Nationalisms, Militarization and the Politics of War in Sri Lanka:

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Sep 24 14:13:15 UTC 2008

Nationalisms, Militarization and the Politics of War in Sri Lanka:

Ahilan Kadirgamar

Any discussion of Sri Lanka at the moment can not avoid discussion of
the war.  And at the heart of discussions on the war in Sri Lanka, is
the question of what will come after the war, at least after an end to
the war in its conventional mode with defeats faced by the LTTE on the
battlefield.  It is indeed important to grasp that the current state
of anxiety is not only about the war but also what will come after the
war.  From the London based Economist to Tamil activists in and
outside Sri Lanka, this has become the central question.  I write this
article as a dissenting Tamil activist and as a member of that diverse
set of Tamil activists both inside and outside Sri Lanka, who chose to
stand independent of the LTTE, but whose politics nevertheless at the
moment is dispersed from the Left to the Right, across a whole range
of issues from class, nationalism, caste to gender.  In thinking about
the outcomes after the war, just as we could not predict the direction
of the war prior to its resumption, we can not predict the outcomes
after the war, which are part of the dynamic of war; it drastically
changes the political landscape.  But we nevertheless take positions
on the war; on either side or against the war.  And those positions
are explicitly political, they are underpinned by a politics, whether
they are pro-war or, as has been less commonly acknowledged that of
anti-war.  Indeed, an anti-war position itself can be arrived at from
different political positions, from a pacifist stand to that of
political expediency depending on the military fortunes of one actor
or another.  It is such politics of war that I intend to explore here
in relation to the dynamics of nationalisms and militarization in Sri

My concerns are in part theoretical - how nationalisms and
militarization relate to each other and to the politics of war.  But
they are also existential, in terms of our practice as activists in
the context of one of the most critical and devastating times in our
history.  I emphasize the latter, because we have been there before.
The JVP insurgency and the State repression in the South during the
late 1980s was an atrocious period in Sri Lanka's history of human
rights abuses.  The massacres of Sinhalese and Muslim civilians by the
LTTE, or for that matter the massacres of Tamil civilians by the State
in the eighties and nineties, were of proportions that we can only
hope that the current phase of war will not entail.

I will begin then with a few points in the form of thesis, or points
forming a political position relating to the war that I believe are

·    From the point of view of civilians, any cessation of hostilities
is desirable and should be encouraged.  Just as the humanitarian
concerns of civilians are of utmost importance while the war
continues, even a temporary cessation of hostilities will provide some
respite for the civilians.
·    The diminution of the dual nationalisms (Sinhala Buddhist
nationalism and Tamil nationalism) is desirable.  But it is not a
balancing act, such that I only want to see diminution of one if it
leads to the diminution of the other, even though as I will discuss
below both are related.  Independent of each other, I want to see both
nationalisms politically challenged on their own terms.

·    Demilitarization and an end to the political culture of
militarism and war politics are desirable.

·    Independent of the above three points and without any of the
above three being conditional on each other, progress with any
political process to resolve the national question (defined as the
question of minorities and their relationship to the post-colonial
State in Sri Lanka) is desirable.
·    The rebuilding of inter-ethnic relations and a strengthening of
minorities politics (defined more broadly along ethnic, caste,
economically marginalized and gender) is desirable.

These points relate to each other in the dynamics of political
engagement – we can rarely severe the links between extreme
nationalisms and militarization - but I want to conceptually unpack
the current political dynamic before addressing their
inter-relationship.  I also begin with this political position, not
only to make it clear, but also to establish what I believe I
inherited during the last decade from what I considered to be Tamil
dissent.  More simply put, the point is that we cannot join the LTTE
to defeat the State, nor can we join the State to defeat the LTTE;
even when the LTTE was on a project to eliminate Tamil dissent.
Rather our activism has to focus on engagement with political
processes addressing the national question.  This is now a position
that, unfortunately, when I look around at the broader grouping of
dissenting Tamil activists, is unravelling along with the escalation
of the war.  Tamil dissent is also being cornered into taking sides on
the war.  This sort of blackmail is intrinsic to the logic of
nationalism, you are either "loyal" or you are a "traitor"; it denies
possibilities for ethical and principled positions.

