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The Tigers’ ticking time bomb

Velupillai Prabhakaran is about to be defeated but he has left a time bomb hidden in plain sight which must be defused if he is not to wreak a posthumous revenge. This is the time bomb placed under a strategic four lane intersection, that between the Sinhalese and the Tamils and Sri Lanka and the world. The time bomb can be seen in the epidemic of demonstrations by the Tamil Diaspora and the statements critical of Sri Lanka that flood the international media. Prabhakaran is hoping that the time bomb will go off in time to save him, his army and his project. It is unlikely to do so, though we must not take that for granted and must crush the LTTE before external political trends especially those in the neighborhood, turn hostile. However, even if we defeat the LTTE militarily before the external turns unpropitious, we still have to defuse the time bomb.

Things become clearer when we think back to Prabhakaran’s great gamble which has failed (or his Strategic Miscalculation as Shanaka Jayasekara put it in a thoughtful recent piece). Having milked the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration dry, Prabhakaran pulled out of peace talks in April 2003, and submitted a maximalist proposal – the ISGA - which was bound to politically weaken the UNP. He was geared up, by his own public admission, to go to war in 2004, except that the tsunami forced its postponement. As the Human Rights Watch report of late 2005 revealed, he was collecting funds for The Final War, as it was billed in Diaspora circles.

Well, it certainly is proving to be the Final War for Prabhakaran. His apologists and weak-kneed Sinhala critics, who forewarn – the former, gleefully the latter gloomily-about an unending or subsequent war, simply have not grasped that a Final War is just that: once you’ve upped the stakes, you either win or lose and there are no second chances. Prabhakaran fought the Final War and has lost it or is about to. There will be no other. The Final War doesn’t become the penultimate war or just one more war or the less than final war simply because the side that was supposed to win it lost and the side that was supposed to lose it, won. As for romantic notions that a war isn’t over until memory fades, just ask the Serbs or the Chechens: once you’ve lost a war, you’ve lost it. "Gone Baby Gone" as Denis Lehane put it. Memories of the US Civil War remained in myth and song in the memory of the Southern whites ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") for decades if not a century, but the war was long over, lost and won, done.

Prabhakaran sabotaged the election campaign of Ranil Wickremesinghe (who in his manifesto had promised to explore the Oslo understanding on federalism) having assassinated Lakshman Kadirgamar, because he preferred a Sri Lankan administration that would be or could be isolated internationally. What he failed to assess was the tremendous domestic mobilization effort that the populist-nativist administration of his "choice" was able to put in; a mobilization that has almost swamped Prabhakaran militarily. He completely overestimated his own military strength and prowess; an overestimation rooted in the Jaffna Tamil sense of superiority and racist underestimation of the Sinhalese (and also the North Indians, if one recalls the propaganda and hatreds of the IPKF days).

Let’s face it: they hate us. The bulk of the Tamil Diaspora hates us Sinhalese and this country, Sri Lanka. Their consciousness is almost pathological. They are racists and fanatics, among whom there are those who set themselves on fire. The hatred of Tamils the world over can be managed if only we unpack the problem and address its components. The 80 million Tamils that Prabhakaran appealed to in his last two Mahaveera day speeches can be disaggregated into four categories or groups:

1. The Tamils of the North and East, and outside those provinces but on the island of Sri Lanka, i.e. Sri Lankan Tamils

2. The Tamils of Tamil Nadu

3. The Tamils of the Western Diaspora

4. The Tamils of older immigrant origin in other parts of the world such as Malaysia, Mauritius and South Africa.

The key resides in Sri Lanka. If we are able to satisfactorily address the disaffection of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, then we can begin to make inroads into Tamil opinion elsewhere. Just as Home Rule of the 1920s split the Irish republicans between those who accepted it and those extremists who thought it a sell-out, Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Diaspora will find themselves internally demarcated between realists and irrationalists; pragmatists and fanatics. At worst, even if this does not happen, Sri Lanka can ignore the Tamil Diaspora and manage Tamil Nadu, if the Sri Lankan Tamils are in the main, integrated. If the Tamil Diaspora insists that nothing short of a confederation or federalism can satisfy Tamil aspirations they are welcome to negotiate such a solution within Canada or wherever they are, or they can migrate to the only quasi-federal Tamil linguistic region in the world, Tamil Nadu.

