09 January 2012

Time to go beyond the 13th

The Bishop of Jaffna, Rev Thomas Saundaranayagam is reported to have said that the Government must dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance in order to find a solution to what he called ‘the ethnic problem’.  He adds that lasting peace must be based onthe aspirations of the Tamil people and that they (the Tamil people) must have the liberty to ‘live in peace in their own soil’.

Dialogue is good as long as there is genuine intention to obtain progress in resolving issues.  On the other hand, dialogue must be inclusive and open-ended.  One in ten Muslims was displaced courtesy the conflict and therefore any discussion that excludes that community will necessarily be incomplete and unsatisfactory. This is why the TNA’s delay in sending names for to Parliamentary Select Committee is disappointing. 
The Bishop’s reductionism on aspirations is however troubling.  Aspirations and grievances are usually conflated for political expediency, but when it comes to serious negotiations that seek lasting solutions, it is important to keep things real. This requires greater weight to be placed on legitimate grievances and not on wild aspirations which could potential rub people the wrong way and construct unnecessary walls between communities. The contention about ‘own soil’ falls into the realm of aspirations since that claims is at best contested and at worst unsubstantiated in terms of history, demography and geography. Co-existence, inter-communal harmony and the forging of a national identity stamped with the notion of togetherness are consequently compromised. 

Today the talk is about land and police powers and there are whispers to the effect that the Indian Foreign Minister’s impending visit is to get these elements of the 13th Amendment back on the table.  A lot is known about India’s role in the conflict but in the comings and goings, the give and take of that decades-long exercise the one thing that remained (as a scar or cancer, some might say) is the 13th Amendment. It is a constitutional fact. It is an in-your-face fact too, since Provincial Councils, elections, the elected and monumental wastage of public funds are part of oureveryday. 
The 13th not only precipitated a brutal insurrection, but was rejected by the much championed ‘sole-representatives’ of the Tamils, the LTTE.  It is therefore confusing that the President and Government, even whilst rejecting devolution of land and police powers have nevertheless talked of ‘going beyond the 13th’.   On the other hand, since the 13th is flawed then any mechanism that is pragmatic and draws from reality would amount to ‘going beyond the 13th’.

The report submitted by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is very clear on this issue.  While ‘devolution’ is recommended, the LLRC insists that the end product should be acceptable to all communities and not infringe freedoms.  In addition to recommending concrete measures to obtain maximum citizens’ participation in decision making processes, when taken as a whole, the Report calls for reason and fact and is not applauding emotion and myth. 

‘Going beyond the 13th’ suggests a rethinking of constitutional provisions so as to empower the citizen, which is a need that is echoed in the Report.  Land and police powers devolved to lines that have no basis in history and are in fact arbitrarily drawn boundaries are not in concert with the idea of ‘going beyond’. 

Indeed, they are conceptually and politically far more comfortable with ‘going back’ (to conflict). They may make better sense if there was deference to the scientific inre-demarcations, for example a re-drawing of provincial boundaries so that every single unit except for the central hills has a seaboard.  The LLRC does not mention a specific unit of devolution and neither is it fixated with current administrative or other boundaries.   In any event, even such demarcation will not yield any tangible benefit to the ordinary people unless better checks and balances are written into the Constitution, which is again something that the LLRC emphasizes. 

The TNA is no longer a mouthpiece for the LTTE and while one can ignore the fact that R. Sampanthan and others are not passing around gratitude for this unfettering, these individuals must understand that what was not extracted by gun and bullet will not be handed over on a platter at a negotiating table unless the official ‘giver’ is intent on political suicide. 

The Government, for its part, has to understand that three decades of myth mongering has helped turn fiction into fact and that perception is reality for the perceiver.  Getting rid of a thick coat of myth-dust requires an honest engagement where the ‘other’ in the equation is asked to substantiate claims regarding land and history, take cognizance of the demographic realities that rebel against territory-based solutions, and a demand that aspirations be grounded and grievances legitimate. 

As one columnist has pointed in these pages, ‘The problems of ordinary people are real and must be resolved by State agencies’.  That’s only the beginning of ‘going beyond the 13th Amendment’.  The rest, so to speak, is history.  And ground reality. Literally.  In other words EVERYONE must live in peace on their own soil.  ‘Everyone’ is every citizen and ‘own soil’ is Sri Lanka. 

[First published as 'The Nation' Editorial of January 8, 2012]


beautiful sunshine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

The TNA has suddenly introduced a new objective - 'recognizing the Tamil people as a nation.' This seems a to indicate that separatist agenda still remain in their thinking.