03 June 2014

What do we do with 'the Tamil in the room'?

Writing on the occasion of launching ‘The end of war in Sri Lanka, five years on’ by www.groundviews.com, Sanjana Hattotuwa refers to a review of the collection of essays by Channa Wickremesekera, military historian and novelist. 
Wickremesekera makes some observations: ‘The most cursory glance at some of the websites that showcase opinions from those whose first language is truly Sinhalese will show that it it still the Wimal Weerawansas rather than Kalana Senaratnes who make opinions of Sri Lankans, even in cyberspace.  They are still dancing the victory dance, expecting the Tamil in the room to join in singing Sinhala bailas or to leave the room altogether.  Groundviews, I am sure, has no pretensions to having the power to shift heaven and earth which is what, it appears at times, is required to change the direction the country is heading in. Yet, despite that seeming impotence, the collection of articles also presents a pleasing prospect. It shows that there are still at least a few of us who recognize that the end of the war has not ended the conflict as long as we do not deal with the Tamil in the room, fairly and justly.  It may make a few other decent people stop and think, even feel. That would be a modest victory but a victory nevertheless.
Before we get to what Senaratne has to say, let us dissect Wickremesekera’s angst which, needless to say, mirror’s Hattotuwa’s angst, birds of a feather, fellow travelers, bedfellows and all that.  There are many lines missing in Wickremesekera’s observation.  He does not say, for example, ‘…as long as we do not deal with the Tamil in the room, fairly and justly, with justice and fairness defined a la the Paikiasothy Saravanamuttus, Sanjana Hattotuwas and of course Channa Wickremesekeras.’  These people are ‘decent’ and anyone who has different definitions of justice and fairness, different notions of what ‘victory’ was and is celebrated, and even a more nuanced and politically fleshed-out notion of what Wickremesekera calls ‘the Tamil in the room’ are naturally ‘indecent’.  They, moreover, are not the kind to ‘stop and think’.  They don’t ‘feel’. 
All this can be traced to one thing: the fact that preferred outcome did not materialize, not in May 2009 and not thereafter either.  The preferred was and is about devolution, at one time (when the LTTE was riding high) talked of with a liberal spewing of formations such as federal, confederation and even separate state. In reduced circumstances the rhetoric revolved around the 13th Amendment.  In clutching-at-straws times, it was about implementing LLRC recommendations where the term ‘power devolution’ was salivated over with absolutely no reference to the most important rider, ‘acceptable to all communities’.   If logic, decency, sense of history and pragmatism informed rhetoric then Groundviews and its hurrah boys and girls would have revisited the vexed question of arbitrarily drawn boundaries which Eelamists (some of whom were terrorists) used to define ‘traditional homelands’ (again, poorly supported by historical evidence or demographic realities, back in the day or even today). 
This side of that preferred set of outcomes in their optimal or minimal articulation, for these people, there can only be indecency.  This amounts to careless and preference-provoked rubbish clothed as ‘academic’, well-thought-out formulae. 
Let’s move on to Senaratne.  His piece is titled ‘The search for a political solution five years after the war’.  He begins by quoting from TNA leader R Sampanthan’s voice-cut to Al Jazeera on March 26, 2014: ‘The sovereignty of Sri Lanka is very much intact.  And we want it to remain intact. We are Sri Lankans…And we don’t want Sri Lanka’s sovereignty to be impacted upon’.  Now that’s rich.  It’s almost like saying ‘We want a just and fair solution in an undivided, united Sri Lanka, and it should take the 13th Amendment as a starting point’.  ‘United’ cannot be scripted into constitution in any meaningful manner, to begin with.  This is not the place to get into all the flaws and pitfalls of the 13th Amendment, the pernicious divisional designs embedded in it have been commented on adequately.  Starting off with a man who salaamed someone like Prabhakaran and saluted a manifesto that is diametrically opposed to the submission made to Al-Jazeera takes away much from Senaratne’s piece which contains some very valid points, especially with respect to the weaknesses of the LLRC.

