Image: The best chance of a political settlement is while Tamil leader R. Sampanthan is alive and active. He is the only one with the moral authority to persuade the Tamils and the international community. After him, no one will have that stature.
The ‘diplomatic drone strike’, the dramatic US strictures against the Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva, tells us that Big Brother IS watching. This isn’t the usual suspects, its way out of their league. This is the Big League, the big boys and girls.
I have five main takeaways
Firstly, the document was not only issued under Secretary of State Pompeo’s name—which is probably the correct official format for such a declaration—but was followed by a tweet from Mike Pompeo himself, the most prominent member of the US administration after President Trump, and a man taken seriously even by rivals, competitors and adversaries (as I know from my stint in Moscow). This Secretary of State is not a Hillary Clinton type liberal. He is an ex-military man who topped his class at West Point, and was later the Director of the CIA. The language of his tweet was brusque: ‘Shavendra Silva’, not ‘Lt. General’. Both the tweet and the language were unusual.
Secondly, and contrary to hardline Sinhala ideological identification with President Trump, the US has sent an unambiguous signal that it will move on accountability; a signal that could be read as a greenlight, and have a multiplier or domino effect (to paraphrase The Guardian, UK).
Thirdly, the Israeli connection cannot or will not ensure the Sri Lankan government immunity from the US.
Fourthly, playing the “historical, cultural and religious sensitivity” card i.e. mounting the ‘exceptionalism’ defence, at global institutional forums founded precisely and explicitly upon universality, will not prove effective. Meanwhile the influential hawkish foreign policy ideologues have been completely blindsided and are bereft of an analysis accompanied by a coherent doctrine, strategy and policy to deal with the emergent challenges in external relations.
Fifthly, there is a gap in our diplomatic defence perimeter which must and can be swiftly plugged, but the hardline Sinhala paradigm prevents such action and actually widens the gap.
Reason and realism
The lessons and solution are very clear indeed, but the neo-isolationist paradigm of exceptionalism (if not ‘uniqueness’) and an ‘indigenous solution’ has no way to accommodate them. Furthermore, and rather obviously, neither ‘neutrality’ nor ‘alliances’ (however craftily “crafted”) will prove strategically viable concepts and options. The only paradigm that will work is universal reason fused with realism.
Reason and realism would dictate the realisation that (a) only India can buffer Sri Lanka and balance off Western intrusiveness and (b) it will take at a minimum, the fast-track accommodation of the India’s explicit request, articulated twice at the highest bilateral levels, namely “the implementation of the 13th Amendment”, to secure a sufficiency of such support from Delhi. We have to help our friends to help us. A small country cannot sustainably resist on both strategic fronts, ‘accountability’ and ‘autonomy/devolution’. Realism dictates that one has to be traded-off for the other.
In its current mood the hardline Sinhala response may well be that Tamil political radicalisation can be discredited and suppressed. Matters are not quite that simple. What India, an Asia-Pacific power and global player can afford to do in Kashmir, Sri Lanka cannot do in the north, due to glaring asymmetries of both soft and hard power. What Israel can do to the Palestinians, Sri Lanka cannot do to the Tamils, chiefly because Tamil Nadu is next door and is part of India. In addition, the Tamils have a very different profile in the global narrative than do the (Islamic) Kashmiris or Palestinians.
Just as the Sinhalese must realise that accountability can possibly be deflected, deferred or diluted only by verifiable devolution within a compressed time-frame, the Tamils must realise that accountability is not the path to devolution of political power—which is why strategically smart politicians like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness never tried to push the accountability issue into the Good Friday Agreement. Sadly, the Tamils never produced a Sinn Fein, which is curious yet symptomatic, given that the politically active Tamil Diaspora bulks large in the UK. Both the Sinhalese and the Tamils have to de-link devolution from accountability and choose between them—and for very different reasons, the optimal, not maximal, rational choice for both communities would be devolution/power-sharing.
Constitutional agenda and Sinhala snapback
The Tamil refusal (barring the EPDP and PLOT) to accept 13A as the baseline and framework of political negotiations, despite the reality that the regional sub-superpower could not push the Sri Lankan state beyond the unitary framework even with the projection of hard power, was the acme of folly. The nadir of good sense was to refuse to negotiate explicitly on the basis of 13A even after the LTTE had lost the war and the Tamil mainstream had been tainted by the charge of appeasement, if not being fellow travellers of a (failed) barbaric terrorist separatism.
In the Yahapalana years, the twin push for accountability and a new non-unitary Constitution instead of leveraging India, a patron of the Government, to secure the implementation of 13A including the “residual issues” which GoSL and GoI had agreed to table, triggered a Sinhala surge which split the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition, shattered and pretty much sank the moderate SLFP, doomed the Sirisena presidency, blew a hole below the UNP’s electoral waterline, and secured the candidacy for a hardline Sinhala nationalist ticket.
Such follies compounded over decades by Tamil politicians commencing with the October 1987 letter by Amirthalingam, Sivasithamparam and Sampanthan to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi pre-emptively criticising the untested 13A legislation, have now predictably reached the point that 13A itself is in danger of being (at best) frozen in its implementation, diluted to 13 Minus or reversed and deactivated by a change of the constitutional context which re-orders the State structure so as to reflect the current hyper-centralist, anti-‘political solution/devolution’ mentality and domestic power balance.
However, in Sri Lanka today there still remains a slender chance of a win/win outcome. Just as it has been demonstrably counterproductive for the Tamils to push beyond 13A, it is similarly imprudent for the Sinhalese side to move away from 13A because it may trigger an unpredictable, externally permitted, open-ended process that culminates in full-blooded federalism if not worse. From any rational and realistic standpoint, an expeditious political settlement within the framework of 13A is a win-win solution, or more correctly, the avoidance of a lose-lose outcome.