However, we can take stand only if we occupy the high ground. That high ground consists of the elimination of all forms of discrimination and privilege, and the coming into being of a society where all men and women have equal rights and equality of opportunity, together with adequate space for a measure of self government in the areas where they and their culture preponderate.

What does this mean concretely? For the Sinhalese it means implementing the 13th amendment that has been part of our Constitution for over two decades. "13 Plus", emanating from the APRC, may require step by step implementation. The 13th amendment simply has to be activated fully and swiftly, perhaps with an interim or transitional arrangement until the election can be held in the North. For the Tamils this means acceptance that the 13th amendment is the start line and that the ceiling is maximum devolution within a unitary framework (as in the UK, China, Turkey, the Philippines, etc), while the modes of politics are strictly systemic: elections and the courts. Though legal, legitimate and understandable, the history of the Federal Party shows that nonviolent agitation in an ethnically polarized context soon triggers violence - and is thus imprudent.

The Sri Lankan crisis today is a multiple one. One of its aspects is a failure to communicate. We just do not know how to talk to each other or to the outside world. The recent election results show that the President’s appeal has moved beyond the Sinhala Buddhist to the Sinhala as a whole and even wider, to the multi religious (Catholic majority areas in the Puttalam district), multiethnic and multi cultural. The fold-up of the Opposition (25-30% is a vastly diminished base vote) shows that the UNP is becoming representative of an enclave or antibody that cannot communicate with or even comprehend the sentiments of the large majority, the mainstream, which is nationalist. That mainstream is flanked by two minority enclaves, one larger than the other: the urban/UNP and the "class struggle" JVP. For its part the political and ideological representatives of that national and nationalist mainstream do not know how to communicate with the urban classes who are absolutely imperative for economic growth and prosperity. This disjunction is tolerable at the moment because the world economic downturn makes tight integration with the world economy less than imperative, indeed an unwise option. Thus Sri Lanka experiences the class struggle as a cultural Cold War and a mutual failure of social communication.

That failure is a multi-vector one. The smaller enclave can communicate with the outside world and the outside world communicates with it. In short the UNP and its anti-war civil society allies produce politically for an "export market" and a domestic "niche market" which is a silly thing to do in a competitive electoral marketplace. The SLFP wins because its political product is for a national mass market, which is sensible as an electoral option.

However, national mainstream’s failure in communicating with the outside world and the international community’s failure to communicate with the national/ist mainstream is a loss for both, and diminishes the prospect of an enlightened reformist outcome of our crisis.

The populist nationalist "pro-war" bloc is as organic as the Oppositional –NGO "antiwar" bloc is inorganic. The organic character of the nationalist bloc is the secret of its domestic political and military success, while the inorganic nature of the Opposition is the secret of its failure. Is its organic character also the secret of the external limitations of the pro-war patriotic bloc? That this is not inevitable is best evidenced by Cuba. But is it that, unlike the Cubans, the nationalists are culturally self-referential, or that our mainstream culture is self-referential? Have we as a country lost our capacity to communicate effectively in the outside world? Have we lost our voice or simply unlearnt the language? This is why History may judge Prabhakaran’s assassination of Lakshman Kadirgamar as one of the two most damaging blows he dealt Sri Lanka, equal to or perhaps surpassing the murder of President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Sri Lanka does not have to live besieged, but it will unless we prudently yet generously address the question of building a nation while reconciling ethnic identities. Simply put, the question is this: are we ready to follow up our well deserved and hard earned military victory with reconciliatory reform, or are we not? Do we have the wisdom to avoid Prabakharan’s sin, which of overweening and ultimately false pride, of what the Ancient Greeks called hubris? If the answer is no, then our fate will be isolation and social division, driving away or repelling our most educated; a fate which deprives us of the chance to fulfill our potential as a country. Fulfilling that potential requires unleashing the richness of our cultural diversity while forging a new unity. Many commentators rediscovering Donne have cautioned that "no man is an island", but my old man Mervyn de Silva said it best when, extending the Metaphysical poet’s metaphor he warned snugly and smugly insular Sri Lankans that "no island is an island either", noting in his last essay that "in this Age of Identity, ethnicity walks on water".

(These are the strictly personal views of the writer.)

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