Irreconcilable Reconciliation?

Beyond Sri Lankan Civil War

Jayadeva Uyangoda

[Following is a shortened version of a speech delivered by Jayadeva Uyangoda at the meeting held on 29th November 2014 to mark 25th Death Anniversary of K A Subramaniam, founder General Secretary of the New-Democratic Marxist-Leninist Party, then Communist Party of Sri Lanka (Left)]

Writing in the context of Canada's political and constitutional crisis, generated by the rise of secessionist nationalism in the French-speaking Quebec, Charles Taylor commented:

The "two solitudes" of Hugh Mac-Lennan are still a fundamental reality in Canada; the ways that the two groups envisage their predicament, their problems, and their common country are so different that it is hard to find a common language. They are like two photographs of the same object taken from such different points of view that they cannot be superimposed (Taylor, 1993:24).

Charles Taylor is perhaps the leading academic political thinker and philosopher in Canada today. His essay, 'A Canadian Future', from which the above quote is taken, first appeared in 1970 in a volume entitled The Pattern of Politics. Taylor's reference to Hugh MacLennan is the latter's novel The Two Solitudes, published in 1945. The novel chronicles the impossibility of communication and solidarity between an English-speaking Canadian and a French-speaking Canadian during the early decades of the last century. The novel is about the solitudes which deep attachment to ethnic identity nourishes.

Sri Lanka after the ending of its long drawn out civil war in May 2009 is no different from the Canada which Charles Taylor described in 1970. Even five years after the war ended, the two solitudes of the Sinhalese and Tamil appear to be a fundamental reality in the post-war Sri Lanka as well. The ways in which the leaders of the UPFA and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Tamil nationalist party, "envisage their predicament, their problems ...are so different that it is hard to find a common language" for them to have a meaningful and sensible political communication. Although they have been talking to each other, thay have not been having a dialogue. They have been talking through public pronouncements that are designed to re-assert and re-iterate political positions that have once again become non-negotiable. Exactly like what happened in the past during peace negotiations, the two sides have been rediscovering, and re-inventing mutual differences, suspicions, apprehensions and even hostilities. Retreat to solitudes is the preferred path of politics. Reconciling is not.

Why has reconciliation become so difficult in post-war Sri Lanka?

Ethnicity and democracy are the two most important political imaginations which modernity has brought to the Sri Lankan society. Ethnicity provides each cultural community—Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and a few others—a framework of thinking about itself as a political community, and as a political collectivity. Democracy has enabled each citizen to relate himself/herself to the state as a rights-bearing individual, and with entitlement to be treated by the state with dignity and equality. These are no mean achievements of modernity. The two are sources of the political self of all Sri Lankan citizens. Through ethnicity, citizens understand themselves first as belonging to cultural-political communities—Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher etc. The larger nation-state identity—the Sri Lankanness—comes second and that persists despite the promise of democracy to facilitate a trans-ethnic political identity of citizens with equality. Ethnic imagination of group identity has over-powered the democratic imagination of nation-state identity for a range of good reasons. The individual and negative rights discourse of democracy has not provided a language of expression to articulate either group predicaments or visions of emancipation for collectivities. That has been the context in which Sinhalese, Tamil and later Muslim ethno-nationalist ideologies and mobilizations developed as the most powerful political dynamics in modern Sri Lanka. This becomes all the more alarming when one realizes that it is ethno-nationalist ideologies, not democratic ideals, that propelled forward the three-decades of protracted civil war. Ethnicity's triumph has been the failure of democracy. The challenge in the post-civil war Sri Lanka is to reverse this process, to bring democracy back in as a political force with a capacity to blunt the sectional, parochial and exclusivist promise of ethnicity and ethno-nationalisms.

However, dealing with ethnicity requires caution and care, because, like religion, ethnicity responds to phenomenology of suffering,, fears and redemption. Secularism cannot deal with religion, because it denies the phenomeno-logical justification for the very existence of religion. In a world of individual despair and disappointment, religion provides an imagination of solace and fulfilment, which a secularist might find it no more than mere illusion. Yet, religion defies the rationalism of the secularist, because it provides to the human soul what secularism even fails to recognize as existing—a specific way to understand and deal with this-worldly deprivations. The relationship between ethnicity and democracy is somewhat similar. A good liberal democrat may find it difficult to justify why parochial ethnic imagination has become so attractive, when there is a better promise of universalist political emancipation in the form of individual freedom, rule of law and equality. In political theory, these two perspectives have also been framed in the debates of communitarianism vs individualism, and cultural relativism vs universalism. Without falling into the trap of seeing the political world through antagonistic binaries, one can still see why some form of dialogue between ethnicity and democracy is both necessary and possible.

