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Moving Beyond the Tigers by Tisaranee Gunasekara

June 4, 2006

The EU ban is also a message – the international community is willing to move beyond the Tigers. This in no way construes a repudiation of the legitimate grievances of the Tamils or the need for a political solution to the ethnic problem. In fact the ban partly stems from the belated realisation that the Tigers are not interested in the welfare of the Tamils and that instead of being a part of the solution they are a part of the problem and an impediment to a solution. The specific mention of the Oslo Declaration in the EU resolution announcing the ban demonstrates the international community’s undiminished commitment to democratic devolution – which is the antithesis of the LTTE goal of a dictatorial, terroristic Tiger state. The EU ban is thus a rejection of both Northern and Southern extremisms; it constitutes an expression of support for a democratic Sri Lanka which is seriously committed to the protection of the basic human rights of all her citizens and is willing to share power with her minorities.

The intransigence of the Tiger has been a blessing in disguise for the Rajapakse regime, an ideal excuse to avoid the search for a political solution. Times, however, are changing. An inevitable consequence of the international de-legitimisation of the LTTE would be greater focus and insistence on democratic devolution. And if the regime is niggardly in its offer or procrastinates, then the world may look upon the Tigers as a necessary evil to counter the obduracy of Sinhala hardliners. The rapid fall from grace of the Tigers (it was not so long ago that Mr. Tamilselvam was triumphantly touring Europe) is an example to the rest of us of the pitfalls of maximalism.

An important component of the EU’s stand is the rejection of the sole representative fallacy, due, in the main, to the abominable nature and the execrable conduct of the self professed sole representative. The Tigers, by their own actions, have placed themselves so much beyond the pale that the need for a different, non-Tiger representation for the Tamils has become self-evident. What the international community would like to see is not a substitute but an alternative to the LTTE, which, unlike the LTTE, is committed to pluralist democracy and human rights. The sole unbowed survivor of the onetime GOP of the Tamils, V Anandasangaree, has a key role in developing an alternative to the Tigers. The anti-Tiger Tamil parties should come together in a democratic front under his nominal leadership, if they are to benefit from the new international conjuncture and fill the void created by the marginalisation of the LTTE.

War and the Nation

No proscription is eternal, Proscriptions get renewed annually. The international perception of the Tigers depends not just on their conduct but also on our conduct. If the world sees a narrowing gap between Sri Lanka and the LTTE due to our unwillingness to share power and to respect the basic human rights of the Tamil people, then the world can yet become a less hostile place for the Tigers. A massive refugee crisis, for instance, can go a long way in changing the international and Indian climate against Sri Lanka.

The Tigers need Tamil refugees as recruits, as service providers, as propaganda props, as justification. But an exodus of Tamils either to the Tiger territory or to India cannot happen without the full cooperation of the Lankan Armed Forces, Sinhala mobs and anti-Tiger Tamil parties. Unfortunately there are signs that this cooperation, in the form of anti-civilian violence, will be forthcoming. Already there is trickle of Tamils fleeing to India and to Tiger controlled areas and this can become a tsunami, unless the state of Sri Lanka and the anti-Tiger Tamils make a conscious effort to refrain from acts of anti-civilian violence.

The Third Peace Process was based on the assumption that appeasing the Tigers is the same as being conciliatory towards the Tamils. Now we are in danger of tumbling into a Fourth Eelam War based on the assumption that attacking the Tamils is the same as attacking the Tigers. Vigilante justice is apposite for terrorists but it has no place in a civilised, democratic state. The agony of the family of Ragihar Manoharan, a victim of the Trinco killing – recounted by Namini Wijedasa in her excellent article (The Sunday Island – 21.5.2006) is symbolic of the common plight of the North Eastern Tamils caught between a barbaric LTTE and a Lankan state that is indifferent as best and can be vengeful on occasion.

Our definition of ‘nation’ is central to the characterisation of the Fourth Eelam War. It can be a war between Sri Lanka and the LTTE if the nation we want to protect includes Tamils and Muslims as equal owners. The safety of the Tamil people did not feature prominently in the Third Peace Process; the signs are that it will be equally unimportant in the Fourth Eelam War. This is clearly discernible in the different reactions to the Tiger attacks on Sinhala villagers and to the Kayts massacre. The government, very appropriately, is taking steps to protect the Sinhala villagers from Tiger atrocities; but the Tamil villagers of Alappady are left unprotected and non-reassured. The result is what the Tigers wanted – refugees; some of the survivors have begun to move to Tiger controlled areas. If this process of anti-civilian violence continues, the LTTE will have the recruits and the justification it needs for the Fourth Eelam War.

