Is Sri Lanka’s moderate Tamil leadership to blame for the absence of a political settlement to the island’s festering ethnic conflict? There is definitely enough blame to go around in Sri Lanka, but Dayan Jayatilleka takes the case too far in his article in The Hindu, “From devolution to the deep blue sea” (Op-Ed, June 18, 2013). He argues that the Tamil Nationalist Alliance (TNA) has overplayed its hand, fails to understand the weakness of its position and asks for deals that are no longer on the table. They should instead, he asserts, embrace and vigorously defend the Indian-imposed 1987 settlement — contained in the 13th amendment to the 1978 constitution — which most Sinhala hawks would willingly either do away with or prune down to the point of irrelevance.

All this may well have substance, but the absence of a political solution in Sri Lanka is not the result of a convention speech by the TNA leader, or because of their tactical incompetence. It is almost entirely because the Rajapaksa government has been doggedly hostile to the idea of a political settlement and has systematically undermined or sabotaged every initiative in this direction since it came to power in November 2005. From the All Parties Representative Committee (APRC) of 2006 to the implementation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) of 2011, the government has wantonly undone whatever it has grudgingly done.

Underlying this is a deep conviction on the part of Sri Lanka’s ruling fraternity that there is not and was never an ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, only a terrorist problem that has since been defeated. There is not only a deep distrust of the TNA for their close relationship with the LTTE, but distrust of the need for an ethnic political settlement at all. What’s more, in the domestic sphere, the Rajapaksas control pretty much everything and have the ability to get things done and undone at will. They have sweeping powers of the executive presidency, a legislative supermajority large enough to enact controversial constitutional amendments, and a cowed and pliant judiciary. They control a vast security apparatus, have quashed or co-opted all meaningful political opposition, have little to fear from the media, and enjoy widespread support from the majority community. In contrast, the TNA, which is itself a loose amalgam of organisations riven by internal factional disputes — and that has lost many of its most eminent leaders to assassins from both sides during the war — controls virtually nothing except a handful of parliamentary seats from the north and east. Neither generosity nor guile on their part would have moved the government an inch closer to institutional reform, or even to upholding its existing institutions and allowing them to function accountably and responsibly.

International face-off

What has been marginally more effective in directing the Sri Lankan government towards pursuing its own enlightened self-interest is the gathering storm of international displeasure. The threat of an embarrassing showdown at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Colombo this November is undoubtedly what has advanced the idea of elections to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). The elections will likely be held in September, so that an elected government in Jaffna will be on show in time to show the world at the summit.

The TNA may well participate and win these elections, and come to wield what may be reduced to municipal-level powers. But the deal-making to get them there has been largely externalised, as has opposition to the Rajapaksas more generally. An array of international players — including the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Tamil diaspora — and new agenda items such as human rights, war crimes, and humanitarian aid have stepped in to contest and challenge the government in the shaping the future of the political settlement in Sri Lanka.

The most influential actors in this emerging agenda are regional and international powers such as India, China and the United States, who have a range of competing interests and rivalries at stake that moderate and shape their interventions. India’s paternalistic advocacy for the rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils is, for example, tempered by geopolitical concerns about the rising influence of China, as well as by commercial and domestic security considerations. Moreover, those in India who are outraged at what happened in Sri Lanka should bear in mind that Sri Lanka’s counterinsurgency and conflict resolution strategy is, upon closer scrutiny, not that different to India’s own approach.

In this new international face-off, there is an implicit understanding that pressure on human rights, accountability, and justice for the thousands of civilians who died at the end of the war is not an end in itself, but a means towards pressuring the government to deliver a political settlement. This is a bargain that the Rajapakses, the TNA, and other domestic and international players are well aware of, and play along with. To put it bluntly, many who wield the stick of war crimes accountability against Sri Lanka are in reality uninterested in taking it to its conclusion, but use it as a maximalist pressure tactic to get the Rajapaksas to play ball.

A chasm

In the midst of all this, the TNA, who, by right of their 2010 electoral mandate, have some legitimate standing to represent the Tamils, are instead powerless bystanders waiting by to pick up the crumbs from the larger negotiations. The only thing they have left is their support base in the north-eastern Tamils. If they are hesitant to embrace the 13th amendment, then it is not because they are unrepentant extremists who speak in forked tongues, but because they are responding to their base. Sri Lanka’s Tamil parliamentarians have long struggled to balance the yawning chasm between the Jaffna’s aspirations and Colombo’s realities — and this has in the past led to abuse and violence directed at them by both sides.

Dayan Jayatilleka rightly points out that the Tamil negotiating strength is different in the post-Prabakaran period. But it is also important to bear in mind that today’s Tamil negotiators do not enjoy the kind of hegemonic authority that the LTTE had to impose a deal on their people. Just as the 2000 constitutional draft, and the Ranil Wickremasinghe government of 2001-2004 collapsed under the weight of Sinhalese opposition to concessions, the TNA or any other Tamil party will similarly lack legitimacy if they give up too much too soon, or if they are too eager to agree to whatever Colombo or New Delhi offers.

(Rajesh Venugopal is a London-based Indian academic.)

Dayan Jayatilleka responds

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