Return of Rajapaksas and Tamil Nationalism
Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in as the seventh president of Sri Lanka in Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura, he is the first one to be sworn in Ruwanwelisaya and the third to do so outside of Colombo. He was elected with a landslide victory of 52.25 percentage only with the Sinhala votes which he promised during his electoral campaign. Securing votes more than needed with the help of the Sinhala-Buddhists and Sinhala-Buddhist mindset voters and ensuring that the president could be voted only, and if only by the Sinhala-Buddhists and Sinhala-Buddhist mindset voters, a culture that aligns with unitary mindset. The results of the presidential election not only manifested polarisation that is prevalent among the voters but also was exclusionary as to reiterate that Sri Lanka, the island nation is for Sinhala-Buddhists.
Ruwanwelisaya and Numerocracy
Why did Mr. Gotabaya choose Ruwanwelisaya? Modern Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism begins with Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), a lay devotee of Buddhism, claims Charles Keyes (2016). Anagarika Dharmapala constructed using the story of Dutugemunu-Ellara war from 2nd century BCE as the war between the Sinhalese and Tamils, an ethnoreligious war justifying the killing of non-Buddhists who were unbelievers and were not more than beasts and by killing them that the king had not committed any sin (quoted in Keyes 2016). A just war theory was constructed in order to justify the atrocities against the non-Sinhala-Buddhists and the theory till today has been applied to do so. The stupa in Ruwanwelisaya is believed to have been built by King Dutugemunu in Anuradhapura where the modern Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism finds its roots. Swearing in the place where, as per the story, the king Dutugemunu is said to have killed the Tamil king Ellara thus portraying himself as the ‘new avatar’ of Dutugemunu who would safeguard the Sinhala-Buddhists, Mr. Gotabaya invests in the Sinhala-Buddhists collective psyche.
For those who believe that democratic exercise elected the 7th president, it would be misleading if only the numbers matter in a democracy, A. J. Wilson would call this exercise ethno-numerocracy as only the numbers that decide the president for Sri Lanka being an ethnic-numerocratic democracy. Claiming that democratic exercise decided the president, which is to say that numbers of the majority decision, a decision that the minorities should abide by if this is so the island that long held the tradition of democracy in South Asia as claimed by some of the political historians is sliding into majoritarian ethnocracy. It is apt to note here that TNA the party that claimed to have been representing Tamils in parliament has been using the rhetoric that minority votes deicide the president, which is problematized as in the last election vote bank of the minority communities was not the deciding factor.
The majority deciding on minorities based on numbers constructs a new political culture which is the dark side of democracy says, Michael Mann. Democracy that decides based on numbers has a hegemonic character that can be exploited by the majority in favor of them, the characteristic that leads to ethnic cleansing of the numerically fewer communities. Sri Lanka could be a research state on this model.
Problematizing Tamils demands for the right to live as a nation in Sri Lanka
In his first interview as the 7th president of Sri Lanka, Mr. Gotabaya spells out that the Tamils leaders have been fooling the Tamils, which could be true that the leaders of the Tamils political parties have been fooling the Tamils in every election promising solutions for political demands but Mr. Goatabya clearly articulated that the democratic space to discuss a political solution based on what the Tamils suggest cannot be done especially demands a federal model of democracy which is to say that Tamil political parties no longer can invest on the rhetoric of ‘we would talk with this government also finding a solution for political demands of Tamils’, as the space for it is closed. The ‘democratic space’ that the previous government campaigned for in terms of talking about Tamils as a nation, Tamil territorial integrity, self-determination found no space in the current government. Suppression against Tamils has taken different forms and the current one is the latest of it.
Inferring from election results and reading between the lines of the first interview indicate that the prime political project under this government would be to strengthen the unitary nature of the island, centralizing power in the center which is contrary to the demands of the Tamils who advocated for devolution of power to the periphery, a federal model. Ignoring the Tamils’ political demands would not address the root cause of the conflict on the island that gave rise to war and Tamil resistance. The elections that are held in Sri Lanka are not for Tamils rather for Sinhalese who reiterate their political demand that Sri Lanka should remain a unitary nation-state that is linked to Mahavamsa- mindset. Tamils need to transcend the electoral politics in Sri Lanka as more than 70 years of history have unraveled. The above political project of the current government ignores the Tamil demand for the right to live as a nation while problematizing the legitimacy and credibility of the liberation struggle of the Tamils depicting it as an unwanted effort invested on, thus rendering the liberation struggle of the Tamils delegitimized. The aim of the above efforts of the Sinhala state is to depoliticize Tamil nationalism that emerged as a resistance movement against the Sinhala nationalism that is oppressive and exclusionary. Depoliticizing Tamil nationalism is to paint a weak picture of the liberation struggle that the Tamils took on be it non-violent or armed and to render meaninglessness on the sacrifices made thus closing the chapter of the liberation struggle for autonomy, territorial integrity, and the demand of being recognized as a nation while sending a strong message to the international community that there is no waging of war against Tamils as the Tamils continue to spell out the post-2009 era as war by other means.
