22nd April 2001
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Grasping a harsh reality 

Book Review

"A Tragedy of Errors" by S.L. Gunasekara, reviewed by H.L. de Silva

A Tragedy of ErrorsS.L.Gunasekara's new book which appears five years after his earlier publication entitled "Tigers, Moderates and Pandora's Package", as evident from its title, is of the same genre. It is a lucid exposition of his well-known views on the question of the on-going conflict, in its current phase, and the projected negotiations with the LTTE. 

Unsurprisingly, SL sees the entire exercise of peace-talks as a dangerous charade which the Government has agreed to engage in, presumably, to please "the international community" (which has no real stake in the venture) and which, for Sri Lankans, he fears, may turn out to be yet another tragic misadventure.

Considering his polemical style when dealing with the subject, the language of the book tends to be somewhat abrasive, always direct, with no frills or furbelows; but then who can restrain him when he is engaged in impassioned debate? Others may see him as a Cassandra never failing to warn us of impending doom to whom we must give ear, if only to understand his reasoned argument, even if one may not entirely agree with him. The book needs to be read for no other reason but as a corrective to sloppy thinking and to grasp the harsh reality of things.

As most sceptics are inclined to do, SL finds it impossible to ignore the LTTE's proven track record of perfidious conduct, both in 1990 and 1995, that led to the deaths of hundreds of Sri Lankans (both civilians and the armed forces) and costly military reverses. He makes use of Balasingham's own book "The Politics of Duplicity" to demonstrate convincingly the infamous conduct of the LTTE - the double talk and the double dealing-which finally led to the fiasco of 1995 and the military debacles that followed. The second reason why he cannot seriously consider a resumption of such negotiations is the unbridgeable gap between what the Government has publicly proclaimed it is prepared to enact as law and therefore to offer as a basis of settlement (which in his view is itself a tragic error) and the irrefragable LTTE demand for the establishment of a separate state. 

It is not improbable that the LTTE will seek, at the talks, to score a tactical victory by proposing a Confederation of States and upstage the Government, which will be obliged to reject it as being one step short of secession, and may thereby claim a diplomatic victory to compensate for the diplomatic defeat of its designation as a terrorist organisation. Most awkwardly it has incurred a slur, to use a peculiarly Western journalistic expression, - a "pariah" status-in the international community, which must surely be galling to an organisation that claims to be the sole and accredited representative of a civilised law abiding community. Considering that there was near unanimous opposition to the UK ban among those who articulate Tamil opinion, the Government faces a dilemma in regard to the LTTE claim.

SL seems to rely on his memory in discussing the Thimpu demands of 1985. As a member of that negotiating team it appears (from my notes), that the formulation of the demand for a separate identity was not with reference to the "Tamil speaking people" but the Tamils (of Sri Lanka) as the repositories of the right. The wider expression having been abandoned even at the time of the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976, it did not seek to encompass either the Muslims or the Tamils of recent Indian origin (as Thondaman did not think it prudent at the time to subscribe to the separatist demand). Furthermore, the Tamil groups did not, at the Thimpu talks, describe their ethnic group as a "Nation" but as a "Nationality" which was confusing as in some contexts it signifies citizenship and in others membership of an ethnic group. To avoid this ambiguity the later revised version adopted the concept of the Nation as signifying claimants to a separate statehood. 

Taken in conjunction with the claim to an undefined territory (which was known to include both the Northern and Eastern Provinces) and the right to self-determination, the demands were found unacceptable as they were recognised for what they were: an ill-disguised demand for a separate state. It was a cloak for Eelam and, accordingly, properly rejected. Nor was there, at that stage (according to my recollection), a demand for the recognition of the LTTE as the "sole representatives" of the Tamils. Even though the LTTE took centre stage and the three TULF representatives who, though the most knowledgeable among them, were relegated to the far end of the table. The recognition of such an exclusive claim (of the LTTE to be the sole representatives of the Tamils) by the Government at the forthcoming talks would be a watershed in the history of Tamil politics in this country and should be rejected, because the damage could be incalculable. It would be increasingly difficult, thereafter, to maintain with credibility, the claim that the interests of the Tamils are not to be identified with the LTTE, if the talks fail and the war has to continue.

