Negotiating a political arrangement for post-conflict Sri Lanka can be considered daunting for Sri Lanka as it is for the US to resolve its debt crisis. The hard stand taken by the TNA even after three decades of death, destruction and untold suffering by the Tamil people is comparable to the unyielding stand taken by the Tea Party in its approach to the US national crisis.
Neville LadduwahettyThe global economic melt-down has left many developed countries bruised and helpless to cope with their inability to meet their financial commitments to their citizens and to their debtors. Although these countries are preoccupied with their respective financial situations they were also deeply concerned and watchful as to how the United States was going to deal with its own financial situation knowing the impact the situation in the US would have on the rest of the world. Fortunately for all concerned, a crisis in the US was averted hours before the dead line. Despite the good news, the hard bargaining that enabled the US to avert a crisis has damaged its image and it is now seen as a country unable to come together politically to resolve issues of national interest. The result has been that its credit rating was downgraded from a triple A rating (AAA) to AA +.
The settlement reached between the Democrats and Republicans is far from what is generally considered to be in the best interests of the country. An outcome that would have been in the long term interest of the US was not possible due to the obduracy of a determined minority within the Republican Party that has come to be called the “Tea Party”. The Tea Party consists of 65 Republicans out of a total of 240 Republicans in the current Congress. Party solidarity compelled the rump of the Republican Party to go along with the ideology of the Tea Party which inter alia, wants to cut expenditure without raising taxes in order to reduce the national debt; an ideology that was considered by the moderates to be detrimental to the long term interests of the nation. The determination of the Tea Party in the face of an irresolute majority (both Republican and Democrat), that sought a more balanced approach of cutting expenditure with related increases in revenue through tax reforms held sway, despite its negative effects on the long term interests of the nation.
This is but one instance of how a minority is able to influence and determine outcome; a capacity described by some as “power”. Unfettered power in the hands of minorities or majorities could be tyrannical. Minorities exist within political parties and within coalitions that form governments. Either could be in a position to influence or determine outcomes. This is the down-side of Democracy. Democracy works when majorities and minorities explore options that accommodate the concerns of the other and when they do not, the consequences could even jeopardize national interests, as has happened with the Tea Party in the US. A parallel exists in Sri Lanka too regarding the future of political arrangements.
SITUATION in SRI LANKA
Negotiating a political arrangement for post-conflict Sri Lanka can be considered daunting for Sri Lanka as it is for the US to resolve its debt crisis. The hard stand taken by the TNA even after three decades of death, destruction and untold suffering by the Tamil people is comparable to the unyielding stand taken by the Tea Party in its approach to the US national crisis. The demand that the Sri Lankan Government responds to three issues, namely: (1) the structure of government; (2) the allocation of subjects and functions for the Central Government and for the Provincial Councils; and (3) issues relating to fiscal and financial devolution within a specified time frame has to be seen as an approach that leaves little or no room for discussion and negotiation. What the TNA has done is to force the Government into a corner. If the Government responds, the position stated would become the starting point from which to build upwards and if the Government does not respond the TNA would use it to discredit and blame the Government for its intransigence concerning a political solution. It is this type of political game playing that the US experienced recently.
Analysts in the US have opined that the position taken by the Tea Party is detrimental to US long term interests; a position that runs counter to the interests of the majority and the nation at large. Similarly, in Sri Lanka the intention of the TNA is to negotiate a form of devolution even if it runs counter to the interests and concerns of the majority and the nation at large. On the other hand, the interest of the majority is not for devolution because it has witnessed and experienced it first hand since 1987 and is fully aware of its irrelevance in the Sri Lankan context. This majority accepts that devolution is there not to serve the interests of the nation at large but to address what is euphemistically called “Tamil aspirations”. The preference of the majority is for administrative decentralization to peripheral units such as the District, which has been proven to be better suited to address more directly local concerns with opportunities for them through their elected representatives to determine priorities and to monitor performance. For the TNA to ignore this preferred choice is to be as delusional as they were with their military counterpart, the LTTE with its project for a separate state. The question for the Sri Lankan nation at this defining moment is therefore, how to break this deadlock.
At the heart of this deadlock is a preference of the Tamil minority for maximum devolution and of the Sinhala majority for limited devolution. A referendum on these preferences may not be helpful because its outcome would perhaps confirm the existence of this divergence of view. The notion of two systems within Sri Lanka is unacceptable because it would underscore separateness, not unity and reconciliation. For a brief moment there was a glimmer of hope when Mr. Sumanthiran of the TNA stated in London that the contours of a political solution had to factor in the concerns of the majority. However, this hope lasted only until his return to Sri Lanka, because of his claim that he was misquoted. But, even if this hard reality is not expressed in public, realistic pragmatism requires minorities to accept that their interests have to be sought within the boundaries of the interests of the majority, and not the other way around. The other way around would be to hail the tyranny of the minority as demonstrated by the Tea Party. The triumph of this minority has damaged the standing of the US in the eyes of the global community, and it is now perceived as a country with a politically dysfunctional administration.
The demand of the TNA for answers within a specified time frame projects a confrontational attitude. This is not conducive to negotiating a political arrangement that majorities and minorities could live with. For minorities to be unyielding and to expect majorities to meet them all the way without any giving is nothing but intransigence. Referring to the position taken by the Tea Party, President Obama stated: “It’s the insistence on drawing lines in the sand, a refusal to put what’s best for the country ahead of self—interest of party or ideology. And that’s what we need to change” (The Washington Post, August 9, 2011).
Compromise means meeting at least part of the way. This means the TNA has to relent in its search for extreme devolution and the Government for its part has to compensate the TNA by accommodating it in the processes of governance at the Center. The TNA has to appreciate that devolution to the degree sought by them comes at a great cost to the core interests of the majority. Devolution by itself is not an end. It is only a means that gives them a perceived position of equality and through it dignity by way of political power over a part of Sri Lanka’s territory. It is this very notion that makes the majority uncomfortable because of its potential to make the state vulnerable to the influences of internal and external forces, expressions of which are plaguing Sri Lanka even at this time. Therefore perceptions of equality and dignity should be sought through participation in national endeavours as an integral component of a unified political establishment and not through peripheral arrangements.
Without being intransigent the TNA has to cast aside approaches that have failed them through both violent and non-violent means since they embarked on their territorially based journey, and explore fresh and imaginative alternatives if they are to bring a long overdue peace and security to the Tamil people they represent. Judging from the recent stand taken by the TNA it appears that the totality of past experiences has not chastened them. The Sri Lankan government together with the support and acquiescence of India should explore initiatives to mellow the intransigence of the TNA.