In the same interview, Mr. Gotabaya expresses, “they were fighting in the jungle”, therefore educating them is inevitable. The above statement needs to be looked through the prism of the American counterinsurgency manual that strategizes how states should use counterinsurgency tactics without using violence, delegitimizing the struggle which is to say liberation struggle needs to be isolated from the people who had given recognition to the struggle which is the legitimacy. The second is to isolate the people from the freedom fighters therefore the freedom fighters do not represent the demands of the people collective thus problematizing representation and credibility of the struggle while converting the mass support towards the state. Making the oppressed accept the legitimacy of the government is to make the oppressed accept state agency as its sole representation while turning the Tamil polity against the freedom fighters themselves and this was and is done during post-2009. The then Rajapaksa government had it done via psychological operations waged after 2009. The efforts of the current government seem to invest in the same political agenda, alienating the people from freedom fighters thus preventing any effort of mobilizing resistance against the oppressive state. After 2009 the identity, ‘Sri Lankaness’, was given priority rather than being recognized or identified along the ethnic cleavage, ‘Being a Sri Lankan’ as the primary identity has the political project of strengthening the unitary nation-state which is the Sinhala-Buddhist mindset. Being a Sri Lankan is a political identity that the state-imposed on which is why Tamils and other minority groups identify themselves along the ethnic groups that they belong to for ‘Sri Lankaness’ is linked to belonging to Sri Lanka which is a Sinhala-Buddhist unitary nation-state that is hegemonic and imperialistic.
The return of Rajapaksas has strengthened the Sinhala-Buddhist collective psyche and has given confidence to the same. Asserting the superiority of the Sihala-Buddhist collective psyche is to provide confidence which is to provide majoritarian psyche with a tool to question the existence of the numerically fewer communities, when, strengthened Sinhala-Buddhist collective psyche is mobilized against the minorities paving the way for ethnic cleansing, has been the history. Re-reading of Dutugemunu-Ellara story and the historiographical rendering of the story done by Anagarika Dharmapala and his just war theory of Buddhism based on the story, killing the non-believers is not a sin, and the historical ceremony of president swearing-in at Ruwanwelisaya portraying himself another Dutugemunu who would safeguard the integrity of Sinhala-Buddhism, nation, and people give rise to Sinhala-Buddhist mobilization against the minority groups in the island, war by other (non-violent) means. War waged by other means by Sinhala-Buddhist-centric government interpreting it as the mandate given by the majority thus justifying the same is the extension of war itself and to construct an alternative leadership that can lead the Tamils through troubling waters needs to come from outside the political party leadership.
Tamils advocate that the Sinhala state committed genocide against Tamils historically culminating in Mullivaikal in 2009 and structural genocide continues to take place. The reports of the UN and other human rights organizations claim that crimes committed during the last phase of war if investigated could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity and the war was led by the then defense secretary and the incumbent president. Sri Lanka either is setting a trend in a democratic tradition that perpetrators could be elected if the majority decides to do so. Seeing the president who claims to be responsible for the war victory at the cost of international crimes especially for the ones whose children were raped, tortured, killed, made to disappear, etc., is retraumatizing. Demanding for justice from the perpetrator believing that he would deliver justice is asking for a white elephant that does not exist. The Tamils are pushed into this reality and handling the reality now would decide the fate of the Tamils in the future.
Rajapaksas and Transitional Justice Mechanism
The failure of the transitional justice mechanism in Sri Lanka had been discussed in another forum as there had not been any transition rather ‘return’ of perpetrators in power and those involved in advocating for international mechanism and investigation expressed given the history that Sri Lanka has. After the election in 2015, the international community with the help of the Sinhala state including the activists in the South trapped Tamils through transitional justice mechanism promising that said mechanism would deliver justice for the crimes committed through those activists themselves did not acknowledge that Tamil genocide took place. Transitional justice mechanism was used mainly to depoliticize the Tamil liberation struggle though the discourse was tuned to focus on individual rights than collective rights. Returning to Tamil collective demands such as international investigation, federalism, self-determination, the merger of North-East would pave way for the return of Rajapaksas was the fear-mongering tool used by the South activists and diplomatic mission. Reading between lines of that rhetoric is that Tamils could put forth the demands that do not disturb the Sinhala-Buddhist collective psyche. Thus political demands of the Tamils were diluted to mere individual rights as those who exploited the democratic space to travel in the North-East were not ready to talk about Tamils’ collective rights. The donor agencies lavishly funded the programs for most South-based NGOs after 2009 used it as an opportunity for extending their projects and victims of war were objects on whom projects could be capitalized upon. The same effort of coming towards the North-East was not invested in the South in depoliticizing the Sinhala polity on Sinhala nationalism. Tamil nationalists became the extremists and spoilers, not Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists. If accountability was concentrated on eradicating the culture of impunity we could have avoided the situation that we are in rather the democratic space was used to expand the projects deceiving Tamils that is how the previous five-year term was exploited by the activists from the South and international community thus contributing towards the return of Rajapaksas.
