The Sunday TimesPlus

17th March 1996



Sri Lanka: the travails of a democracy...

Jayatilleka, Dayan, Sri Lanka: The Travails of a Democracy, Unfinished War, Protracted Crisis (New Delhi: Vikas, 1995) (for International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy) Viii + 174 pp, Rs. 250.

Reviewed by Partha S. Gosh (Director, Indian Council for Social Science Research, Delhi.)

The author dedicates his book to Ranasinghe Premadasa, "our Companero Presidente, assassinated by the LTTE on International Workers Day 1993," and Vijaya Kumaratunga, assassinated by the JVP on February 11th, 1988. "The day the music died." One is surprised at the conspicuous omission of the slain EPRLF leader Pathmanaba in the list particularly when Jayatilleka virtually concludes his study by saying that "the only viable socialist or social democratic vision for 21st century Sri Lanka will have to spring from three sources, the theory and practice of three martyrs: the EPRLF's leader Pathmanaba, Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ranasinghe Premadasa" (p. 159). Is the author another Sinhala Chauvinist and like them he too suffers from an anti-Tamil prejudice? The answer is not in the least. Well grounded in revolutionary Marxist theories with a humane approach to societal problems the author can never raise even the slightest doubt in any one's mind about his credentials in this regard. The absence of Pathmanaba's name, therefore, could be for any reason but this. In any case, that is a peripheral matter.

The book reflects not only Dayan Jayatilleka's erudition but also his background as a revolutionary activist as well as that of a development administrator, indeed a rare combination. At one stage there were even charges against him of hatching violent conspiracy against the state which forced him to remain underground for three long years. Among his 22 co-conspirators was Pathmanaba. After the Indo-Sri Lanka accord of 1987 when an EPRLF government was installed in the North Eastern Province under the Chief Ministership of Vardaraja Perumal he held the charge of Minister of Planning, a post from which he resigned on account of policy differences. A Central Committee Member of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP) which was founded by Kumaratunga, he became a prominent political supporter of Premadasa. Until recently the Director of the Conflict Studies unit of the Colombo based Institute of Policy Studies Jayatilleka is currently the Associate Editor of the Lanka Guardian and the Executive Director of the newly established Premadasa Centre. His ideological and personal association with the above mentioned three leaders, therefore, can be thus explained.

The book is in a way written in the loving memory of Premadasa whose social background was his permanent handicap. "Colombo's elite, which had begun to feel displaced from the centres of power and influence under Premadasa, readily gave vent to all its old fundamentally caste prejudices against him, depicting him as a ruthless killer. Because he came from the lowest end of the social totem pole, and because he was an uppity nigger they were ready to think the worst of him; he became the embodiment of their worst fears and forebodings" (p. 118). The author is agitated because such a man who was least Sinhala Chauvinistic and sincerely desirous of working out a political understanding with the LTTE was so ruthlessly eliminated from the scene.

Compared to several ethnic imbroglios around the world it was no mean achievement on the part of Premadasa to be able to sit with the Tigers and talk. "What is more, he was willing to make concessions which, in some instances, were unilateral in an attempt to win their trust. He used to remind officials that the Tigers had been in the jungles, outside the mainstreams, for 17 years while he had been talking to them for less then 17 months. He used to say lets give the peace process some time because he felt that there was a lot of ground to be covered. This, however, he has not been given credit for, either nationally or internationally" (p. 34). When the LTTE resumed fighting it was such a shock for Premadasa that he fell physically sick. Jayatilleka is convinced that the nature and strategy of the LTTE are such that no negotiated settlement with them would work. "Even if one is arrived at, it is doubtful that they will adhere to it" (p. 50).

What worries the Tigers most is what Balasingham later characterised as the so-called "peace tap". It meant that "Premadasa's behaviour was depriving the LTTE of an enemy, while the war weariness of the Tamil people may have congealed into an irreversible peace settlement" (p. 41). The recent experience of President Chandrika Kumaratunga vindicates the theory. Still it is worthwhile to keep the process of negotiation on and grant the necessary autonomy to the Tamils. For, on the one hand the non reciprocation of the Tigers would discredit them internationally (p. 31) while on the other the day real autonomy is granted "the support base for the insurgency will begin to wither" (p. 78).

To tell his story passionately and reflect upon the maladies the present Sri Lankan society is undergoing the author has chosen a small but crucial phase of its recent history. It starts from 1989 when "Sri Lanka faced a triple crisis of the sort that few if any other nations have faced and survived: a threat to state power posed by the JVP, twin secessionist threats one posed by the LTTE and the other, the implicit threat of partition on the Cyprus model, posed by the North Eastern Provincial Council in the latter part of its period of office and the threat to or at least an erosion of the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan state in the form of the presence and functioning of the IPKF in the North and East. These triple threats collectively helped constitute an almost classical situation for insurrection" (p. 19).

