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A Tiger under every stone?

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The recent escalation of violence that has put the Ceasefire Agreement under severe pressure, seems in many ways to reflect the mutually reinforcing relationship between Sinhalese and Tamil nationalisms and their respective protagonists. In such circumstances an argument is put forward more vociferously that the ‘extremism’ and ‘provocation’ of the LTTE’ feeds and justifies and the ‘hardline’ political rhetoric of Sinhala politicians and the violence of the state’s armed forces. This perspective has in many ways informed the myriad of actors who have contributed to the recent peace process, either as direct participants or as advisors offering comment and analysis to the major players.

Advocates of this perspective have argued that the only way to wean the Sinhalese population away from the uncompromising positions of nationalist actors is to transform the LTTE. Transformation of the LTTE has thus been the mantra that has guided many international analysts and policy maker for the last three or four years.

The argument goes thus: if the LTTE’s military capacity is radically curtailed and its political autonomy contained within the boundaries of commitment to a ‘united’ or ‘unitary’ Sri Lanka, the Sinhala hardliners will no longer be able to mount such vehement opposition to any mention of devolution or federalism. Once the LTTE has been de – fanged, more moderate Sinhala politicians will be able to confidently advocate a political solution that grants significant autonomy to the Tamils.

It is also argued that while the LTTE remains a significant military and political ‘threat’, ‘spoilers’ in the south will always outbid moderate Sinhala politicians attempts to find a negotiated settlement by whipping up the Sinhala polity’s anxieties about a separate Tamil state. In the idiom of its exponents, the claim that transformation of the LTTE will undermine Sinhala ‘spoilers’ of the peace process and thereby allow for the ‘reform of the state by liberal actors is now almost axiomatic.

Given the current perilous standoff between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, it might be time to examine the basic premises of this argument. According to the ‘transform the LTTE first’ mantra, the political plausibility of Sinhala nationalist positions is directly related to the actions and perceived intentions of the LTTE.

However, a close examination of the dynamics of politics within the Sinhala polity would suggest that southern opposition to any form of political devolution for the Tamils is sustained through sources that are completely independent of the LTTE per se.

The ideal of a unitary Sinhala Buddhist state in which the minorities have a politically recognised but subordinate position, resonates with the interests of a multitude of groups within the Sinhala polity. A compromise with the Tamils is rejected, not because of anxieties or loathing of the LTTE (alone), but because such a compromise would necessarily destroy this utopian vision, the most basic political assumption and aspiration of Sinhala Buddhist common sense.

The vision of a unitary Sinhala Buddhist state in which there is both a massive centralisation of resources and seamless continuity between the language, rituals and beliefs of the Sinhala Buddhist world and the institutions of the state, clearly has its appeal both for political elites and for non elite sections of the polity. For aspirant social groups, a centralised Sinhala Buddhist state not only provides opportunities through public sector employment through which they can achieve upward mobility, it also protects and fosters the integrity of their Sinhala Buddhist world.

It is for this reason that all political concessions to the Tamils, however mild, are immediately interpreted as both a material and moral threat. Any minor political recognition of a Tamil claim to the island or the state can be seen as undermining both the Sinhala Buddhist state and the Sinhala Buddhist religious, cultural and linguistic world that it protects. So for example, attempts during the 1950’s and 1960’s to replace the Sinhala Only’ legislation with official recognition for Tamil were decried as attempts to ‘destroy the Sinhala race’ or ‘make the Sinhalese learn Tamil.’

The continuation of this phenomenon can be seen in the fierce opposition that was mounted against both the PTOMS and the LTTE’s proposals for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA). The ‘transform the LTTE’ school of thought often argues that both these proposals conceded far too much to the LTTE and thereby played straight into the hands of the Sinhala ‘spoilers.’

