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TNA and PSC:”Intelligent realism” Must prevail in Tamil politics

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
 Even if everything the TNA says is true, it is still making a mistake, or perhaps two or three, and is on the verge of yet another wrong turning in the history of error that marks over half a century of Tamil politics.  If the TNA’s fears of prevarication on the part of the government are well-founded, it is only furnishing greater opportunities for it by failing to participate in the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee.

The obvious remedy is to agree upon a reasonably compressed time frame for the PSC to conclude and issue its report, and state that if this time line were to be unilaterally transgressed, then and only then, would the TNA participate no longer. An earlier news report stated that the government had suggested six months as the time line, and if the TNA were to make a counter-suggestion then surely a sensible compromise could be arrived at.

This does not mean that the PSC should replace the bilateral talks between the Government and the TNA, though at some point it might supersede them. What it means is that a two- track approach is called for and the PSC is one of those tracks.

The PSC holds dangers of delay but also the prospect of a win-win outcome. The government would avoid the vulnerabilities inherent in the unilateral commitment to the results of a bilateral process. The TNA would have the chance of building a broad bloc of moderates and constructing an essentially bi-partisan (SLFP-UNP) centrist coalition in support of reform. This would make passage of a proposal far more feasible.

Of course for any chance of success, the baseline of discussions would have to be the existing provisions of the Constitution pertaining to devolution, while a rational approach would not produce any outcome that would risk a referendum being decreed as imperative by the Supreme Court.

The TNA’s argument that the government has ignored the APRC report of Prof. Tissa Vitharana, and that therefore the PSC would be a wasted effort, isn’t strictly true, because the last formal parliamentary process as distinct from an all-parties roundtable was way back in the early 1990s under the chairmanship of Mangala Moonesinghe. Though he made a breakthrough with a bold trade-off (Indian model
quasi-federalism for de-merger), the leaders who comprise the current TNA refused to sign up.

This was part of the rejectionist maximalism that blighted Tamil nationalist politics, ranging from refusing to accept the 13th amendment and contest the North Eastern PC elections of ’88, through refusal to accept President Kumaratunga’s ‘union of regions’ packages of 1995-7 and draft Constitution of August 2000. This makes the TNA’s narrative of the obduracy and duplicity of ‘Sinhala’ governments a trifle one-sided. Having spurned the 13th amendment and proposals that went beyond it for a quarter century, mainstream Tamil nationalism now faces the prospect of a dead end or a long freeze unless it re-enters the process of negotiation and bargaining in parliament.

The reference by India’s Minister of External Affairs SM Krishna to ‘the rubric of the PSC’ unambiguously indicates that Delhi is in agreement with a two track process, i.e. bilateral talks between GoSL and the TNA as well as the more inclusive PSC as safety net and back-stop.

The TNA’s and Western NGOs’ strident calls for an international accountability mechanism have had no resonance whatsoever in New Delhi, which has welcomed and supported the LLRC report and urges its ‘visible’ implementation.

The TNA has now expressed its interest in a foreign facilitator. Firstly, in so doing, it is being precipitate. Following the Norwegian facilitation, the majority of Sri Lankans are averse to excessive externalisation. Furthermore, the call for third party external facilitation is warranted only if there is an impasse of long duration in negotiations and not when the government is eager that the TNA participate in a multi-party process of deliberation in the country’s legislature.

Secondly, given that India is itself not interested in such a role in any formal sense, it is unlikely – despite the excellence of its new equation with the West—to welcome extra-regional intrusion in the matter.

Though it is far more realistic on the matter than the Tamil Diaspora, the TNA has not yet accepted the reality – repeatedly proven by history, including at Nandikadal— that the parameters of the possible for Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism are the limits prescribed by Delhi in accordance with its own reading of India’s national interest. Any attempt to exceed those limits are an exercise in futility, and Delhi’s limits are the 13th amendment and ‘building upon it’.

By releasing on the eve of the visit by the Indian External Affairs Minister, an extensive attack on the LLRC report and reiterating its call for in international mechanism of inquiry into so-called war crimes, the TNA demonstrated three things:

i) Unconcern over the need for creating the right climate for dialogue with the government, insensitivity to Lankan public opinion and obliviousness to the party’s profile and positioning in the Lankan social and political mainstream at this point of (post- war) history

ii) Disregard for sensibilities of New Delhi, the possible negative impact upon Delhi’s ability to take up devolution with Colombo, and for the success of the Delhi-Colombo talks

iii) Increasing susceptibility to its extra-regional (Diaspora) and sub-regional (Tamil Nadu) lobbies/constituencies which have the aggressive activism and fanatical mentalities of anti-Castro Miami Cubans.

Even if there were to be agreement between India and the US on the Tamil issue, it would be heavily weighted in favour of India’s position. What is more important, the sustainability of the implementation of even such a condominium, would be its level of acceptance by Sri Lanka, which means its level of acceptance by the majority of the Sinhala majority—because the acceptance by an incumbent administration is no guarantee of popular consent.

The good news for liberal minded reformists is that all opinion polls from 1997 show a remarkable consistency in that the bulk of the Sinhala people are far from averse to a solution based on a combination of tri-lingualism, equal rights and the improvement through strengthening of the existing provincial level devolution of power.

Thus the limits of achievable Tamil aspiration reside at the (shifting) point of intersection of Indo-Lankan positions, based on (relatively consistent) perceptions of the respective national interests of the two states.

To be strictly accurate, in order for their successful realisation, Tamil aspirations for constitutionally irreducible political space must accommodate themselves intelligently within a Delhi-SLFP-UNP triangle.

What if such intelligent realism does not prevail?

What if Tamil politics operates on the scenario of externally propelled ‘regime change’, mistakenly identified with the Arab spring?

The politico-ideological outcomes of the Arab spring have not been more propitious to the rights of minorities, hence the apprehensions of the Copts, the Catholics and the Kurds.

The two-pronged strategy of escalating external pressure paralleling an accelerated Tamil political drive should be thought-through to its conclusion by its votaries. We have been there before, twice in the past quarter century.

The ‘air-drop’ generated a JVP upsurge and brought to office Ranasinghe Premadasa, determined to go to the brink in restoring national sovereignty and de-externalising the conflict. The CFA and LTTE surge strengthened the JVP and JHU, ushering Mahinda Rajapaksa into office.

What displacement will a ‘third surge’ of external plus Tamil nationalist pressure achieve politically, and which Bonapartist redeemer, less malleably populist and more consistently authoritarian than the present incumbent,
 waits in the wings to be propelled by history and social forces onto centre stage?

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