The political strategy of the JVP was essentially to exacerbate the economic crisis mainly by destroying the tea industry (p. 22). (The strategy is universal, just like ULFA and the Kashmiri militants have been trying to do the same with tea and carpet industries in Assam and Kashmir respectively.) The author has argued that it is a myth that the JVP was the result of UNP's thrust of capitalism and its authoritarian streak. Actually in the early stages of the movement its targets were the leftists themselves (pp. 98-99). They were increasingly turning Pol Potist. Had the JVP threat posed the ultimate risk for the government to be overthrown, Indian intervention was probably inevitable. The beleaguered regime would have sought Indian intervention and the latter would have been forthcoming for there was "no option but to intervene in order to prevent what it (India) would have seen as a 'mini Cuba' on its southern doorstep. Given the JVP's ideology of Chauvinism, Delhi would also have perceived a threat to the lives of Tamils living in the south and the plantations" (p. 24).

So far as the threat posed by the LTTE is concerned it has evidently been much more serious. While the LTTE is the number one terrorist organisation in the world, Sri Lanka is one of the smallest in terms of power to live upto the challenge (pp. 70-71). Besides, Prabhakaran has an indomitable ego. When Rajiv Gandhi offered him the Chief Ministership of Jaffna he had snubbed ,"I am already" (p.45). He is master strategist who knows how best to exploit the Sri Lankan political contradictions. "Articles in the Vidtuthalai Puligal, the LTTE newspaper show that the Tigers have made an effort to understand and analyze the strategy of their enemy. They have made an evaluation of the Sinhala democratic formulations, the latter's factions, personalities and behaviour" (p. 59). But there has been no commensurate analysis of the LTTE on behalf of the Sinhala politicians. The danger is too serious if the LTTE ultimately succeeds. "To lose a war to a Tamil force... representing a minority and the most ancient historic enemy, will cause terrible convulsions in the Sinhala psyche. The humiliation and frustrated rage will cause a pathological condition that will last for generations. All social and even personal relations will be poisoned. The whole social fabric may come apart. The state itself will find that it has been hollowed out from within due to the erosion of credibility and legitimacy. It may therefore implode (rather than explode). States defeated in war usually experience such implosive collapse. The collective Sinhala psyche will seek scapegoats even blood sacrifices" (p. 68).

It is against this background that the battle for Jaffna has to be analysed which brings us to the author's so called third threat IPKF and the question of Sri Lankan sovereignty. "Assessing the entirety of the Lankan crisis with the Eelam war at its core, and having lived and struggled through it myself, I can spot only one move that has never been made; one card that has never been played; one path that has never been explored; that is, a Sri Lankan Army assault on Jaffna town. This would dispossess the LTTE of its stable command-control and communication (C3) as well as tax revenue base. That is the only way out despite all the risks involved" (p.131). But from this one must not get the impression that the author visualises an inevitable victory for the Sri Lankan army.

Concerned equally with the danger Sinhala Chauvinism poses to the society (p. 135, see his reference to their self imposed censorship) in which the Buddhist monks with their 'Mahavamsa mindset' (pp. 104, 148) play the most nefarious role he argues that a showdown would have had a sobering impact on both the communities. No wonder that the author is unhappy with the Indian intervention because it came at a time when the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE had not fully exhausted themselves. It might have been better if the final titanic clash between the Lion and the Tiger had taken place because then, both sides would have reciprocally ruined each other. Extreme Sinhala and Tamil Chauvinism would have been put out of commission. The military option would have been discredited in the eyes of each community and the political solution proposed by the left and a fraction of the UNP, would have become acceptable to the masses. All the Chauvinists, on both sides, would have bashed their heads against the stone wall of reality. The masses themselves would have realised through their own bitter experience that peace was in their interest and a political settlement based on regional autonomy the only way to achieve it. The Sinhala and Tamil left, waiting in the wings, might have had their turn on the stage. If the LTTE had been defeated, the more left oriented Tamil forces might have been able to fill the vacuum and this time, the struggle, if it had to be renewed, might have approximated the classic path of protracted People's War. Even the survivors among the Tigers might have gone through a self criticism and might have evolved into a healthier entity. The reconstitution of the ENLF on a more Marxian oriented basis might have been possible. The Accord aborted this and in doing so, provided a scapegoat" (P. 14).

One need not agree with all the diagnostic and prescriptive suggestions made by Jayatilleka. But given the experience of recent months it must be conceded that some of his remarks deserve serious reflection. For example, he advocates a return to the pre-1956 situation to make the Tamils join the political mainstream once again (p 77-88) and suggest for regional autonomy which according to him can be achieved only through a presidential regime and not a parliamentary one which the present government is committed to restore. What is needed is a reformed presidency with checks and balances on the American pattern including the introduction of a second chamber, argues the author (p. 151). But what about Tamil participation in the process now that the LTTE has been evicted from Jaffna, a point with Jayatilleka had laid so much stress upon?

On the whole, both Jayatilleka and the International Centre for Ethnic Studies deserve congratulations for bringing out this timely and thought-provoking study which no serious student of Sri Lankan affairs can afford to ignore. Its production is good and price reasonable.

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