The rise of the Sinhala fundamentalist

By Dr.Dayan Jayatilleka.                                                         

Philosophy, said Kautilya (Chanakya) in the Arthashathra, deals primarily with the right and wrong use of force. At least from that time, it was recognized that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing even what is necessary or unavoidable. This was of course the very premise of the Just War doctrine of Christian theologians St Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. A war had to be for the right cause and the right cause was not self-evident or merely self-referential and self–proclaimed.

It needed to pass certain criteria to qualify. This too was not enough. For war to be just it not only needed to satisfy the criteria for a just cause but be fought by just means, which too needed to meet certain criteria to warrant the appellation. Modern theologians, especially of the Protestant persuasion, have added a third criterion, that of Just Peace, i.e. of the outcome of the war.

These preliminary remarks are intended by me to make two points. Firstly that Sri Lanka fought a Just War by basically just means (albeit certain excesses noted by the LLRC which need judicial investigation, but NOT by Special Courts let alone hybrid ones). However, Sri Lanka has not yet arrived at a Just Peace and is still searching for it. It is a necessary and legitimate search; an imperative one.

Secondly, this Government and its new constitution must be opposed, but not every form of opposition is valid, helpful and desirable. It is in the context of the return and rise of the Sinhala New Right, that Prof Peiris’ polemical response (‘The Devolution Debate: Facts that should not be forgotten’, The Island, Thursday October 5th) must be situated and understood.

The rising tide of Sinhala fundamentalist opposition will damage not only the progressive patriotic Joint Opposition (JO) and the cause of a patriotic, modernizing presidential candidate, but will play into the hands of the Government and what is worse, into the hands of Sri Lanka’s external enemies and lead within our lifetime, to the (avoidable) dismemberment of this country.

The recent rise of the Sinhala New Right, which is at least part funded and propelled by the Sinhala Diaspora with a blue–collar mindset, stems from and thrives on two phenomena: (a) the absence of elections i.e. the closure of electoral safety valves (b) the cognitive dissonance in the Sinhala psyche caused by the triple assault of constitutional federalization, Geneva accountability and economic foreignization. These two phenomena must be resisted and beaten back, but it must be from a Realist and progressive Sri Lankan perspective; not a narrow Sinhala fundamentalist one.

What is the Sinhala New Right? What is Sinhala fundamentalism? Why does Prof GH Peiris’ intervention fall into that category, and why is it wildly irrational?

The Old Right is the UNP. It is party which is officially affiliated with the IDU, which in turn is led by the US Republicans and the UK Conservatives. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has shifted from the old Conservatism of his party to a neoliberal paradigm, which has permitted his alliance with Chandrika and Mangala. The Old Right is not particularly Sinhala; it is cosmopolitan in the bad sense of the word. It is the party of neoliberal globalization.

The New Right is ethno-nationalist and often ethno-religious nationalist. It is more correctly describable as a majoritarian ultra-nationalism. It belongs to the family of the RSS-Shiv Sena, the Tea Party movement, France’s National Front and Germany’s AKD.

What makes it Sinhala fundamentalist? Sinhala fundamentalism is not especially or primarily opposedto federalism. Federalism is not its main target. Indeed Sinhala fundamentalism is unsatisfied with those of us who oppose federalism from a rational standpoint. My recent response to Dr. Devanesan Nesiah which I entitle “Why I Oppose Federalism for Sri Lanka” has made no impression on Prof GH Peiris or my detractors on the fundamentalist Sinhala New Right. This is because the problem of the New Right is not with federalism or federalization. It is with the 13thamendment and provincial devolution! One may even say it with any kind of territorial devolution or the very idea of “power sharing” (“bala bedeema”)! Indeed at the base of their ideology is the question “what is the problem the Tamils have that is distinctively their own and not shared by the Sinhalese?”

The Sinhala fundamentalists do not recognize that this question if posed in Québec, Catalonia, Scotland or Iraqi Kurdistan, it would be derided.This question is not that of the rights that Scottish do not have which English too do not have. The issue is that for these communities, the only right that really matters is a collective right, or the right that matters at this stage of their history, is that which stems from their collective identity and pertains to their wish to determine their own destiny up to and including the establishment of an independent state.

Now, do I support them? Most certainly not, because I am not a particularist, and I think that “self-determination” pertains to countries as a whole, except in conditions of colonial and foreign invasion and occupation such as in Palestine. But do I understand what they are saying and even empathize with them to a degree? The answer is yes, firstly because I am able to put myself in someone else’s shoes and secondly, because I am a realist. To fight an ailment in the body politic one must know what the ailment is. One begins with the right diagnosis if one is to make the right prognosis and proffer the right prescription.

For the Sinhala fundamentalists, the Tamils have no legitimate identity-based problem and no legitimate aspirations as a collective. Since I am not a Sinhala fundamentalist, or any kind of fundamentalist, I recognize the legitimacy of the Tamil aspiration for an autonomous political space. However, since I value the interest of the whole, the totality, above the part, I advocate and will fight for limits to that political autonomy; limits which balance adequate local autonomy and self-rule with the strategic and security requirements of the State as a whole. This is why I stand for an intermediate solution, that of provincial autonomy, and more concretely, a solution which takes as the basis and framework, the 13th amendment and negotiates upon that basis.

