The Solution To The Ethnic Problem

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

The situation on the ethnic front seems to be very confused, but we can be certain, absolutely certain, on one point: the solution to the Tamil ethnic problem stares us in the face. I have the temerity to use the definite article “the” rather than “a”, meaning the solution with the emphasis on “the” and not a solution which would imply one possible solution among others. The solution I have in mind can be encapsulated in the following formula: 13A-+ (13A minus plus). It means 13A minus police and land powers plus a fully functioning democracy. In this formula the plus factor of a fully functioning democracy is more important than anything else.

But first let me comment on the confused situation on the ethnic front. After the Presidential elections there was clarity and no confusion at all on that front. The ethnic minorities voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Sinhalese candidate Maithripala Sirisena showing an exhilarating capacity to transcend the ethnic divide, 45% of the Sinhalese joined them – in fact that percentage could well have been over 50% if not for the fact that the massive resources of the state had been used illegally to promote MR’s candidature. The Sri Lankan people had clearly voted in favor of democracy and an end to our ethnic problems. Soon afterwards Northern Provincial Council Chief Minister Wigneswaran detonated his thunderbolt by the resolution demanding an international enquiry into genocide committed by Sri Lankan Governments since 1948. Thereafter, inspired by Prime Minister Modi, he wanted us to go beyond 13A towards federalism and to enter into an agreement that will be guaranteed by India. Now, he is no longer on speaking terms with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, reportedly because of the Government’s refusal to withdraw the armed forces from the North straightaway. He and the NPC members appear now to be on a confrontation course against the Government. There seems to be no prospect of a political solution in the foreseeable future.

TNA Sampanthan SumanthiranBut TNA leader Sampanthan has declared that there will be a political solution by the end of the year, based on what was offered by the CBK Government from 1994 to 2000. This seems to completely contradict the negative postures struck by the NPC Chief Minister. We have to wonder whether there is schism within the TNA. Or is it just duplicitous behavior on the part of the TNA leaders. It is known that over many decades Tamil politicians have struck hard-line positions when talking to audiences in the North and moderate flexible positions when talking in the South. Dayan Jayatilleka, in an important article, has pointed out that as recently as 2011 Sampanthan had declared in the North that only the tactics had changed while the goal of Eelam remains unchanged. DJ raises the legitimate question whether Sampanthan can be allowed to assume the position of Opposition leader. We have to go further and ask whether Sampanthan’s sanguine expectation of a political solution by the end of the year can be taken seriously. I personally would go yet further and ask whether we can ever have a political solution on the basis of an agreement between a Sri Lankan Government and Tamil political leaders.

Basic CMYKThe situation abroad, specifically in India, is also confused. We had expected that after the Presidential elections India would play a helpful moderating role by persuading the TNA to accept some sort of compromise on land and police powers under 13A, after which we could really get cracking with the implementation of 13A though in a truncated form. But Prime Minister Modi recommended going beyond 13A, even to federalism, and the NPC Chief Minister immediately took that as a warrant for demanding that we go that far. I feel that certain facts should be brought to the Indian Government’s notice. 13A is the result of an agreement reached in 1987. If India wants us to go beyond 13A it will be seen as violating an international agreement, and also as bullying a small regional neighbor. On both counts it will be declaring itself as unfit to be made a Permanent Member of the Security Council.

Was the Hindutva ideology behind Modi’s diplomatic faux pas? One of my readers has pointed out some very significant details. In India Modi speaks in Hindi, which of course is understandable. In Colombo he spoke in English, which again is understandable because hardly anyone in his audience would have understood Hindi. But in Jaffna where also hardly anyone would have understood Hindi he spoke in Hindi. He was clearly affirming a commonality between the SL Tamils and the Hindus in the whole of India, and that clearly signified an important paradigm shift. Did that shift inspire his sudden concern for the estate Tamils? Mano Ganeshan, who is at present the leading representative of the estate Tamils, stated that Modi had been sympathetic over the woes of the estate Tamils and had invited their representatives to visit him in Delhi. Modi was of course at liberty to invite anyone he pleased, but inviting the representatives of a disaffected minority without consulting the Government is a different matter. Modi was guilty of blatant interference in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.

Where do we go from here? Perhaps the most important fact that we have to bear in mind is that we have a Tamil ethnic problem only because of India. If not for the Tamil Nadu factor the Tamils will simply be treated as a conquered people, and the rest of the world won’t bother about them. Therefore our first priority should be to persuade the Modi Government to change course in its Sri Lanka policy. I feel sure that there is serious dissent among Indian decision-makers and opinion-makers about what looks like a Hindutva-inspired policy towards Sri Lanka. In concrete terms, it should be made clear that Prime Minister Modi was engaging in personal reminiscences and he meant no more than to assure the Sri Lankans that however far we go in devolution there would be no danger to Sri Lanka’s political unity and territorial integrity. That means that there is no warrant at all for the Tamils to demand anything more than 13A. If that is done, it should be possible to reach a political solution by the end of the year. We must bear in mind that the TNA leader Sampanthan has the reputation of being a moderate equipped with great political ability.

But what if nothing of the sort happens because the Tamils are still gripped by a drive towards collective political suicide? – see Devanesan Nesiah’s brilliant article in the Island of April 8. In that case we the people of Sri Lanka must act in terms of the mandate given by the people at the last Presidential elections, which was to implement full democracy and end our ethnic problems. That can be done by implementing as thoroughly as possible 13 A minus land and police powers together with a democracy that allows the Tamils to live in freedom and dignity throughout the island. The focus should be on meeting the economic needs of the Tamil people at the grass roots level. All of that would amount to a reversal of MR’s two-pronged strategy to solve the Tamil ethnic problem: a) humiliate the Tamils and b) go for infrastructure projects from which the Rajpak Gang could profit mightily.

If that solution stared us in the face, how is it that we failed to recognize it? The truth is that there was a failure of perception on the part of the Tamils who since the late ‘forties became fixated on the notion that their ills could be cured only through Eelam or in lieu of that a very wide measure of devolution. That approach led to a quarter century of war, with the result that the Sinhalese have developed a deep allergy to the notion that a solution requires yet more devolution, which they suspect will lead ineluctably to Eelam. I can’t see that a solution will ever be possible through further devolution. Why not try 13A minus land and police powers plus a fully functioning democracy with the emphasis on democracy? There are many minorities, including the Tamils, who are living quite happily in the Western countries under fully functioning democracies without any devolution at all. Why not here? True, the Tamils had a kingdom here at one time. But for the most part they lived together with the Sinhalese without any power sharing arrangement by way of devolution, in a relationship that was for the most symbiotic, not antagonistic. I am convinced that the formula I am suggesting, if properly implemented, will end the ethnic problem for good.