After the lengthy period of the Norwegian peace process, which informed commentators have termed no war in preference to peace, the return to outright war in Sri Lanka surprised few. Thousands have been killed since the beginning of 2006. In addition, close to 2000 have been disappeared or abducted, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. That the term crisis, then, most readily describes the situation in Sri Lanka today would appear almost intuitively apparent to many, and this is now evident in many analyses, especially those concerned with the work of human-rights advocacy. Indeed, faced by the Rajapakse regime’s brand of authoritarianism, as well as its attacks on minority communities, its now favoured modus operandi of censorship and intimidation of dissenting opinion, its disregard for constitutional compunction and its belligerent refusal to address domestic and international advocacy on these issues, these analyses have diagnosed the present situation as one of human-rights crisis, and the situation in Sri Lanka more generally as one of overall crisis.
The current human-rights situation is indeed dire. The sequence of political assassination, displacement, massacre and abduction perpetrated by multiple armed actors, whether the security forces, the LTTE or other armed groups, demands scrutiny, condemnation and action, both within Sri Lanka and beyond. There is also an urgent need for continuous work at the level of civil society to highlight, expose and challenge the regime’s abuse of power. However these writers suggest that such work must be supplemented by a strategy of critical political engagement.
The primary concern here will be with the responsibilities of critical thinking in a time of war, its stakes, targets and points of intervention. The analytical and strategic adequacy of the identification of the current political situation as chiefly one of ‘crisis’ will be questioned. Thereafter, worries will be raised regarding the marginalisation of the ‘national question’ – a complex debate about the political rights of minorities that has been historically framed as a political problem of Sri Lankan statehood. Finally, Sri Lankan scholarly literature will be drawn upon to provide a more historically grounded understanding of the regime and its relationship to the state than has been evident in current analyses.
‘Crisis’ and ‘war on terror’
In their specific diagnoses of the recent phase of the war as crisis, current analyses fail to recognise the continuity of political developments, both during the Norwegian peace process and during the cycles of war and ‘no war’ over the last 25 years. The Ceasefire Agreement of 2002 and the Norwegian peace process afforded not only legitimacy to the ‘sole-representative’ politics of the LTTE, but also refused to confront its abuses, including the recruitment of child soldiers, the assassination of Tamil dissidents and its escalation of the war. This subsequently paved the way for a backlash in the south in support of the Rajapakse regime’s war effort.
The lesson from the prolonged cycles of war has been that the LTTE, in the interests of its own military structure and militarist politics, has undermined every effort at political rapprochement. The various regimes in the south, for their part, have exploited such disruptions to use the war for short-term purposes of political consolidation. It is in this context that these writers fear that, between the present regime’s discourse of a ‘war against terrorism’ (melding a Sri Lankan language of ‘terrorism’ generated by the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act with the recent US discourse of the ‘war on terror’) on the one hand, and those advocating a discourse of ‘crisis’ on the other, opportunity for discussion of the ‘national question’ becomes increasingly remote.
The polarisation in the understanding of the current situation in Sri Lanka – between ‘war on terror’ and ‘crisis’ – inherently structures discussion in the public sphere, as has been well illustrated by media coverage. While the detrimental effects of this will be discussed later, the first concern is with how human-rights advocacy around such a ‘crisis’ is unable to respond to the nationalist discourse of the government and its allies, which detects Western conspiracy to subvert national sovereignty behind the advocacy of human rights.
The extension of the idea of a general ‘crisis’ of the current regime has led to the assertion that Sri Lanka is a ‘failed state’, by among others the United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickramasinghe. Its domestic proponents use discussion of the ‘failed state’ in an attempt to tarnish the Rajapakse regime, but in the attempt incorrectly conflate state with regime. Observers can thus discern in the current government’s rhetoric of ‘war on terror’, and opposing claims of general ‘crisis’ or ‘failed state’, an alarming congruence that is detrimental to progressive political engagement and debate.
Peace and international engagement
For reasons of economic and political expediency, the current Colombo government has found new investment partners in India, China and Iran. These economic advances have not only led to pledges of large-scale investment in infrastructure and credit for the purchase of oil; but these new partners also abstain from setting human-rights conditionalities. These partnerships have been critical for the strengthening of Sri Lanka’s economy, which while affected by historically high levels of inflation over the past year, has nevertheless managed to show high rates of economic growth, on the order of six to seven percent.