I would also like to clarify the difference in my position in relation
to the war, with some of the actors who comment and engage in the same

First, my position is different from the position of say the
mainstream human rights community, in that I do not restrict my
opposition to the war to that of mainly opposing violations of
international humanitarian law (also known as the 'laws of war'), and
of meeting the humanitarian concerns; the position that I understand
to be that of the Amnesty Internationals of the world.  Rather, I
would as a point of principle at the immediate moment, call for a
cessation of hostilities so it provides respite to the civilians, that
civilians have the freedom of movement and are allowed to leave the
areas affected by the war.  Furthermore, I would want to join forces
with those who challenge the dual nationalisms and who struggle for an
end to militarization, and for progress with an inclusive political

Second, the position is also different from those in the conflict
resolution camp.  One of the disastrous outcomes of the Norwegian
peace process and the NGO-ization of politics in Sri Lanka is that
conflict resolution now takes centre stage in any discussion of peace.
 I do not call for negotiations between the LTTE and the State,
because prior to any negotiations, there has to be willingness to
adhere to certain principles of inclusiveness, pluralism and
democratization, the absence of which could only lead to the further
entrenchment of nationalism and consequent militarization.  That is
the lesson learned from the Norwegian peace process.  Furthermore, the
extent to which the LTTE is the vehicle of Tamil nationalism, or the
JHU the vehicle of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and to lesser extent
the JVP or for that matter the SLFP under Rajapakse, their political
defeat is desirable in so far as undermining the two destructive
nationalisms and militarization.

The question inevitably must arise as to why the emphasis on the
diminution of nationalisms and an end to militarization, as it relates
to the politics of war.  Here I will begin with a theoretical
discussion borrowing from an article by Newton Gunasinghe, who was
also instrumental in introducing the writings of Gramsci and Althusser
into the Sri Lankan political and academic discourse. I quote

"In a social structure which generates an ideology that religion does
not relate to one's personal beliefs but to one's family antecedents,
S.W.R.D.'s move to become a Buddhist and what is more, his vocal
advocacy of Sinhala-Buddhist interests, testifies to his ability of
political manoeuvre.  S.W.R.D., through these able political tactics,
was able to establish his personal hegemony, distancing himself away
from his extended family group, while going against the
old-established bourgeois strata, simultaneously cultivating solid
political relations with newly emergent bourgeois and petty bourgeois
strata emanating from diverse social backgrounds. But his ideology of
populist Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, while creating the social base
for his assumption of power, also alienated the Tamils in the
northern, eastern and central provinces.  Here, although S.W.R.D. was
capable of encapsulating diverse social segments coming from various
factions of the Sri Lankan social structure, this very encapsulation
was done on the basis of excluding Tamils.  Foucault's comment that
one could define 'the self' only in relation to 'the other' may be of
relevance here.  Nevertheless, this laid the political foundations for
the terrible ethnic conflict, destabilisation and violence which we
are obliged to undergo today."

These notes, titled 'A Sociological Comment on the Political
Transformations in Sri Lanka in 1956 and the Resultant Socio-Political
Processes', were written by Gunasinghe not too long before his death
in 1988.  Gunasinghe claims that 1956, and the political manoeuvre
which brought to power Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike on the
platform of "Sinahal Only" (language policy) to power, was not
adequately understood thirty years later when he wrote this piece.
And we may reflect now twenty years after Gunasinghe, following two
more decades of war interspersed with attempts to negotiate peace,
that we are yet to understand the dynamic of not only Sinhala Buddhist
nationalism, but also the consequences of two other destructive forces
that Gunasinghe would not have fully understood twenty years ago, that
of Tamil nationalism and militarization.

In thinking about the politics of war, I have to reflect on the legacy
of Tamil nationalism particularly over the last thirty years.  How
first Tamil parliamentary politics and then Tamil militancy mobilized
a Tamil base around Tamil nationalism.  And then how the LTTE under
the cover of Tamil nationalism, consolidated its base to eliminate all
other opposition within the Tamil community in deploying its fascist
claim of "sole-representation".  Such extreme nationalist politics of
the LTTE also led to massacres, ethnic cleansing and the alienation of
Muslims.  Where the Tamil community has arrived today, with very
little space for political engagement and decimation by war is a
result of the inexorable logic of the LTTE's fascist and militarist
politics.  Furthermore, Tamil nationalism now reinforces Sinhala
Buddhist nationalism and vice versa; both nationalisms now need each

