Feature Article

‘Tamil question is not a minority issue' – Prof. Uyangoda

[TamilNet, Saturday, 09 August 2003, 19:09 GMT]
“The challenge for the future is to reform the Sri Lankan state without generating violence in Sinhala society. And that is a tremendous challenge for any ruling elite in Colombo,” said Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, the well regarded political commentator in the Sinhala and English media in Sri Lanka, in a wide ranging interview with TamilNet this week. He emphasised the need for developing means for greater dialogue and engagement between the Tamils and Singhalese to resolve the conflict.

Prof. Uyangoda was one of the Marxist rebels who led the armed insurrection to capture state power in 1971. He was incarcerated for many years after the rebellion was ruthlessly crushed by Sri Lankan armed forces. He is a senior academic in the University of Colombo.

Prof. Uyangoda said that the Liberation Tigers’ biggest problem in the future would be not in dealing with the Sri Lankan army or the Sri Lankan state, but the ‘global state’. “It is the real challenge before them now”, he said.

Prof. Uyangoda argues that the Sinhala ruling class is unable to resolve the conflict because it continues to view the Tamil question as a minority issue.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Question: The Liberation Tigers are seeking an interim administrative mechanism to rebuild the northeast; the Sri Lankan government continues to imply that this has to be done within the constitution. But Tamil constitutional experts point out that an interim mechanism established within the parameters of the constitution would be ineffective. Do you see an impasse developing here?

Uyangoda: The deadlock is inevitable. Phase I of the peace talks between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers came to an end last December with the Oslo Declaration when both parties said they would jointly explore a federalist constitution. Phase II has to be qualitatively advanced than phase I. There should have been a new agenda for the second phase. But this did not happen. Instead, something else happened. The first Phase of the talks, as you know, rested on the strategic equilibrium between the two sides. But towards the end of 2002 this was altered with the entry of powerful international players – US and Japan. Both took the GOSL’s side and this altered the strategic balance, the equilibrium. The US and Japan tried to impose their agenda on the LTTE. The Tigers reacted by working towards the suspension of the talks. So they kept away from Tokyo. What exists now is a necessary interregnum between Phase I and Phase II. I say it is necessary because it gives the GOSL, LTTE and the ‘international custodians of Sri Lanka peace’ the space to assess Phase I and prepare for Phase II. Therefore I do not think that the suspension of the peace talks is necessarily a bad thing. I see it as a process correction.

Question: But the Sri Lankan constitution presents what are almost insurmountable obstacles to working out even a reasonably acceptable settlement to the conflict. What do you say about this reality?

Uyangoda: There are a number of options. One is to open an internationally mediated second negotiating front between the Prime Minister and the President. It has to be a component of Phase II. Phase I was between the UNF (United National Front) and the LTTE. Phase II has to be broadened and deepened. The second negotiating front is necessary and this initiative should be designed not as a substitute for the UNF-LTTE talks but one that would complement it. Otherwise the LTTE would understand it as a negative development. The second option is to work out an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) between the Prime Minister and the leader of the LTTE concerning the interim administration. First option may lead to constitutional change. If this is not possible then the second option will require an interim administration (IA) based on the 13th amendment (to the Sri Lankan constitution under which provincial councils were established). To do this, it is necessary to have political trust and understanding at a new and higher level between Mr. Pirapaharan and Mr. Wickremesinghe. The MOU on the IA can be based on the experience gained from implementing the 13th amendment, to rectify the shortcomings in it – relating to provincial and central powers, finance etc., The IA in the PA’s 1997 proposals can be implemented with such an MOU.

Question: The 13th amendment is very much part of the Sri Lankan constitution. No meaningful autonomy or even a minimum level of devolved administrative efficacy is possible under the inflexibly unitary nature of this constitution. In fact the only party that ever tried to run the northeast provincial council came out with a 19-point report after less than two years in power describing how it had become impossible to run an effective, legally operable administration in the region under the 13th amendment. The fundamental problem is the inflexibly rigid nature of the Sri Lankan constitution. Hence no meaningful enhancement of the 13th amendment is possible under any MOU without repealing or amending the constitution, which would take us back to square one – the 2/3 majority vote and the national referendum, both of which are well nigh impossible. Do you see a way out?

