Waiting for the Sun Gods

By Tisaranee Gunasekara
Published November 27th 2005 in Asian Tribune
Now that the newly elected President of Sri Lanka has made his inaugural policy speech all attention would be focused on Vanni and the annual Hero’s Day Message of the Birthday Boy Vellupillai Pirapaharan. Such attention is indeed deserved since it is none other than the Tigers who decide when the next war should begin. Neither Ranasinghe Premadasa nor Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga wanted war; but war was exactly what they got, because war was what Mr. Pirapaharan wanted.

It will be no different this time; despite his Stone Age conceptions of the ethnic problem Mr. Rajapakse wants another war as little as his predecessors did. There will be war if Mr. Pirapaharan in his divine wisdom decides that war is in the interest of the Tigers (and Tiger Eelam); there will be a continuation of the present ‘absence of war’ if Mr. Pirapaharan in his divine wisdom decides that war is not in the interest of the Tigers (and Tiger Eelam), right now. All any Sri Lankan leader can do is to hope for the best and be ready for the worst; to hope for peace but be ready for war.

The greater danger for Tamil democracy would be if Mr. Pirapaharan in his Heroes Day Speech dons the mantle of reason and offers to talk unconditionally. As always the new government will be rapturous; the world will once again smile at the Tigers; and there will be an even greater silence when the LTTE continues to kill and conscript. The Tigers will ask for concessions at the expense of the Tamil democracy and the new President is quite likely to consent in the name of peace.

We will know soon whether or not Mr. Pirapaharan divines an immediate shooting war to be more conducive to the goal of Tiger Eelam. Of course he may not make his intentions all that clear since when occasion demands he can do an excellent imitation of the Delphic Oracle. In that case the war of interpretation will begin until time and events prove things one way or the other.

In his inaugural policy speech President Rajapakse reiterated his intention of commencing a new peace process and invited the Tigers to come for talks. Since his speech also contained a rejection of the traditional homeland concept and an affirmation of his commitment to a unitary state he may have given Mr. Pirapaharan an excellent excuse to tell the world and the Tamil people that no meaningful power sharing arrangement is possible under such conditions. Mr. Rajapakse’s stand on devolution is certainly a step back, retrogression into the pre-1987 times. All his predecessors with the exception of DB Wijethunga (of the tree and vines infame) committed themselves to devolving power to the Tamil people to a greater or a lesser degree. Mr. Rajapakse seems careful not to commit himself on the issue of devolution, one way or the other. Instead he talks about other things – the pluralist nature of Sri Lanka, the absolute equality of all citizens, the need to ensure that people can do business with the state in their own language….

It will be easy or even tempting to write off Mr. Rajapakse as an unreconstructed Sinhala supremacist who understands nothing of the Tamil struggle. But this would also mean underestimating the capacity for change inherent in most democratically elected leaders. Call it opportunism, call it realism; these leaders can do a near complete turnabout when they think the situation demands it. And despite his confusion about the nature of the problem Mr. Rajapakse did decide to further extend the merger of the North and the East. That is perhaps a sign that the man is not all that obdurate all the time.

A New Reality?

The saga concerning the anti-conversion Bill is illuminating in this respect. The Bill was backed by powerful forces (not necessarily numerous but capable of creating havoc) and none of the democratic leaders dared to go against it openly, even though it was known that neither Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga nor Ranil Wickremesinghe was happy with the idea. But the maximum either could do was to adopt delaying tactics and to announce that a conscience vote will be allowed for parliamentarians when the Bill comes up in the House. When Mahinda Rajapakse showed his interest in wooing the JHU, the prime mover of the Bill, it looked as if the Bill would be law ere long. But Mr. Rajapakse’s the deal with the JHU made no mention of the Bill; in fact during his campaign he was careful not to make any mention of the issue, despite his tactic of and need for courting Sinhala Buddhist votes.

Mr. Rajapakse in his acceptance speech indicated that he had no intention of backing the Bill when he stated that the state had no business interfering in the affairs of any religion. He went a step further in his policy speech on Friday and reiterated the freedom not only to worship any religion but to ‘embrace’ any religion. It seems as if the JHU the anti-conversion Bill will not see the light of day, despite the fact that Mr. Rajapakse needs the backing of the JHU in parliament in order to keep his government going.

