Sri Lanka: Constitution-Making And Catalonia Referendum

N Sathiya Moorthy

29 October 2017

It is sad that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe should allow himself to be caught in an embarrassing situation over the avoidable Karaka Sangha Sabha row, by trying to score a debating-point for a day and getting caught at it. His expose’ that the Mahanayake Thero of the Malwatte Chapter was not in the country  when the Karaka Sangha Sabha decided to declare current Constitution-making process ‘untimely’, did not alter the organisers’ position that the attestation would be obtained post facto before going public with the details.

Independent of such hiccups that are natural to such processes, the Government leadership has been short-sighted not to provide for ‘unpredictable factors’ while deliberately going slow on Constitution-making. It is anybody’s guess when the prelates or their spokespersons in the form of Karaka Sangha Sabha and the rest did not find Constitution-making ‘ill-timed’ when it all began, but have now chosen the end-game, if it is any, of the very same process, whether or not it is accepted by the courts, Parliament and the people, if and when it came to that.

If nothing else, they should have learnt from the ‘CBK proposals’ which lost its relevance when the LTTE regained the initiative by forcing the Government to wage the ‘war for peace’ and turned the Tamil tide once again in its favour. Nor did they recall how the very same LTTE lost the initiative only months / years later, when 9/11 changed the world’s perception of terrorism, at least in the interim.

Today, the nation’s mood, be it that of the majority Sinhala population or that of the minority Tamils, has changed than when the Constitution-making process was set in motion. The confidence that the war-victory gave the Sinhalese is waning. The restlessness of the Tamils for separation too is showing.

Which is feeding the other is not difficult to fathom. However, ultimately the ‘majoritarianism’ argument is the likely one to find favour with the international community than concepts of sovereignty and security. With ever-decreasing fears of war within, their one original concepts of the latter variety have become old-fashioned for the West, but possibly not just now.

It is one thing when the West wants East Timor and Crimea to be ‘independent States’, but yet it is entirely another if it comes to referendum for a separate Catalonia, free from Spain. Kurds are fine when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, but ‘Kurdistan’ is not on after his time.

LTTE needed sympathy and support, pre-9/11, but not afterwards. To be fair to them all, even when the LTTE was in control of territory, had their own judiciary, post offices and banks, or whatever passed for ‘State structure’, no nation in the world even remotely considering conferring recognition on their ‘Eelam’, or Prabhakaran as a ‘head of state’.

It was/is much different from PLO, now Palestine State to most, and Arafat even when he was only leading the former. It will be different even now, whether or not the Sri Lankan Government concedes ‘war crimes probe’ as understood by UNHRC Resolution 30/1 and all the statements emanating from the UN and all its affiliates. Sri Lanka’s locale matters, Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China matters.

Real state, real world?

Yet, more recent Catalonia and ‘Kurdistan’ demands have only fuelled fresh flames in the likes of TGTE in converting their ‘virtual government in a virtual world’ into a ‘real state in a real world’. Whether the TGTE strategists differ from the LTTE is not in the ideology of a separate state, but in the methodology of obtaining it.

Thus, militant ways and terrorist methods are not on. International support and UN-sponsored referendum in the Tamil areas is the way. Leave aside the West and the rest looking the other way if and when fresh arms-procurement and smuggling were to re-commence, there is now the added doubt of any militant movement to be able to stand up to a re-booted State structure and armed forces, post-LTTE.

Training is of course an added problem. However, post-war, Tamil Diaspora groups have been working overtime to identify neighbourhood nations other than India with a population sympathetic to their ethnicity and cause. Nearer home, the convenience that the LTTE had acquired in the early years of Tamil militancy is not there anymore.

In the seventies and the eighties, the security forces were ill-prepared and absent from much of the North and the East as also the rest of the nation in the early years of Tamil militancy. Not so anymore. If none else, at least the armed forces command and commanders would thus be concerned if they were to be asked to vacate Tamil territory, lock, stock and barrel.

To expect them to do so now, and fight another war in another era may be too much for Sri Lanka and Sinhalese and the rest to bear, now or whenever. What is thus required is the creation of conditions that will justify any withdrawal of armed forces from the Tamil areas, if only to meet a continuing political demand from the war-time past.

The new Constitution was expected to create those conditions though no one specified why and how though the timing was set for the term of the present Government. Here again, the expectation was that it would happen earlier than towards the end of the five-year term.

