Is it at all possible to restructure the Sinhala state?: Opinion

June 5, 2006

By: Dr. S Sathananthan

What is the political implication of a full-fledged armed conflict between the Tamil National Movement and the Sinhala state? It means above all the movement’s cutting edge, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has decisively broken the Sinhala state’s monopoly of armed power. The state launched several military campaigns from 1979 onwards to annihilate LTTE’s armed forces and turn the clock back. In this military power struggle the state dismally failed to re-establish its monopoly control of the instruments of force. This is underlined by the movement’s control of most of the territory within the majority Tamil-speaking North East Province (NEP) where the state’s authority simply does not run.

The Sinhala state complemented its military operations with key political manoeuvres – ranging from multi-party conferences to direct ‘talks’ with the LTTE – lumped together as the so-called ‘peace process.’ The ‘peace process’ is the power struggle in the political arena. Here the state makes two important tactical moves. First, it feints interest in formulating a political solution to the armed conflict; second, it projects the LTTE as the principal obstacle to a negotiated settlement.

The state and its backers, the Co-chairs (US, Norway, EU and Japan) of the Sri Lanka Donor Consortium, have strained every nerve to inveigle the Tamil people to swallow these two canards. That, they calculated, would undermine Tamils’ support for the LTTE-led armed resistance and politically emasculate the organisation; then, the plot goes, they could corner and compel the LTTE to decommission weapons.

What is the alternative path to a negotiated settlement from the Tamil perspective?

President Mahinda Rajapkse should honour the commitment made at the February 2006 Geneva talks. Then he could begin genuine negotiations with the LTTE, based on the agreement reached at the December 2002 Oslo talks, towards “a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka.” The stages of implementation of a solution by the state would be linked to phased decommissioning of weapons by the LTTE. That procedure was followed with respect to the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord and is the only humane and non-violent path to peace.

What alternative do the Sinhala peaceniks who profess liberalism offer?

They have a fascinating take on the state’s attempts to blunt LTTE’s military capacity. Their assertions go something like this:

1. Sinhala polity feels threatened by the LTTE’s military power.

2. Sinhala extremism feeds and grows on this threat and opposes any political solution.

3. If the Sinhala state decimates LTTE’s military power, two things will happen. First, the threat level from the LTTE would quickly subside. Second, Rajapakse will secure cast iron credentials as an indisputable Sinhala warrior and win the unqualified trust of the Sinhala people.

4. Starved of the threat perception, soon Sinhala extremism would rapidly wither away.

5. With the Sinhala nation solidly behind him and Sinhala extremists too weak to oppose him, Rajapakse would be emboldened to push through constitutional reforms to end the armed conflict.

6. Rajapakse – no doubt ably assisted by Sinhala peaceniks – could then begin to demilitarise society and usher in liberal democracy.

Cul de sac of Sinhala liberalism

The above scenario with the apparent happy ending is underpinned by three key assumptions.

The first assumption – which puts the cart before the horse – is that Sinhala extremism is largely a response to, and is conditioned by, the perceived threat posed by the armed power of the LTTE-led Tamil National Movement. However, that is refuted by recent history. The LTTE arrived on the political stage in 1974; Sinhala extremism surfaced long before.

The organisation was not around when Sinhala Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake disenfranchised Up-Country or Kandyan Tamils in 1948, when Sinhala Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranike fuelled Sinhala chauvinism by legislating Sinhala the sole official language in 1956; or when Sinhala politician J. R. Jayewardene invigorated Sinhala extremists on the infamous anti-Tamil Kandy march a couple of years later; and the then non-existent LTTE could not possibly have provoked the 1958 pogrom or the subsequent state terrorism and ethnic cleansing of Tamils in the south through the 1960s; and the organisation simply cannot have catalysed the 1972 Constitution, in which the Sinhala oligarchy enshrined and institutionalised Sinhala-Buddhist extremism by declaring Buddhism as the virtual state religion. In short, Sinhala society brought forth, nurtured and strengthened its own extremists independent of and prior to the LTTE. The LTTE emerged later as the inevitable armed Tamil response to Sinhala extremism and state terrorism.

The second and utterly bizarre assumption is that Rajapakse should go to war, and kill, maim and rape Tamil civilians in the NEP, to prove his loyalty to the Sinhala nation. Some casually explain away the death and destruction Tamils would suffer, though regrettable, as ‘acceptable’ in the lofty search for peace. ‘Acceptable’ to whom?

The third one is that Rajapakse is a ‘moderate,’ unlike most chauvinist politicians in his government. His image promoted by the peaceniks is one in which he is walking a political tightrope between the LTTE on the one side and Sinhala extremist parties on the other. After the LTTE is vanquished, it is claimed he would marginalise the Sinhala extremists and voluntarily promote a political settlement out of sheer altruism.

