[lg policy] Sri Lanka: Programmes of Hope: Debating the elections and the minority question

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jan 14 14:28:01 UTC 2010

Programmes of Hope: Debating the elections and the minority question
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
By Sivamohan Sumathy

(January 14, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)

Recently, I was stopped at this checkpoint just outside Colombo. It
was about 8 pm and I was in a three wheeler. Perusing my identity
document, the security person queried in Sinhala: ‘Are you Tamil?’
Taken aback by this query, I paused a little before saying ‘yes.’ But
what I actually wanted to say was ‘Hasn’t the President said there are
no Tamils, Muslims or Sinhalese? That everybody is one?’ Yet, going
against the President’s pronouncement, I said, ‘yes’. This is one of
my check point stories. Many of us have a bag full of them. What does
this nondescript story reveal to us? It is telling in its very
ordinariness. It is uncannily revealing of a predicament for many of
us as we enter the new year and face a decisive election. Check points
may come and go. High Security Zones may disappear tomorrow. We
welcome all this. But the question that I pose today is not just about
checkpoints that are visibly there, but is about the check points that
dot our path of struggle for a clear sense of belonging to this

Election Fevers: commissions and omissions

While the elections climax to a feverish pitch of frenzied activity
with promises and counter promises, a question that we are confronted
with again and again, in all its multiple configurations, is: Is there
a minority question in the country? For the security personnel, yes.
If we observe and carefully follow the concerns and demands made by
various political alliances of minority groups, the question seems
ever present. If one consulted and worked with minority communities,
one would see a more nuanced and yet forthright response to this in
the affirmative. All in all, for many of us, who identify with the
Muslims and Tamils of the country and with other marginal(ized)
communities, there is a minority question that plagues our existence
in every way.

Over the long 30 years of war and the even longer years of the ethnic
conflict which has permeated and dominated the political scene in Sri
Lanka, any attempt to address the politics and the political of the
minorities has been stymied by the thorny issue of centralized
control. Centralized control manifests in constitutional terms in both
the executive presidency and the unitary structure. But the issue is
fundamentally more complex than one of merely addressing and reforming
the state at the top. One has to look at the political dynamism of the
last 30 years as well in this scenario. On the one hand, the state has
entrenched itself as a unitary structure and is unwilling to move from
that position, though the promise of the abolition of the Executive
Presidency does raise people’s hopes. On the other hand, and in the
tragic irony that accompanies all contestations, people’s lives,
particularly those of the north and east, have been thrown completely
out of joint in the intervening years of the conflict. People have
lost control of the centre. The anger and clamour for change all
round, in the north, east, south and west, speak of this urgency.
Here, I speak both concretely and metaphorically. While people on the
whole feel more and more alienated from the centre, despite the
increasing number of politicians and multiple elections that run all
year round like super star contests, actual power is steeped in and
entrenched in the centre and has become even more centralized in the
hands of a few. The rise of the Rajapaksa family is only one
manifestation of this.

One wonders why the Rajapaksa regime did not press forward with a
political solution to the conflict, following on its triumph in the
battlefield. It was hugely popular in the immediate aftermath of the
war, but lacked both the courage and the political vision necessary
for such a step. Intent on preserving its own control on the state,
the regime made a calculated mistake. Their action of disregarding the
concerns of the minorities, particularly with regard to the IDP
situation, served to alienate a community that was eager to be drawn
into the political process of nation(s)-building. But the singular
programme of regime building of the Rajapaksas lost sight of what
would have in effect stabilized their position within the state at
least to some extent. Also, displaced Muslims from the north, evicted
by the LTTE in 1990 have been waiting for a clear response for a
solution to their uncertain status in Sri Lanka. The government
announces dismantling high security zones today. Why did it wait for
so long to do this? Maybe the answer has to be found somewhere else.
Any devolution package leading to a solution and addressing the
concerns of Muslim and Tamil minorities, would have been fundamentally
detrimental to the centralized control that the Rajapaska regime
relies on so heavily for its continued state of dominance.

