By Imtiyaz Razak –
It is now crystal clear that the Sinhala leaders will never put forward a just resolution to the Tamil national question. Therefore, we are not prepared to place our trust in the impossible and walk along the same old futile path…. We therefore ask the international community and the countries of the world that respect justice to recognize our freedom struggle.”
This is the key sections of the annual Heroes’ Day statement delivered by the slain leader of the disabled Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), V. Pirapaharan. The LTTE cadres silenced their guns in May 2009, and we are being told that V. Pirapaharan is dead.
Whether such a statement from the LTTE leader represents accurate or not, the statement does represented the Tamil disappointments and distrust, but also it effectively exposed the duplicity of five decades old southern Sinhalese politics, which categorically refused to do meaningful political business with the Tamil leaders who represent the North and East Tamils.
Now Sri Lanka is not only politicians who are commonly considered as liberals lead walking on post-war Sri Lanka, but also Sri Lanka and thus more incline to seek inclusive society. Though extreme form of Tamil nationalism did not gain any significant inroads during August election of this year that should not be interpreted, as the total failure of extreme form of Tamil nationalism would not appear in Sri Lanka. Identities and mobilization based on ethnic identities would not function a certain way all the time. There are leverages and there’s a polarization. These occur when a group of people would perceive certain moves differently, for example, if and when politicians who would represent a certain group feel like their demands are being ignored, politicians can resort to identity politics. This occurs in deeply divided societies where there’s competitive electoral process. Sri Lanka does have such competitive electoral process and dynamics.
Whether the Tamil Tigers, for that matter, violent Tamil nationalists are freedom fighters as they claimed themselves or deadly terrorists as the Sri Lanka governments describe, history will answer it. My point here is that the birth of Tamil Tiger movement had roots in Sri Lanka’s history and its anti-Tamil agendas. It is important to point that there was not an overnight decision among the ordinary Tamils to approve the agendas of the Tamil Tigers: the failure of Sri Lankan polity to meet the demands of the Tamil moderates was a key foundation for the origin of the Tamil extremism in Sri Lanka. Instead of listening to the Tamil leaders and accommodating their reasonable demands, the Sinhalese ruling leaders of the time assaulted and stoned the Tamils and their leaders, and even hired the Sinhalese to become butchers to kill innocent Tamils and moderate leaders. One needs to realize that successive governments since 1956 controlled by the Sinhalese miserably failed to engage the Tamil moderates such as the Federal Party (FP).
The FP sought a comprehensive solution without jeopardizing the unity of Sri Lanka. However, Sinhalese collective, competitive chauvinism turned a blind eye to the Tamil moderates. Sadly, the choices of the Sinhala political class to use violence, effectively scratched the Tamil trust in the political system and encouraged some Tamils to adopt violence. Sri Lanka’s current Premier Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe in 2002 during his visit to the US pointed that “the Tamils tried peaceful protests which soon degenerated into violence. With the underlying grievances being unattended the stage was set for terrorist groups to emerge (“Our Approach for a Better Tomorrow Free from Terrorism,” Daily News, July 25, 2002.) This helps us to understand the birth of Tamil violent movements, particularly the Tamil Tigers in the end of 1970.
Though the current regime did take some positive measures to ease tensions, my recent survey on post-war Sri lanka suggests that a significant portion of Tamils in the North do not think that the current regime is capable of addressing the root causes of the conflict. Now the question is that what Tamils want? We have two answers
A. Partition, and
B. Power-sharing democracy
The first answer is highly unlikely to occur in the current global climate. Also note that there is no any global need or desire to see Sri Lanka to be divided into two nations with separate state structure. The second answer can do a lot of good provided both Tamils and Sinhalese, plus Moors or Muslim leaders seek conducive measures to build trust and to seek justice and reconciliations The UN human right a week ago passed the resolution demanding comprehensive investigation with participation from significant foreign experts. Evidences suggest that there’s support for this mechanism from Tamils. The regime in Colombo finds the resolution is win-win deal.
In my understanding, Sri Lanka is in fairly good period history to generate trust among Tamils and Muslims, and to seek comprehensive solutions acceptable to all Sri Lankans. Basically, regardless of loyalties to religion and ethnicity, common people often do not harbor hatred against others unless and otherwise there’s heavy politicization to win votes in electoral democracies.
Immediate post-war experiences teach us that Colombo failed to engage Tamils and the Moors in the so-called post-war period to win a negotiated what political scientists call ‘consociation democracy’ to ease ethnic tensions. Such failure from Colombo boosted the claim of extremists’ sections of Tamils both at home and diasporic level that Sri Lanka is fundamentally pro-Sinhalese society where Tamils have no future so the global community should help build a separate state. Though such claim from extremist Tamils is not accurate, what is equally correct point is that political leaders from Sri Lanka did not engage Tamil leaders. Reasons are complicated. There’s resistance to seek structural change in Sri Lanka constitution to transform Sri Lanka into federal state.
My recent survey suggests that there’s resistance to federalism from Sinhalese. Almost 79 percent of Sinhalese from Southern Sri Lanka responded negatively to the question that could the solution of federalism lead to build peace in Sri Lanka crisis. On the other hand, good portion of Tamils from the Northern province [67%] responded favorable for federal solution while Moors from the East responded [nearly 62%] positively with a condition that any power-sharing mechanism should not seek to merge the North and Eastern provinces. Here is the gap at popular level, and this gap explains Sri Lanka’s competing positions on power sharing.
This gap can be reduced. It can be reduced and/or parties in the conflict can seek more moderate solutions if politicians from all sides do genuine efforts to arrest the existing distrust. It is a long process. Many external and domestic moves and polices can complicate the process. Moreover, the fact is elections in Sri Lanka are competitive, and thus outbidding to win votes, history suggests, often complicate and polarize the situations.
*Dr. A. R. M. Imtiyaz’ research and teaching are mainly focused on ethnic politics. He has published widely in peer-reviewed international journals. He currently teaches at the Asian Studies/Department of Political Science, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA.