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Mainstream Extremism

The stark polarisation amongst Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities is undoubtedly set to deepen further. The Sinhala right wing coalition that emerged this week behind Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse’s Presidential candidacy is not just a marriage of political convenience but an assertive statement of their shared vision of a future Sri Lanka – one in which the Sinhala-Buddhism is the prevailing order and the minorities know their place. Mr. Rajapakse is going to sign an agreement with the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP), the third force in the Sinhala politics and another with the small, but important monks’ party, the Jeyatha Hela Urumaya. The text of the JVP deal makes grim reading for those concerned with promoting a peaceful solution to Sri Lanka’s protracted ethnic conflict. It is a comprehensive attack on the very foundations of the Norwegian peace process. Every concept around which dialogue has been proposed – joint aid mechanism, interim administration, etc – has been rejected. The ceasefire is criticised. Even Oslo’s invaluable role in stopping the bloodshed is denounced.



The most important aspect of these attitudes, as far as the Tamils are concerned, is that they are mainstream values in the south. The JVP has been described as ultra-nationalist, chauvinist and hardline. These characterisations are all true. But what does it say about Sri Lanka’s polity that one of the two main candidates for the most powerful office in the country is basing his election platform almost wholly on these principles? The twelve points spelled out in the JVP text are described as ‘conditions’ which Mr. Rajapakse must accept for the party’s support. But the Tamil perspective on this is quite different. It is a joint statement of shared values, rather than imposed conditions. Mr. Rajapakse’s archrival, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, is perceived by many observers as the more liberal. But the Tamils have noted his ready resort to nationalist positions more than once. Even this week, in a feeble effort to vie for the nationalist vote, Mr. Wickremesinghe vowed to usher in a ‘Prarakaramabahu’ era if he wins. His invocation of the name of a Sinhala king credited in mythology with unifying the country - by the sword – is unlikely to endear him to the non-Sinhalese.



The past few years of comparatively stable - at least in the south - peace and international engagement have not invoked a spirit of compromise in the Sinhala polity. On the contrary, mindsets have not changed at all. The unkind and unwarranted criticism levelled at Norway is a case in point. The Tamils are grateful for Norway’s diplomatic intervention, not because of any latent bias, but because it was a sincere effort to end the war. But what is important to the Sinhala polity is not the lives saved or the peace that prevails because of Norway’s intervention, but a misperceived affront to an even more misguided notion of national sovereignty. ‘Impartiality’ in southern lexicon – unfortunately for Norway - means hostility to the Tamil struggle. We note, with some interest, that not once has Mr. Wickremesinghe risen to defend the Norwegians’ indefatigable efforts against the JVP’s bile.



What is clear to Sri Lanka’s minority communities is that in the coming years we will face an ever more uncompromising Sinhala nationalist bloc with a firm grasp on power. So will the international community. Those still optimistic about a liberal peace in a united Sri Lanka need to seriously reconsider the viability of their vision. Three decades of violence have not dulled Sinhala nationalist aspirations, nor have four years of peace and increasing enmeshment in the threads of globalisation. On the other hand, these - and a half-century of increasing Sinhala oppression - have concretised a Tamil national consciousness. It is these polarised sentiments that are playing out in the political developments today.