The task of building a Lankan nation came to an abrupt halt in 1956. With Sinhala Only, the Sinhala elite and a segment of the Sinhala populace made a choice for a Sinhala nation as distinct from and in opposition to a Sri Lankan nation. Fifty years and much bloodshed later we do talk about the Lankan nation, but this is often a euphemism for the Sinhalese. At its most inclusive, our conception of the Lankan nation is an inverted pyramid with the Sinhalese occupying a place of pre-eminence and the other ethnicities occupying subordinate positions. As long as the minorities understand this order and adhere to it, then we can all live peacefully and this country belongs to us all. But the picture changes the moment this or that minority forgets this ‘natural’ order and assumes equality. Then we, the Sinhalese, are outraged – we have been so nice, we have welcomed these ‘aliens’ and offered them every hospitality and this is what we get in return; an ungrateful minority is worse than the serpent’s tooth!

How can the nation we talk about be a Sri Lankan nation if the concerns of the minorities are not included in it? The Tigers have to be eliminated, some day. But are we willing to concede substantial devolution to the Tamil people? If a majority of the Tamil people are supportive of a federal or a quasi federal set up, and express that support in a free and fair referendum, are we willing to honour it? Even those Tamils who are totally opposed to the LTTE abhor a return to the status quo ante, because they, not unnaturally, fear a reassertion of the Spirit of ’56; that is why even the most moderate Tamil wants institutional and constitutional safeguards to contain Sinhala Supremacism. As the UTHR explained: "What we fear is the rhetoric of the dismissive approach, which is calculated to appeal to that segment of the Sinhalese electorate that constantly asks without desiring an answer, ‘We are mystified, come, explain to us what this Tamil problem is all about’. To them the history of ideologically inspired violence directed against the Tamils, an experience which guided their perceptions, does not exist`85 Homeland and federalism are about coming to terms with a very nasty history and there is no Rip van Winkle solution to this`85" (Information Bulletin No. 39 – 1.11.2005).

Da Vinci Code and the Policy of Chain-Appeasements

Sri Lanka seems to have been the world leader in banning the Da Vince code. The movie has not been banned in any Western country, including the US; it is permitted in secular India and in the Catholic Philippines. Our decision to ban the movie is obviously a balancing act, an attempt to compensate for the regime’s Sinhala/Buddhist bias and image. Just as the limitless appeasement of the Tigers paved the way for the present permissiveness towards acts of anti-civilian violence by the Armed Forces and their Tamil allies, the appeasement of the JHU also demands and necessitates the appeasement of the extremist manifestations of other religions. This policy of chain-appeasements is doubtless being justified on the ground of even-handedness; the end result however is a situation where extremists on all sides get more and more opportunities to set the national agenda and direct all our destinies.

Each religion has its positive and negative side. We have seen the negative face of Sinhala Buddhism, most recently in the violent intolerance and extremism of the JHU. Christianity is no exception. It has had its Thomas Aquinas, Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More who promoted humanistic learning and paved the way for the Age of Enlightenment. It also had its Justinian whose laws against heresy (in which he explicitly included Hellenism, calling it a ‘blasphemous insanity’) made a singular contribution to the intellectual decline of the West and its decent into the darkness of the Middle Ages. This mindset of absolute and limitless intolerance can be best understood in the definition of heresy given by Isidore of Saville, Bishop and Saint in his Etymologies said: "Heresy is named in the Greek from its meaning of choice, since each at his own will chooses what he pleases to teach or believe. But we are not permitted to believe anything of our own will, nor to choose what someone has believed of his`85 We have God’s apostles as authorities … And so, even if an angel from heaven shall preach otherwise, he shall be called anathema."

Religious fundamentalism – irrespective of the religion – is a potent force which, in the absence of a strong secular resistance, can flatten everything in its path and drag societies and peoples to places they never intended to go initially. Having conceded on the Da Vinci Code (according to many critics a tedious movie; the Newsweek called it ‘overstuffed and underwhelming’ while the Village Voice dismissed it as ‘long winded’ and opined that the Vatican’s boycott call lent ‘Brown’s conspiracy theories a cultural weight he couldn’t buy for a million dollars’!) the Rajapakse administration will doubtless have to concede to demands from other religio-cultural extremists as well, to ban this or that book or movie. The JHU which backed the ban has already demanded a blanket policy of intolerance towards all ‘visual products’ which hurt the sensitivities of other ‘religions and cultural groups. Appeasing this and that extremism is not the way to achieve a healthy balance or occupy the centrist space. It merely creates a never ending vicious cycle of intolerance, which will strengthen all sorts of extremisms at the expense of moderation and sanity.

Postscript: Even after fifty years of bourgeois democracy some of us still occupy mental universes which are thoroughly feudalist. Why else imply – as a Sunday paper did – that a man is unsuited to be a Mayor simply because he is a three wheeler driver by profession and his wife is a housemaid in the Middle East?

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