It is unwise to alter the constitutional status quo through a steamroller arithmetical majority rather than a negotiated North-South consensus involving mutual compromise. The issue of “land and Police powers” is misleadingly framed. The two are not clubbed together in 13A, and are entirely separate matters. One has a clear security implication which any reasonable person can sympathise with. The other, that of land, is a far more emotive political issue lying at the heart of the problem (“the National Question is an agrarian question” said Stalin the ultra-Realist).
As Dr. Sarath Amunugama who was one of the negotiators and drafters of that section in 1987 will testify, it was a painstakingly arrived at complex compromise. If that section is to remain unimplemented, what then will be the new “facts on the ground”? Is it not safer to arrive at a trade-off, with the Concurrent List opened for renegotiation and sharing?
The matter of constitutional change has to be managed very carefully and delicately. The post-Brexit responses in Scotland and Ireland are as psychologically understandable as is the English option for Brexit. If a community which is a numerical majority asserts its political identity by unilaterally altering the letter, spirit or overall context of an existing arrangement, then the communities which are a numerical minority in the country as a whole, tend to mirror this political behaviour and strive to exercise their perceived right to do the same in (and for) the areas in which they constitute a majority.
India is the geopolitical pivot
India is the indispensable power of the region, though both the Sinhalese and the Tamils seem to be under the illusion that it is not indispensable for political reconciliation and/or that political reconciliation is itself not indispensable—which is why both sides have drifted and deviated, albeit in diametrically opposite directions, from 13A and the Indo-Lanka Accord. Unilaterally revising or retrenching from a structural reform which is derived from, the product of and embedded in a bilateral accord is an unaffordable risk when there is a monumental asymmetry of strengths and the ‘domestic geopolitical’ interests of the vastly bigger power are impinged upon.
It is an unalterable geopolitical reality that India’s strategically sensitive southern cone contains the 80 million strong state of Tamil Nadu. Given the problematic nature of parts of its Northern tier, especially Kashmir, India is not going to risk any destabilising disaffection in Tamil Nadu, which is in any case an economically and culturally vital part of the ‘Indian miracle’ with its elite organically integrated for generations into the Indian ruling class and top echelons of the state. Tamil Nadu is an ‘ethnic kin-state’ of the sensitive Tamil-majority Northern periphery of Sri Lanka across a narrow strip of water. As Mervyn de Silva, the founder-editor of the Lanka Guardian (and my late father), wrote: “In an Age of Information and Identity, ethnicity walks on water.”
The geopolitical reality is two-sided. One aspect has always been that the Tamils of Sri Lanka can secure and sustain only that measure of autonomy which India has consistently been willing to underwrite. No other power will go beyond it except verbally, and even if it pays lip-service, it will be unable and unwilling to move beyond India’s parameters.
The bottom-line position, a bipartisan one, has always been (albeit with changes in nuance under Manmohan Singh) “the implementation of the 13th amendment”. If the Tamils push beyond it, they will forfeit the only real geopolitical leverage they have and lose chunks of 13A besides, in the easily foreseeable future, possibly later this year. The other aspect of the dual geopolitical reality is that apart from India, without India and still less at variance with India, there is no power which can or will protect Sri Lanka. National Security Minister Athulathmudali learned in 1987 that Israel was no substitute.
Given that Sri Lanka cannot agree to reopen the Hambantota issue, and should not permit a large foreign footprint in Mattala or the Trincomalee oil tank farm for reasons of economics and sovereignty respectively, what then are we going to converge with India on if we have also walked back our longstanding commitment, including most crucially during wartime, of “implementing the 13th amendment”? Concerning what exactly are we on the same page?
Would not the prioritisation of the fulfilment of India’s stated expectation of “reconciliation with the Tamils” inclusive of “the implementation of the 13th amendment” bring us under the Indian diplomatic umbrella soon, at a time we are under pressure from other, extra-regional quarters? Logically, the faster and fuller the verifiable implementation—instead of the well-worn practice of an interminable succession of verbal promissory notes–the faster the unfurling of Delhi’s diplomatic umbrella.
If the Tamils of Sri Lanka feel that they are being politically pushed back at both centre r and periphery, with their accumulated and crystallised collective political identity and political existence simply dismissed, a new cycle of alienation-protest-suppression may ensue. The resultant emotions will seep through into Tamil Nadu, and through Tamil Nadu into the Indian mass media and ultimately Delhi.
In the Asia-Pacific and even globally, India is a ‘swing state’ or pivotal power. Nobody in the international system will move on Sri Lanka, be it positively or negatively, crossing India’s red lines. Whoever in Sri Lanka deviates most from the Indo-Lanka Accord and India’s stated bipartisan position of “the implementation of the 13th Amendment” risks a gap with Delhi, while whoever sticks closest to it, closes a gap and has the best leverage. Nothing prevents both Sinhalese and Tamils from doing the latter. Nothing makes it an intrinsically zero-sum game.
The best chance of a political settlement is while Tamil leader R. Sampanthan is alive and active. He is the only one with the moral authority to persuade the Tamils and the international community. After him, no one will have that stature. In the competition to fill the vacuum, especially with the entry of the new Tamil alliance headed by former Chief Minister Wigneswaran, Tamil politics will be more fluid, more protean, more emotional, more radical and more susceptible to the secessionist impulse.
(Dr. Jayatilleka is most recently, author of ‘Russia’s Way in the World: from Yesterday to Tomorrow’, in Global-e, 21st Century Global Dynamics, University of California Santa Barbara, 13 February |Volume 13 | Issue 8)