However, nationalisms alone can not and have not in the past
constricted the space for dissent or political opposition to the
current extent.  And this is where I think it is important to relate
militarization to the dynamic of nationalisms.  A protracted war over
two and a half decades changes the political landscape with
militarization becoming the brutal expression of the nationalisms.  If
I can borrow from Althusser's 'Ideology and Ideological State
Apparatuses', the situation has deteriorated to an extent where the
Repressive State Apparatuses have come to the fore, reducing the
possibilities for contestations with the Ideological State
Apparatuses.  So it is not so much the religious clergy or the
teachers that in carrying out their ideological mission are waiting
for an S.W.R.D. or a Tamil nationalist leader to perform a manoeuvre.
Rather, the situation has deteriorated over the last two years in the
South to an extent that the military establishment and its war
propaganda have now gained political ascendancy.  Similarly, the LTTE
has ensured over the last twenty years that there is little space for
politics outside of its totalitarian militarism.  Indeed, the dominant
ideologies as expressed by both nationalisms are in full force,
particularly in the context of their militarization and the war; on a
day to day level, we see it in the production of culture to that of
the media.  However, I would argue that in such critical times of war
as during times of coup d'etat, the Repressive State Apparatuses come
to the fore drastically reducing the political space to challenge
dominant ideologies.  Furthermore, in the Sri Lankan context, much as
there are the dual nationalisms reinforcing each other, militarization
also has a dual logic, with the LTTE and the State reinforcing each
others militarization.

This reinforcing dynamic of both the nationalisms and militarization
has to be broken, and that is something I find lacking in the
positions of both those who support the war and oppose the war in Sri
Lanka.  Breaking that reinforcing dynamic would entail a commitment to
demilitarization and to push for the retreat of the Repressive State
Apparatuses.  All the more so, because it is the retreat of the
Repressive State Apparatuses that will provide the space to engage in
the realm of ideology and to challenge the Ideological State
Apparatuses.  Ideology as well as Ideological State Apparatuses for
Althusser are located in the domain of constant contestation.
Following from this, I claim that in addition to the historical
decimation of progressive politics in Sri Lanka, it is the Repressive
State Apparatuses coming to the fore with the war, that has paralyzed
challenges to the dominant ideologies of the nationalisms.

The current developments in Sri Lanka, and analysis of the military
fortunes of both the State and LTTE are increasingly pointing to a
possible military defeat of the LTTE.  While as I mentioned early on,
the political defeat of the LTTE is desirable, what of its military
defeat?  Independent of supporting the State politically and
independent of civilian casualties, the LTTE's defeat is desirable,
but with one caveat.  How we define the LTTE is contentious - so many
of its cadres are youth and children, who had little say about the war
which the LTTE resumed.  Even if I don't take a pacifist position, I
cannot accept their deaths as "collateral damage" or as a consequence
of their status as "combatants", so I make a clear distinction between
the LTTE leadership and the lower ranks.  This has been the real
tragedy of the war, the loss of an entire generation to a senseless

Now in response to this call for the LTTE's defeat there is the
counter-argument from people not necessarily aligned with the LTTE
that the victory of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism will spell doom for
resolving the national question, the political problem of minorities.
This argument is posed in those terms as the Rajapaske Regime has
given centre stage to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in its war
propaganda and more recently even refused to acknowledge the national
question.  Here I want to again make a theoretical point borrowing
from the same essay by Gunasinghe, where he refers to Karl Marx's 'The
Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte' and makes a distinction
between state and regime.  Gunasinghe understands S.W.R.D.'s manoeuvre
as an attempt by S.W.R.D. to take hold of the State.  But I want to
extend that theoretical distinction of regime and state to include the
other meaning of regime; that is the ideological regime of war
politics and of militarized nationalism.

The dynamic around the politics of regime currently going on in Sri
Lanka has two important aspects.  On the one hand, the Rajapakse
Regime is trying to consolidate itself, in opposition to foregoing
regimes that have historically ruled Sri Lanka, whether they are the
SLFP Bandaranaike regimes or the various UNP regimes.  But in parallel
it is also promoting a militarized nationalism through an ideological
regime of war politics.  It is that ideological regime that has
emboldened attacks on democracy as in the abuse of the constitution
(the 17th amendment to the Constitution has been disregarded with
direct appointments by the President to key independent commissions)
or the physical attacks on journalists and repression of the media.