The fundamental predicate of federalism is that of two distinct entities coming together.  Scripted in, ipso facto, is ‘separation’.  So the qualifier, so-called, ‘within a united country’, has nothing to do with either a federal or unitary formulation.   The people of South Asia can be united, the people in Colombo 7 can be united, Senaratne and I can be united.  It’s just a description of a relationship, its political worth doesn’t rise above rhetoric.  So if Kalana argues (as he seems to be) for something that ‘ideally culminates in a federal form of governance structure within a united country’ and endorses a separatist’s view that such a structure ‘is the least that Tamil-speaking people can demand,’ he is unpardonably careless.  The rhetoric sweeps under the political carpet relevant facts pertaining to history, geography and demography.  The political manipulations that generated a ‘majority’ that allowed for what came to be called ‘APRC – Majority Report’ should not be ignored, as Senaratne has.  It is not too different from calling Sri Lanka ‘multi-ethnic’ and ‘multi-religious’ (which country is not?) without talking percentages.  I endorse Kalana’s celebration of ‘recognizing the quality of Tamil people without translating that equality into con-federalism and their self-determination without transforming that idea into secessionism’ although a closer examination of that Report would reveal that the substance does not match rhetoric, especially given history, political realities and reasonable extrapolations based on these.    

The logic of such a ‘political solution’, Senaratne strangely offers, is that it could ease pressure on the issue of accountability. He even applauds Sampanthan for talking in these terms.  Talk about using a politician’s headache (Mahinda Rajapaksa’s that is) to get some purchase for one’s own outcome preferences.  These are two separate issues. They are linked because politics spills among spheres, yes, but if justice and truth are what accountability is about and if one holds these things as sacred (as Wickremesekera and his ilk appear to do), there can be no give-take, i.e. give some land, get some pressure off or something like that. 

To be fair, Senaratne thereafter proceeds to detail the difficulties and most importantly in flagging the danger of submitting oneself to realism or pragmatic realism, whichever way defined, on account of such difficulties.  Senaratne’s contentions of the 13th Amendment are valid.  Regardless of his fascination with power-devolution, he does recognize the inherent flaws of the document and its operation as a mechanism that does not resolve what he calls ‘the ethnic question’ (again a problematic term, but still one which will not go away; the term, not the problem; and therefore needs to be addressed and best done so by discussing the claims). 
Senaratne, like Hattotuwa, Wickremesekera and others in the devolutionist camp, makes the mistake of using the word ‘autonomy’ in conjunction with community, in this case ‘Tamil’.  This easy mix totally ignores the glaring fact that communities are not flat and that certain solidarities (for examples those wrought by the play of capital) cuts across them.  It forgets that there’s a difference between those spoken for and those speaking for.  Forget the fact that the majority of Tamils live outside the North and East; even if there was devolution of the 13+++ kind moving to confederation or even outright division, we still have the problem of ‘self-determination’ not percolating to the powerless and poor, that it is a preserve of the rich and powerful.
And yet, there’s no getting around ‘popular perception’, i.e., as a community, Tamil community that is, where, as Senaratne points out, there is ‘specificity’ pertaining to Tamils, a feeling of being lesser citizens, let’s say.  Devolution would give the appearance of factoring this in (did all Indians and all Pakistanis win ‘self-determination’ with Partition?), but we are in this for substance, right?  Or are we not?   One can, as Senaratne points out, go for a politics where Sinhalese, Tamils and others ‘stand firm in the face of both regional and global imperialistic forces’, without, again as he observes, letting the politics of that solidarity gloss over oppression of any kind by one over another or at least perception of such differences.  Either way, there is no getting around the key element of the discourse: grievance.  That remains un-fleshed and I suspect for pernicious reasons.  The likes of Hattotuwa will not delve into that perhaps because it would force the discussion to include boundary lines, uncomfortable histories (or lack of it even) and unfrill from demands things like myths and legends. 
The fact remains that such a conversation is not possible now for several reason and not necessarily those that are trotted out by the Wickremesekeras and Hattotuwas, i.e Sinhala-Buddhist intransigence, and not because such ‘intransigence’ so imagined is consecrated at the higher echelons of power, but for the simple fact of a constitution so flawed that it rebels against any decent notion of citizenship.
Let us return to ‘the Tamil in the room’.  That’s a neat formulation.  It would appear that we have a room full of raucous, victory-drunk, hardline Sinhala-Buddhists with just one innocent, harmless, wronged Tamil among them.  That is caricature.  It is not only a crass vilification of the Sinhala Buddhist but a beatification of Tamil. Human beings and communities are not saints or saint-made.  The Tamil in the Room, if he represents the Tamil Community, is made of innocence, helplessness, victimhood and such, true; but so too are the Sinhalese.  That Tamil is also part made of intransigence, murder-intent and murder, child-snatching and pernicious political deals as is his/her Sinhalese counterpart.  Wickremesekera and Hattotuwa are deft in the politics of obfuscation here. 
They are free, of course, to read celebration as per their political preferences.  A victory parade could be read as a subjugation of Tamils. It could also be read as celebration of the end of bombs, child-snatching, check-points and wondering if you will see your children again after bidding them goodbye as they took off to school.  There were many members of the security forces participating in the celebrations. Let us not forget that they are citizens, human being in their own right. Let us not forget that had the war not ended in May 2009, some of them would not be with us.  And for every soldier alive because of ‘May 2009’ there is a Tamil citizen who is also alive but might not have been had we not come to ‘May 2009’. 
 None of this, Senaratne would agree, means that conflict is over and done with.   Wickremesekera is right too, ‘The Tamil in the room must be dealt with, with fairness and justice’.  What he misses is that there are Sinhalese in the room who too have been denied fairness and justice.  The delivery of justice to one and not the other, the delivery of justice to one at the cost of the other, is not delivery of justice, but delivery of outcome-preferences that have little to do with justice or fairness.  Wickremesekera and Hattotuwa and others of that club would do well to understand that one reason they remain where they are, marginal that is, is because there are others who will not purchase their ill-informed and half-concealed arguments.  It has nothing to do with Weerawansas and Senaratnes or their relative strengths.  That’s just another misleading analogy.  I would go with Senaratne, but certainly not for the reasons Wickremesekera and Hattotuwa trot out.   There are Sinhalese in the room and not only are they not singing, they don’t even know the song or like the tune.
msenevira@gmail.com 

