I am posting below an article that I wrote with Cenan Pirani. The shorter version of this article is in Combat Law. The longer version below delves into the history of left politics in Sri Lanka and attempts at a political solution. Another article by me reflecting some of these concerns and raising questions of solidarity titled ‘The Challenges of Solidarity’ was published in Red Pepper.
The Tragedy of Politics in Sri Lanka
By AHILAN KADIRGAMAR and CENAN PIRANI
In the last few months, the Sri Lankan security forces have managed to ruthlessly push the LTTE into a 40 square km strip of land in the North of the island, and along with the LTTE leadership and its cadres, a sizable civilian population, anywhere from seventy thousand to one hundred and fifty thousand, have also been cordoned off in this area. As the security forces continue their offensives purporting to rid Sri Lanka of the LTTE, they also claim the lives of these civilians daily.
For those civilians that attempt to leave the territory they are faced with the possibility of death and, not in the least, violence from both sides. The LTTE have shot at and sometimes killed those that have attempted to leave the area and reports suggest punishment is becoming increasingly brutal. They are also forcefully recruiting civilians from the trapped populations to fight against the government forces. Those that do manage to escape the area and are not killed by security forces gunfire are then interrogated by security forces out of the suspicion of LTTE affiliation. International human rights groups are calling for ICRC access to observe this screening process, suspecting torture and killings. Those that make it past this process are then interned in detention camps that are under-resourced and which they are not permitted to leave.
The surge in attention and pressure by international actors is necessary in this situation to ensure safety for the civilian populations. Currently, the UNHCR and ICRC are attempting to address civilian concerns in the camps and gain further access to security forces interrogations of Tamils entering the camps. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned that both warring parties could have committed war crimes. The UN Secretary General has made repeated statements about the deteriorating humanitarian situation and sent his Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs to visit the North. The Indian Foreign Minister has also made repeated statements and made a visit to Sri Lanka. There have been statements and engagement by the British Foreign Secretary and the US Secretary of State. The big powers have not only raised concerns about the humanitarian situation but also called for a political solution to the conflict.
The international media has attempted to cover the current situation and the civilian suffering despite restricted access to the affected areas in the North. The media has also been resolute in uncovering the state sponsored attacks against media people inside Sri Lanka who are critical of the government’s war or even those who sympathize with the civilian plight. Thus the humanitarian situation is also linked to the widespread abuses of human rights and a culture of impunity characterized by disappearances, abductions, extrajudicial killings and torture. This is done all in the name of the new “war against terrorism”. In this way, the aggressive State repression under the Rajapakse regime is rampant on many fronts impacting all the communities in Sri Lanka. However, this is not a recent phenomenon in the sixty year post-colonial history of the country; its history is characterized by the formation of a majoritarian State that would continually abrogate the rights of its citizens, affecting people all over the country. These moves by the State would lead to political engagement, push for reform, and eventually, militancy.
It is important to return to this history of the formation of the majoritarian State to show how the current regime’s actions are facilitated by the structure of the State since its initial development in the years before the British hand-over of power. This majoritarian state, which promotes autocratic rule, and is co-opted by the maneuverings of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist elite is also the root cause of the current ethnic conflict as well as other conflicts in the country’s history. Since independence, the majoritarian State provided the space for the twin nationalisms which reinforced each other; Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and Tamil nationalism, which would take violent and exclusionist turns at key moments.
Uncovering this history is important to understand the shortcomings of international engagement with the current crisis. In recent months, the large amount of international attention has resulted in some constructive pressure and other not so constructive engagement. Most notably the Sinhala and Tamil expatriate communities and the political actors in Tamil Nadu have done little to promote civilian well-being or provide engagement capable of challenging and reforming the State, as they often resort to negative nationalist rhetoric that further foments tension and widens the distance between the communities, including the other minority communities (Up-Country Tamils, Muslims, low-caste communities). Any serious attempt to move out of the current predicament would call for political engagement towards a democratic political solution to address the grievances and aspirations of the minority communities. Even for humanitarian organizations that claim politics to not be on their agenda, nothing less than a nuanced politically minded engagement will ensure that this particular humanitarian situation is resolved and that more debacles do not occur in the future.