While the regime has staked everything on its ‘war on terror’, in the shape of military confrontation with the LTTE, those who advocate for the need to address the ‘crisis’ maintain that pressure from the ‘international community’ has been and will be the only constraint on the government. But this understanding of international involvement in the Sri Lankan conflict as an unmitigated good pays too little attention to both the conditions surrounding the recent electoral defeats of the Western-leaning UNP coalitions in the 2004 and 2005 national elections, as well as the interest of international actors in conflict and conflict resolution in Sri Lanka.
The pioneering work of the Colombo-based analyst Sunil Bastian has shown that, since the inception of the post-1977 liberalised phase of capitalism on the island, there has not necessarily been a link between peace and the activities of international actors in Sri Lanka. Peace, understood in very specific terms, has figured among a range of calculations chiefly concerned with securing favourable conditions for opening and connecting Sri Lanka’s markets to the global economy, and restructuring the state along neoliberal lines. Indeed, donor aid, in Bastian’s words, “funded the growth of insecurity” by politically buttressing the regime of J R Jayewardene, and facilitating the ethnically discriminatory practices of population resettlement and resource allocation under the so-called Accelerated Mahaweli Scheme during the 1980s. The entry of the ethnic conflict into the foreign-aid lexicon, by means of ‘conflict resolution’ and ‘security’, has been a relatively recent development of the past decade and a half.
The danger inherent in attempting to seek a solution to the national question chiefly conditioned by Western and multilateral aid is exemplified by the case of the Norwegian-brokered peace process. This exposed the international community’s (and its UNP allies’) narrow conceptualisation of peace and state reform, in line with its agenda of neo-liberal reform. The defeat of the UNP coalition in the 2004 and 2005 elections, among other things, highlighted popular dissatisfaction with this linkage. In this way, the enlightened interest of international actors in the complexity of the ‘national question’ can neither be guaranteed nor assumed.
East, democratisation and development
The Eastern Province has become central to the Rajapakse regime’s attempts to defeat the LTTE. The priorities here are both to make a show of stability for donor-supported reconstruction, and to address calls for a political solution through piecemeal political engineering.
Initially, the Sri Lankan military supported the Karuna-led eastern faction that broke away from the LTTE, now called the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), as a military asset in its war with the LTTE. Now, following the ‘liberation’ of the Eastern Province from the LTTE, the regime is engaged in legitimising and entrenching the TMVP through what it terms a process of ‘democratisation’. In March and May respectively, the armed group victoriously contested local government and Provincial Council elections. But the government, conscious of international criticism of state support for the TMVP, is using a rhetoric of ‘democratisation’ and ‘development’ that, all the while, is parasitic on contemporary development discussion of post-conflict reconstruction and securitisation, as well as the contradictions inherent in the West’s own ‘war on terror’. Government ideologues’ self-contradictory mining of the latter is particularly noteworthy. On the one hand, the invasion of Iraq is held up as a cautionary example of the threat liberal interventionism and unilateralism poses to national sovereignty. On the other hand, it is used as a legitimating model to justify ‘democracy building’ in the east.
Indeed, we are faced with a strange paradox here, one that has hardened into contradiction. The Eastern Province is, after all, the assembly site for the regime’s labyrinthine ‘apparatus of terror’ that, as the independent Sri Lankan University Teachers for Human Rights, Jaffna has shown, has been deployed for purposes of political assassination, kidnapping and the subversion of democracy in the south. However, the east is also now thought of as a showpiece for the regime’s commitment to the country’s minorities and to democracy building, particularly with its supposed tutelage of the TMVP cadres in the art of democracy.
In terms of the perceptions of the West, the Colombo government walks a fine line between its dependence on the armed TMVP, which is systematically operating beyond the law in the east, and its seemingly incontrovertible arguments about democratisation. This in part explains the government’s inordinate haste to institute a political and administrative structure, to guarantee ‘political stability’ to neoliberal reconstruction efforts in the east.
For the regime, three factors have been particularly important in enabling it to roll out its own solution to the national question, by creating facts on the ground, as it were: first, President Rajapakse’s effective deflection of the All Party Representative Committee, commissioned by him to find proposals to address the national question; second, the selective implementation of existing provisions in the Constitution, enabling the elections in the east; and third, the ongoing war against the LTTE.