Peace after war, but…

If someone had thought that a political solution to the ethnic issue acceptable to all stake-holders would also a sure-fire way of winning a second term with all-island support, then they might have got their timing wrong. Just as President Mahinda Rajapaksa had possibly thought of having a peace accord, first towards the end of the first term, when he commenced the Geneva Peace Process with the LTTE, with continuing facilitation by Norway.

It was not to be, as the LTTE thought otherwise and war and violence became unavoidable. Rajapaksa’s second attempt, for ‘peace after war’ winning him a third term got torpedoed when the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora of the TGTE kind, aided if not abetted by the international community, forced the TNA’s hand out of the ongoing negotiations with the Government. The rest, again, as they say, is history.

The Government leadership of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have thus got the timing wrong. The Catalonia referendum has once again changed the mood of the Tamil Diaspora, just as East Timor did for the LTTE, circa 2002, when the Cease-fire Agreement nearer home was getting stabilised.

Political prisoners, or what..

It is not as if the issue of ‘Tamil political prisoners’ and the cases against them are new, but the timing of the fast-unt0-death by three of them, transferred for hearing from Vavuniya to Anuradhapura courts, makes the timing of the protest interesting and challenging at the same time. Now with their fast completing one month, there are reports of some Tamil ‘political prisoners’ in Colombo too reviving the tactic that some of them had resorted to, earlier too, post-war.

There is no criticism from the Tamil camp that the Government did not free close to 12,000 persons arrested at the close of war, as claimed by the Rajapaksa regime. There are a couple of hundreds in prison now, who need to face trial for specific offences, which is how Governments across the world handle similar cases.

According to the prosecution, the case-transfer became necessary as witnesses, obviously from those very parts as the prisoners and their supporters outside, wanted ‘protection’ from harassment. Unless proved that the claim is untruthful or worse, there are fair precedents of criminal procedure codes and courts conceding the point.

There is no denying the justification in the Tamil argument that the Sri Lankan State granted outright pardon to all JVP prisoners from the outfit’s militant past and the two infamous insurgencies. By delaying a decision on the issue all along, or offering clear justification for denying the same in this case, this Government especially has now got the timing wrong, for whatever decision it might have to take.

There is a difference, though. There was nothing to suggest in the JVP’s case, unending overseas support from Diaspora Sinhalese, to fund, finance and revive the ‘movement’ back home, at a time and on an issue most suited for the purpose. The TGTE at birth post war has been tasked to do so instead and it has lived up to its mandate, thus far.

Today, it is a ‘heads-I-win-tails-you-lose’ kind of situation for hard-line Tamils vis a vis the Government, and/or their own moderates, represented now by the national/parliamentary leadership of the TNA. Given the increasing heat generated by the new Constitution, especially like clauses on re-merger of the North and the East, the Southern Sinhala-Buddhists may well end up seeing it as a tactical victory for the hard-liners on the other side of the ‘ethnic fence’.

Worse still, the Tamil hard-liners themselves might/would see it thus. They would then conclude that the Government would yield if pressured adequately. If it did not yield, they could still publicise it in the rest of the world a successful propaganda tactic available to them from even the pre-LTTE days, but turned into a fine-art by Team Prabhakaran.

The current focus on ‘political prisoners’ has also pushed the demand for ‘war-crimes’ probe into an intermittent background, and added one more to the long list of ‘Tamil grievances’, to be revived at will, when the begin reading the charge-sheet against this Government, to and before the international community. For the international community, it is one more added to the list, for the Tamil hard-liners, they now have the world on their side on the probe side but need something more, to keep all pots boiling all the time.

Leave aside the larger issues of ethnic divisions and political solutions, the Tamil hard-liners now have more and more current issues, too, to talk about. The TGTE-likes overseas and their chosen spokespersons in Northern Province ‘TNA’ Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran could thus choose the timing and venue(s) for reading out the charge-sheet to anyone with ears and hearing faculty intact, if only to tell the world that they too had failed the community, and once more after their promise on ‘war-crimes probe’.

No one from the Tamil polity or community has talked about anything that is remotely connected to a political solution or provisions for a new Constitution. They stopped talking meaningful implementation of 13-A, or even all the past prescriptions/promises of the Sinhala polity, long ago. Clearly, the moderates are at a loss to know what would help them keep the community leadership under their control. The hard-liners are clear that they would settle for nothing but a ‘separate state’, and they would need more time, to choose their time and mode to strike.

The traditional Tamil moderate leadership, or the leadership of the Tamil moderates, would have been rendered irrelevant and insignificant. It was the TULF in the midst of the war and the more meaningful 13-A. It could well be the TNA’s national leadership now. The more things change, in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conundrum, the more they remain the same!

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