Uyangoda: You can make the constitution flexible. Look at some of the actions and functions of (Prime Minister) Ranil now. These actually belong to the executive in strictly constitutional terms. But the President and PM have established a convention in the current cohabitation process, which is not strictly within the parameters of the constitution. This is healthy. I am advocating a similar approach (to the IA). A new MOU on the IA has to establish constitutional conventions in this manner. The GOSL has to be politically creative and imaginative in order to overcome legal hurdles. It is accepted worldwide that you establish conventions where law is a hurdle to progress. One cannot blame the constitutional obstacle for one’s lack of political imagination.

Question: Do you consider the IA concept as an integral part of a conflict resolution process?

Uyangoda: Protracted conflicts require a considerably long phase of political change and transformation. The history of accords in Sri Lanka and in other countries is replete with failures. The primary reason for this is that settlements and accords were signed without the appropriate social and political conditions. The lesson we have to learn is that peace accords in themselves do not bring peace. It depends on the way in which a conflict unfolds change and transformation. There has to be a situation where ethnic conflict no longer requires war and violence.

Question: What do you mean by this?

Uyangoda: The dominant argument in Tamil society for the last 20 years is that Tamil political interests can be addressed only through war. I think that Tamil society and its real political representatives would have reassessed this fundamental premise of the Tamil nationalist struggle now. If they haven’t, there are now conditions for them to reassess that premise.

Question: Can we presuppose such conditions now, particularly because LTTE’s military power is considered necessary to sustain the strategic balance on which the peace process rests today?

Uyangoda: LTTE will continue to maintain its military preparedness because it thinks it is the only way to compel the Sinhala ruling class to negotiate with the Tamils - to take Tamil nationalism seriously and offer a credible option. But Sinhala ruling class has also displayed a certain capacity to move away from the Sinhala nationalist position. Actually Sinhala ruling classes have learnt some lessons from the conflict – that the state has to be reformed according to a federalising trajectory. The LTTE should acknowledge this. The Tigers should not treat the Sinhala ruling class as an unchanging, unreformable and monolithic entity. If they do so the Sinhala ruling class will also continue to see them in the same way. It will only guarantee, to rephrase (the German philosopher) Kant, perpetual war.

Question: What do the Tigers stand to specifically gain by taking such a view of the Sinhala ruling class?

Uyangoda: It will enable the LTTE to constructively engage the Sinhala ruling class. This is a historical opportunity for the Sinhala ruling class and the Tamil ruling entity to enter into a process of constructive political engagement. This is what Phase II of the talks should be all about. It should not be about core issues versus whatever it is. The second phase should be a constructive engagement between the existing Sri Lankan state and the emerging Tamil state to explore a common ground of compromise.

Question: When you speak about the Sinhala ruling class, we cannot avoid the question of Sinhala nationalism. How does it shape the attitude of the Sinhala ruling class towards the conflict?

Uyangoda: There are a number of streams of Sinhala nationalism. There is no homogenous Sinhala nationalism as much as there is no single Tamil nationalism. The Sinhala ruling class has been wavering between extremist Sinhala exclusivist position and kind of accommodationist, reformist position. You can see that from the 50s. But over the past few years, or during the past decade, the Sinhala ruling class has demonstrated a capacity to realise that war cannot resolve the ethnic conflict, that they have to go for political accommodation, and that this would require broadening the ethnic foundation of the Sri Lankan state. But there are also extreme forms of Sinhala nationalism that are against any form of accommodation with the minorities.

Question: There is a view that nationalism is an ideology constructed and deployed by a certain class to promote its interests among a people – some may call it the instrumentalist view of nationalism. Would you see Sinhala nationalism in this sense or something that is more pervasive, cutting across the spectrum of Sinhala social classes?

Uyangoda: One can say there is an Ontology of Sinhala nationalism that is all pervasive. Within that there are distinctions.

Question: What are the aspects of this all pervasiveness?