For Prof. Peiris and Sinhala political fundamentalism in general, provincial autonomy is unacceptable. The 13thamendment is unacceptable. What then is the intermediate solution? There is none. What is the alternative to self –determination? There is none. What is the alternative to federalism? There is none. When provincial autonomy and the 13th amendment are removed or truncated, what is on offer for the Tamils? Nothing. Why do Prof. Peiris and the Sinhala fundamentalists think that any Tamil party or any section of the Tamil people will accept this? Why do they think any country will applaud?

Prof Peiris mentions Pakistan. A senior columnist on the staff of this newspaper, Shamindra Ferdinando will confirm that when we visited Pakistan in February 2005 on a delegation handpicked and dispatched by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirmagar, we were asked by the brilliant young deputy Foreign Minister of that friendly country why we do not implement a federal model as Pakistan has done, as a solution. Gen Gerry de Silva, Ambassador NandaGodage and I replied with clarity, firmness and courteousness.

Prof Peiris and the Sinhala fundamentalists count on the rise of China as a counterweight to India– and might I point out, the combined weight of India and the US, i.e. the regional superpower and the world’s sole superpower (albeit in slow, relative decline). And this bit of geopolitical and geostrategic wisdom comes from a geographer, no less!They absurdly count on an effective Chinese counterweight whilethe reality is that we are an (easily blockaded) small island on India’s doorstep, and unlike Pakistan, devoid of any land route to and from China.To conclude, let me deal with Prof Peiris’ Cuba analogy including his implication that I have underplayed or distorted by truncation, my father Mervyn’s de Silva’s reference to Cuba. ProfPeirisequates President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s war winning achievement to that of Cuba. President Rajapaksa had the support of India throughout his war. Unlike Cuba he did not have to confront his neighbor. Therefore the analogy falls flat.

Furthermore, President Rajapaksa secured the space and time to win the war precisely by repeatedly pledging to implement 13A (he sometimes did say‘13 plus’, but never in writing). It is by promising the reactivation of provincial devolution—and not merely because of the killing of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE—that he preempted any Indian replay of 1987, and it is by keeping India on board that he balanced off the West.

His undoing was his delay in implementation, precisely because of the pressure from the Sinhala hard right represented by some of his officials and trusted politicians. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was one of those few (apart from me) who had urged in 2009, that we activate the Northern provincial council (as we did the East after liberation, in wartime),not due a surfeit of liberalism on his part, but coming from a non-ideological strategic realm, as one of the wartime “troika” that interacted with Delhi.

As for Mervyn de Silva, I must confess that it was an excess of Christian charity towards Sinhala sensitivities that made me edit what he had written about SriLankan and Cuba definitely demonstrating why it would be wholly ridiculous to expect SriLanka to possess the option of resistance that the Cubans so laudably possessed and exercised. I shall quote one paragraph from a four paragraph segment on Cuba and Nicaragua:

“…No Soviet soldier will die for Cuba in the case of an US invasion, which will probably result in the capture of Havana, the capital, in two or three days. So what is Cuba’s strength? Castro gave the answer to US reporters last year, the 25th anniversary of the Revolution. “In the event of an invasion”, he said, “five million Cubans are ready to die, and the Revolution will take to the SierraMaestra mountains”. That is not just bluff. The US believes him, and believing him, every American president knows that he will not survive a week if several thousands of American soldiers are killed in the invasion. That is Cuba’s policy of deterrence, its defense, and it’sfounded on self-reliance, the total confidence of the people in the leadership and the total commitment of the people to their country’sdefense”.(Crisis Commentaries, p 76)

Mervyn goes on to conclude: “Therefore, Sri Lankan foreign policy must be centered on a non-hostile relationship with India”. (Crisis Commentaries, p77)

Prof GH Peiris and the Sinhala fundamentalists are fighting against provincial devolution. The game and the political battle have moved on, both nationally and globally. The Sinhala fundamentalists neither understand the global zeitgeist nor the post-war national ethos. Referenda on independence proliferate in the global North and South. Nationally, the Supreme Court has ruled that federalism is not separatism, and has done so, referring rather riskily to the Canadian Supreme Court ruling of Quebec, internal self-determination etc.

The fight now is to prevent ethno-federalism (by any other name). The Sri Lankan ‘unitarists’ and antifederalists, of which I am one, have to fight a defensive protracted conflict—a “war of position”, as Gramsci called it; not one of frontal assault. The balance of forces globally and regionally donot permit an offensive battle against provincial devolution, leave alone territorial devolution as such! The anti-federal battle cannot be fought from a frontline that goes below and behind even the 13th amendment! It can be fought only- and if at all—from a frontline which is for genuine provincial autonomy based on the 13th amendment.(The Island)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *