After the Tigers
The fall of Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass over the past month signals the end of the LTTE as a player whose conventional military capacity had helped it to win some major battlefield victories and dominate large swathes of Sri Lanka since the early 1990s. Because the LTTE decimated Tamil politics in the process of asserting its claim of ‘sole representation’, the end of the rebel force, as with the exit of any fascist political force, will inevitably create a political vacuum. Critically, this will also provide an opportunity for a transformation in Tamil politics.
The LTTE’s exit will also create a major shift in politics in Sri Lanka more generally. Much of the politics over the last 25 years has been framed around the LTTE, with successive governments oscillating between attempting to wipe out or negotiate with the Tigers. The Muslim community, the Up-country Tamil community (Tamils of Indian origin) and the Sinhalese community were also drawn into engagement with the intransigence of the LTTE. The rebels’ eclipse, then, will open up possibilities for a whole range of other issues to be brought into the Sri Lankan political terrain, including issues of economic justice, gender, caste, labour rights and democratisation. It will expose the opportunism of the two major political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), both of which have over the past quarter century engaged in politics focused on the war and the rhetoric of the war. At the same time, the challenges are many, including the manner in which the war is being waged to the accompaniment of Sinhala nationalist propaganda, and attacks on media freedom, constitutional norms and the democratic process itself.
In thinking about the current political opening, we can borrow from Peradeniya University lecturer Liyanage Amarakeerthi’s insightful term, the “post-LTTE era”, to discuss the future of Tamil politics, its relationship to the other minorities and the Sinhalese communities. In attempting to think about the post-LTTE era, one cannot forget the 25 years dominated by the Tigers, which largely reduced Tamil democratic engagement to that of individuals or atomised groups. Many such Tamils attempted to work with the state and within state structures to push the concerns of the Tamil community. While some were mere opportunists, there were others, such as Neelan Thiruchelvam and Kethesh Loganathan, who in a principled manner challenged successive governments to move on state reform. Both of these individuals paid with their lives, besides being dubbed ‘traitors’, a label promoted by the LTTE and acquiesced to by large sections of the Tamil community.
The failure of a large section of the Sinhalese progressive community to come to the defence of such Tamil dissident intellectuals is another matter that needs to be addressed in thinking through the need for inter-ethnic solidarity in the post-LTTE era. While there was indeed the risk of the appropriation of independent Tamils by Sinhalese chauvinism promoted by nationalist regimes, it is also true that a Tamil presence in government acted as a possible check on the further ‘Sinhalisation’ of the state. Such engagement for reform, both from inside and outside the state, should be contrasted with the Tamil nationalist demand for a political solution, which rarely spells out what it would like to see in the form and substance of state reform. LTTE proxies such as the Tamil National Alliance became mere mouthpieces for the rebels, paying lip service to the need for a ‘political solution’. Meanwhile, the LTTE consistently exploited the Tamil diaspora and the opportunistic politicians across the Strait in Tamil Nadu in order to reinforce its own agenda – to the detriment of broader state reform that could, in fact, address Tamil aspirations.
The 25 years of LTTE dominance of Tamil politics, and the permanent war inherent in the rebels’ approach, also deflected attention away from a more important legacy of the political problem in Sri Lanka. While there is great concern about the armed conflict – and there should be, given the humanitarian cost and human-rights abuses – the problem in Sri Lanka gains greater clarity from its historical framing as a ‘national questioann’ confronting the minorities, rather than as one that deals with a civil war. In other words, the civil war and the polarisation of the communities depends on the consequence of postcolonial state formation, where a majoritarian democracy marginalises and oppresses the minorities. ‘Minorities’ here is to be taken as not only the minorities with ethnic identities, such as Lankan Tamils, Muslims and Up-country Tamils, but also oppressed castes and the rural Sinhalese, the economically marginalised who form the reserve army for both the military as well as the nationalist political camps.
Chronologically, the difficulties surrounding nationhood in Sri Lanka over the past quarter century have been characterised by the armed conflict, with the LTTE gaining centre stage. The previous 25 years, meanwhile, provided the grounds for the emergence of Tamil militancy, bringing both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism to the fore. However, one must revert to the colonial era and understand the context, going back 75 years to take note of the so-called Donoughmore reforms of the early 1930s. The early part of the phase of electoral democracy, during the 1930s, also provided many possibilities for rapprochement along class, ethnic and caste lines. The experiences of the left in particular – the role it played first against communal forces and, later, its ignominious surrender to these forces during the 1960s – carry important lessons. Revisiting history can perhaps provide more insights than the lessons learned from the recent international Norwegian-facilitated peace process and the associated but bankrupt conflict-resolution discourse.
Justice, peace, democracy
The future will indeed be quite different once the LTTE is politically marginalised. This would be the end of an actor that seemingly had the power to unilaterally change the direction of politics. The possibility of the LTTE’s end is in many ways of its own making, the result of its suicidal politics. While the Tigers gained much international legitimacy, surprisingly, even during the ‘war on terror’ years of 2002 to 2005, its belligerence eventually tested everyone’s patience. Eventually, this antagonistic behaviour led to its international isolation, culminating in the banning of the LTTE by Canada and the EU in 2006.
There were several other important factors at work as well. It seems, for instance, that the LTTE will never outlive the consequences of assassinating Rajiv Gandhi; this earned it the unending enmity of the Indian state, which is now working to strengthen its Sri Lankan counterpart. The LTTE was also dealt a blow by the fatal split of March 2004, when the government-backed Colonel ‘Karuna’ left the rebel fold, taking with him the entire Eastern Command. Meanwhile, it continued to suffer loss of support among the Tamil people on the ground, a result of its own abuses and quest for totalitarian control. Finally, its weakening is visible in the recent setbacks on the battlefield, with a war it chose to resume having led to the consistent loss of territory to the government security forces, which vastly outnumber it with manpower and overwhelm it with firepower.
