutionalized as the main ideological force for political mobilization, and is the primary reason for polarization between communities.

There also exists a fundamental tension. While various political parties seek to champion a constitutionally democratic polity, their ideological and pragmatic inhibitions mitigate against it. This is evident where mainstream opposition political parties reject constitutional reforms to devolve power to minorities, as the incumbent party has proposed. Opposing constitutional reforms progressively evolved as an important, if not the most potent and widely used trump card to capture and legitimize state power. One proposal replaced another (e.g., federalism, Union of Regions, and numerous amendments), and each new proposal narrowed and diluted the extent of the power transfer. The Tamils largely perceived the 13th Amendment as weak as it never showed a concrete movement towards a meaningful devolution of power. Political parties ignored the dangers communal politics posed to democracy (including repeated warnings since 1950s of potential civil war), and their pledges to rectify them never materialized. Particularly, during and in the immediate aftermath of the war, no Sinhala mainstream opposition party directly challenged the ruling regime’s condemnation of devolution as the precursor of secession. The ruling regime always found ways to connect any form of dissent, including those unrelated to the devolution, with sinister forces that are plotting against the country’s sovereignty. Opposition fear full of persecution and of losing its popularity, either kept silent about political solution to the ethnic conflict or made competing claims to prove their ability to protect the country against secession and external threats.

In this political culture, violence against the minorities have continued to increase as it failed to prevent the institutionalization of the ethnoreligious nationalism as the framework for deliberating the minority demands for equal citizenship status that has found the support among many politicians and lawmakers. Mainstream political parties have organized or aided at least six riots against Tamil civilians since the 1950s. No party has yet made a public apology for these riots, and their perpetrators were rarely brought to justice, and their victims were not compensated. They passed the blame for the riots onto the incumbents’ failure to maintain law and order or on extremists, and rarely acknowledged the underlying systemic causes and ideological narratives. This has kept the extremist forces alive in national politics, rendering their ideologies essential for the popular legitimacy of political parties. Following each successive riot, political will for substantive devolution of power declined, and the prospects of a militant uprising of the Tamil youth against the government seemed inevitable. Subsequently, many of those groups opposed devolution transformed themselves into political parties or closely allied to any political party that promises to further their ideological and/or strategic political interests.

During 30 years of war, the two communities became further polarized. For a variety of complex reasons, the government and the LTTE narratives of the conflict failed to find common ground. Throughout the war the government claimed that ending war was a precondition for finding a political solution. Instead of honouring this promise, the regime created even more obstacles. After the war ended, not giving into public demands for a political solution became far more useful for gaining public support for the regime to further its parochial political and economic interests. The ‘culture of violence’ that the war bequeathed has now engulfed the entire political culture of the country, and its consequences disproportionately affect the minorities.

Throughout the war, relational contradictions between mainstream political parties and the LTTE abounded, as do mysteries and conspiracy theories regarding these contradictions. Allegations of million-dollar bribes and the LTTE receiving weapons from the government indicate that the regime found supporting the LTTE to influence the Tamil vote, more important than its purported priority of safeguarding national security. In the aftermath of the war, the ruling regime welcomed certain senior LTTE members who had killed hundreds of unarmed civilians, awarding them ministerial posts, while prosecuting others. The regime punished decorated war heroes, while elaborately commemorating the heroism of others.   For the majority population, these contradictions were secondary to the multiple gains from the war’s end and the regime’s assuming full control over economic and political affairs in the North and East.

Nor was there a space for the majority to critically think about the links between these contradictions and the political culture that they now wanted to transform. The regime suppressed this space by simultaneously keeping the war euphoria alive, demanding gratitude for the war’s end, and creating fear that another war would occur without the regime’s concentrated power.

The country’s connection to the West has in some ways exacerbated its internal turmoil. In the official post-war history, these relations with the West were linear and hostile to national interests. The official narrative ignores the West’s ideological and logistical support for the war and frames its concern for human rights as a sinister attempt to undermine the country’s sovereignty, driven by LTTE elements amongst the Tamil diaspora. This allows the regimes to suppress its ruling complicity with and reliance on international forces that are detrimental to just national interests as well as to distract the public attention away from abuse of power and dismantling of democracy that its claim to protect national interests could not justify. The regime used its engagement with the West to cultivate the local community’s paranoia of Western conspiracies, draw public dissent away from the dismantling of democracy and vilify those who stand against the regime as traitors. These contradictions leave no room for Tamils to have any faith in government’s interests in addressing their concerns. This is true even for those critical of LTTE’s duplicitous exploits of its relations with the international community that they considered as detrimental for democratic aspirations of the Tamils. These contradictions are detrimental to the interests of both Sinhalese and Tamils. The possibilities for shared political consciousness between these two communities are undermined by the policies that kept the ethno-nationalist and xenophobic mind-set alive.