Parallel to the ‘liberation’ of the east, key components of this strategy include the 2006 Supreme Court ruling, which de-merged the North-Eastern Province established under the 1987 Indo-Lanka agreement; the carving up of certain strategic areas of Sampur, in the east, into high-security zones, involving the displacement of scores of minority inhabitants; the continuing expropriation of minority lands; and the institution of a civil administration replete with military or ex-military personnel. The consequences of such moves for inter-ethnic co-existence, particularly Muslim-Tamil relations, are of major concern.
This dual strategy of an unrelenting ‘war on terror’ on the ground, and displacement of the historically framed national question, garbed in the language of democratisation and development, is evident from President Rajapakse’s statement following the conclusion of the recent Eastern Provincial Council elections, in which his UPFA (of which the TMVP is a constituent) was victorious. On 12 May 2008, the president claimed: “I note that the people of the east have given a clear mandate for peace through the defeat of terrorism, the strengthening of democracy and the development of the country.”
The ‘national question’ and Tamil politics
The question of minorities in Sri Lanka has been central to efforts to change the structure of the state throughout the postcolonial period. While initially there was vibrant debate on caste minorities, representative democratic politics eventually shifted the focus to the concerns of the Tamil and Muslim communities, with Tamil nationalist politics gaining centre stage in calls for state reform. The decade following Independence, beginning with the disenfranchisement of the so-called Up-country Tamils (or Tamils of Indian origin) and culminating in the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, led to the framing of the national question around concrete issues of language, land, devolution of administrative powers and citizenship of Up-country Tamils.
Until the escalation of the separatist war in the early 1980s, Tamil parliamentary politics, despite encouraging separatism, was focused primarily on a negotiated resolution of the national question. Significantly, such engagement also continued during the decades of war, including the various talks that led to the Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, as well as the experiment of the North-East Provincial Council of the late 1980s. Even during the 1990s, there was significant engagement around the Parliamentary Select Committee that led to the Mangala Moonesinghe Proposals (which concerned issues of devolution and the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces), and the various proposals during the late 1990s that culminated in the Draft Constitution of 2000. This marked a tentative shift away both from the unitary state and the executive presidency’s centralisation of powers.
These efforts kept alive debate around the national question during times of war, even if they did not necessarily result in implementation of reforms. Here, dissent, particularly Tamil dissent, was central to such political engagement. Other minority actors, including the Muslim polity and Up-county Tamils, were also important forces of engagement. The current displacement of the national question must be understood in the context of the decimation of Tamil dissent by the LTTE, which has either eliminated or paralysed independent Tamils. The assassination of Neelan Thiruchelvam and Kethesh Loganathan (in 1999 and 2006, respectively), both of whom were active in attempts at state reform, as well as the succumbing of the Tamil National Alliance to the sole-representative politics of the LTTE, are characteristic of the major changes in the Tamil polity over the last decade. This process has rendered Tamil political engagement essentially impotent. The other aspect of the LTTE’s politics that created insurmountable barriers to any progress on the national question was its targeting of Muslim minorities, including the massacres in the east and the ethnic cleansing in the north in the early 1990s. This inevitably led to greater difficulties in forging an alliance of minorities to pose a formidable challenge for reform of the state.
The Tamil polity, in the rejectionist politics of the LTTE or the co-opted politics of the TMVP and other Tamil political formations, has not engaged seriously with the national question. In addition, the climate of fear and systematic assassinations have together ensured that such engagement at the level of dissent is also now nearly nonexistent. These factors have also eased the regime’s success in diverting attention from the national question: what has historically been framed as a political problem of minorities is now reframed as a problem of ‘terrorism’ and ‘development.’
Stepping back in history
The Rajapakse regime’s expedient use of the war to defer and perhaps even bypass a meaningful political settlement to the national question must be challenged. However, if the current situation is to be fully comprehended, the regime’s mobilisation of the state apparatus and its relationship to its Sinhala constituencies must also be understood in historical context. For this purpose, an older tradition of Sri Lankan scholarship on the political economy of regimes, elaborated by such figures as Newton Gunasinghe, Amita Shastri, Jayadeva Uyangoda and Sunil Bastian, is worth revisiting.
These scholars wrote of the postcolonial processes of state formation and regime consolidation, locating their intellectual work in sophisticated analyses of the immediate post-Independence legacies of colonial rule. Their preoccupation was the historical weakness of the Sinhala bourgeois ruling elites and the consequent alliance of regimes with a bloc of Sinhala ‘intermediate’ and subordinate classes, which constituted the enduring ‘social bases’ of the state. In turn, this influenced the curious ideology and trajectory of state capitalism in Sri Lanka.
