‘Celebrating diversity,’ Sri Lanka’s unlearnt lessons

| by  N. Sathiya Moorthy

( December 10, 2012, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) At a talk delivered across the shores in Nigeria, former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) has told the African nation troubled by deadly Islamic insurgency that “poverty, socio-political injustices cause frustration and anger among the marginalized groups” and fuel terrorism. She urged Nigeria, split between Christians and Muslims with some 250 ethnic groups, to “celebrate” the nation’s diversity, adding that she had made efforts to reach out to the Tamil minorities while in power.
Few Sri Lankan leaders at the helm had heralded their public approbation across the national spectrum as Chandrika had done before being elected Prime Minister first, and President only months later. At 62 percent, her electoral approval for the presidency still remains the highest in the country, with incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 57 percent, post-war re-election coming a distant second. Like President Rajapaksa, CBK too got re-elected, though in her first term she could not keep up the hopes and aspirations that she had stirred in all sections of the Sri Lankan society early on.
The reasons for CBK’s election first, and re-election are many – most, if not all of them, political. Yet, her candidacy as Prime Minister first and President later, still triggered a high level of hope and expectation in the Tamil masses. If, since the ethnic issue took the contours of ‘ethnic war’ proper, the Tamil masses had defied the LTTE’s ‘wish’, it was in voting in CBK, twice in close to 12 months.
The LTTE had reinvented its PR campaign in time to inspire the Tamil population to be a part of its ‘hate campaign’ against CBK, as was the case with all her predecessors – for justified reasons and otherwise. By the time Candidate Mahinda was in the fray five years down the line in 2005, it had become a ‘command performance’. The LTTE said, the Tamils did – no questions asked, no quarters given. There are self-proclaimed remnants and successors to the LTTE overseas. They do not want to be responsible for their past, and the international community does not want to be responsible to hold them too ‘accountable’ either.
The Tamil masses would thus had to wait until the closing days of ‘Eelam War IV’ to defy the LTTE diktats and break the ‘human shield’ of their ‘boys’ themselves, by pouring out from gun-point captivity in tens of thousands. Official figures say it was close to 300,000, the highest number of civilians freed from murderous captivity in a narrow strip since the Second World War – and still possibly the single largest episode of its kind anywhere, any time.
The parallel with debtors and creditors, particularly of the international banking variety, is ominous but inescapable. If the debt is low, the creditor chases the debtor for repayment. If the debt is huge, the very same creditor chases the very same debtor, to give him more loans, including to service the earlier loans – and to keep the hopes of repayment alive. In Sri Lanka’s case, when the human-shield was huge, the international community wanted the Government to negotiate with the LTTE. When they had (been) freed (themselves), and the LTTE decimated, it was business as usual. Back to the account-books – accountability issues in this case.
As a two-term President, CBK should know. None can either fault her for not trying or being less than honest in her efforts to put the ethnic issue behind the nation, through a negotiated settlement with the Tamil leadership. It was the LTTE that claimed to be the ‘sole representative’ – of all Tamil-speaking peoples, including Muslims. Like the moderate Northern Tamil polity, for the egalitarian LTTE, too, the Upcountry Tamils did not exist – other than as cannon fodder, more so in the last stages of the war that was staged in areas that they had resettled, only decades later. No tears have been shed for them.
The LTTE took a vicarious pleasure going beyond political and societal readjustments through the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Muslims in the North.  ‘Accountability’ was not as fashionable for application beyond ‘non-conformist governments’ in the eyes of the enlightened West then as now. The ‘ethnic issue’, too, then as now, has been confined to the sworn constitutional rights and other legitimate aspirations of the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil community’, and not any other.
There cannot be a ‘national solution’ to a ‘national problem’, based on the notion that no one else is hurt or marginalised even from among the ‘marginalised minorities’. None wants to acknowledge the reality. Any political solution now, based on exclusive talks with the TNA – with or without the PSC process following up on the same – will come unstuck after the first round. It is one thing to ask the Government to implement the existing constitutional provisions on power-devolution (read: 13-A). It is another matter, if this Government, like all its predecessors, including CBK’s, is at all interested in implementing it – for political reasons that does not relate to the ‘ethnic issue’ or the ‘Tamil problem’.