Uyangoda: There are basic assumptions of Sinhala nationalism – such as Sri Lanka is an exclusively Sinhala polity. The Sinhala ruling class, the bourgeoisie, has been questioning some of these assumptions, for example the assumption of Sinhala exclusivity has been questioned. I think the problem of the Sinhala ruling class is their understanding of the Tamil question – they still consider it a minority question. To them it is a minority issue. Even for Prof. G. L Pieris or for (President) Chandrika Kumaratunga, it is a minority question. So that is the limit of the Sinhala ruling class’s understanding. I would say that it is a question of two nations – the Sinhala nation and the Tamil nation. You cannot resolve the Tamil problem by treating it as a minority issue. It has to be treated as a question of a nation. The Sinhala ruling has not yet come to that level of understanding.

Question: But this brings us back to the exclusivist position of Sinhala nationalism – that there is only one nation in this country, the Sinhala nation– the Singhalese are the only rightful owners of the island – that the others are minorities within the polity defined exclusively by, and for, the Sinhala nation?

Uyangoda: No, no, there is a difference between mainstream Sinhala nationalism and the kind of political understanding that the leaderships of the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) and the UNP (United National Party) have recently reached. Mainstream Sinhala nationalism would say that the Singhalese are the only nation in Sri Lanka and that the others are minorities. There is a kind of ethnic hierarchy where the minorities have to recognise the supremacy and dominance of the Sinhala majority. This is the argument of the Sihala Urumaya, Jathika Chintanaya and the politics the JVP represents. But my reading of recent political changes is that the Sinhala ruling class does not subscribe to that particular assumption of mainstream Sinhala nationalism. This is why I have been saying that the LTTE and Tamil society should also recognise certain positive changes that have taken place in the Sinhala ruling class. But the Sinhala ruling class has not yet advanced towards recognising the Tamils as a separate nation. The reason is that their (Sinhala ruling class’s) political discourse is limited. So they have to broaden their discursive categories. The political, particularly the constitutional debate in Sri Lankan society is very much limited by the liberal category – ‘minority’ is a liberal category but ‘nation’ is not a liberal category. It is more a leftwing category.

Question: Would you say that the Sinhala ruling class, in this respect, is yet to cross the threshold?

Uyangoda: Yes. But I have a feeling that slowly it will happen. The Sinhala ruling class is moving towards that.

Question: How would you describe the perception of the Sinhala masses in this connection?

Uyangoda: The Sinhala masses are very ambivalent about it. At one level they know they want a political settlement, they do not want the war to continue. They want peace. At the same time there is a pervasive fear about the LTTE, about the Tamil political project. But there hasn’t been a constructive political engagement between the Sinhala masses and the Tamil masses. The Sinhala masses learnt about Tamil politics through Sinhala nationalists, it was all distorted. One should not romanticise the masses, the Sinhala masses are quite ambivalent about the Tamil nationalist project.

Question: You said that a strategic balance is necessary to sustain the peace process. This means the LTTE has to keep its armed forces to maintain this balance. You also spoke about the fears the Sinhala masses have about the Tamil political project. Don’t you see this as giving rise to a paradox, an interminably circular process that would indefinitely stymie a final settlement to the conflict?

Uyangoda: This is why I say that this has to be a long transformative process. At one level the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim political leaderships have to continue with this dialogue and gradually de-escalate the conflict through a series of agreements. What you have to do is to transform the strategic balance, which is now based on military power, to one that is based one political commitment and agreement. To change this into a new mode of strategic balance, you have to create institutions and have a series of commitments transformed into agreements, which in turn should be translated into constitutional and legal forms. You have a long process of institution building and then it will create a new mechanism for strategic balance. You do not have to have military power for this. That will enable the two sides to have gradual de-escalation. For such a road map, it is very, very necessary to address the dilemma, this paradox you mentioned.

Question: Are you thinking of de-commissioning as part of this road map?

Uyangoda: No, no. You see, the ideas of decommissioning and de-escalation are two different things. I did not use the term decommissioning. It comes at a different level. In this negotiation process both sides face what is called security dilemma. Each side has to appreciate, or rather acknowledge, the other side’s security dilemma. The second phase of the talks has to deal with these security dilemmas. We have to work out a system whereby distinct security dilemmas are identified and addressed.

