Talking Ethnic Reconciliation With Tongues Still Tied To The Past
- Sathiya Moorthy,The Sunday Leader, Colombo, 12 March 2017
- The problem is that the West does not have the courage to accept that were wrong on and in Sri Lanka
- If anything, now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of Sri Lanka
- The more they all think of any possible return of Mahinda R greater are the compulsions for them to stick together
- The Sinhala, Tamil and the unmentioned Muslim voters all want a permanent end to the ‘national question’
Yet another UNHRC session has come and gone. As always, nearer home and afar, Sri Lankan stake-holders to the ethnic issue have said their periodic piece(s). It means nothing to anyone concerned, or anyone who is concerned.
There is a difference, though. Over the past years since the UNHRC got involved post-war, the international community too has got used to the mind and method of Sri Lankan stake-holders. More importantly, the global players too have proved to be quick learners. They parrot the same words and phrases that now come naturally to them, too.
No one needs to apply his mind, nor does anyone seems to apply his mind at what has become the bi-annual ritual. It’s a cut-and-paste job for the UNHRC Secretariat. For the rest of the international community, it’s turning active voice sentences to passive voice, and back to active voice the third time.
Time used to be when Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power, the international community hoped the best for post-war Sri Lanka. Either because the West thought he had reneged on the hopes and promises, and kept shifting the goal-posts, especially post-war, or because they were apprehensive about his renewed love for China, they sought to ‘fix’ him at and through UNHRC.
If the idea was to teach Rajapaksa a lesson, yes, he is out (of power), but has not learnt his UNHRC-inspired lessons. If the West’s idea was to teach Sri Lanka a lesson, they are learning a new lesson in Sri Lanka’s diplomacy that many of the new-comers did not know about. Those who knew about it are revisiting the same, but are incapable of anything more.
They are incapable to reviewing their past positions. They do not have a choice. They do not have a third option in Sri Lanka, or for Sri Lanka. The problem is that the West does not have the courage to accept that were wrong on and in Sri Lanka. The present-day rulers knew it all along. If the other side did not know it, it was/is not their problem.
Zones of comfort
Sri Lankan stake-holders are sitting pretty in their own respective ‘zones of comfort’. That includes not only the Sinhala polity and the Sri Lankan State. The Tamil polity and civil society (!) too are acting and reacting the way that they had inscribed into their minds and mind-set for long.
Leaving aside the three decades, if not more, of ethnic politics in the country, the two ‘Sinhala majors’ in the UNP and the SLFP, have used each other as foil, depending on who was in the Government – or, whoever was not. After the armed forces started winning his wars for him, even Rajapaksa was looking inside his SLFP for possible dissent – or, purported detractors – as the UNP Opposition was docile to the point of being non-existent for the time.
Today, SLFP’s President Maithiripala Sirisena is using the Rajapaksa-centric Joint Opposition (JO) as the foil – and vice versa. Truth is its UNP’s Prime Minister Ranil who is using the other two as the fodder for his arguments before friendly sections of the international community. Unlike in the UNP past or that of the Rajapaksa SLFP, today all sections of the international community together constitute the ‘friendly sections’ for the incumbent Sri Lankan Government in general, and the UNP Prime Minister in particular.
The less said about the Tamil political leadership the better. It has been the repeat of the same old story sans the days of the LTTE’s days of dominance. Today, political adversity for the TNA leadership comes from within the larger conglomerate, both within the dominant ‘Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi’ (ITAK), or Federal Party, and outside – Northern Province Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran for the former, and non-ITAK constituents from among the latter.
Election-time is dissent time for Sinhala polity and dissidents’ time in the Tamil polity. Looks as if the much-delayed local government polls might come through after all, without further postponement – or, so it is claimed. So, anti-Tamil, anti-devolution shouts would begin to be heard from Sinhala rooftops. Naturally, the Government leadership would tell their friends in the international community about the ‘ethnic difficulties’ ahead of the LG polls.
Non-ITAK partners in the TNA have already started telling the TNA’s ITAK leadership as to where it had gone wrong on the UNHRC issue this time. They would quietly settle once the TNA-ITAK boss in Opposition Leader, R Sampanthan, addressed all their grievances on seat-sharing for the local government polls and attendant issues. Both sides have become past masters at it.