Before exploring the possibility of such a dialogue, it is necessary to be aware of the limitations of the kind of exchange of ideas that ethnicity, or ethno-nationalisms, often promotes. If one takes Sri Lanka's own experience of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalisms, one can see that these two dominant forms of group political imagination have not really facilitated a constructive political dialogue as such between themselves and across the communities they represent. This problem of impossibility of dialogue has been dramatically demonstrated during peace negotiations between representatives of the Sri Lankan government—both UNP and SLFP-led governments and the Tamil community, the Federal Party, the LTTE and now the TNA. Negotiations from the mid -1950's to 2012 meant to find a political common ground for the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, for the majority and minority communities, to live in the nation-state of Sri Lanka as equals, and all such negotiations led to the discovery of not a common ground, but differences, irreconcilables and hostilities.

By looking at the political history of Sri Lanka since independence, one can find many reasons to explain this failure. Scholarly literature on the escalation of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict is replete with useful explanations. One theme that stands out in the literature is the inherent incapacity of the two dominant ethno-nationalisms in Sri Lanka to understand each other, even though they speak the same language. This is one of the key paradoxes of modern ethno-nationalism. As political phenomena, ethno-nationalisms within nation states have many structural and existential similarities. They give expression to fears, anxieties, hopes and aspirations of each community. They invoke the past to explain the present and map out the futures in more or less similar ways. The way in which they invent heroes and villains, invent and invoke historical memories, and appeal to certainties of historical change are amazingly similar. However, no two ethno-nationalisms within a nation-state can have a productive dialogue through the language of nationalism. The reason lies in the peculiarity of nationalism itself. For two nationalisms to enter into a constructive dialogue, they need to find a language outside nationalism. This is where democracy, the other legacy of modernity, comes to assistance, and to the assistance of ethno-nationalisms to find a framework of solidarity and co-existence.

After the war ended, the centrality of nation-building and political integration has returned to the country's political agenda in a new context, but with the same old challenges, perhaps with greater intensity. Two questions are at the heart of the debate, although they are not explicitly articulated by Sri Lanka's political elites or in the media. They are: (a) what kind of a nation do they want to build in Sri Lanka after three decades of civil war, and (b) what kind of a state they want to build in Sri Lanka?

Quite understandably, there are many perspectives from which answers to these questions are framed. In the political debate, there are two major perspectives in conflict, one shared by the UPFA government and the other articulated by the TNA. They are different in their key assumptions, and analysis and conclusions.

The government appears to think that economic development in the North and East is the key to post-war national integration and nation-building in Sri Lanka. This position is based on the assumption that the ethnic conflict was more a terrorist problem and a security challenge to the sovereignty of the state than a political problem arising out of political grievances and therefore calling for political-structural reform. Therefore, as the UPFA government's thinking appears to suggest, what is necessary is to strengthen the national security and defence capabilities to crush any future insurgency threats while integrating the north and east with the rest of the country through rapid infra-structure and economic development. This combining of national security, strong state and economic integration makes the government's vision for post-war political and economic change paralleled with the developmental state experiment in some South-East Asian countries a few years ago, particularly in Malaysia.

The TNA, on the other hand, gives primacy to the political root causes of the ethnic conflict. In its approach, the military defeat of the LTTE has not obliterated the Tamil community's political aspirations for power-sharing in an advanced form of devolution. In this analysis, ethnic conflict is a political problem that calls for a political solution. And a political solution presupposes reforming the state.

