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Sri Lanka at a turning point?

Print edition : Jan 22, 2000 T+T-

Traumatic recent events in the island unfold a new crisis which the political system might find it impossible to tackle given the dangerously widening ethnic rift.

PRAFUL BIDWAI

COLOMBO: SRI LANKA, which five years ago seemed all set to move towards far-reaching systemic reform and historic ethnic reconciliation, today teeters on the brink of a grim crisis. In an almost incredible turn of events, the forces of reform and progres sive change appear exhausted; there is a sharp rise in ethnic tensions; growing insecurity grips the Tamil minority in the South; top functionaries of the state and the media indulge in paranoid statements accusing their opponents of plotting their killi ngs; Ministers resort to inflaming crass majoritarian passions; and the air is thick with foreboding, sullenness and despair.

"To put it starkly, another 1983 stares us in the face today," says Kethesh Loganathan, a social scientist, who works on conflict and peace analysis at the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, referring to the fateful anti-minority pogrom that prec ipitated the ethnic war that has convulsed Sri Lanka to this day, and to which there is no end in sight. Loganathan's view echoes growing fears not just among Sri Lanka's minorities, but a sentiment widespread among anti-majoritarian liberal elements in the Sinhalese population too. The nagging feeling is growing within the Sri Lankan liberal intelligentsia that yet another ethnic confrontation may break out, aided and encouraged, if not triggered off, by the state, which could play right into the hands of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the super-militaristic guerilla group which opposes all efforts at reconciliation and peace in its struggle for a despotically ruled single-party Tamil Eelam.

Several developments and trends have conspired to create the present, dangerous, conjuncture. Among the short-term developments are: the campaign building up to the December 21 presidential election (which saw sharp political polarisation); the very-near ly-successful suicide-bomber's assassination attempt on President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga on December 18 and the simultaneous, successful, attack on United National Party leader, and former General Lucky Algama; a considerable hardening of her political stance along with some loss of her credibility within the progressive intelligentsia over the conduct of the elections; the January 5 bomb blast near the Prime Minister's Office on Flower Road in the heart of Colombo and the killing that very day of LTTE sympathiser and Tamil politician Kumar Ponnambalam. As important as the events themselves have been the responses to them from the general public, the government, different political parties and ethnic formations, and the media.

Thus, the unprecedentedly bitter and confrontationist election campaign, with both Kumaratunga and United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremasinghe trading accusations - the former charging the latter with having "sold out" to and colluded with th e Tamil "separatists" - elevated the majoritarian pitch of Sri Lanka's electoral politics. The LTTE's call to single out and defeat Kumaratunga, virtually naming her as the main enemy of the Tamil people, seemed to harden the ruling People's Alliance (P .A.) position on the ethnic issue and facilitate the transition to the present "mainstream" rhetoric in the media with their barely concealed anti-minority prejudice.

By the end of December, the P.A.'s stand had been radically transformed: from making a clear (and necessary) distinction between the LTTE and the Tamil people for years, even Kumaratunga (December 22) had begun to remind the latter of their "responsibili ty" to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table: "those who aid and abet terror" were now under scrutiny and stood "warned". They would be answerable if they "by act or omission support terror" or "secretly or openly endorse the path of violence". This re flected not just personal bitterness at the assassination attempt - itself horrific for its purposiveness and significant for the chinks in the security armour it exposed - but the P.A.'s greatly altered political priorities and orientations.

Chandrika Kumaratunga could not have been pleased with her greatly reduced vote margin (down from 62 per cent in 1994 to 51 per cent), and representing a slender lead of just seven lakhs over Wickremasinghe. Nor could her Sri Lanka Freedom Party cadres h ave relished the prospect of a major vote erosion. There were charges of stuffing of ballot boxes and "booth capturing" from a significant number of constituencies, reported by the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence and other voluntary bodies, despi te the international election observers' general conclusion that the polls were "by and large fair and free", or at least fair "by South Asian standards".

The perceived flaws in the election process further eroded the elan and the general appeal of the P.A. government. The fact that Kumaratunga, who until a couple of years ago campaigned for abolishing the presidential system, was elected under that very s ystem, with no route of transition to a Westminster system visible, did little to boost the P.A.'s credibility. The December 18 bomb attempt and the chaos that reigned for several long minutes after the explosion rudely underscored the lack of wisdom in using purely physical or military methods of putting down or containing discontent. Had a second bomber or even a sniper been present on the spot, she or he would almost certainly have succeeded in killing the President.

Relief at the failure of the assassination attempt had barely set in before it was disclosed that the President had probably lost an eye. Her interview on the BBC Asia File programme further aggravated matters: a new combativeness, perhaps driven by ange r at the UNP leadership, seemed to have taken over, as also an assertiveness about her historic, if not divinely ordained, mission to bring peace to the island. The tone of this interview only served to create fresh fears and forebodings among the minori ties, as well as the P.A.'s opponents.