The Making of the Majoritarian State and Ethnic Politics
The making of majoritarian State can be found well before the transfer of power and Independence in 1948. The 1920s saw the birth of the Jaffna Youth Congress, one of the first anti-colonial movements with pluralist vision and a broader agenda of progressive indigenization with social reform. The Jaffna Youth Congress consisting mainly of a younger generation of educators and students would attempt to build links with progressives in the South and also went so far as to make links with the Indian national movement by facilitating the visit of Gandhi to Colombo and Jaffna in 1927. In 1931, the British implemented the Donoughmore Constitution in order to augment the governing bodies called the State Councils through universal suffrage. The Donoughmore Commission, the body that would draft the constitution and be responsible for one of the earliest experiments in far reaching electoral democracy; initially received representations from different communities (Sinhalese – the majority, Tamils, Muslims, and caste minorities). The State Council elections in the early 1930s were boycotted by the Jaffna Youth Congress, though elite Tamils chose to participate; this trend of a pro-imperialist tendency in the Tamil political leadership would continue throughout the rest of the century. Structural faults in the State Councils allowed the elite Sinhalese to take full control of them in 1936 beginning the legacy of majoritarian democracy. This resulted in two features in Sri Lankan politics going forward into the present; Sinhala elite interests captured state power, and also importantly: any political interaction with the State was characterized by a language of ethnicity – rights to citizenship and notions of statehood would be colored by notions of ethnic affiliation.
Some left formations were developed in the mid-1930s, including the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the Trotskyite party, and later the Communist Party (CP). The left, while staunchly opposed to colonialism, did not accept the narrow nationalist ideology embraced by the mainstream Sinhala elite. Sadly, it is only the history of progressive and left forces in the anti-colonial struggle and their positions on the “national question” that point to the paths not taken with a pluralist vision. On the other hand, the emergence of a powerful Sinhala Buddhist nationalist politics would subvert democracy and nurture a majoritarian State.
Aims at protecting minority rights were not central in the Soulbury Constitution of 1948, however, some leeway was available in the form of a minorities protection clause. This Constitution which came with Independence would not safeguard against the passing of chauvinistic pieces of legislation by the Sinhalese elite. In the year immediately after Independence, the government of Prime Minister DS Senanayake would disenfranchise and repatriate to India tea plantation Tamils, known as Up-Country Tamils, in order to remove them as a potential voting block for left parties that ran against the Sinhalese elite. Later, Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike would go on to spearhead the Sinhala Only Act in 1956 which made Sinhala the only officially recognized language.
New constitutions into the 1970s would further solidify the power of a majoritarian State under a unitary structure of the State and an autocratic Presidency. The next constitution, passed in 1972, would symbolically make a clear break with the British Crown, however, it would give Buddhism a privileged place in the country and centralize control on public services under the Executive branch in government. The centralized power of the Executive branch became more entrenched with the passing of the next constitution in 1978 with the creation of an Executive Presidency, first held by JR Jayawardene. The Executive Presidency marked the removal of the last few sets of checks and balances on the most senior government post, making it amenable to autocratic rule.
State Repression, Attempts at Reform, and the Rise of Militancy
From the 1950’s onward, as the Sinhala elite secured their hold in government and state power, there were elite Tamils that would attempt to curb the majoritarian tides, most notably SJV Chelvanayagam and his Federal Party. The making of Sinhala as the only official language prompted the Federal Party to push for the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact, which attempted to limit the damaging effects of the policy in the country. Sinhala Buddhist nationalist forces vehemently criticized the pact, forcing Bandaranaike to abandon it. Chelvanayagam would try again in 1965 with the newly elected UNP with Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. These attempts yielded a pact, however, its tenets of services for Tamils and district councils would never be honored by the UNP, which prompted Chelvanayagam and the Federal Party to leave government. It should be noted that the LSSP and the CP during the 1950s and 1960s took a progressive stand on language rights and autonomy for the Tamils, but they would eventual capitulate and begin pandering to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as they joined the coalition government of 1970. By the 1970’s, the Federal Party moved on to join the other Tamil parties to form the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and continue its non-violent Tamil nationalist struggle, though the extent of its mobilization was questionable. The unwritten chapter of the emergence of Tamil nationalism is the silencing of other contradictions within the Tamil community along caste, region, class and gender. The TULF in 1976 very prematurely promoted the idea of secession from Sri Lanka without fully recognizing the dangers inherent in that extreme nationalist stand.