The critical question for me then is whether that ideological regime
of war politics can be challenged now or in the near future.  And here
I would make the conjecture that the defeat of the LTTE and an end to
the war, while it may immediately provide opportunities for the
consolidation of the Rajapakse Regime in possible electoral victories
soon after the war, it will nevertheless weaken the ideological regime
of war politics and of militarized nationalism.  And to the extent
that the Rajapakse Regime has depended on the ideological regime of
war politics to consolidate itself, its political fortunes will also
unravel.  Both regimes need war.  This is indeed a debatable point,
but I am unwilling to merely accept more of the same, that of a
politics of war or for that matter anti-war that is unwilling to
engage the politics of militarization related to the nationalisms.

In thinking about these questions relating to the war and its
aftermaths, which as I mentioned earlier are part existential and part
theoretical, I sense a paralyzing state of political anxiety among
those who fall broadly into the progressive camp or for that matter
Tamil dissent.  In re-reading Gunasinghe and in thinking through his
intellectual preoccupations - the concepts of regime and manoeuvre,
the theories of Gramsci and Althusser - I am revisiting an
intellectual discourse in Sri Lanka that attempted to grapple with
difficult political questions.  It is not that such theorization
necessarily provides any answers, but it stimulates debates that can
only sharpen our political engagement.

Unfortunately, such political debates and engagement are almost
non-existent, and the causes of this state of affairs must also be
carefully considered.  Indeed, if there is to be the opening of
political space to challenge oppressive ideologies or for that matter
to address the national question after the war, what would the terrain
of political engagement look like?

Here, I must say that just as the Sri Lankan elite, the Sri Lankan
bourgeoisie if you may, failed to address the shortcomings in building
a bourgeois democratic state, there is also the failure of the Left in
Sri Lanka's post-colonial history in putting forward a progressive
politics that could galvanize the masses.  Or more specifically, the
failure of a certain middle class (from sections of the bourgeoisie
and the petty-bourgeoisie) progressive politics promoted by the Sri
Lankan intelligentsia.  This failure of middle class progressive
politics was hastened by the accelerated political ascendancy of
nationalism and militarization, which they found difficult to respond
to even in the 1980s when the likes of Gunasinghe were active.  The
failure of that generation of intellectuals is characterized by the
emergence of visionless NGO politics and the hegemonic hold of
nationalist or Statist politics that we see today.

Here I must also add to the list the limitations of middle class
politics of dissent, which some of us treasure and which had the
important role of keeping some sanity going during the last two and a
half decades of war.  I don't think that middle class dissent can also
escape this generational failure.  And when it comes to Tamil dissent,
the generation before me that formed it has either been liquidated by
the LTTE or driven into exile for the most part.  While dissent in the
Tamil diaspora is important in challenging the destructive support for
the LTTE (support in both political and financial terms for a war they
do not have to face), Tamil dissent in the diaspora as with the
diaspora as a whole can not provide an alternative nor be a
significant actor for shaping progressive politics in Sri Lanka.

Therefore, I don't think we can return to the politics of the
generation that Gunasinghe represented nor should we romanticize that
generation.  Rebuilding a democratic political culture will be as
difficult or perhaps more difficult than rebuilding the war-ravaged
areas and this is going to be all the more true within the Tamil
community decimated by the war.

I do not see another middle class generation providing any radical
alternative in Sri Lanka; there needs to be a break with the
Colombo-centred and paternalistic politics and a serious rethinking of
intellectual leadership in the face of its failure.  And if I am to
place my hope in the emergence of a slow but eventual challenge in the
sphere of Sri Lanka democratic politics, I would place it in those who
were marginalized by the politics of war, of the militarized
nationalism of the last few decades.  Those are the youth of the
Muslim community and the Up-Country Tamil community, but also the
subaltern classes in all communities and among women.  It is the caste
minorities and the economically marginalized that have been the canon
fodder of this war, and it is the women who have had to bear the brunt
of the war in economic and social terms, not to mention the particular
forms of gender violence.  These forms of subaltern and feminist
politics might also provide possibilities in the face of the failure
of middle-class male radicalism.  An end to the politics of war and
end to militarization will provide room for the political foundations
and the emergence of such politics.  It will require re-thinking
solidarities and of coexistence, but also to borrow from Gramsci,
politics engendered by organic intellectuals.  Forms of politics that
may be more akin to democratization, and can challenge the nationalist
ideologies, and reframe and engage the national question.

Ahilan Kadirgamar is an activist with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.

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