29 September 2013

Time to unclench fists, hearts and minds


On May 14, 1976 the Tamil United Liberation Front passed a resolution in Vadukoddai (Batakotte). That document, describable as Tamil nationalism at its chauvinistic best, was voted on, in effect, on July 21, 1977. The TULF won 18 seats.  Last Saturday, the political successor to the TULF, the Tamil National Alliance secured the Northern Provincial Council with a resounding majority. The election was preceded by the launch of a manifesto that was a virtual one-to-one of the Vadukoddai Resolution which, among other things, spurred Tamil youth to take up arms and precipitated an armed conflict that cost the nation and all communities, especially Tamils. 

In hindsight both resolution-moment and election result in the seventies provided opportunities for all communities to revisit the ideas of nation and citizenship.  Exaggeration of grievance and tall-order aspirations generated less hope than fear, but had statesmanship prevailed monumental losses incurred over the next 30 plus years could have been shelved. 

There were other such opportunities, especially when the tsunami hit the island in December 2004.  By that time, however, guns and bullets were the languages in vogue even in their largely reluctant mutations courtesy the 2003 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA).

The TNA’s victory last week comes in a post-conflict Sri Lanka. The guns have all gone silent.  The nation has recovered in ways that most countries plagued by terrorism and war have not. Indeed, the TNA owes a big ‘thank you’ to the Government for clearing the way for elections. A quick visual of a 2013 September with the LTTE militarily intact would not exactly make anyone in the TNA, including C.V. Wigneswaran, salivate.  In all likelihood, the ex-judge would have been enjoying his retirement in Colombo. 

What is important is that Tamil people in the Northern Province have had the opportunity to elect representatives.  Wigneswaran is an elected representative and not a self-named one, never mind his embarrassing rhetoric.  For this reason (and not those alluded to during the negotiations following the CFA), we are better positioned to democratically resolve grievances taking leaves out of the South African and Northern Ireland peace processes.   

In both cases there was a peace agreement followed by the establishment of democratic institutions, elected representatives assuming office, establishment of rule of law and then the elected representatives taking the peace process forward.

In our case, a comprehensive defeat of armed terrorists removed the necessity for a peace agreement (typically agreement to cease hostilities leading to gradual disarmament in line with progress in negotiations).   In our case, the democratic institutions have been established and representatives elected.  While there is a lot to be desired with respect to ‘rule of law’, we are not talking about an anarchic situation.  In short, we are at the tail end of a Sri Lankan equivalent to the South African and Northern Ireland peace processes.

In 2003, a group calling itself the National Anti-War Front, took out a newspaper ad with the pretty headline, ‘Clenched fists cannot receive’.  The outcome-preferences of the group, made of the usual pro-LTTE voices in the NGO community, made them target the Government, naturally, but the line does have logical worth.  

The ‘unclenching’, for this group, was about conceding power. The key term was ‘power-sharing’.  Power-sharing is not coterminous with devolution of course, but that was and is glossed over.  What is important is the need to unclench not just fists, but hearts and minds.  There has been a lot of ‘giving’ by way of de-mining, resettlement, rehabilitation and reintegration in society of combatants and reconstruction, but all these are clearly necessary but not sufficient conditions for reconciliation.  The Tamil community has lost so much that an unclenched fist does not yield anything of substance, but unclenched minds and hearts (on all sides) can result in a rich harvest for all.

The Government can and must continue to ‘give’ the tangibles, including the many time shelved ‘River to the North’.  The TNA could concede too, acknowledging in the very least complicity in the LTTE project.  Even if the TNA continues to desist (which would do nothing to allay suspicions about its true agenda), armed with representational confidence, that party can and must come to the table sans frills, myths and aspirations, starting at the best starting point, ‘Grievances’.  Unclenching fist to promise ‘unity’ (a vague term that no one can script into legislation) in return for ‘devolution’ will not fool anyone.  Offering the telos of preferred political ‘resolution’ has to be recognized as a non-starter which will be likewise identified as intractability, which is the first and last word in subverting reconciliation. 

If process has yielded nothing, it is perhaps due to ‘solution’ being offered as ‘starting point’.  Honest intent begins with word and some deeds, words that help heal and deeds that make tangible differences.  The Government, for its part, must stop playing dilly-dally, put aside its own anxieties and suspicions and treat representations seriously and as equal to those of any community that feels aggrieved over wrongs done or perceived to have been done.

‘Brass tacks’ begin with articulating grievances.  The TNA can claim that all this is ‘old hat’, but the TNA, in the interest of lasting peace, can humor us all, by laying it all out, with fact and date so that the true dimensions of communal anxiety can be obtained.  That calls for an unclenching of heart and mind. 

Keep fist closed and only hurt results.  We just don’t need more hurt. 

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com]
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