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Historical Constant

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Expectations Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse will soon announce the holding of new elections for his office, and that Parliamentary elections will be held soon after, have in recent weeks sparked the customary speculation and armchair strategizing about likely outcomes. In particular, the possibility that former Army commander Sarath Fonseka, who oversaw the slaughter of twenty thousand Tamil civilians earlier this year, will run against his former boss have spawned all kinds of calculations.


But here’s a simple, unavoidable fact: whoever wins these elections, there will be no change in the structural persecution of the Tamils. To claim otherwise is to deliberately set aside a number of central – and self-evident – aspects of contemporary Sri Lanka, including how power is distributed – in effect – across ethnic communities (and hence state-society relations) and the logics informing different communities’ ideas of what these should be.


In short, elections will, at most, merely rearrange the faces of power, nothing more. No international effort to tinker with Sri Lanka’s political dynamics by encouraging the victory of one person instead of another, one coalition instead of another, will produce an outcome other than a new constellation of Sinhala nationalism. Perhaps it can be concealed better by some actors, but ultimately when policy needs to be enacted the mask will slip.


This is no hyperbole on our part, but a truism underpinned by the Tamils’ experience of sixty years of expanding, and now hegemonic, Sinhala rule. To begin with, both main parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), are essentially Sinhala entities –the US State Department last year benignly categorised both as “encourage[ing] of Sinhalese culture”. What this means is that whilst in terms of the economy, the UNP is on the right and the SLFP is on the left, since independence, both have conducted politics in the manner that affords the Sinhala people a dominant role in the island’s politics, and the other communities – all of whom, notably, speak Tamil – a subservient role.


This is not a question of electoral demographics. In Britain, for example, the majority of people are white, indeed English, but that does not mean others have a subordinate role. More importantly, the Scots are explicitly recognized, along with others, as one of the constituent nations of the UK, with their homeland recognized within the country’s territory.


By direct contrast, the Sinhala-dominated (first Ceylonese, now) Sri Lankan state has striven to erase the Tamils’ identity and reduce them to a clutch of less-valuable citizens. As then Lt. Gen. Fonseka put it last year: “… this country belongs to the Sinhalese but there are minority communities and we treat them like our people. We being the majority of the country, 75%, we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country. We are also a strong nation ... They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.”


In this view, one widely shared amongst the Sinhala (as is now starkly apparent to all non-Sinhala, not just the Tamils) the majority are a ‘nation’, but the other communities are something else. It is this hierarchical logic that has informed the historical changes wrought on the distribution of power across ethnicities, the extension of state benevolence and the use of state terror. Political science professor Neil De Votta, for example, details this in his study of the island’s politics even before the protracted armed conflict began: he shows how, even by the mid seventies, Sri Lanka had “regressed to an illiberal, ethnocentric regime bent on Sinhala superordination and Tamil subjugation.”


It is worth noting how the ascendancy of Sinhala majoritarianism – by which we mean its embedding in the character of the state bureaucracy, the composition, practices and war strategies of the military, the channeling of international aid and state investment, etc – has taken place while the country has been in the close embrace of the international community. What is now striking is how, after several decades of ‘engagement’ by the liberal West there still isn’t a hairsbreadth of liberal space.


In other words, the privileging of the Sinhala over the Tamils, can be traced, by those who care to look, in the policies adopted by each government since independence – whether it be of the left and right, before or after the end of the Cold War, aligned to one external power or another. Those who seek to link, in any way, the outcome of the forthcoming elections to substantive changes in the plight of the Tamils are either disingenuous or living in a fools paradise. For in six decades of independence, the one constant in the island’s politics has been Sinhala majoritarianism nationalism.

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