In the South, the late 1960s saw the development of a movement within the Sinhala community that would militarily challenge the government on the grounds of the grievances of rural youth. The poor conditions in the South and a failing economy lent for an ideal environment for some middle class youth in the South to promote a “Marxist” Revolutionary party with Sinhala nationalist overtones, called the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The party received support in the thousands from youths of the rural communities. In the first military action against the government of phenomenal scale, the JVP staged an insurrection in 1971 and would capture some areas mainly in the South. However, the uprising was soon brutally crushed; security forces would kill over 10,000 JVP youths in a matter of weeks.
The uprising and its brutal end would parallel government concessions to Sinhalese in the South. Of these in the early 1970s was a policy of standardisation, which required Tamils to score higher marks on exams than Sinhalese to enter universities, would set off a wave of protest by Tamil middle class youths in the North. This younger generation of Tamils would go on to build Tamil militant groups. Groups like TELO, PLOTE, EPRLF, EROS, and the LTTE had been formed by a handful of Tamil students and youths and characterized by ‘hit and run’ tactics in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However still, the movements did not receive much active support from Tamil community; the organizations were seen as small cells that planned small operations.
This would all change after July 1983, when state-sponsored anti-Tamil riots were organized in the capital Colombo. In response to a LTTE ambush of a military patrol in the North leading to the death of some 13 soldiers, the government deliberately orchestrated tensions in the capital between the two communities. Sinhalese mobs mobilized by the government were sent to attack members of the Tamil community in the capital, which resulted in the killing of over 2000 Tamil civilians. Such mass violence targeting Tamil civilians would further characterize the view that the violence was the result a pure and simple ethnic problem, which obscured the formative influences of the majoritarian State over the previous decades. At this time, the government would also ban the TULF from parliament, further disaffecting Tamils and marginalizing Tamil parliamentary politics on a national scale.
As a result of the riots and the banning of the TULF, support on all fronts for Tamil militancy gained much headway. With the members of the groups from the 1970’s at the helm, the Tamil militant movement mushroomed in size; youths in the hundreds of thousands from all over the country would go North to join the movement. By the mid 1980s, the power and size of the Tamil militant organizations were seen as a force that could take on the Sri Lankan Army.
There was a sense of need to unify the many Tamil militant organizations (TELO, LTTE, PLOTE, EROS, EPRLF) in order to fight the government. Initial attempts at unification under an Eelam National Liberation Front (ENLF) did not go very far on account of internal tensions, often personal, between leaders in different groups. But, a major shift occurred when, in an egomaniacal attempt to consolidate power, the leader of the LTTE, Prabhakaran, organized the massacres of the core leaders and much of their cadre base in the other Tamil militant organizations. By the end of 1986, a significant portion of the militant Tamil organizations had been dissolved in this way. The LTTE would also paralyze the TULF by assassinating its leaders, including Appapillai Amirthalingam, in 1989. By violently silencing the Tamil moderates, the LTTE would forcibly solidify its place as ‘the sole representative of the Tamil people’, which publicly entrenched the false unity between Tamil people and the LTTE with its militant separatism.