International pressure would have had something to do with it. But the primary factor was undoubtedly national - the voter; the need to win the Christian vote. The election results show that Mr. Rajapakse did manage to win a segment of the Christian vote, despite his alliance with the JHU (doubtless because his manifesto made no mention of the Bill). He would want not only to maintain this support but to enhance it. Consequently he is unlikely to do anything that may antagonise Christian opinion. Therein lies the main reason for the marginalisation (and possible abandonment) of the anti-conversion bill.

In a previous time the Bill would have been like the Sinhala Only; that was when Southern leaders could obtain huge majorities without minority support. It is important to understand the nature and the magnitude of the change brought about by the proportional representation system. If that system had been in place from the time of Independence no government in Sri Lanka would have won a two thirds majority. Consequently many of the political decisions which caused much harm to the country, starting with the Sinhala Only, would not have happened – not only because no government would have had the requisite majority but also because majority leaders would have needed minority support even to form stable governments. Therefore any legislation strongly opposed by any minority community would not have seen the light of day.

Let us take one concrete example – that of 1956. At that election the MEP of SWRD Bandaranaike (consisting of SLFP, VLSSP and Bhasha Peramuna Coalition), obtained 43.7% of the total valid vote. That gave the party a near two thirds majority in parliament because of the first past the post system (51 seats out of 95). If the PR system was in place that government would have obtained around 42 seats i.e. well short of a simple majority. Obviously that would not have been sufficient to introduce the Sinhala Only Bill; perhaps more importantly the political mood would have been different since the MEP would have been preoccupied with trying to find coalition partners to form a stable government (SWRD Bandaranaike being the consummate political opportunist he was may even have wooed the Federal Party with its 10 seats!). The mood of euphoria, the feeling of electoral and political omnipotence would have been absent; consequently there would have been no room for Hubris. For all those reasons either the Sinhala Only bill would not have been introduced or there would have been a Bill that gave equal or near equal status to the Tamil language.

The Need to Engage

It is therefore important to comprehend the politico-electoral repercussions of the PR system. The minorities cannot be ridden roughshod over, as it was possible earlier. The minorities have political clout and any legislation strongly opposed by them is unlikely to see the light of day. The Christian community obviously used this invisible veto wisely; they are divided politically but united in their opposition to the anti-conversion bill. Their non-vocal opposition to the Bill (articulated behind closed doors by the Christian parliamentarians of both the SLFP and the UNP) seems to have compelled both Mr. Rajapakse and Mr. Wickremesinghe to a position of not supporting or promoting the Bill; even the JVP would not yell about the issue because of its need to win over non-Buddhist Sinhalese.

But in order to have clout one has to be a player. Ironically the Tigers seem to have understood this basic truth. For example the LTTE used the TNA numbers to get then President to tilt towards the Tigers and against Col. Karuna in the run up to the Good Friday Operation. The strength of the EPDP lies in its one parliamentary seat. Any Tamil party which can contest and win even one seat in the North and the East will be able to have political clout perhaps far in excess of its limited numbers.

Let us consider a hypothetical a situation. What if the TNA offered its support to any candidate who is for a federal solution at the recent Presidential election? In that case even Mr. Rajapakse would have been interested; he would have also persuaded the JVP to allow him to drop any explicit mention of the unitary state from their Accord and his policy platform – just as he obviously persuaded the JHU to let him be silent on the anti-conversion bill. The JVP would have agreed since its main objective is the defeat of Ranil Wickremesinghe and not the defeat of the Tigers. The TNA would have been openly wooed by both parties and could have used it to get the best deal for the Tamil people.

This is a situation that is very much in favour of Tamil democracy. Sinhala leaders can no longer afford to back Sinhala supremacist legislations which are opposed by this or that segment of the minority communities. They need the minorities and they would eagerly welcome any minority support. And since the main enemy of all three major Southern parties would always be each other the minorities have even greater room for bargaining. Unfortunately it does not look as if the anti-Tiger Tamil leaders realise the full extent of his potential.

Opposing the Tigers is not enough. These parties must make a greater effort to win over the Tamil people. In a democracy no party, no leader can have absolute dependence on any community or segment of the populace. That is why even parties such as the UNP and the SLFP place such importance on wooing every segment of the electorate. They know from experience the price of not doing so – defeat and humiliation. True the anti-LTTE Tamil parties would have to face the threat of the Tigers when they engage in open political work. Still there is no other way out if one is serious about defeating the Tigers.