'Reconciliation in Sri Lanka means the youth must lead the way': a sceptical response

There is nothing objectionable in arguing for greater and more meaningful participation of youth in the political process, so long as this is not a substitute for a proper post-war constitutional settlement.

Asanga Welikala
5 March 2012

This is a response to the article by Sanka Chandima Abayawardena, in which it is argued that the Sri Lankan government’s military engagement and defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is an unqualified good; that real concerns over credible allegations of extensive violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the last phase of the conflict are not only misplaced but also sinister; and that the answers to the many challenges of post-war reconciliation lie in economic development and the strengthening of democratic institutions, led by an idealised and idealistic youth which should displace discredited political elites.

Mr Abayawardena’s argument is, in my view, extremely tenuous and simplistic. It relies on some very one-sided analytical perspectives with regard to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, advances several questionable conclusions as to what ‘is’ and what ‘ought to be’, before proposing youth engagement as an ultimately unpersuasive ‘magic bullet’ solution. The weaknesses in this argument are threefold, encompassing problems of analytical approach, articulation of the policy challenges of post-war reconciliation, and the possible solutions to these challenges. I will address them in turn.

Problems of approach

For Mr Abayawardena, the comprehensive military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 is a triumph of the forces of law and order over those of terrorism, fascism and ethnic exclusivism. There is no need to get into a sterile debate about the many evils of the LTTE: its extreme terrorism, intolerance of dissent (especially within Tamil politics) and fascistic leader-centrism are only too well known. Its fanatical separatism disallowed constructive engagement with previous Sri Lankan governments more moderate than the present one, which might have delivered more for the Tamil people in regard to devolution and power-sharing, and certainly saved them from much suffering, death and displacement even if such solutions might have been far from perfect. It contributed directly to the configuration of political dynamics within Sri Lankan politics by which the hard-line present government came to power, and it picked the fight that it eventually lost.      

The problem, however, in focusing only on the LTTE’s less wholesome characteristics in a discussion on reconciliation and pluralism in Sri Lanka is that it does not explain how the phenomenon called the LTTE was itself created, and how through it the articulation of a Sri Lankan Tamil identity became synonymous with violent separatism.

Tamil secessionism and Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict are the tragic result of a spectacularly mismanaged postcolonial nation-building process. After independence from Britain in 1948, the majority Sinhala-Buddhists sought to construct a nation-state in which the majority’s linguistic and religious aspirations and access to economic resources through the control of the state assumed an overwhelming primacy. From the disenfranchisement of Tamils of recent Indian origin, to the ‘Sinhala Only’ language policy; from the constitutional recognition of a ‘foremost place’ for Buddhism, to discrimination in the fields of public sector employment and state education; from the reification of an over-centralised unitary state and refusal to share power with minorities – not to mention periodic bouts of communal violence – the message for minorities in independent Sri Lanka was clear: their citizenship was a matter of majoritarian sufferance, not inherent rights as common entitlements of a plural, inclusive and democratic polity.

Tamil demands for a dignified accommodation of their collective identity did not begin from a secessionist position, but rather, evolved to be so over a period of time in which less extreme demands for inclusivity such as consociational power-sharing, language parity, secularism, federal autonomy and non-discrimination were repeatedly rejected by Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists in successive governments. The first republican constitution of 1972 directly contributed to the transformation of the aims of Tamil nationalism from federalism to secessionism, by entrenching Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism’s illiberal constitutional worldview as the identity of the state as a whole. Yet even in its wake, beneath the secessionist rhetoric, Tamil parliamentary parties continued to entertain the hope that autonomy within a united state might some day be possible. Indeed, it was this very moderateness on the part of Tamil parliamentarians that led to the rise of youth militancy within Tamil politics in the 1970s. A key figure in this movement was Velupillai Prabhakaran, later to become leader of the LTTE.

In the light of this political history, it is disingenuous to regard Prabhakaran and the LTTE as some isolated anomaly but for whom Sri Lanka would be a model of unity in diversity. This ahistorical approach reveals the majoritarian nationalist tropes implicit in Mr Abayawardena’s position. An understanding of the dynamics of the formation of nationalisms in Sri Lanka shows that Tamil nationalism was, and is, a more complex and less consanguine phenomenon than the version that came to be associated with the LTTE. The essentialist, and brutally enforced, conception of the Tamil nation propagated by the LTTE is one which Mr Abayawardena takes at face value, because this conveniently reinforces his own equally unsubtle analysis. Moreover, in refusing to distinguish the LTTE’s terrorism from the legitimate political aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils, his account is harmful to post-war reconciliation and inimical to the rich pluralism of Sri Lanka’s polity. In short, he is either unwilling or incapable of conceiving an understanding of the conflict, and therefore of its potential solutions, in a historically contextualised and normatively principled way. 