However, it must be remembered that opposition to both proposals mounted well before the actual details of the proposal were released. The substance of the proposals was therefore irrelevant, what was problematic for the Sinhala Buddhists was the recognition of a Tamil political identity that these proposals entailed. Both the PTOMS and the ISGA contained the assumption that the Tamils have legitimate political interests that have to be recognised and accommodated through institutions outside the control of the Sinhala Buddhist polity. It is this possibility that is deeply problematic for the Sinhala Buddhist psyche. This is not a recent phenomena, either; well before the emergence of the LTTE, attempts by Tamil political leaders to negotiate a compromise with their Sinhala counterparts were destroyed by opposition using the imagery of a Sinhala Buddhist state and world under threat.

While the Sinhala Buddhist state fosters and protects the social aspirations of non – elite Sinhalese, it is also a useful resource for political elites. The excessively centralised state gives political actors vast resources with which to build patron – client networks and consolidate their power. Neither the UNP nor the SLFP, the two main Sinhala parties, have robust party structures and both rely on access to the state’s resources to build and maintain a support base. Political competition therefore revolves on the distribution of the state’s resources. The parties in power can distribute resources through subsidies and patronage while the parties in opposition promise greater resource while mobilising the discontent of sections who have been excluded from government largesse.

Crucially, the political parties have no incentive to aggressively promote a political settlement and even if they had an incentive, they do not have the party organisation through which to spread such a message. Political competition is played out in a public sphere dominated by Sinhala Buddhist common sense.

Alongside their deep antipathy to any form of political recognition for the Tamils, Sinhala Buddhist nationalists are also deeply intolerant to every form of autonomous Tamil political activity. In Sri Lanka this leads this results in all expressions of an autonomous Tamil political identity being dismissed as results of LTTE manipulation and coercion. The same principle is increasingly being extended to the international arena and Tamil Diaspora political activity is carefully watched for ‘pro-LTTE’ tendencies by the Sinhala nationalist press. The baleful distrust and anxiety created by Tamil participation in local government (council) elections in far away England recently led The Island newspaper to print a front page story. IAccording to the paper, ‘pro LTTE’ individuals standing for local council elections are promising a mini Eelam in London with sports facilities, funding for Saturday schools and centres for the elderly, exclusively for Tamils. The argument of the story is clear – all Tamil political activity, however mild and unconnected to the ethnic question, is inherently separatist and dangerous. The fact that local councils in Britain have long provided such community facilities for their Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Chinese, Turkish and Pakistani citizens is somehow missed. ‘Even’ in Britain, today the Tamils are asking for a Saturday school, tomorrow they will want a separate state, the logic goes.

The poisonous racism that pervades mass circulation Island’s reporting of British Tamils is pervasive in wider Sinhala society and is reproduced within a variety of sources, over which the LTTE can have no possible influence. The political vision of a united Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lanka is reinforced and repeated through the media, the education system, public institutions, the rhetoric of politicians and recently the interventions of international actors.

Meanwhile, the biased and one sided international response to events in Sri Lanka simply reinforces the Sinhala Buddhist conviction that all Tamil political demands are indeed a moral threat to the Sri Lankan state and the Sinhala Buddhist world it protects. Each condemnation of the LTTE and its ‘reprehensible terrorist’ nature, every failure of the international community to stand by agreements such as the PTOMS, every instance where incidents of high profile violence against Tamils are followed by indifferent international silence, the Sinhala Buddhist position is once again assured of its (international) legitimacy.

Given that the sources of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist are demonstrably independent of the LTTE, transforming and containing the LTTE is unlikely to produce an attitude of compromise within the Sinhala polity. Indeed, once the Tiger has been de – fanged, there will be even less reason for Sinhala political leaders to concede even a modicum of political devolution. Attempts to transform the Sri Lankan state, which would give the Tamils some form of political recognition, would, as always, instantly arouse opposition as a cloak for dangerous Tamil separatist aspirations.

In order to transform the Sri Lankan state both pro peace advocates and the Sinhala polity have to replace their unhealthy fixation with the LTTE with a serious consideration of the sites and mechanisms through with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is reproduced. International actors have to consider why they cannot confront Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of the Sri Lankan state with the same open contempt with which they dismiss Tamil aspirations.

As is increasingly argued on the Tamil street, in the absence of any change in either the Sinhala Buddhist or international mindset, the Tamils, whose struggle has never enjoyed or needed external legitimisation, may be better off concentrating on changing facts on the ground.

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