Presidential Elections, Minorities and Political Space

The following is the write up of my talk given at the Centre for Society and Religion on January 11th, 2010.  I have articulated some of these concerns in greater depth in my recent article in the January 9th, 2010 issue of the Economic and Political Weekly titled, ‘State Power, State Patronage and Elections in Sri Lanka’.

Presidential Elections, Minorities and Political Space

First, I want to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak here at the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR), an institution that embodies a great tradition of conscious political engagement.  It is an honour to be given this privilege and I hope this series of discussions at CSR on the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections is the beginning of many discussions and debates on important political issues facing the peoples of our country.  Indeed, the space that has opened up in recent weeks in the context of the elections should be expanded by all social institutions and social forums concerned about peace, justice and democracy.  I for one believe that the debates, the social pressures and the mobilisations in the lead up to and after elections are at times even more important than the act of electing a President or other political representatives.

I have been asked to speak on the topic of “The Presidential Election from the Perspective of Tamils”.  I must first very clearly state that I cannot claim to represent the Tamil perspective.  The Tamil community like any other community is not monolithic and there are differing views on every issue including the Executive Presidency and the upcoming elections.  I have to emphasize this point in very strong terms as, not too long ago, there were many well meaning progressive Sinhala activists who unassumingly accepted the “sole representative” claim of the LTTE.  While “sole representation” is clearly anti-democratic and comes out of a fascist political culture, I would go on to caution ourselves about any form of representation; that embedded in the idea of representation is a power relationship and a silencing at some level of those being represented. 

I must also mention here the worrying tendency I note in the public sphere where some political analysts in the South are finding it convenient to analyse the upcoming elections through a critique solely of Tamil politics.  They do not seem to have the courage or for partisan political interests to take on political changes in the South including the pervasive mobilization around Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.  In this context they only seem capable of discussing the narrow politics of the Tamil National Alliance, which for all purposes is weak and possibly going to collapse.  In this singular focus on Tamil nationalism without considering even the other Tamil political forces, these analysts in the South are sidestepping pertinent political issues in the country. 

Thus with this caution about the politics of representation, what I will articulate below is my analysis, which is one of many possible analyses about how sections of the Tamil community might relate to the Executive Presidency and the Presidential Election.  And in thinking about the Tamil communities, I prefer to analyze the Tamil problem as a problem more broadly of the minorities.  And I use the term minorities after much thought, where for me the minorities include not just those belonging to numerically small communities that have ethnic identifications.  Rather, I think of minorities as a political category of those who are socially, politically and economically marginalised.  Thus in the Lankan context I think of not just the Up-Country Tamils, Muslims and Lankan Tamils as minorities, but also the caste minorities, the economically marginalized rural Sinhala communities and the communities of women working in the Estates and Free Trade Zones who are the most exploited and earn the wealth of this country.  Following from such an understanding of minorities, I would argue that the minorities in this country have much greater potential for common cause and mobilisation.  Thus I will be speaking as much about the other minorities today as I will be about the Tamil communities, though given your interest in the predicament of the Tamil communities following the end of the war in this first national election, I will also have some things to say particularly about the Tamils.

The 1978 constitution which brought about the Executive Presidency was also significant for entrenching the unitary structure of the state.  In fact, I understand the Executive Presidency as also the culmination of the centralization of state power that had begun with Sri Lanka’s constitutional history including the 1972 constitution where the parliamentary Left played a major part in laying the foundations for the unitary structure of the state.  The attempts to address the “national question,” which I think of as the problem of minorities, were then an effort to gain an equitable share of state power, particularly through the devolution of power.  In that sense the office of the Executive Presidency, in embodying such centralized state power in one individual, is in many ways antithetical to resolving the problem of minorities.  And the Presidential elections, particularly in the polarized context of Sri Lanka, has come to mean a competition for state power in which minorities can not so much seek a share of power, but rather use the elections as a time of bargaining with their vote, reducing them to pawns in the grand game of elections.  After the elections, it will be the politically powerful that will negotiate the perks and privileges that come with state patronage; including some room for the Sinhala constituencies and classes that are part of the intermediate class regimes that come to power.

I want to now mention a few issues that came up on my recent visit to Jaffna.

The pressing issue in the North continues to be that of resettlement of the Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs).  At the end of the war, the government made the displaced go through the gruelling experience of internment, claiming they would be resettled within six months.  To many of us it was clear that the issue from the outset was freedom of movement, that the internment of an entire population was unacceptable and in fact illegal.  After six months, the IDPs have finally been given freedom of movement, but it is now becoming very clear that the government has no serious vision about the resettlement of these suffering people.

We have seen considerable progress on a number of normalisation issues in addition to the freedom of movement of IDPs; the A9 Road has been opened, check points have been reduced and the curfew in Jaffna after many years has been lifted. But other issues that are a priority are access to land for agriculture, access to seas for fishing, dismantling of High Security Zones and greater freedom of movement.

However, I must say, that these normalization issues are not political gestures, rather, these are the rights of citizens.  In fact, it is the most cynical use of state power to move on a number of these issues only in the context of elections.  Suddenly, all the security concerns which justified the harrowing internment of people seem irrelevant when the ruling government decides it wants to woo the Tamil voters.