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4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Click on 'edit post' and once in edit mode, click the 'HTML' button. Search for the term 'white' inside the HTML code (control+F) and simply delete the word 'white' leaving everything else as it is.

this is something like what you will see in the HTML code:

<div style="background-color: white;

<span style="background-color: white;

*delete the word white leaving the semicolon as it is.

Anonymous said...

Hattotuwa's are funded by NGOs. NGOs are funded by western nations and some to a lesser extent by Tamil Diaspora groups, both which are hellbent carving out a separate Tamil area in this tiny island. What else will Hattotuwa's will parrot other than the propaganda sent their way by their dollar masters?

Anonymous said...

:D. As he said earlier he really may need some help to clean up. Hope you^ or someone else could go there and do it for him?.

Shaik Ahamath said...

For decades the blacks in USA suffered horribly with discrimination, but against all odds they bit the bullet and brought in “Affirmative Action” and with it grew the respect for humanity USA once craved.
In UK there was discrimination in housing, employment etc. that was tearing the country apart, but they soon brought in Anti-Discrimination legislation and forty years later, it has become the norm that people do not register their differences although visibly different.
There’s a story of a little boy asking his mother if he could bring his school friend Steven to tea. The mother asks the boy if Steven was black, to which he answers, “I don’t know, I haven’t looked”.
Thirty years of war and even more of blatant discrimination has taught us nothing. Some of our politicians cannot stop spouting Sinhala Buddhist superiority. They openly support the gung-ho mentality of the likes of Bodu Bala Sena, or the Tamil separatists or the Muslim Fundamentalists, thus appeasing and winning the votes of the majority in the respective strongholds, but that only perpetuates the aims of the unscrupulous.
There are enough decent politicians in government with powers to initiate change but alas, a misguided sense of political survival seems to stop them attempting even the basics. The ‘Tamil’ in the room is spoken of as a different specie. It could be the “Sinhalese” or the “Muslim” depending on where the room is, when they should be remaining inconspicuous as “Sri Lankans”.
Mahinda Rajapakse has made a start in recognising Tamil as an official language but he should go further and make it compulsory in all our schools to teach Singhalese, Tamil and English with equal vigour. All our forces should recruit personnel disregarding their religion, caste or creed, and deployed to serve indiscriminately. Discriminators should face stern punishments