Late Sivaram has this to say on neo-colonialism:
“There are NGOs and project-based research centers are operating focussing on democracy, human rights, rule of law, strengthening civil society groups, conducting programs for the youth and elite groups. Looking at what they are doing and the concentration of the USA and the West, one might wonder that these are for empowering the project and the view is also accepted by the elites in the diaspora who might say that our youth may not know and they need to learn from these ‘whites’, that is neo-colonialism now. Under the guise of establishing rule of law and democracy, there is a danger that awaits the Tamils-interference of the West. The NGOs that are executing and implementing the projects on rule of law and democracy paint a picture that the Tamils do not know and this has to be brought in from the West via a centralized system mostly benefitted by the South NGO sector.
In order to execute the project and to hide the reality of the politics behind the project, the institutions hire the elite. Buying the concepts of neoliberalism and globalization paints a rosy picture of imperialism. We all know the results that Tamils collectively go through now depending only in India who acted as the stepmother for Tamils. The perspective we had about India blurred us not understanding its politics as India played a significant role in eliminating the liberation struggle. Had there been knowledge about the politics India played the Tamils would have been saved or we could have prevented a genocide.
Analyzing the number of organizations that are working or funding the organizations in the North-East, one needs to be clear there is a mission given to them -imperialism. Imperialism using soft power. We also take into consideration the co-operations between countries, especially among the armed forces. Looking beyond our mask ….”
Had the perpetrators been held accountable for the crimes committed, we could have prevented the situation now, and all those who were part of the previous government without demanding swift action are responsible for the situation prevailing including the civil society activists and Tamil political parties that supported the previous government. ‘Don’t rock the boat’ politics did not yield fruits as for those whose concern was not to rock the boat by bringing in to the table, political demands of the minorities especially Tamils as most of the investment was capitalized on safeguarding those who were in power than pressurizing them to commit to the promises pledged during the campaign.
An international committee including the UN other actors needs to be held accountable for the situation now for no one was willing to pressurize the previous government to keep to the promises, therefore, they are also responsible for the (non)democratic mess now. The advocacy needs to be taken forward with a bloc that is not part of the USA-West axis insisting on an international investigation that seems to deliver justice and the space given now should be utilized for.
Given the historical circumstances, the incumbent president needs to be in power for the efforts taken forward by the powers from outside the country that would like to fish in the troubled waters, while playing the trump card of international crimes committed against him in order to keep him in check. Knowing the importance of Tamil sea and its geographical context and significance those interested in keeping the powers in check via dominating the Tamils sea helped Sinhala state destroy the armed power that Tamils had for them, the powers dominating the power then became a hurdle to carry forward their agenda, as of now the Sinhala state would need a power structure that does not support the demand of Tamils while not being contrary to unitary nation-state building in post-2009.
An alternative leadership need to emerge not from Tamils political parties rather outside of that space
The existing situation takes us back to the 1956s, the father of non-violent resistance Gene Sharp said that the saviour/s cannot come from the outside rather it emerge from the inside. The post-2009 era shifted the liberation struggle epic center outside the Tamil traditional homeland towards UN and international -centric which was a political agenda for dealing with the Eezham-centric liberation approach was a difficult one for the international community. When the epic center was shifted the UN and the international community became the saviour/s of the Tamils, in fact, they were complicit in genocide as most of the reports unraveled. The international and UN-centric approach to Tamil liberation struggle is a trap that we have been pulled into. Given the circumstances now the Tamils are left with one choice, reconstruction of Tamil nation, mobilizing from the grassroots thus making the liberation struggle a mass movement that is inclusive. Mobilizing the Tamil nation into a mass movement is the need of the hour and no political party has the credibility and the capacity to do so for all the Tamil political parties have become election-centric beyond which the parties are not ready to walk an extra mile.
Uniting the Tamil nation as a movement, a leadership that warrants commitment and dedication respect the sacrifices made in the past while learning from the past and looking forward to the future. The leadership cannot be state-centric rather non-state-centric. The type of leadership that has credibility and legitimacy to take the liberation struggle forward. Constructing such leadership beyond Tamil political party space is not an easy endeavor.
The accusation leveled against Tamil nationalism as an ideology is that it did not address the internal issues such as caste, patriarchy, religious fundamentalism, regionalism, class hierarchy, etc., which could be true. Tamil nationalism was constructed as a resistance movement against Sihala nationalism that is suppressive and oppressive, is also progressive. Tamil nationalism in post-2009 would certainly need a retrospective approach while continue remain a resistance movement against the imperial and hegemonic Sinhala nationalism. Looking for solutions for the issues within the Tamil community should not lead us to further dividing Tamil polity rather stronger union to face the oppressive structure.
In order to take the struggle forward keeping the Tamil collective psyche united and strengthened is inevitable for due to fear psychosis the progressiveness of Tamilness could be weakened but the history suggests the contrary took place, for the liberal peacebuilding concept ruptured the basic fabric of the Tamil community collectively. Constructing a leadership that can mend the ruptures of the fabric within Tamil community while taking it forward to the next realm is a herculean task entrusted and that leadership, an alternative can only from outside the Tamil party political leadership.