Now, these two approaches have certain differences and similarities. Differences emanate from ethno-political standpoints on which each approach based. The government's approach has a clearly Sinhalese nationalist and ethnic majoritarian framing of Sri Lanka's conflict and solutions it demands. It views the outcome of the war as restoration of state sovereignty, which was earlier threatened by a minority secessionist rebellion. It sees devolution as a potential threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state. Devolving power to a political entity that has had links with the LTTE, the TNA in the present case, is viewed by the government leaders as unacceptable, unwise and even dangerous. Why take steps that will negate the political gains of the military victory? This rhetorical question in a way summarizes the dilemma of what one may call the 'victor's peace.' This dilemma is further heightened by the fact that the war victory has enabled the UPFA government to claim the veto power over the terms and conditions of any political settlement with the Tamils. Thus, the post-war triumphalism that the government has been invoking is not only a state of mind; it is also an expression of a specific political logic, a new political equilibrium, germinated by the way in which the civil war ended in Sri Lanka.

Then, there is the peace of the 'vanquished' which the TNA continues to articulate with little positive response from the government. The 'peace of the vanquished' demands devolution, equality and dignity to Tamils. In this perspective, political rights and the right to share state power takes primacy over the material benefits of rapid economic development. It views devolution as the essential pre-condition for post-war state-building and national integration. However, the TNA does not have a bargaining strength to realize any of its political demands. Its strength emanates from its weakness, being the political representative of a vanquished minority. Yet, this is only a moral strength that does not have a material value in the way in which politics is taking shape in post-civil war Sri Lanka.

The similarity shared by these two contending approaches is more ironic than real. It stems from the ethnic foundations of the epistle of each. Both are ethno-nationalist projects, one majorita-rian and the other minoritarian. The political language through which each expresses itself is not positively responded to by the other, for the simple reason that the two do not share the meanings of key words of each language. For example, devolution for the TNA is a minimum pre-condition for political unification whereas for the UPFA government, it is the stepping-stone to disintegration of the state. Self-determination for the TNA is the concept that frames the Tamil claims to political rights. For the UPFA government, self-determination is a demand for secession. For the TNA, political rights should take precedence over economic and infrastructure development. For the government, economic development is the best gift that the state can give to the Tamil people.

Inability of dialogue—this is one phrase which can describe the condition of stalemate into which talks between the UPFA government and the TNA have fallen. The political, ideological and cultural contexts that led to the deadlock in government-TNA talks are worth examining in order to understand why the inability of dialogue seems to persist between the two sides, to the great surprise of Sri Lanka watchers from outside. On this matter too, there can be many explanations. However, one troubling dimension of the way in which political debate in Sri Lanka has unfolded since May 2009 is the polarization of mindsets, or rather worldviews, in terms of victor and the vanquished.

The continuing debate between the Western governments and the UPFA government on reconciliation demonstrates in a dramatic fashion how this incommensurability of worldviews has constituted a major obstacle to Sri Lanka's post-war political recovery. The Western governments and the UN insist that Sri Lanka's post-war reconciliation should be based on two elements, (a) a political solution to the ethnic conflict, and (b) investigations into allegations of possible war crimes and related excesses during the last stages of the war. From the point of view of the advocates of this particular approach to reconciliation, both are necessary for post-war 'healing.' The UPFA government had been initially uncomfortable with this approach, and became hostile to it when the issue became a part of Western efforts to shape Sri Lanka's post-war political trajectories.

The Western concept of post-conflict reconciliation has both liberal and Christian-humanist moral roots, as particularly seen in the South African experience of its ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’. In both South Africa and Guatemala, the process of reconciliation was made possible by the fact that conflict ended in both instances through a mediated and negotiated peace agreement. These were instances where there were no victors or losers in a moral sense of the term. The end of the conflict and violence through a peace agreement was seen there as a moral triumph for the entire nation. Sri Lanka's situation, as seen by the UPFA government, is totally different. Reconciliation was thus seen there as celebration of the return of humanistic values after years of hatred, violence and war. Here, post-war reconciliation suggests a different moral economy as well. It is about forgetting the past and moving forward, not returning to the past, either for collective therapy or retribution.

The issue of reconciliation in Sri Lanka has then moved away from its normative and value framework. It is caught up in the unending antagonisms between the government and the TNA on the one hand and the government and the global powers on the other. As a moral practice, reconciliation is a voluntary exercise. If it is practiced reluctantly, or in response to the pressure from powerful outsiders, it cannot be reconciliation and it requires some other word to convey what it is. This is Sri Lanka's dilemma of post-war ethnic reconciliation.

Vol. 47, No. 31, Feb 8 -14, 2015