The post-Tigers period will have the potential to reshape the political landscape of Sri Lanka, just as the post-war periods in many other countries have transformed politics. But then, there are also those who argue that the post-LTTE period will only serve to further entrench majoritarianism. They argue that this would be read as a victory of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, and note that the victors in war rarely spare the loot. Such an unfortunate hijacking of the polity would actually mean the decisive end of the national question, with its resolution indefinitely shelved.
It is between these extreme possibilities that Tamil political engagement – and, for that matter, progressive political engagement generally – will have to manoeuvre. One thing is clear: the war may end sooner or later, but the political defeat of both Tamil nationalism and Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is desirable, and should be pursued. Such a challenge to these nationalisms may have to continue at the level of dissent for the time being; but as the war recedes in the consciousness, a people-centred national debate needs to begin that can challenge the opportunism of the ruling Colombo regime and other politicians. Tamil politicians in particular will have the long-term challenge of building a democratic political culture out of the ravages of war and militarisation.
Such a political culture will have to reach out to the Muslims and the Up-country Tamils, the communities that were sought to be co-opted, coerced or attacked during the tragic decades of Tamil nationalism. The ghastly depopulation of almost 75,000 northern Muslims in 1990 is one issue that the Tamil community will need to redress. In revitalising its democratic politics, the Tamil community will also have to look inward, at the injustices existing within the Tamil community, of caste, region or gender. It is only through a long-term project of revitalisation that Tamil political engagement can work towards a minorities’ consensus with which to challenge Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism and again push to resolve the national question.
Peace and beyond
All this is not to forget the present. Indeed, how the government conducts the war will weigh on political engagement in the future, the most immediate concern being the humanitarian suffering of the civilians caught in between. The government’s attitude toward the situation of the displaced and the civilians in the east, as well as the displaced confined to internment camps in the north, has already left a bitter taste. As the civilians who have been under the jackboot of the LTTE come under the control of the government, their sense of belonging and citizenship in Sri Lanka requires more than mere statements. The fears of these Tamils confronted by facing the Sri Lankan state can only be quelled with the support of independent institutions to address their humanitarian needs, as well as a just political process that gives them confidence. The UN agencies have an important role to play in neutralising the militarised environment in which these civilians are trapped, and the government, even at this late stage, should work closely with the UN in addressing civilian concerns.
In a post-LTTE era, the Mahinda Rajapakse regime will be tempted to continue its politics of opportunism to consolidate and entrench itself. Immediately following the war, it may well sweep the parliamentary and presidential elections, due in 2010 and 2011, respectively, but which could be brought forward. But more quickly than one thinks, the propagandist gains of war will be replaced by the real issues facing the people. Challenging those who portend imminent doom for the island at the hands of the Rajapakse regime, one can draw historically from the role of the interventions by ordinary citizens in redefining the political terrain. Sri Lanka has not witnessed a single successful military coup. And whether it is the UNP or the SLFP, the Senanayakes or the Bandaranaikes, all have been thrown out of power just when it seemed impossible to dislodge them.
The Rajapakse regime may well face the same fate if it chooses to disregard the concerns of the people and push the limits of repression. A prominent Buddhist monk, critical of the Rajapakse regime for the attacks on democracy and media freedom in the south, told this writer a year ago that, as with Winston Churchill at the close of World War II, President Rajapakse could well win the war while losing the future. Indeed, nothing is monolithic in Sri Lanka, not the Tamil community and not even the Buddhist clergy. As always, its citizens are more intelligent than politicians like to think, even if the war and militarisation may have depleted their democratic energies over the decades.
Kethesh Loganathan used to say that the Norwegian peace process gave peace a bad name. In this light, the most challenging question for a post-LTTE era – when the rubric of war will lose its shine– will be one of peace with justice and democracy. Such a peace is not brokered between parties vying for power. Rather, such a peace has to be developed through political engagement, with the political process revved up to resolve the national question. It will have to be a peace in which devolution of power to the regions, as well as power-sharing at the Centre for minorities, is necessarily intertwined with democratisation in the south. Similarly, the Sinhalese communities have to learn from the legacy of left politics in Sri Lanka, to realise that progressive change is inevitably tied to the rights of minorities.
In the post-LTTE era, therefore, we have to move away from the ethnicised and overly territorialised ‘solutions’ of the past. Much will depend on new forms of solidarities formed between the communities. The decimated Tamil community in particular will have a major challenge in attempting to find a political voice with which to join in such solidarities, even while challenging the state to engage in reform. The irresponsible engagement of the Tamil diaspora and the opportunism of politicians in Tamil Nadu likewise needs to end, and the political engagement within Sri Lanka allowed to take its course. Meanwhile, the Tamil political actors within Sri Lanka, many of them with a militarised past, have little credibility with the people. A democratic Tamil political culture may well have to wait for another political generation of Tamils to emerge.
A new Tamil political voice needs to be forged out the remnants of the brutalised Tamil polity. This must include the democratically-minded among the remaining Tamil political actors, principled Tamil intellectuals, community-based activists and Tamil refugees in India awaiting return – who, unlike the diaspora abroad, have a much bigger stake in the Tamil community’s future inside Sri Lanka. The emerging Tamil voice must work with the other minority communities and Sinhalese progressives. The next quarter century, the first of the post-LTTE era, poses starkly contrasting possibilities: continuing the legacy of majoritarian oppression that polarises the communities, or a just political process for the minorities that resolves the national question.
~ Ahilan Kadirgamar is a contributing editor for Himal Southasian.