Key features of this ideology, permeated by certain core tenets of Sinhala nationalism, are the identification of the state with intermediate-class aspirations, and the populist fetishisation of its ability to directly maintain and reproduce this social bloc chiefly through subsidies and rural welfare. The emotive Sinhala nationalist slogan of 1956, “apey anduwa” (our government), inaugurated this identification of regime and state as the achievement of real political independence. This foregrounded the unrepresentative and ‘un-national’ nature of the preceding UNP regime, which lacked any recognisable domestic constituency beyond itself. The United Front government of 1970-77 marked the high point of this ‘statist’ project, which enshrined a unitary state with greater powers for ruling regimes vis-à-vis the bureaucracy in a new republican constitution.
Subsequent regimes have more or less worked within the limits of the model of state-society relations as defined by this intermediate-class character of the state. However, the relationship between the state and its Sinhala social bases has been unravelling ever since it inception. This process gained added momentum with the post-1977 neoliberal restructuring of the state, and its subsequent vitiating effects on the sustainability of rural livelihoods. Emphasis should also be placed on the significant role played by the draconian powers of the executive presidency, introduced under the 1978 Constitution, which have afforded regimes opportunities for accelerated liberalisation of the economy.
The Rajapakse regime, then, as others before it, has had to manage the unstable relationship between the state and its chief constituencies amid the ruins of state capitalism and in a global context of neoliberal hegemony. Its fondness for populist language and the spectacle of ‘statist developmentalism’ – despite its attachment to the open economy, export-led growth and foreign direct investment – must be understood against this background, as must its penchant for social control and discipline.
In the war, the current government has sensed an opportunity to enlarge its pool of patronage resources, and to accelerate its occupation of the machinery of state. It has sought to defer pressing questions, including the soaring cost of living, by stoking patriotic fervour with claims of imminent military victory. All the while, it subcontracts more extreme nationalist and racist pronouncements in the public sphere to its allies, particularly the Jathika Hela Urumaya (the JHU, a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist party) and the Patriotic National Movement. In this sense, the regime has factored the war and its declaration of conditions of national emergency into a calculation of its own political survival.
Critical political engagement and state reform
Challenging the regime – refusing to let it off the hook on constitutional reform, on the meaning of substantial democratisation, on the national question in short – is a refusal to accept its terms of war. The enormities of the regime – its human-rights abuses, attacks on dissent and undermining of democratic institutions – are also part of these terms. However, a purely rights-based critique alone is incapable of addressing the complex issues inherent in the political economy of state reform and deconstructing the regime’s rhetoric of national emergency, which indefinitely defers consideration of these issues even while creating new conditions on the ground. In fact, as has been indicated, human-rights advocacy around the idea of a ‘crisis’ inadvertently works with the regime’s rhetoric, to close the space for any such discussion.
The regime’s duplicitous undermining of state reform is notably evident when it claims to want to implement the 13th Amendment of the Constitution by holding Provincial Council elections in the troubled east. After all, it simultaneously continues to violate the Constitution by not implementing the 17th Amendment, which would ensure the setting up of a Constitutional Council. This Council would be responsible for appointing independent commissioners for the various institutions responsible for governance, such as the National Human Rights Commission, the Judicial Services Commission, the Elections Commission and the Police Commission. These would also be a powerful check on the abuse of power by the regime. In this context, the recent elections in the east, and the emerging authoritarianism reflective of the subversion of constitutional governance, must be understood as integral to the regime’s entrenchment through its mobilisation of state infrastructure, and its extension of networks of patronage parallel to the conduct of the war.
The powers inherent in the executive presidency (which requires substantive reform, if not outright abolition), the fragmentation of minorities’ political formations, the terms of Western discourse and engagement, the sheer ubiquity of the neoliberal paradigm, and the shift in regional hegemony towards Asian powers – all of these are important conditions underlying the current government’s aggressive occupation of the state apparatus. While significant pressure towards state reform to address the question of the minorities is not possible without broader social movements and a national debate, the time of war may not provide the opening for such initiatives. This, then, is the political context against which critical intellectual inquiry must continually calibrate its own undertakings. These, in turn, are necessary interventions, focusing on resuscitating and renewing historically constituted arguments for state reform, and arresting their disappearance from the intellectual agenda – even as they threaten to fade from the national political landscape.
~ Ahilan Kadirgamar is an activist with the Sri Lankan Democracy Forum.
~ Thushara Hewage is pursuing a doctorate at teh Department of Anthropology at Columbia University, New York.