Question: There is a fear among the Singhalese that a federal solution will lead to separation. The latest we have heard is ‘federalism is a beguiling serpent’. How would you explain this fear?

Uyangoda: Unfortunately Sri Lanka’s constitutional-legal discourse has not been developed to accommodate federalism - the federalist, constitutional, political categories as part of Tamil minoritarian nationalist project. As a result, federalism and federalist legal, political categories never got legitimacy in the constitutional debate in Sinhala society. Only recently people like Dr. Rohan Edirisingha and some lawyers in Sinhala society-I can count them on my fingers-would advocate federalism. There is a limitation to constitutional imagination in Sinhala society. H. L de Silva is the most articulate spokesperson for that limited political, constitutional imagination in Sinhala society. But on the other hand, there is the other stream that is gaining ground about power sharing. There is a dimension in Sinhala society where reforms are seen as a threat. Actually in Sinhala society, political culture is reform resistant. That is why reforms have always been imposed from above, generating violence. Even in 1987 (when the provincial council system was established under the terms of a treaty between Sri Lanka and India) there was violence. So the challenge for the future is to reform the Sri Lankan state without generating violence in Sinhala society. And that is a tremendous challenge for any ruling elite in Colombo.

Question: Why do you say that reforms generate violence in Sinhala society, that it is reform resistant?

Uyangoda: I think it is in the nature of Sinhala nationalism. It is very much based on the idea or rather the sentiment of insecurity- it is a tremendous insecurity. Actually Sinhala nationalism is not a forward looking. It is based on this whole fear of extinction. It is a negative nationalism, not a positive, forward-looking nationalism.

Question: How does this manifest itself?

Uyangoda: In various ways - the inability to recognise the political grievances of the minorities; look at the whole history of Sinhala nationalism in the twentieth century, it cannot be very positive. It can only be very insecure. This is a fundamental problem of Sinhala nationalism as articulated so far. It’s not an active agency in transformation.

Question: How would you see the current international dimension of the conflict? Do you think that the conflict can be settled through direct dialogue, internally?

Uyangoda: The trajectories of the conflict as well as negotiations have moved away from the agendas of Singhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Mostly the future would be decided and shaped by the interaction of global forces. In that sense Sri Lanka is not an island at all. We are talking not only about post September 9/11 but post Iraq War. I don’t think that local actors have a monopoly in shaping the future direction of the international process here. The LTTE knows that and it is trying to show some resistance.

Question: What about the Sri Lankan government?

Uyangoda: I think the government seems to be quite comfortable with this globalisation (of the conflict). The ruling classes are global ruling classes. You do not have national ruling classes any longer. Either the LTTE will have to join the global ruling class or continue to negotiate some autonomous space within the global system. The LTTE is primarily a nationalist entity. The LTTE’s biggest problem in the future would be not in dealing with the Sri Lankan army or the Sri Lankan state, but the global state. It is the real challenge before them now. I think the LTTE has now sensed this challenge – from what I read in an article in their Sinhala paper, Dedhunna. There is a very interesting analysis (in Dedhunna) about the international dimension (of the Sri Lankan conflict). While reading it I got the impression that the LTTE is acutely sensitive to that. They know actually they have to deal with the global state, not the Sri Lankan state. As a student of politics watching the LTTE’s politics as well – It would be interesting to see how they would negotiate an autonomous state for themselves; I would say their gut reaction would be, as nationalists, to resist the global state. But the LTTE is also an entity that has a very acute sense of survival. It is not like Saddam Hussein or the Afghan groups. It is not self-destructive. The LTTE is not a self-destructive entity. So it would be interesting to watch how the LTTE would be dealing with the global state.

Question: Do you see any resistance to the global state in the south? What about the JVP?

Uyangoda: No. I do not think so. The JVP has a slightly left-nationalist critique of the UNP’s politics. But the JVP’s ally, the PA, would do the same thing (as the UNP). The JVP does not provide a sustained, critical analysis of the global state.


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