Back to the future
If someone thought that they could find a solution to the ethnic issue at a more opportune moment, they are waiting for a time that would never come. If anything, now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of Sri Lanka. If nothing else, Sri Lanka has all international stake-holders vying for its attention. They are more accommodative to Sri Lanka. The reverse too is not untrue.
From within the country, the honeymoon between the President and the Prime Minister has not soured too much and too far. The TNA, if not the Tamil community, is still unsure of its own future and that of a Government at the Centre without the MS-RW combine. The more they all think of any possible return of Mahinda R greater are the compulsions for them to stick together.
The situation is no different for the international community (going beyond the US-led West). As always, they would be, and would have to be looking for an opportune moment to offload Sri Lanka from their agenda and move elsewhere and create problems that they are all inherently incapable of resolving. This Government wants them as much as it is accommodative to China – and Russia, too.
Better or worse still, the TNA too has given up its traditional anti-China stance, as if they were arguing the case of and for the larger Indian neighbour with its own Tamil constituency. It’s another matter that the TNA and other Tamils would be the ones who would be seeing China and Pakistan in Sri Lanka, more than the other way round. Today, they are not talking Pakistan, and have said that China was not interfering in the ‘internal affairs’ of Sri Lanka.
How then to proceed from here? No one understands Sri Lanka better than India. Even Norway faltered, but still is the second best choice to play facilitator. It may suit the Rajapaksa camp to play their post-defeat anti-India card but only up to a point. Their constituency is there not because Rajapaksa is anti-India, or anti-Tamils, as the JO assumes, but because Rajapaksa was and is Rajapaksa, the man who won the unwinnable war against the LTTE.
The Rajapaksa constituency trusts him and none else or so would it seem. They accounted for 47 per cent vote-share in the presidential polls that he lost in January 2015, and 45 per cent in the parliamentary polls that followed in August that year. Two years down the line, the ruling combine is still apprehensive about, if not afraid about his sweeping the local government polls.
The international community too should re-draw its priorities for Sri Lanka. Which issue or issues do they want to address first and foremost – a negotiated, permanent solution to the ethnic issue, or the ‘China factor’ or ‘American domination’ or even the so-called, non-existent ‘Indian hegemony’? The question is the same for the Sri Lankan stake-holders, too. That includes the Tamil factions, and the TNA, as well.
Social media generation
If nothing else, the present-day rulers, as also their JO opponents should recall the verdict of 2015. Unlike in the post-Independence past, the election belonged to the ‘social media’ generation, all across – again, Tamils included. They all wanted a solution, not the problems to hang over them anymore, to be passed onto the future generations.
Down the years, new-generation voters would be born in a Sri Lanka without war and violence, and to them all LTTE would be history, like it or not. It happened in the West decades after the Second World War. Iraq and IS are not available for an emerging Sri Lanka to engulf their own people and voters in it, indefinitely. They need to think afresh – and why not think positively, for a change, and for the change that the Nation has anyway been waiting for long?
Whatever these leaders and their parties may think, or the other way round, the Sinhala, Tamil and the unmentioned Muslim voters all want a permanent end to the ‘national question’. The LTTE’s end was the beginning, not the end of the same. The message was/is as much for the TNA as for the Sinhala polity, Rajapaksa included.
The irony is that every Sri Lankan stake-holder knew what the other was doing, and was capable of doing or undoing. Only the ‘outsiders’ did not know, want to know, or even did not know that they did not know. Again, it’s not the Sri Lankan stake-holders’ problem to teach the West what they did not know, but always wanted to pretend that they knew and also knew what was best for third nations, Sri Lanka in this case.
Together, they cannot continue to live in the past, and have their tongues and thoughts tied to that past, from which their new-generation constituents, who have broken their own shackles. If needed, they would look for political alternatives that are not readily available, yes.
This by itself does not give anyone any monopoly over the future. After all, Sirisena emerged overnight from the shadows. Already, the voter is looking at the shadows for another Sirisena to emerge ahead of the next round of presidential and parliament elections. It’s for the political leaderships across the board, too, to emerge from their own shadows, and shadowy pasts, if they wanted to be counted and counted in.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)