SL discusses the innumerable problems that would arise if the claim to a separate nationhood or exclusive rights to a homeland is to be recognised. He demonstrates the groundlessness and the mythical basis of such a claim, its illegitimacy and incompatibility with the rights of other groups in a multi-racial society and the obvious injustice of admitting any such claim. It is unthinkable that the Government will enter into any such talks except upon an unequivocal rejection of the Thimpu demands. The thinking of the US Government, reflected in the recent speech of Ambassador Ashley Wills, is an approbation of the consistent stand taken by successive Sri Lankan Governments - the rejection of the claim to an independent state. SL's stand on this is quite rational and simple: what is barred at the front door should not be let in by a side door or a window. He argues that a Government should not disable itself from effectively confronting such a challenge, which, even in the absence of armed conflict may take many devious and insidious forms. Every aspect of the question and every proposed remedy are tested and viewed by him from this perspective: "Does it endanger the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka? - whether it be now or in the long run." It seems to me quite unfair and unjust to portray a man with such clearsighted vision and single minded commitment to the inviolability of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, as a racist, extremist or chauvinist and a warmonger, while encouraging advocates of sectarian interests and proponents of minority aspirations, which are essentially divisive in nature, as though such claims were indisputable both from a political and moral standpoint.

The author focuses on what he considers to be harmful and dangerous features of the recent (August 2000) draft Bill to repeal and replace the Constitution. These are seen as structural weaknesses which debilitate the centre to unprecedented levels of impotence. His arguments need serious consideration as some of the basic assumptions and underlying presuppositions of the current draft are so flawed that they will have fatal repercussions for the future of the whole country, notwithstanding the starry-eyed enthusiasm of the reformers. He quotes in the frontispiece of the book an excerpt from A.J. Wilson's biography of his father-in-law, S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, where Wilson says he believed in the policy of "a little now and more later". If SL's analysis of the draft law is sound, the current strategy may be reparaphrased "a lot now and the lot sooner than later"! What surprises one is why the gift on a platter has been rejected by the LTTE; but what if it is now accepted in the light of diplomatic reverses suffered? An effective defence of the country may be impossible.

The current obsession, among cobblers in Constitutional studies, is to denounce the majoritarian principle as though it were, per se, undemocratic, forgetting that anti-majoritarianism would justify such devices as apartheid, reverse discrimination, asymetrical entitlements to rights and so on. And are not decisions to be made on the majoritarian principle in the ethnic enclaves that are to be part of the new autonomous regions? The truth is that properly understood and fairly applied, the majoritarian principle is a basic norm and cannot be jettisoned unless we are to readmit the "unbalanced" representation of people rejected over half a century ago.

Many of the radical economic policies and populist measures adopted in language, education and culture, during the post-Independence period are now decried by some as being retrogressive steps in the formation of a national identity. But if they were so obviously wrong, how is it that it could have escaped the attention of so many intelligent minds, well-educated and experienced opinionmakers and the talented political elite to whom we had entrusted our destinies? Did they lack the breadth of vision and foresight to avoid the dangers? Or is it that the current diagnosis of our problems which commonly ascribes them to mistaken political policies, is a wrong diagnosis? It may well be that these were inevitable consequences and repercussions of decisions that were basically right or at least seen to be right at the time (I revert to this bewildering question at the end).

Not unexpectedly, SL does not see the causes of the present problem in the way which either the Government or the major opposition party perceives it. In his view, with the present system of proportional representation, neither of the major Sinhala parties can get a clear-cut majority in Parliament, but must depend on minority support. Hence in the lust for power there arises the unprincipled policy of pandering to unconscionable minority demands in competition with each other to the detriment of the majority interests, while seeking to distract the majority on peripheral issues, and clouding the issue. In his view both Sinhalese and Tamils have the same problems and unrealised expectations and they have to be dealt with from a national perspective. There is, according to him, no distinctive or peculiar Tamil problem, apart from the unfortunate animosities which have been created by the mobilisation of ethnic differences by ambitious politicians (on both sides) who have sought their own political advancement, by exploiting such issues and creating ethnic rivalries and general dissension. By nature iconoclastic, SL is inclined to see these idols of the minority - G.G. Ponnambalam and S.J.V. Chelvanayagam-in a poor light which may not be an unfair appraisal, considering that both the fifty-fifty formula for electoral representation in Parliament as well as the concept of an exclusive homeland comprising the Northern and Eastern Provinces in which the minorities were to enjoy political autonomy were perceived by the majority as minority hegemonism and as an unjustifiable deprivation of their rights. He sees no necessity for jettisoning the unitary system in exchange for a weakened centre and opening Pandora's Box.

The author ends on a hopeful note seeing no reason why both communities cannot live together in harmony recognising their mutual rights and interests as they have done through the years.

To end this review on a quizzical note, could this "Tragedy of Errors" have been averted had the political elite and the decision makers of that day and age acted with wisdom and foresight? If George Santayana's aphorism that "those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it", is true, then SL's prognostications must be taken seriously. But what do we say of - Hegel's comment that "the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk"? - This suggests that the wisdom of theory arrives on the scene only after the practical events of the day, including the great catastrophes that befall us have occurred. If this indeed be true,, it would be a depressing thought for the future.

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