"...The current practices of the international community may give us an opportunity to achieve, without the loss of life, the soaring aspirations we were unable to achieve by armed force." (R. Sampanthan May 2012)
Take into account what others say of you, because that is part of reality, but never allow others to define you or determine your destiny. That is as true of states as it is of individuals; as true of countries and of persons. Take the issue of the celebration of a military victory as counter-posed to advancing reconciliation. V-E Day, the day of celebrating the victory over Nazi fascism, was celebrated in France and Russia this year as it has been for over six decades, but throughout the post war decades none have thought of it as impeding reconciliation with Germany. It could have been so only if Germany identified with Nazism which of course it does not. The cap does not fit, so Germany does not wear it. The same goes for Sri Lanka. We rightly celebrate our victory over terrorist secessionism (or secessionist terrorism) and this cannot possibly impede reconciliation with the Tamil people or between North and South, unless the assumption – or the social reality- is that one side identifies with the defeated secessionist terrorists, i.e. if the cap of Tiger fascism fits.
We Sri Lankans have to think through our problem and arrive rationally at a solution. It is arguable that the policy conundrum we currently face could have been avoided had we capitalised politically on the military victory in its immediate aftermath. That’s water under the bridge. A progressive Realist must work with what exists, not what might have existed — and he/she must do so precisely in order to transform that reality for the better or to avoid its turn for the worse.
What is our reality today? A pair of leading politicians in the sub-regional neighbourhood with 70 million Tamil people, call for a Tamil Eelam, a separate state carved out by dismemberment of this island. Mr. Sampanthan, the most prominent local leader of the Northern Tamil community, which exists a few miles away from the sub-regional landmass, reiterates his party’s commitment to achieving with the support of the international community, the same ‘soaring aspirations’ that could not be achieved through armed struggle. He asserts—some would say confirms—that ‘the international community’, through its current stance, may open the space for the achievement of that goal: "...The current practices of the international community may give us an opportunity to achieve, without the loss of life, the soaring aspirations we were unable to achieve by armed force." (R. Sampanthan, speech at ITAK 14th Annual Convention, Batticaloa, May 2012, Colombo Telegraph)
Plainly the ‘soaring aspiration’ is that of Tamil Eelam. He calls for the restoration of the degree of sovereignty that the Tamil people are said to have enjoyed over 500 years ago, prior to the advent of colonialism. This refers to a completely independent political existence. "…Up to 500 years ago, the Tamil people established their own governments, and governed themselves. Our party symbolizes a time in history…during which our people had their own sovereign Tamil governments...Our fundamental objective is to regain our community’s Home, its historical habitat and its sovereignty. The symbol of the House symbolizes this unshakeable aim…" (Ibid)
If the world were to be re-ordered by restoring the status quo ante of no less than half a millennium; if every minority of roughly a million people or a small fraction of a country’s citizenry, were to demand this right and seek its exercise, the world would be plunged into anarchy, chaos, bloodshed. This project cannot be entertained.
Mr. Sampanthan’s transparent declaration of tactics could have been critique or caricature penned by a Sinhala chauvinist, and had it been authored by a Sinhalese, would have been dubbed ‘racist stereotyping’ (even by me). "…The softening of our stance concerning certain issues, and the compromise we show in other issues, are diplomatic strategies to ensure that we do not alienate the international community. They are not indications that we have abandoned our fundamental objectives…In other words – we must prove to the international community that we will never be able to realize our rights within a united Sri Lanka… Although the issue at hand is the same, the prevailing conditions are different. The struggle is the same, but the approaches we employ are different. Our aim is the same, but our strategies are different. The players are the same, but the alliances are different. That is the nature of the Tamil people. Although we still have the same aim, the methods we use are now different…" (Ibid)
All this goes to show the forces and challenges that Sri Lanka is up against. That this was perhaps not inevitable is both debatable and irrelevant. I think it was not, but then again, the Cold War was perhaps not inevitable and yet it happened, and when it did, that was the reality within which one had to situate oneself and work with. Given the latent or quasi-secessionist surge in Tamil politics, what should the policy response of Sri Lankan society be? The strategy must be the containment of the secessionist impulse – and by containment, I refer to the original conception of George Kennan and not its subsequent militarisation (which Kennan was to criticise) in the hands of successive governments. As students of the history and theories of international relations are aware, George Kennan was a young diplomat serving in Moscow when he sent a ‘long telegram out lining this policy, to his superiors, in 1946, and not content, followed it up with an essay in 1947 in the respected periodical Foreign Policy entitled ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct’ (under the thin authorial guise of Mr X).
How then is one to apply the policy of containment to the Tamil secessionist temptation? It is far too risky to transfer provincial powers through an election to a party which openly declares that it not only dismisses the 13th amendment as solution; but also dismisses the unitary state as a framework and actually believes that a solution is not possible within a united Sri Lanka. It strategizes to convince the world community of that fact. In short it hopes to convince the world community that a solution for the Tamils is possible only outside a united Sri Lanka, i.e. in a separate, independent state. If such a party takes power in a Provincial Council it will doubtless feel impelled to push for more from the outset; to create situations of tension and confrontation while it uses the Council as a base for external recognition, which it will doubtless obtain from some quarters and to some degree. If Colombo dissolves an adventurist provincial administration, some external forces (such as a legislative assembly of co-ethnics in the sub-region) may recognise the boundaries/borders of the dissolved provincial unit as a basis for an independent state or transitional administration. This is how the former USSR and Yugoslavia broke up.
Similarly and conversely, it is imprudent in the extreme to abolish the existing Constitutional provisions for autonomy, unless it is as part of and superseded by an agreement with all parliamentary parties, including crucially, the main Tamil party. Here we are speaking of a successful outcome of the hoped-for Parliamentary Select Committee process. Unless that happens it is imperative to retain the status quo and avoid the deadly mistake that Milosevic was tempted to make, namely the constitutional revision that abolished the autonomous status of Kosovo which the Tito Constitution had provided. The Serbian ultranationalists regarded Marshal Josip Broz Tito as a (Croatian) Communist who had given away the historic rights of the majority Serbs. In pushing through the reversal of the autonomous status of Kosovo as a province of (within) Serbia, they lost their country a few years later and experienced the state of Yugoslavia forcibly shrunk through externally supported secession and military intervention, to Serbia alone.
This is why I argue for both the retention of the 13th amendment and the freeze, pause or slow-motion movement of the electoral process to the Northern Provincial council unless and until there is verifiable proof of a change of paradigm on the part of the ITAK/TNA. The doctrine of containment of Tamil proto-secessionism has necessarily to consist of strong positive reforms. While the process of power-sharing at the provincial level remains on the table but temporarily un-activated or de-activated (just as a decent house is built but not leased or rented), there must be a serious change in the nature and functioning of our state and society through a purposive shift to a policy of integration (not assimilation), the recognition of pluralism, equal rights, non-discrimination, multiculturalism and meritocracy. Enlightened self-interest dictates enlightened reform to avoid a trap in which "the current practices of the international community may give" the Tamil secessionist forces "an opportunity to achieve, without the loss of life, the soaring aspirations" that they "were unable to achieve by armed force."
The Sri Lanka Guardian, June 3 2012