International Engagement and a Political Solution
It is this history that has brought about the tragedy facing the Tamil community and the country as a whole today. However, over the last two decades there have been a number of attempts to redress this political history, particularly through attempts at constitutional and state reform. The Indo-Lanka Accord and Indian intervention that led to the 13th Amendment to the constitution, the only significant change to the constitution, spawned further attempts at constitutional changes particularly during the late nineties culminating in the Draft Constitution of 2000, which was defeated in parliament by the UNP opposition at that time. While the 13th Amendment was a positive step forward for devolution in the country, its short-comings should be also recognized. It was only meant to work under an Indian guarantee. To promote a democratic resolution of the conflict far reaching changes need to occur, including the need for greater devolution of power to the regions with clearly demarcated powers, the need for a non-unitary structure of the State, abolition of the Executive Presidency and a bicameral legislature with greater representation for minorities. Such constitutional and state reforms, which cease discrimination and empower minorities by limiting of centralized state power is what is called a “political solution” by progressives in Sri Lanka.
At the current moment, international engagement towards a political solution and measures to address the humanitarian situation, continue to be difficult given the discourse in the South of Sri Lanka, which often overplays the fear of international intervention. Sinhala nationalists have strengthened their position in the country by riding both the war euphoria and by making strong claims for state sovereignty. For example, recent unofficial reports that the US might evacuate civilians trapped in the Vanni is one such instance of heightened debate within Sri Lanka. Indeed, any unilateral intervention by the US would be detrimental to both Sri Lanka and the region, and hence the need for multi-lateral engagement. However, the Sinhala nationalists are using the slightest rumors of intervention and even international engagement to strengthen their xenophobic stand, which is also increasingly used to attack dissent in the country. While the Rajapakse regime has promoted Sinhala Buddhist nationalism over the past few years, the mounting economic problems and the need for donor assistance are likely to pose problems for this insular and chauvinist outlook.
Rhetoric and nationalist mobilization aside, the current human rights and humanitarian situation continues to be dire. Here, the UN has more credibility within Sri Lanka and is more accountable on such issues compared to the big powers, who are themselves not free of human rights abuses. While there is no substitute to building a vibrant human rights movement within the country, the urgency of the situation calls for the UN to continue to challenge Sri Lanka at UN forums and push for a greater role of UN agencies and the ICRC on the ground.
It is on engagement towards a political solution that the big powers like India, the US, the EU and Japan will have to be watched. Indeed, the two significant steps in keeping the devolution debate alive in recent years; both the December 2006 Majority Report of the Experts Committee to All Party Representative Committee (APRC) and the January 2007 Report of the Chairman of the APRC, came out in part from a push by India. However, the political process lost track when the President interfered with the APRC and pushed for the January 2008 sham interim proposals that were to implement selective provisions that were already in the 13th Amendment. In a worrying move, India welcomed these sham proposals as a good first step giving undue legitimacy to the maneuvering of the President.
When it comes to the political actors in Tamil Nadu, over the last year, they have for the most part played only a negative role in trying to prop up the LTTE, which has consistently opposed any attempt at a political solution. The Sinhala community, while a majority in Sri Lanka, continues to fear and has a minority complex in relation to the larger Tamil population in Tamil Nadu. Much like the LTTE’s extreme Tamil nationalism reinforced Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and vice versa, Tamil chauvinist mobilization in Tamil Nadu could continue to reinforce Sinhala chauvinism in Sri Lanka. More productive actions on the part of actors in Tamil Nadu over the last few months would have been making a clear distinction between the LTTE and the Tamil people, pushing for a greater UN role to address the humanitarian situation, and calling on Delhi to push for proposals beyond the 13th Amendment and a non-unitary constitution. It is to be seen if in the post-LTTE era Tamil Nadu and Delhi would shift their engagement beyond their narrow Tamil nationalist and security with development agendas respectively.
Despite the importance of international engagement, any political solution is unlikely to work unless there is political will on the part of the President and the government to implement it. In that context, reviving the devolution debate also functions to check the resurgence of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the country and begins to shift the political ground towards addressing minorities concerns. Equally important is to challenge the attacks on democracy by the Rajapakse Regime. If there is one great lesson to be learned from Sri Lanka’s history, it is that the attacks on the minorities will lead to the deterioration of democratic political culture in the country. And the corollary also is true that without considerable democratization and demilitarization in the entire country, a political solution is not likely to succeed.