There is a further significant problem in portraying the conclusion of the war in terms of ‘good versus evil’. Not only does Mr Abayawardena essentially invite us to accept the Sri Lankan government as the embodiment of law and order, but also as the agent of progressive change in that it has vanquished the cancer of divisive communalism, in the form of the LTTE, from Sri Lanka’s body politic. With the LTTE gone, we are asked to believe, democracy and constitutionalism can flourish, led by the incomparable youth.

The truth is more complicated. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration represents one of the most unmistakably Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist governments in its ideological foundations. Its governing practices are best described as a form of populist authoritarianism. The regime defined by this ideology and praxis has made Sri Lanka quite the opposite of a constitutional state governed by the rule of law. A case in point is the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution that the government enacted in 2010 with recourse to its two-thirds parliamentary majority. By using the singularly inappropriate procedure for legislation ‘urgent in the national interest’, the government attenuated necessary public discussion of its consequences. Its effect is to exacerbate the hyper-presidential form of government that Sri Lanka has been saddled with under the 1978 Constitution.

Compounding the weak institutional checks and balances in the constitution, the Eighteenth Amendment removed the two-term limit on one person standing for presidential office and many other procedural limitations on presidential power. It has provided a framework for appointments to the judiciary, the civil service, the police, the electoral administration and other public bodies that severely compromises their independence, integrity and professionalism. This amendment has rightly been seen as the consolidation of a system of presidential government that facilitates authoritarianism, unilateralism and arbitrariness, weakens democracy and institutional restraints, and promotes the rule of the President and his men, rather than the rule of law. It is this dispensation that Mr Abayawardena asks us to regard as democratically legitimate: whatever the merits of his arguments in favour of reconciliation based on the rule of law, it would be stretching credulity too far to expect the Rajapaksa regime in its current form to deliver it.

Problems of analysis

Mr Abayawardena’s opposition to an international intervention to ensure accountability for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity – allegations, it is important to reiterate, that are made against the LTTE as well as the Sri Lankan military – are grounded in the view that such calls are in reality manifestations of the Tamil diaspora’s continuing campaign for a separate state in the island, and of a broader Western neo-imperialist project. However, Mr Abayawardena seems incapable of contemplating the possibility that Sri Lankans who call for accountability, or at least for an appropriate acknowledgement of the fact that massive human rights violations did occur in the final phase of the conflict, might be motivated by their own ideas of reconciliation, pluralist citizenship and constitutional patriotism, albeit a rights-based conception of ‘Sri Lankan-ness’ that differs from his own.

That said, I have made an argument that Mr Abayawardena makes here, but for different reasons: that the prospect of international intervention is something for which there is great hostility within Sri Lanka, and if undertaken without adequate regard to the politics of this hostility, risks undermining the very liberal values and ideals that animate the proponents of intervention.

When we say there is political hostility to international intervention we must acknowledge that we are speaking essentially of a widespread political opinion among the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. The effect of this might be to swamp a desire for accountability among Tamils who experienced the worst of the violations, and to this extent might seem normatively unjust to those committed to liberal ideals of political justice. But majority political opinion is a real and determining factor that cannot be ignored. Drawing from the experience of Germany, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, among many other post-conflict scenarios, I have argued that accountability might be an issue that is better revisited in a later generation rather than right now in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Recognising that there is little appetite for an international intervention, however, is not the same thing as sweeping these allegations under the carpet, nor the same as the even more serious issue of the government’s refusal to acknowledge the imperative for a new post-war political settlement that addresses the root causes of conflict, and returns Sri Lanka to a more democratic and pluralist constitutional dispensation. Other than his proposals with regard to the role of youth, Mr Abayawardena’s principal method of dealing with these issues, however, is limited to impugning the motives of the advocates of accountability on the basis of what are little more than paranoid insinuations.

The inadequacy of this approach is illustrated when one considers the Rajapaksa government’s perfidious record on finding a political settlement for the underlying causes of the ethnic conflict, which remain wholly unaddressed even though the conflict has ‘ended’ in terms of its military phase.

