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Agent Orange

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The political turmoil which engulfed Sri Lanka this week was utterly predictable, following, as it does, a depressingly familiar pattern that has characterised ethnic relations in Sri Lanka since independence. Today’s bone of contention is, of course, the proposed joint mechanism between the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lanka government for sharing tsunami-related aid. But the Post-Tsunami Operation Management Structure (P-TOMS) is merely a device around which a much deeper dispute, that of the status of the Tamil people in the Sinhala-dominated country, has once again emerged. We emphasis people, because the rhetoric of pluralism as commonly deployed in Sri Lanka marginalizes the notion of a Tamil collective identity - even as the Sinhala equivalent is crystallised in the unabashedly non-secular constitution. As such, when the four chapters of the powerful Buddhist clergy united last week to condemn the joint mechanism, they were taking a stand not only against the LTTE, but the formal recognition of the existence of political rights-bearing non-Sinhala communities on the island.

From a Tamil perspective, the events this week are strikingly similar to those of the mid-fifties (a full quarter century before the Tamils’ armed struggle erupted). Even then Buddhist monks took to the streets alongside Sinhala nationalists to harangue that government over its belated recognition of the Tamil language in the wake of its Sinhala Only policy. Another precedent was also set by those protests, that of Sinhala leaders abrogating pacts with Tamils when pressured by nationalists. It also marked the beginning of what some scholars have termed ‘ethnic outbidding’ – Sinhala political parties vying with each other to be more anti-Tamil. Over two decades of brutal conflict and the sweeping winds of ‘globalisation’ have done little to alter this mindset. A half-century after Sinhala Only, today’s Sinhala leadership is in turmoil over another deal with the Tamils. Why such anguish? The P-TOMS is not about Tamil independence. It is not about federalism. It is not even about an interim administration for the Northeast. In fact, it is not a political agreement at all. It is merely a procedural mechanism to distribute funds to rehabilitation projects. But it does formally recognise that there are Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese – not merely ‘Sri Lankans’ - on the island. And this is the cause of the indignation and hysteria.

But if peace and, in particular, ethnic reconciliation is to be possible in Sri Lanka, the breach made this week in Buddhist hegemony must be widened. The international community’s uncompromising insistence on the joint mechanism is thus to be welcomed, despite the political uproar that has ensued. Without this international resolve, there is no doubt President Kumaratunga – herself a Sinhala hardliner - would have buckled to the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) and the Maha Sangha. With the JVP’s exit from government, international pressure has also had another unexpected but welcome outcome: the two main Sinhala parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), are being compelled to curb their proclivity for anti-Tamil outbidding. Both are nervous about the rising tide of Sinhala nationalism stirred up by the monks and the Marxists, but there is little they can do. International support for the joint mechanism has thus slowed the deepening of Tamil scepticism about peace.

But the question is what happens next? Having safely crossed the rubicon of the JVP’s exit, Kumaratunga is still prevaricating over signing the P-TOMS. Instead, she intends to table the document in Parliament for discussion. As up to a million internally displaced brace for another monsoon and pledged aid awaits the agreement, it is unclear what purpose the Parliamentary debate is to serve. More importantly, there are wider concerns for the Tamils. As Kumaratunga herself pointed out to the monks in her efforts to appease them, the actual disbursement of aid comes under state’s purview. We know that Sri Lanka’s corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy is shot through with Sinhala chauvinism and riddled with clientelist networks. P-TOMS, moreover, has only one year of life. These factors, combined with the Sinhala leaders’ manifest reluctance to equitably distribute aid amongst the island’s communities raises serious doubts as to whether those needing aid will actually receive it. Nevertheless, from a Tamil perspective, with the splintering of Sinhala resistance to sharing aid, there is decidedly more cause for optimism this week.

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