“If we do not learn how to understand, we shall never learn how to survive.”
– Fidel Castro, Reflections, March 21, 2012
After Geneva, do we Sri Lankans understand? Do we know how to understand? Do we understand that understanding does not come easily or automatically; that one has to ‘learn how to understand’, as Fidel clearly indicates in his latest article entitled ‘Roads to Disaster’?
This means that one’s moods, habits, prejudices, emotions, rhetoric and knee-jerk reactions cannot be mistaken for understanding. Understanding requires knowledge and reflection. Understanding requires, above all, thinking, and thinking through. Understanding is a prerequisite not for academic disquisition, but an imperative precisely for survival itself, says Fidel, and cautions that without learning how to understand, we shall never learn how to survive.
This is most relevant for Sri Lanka today, if we are to survive as an independent state whose borders are the island’s natural ones. It is nothing less than this which is at stake, because the driving forces and chief beneficiaries of the Geneva resolution and outcome, are those in the Diaspora and closer home, whose “unfulfilled dream is Tamil Eelam”. This is a dream they hope to fulfil, not so much through a reactivation of warfare by the LTTE residue currently in exile (though that might play a secondary or catalytic role), but through the leveraging of powerful external forces against Sri Lanka.
The Geneva outcome has spawned several schools of thought. Some in the Tamil Diaspora believe it is a blow against Sri Lanka and are pleased. Some hold that it is not and are unhappy. Both are sub-categories of those who support a Tamil Eelam through international intervention. In the mainstream of Sri Lankan politics and society, there are other schools of opinion. Some hold that the resolution is not against Sri Lanka but solely against the regime and should therefore be supported. Some believe it is neither against the state nor the regime and therefore should be welcomed. Others believe that it is against the regime which they equate with or hold above the state and therefore oppose. Still others believe that it is against the regime but also against the state and national sovereignty, and therefore stand opposed.
If one is to understand one mustn’t lie to oneself or others, and must grasp the reality. If the resolution were not against Sri Lanka and indeed the UN Human Rights Council, there could not have been 15 states voting against. Quite apart from Russia, China and Cuba, whose opposition to the resolution may be interpreted by some to be ideological or strategic /geopolitical or both, attention must be paid to the serious objections of Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Ecuador and Bangladesh, and the strong statement of Egypt as NAM chair, earlier in this session. If as the spokespersons of the dominant faction of the UNP say, the resolution is not against and is actually in favour of Sri Lanka, how on earth do they explain the carefully argued opposition from those democracies? Surely, it can hardly be because they are hard-core fans of the Rajapaksa regime. And if it is a resolution that is supportive of Sri Lanka, how to explain the relentless drive to support it on the part of pan-Tamil and pan-Dravidian nationalists – among them self-confessed supporters of Tamil Eelam- hardly known to be friends of this country and the vast majority of its people?
The grasp of reality also requires resisting the temptation to finesse the outcome. A defeat is a defeat, and a Realist reading must recall the acerbic aside of Lenin that “some wiseacres [among our comrades] regard minus three as greater than minus two”. The victory was obtained by those who set a cleverly camouflaged trap for Sri Lanka. If we do not recognise a defeat as a defeat, we shall never prepare to avert the next one and to turn the tide so as to win once more.
What is the trap that Sri Lanka’s enemies have set for it, which we have to extricate ourselves from or watch out for? The resolution is not an end in itself; it is a scene setter. It sets the scene in which the case for external inquiry and interference can be made beyond a reasonable doubt. However, making that case depends upon proving another one, namely, that domestic remedies are not forthcoming; that there is either no will or no capacity – or, neither will nor capacity–to fulfil even the recommendations of the domestic mechanism, the LLRC, within the time frame indicated in a UN resolution. If this case can be proved, then the case for an international inquiry is already pretty much made. If Sri Lanka refuses to cooperate, then the process will move to the next level of the escalation – or intervention—ladder. In her excellent speech in opposition to the resolution, the Ambassador/Perm Rep of the Philippines stressed her country’s abiding opposition in the UN HRC to a “trigger mechanism”, and said that the resolution seems a reincarnation of such a trigger mechanism. This ‘trigger’ is what will almost automatically operate, if we do not show transparent and tangible, i.e. actual, progress domestically on political reconciliation and accountability within a year.
Those who argue that we must be resolute and not make any moves towards reform because any such movement would seem as if we are succumbing to external pressure, have not thought things through, have not ‘learned to understand’. They do not know that such fixity only proves the case made by our unfair critics behind who stand our enemies. These elements are counting precisely on our disinclination or incapacity to reform.
It is of course a risk to activate a Constitutional provision that would almost certainly place the TNA in control of a provincial council, but the possibility that this party will use it as a stepping stone for secession is a lesser threat than failing to implement our own Constitution in the North, thereby leaving a politico-institutional vacuum which can be filled by external interventionist enterprise with a UN mandate and coercive enforcement from nearby.
The difference between Geneva 2009 and 2012, the loss of the 17 vote majority we obtained (a vertical drop), is the erosion of that most vital strategic real estate, the moral high ground. If the high ground is lost vertically, so is space, horizontally. Sri Lanka has to regain the moral high ground, in the eyes of the world, not just in our own eyes: ‘mirror, mirror on the wall’ is not a helpful methodology in external relations and regaining of lost space. An infinitely superior solution would be to recall the Buddha’s words that ‘by oneself is one defiled’ and ‘turn the searchlight inwards’.
There is only one method of regaining the high ground and that is through rapid reform. Myanmar has shown the way. No other state in recent years was under the intense international pressure that Myanmar faced, but today there is only a token of that pressure. Its current Foreign Minister, a decorated military man, was my colleague and counterpart in Geneva in 2009, and I have some modest acquaintance with his thinking. He was among those who crafted a brilliant strategic surprise, through which Myanmar broke out of the hostile international encirclement. That move pivoted on sweeping reforms, opening up, liberalisation, democratisation and normalisation; the result of which is that Myanmar is assured of successfully chairing ASEAN next year. Sri Lanka too hosts an important event as chairman next year, that of the Commonwealth Heads of Government. If however we haven’t thoroughly cleaned up our act, that occasion and the run-up to it (commencing with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit this September) will be used as platform and pitchfork against us.
So, where do we begin? As the saying goes, the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. A national reform process is the only way to out-run international encirclement.