Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

The Failure of the Joint Mechanism: Lessons to be Learnt

by Ana Pararajasingham

The enormous resistance to the establishment of a Joint Mechanism for the distribution of tsunami aid has demonstrated the attitude of the Sinhalese political establishment to any kind of power sharing with the Tamil people.  Little wonder, then, that Canadian Liberal party parliamentarian, Hon. Maria Minna, should, following her fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka in March 2005, say that "To be honest with you, I am not terribly positive about the possibility of getting back to peace discussions if they can’t agree on the reconstruction from the tsunami because that should be an easier one,"

Similar sentiments were expressed by the spokesperson for the International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples at the 61st Session of the UN Commission of Human Rights in Geneva in stating that "The developments during the last three years compounded by the post-tsunami experiences raise the spectre that time is running out; that there is no hope for the Tamils within a united Sri Lanka, that their only chance lies in fighting for external self-determination"

The President finally agreed to a Joint Mechanism (P-TOMS) only when she found herself subject to intense international pressure.  But within days the agreement was rendered ineffective due to a judicial challenge ostensibly mounted by the JVP.  It was obvious, however, that there was widespread support for this move across the Sinhala polity and it was not just confined to the JVP.

This is because members of her own party, the bureaucracy, the Buddhist priesthood and, most importantly, influential sections of the Sinhala-owned "national" media regarded the ‘joint mechanism’ to be incompatible with their notions of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.

Underpinning this notion is a mindset that refuses to acknowledge the Island’s multi-national character.  Instead, it is a mindset that subscribes to the view that the entire Island belongs to the Sinhalese and, as such, Sinhala hegemony must prevail.  It is indeed a crude and cruel ideology that manifested itself in several anti-Tamil pogroms between 1956 and 1983; the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, the so-called ‘standardisation schemes’ to limit Tamils entering universities from 1970 onwards and, most tellingly, in the abject indifference to the plight of the victims of the tsunami in the NorthEast of the Island.

Singling out the JVP and the various ‘patriotic’ groups, as the extremists harbouring this crude ideology is patently wrong, for the chauvinistic mindset is far more prevalent.  According to Sinhalese social scientist Kumari Jayawardne, by the 1930’s this mindset was very much in existence among many important sectors of the population.

S W R D Bandaranaike, the present President’s father, was the first to exploit this well-entrenched chauvinism to bulldoze his way into power.  He was certainly not the one to invent it.  Much earlier than Bandaranaike, D S Senanayake, the ‘father’ of the modern Sinhala nation, had revealed his penchant for this particular brand of chauvinism when he proclaimed in 1939, in tones reminiscent of Hitler's "thousand year Reich," "We are one blood and one nation.  We are a chosen people.  The Buddha said that his religion would last 5,500 years.  That means we, as custodians of that religion shall last as long"(Ceylon Daily News, 17 April 1939)

Bandaranaike, however, having supped with the chauvinistic devil to further his political career, found that he could not extricate himself.  As a consequence, in 1957, he was forced to abrogate a pact that he had entered into with the then Tamil leadership agreeing to limited autonomy.

Ever since Bandaranaike was swept into power on the back of Sinhala chauvinism, every Sinhala politician has embraced this chauvinism with glee.  In this endeavour, the support these politicians have received from the media, academics and, of course, the Buddhist clergy can only be described as monumental.

Even those Sinhala politicians who have subscribed to the lofty ideals of socialist brotherhood have not been immune to the seductive appeal of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism.  Take, for instance, the case of Dr Colvin R De Silva, socialist ideologue, who - having warned in 1956 that the Sinhala Only Bill may end up creating two countries (in a memorable quote attributed to him ‘One language two countries: Two Languages one country") - was to become the architect of the 1972 constitution, which enshrined Sinhala supremacy constitutionally in unequivocal terms.

In August 1957, J R Jayawardne (who was to become Sri Lanka's head of state twenty years later) began his campaign against the then Prime Minister Bandaranaike for entering into a pact with the Tamil leader Chelvanayakam to devolve autonomy to the Tamil regions, by declaring:

"The time has come for the whole Sinhala race which has existed for 2,500 years, jealously safeguarding their language and religion, to fight without giving any quarter to save their birthright. I will lead the campaign."

In July 1981, Mrs Wimala Kanangara M.P and Minister for Rural Development declared in parliament "If we are governing we must govern, if we are ruling we must rule.  Do not give in to the minorities.  We are born Sinhalese and Buddhists in this country.  Let us rule.

On 3rd February 1994, The Island newspaper quoted the Sri Lankan President D B Wijetunge as saying, "Our children should be able to claim that this country is the Sinhalese land (Sinhala Deshaya)"

On 5 May 1996, Vice Chancellor, Sri Lanka Vidyalankara University Ven. Walpola Rahula Thero told the Sinhala-owned Sri Lanka Sunday Times, "Get this straight and quote me.  Sri Lanka is a Buddhist Sinhala country.  Let no one make a mistake.  Seventy percent of the country consists of Buddhists and Sinhala people.  Also make this clear that Sri Lanka is the only Buddhist Sinhala country in the world."

In September 1998, the President, Kumaratunge, revealed her own bias when she said in a television interview in South Africa, "They [Tamils] are wanting a separate state – a minority community which is not the original people of the country"

The late Sivaram (Taraki) in an article in the Veerakesari of 10th October 2004 highlighted the potency of this chauvinism by showing that even those Sinhalese who had once supported the Tamil cause were not immune to chauvinism's opportunistic appeal.  Sivaram drew attention to the doings of Tilak Karunaratne (now a founder member of the openly racist Sinhala Urumya), Dr Nalin de Silva of the Mathematics Department at Colombo University (now the Head of Jathika Chinthanaya, which is based on the fundamentalism of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy) and Dayan Jayatileke, all of whom at some stage supported the Tamil cause.

All that has been outlined above demonstrates that this chauvinism is widespread and it brooks no accommodation.  More worryingly, it is irrational.  The inherent irrationality was well encapsulated in a paper on ‘Sinhala Nationalism’ by Professor Michael Roberts of the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Adelaide.  According to Roberts "it is rather a puzzle to me that the staunch Sinhala activists today argue that devolution will divide the country.  They do not seem to recognise the stark division one faces in Sri Lanka today.  So they must be referring to the final, legitimised, juridical division.  But this is perhaps to put a rational veneer on their thinking.  In other words there is something deeper here, something that is not easy to understand….. And, speaking rationally, I also ask: how is it that these protesting voices do not see that in the recent past, a past they are fully cognisant of, the regular failure to grant concessions only pushed the Tamils further down the track towards separatism and worsened the situation for the Sinhalese.  Retrospectively, this should be self-evident.  But it is not recognised"

The failure of the joint mechanism has made it blindingly obvious that this anti-Tamil chauvinism is well and truly alive.

What was once said of the Bourbons that "They learn nothing and forget nothing" applies equally well to the Sinhala polity, which has learnt nothing from the twenty-year-old war nor forgotten the crude chauvinism that lies at the root of the conflict that led to war.

It is important that the international community, whose role is crucial to bringing about a political resolution, takes this mindset into account.  Persisting in waving the ‘carrot’ of financial aid alone is unlikely to persuade this polity to engage in negotiating for a just solution.  Instead, the ‘stick’ needs to be wielded as well.

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Posted August 6, 2005