Whatever the ruling regime and the opposition might have promised, they have both dropped from their agendas the Tamils’ post-war social, economic and political concerns. Responding to these concerns became politically riskier than before and during the war, as they were widely considered sinister attempts by traitors and conspirators against national interests. This alienated the Tamils from almost all parties competing in the presidential elections and induced confusion and anxiety in these parties as to how to win Tamil votes without losing Sinhala votes. The regime’s failure to improve human rights fed into minority distrust of the regime and agendas of groups of different competing political persuasions. The official history marks these failures as successes that enable the regime to protect the country from sinister forces, and addressing those failures means undermining its legitimacy.

The official narrative of the conflict, indeed, allowed the LTTE to justify it brutally suppressing dissent. The LTTE’s own narrative of the conflict, too, suppressed or provided justification for its own contradictions, culture of violence and human rights abuses and strategies it used to establish its dominance over the Tamil community. The LTTE justified it ending negotiations by calling them ‘peace traps’. It ignored the international community’s accusations of human rights violations by its cadres and vilified those within and outside the Tamil community who work with the international community as collaborating with imperialists and neocolonialists. Polarization between the two communities continued, as the government’s narrative of the conflict conflated historical grievances of the Tamils with the LTTE’s acts of terror.

The official narrative further entrenched the distinct and contentious experiences of nation building of the Tamils and Sinhalese, as it draws on and reinforces the version of history that polarized the two communities’ political consciousness and provided legitimacy to the military rather than a political solution to the ethnic conflict. In this history, demands for substantive devolution stemmed mainly from the violence of the LTTE and the Tamil diaspora and those hostile to the country and jealous of defeating terrorism. Maintaining these divided perceptions allowed the state to justify its post-war policies as necessary to prevent the Tamils’ perceptions from leading to another war and separatism and to maintain the continuity of the majoritarian history.

A political solution not forthcoming, regardless of the LTTE’s thoughts about it, Tamils viewed Sinhala criticism of the LTTE with a great deal of suspicion. The prominence given to the LTTE’s excesses in government media is not about empathy with, but rather justifications for not addressing the Tamils’ human rights concerns and their political aspirations, which are not reducible to the their demand for separatism or support for the LTTE. This lack of empathy prevented the regime’s working with Tamil political parties and civil society groups that have openly disavowed separatism and/or demand rights as equal and dignified human beings. Left with no other option the Tamil community was forced to seek the international community’s help to address its grievances, leaving it and the entire country vulnerable to the international community’s exploits. After the war, the regime even denied the reality of ethnic conflict in the country and continued to expand its national security apparatus in the name of protecting hegemonic national interests.

A shared political consciousness among Tamils and Sinhalese is impossible when the official narrative of the nation’s history fails to recognize that “nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any nationalism and sub nationalism, presented as the history of one race and religion, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex,” notes historian Howard Zinn. In this complexity, we also see a hierarchy of oppression that coevolves. The interconnectedness between these oppressions does not make them mutually exclusive in terms of their respective histories and struggles. There is no logical reason to jettison one struggle until those with higher priority are settled. The state’s position in a democracy as the guardian of general interests cannot justify human rights abuses in one community to protect the same in another community.

The opportunity for regime change lies in the fact that the official narrative is failing to hide its contradictions and distortions and continues to suppress dissent against the oppression concealed in and transpiring from that narrative. Howard Zinn notes, “The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface.” It simultaneously turns against and victimizes Sinhala and Tamil communities and deprives the Sinhalese of what the narrative exclusively promises them. Zinn goes on to say that “in the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.” That is not to say that the official narrative of the LTTE or the minority Tamils is entirely free of the above allegations. Rather, I concur with Zinn: “I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don’t want to romanticize them. … the cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”

Justice can never inspire a shared political consciousness when one community’s response to the legitimate human rights concerns of the other has not been to empathize but to highlight the wrongdoing on the other side and blame that side for its own plight. One debilitating consequence of official historical narrative is that its inherent ethnocentrism and xenophobia have imprisoned people within the narrow and discriminatory concept of inter-racial justice. These ideological inhibitions caused many to confuse absence of war with justice, demands for democratic rights with the demand for a separate state; the goodwill between the Sinhala and Tamil people with complete parity of political consciousness, and the history of ethnic conflict with the history of violence. The regime continues to thrive on conflating global concern for human rights abuses in Sri Lanka with external conspiracies against the country and the protection of national interests with the concentration of the executive’s power.

These narrow and racialized notions of justice blinded the society of the global trends that have undermined the conventional imagery of the state from below by growing pressure for it to confer culturally specific full rights and entitlements to all citizens and demands for decentralization and autonomy, and from above by supranational forces that coordinate the economic and security affairs of the state. Locally these same notions alienated Tamils and Sinhalese from each other, helped the state to distract public attention away from and provided legitimacy to its unjust practices and the country’s increased vulnerability to external forces, and now the two communities have begun to distance themselves from the regime. Growing unpopularity of the regime, however, does not automatically bring political consensus between Tamils and Sinhalese in support of the opposition.

An effective campaign to broaden the Tamil voter base against the ruling regime requires a great deal of empathy with how the political consciousness of the Tamil community is impacted by post-war humanitarian and security interventions And how this contributes to the further polarization between the two communities. I shall return to this topic in Part II.

To be continued..

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