The scenario and its assumptions are not new. Sinhala peaceniks had used almost identical arguments to support President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s ‘war for peace’ in 1995. ‘Moderate’ Kumaratunga – after all, they asserted, she is a ‘woman and a mother’ – was ‘compelled’ to ‘take’ Jaffna to strengthen her hand against Sinhala extremists so that she could confidently go ahead and formulate a political solution. Immediately after the so-called ‘fall’ of Jaffna city in December a prominent Sinhala peacenik, attached to a well-known ‘peace’ council in Colombo, took immense pride in the NGOs’ war contribution. In fact he demanded “the human rights NGOs have to be given their share of ‘credit’ for the governmental victory in Jaffna” (The Island, 10/dec/95); and, one may add, for the unprecedented humanitarian tragedy – including disappearances and mass graves – that later unfolded in the Jaffna peninsula.

And what are the contours of Rajapakse’s sought after political solution?

After militarily defeating the LTTE, his second step is to dismantle the de facto Tamil state covering most of the NEP that took root under the protective umbrella of LTTE’s armed forces. Otherwise, peaceniks helpfully explained, the Sinhala people regretfully would not support the president, and Sinhala extremism will resurge. Once the de facto Tamil state is out of the way then, they insisted, Rajapakse could begin the ‘historic’ task of ‘restructuring’ the state.

Restructuring the state

Lately some Sinhala peaceniks allege that through ‘talks’ it is possible to politically ‘restructure’ the unitary state, to facilitate ‘democratisation,’ ‘power-sharing,’ ‘pluralism,’ ‘inclusiveness’ and so on. As usual they are dangling the succulent political bait in front of war-ravaged Tamils while being deliberately vague about the exact contours of this restructuring.

Tamils raised the obvious practical issue. Is it at all possible to restructure the Sinhala state?

It is not an accident that the Sinhala oligarchy centralised state power. The semi-feudalistic oligarchy, ignorant of liberalism, is made up of a motley crowd of plantation owners, export-import merchants, arrack tavern owners many of whom masquerade as parliamentarians, casino operators and their underworld enforcers, Buddhist monks trapped in medieval mindsets, and so on. Centralisation of power is the oligarchy’s logical response to contain challenges to its rule.

From the mid-1950s class contradictions and caste antagonisms in Sinhala society deepened in direct relation to the decline of the moribund colonial plantation economy. These social forces dramatically crystallised in the 1971 insurrection by the Sinhala-extremist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The oligarchy brutally put down the rebellion, slaughtering an estimated 20,000 Sinhala men and women, and almost immediately paid attention to transforming the largely ceremonial army into a professional military machine rather than indigenous economic development.

On the political front, the 1972 Republican Constitution entrenched the primacy of Sinhala-Buddhists and fortified the unitary state. The Sinhala oligarchy created the executive presidency under the 1978 Constitution and further centralised power in that office. It strove to neutralise the traditional threat to its power from within Sinhala society and to eliminate the new one posed by the emerging armed Tamil National Movement in the NEP.

The class contradictions and caste antagonisms intensified over the next two decades. Economic ‘liberalisation’ imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the late 1970s and through the 1980s widened economic disparities and caused further social dislocations. Sinhala working class organisations rose up in protest in the south and culminated in the second JVP uprising in 1988/89.The oligarchy armed the state with a cluster of repressive legislation and ruthlessly eliminated an estimated 60,000 Sinhala men and women to crush the uprising. The oligarchy also rapidly militarised the state. It Sinhalised the armed forces and bureaucracy and enacted the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act, under cover of which it unleashed widespread state terror against the Tamil people. But it could not arrest the fast-growing armed power of the LTTE-led Tamil National Movement.

Far from abating, precipitous economic decline and the maturing Tamil National Question energised the opponents in the 1990s. The politically bankrupt Sinhala oligarchy did what it does best; it expanded, strengthened and further empowered the armed forces.

The result is the military-bureaucratic unitary state, loosely described in Sri Lanka as the ‘national-security state.’ The economic and political conditions are infinitely worse today and continue to deteriorate with each passing day. Incapable of formulating effective economic programmes, the oligarchy is driven to further centralise power; and it crucially relies on the authoritarian state to protect its interests and power in an increasingly hostile environment.

Democratic restructuring would reverse the trend, weaken the oligarchy’s direct hold on power and make it more vulnerable to opposition within the Sinhala polity and to the Tamil armed resistance. Not surprisingly the oligarchy is extremely wary of such reforms. In fact, it has implacably opposed democratisation tooth and nail from 1971 to the present.

In short, there is no scope at all for a positive restructuring of the state. The oligarchy will continue to centralise power. The next probable step is the draconian Patriot law that is being dredged up by Rajapakse’s government.

The utopian musing of the handful of Sinhala liberals about restructuring to facilitate devolution of power imputes a non-existent democratic potential to the military-bureaucratic state; by extension it also masks the state’s grotesque authoritarianism. At the very least that is dangerously misleading.

Source: Northeastern Monthly – June 2006


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