It is not only about the Sri Lankan State sharing power with the Provinces without having to share ‘sovereignty’ or hurting ‘territorial integrity’. It is more about the political leaders in Colombo not wanting to share their limelight with lesser mortals. This has resulted in less qualified and less-than-qualified men occupying positions of power, and not wanting to let future options grow under their care.
For governmental bureaucracy and private management, persons occupying high offices require educational qualifications. Democracy exempts political leaders from educational qualifications. Layers of democracy instead provide for exposure and experience. The latter is more education than what most educations can offer. Centralised governance stifles it. The loser is not just the younger generation of politicians, who one day are catapulted to power without confidence borne out of experience and exposure.
The nation is the loser, instead. Global democracy has witnessed few ‘eligible’ youth wanting to enter politics. They had been taught to hate politics and politicians from their childhood on – and for legitimate, and at times legal reasons. They stay away. Politics is then either for legal heirs who inherit the political mantle – or, are rumoured to be considering the possibility up to a point, before possibly giving it up. Or, it is for those who have even less to do in their lives otherwise. The nation ends up having to depend on them.
Sri Lanka can still choose to live in the past, or move forward. Living in the past entails ‘accountability issues’ and ‘war crimes’ – by both sides, not just the State actor, only because the non-State actor is faceless and leaderless, rudderless and clueless. The nation can begin by apologising to itself for the past wrongs. The State cannot escape the responsibility. If the TNA wants the Government to talk exclusively to them on the Tamils’ rights, it cannot escape the liabilities from the past, either.
In CBK’s days, if ‘accountability’ had been as fashionable and current as it became a decade later, she too would have been hauled up. So would have been Ranil Wickremesinghe, as her combative Prime Minister, within the Government and otherwise. Or, was it because the recalcitrant and dreaded LTTE was still around? Does it follow that the price for neutralising the LTTE in military terms is the inevitable and unavoidable charges of ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability’? Or, was it ‘the prize’?
The world expected President Rajapaksa to atone for the nation’s handling of the Tamils in constitutional, political and military terms, when he told Parliament the war was over. If the TNA or any other would have been prepared then to atone for the LTTE’s sins is still debatable. Whether they are ready to do so even at this distance in time is equally debatable.
TNA’s Sampanthan took the initiative in a way – that otherwise rested in the Government and President Rajapaksa – when he held the national flag high and with pride in Jaffna on May Day this year. He blotted the copybook not long after though, through his controversial Batticaloa speech. The world should have acknowledged the compulsions of electoral practice then, as it should do so in the case of a succession of Sri Lankan Presidents, all of whom will continue to be from the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist majority’.
At the time of Sampanthan’s Batticaloa speech, the TNA was facing the prospects of Provincial Council polls to the multi-ethnic Eastern Province. The latter is a microcosm of Sri Lanka as a whole – with the Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims, Sinhalese, Upcountry Tamils and Burghers sharing social and political space, though not in national proportions. Sri Lankan Presidents keep facing elections across the nation all the time. It is more so in the case of President Rajapaksa, who also causes them at more frequent intervals than others and for purely political reasons.
‘Celebrating diversity’ has to begin at home. Those in Sri Lanka who hate 13-A, and call it India-imposed have only to look at a more coherent India of the past 60 years. Sri Lanka has been a free nation with a free will through that many years. India, more diverse and complex than Sri Lanka ever would be, believed in the national motto of ‘Unity in Diversity’, given to it by Jawaharlal Nehru. Despite hiccups, India is today celebrating that diversity. The ‘Indian model’ has worked.
India began with ‘cultural nationalism’ as the unifying force of British-India and 625 princely States at Independence. It substituted the same with ‘constitutional nationalism’. The latter is at the bottom of the Indian success story, Sri Lanka was politically united, and had a Constitution to call its own since 1931 – four years before India made the first serious attempt and yet had to wait three years after Independence, to become a unified Republic in 1950.
Sri Lanka got its post-Independence, Soulbury Constitution, which again ‘celebrated diversity’ and provided for its continuity. Sri Lanka did not have to go through the pangs of Partition as India did. It created the problems where none existed. Some of it was political, and no one side could be blamed exclusively for the same. But none feels any remorse at what had gone wrong, and how they too had contributed to the same! They do not celebrate the Sri Lankan diversity, they seem to have developed a sadistic enjoyment for the same – and who knows, may even begin missing the same, if it came to that despite them and their best efforts!
(The writer is Director and Senior Fellow at the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.  Email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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