12 December 2011

Unasked and answered questions will trip talks

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) submitted a long list of concerns to the Government.  Most of these relate to day-to-day issues that they believed require urgent attention.  Many of them are legitimate even though not all of them can be said to be relevant only to the Northern and Eastern Provinces or the Tamil people living in these areas.  The TNA, given its ideological position, does have a legitimate case for inserting into the wish-list elements such as police and land powers, and the merging the two provinces. 
The focus has been, understandably, on the last, i.e. the most contentious of issues.  The Government has taken the position that these issues are irrelevant whereas the TNA claims that discussions are not limited to them, that Minister Keheliya Rambukwella’s articulation of the Government’s position is therefore misleading with respect to the status of the ‘talks’. 
Given how crucial these matters are, however, one can conclude that with respect to ‘reconciliation’ and ‘resolution’, there is or will be an impasse.  Part of the reason of course is the crimes of omission and commission in the matter of articulating grievance and aspiration, both by the ‘aggrieved’ and well-intentioned and/or mischievous ‘brokers’, local and international.  Reconciliation for some is about the government submitting to the TNA’s proposals while for others it is about development and dropping all demands for devolution.
Those who were banking on the LTTE’s (largely inflated) might to wrest vast swathes of land and half the coast now talk of Tamils being impatient to move on, ‘moving on’ meaning ‘securing the North and East’.  Forgotten is the fact that a community and a nation that was held hostage began ‘moving on’ the moment the hostage-taker was removed from the equation.  It must nevertheless be acknowledged that aspirations, however outrageous and impractical they are, are not easily erased or abandoned.  For that to happen, a true sense of belonging to a nation has to be forged.  ‘Development’ will not do the trick for development is a responsibility on the part of governments and not an exercise in charity. 
We live in times where perception are treated as facts, where myths are clothed as histories and where lines drawn by invaders (the British in this case) for purposes of their convenience have been taken as relevant to communal-based demarcation.  These, as much as real (not imagined) acts of aggression and chauvinism (on the part of all communities), constitute the main stumbling block in the matter of meaningful reconciliation.  It is not only the Tamils who suffered.  One in ten Muslims were rendered homeless during the conflict. Thousands of Sinhalese were killed in LTTE attacks on civilians. They were not combatants nor were they victims of ‘crossfire’. ‘Closure’ is needed by all and truth on all counts, claims included, is a necessary ingredient in ‘moving on’. 
In this regard the questions studiously avoided pertain to history, demography and geography as well as the crucial issue of economic sense in power-devolution.  If historical claims can be substantiated then history has to be factored in when it comes to re-thinking structures of governance, constitutional amendment included.   If this is not possible then other means have to be found to correct citizenship anomalies relating to real grievances and reasonable aspirations of particular communities. 
The TNA must come to terms with the fact that more than half the Tamils in the island live outside the North and East and explain how devolution of power can redress the grievances of such people given the reality that these Tamils are not interested in returning to the so-called ‘traditional homelands’.   That is a question that the Government can ask but has not, so far.  As important is the fact that Tamils do not live in each and every inch of land in the two provinces.  The demographic data pertaining to concentrations must be taken into account. 
The Government can, given numerical strengths and considerations of political expediency, ‘do devolution’ in order to alleviate misplaced wrath (of big-name elements of the international community) and satisfy aspirational articulations of communalist Tamil groups which posit them as non-negotiable, but only at the cost of planting new seeds of chauvinism all around.  It could amount to the making of a blueprint for violence-outbreak that the next generation would have to deal with.  It would not be an exercise in statesmanship. 
In all this, the TNA has a formidable trump: a constitution that is heavily skewed against the citizenry vis-à-vis the politician, especially those in the ruling party.  The TNA can say, for example, ‘even if we were to agree that devolution is not the answer, the current constitutional arrangement remains anti-citizen; Tamils are citizens and therefore are victims of the anomalies that flow from a flawed structure: what is your response?’ 
The TNA can argue further: ‘Tamils are our constituency and if the constitution, even as it diminishes all citizens diminish our constituents then we have a justifiable claim to demand greater powers in areas where Tamils constitute the majority; we don’t have to wait for a resolution that serves the entire country’.  That would contain a communalist element, but to the extent that the TNA has refused to shed its communalism and considering that it represents Tamils in a country where tribalism is not the preserve of Tamils, it would still be a legitimate argument. 
There are questions that need to be asked and answered before moving forward. They are crucial to ‘moving on’.  They are located in the domains of history, geography and demography and are relevant to the discourse of development.  They cannot be dodged forever.    

[this is 'The Nation' editorial of December 11, 2011]