The title of this piece purposely uses the word Lanka and not Sri Lanka. The name and concept of ‘Sri Lanka’ was reified in the country’s republican Constitution of 1972, at a time when the prefix Sri was problematic for the minority communities because it symbolised Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism. Indeed only a decade earlier, there had been a major ‘anti-Sri campaign’ in the North in effacing the number plates of vehicles with the Sinhala character ‘Sri’, particularly since it came soon after the ‘Sinhala Only’ language polices of 1956. During the much-needed shift from the colonial legacy, the colonial name Ceylon was abandoned as was the Soulbury Constitution in 1948 when a republican Constitution was created.
These changes, however, came with the tragic move to entrench majoritarianism and centralisation of power with a unitary structure of the state as guaranteed by the Constitution. Buddhism was given a privileged place in the country and there was little protection for minorities. This would polarise communities, provide room for Sinhala nationalist mobilisation and fuel the conflict that was to come. This article also uses the concept of ‘Southasia’. This is not the ‘South Asia’ of SAARC and its state-centred notion; nor is it that of the ‘area studies’ of academia, which attempts to produce a regional ‘object’ for analysis. Neither is it borrowed from the neoliberal reference to regional security and emerging markets. Rather, I am thinking of a Southasia of shared histories, movements and struggles of the peoples that have inhabited our region.
With these terms in order, let us turn our attention to the particular problem of the internationalisation of Sri Lanka. The last decade has seen considerable engagement by the Western and regional powers. The much internationalised Norwegian peace process of 2002 brought in the US, EU and Japan as co-chairs of the peace process and its donor support, which merged conflict resolution with neoliberal reforms. This particular formulation of neoliberal peace was very much related to the global ‘war on terror’ and the neo-colonial concept of ‘failed states’. Conflict resolution was the discourse used to bring together a ‘terrorist’ organisation (the LTTE) and a ‘failed state’ (the Sri Lankan state) to attempt an undemocratic deal between these two armed actors. Thus, the internationalisation of Sri Lanka took the form of post-Cold War imperial discourses of ‘conflict resolution’, ‘war on terror’, ‘failed states’ and ‘neoliberal reform’. The escalation of the war following the failure of the Norwegian mediation brought in the regional powers of India, China, Iran and Pakistan as supporters of the Sri Lankan state’s war effort. Despite the different geopolitical positions and approaches of these varied global and regional actors, the larger framing and internationalisation of the situation were the prerogatives of stability, security and development.
It is important to note that the global interests of stability, security and development are not necessarily in the interests of democratisation, pluralism and the empowerment of the peoples of Lanka. All this is not to take a nativist position on the island, which has been devastated by the political problems of minorities, the social and economic devastation of the war, and the economic marginalisation of the rural populations and the working classes. This is where the kind of concepts we use to characterise state, society and movements also shape the understanding of our problems. Thus, the characterisation of both the LTTE as ‘terrorist’ and the Sri Lankan state as ‘failed’ must be considered problematic. Others have characterised the LTTE as an organisation with a fascist political culture, and the government of Mahinda Rajapakse and its abuse of state power as one of deepening authoritarianism with oligarchic ambitions. Such a different use of concepts and a differing discourse also leads to a very different politics with respect to the problem of Lanka: from one of stability, security and development to one of democratisation, pluralism, empowerment of minorities, as well as social and economic justice.
The opening section of President Rajapakse’s election manifesto of January 2010 is titled, “Sri Lanka: The emerging ‘Wonder of Asia’ ”. The opening lines of that section read, “The people of our country are now awaiting the victory in the ‘economic war’, in a manner similar to our victory in the war against terrorism.” This begs the question as to the president’s conception of ‘Asia’. It is indeed an Asia with a capital ‘A’, in which the powers compete for economic growth. The triumphal attitude towards the ‘war on terror’ is now extended by a war mentality towards development and the economy. Indeed President Rajapakse’s platform and vision for Sri Lanka is one centred on economic development and the rebuilding of infrastructures. For that he has a vision of internationalising the country through foreign aid and infrastructure-building by the Asian powers, particularly China and India. The danger of the war mentality extended to the economic realm is that, in all wars there is devastation and there are losers. Indeed, to take a leaf from Lanka’s history, the escalation of repression with the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979 and the beginning of the armed conflict coincided with the open economic reforms initiated by President J R Jayewardene in 1977.