This was not the Chandrika Kumaratunga of 1995 or 1996, even of 1998, trying to build bridges, create a consensus in favour of devolution and systemic reform, or appealing to the UNP to lend support to her devolution proposals in Parliament. This was ano ther persona altogether, anti-consensual, less tolerant, preoccupied with security issues, unwilling or unable to break out of the mould of thinking within the centralised unitarist state - a persona that appears harsh and unfriendly to ethnic minorities , hostile to political opponents, and capable of using methods long familiar from the UNP period to many political observers. Since then, the official media have made high-pitched allegations about collusion between Tamil businesspersons and army officer s in conspiracies to kill Kumaratunga. This is a serious matter.

The two assassination attempts of January 5, one of them successful, become significant here. The first, the bombing on Flower Road, leading to 13 deaths, was widely attributed to the LTTE. The official response was to tighten security further, re-draw p rotocols and drills, and impose a 14-hour curfew in Colombo and its suburbs on January 7, leading to the arrest of over 1,200 people, mostly Tamil. The second, Ponnambalam's killing, produced widespread fear among the minorities. The killer has neither b een identified nor apprehended. But it is widely presumed and feared that either a clandestine security agency of the state, or an anti-LTTE Tamil group, or a combination of the two, was involved in the killing. (One possibility is the involvement of a n ew and virtually unknown group claiming to be the National Front against the Tigers.) Only a full investigation can establish the whole truth, but a few things can still be said with confidence today.

Ponnambalam was a totally committed and unabashed supporter of the LTTE, who not only defended its cadres as a successful lawyer, but advocated its deplorable brand of Pol Potist politics. He was less known for an abiding commitment to the Civil Rights a nd Free Media Movement (although he helped them at the early stage) than for his high-profile family connections (especially through his illustrious father and former Minister, G.G. Ponnambalam), his collection of Mercedes-Benz cars, and his LTTE sympath ies. These sympathies extended to his thoroughly despicable defence of Neelan Tiruchelvam's assassination last year. But it must be conceded, says political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda, of Colombo University and the Social Scientists' Association, that P onnambalam was one of the few Tamils in Sri Lanka who "could talk and did talk boldly to the Sinhalese people directly, not just to their two traditional dialogical communities, the Tamil masses and the Sinhalese ruling class."

Ponnambalam's elimination has sent shivers down the spines of the ethnic minorities not so much because he was popular or highly regarded as an intellectual (as Tiruchelvam was), but because his killing seems to pose the question whether this signalled a return to an authoritarian era where political opponents were physically eliminated.

The short-term causes and phenomena that fuel these fears are themselves embedded in a long-term process of causation, the structural crisis of the Sri Lankan state, and what Uyangoda calls its "unreformability" once it reached a "point of no return". Th us Sri Lanka's politics, he says, has "acquired a distinctly reform-resistant character. Reform resistance is distinctly present in two spheres, political and social." The major actors in politics have either never had or lost the will to democratise the state through power-sharing between ethnic groups and its radical restructuring in relation to society. After 16 long years of the ethnic war, even the long-overdue attempt at constitutional reform has all but petered out, paving the way for the triumph of a unitarist-majoritarian model in the South and the Centre, coupled with an unremitting Tamil separatist movement. There are no major forces in Sri Lanka today that are not statist-conservative, or that are not themselves dominated and controlled by the larger phenomena of militarisation of daily life, extreme regimentation, and paranoid minority nationalism, as in the North and the East.

The war has proved socially destabilising, militarily crippling and economically ruinous. The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), estimates that the real cost of prosecuting the war, in which official forces have r ecently suffered huge setbacks, is not, as claimed, 6 per cent of GDP, but something of the order of 21 per cent in direct and indirect military expenses, and in lost opportunities and missed output. (This is a 1996 estimate; the expense is likely to be even higher today.) And yet there are no signs that the war is about to end, or even enter a period of "stable stalemate". The state's attempt to "contain" and confine the ethnic conflict to the North has demonstrably failed. The LTTE can repeatedly wrea k havoc in the heart of Colombo. And yet, the LTTE is in no position to win Eelam by military means.

There is a real danger that the forces of moderation and conciliation will soon become marginalised, fears Kumari Jayawardena, one of Sri Lanka's tallest public intellectuals. This will produce even greater despair and paralysis. The likelihood will then grow of a serial breakout of ethnic conflict, or state attacks on the minorities, in pursuit of "national security" and "defence". That could give the LTTE precisely the handle it has been looking for - something that helps it win a degree of internatio nal sympathy, despite its own devotion to ultra-violent and inhuman methods. Messy mediation by third parties in these circumstances - without any real meeting of minds of the contesting parties - can further complicate matters. In such a situation, the Sri Lankan cauldron could boil over. India has a historic responsibility - not to over-react, interfere, mediate or mess around, as it did 15 years ago. But we must know that this could be the next turning point for Sri Lanka after 1983.