At the same time, one would like to ask from those minority parties
and persons rallying around the opposition today, namely Sarath
Fonseka, what programme of action do they offer their constituencies?
Today, at this critical juncture, where we are trying to debate about
our futures, it is important for those who speak for minority groups
and peoples to have a clear assessment of the situation. Their
rhetoric should match their strategies for political negotiation and
engagement with the state and other parties/groups. I would like to
ask them to work out a viable political programme and engage in
dialogue at multiple levels with the people on the pressing issues of
the day.

In order to do this, we perhaps have to move from a discussion of
regime changes to a discussion on how to exploit the spaces for
discussion that the conclusion to the war and the run up to the
election has opened up: a discussion on democracy and the minority
question at multiple levels, building links between different peoples
and communities.

Crumbs from the table of the high? The politics of state patronage and
the ethnicisation of state and civil society

Centralized control has enshrined and fine-tuned to the most
disgusting level the politics of patronage, which in my view, takes on
a dangerously ethnicised form, particularly in the east, where ethnic
tensions had been steadily on the rise, from the very beginning of the
postcolonial state, if not before. LTTE’s reign of terror in the north
and the east, served to exacerbate these tensions, while the state and
successive governments did nothing to alleviate rampant violence, even
in the aftermath of the LTTE’s defeat in the east. Centralized control
and the politics of state patronage, merely served to fragmentize
communities, pitting one against the other. On the other hand, the
rising cost of living, hitting not only the poorer classes, but also
the struggling middle class, brings all communities together.

The Rajapaksa regime’s only ‘positive’ response to insistent appeals
by minority groups and alliances to address their grievances has been
the grand idea of development and development projects in the east and
the north. Development is touted as the panacea for all ills. But
development projects, real or proposed, have increased the fears of
the minorities. On the one hand they did not bring any relief to the
people on the ground. Development today is perceived as another form
of corruption. At the same time, they increased ethnic tensions,
leading to, in some cases, violence. ‘Development’ has further
exacerbated the issue of displacement. While the country and the
people grappled with the issue of there being large numbers of
displaced persons, running into several hundreds of thousands, the
government did not put forward or implement a thought-out, and, more
importantly, collaborative plan of action to settle and resettle
displaced persons, leaving them and us in a limbo, feeling more and
more alienated from the centre and, as a consequence, powerless. While
the current government has made some headway with regard to the
Official Language Policy by bringing in legislation regarding its
implementation, in the absence of any sense of actual relief and in
its sad isolation from all that is seen as important in the lives of
the people, this remains a forgotten and minor achievement.

Do we belong? And how?: the memory of Lasantha Wickramatunge

As long as the minority question persists, the urgent question of
democracy too will remain unattended to and unresolved to any
satisfaction. Some of the most pressing concerns of minority groups,
including plantation or Malaiyaha communities have been security.
Security comes with a sense of belonging to the land, to the places in
which one resides and the country at large. The question of unlawful
detention, the still existing PTA, and the still prevailing act of
emergency raises questions concerning security, whatever the regime
might be. As we remember Lasantha Wickramatunge this month on his
tragic death a year ago, who with unstinting courage challenged the
ruling regime, we hope that the human and social rights of people
become focal points of action of political activists and groups,
regardless of ethnicity.

Speaking of courage and political action, I would like to bring up
another crucial failure of our time. The minority question is hydra
headed and can be posed in multiple ways. I, too, am multiple. I
belong to another significant minority group in the country, and that
is that of a left orientation. But today the left tradition of the
country is in shambles and has caved in to, for the most part,
majoritarian Sinhala nationalism. It is too late for the ‘traditional’
left to change direction. They are a lost cause and have acted with a
singular lack of courage. But it might be about time for a new
generation of thinkers and actors to forge out on a path of critical
thinking, and to forge a dialogue across ethnic communities to discuss
issues of class and gender and importantly, the minority question
itself. The war economy has created multiple minority communities,
including displaced Sinhalese and injured soldiers among others. Do
they become a part of the minority question? Will there be other
minority communities arising out of the post-war economy? These are
questions that we need to seriously ponder.

In this spirit of reassessing the situation on the ground and as a way
of pressing forward the advantages that any space for discussion opens
up, I raise these questions that concern us as minorities in this
country. For us it is a time of reflection, reevaluation and the
plotting of a programme, both in the singular and the plural, which
would be meaningful to everybody in this country in the short and the
long term.


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