In 2006 the President himself appointed a body called the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) to make proposals for constitutional reform, resourced by a panel of experts. Both the APRC and its experts were representative of a wide spectrum of opinion with regard to a political solution, and this process was by no means a liberal echo chamber. Many innovative ideas were proposed in this exercise, and the Chairman submitted a final consensus document to the President in 2010. Nothing has been heard of this since.

Last year, the government’s stock response to criticisms of its conduct in the war’s final phase was to argue that critics – especially foreign critics – should await the recommendations of the government appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). When the LLRC duly reported back in December 2011, it surprised no one with its lukewarm recommendations on human rights accountability. However, the LLRC’s report was unexpectedly robust in its recommendations on democracy, devolution, citizenship, fundamental rights, the rule of law, good governance, creeping militarisation and government-sanctioned criminal activity.

In the President’s first major speech since the publication of the LLRC, the Independence Day address on 4th February 2012, he made no mention at all of the report. Instead, he demurred with the LLRC’s endorsement of the need for territorial devolution when he observed that ‘ethnic communities have no separate regions,’ and thereby signified his subscription to the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist ideological rejection of the Tamil claim to territorial autonomy in the north and east. This is consistent with the government’s refusal to fully implement the provisions of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1987), which provides for a limited framework of devolution to Provincial Councils. In short the LLRC report will most likely go the way of the APRC report.

Seen against this backdrop of insincerity and an absence of magnanimity in victory – in other words, the glaring inadequacies of President Rajapaksa’s statesmanship in the historic task of post-war state-building – Mr Abayawardena’s optimistic claims with regard to ‘reconciliation based on justice founded on constitutional law’ are exceedingly difficult to accept. It is perhaps not that Mr Abayawardena is being excessively gullible on this count; but rather that he does not himself believe that there is a major need for the recognition and representation of Tamils’ (and other minorities’) legitimate aspirations in the constitutional arrangements of the Sri Lankan state along power-sharing lines.

Problems with the proposed solution

It is perhaps unnecessary to deal at length with Mr Abayawardena’s prescriptions on ‘mainstreaming’ the role of the youth as the way of ensuring reconciliation, peace and prosperity. There is nothing objectionable in an argument for the greater and more meaningful involvement of youth in the political process, provided that this is not regarded as a substitute for a proper post-war constitutional settlement and some form of acknowledgement of the violent treatment of civilians and non-combatants during the war. In this regard, Mr Abayawardena is quite right to insist that the focus should not merely be on the last few months of the war, but should encompass a longer historical timeframe and include injustices done to all of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious communities. But for all the reasons discussed above, the thrust of Mr Abayawardena’s intervention does not seem to point in these directions.

His fetishisation of youth, moreover, evokes some awkward historical parallels. In the 1970s, young militants began articulating Tamil nationalism in Marxist revolutionary and internationalist terms, challenging a tired old leadership that had failed its constituency because of its association with the compromises of parliamentary politics. At least in these early years, the young Prabhakaran was very close to the ideal of youth activism that Mr Abayawardena advocates. The same excessive devotion to an idealised youth as the instrument of deliverance from an increasingly hopeless situation is striking in the Tamil nationalist literature of this period.

Indeed, the 1970s saw the birth of another insurrectionary group in the south, at the other end of the ethnic divide. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) began as a movement of rural Sinhala youth, alienated from the democratic mainstream through economic marginalisation. The JVP’s socialism, however, never extended to the transcendence of ethnic parochialism, and certainly stops very short of Marxism’s radical pluralism on the ‘Nationalities Question.’ The analytical perspectives and prescriptions offered by Mr Abayawardena are remarkably like those of the JVP, and are unpersuasive for similar reasons.

Mr Abayawardena’s intervention, while professing to set out a brave new youth-led world, is essentially an apologia for majoritarian nationalism that is grossly misleading analytically, and wildly optimistic in its prescriptions. A less partisan understanding of the real challenges to post-war reconciliation is needed, if Sri Lanka is to eschew the zero-sum politics of the past, and achieve a peaceful future built on pluralism, tolerance and justice.


Also read:

Reconciliation in Sri Lanka means the youth must lead the way, Sanka Abayawardena

'What Sri Lanka is...': acknowledging the ethnic conflict in post-war reconciliation, Ambika Satkunanathan

Reconciliation is not happening in Sri Lanka, and the problem isn't a question of time, Sivakami Rajamanoharan

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