After toiling for a year through the so-called All Party Representative Committee (APRC), Sri Lanka is currently on the verge of unveiling proposals for a political solution, including constitutional reforms, to address the longstanding ‘national question’. It does not look as if the formulations that will be tabled can address the issues in a way that will satisfy much of the country, even as the situation in the north and east remains dire due to the continuing war, coupled with a human-rights and humanitarian crisis.
The APRC’s yearlong quest to find a political solution has been anything but smooth. It has lost significant credibility due to President Mahinda Rajapakse’s acquiescence to the assertion of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism promoted by several parties, including sections of his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Backed by militarist euphoria when the security forces wrested control of the Eastern Province from the LTTE, these political parties are attempting to push through proposals that include the discredited concept of a ‘unitary state’. In so doing, they are putting in jeopardy the only political process currently afloat amidst the island’s ethnic conflict. Sri Lanka might well be moving into a long phase of protracted war, with little political opening, even as the underlying social, economic and political forces are shifting due to changes in the political economy and positioning of international actors.
Conflict and ethnic polarisation has always fed on a narrow nationalism in Sri Lanka. Indeed, the Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism of the south finds an ally in the LTTE’s fascism, and the two essentially give political life to each other. It is in this context that Tamil progressives, decimated by the LTTE and largely isolated, have placed importance on an inclusive political process that would weaken both extremisms, and ultimately lead towards a political solution. Kethesh Loganathan, one of the most brilliant Tamil pro-democracy activists, was a major proponent of such a political process, including the APRC, for which he was assassinated by the LTTE a year ago.
In the face of rejection and a lack of serious engagement by all the major players, any vitality the APRC process continues to exhibit is due to the convergence of the interests of the minority parties, including those comprised of Muslims, upcountry Tamils and the left. The representative of the leftwing Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), Tissa Vitarana, as APRC chairman, is persevering at forging a credible consensus. As Himal goes to press, there is an emerging debate, both within the APRC and in the public sphere, as to whether any APRC proposal that does not outright reject a unitary state could be credible at all.
In an interview on 2 September 2007, President Rajapakse made two significant, and disturbing, points. First, the president unashamedly claimed that because he had to carry the Sinhala voters who had supported him, he would have to support the unitary state as the starting point for addressing minority demands. Second, he called for a greater Indian role in supporting peace efforts in Sri Lanka.
The candidness of President Rajapakse’s assertion that his priority was the Sinhala voter not only characterised his lack of leadership and appeal to the other constituencies, but at the very minimum also highlighted the need for a change in political strategy by the minority communities. The president’s statement, after all, reflected the current resurgence of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka following two decades of dormancy, during which time official emphasis had been on addressing the ‘national question’.
It might be time for the minorities to look for new strategies. During the heyday of Tamil parliamentary politics, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Federal Party had attempted to bring Sri Lanka’s minorities together under the rubric of a ‘Tamil-speaking people’. Those were the years of the hegemony of the Jaffna Tamil elite. But much blood has been spilt since then – in Tamil violence against Muslims, as well as in the internecine violence within the Tamil community, which has decimated Tamil democratic forces. Both of these have primarily been outcomes of the fascist politics of the LTTE.
The historically hegemonic character of Tamil identity and Tamil politics will not be acceptable to Sri Lanka’s Muslims and upcountry Tamils. As such, the political future of the country’s minorities may well depend on their ability to forge a countrywide coalition, one that allows space for the various ethnic and cultural identities. The weakest constituency in such a coalition could well be the Lankan Tamils, along with the lessening of their demand for territorial federalism in the form of a Tamil homeland – a hard reality to swallow for Tamils living in the island and in the diaspora.
A coalition with some hope of sustainability would be one that unites with the remnants of the left parties, and is able to address grievances based on class, caste, gender and the injustices of state-sponsored economic liberalisation. Forging such an alliance could strengthen redress for minority grievances, including employment in the public sector, land alienation, implementation of bilingualism, and the politicised character of investment in infrastructure and its impact on employment and social welfare. Indeed, a coalition of the minority parties and the left could well pose a critical challenge to majoritarian politics and the resurgence of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. This force could not only become a powerful vehicle for traditional demands of devolution and power-sharing, but could also prove a formidable front for the struggle for democracy and justice.
President Rajapakse’s call for a greater Indian role in the peace process relates to the liberal use of the concept of ‘peace’ as defined by the merger of security and development. The president is not calling for an Indian political role like that of the 1980s with the culmination of the Indo-Lanka Accord, which led the Sri Lankan Constitution’s 13th Amendment (the only amendment to address the ‘national question’, entailing the devolution of power to the provinces and making both Tamil and Sinhala the country’s official languages). Rather, the president is calling for Indian support to address the security concerns in the war against the LTTE, while simultaneously making overtures for greater Indian investment in Sri Lanka.
While Sri Lanka had long embraced Western donors and capitalist development through strong ties with the West, particularly following the failed Indian intervention of the late 1980s, there is currently a major shift underway. This entails a greater emphasis on Asia – rather than the West – as the Sri Lankan economy is increasingly influenced by India, China and Japan. This shift has important implications for international engagement on state reform, human rights, security and the character of economic development. The checks of the international community, both positive and negative, from engagement on human-rights to the promotion of neo-liberalism, are likely to change dramatically in the course of this evolution.
The merging of these shifts in Sri Lanka’s political economy is particularly evident in the infrastructural transformation being attempted in the island’s east. This has been propelled by the Colombo government’s call for a massive reconstruction effort following the mid-July ‘liberation’ of the east, particularly in the form of investment in infrastructure supported by the multilateral donors and Asian powers. This development blueprint for the east has been in the works for some time, as Sri Lanka’s donors have long raised concerns about the centralisation of Sri Lanka’s economy around Colombo and the Western Province, which accounts for 50 percent of Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product.
Following demographic changes partly engineered by the state, the Eastern Province and the district of Trincomalee now have Muslim, Tamil and Sinhalese populations in roughly equal proportions. The east has the potential to become a model of ethnic coexistence and economic development, so long as there is a credible and sustainable process to address the underlying political, economic and security concerns. As such, the government is currently attempting to showcase the east as an example of its concern for the welfare of the minority communities.
But the dismal state of politics, particularly with the resurgence of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and increasing militarisation, as well as the absence of a political process to challenge both of these destructive developments, casts a dark shadow on the government’s optimistic plans for the east. President Rajapakse’s responses to the need for a political process have been his APRC proposals, with the controversial ‘unitary state’ concept, and the promulgation of local government elections in the east before the end of the year. These are meant to show that enough stability exists for reconstruction. But the president’s interests are mostly towards appeasing the international community, in a bid for donor assistance and investment. Meanwhile, any proposal for state reform based on the unitary-state concept is bound to be rejected by the minority communities, ending the country’s only current political process towards peace.
Given the displacement and militarisation, immediate elections in the east can only lead to further repression, attacks on democratic rights, political killings and increased violence. There is little faith in the opposition. The United National Party (UNP), along with its leader, Ranil Wickramasinghe, has a track record of political opportunism, not to mention a losing streak in electoral politics. Either way, the UNP does not have the requisite vision to address the most pressing issues. Unless the minority parties unite with a progressive agenda, forcefully intervene in the debate on the ‘national question’, and challenge the direction of developments in the east, the democratic future of Sri Lanka’s minorities and eastern communities will be in peril.
~ Ahilan Kadirgamar is an activist with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.