The other war, the one against the LTTE, was fought with scant regard for the lives and welfare of Tamil civilians – who are indeed Lankan citizens – whom the state claimed to liberate from under the jackboot of the LTTE. That war was fought as a dirty war by both sides, including killings and massacres and the most virulent and polarising of nationalist rhetoric. And ultimately, after decades of devastating war, the people of Lanka have been the losers. That war gained from the military support of the Asian powers to the Colombo government. And now, what will come of the ‘economic war’? Will the people again be losers, as the country develops with little regard for the human cost and the lost opportunities for democratisation and reconciliation? Will it be economic development, through the building of roads and ports with the support of Beijing and New Delhi, even as Sri Lanka’s democratic infrastructure is dismantled for the authoritarian and oligarchic interests of the Rajapakse regime?
This is not to say that rebuilding and reconstruction are not necessary. Rather, the end of a devastating war such as the one in Lanka requires the rebuilding of institutions, of inter-ethnic relations, of war-torn and traumatised communities, and indeed an equitable and just economy. However, President Rajapakse’s vision of mounting an ‘economic war’ – with its emphasis on growth and infrastructure, with the consolidation of the centralised unitary state, with its insensitivity if not outright exploitation of the minorities in its attempts to develop Sri Lanka, with ambitions to become Asia’s wonder or the internationalisation by the Asian powers – cannot be the answer.
State to region
There is a need for a different vision after the war, for reconstructi on and reconciliation. And this vision can gain from the idea of Southasia imbued, with an internationalist spirit of solidarity. Such Southasian solidarity cannot only be mediated by the states, and will have to be framed around the common concerns facing the peoples of this region. Lanka’s communities have to rebuild their relations: the country’s intellectual culture has to be rejuvenated, its social movements have to find new visions, its institutions such as universities have to be re-energised. And after decades of war, the democratic ethos needs to spread among the people.
For such rebuilding, the solidarities of the peoples of Southasia can go a long way. The challenges are complex, and there are no simple formulas. Solidarity cannot merely mean an opposition to the Sri Lankan state or a critique of its liberal defenders. During the last phase of the war, we saw both well-meaning as well as opportunistic actors in India pour fuel on the fire – through their demonisation of the Sinhala community, their uncritical support for the LTTE, or simply through their silence towards the LTTE’s abuses. Solidarity and the internationalist spirit have to grapple with and challenge the contours of all forms of power and repression, from imperial power, to state power, to the local power of self-proclaimed liberation movements.
The political problem of the minorities, the war and the tragic recent history of Lanka could have been avoided if a democratic political settlement with the attendant reforms of the state had been forthcoming soon after Lanka’s independence sixty years ago. And now, the Rajapakse government, in its singular focus on an ‘economic war’ and in the interests of its own consolidation, has not put forward a vision for a political settlement – instead, it continues to undermine the democratic fabric of the country. During the years of the war and during the year since, Sri Lanka has been internationalised in problematic ways, even as successive governments have placed a singular emphasis on sovereignty, territorial integrity and the centralised unitary state. For decades, progressive activists from all of Lanka’s communities have identified the centralised unitary state as a serious obstacle to addressing the political problem of minorities. The solution proposed by such activists has been one focused on democratisation, devolution of power to the regions, and power-sharing at the centre.
The last decade has brought to light the problem of a state-centred internationalisation in the Lankan context. In the aftermath of the war, however, it is time to think of an internationalist spirit in which the idea of Southasia might be of productive value: A rejuvenated internationalism, in which the shared histories, movements and struggles of Southasia can become the basis on which people can form regional movements and create solidarities beyond national territories and sovereignties. Such a vision in Lanka can contribute towards rebuilding communities, institutions, democratic political cultures and a plural society.
Tensions on the waters between the fisherfolk of Lanka and India are regularly discussed, but where are the social movements to resolve such conflicts and build solidarity? Why do so many abdicate to the Sri Lankan and Indian states arbitration of such conflicts? Many are acutely aware of the deterioration of the academic and research capacities in Lanka, but where are the initiatives by progressive academics and intellectuals to create linkages between the universities of Southasia, to refashion and develop our academic institutions and our intellectual culture? Since independence, we have seen our nation states use emergency powers and anti-terrorism laws in the service of political repression and the entrenchment of authoritarian regimes, so why is there not a powerful regional movements to challenge state repression and hold our states accountable? From the LTTE to the Sinhala chauvinist forces, the Taliban to the forces of Hindutva, we have seen reactionary and rightwing forces attack our communities, but why is our solidarity and mobilisation against such reactionary forces so limited in the region? We have seen the onslaught of neoliberalism, the dispossession of peoples, the economic impunity of free-trade zones and special economic zones, yet why have we not developed a regional analysis of political economic alternatives? To internationalise Lanka with the idea of Southasia, the tasks of solidarity are manifold: it requires intellectual interventions, but it can only move forward through the praxis of regional people’s movements.
Adapted from remarks at the Global South Asia conference at New York University on 13 February 2010.
~ Ahilan Kadirgamar is a contributing editor to this magazine.