The human rights concerns of the war affected are of great importance.  The repression during and after the war has been so severe, that they have not been able to speak. I would echo the voices of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) and their comprehensive report last month titled, ‘Let them Speak’.  Indeed, the first step is for people to have the freedom to speak about the disappearances, the extrajudicial killings, the abductions and the torture they endured.  No society can move forward without addressing the past and we will have to find ways of revisiting the painful decades of war in order for the minorities and the country to move forward.

The other worrying tendency is that there is no serious political gesture towards political reconciliation from the South despite the end of the war.  Rather, the Rajapaksa regime, in the interest of consolidating power, has kept the country militarized and created a poisonous political climate in the country. 

In this context, the Tamil media and Tamil opinion makers, particularly in Jaffna are also not willing to explore the avenues of self criticism and reflection and are taking the community in a reactionary direction.  This has been the worrying dynamic of the reinforcement of extreme nationalisms through out our history, where narrow Tamil nationalism has been reinforced by Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and vice versa.  However, given the exhaustion of the Tamil communities with the war and the decisive defeat of the centralized military organisation that the LTTE was, I do not foresee the revival of insurgency.  Furthermore, the country cannot move forward without a process of political reconciliation and the communities will remain in limbo.  Squandering this great opportunity to rebuild relations between the communities is extremely worrying.

There are two important issues that are not discussed in the election campaigns and I would say all of us should try and bring those into the public sphere.

One relates to demilitarization, including reducing the size of the military.  The military is alien to the minorities, and there needs to be proportionality in the police, so that the minorities are comfortable with the security sector.  But the fundamental point I want to make is that with the end of the war, there is no longer a rationale for such a large military presence.  But neither presidential candidate wants to address this issue as they are both trying to woo the military.

The other issue that is of great importance at this post-war moment and what has now plagued the country since independence is the political problem underlying the conflict.   There needs to be a national debate on the issues of devolution of power and power sharing at the centre with a new constitution in the post-war context.  Again, neither candidate wants to engage with the issue of a political solution, because they perceive it to undermine their Sinhala Buddhist nationalist base, whom they are now competing to represent. 

The politics at work with the Rajapaksa regime, has then not been one of democratic political engagement, but rather one of State patronage.  And where the minorities are concerned, it is dangerous for it entrenches armed actors and further alienates the people from the State.

Nevertheless, the Tamil communities and I suppose the other minorities are also seeing the current moment as a rare moment when they are being wooed.  Many are voicing their protest against the Rajapaksas, and even calling for change; a drastic difference from the climate of fear that crippled any opposition to the Rajapaksa regime a few months ago.  However, none of the minority political parties seem to have a strategy to win tangible gains with respect to their political concerns after the elections.

Given that neither presidential candidate seems to want to address the political problem of minorities, the challenging of political leadership needs to emerge from within society.  But where do we start to work within society?  To whom and how do we talk?  I find that people make the mistake of only talking to the representatives of communities, the politicians for example.  But we need to strive towards people to people interactions.  We need to bring farmers associations and fisher unions in the South in dialogue with their counterparts in the North for example. 

Next I want to say a few words about the Left.  I come from a Left tradition, and what I find is that Left has clearly failed to grasp the post-war moment and the opportunities for engagement.  The Left could have changed the political landscape, by mobilizing people, but the lesson of the last year is that the people are way ahead of the Left.  I see the current situation and the election dynamic as one driven by the people.  Fonseka’s emergence is more a reflection of their disaffection with the Rajapaksa regime, the economic situation and the squandering of the post-war moment, rather than any overwhelming support for Fonseka himself.

Now more than in the past it is clear that any political settlement has to be tied to democratisation.  Sri Lanka’s democracy is one some of us have characterised as a majoritarian democracy and the elections are embedded in that majoritarianism.  That is where the restructuring of the State should attempt to address the problems of this majoritarian democracy.  Otherwise, elections alone without the proper state structures can lead to further ethnicisation of politics, feed the flames of nationalist mobilisation and lead to further polarisation of the various communities.

But democratization also needs to seep into society.  Such democratization of society would involve challenging the reactionary and polarizing nationalist ideologies.  Democratising society needs to come along with building inter-ethnic relations and a pluralist ethos.

So, when I think of democratising state and society, I am also thinking of how class, caste and gender have to be brought into devolution.  We indeed have to think of devolution in progressive ways.  As for the problems with the state, it is the centralised state, both in the form of the Executive Presidency and its unitary structure that has been a major problem.  Devolution of power is bound to fail if such centralisation continues.

Finally, returning to the elections, I must say that it is not just about voting.  Elections can also create political space for dialogue, for discussion, and to build links and relations between communities.  Most of all, it is such opening of space that I am most hopeful about with the current elections. 

Where do we go from here? I feel the problem of minorities can only be addressed with a third front consisting of the minorities and the progressive forces in the South, and the politics of such a third front also has to be progressive and bring in class and gender into the fold.  The immediate task before us is to build a third front in the realm of principles and then to forge support for it.

Thank you.

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