Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Negotiating with 'Illiberal' Forces

by A.R.M. Imtiyaz, Ph.D.

The assassination of Foreign Minister Mr. Kadirgamar not only deeply shocked many Sinhalese, but also vigorously spurred Southern nationalists who oppose power-sharing arrangements with the LTTE.  Literally, an absence of social peace with justice in ethnically divided societies will engender social disharmony between the different ethnic groups.

It should not be the task of students of political science to inquire whether particular events or phenomenon are good or evil, just or unjust, moral or immoral.  That sort of job goes to philosophers, political elites, leaders and activists.  The job of the student of political science is to understand the events, predict future political reality and recommend some measures which he/she thinks are in the country’s better interests.  Therefore, I purposefully refrain from giving a political science judgment to the event in Colombo in early August.

Winning Sinhala votes

In Sri Lanka, elections are basically ethnically influenced.  I would describe these elections as ethnic elections.  This reality exists not only in Sri Lanka, but also in almost all ethnically divided democratic societies.  Such ethnic elections lead the political elites to carefully play the game and avoid any unnecessary moves to disturb their major aim of staying in power. 

From the SLFP’s Sinhala-Only Act in 1956 to the JVP’s current anti-tsunami pact campaign, the  major purpose is not to help out the poor Sinhalese, but to win Sinhalese votes.  Sri Lanka’s demography and electoral arrangements give a major incentive to Sinhala nationalist forces to outbid their opponents with their anti-minority programs, particularly their anti-Tamil programs.  The Southern political elites outbidding policies finally produced the violent LTTE.

It is true that elites both in the ruling party (President Chandrika Kumaratunga) and opposition (Ranil Wickramasinghe) share considerable interests in sealing a peace pact with the LTTE, the Tamils' major ethno-political movement.  The radical elements of the southern nationalists are highly critical of the ruling elites' attempts to offer political concessions to the LTTE.  These elements also blame the political elites, both in the ruling party  and the major opposition, for their continuous intention to find a negotiated political solution with the LTTE, which became a co-author of the no-war treaty, signed in February 2002.  

In actual fact, the ruling political elites in Colombo will face harsh challenges to selling their political packages to the southern voters if they fail to deliver on the economic expectations of the southern Sinhalese, who have become victims of the ruling elites' liberal economic policies.  Nationalist leaders will carefully plan their political strategies and fill the voters’ hearts with their anti-LTTE programs to outbid their liberal counterparts to gain power.

The point is that southern anti-peace forces are well organized and able to mobilize poor southern voters for their own political ends.  As a result, anti-peace programs will work well to win Sinhalese votes if the liberal and pro-peace forces fail to deliver economic and social justice.

One of the best ways to challenge these nationalist forces is to pay no heed to those anti-peace elements and vigorously put efforts into seeking a power-sharing arrangement.   In strategic political science language, consociational democracy arrangements are needed to fix the ethnic conflict, which is a result of the southern elites’ vote-maximization struggle using anti-Tamil or anti-LTTE programs.  The political elites' major purpose is to win elections or to consolidate power they won in the last elections.  Liberal elites (the UNP and the SLFP) may follow their traditional outbidding strategies to win the Sinhalese sympathies if they find a pro-peace platform would fail to draw sufficient Sinhalese votes.  In this scenario, peace will suffer a heavy blow and the LTTE would find more logical excuses to justify their mobilization and rebellion.

The thesis of this author is that one of the best ways for the Southern ruling elites to challenge the anti-peace elements is to make a pact with the LTTE, because a consociational pact would bring a political solution.  Theoretically, a political solution to the conflict will not only strengthen democracy, but also would bring political stability if it is implemented properly.  Political instability will continue if the current ethnic outbidding strategies are followed.

Ethnic elections

As ethnic elections are around the corner, Foreign Minister Mr. Kadirgamar’s demise should not lend a hand to political elites to resume warmongering slogans or the five decade-old outbidding culture.  Current trends suggest that radical Sinhala nationalists forces such as the JVP and the JHU are actively planning to utilize the Foreign Minister’s demise to win southern Sinhala votes in their quest for power.  This is an accurate measure of Sri Lanka’s outbidding political culture. Anti-racist forces and liberal elites need to act carefully with the country’s future in mind and take moves to counter these southern forces.  This would not only help to build Tamil trust, but also would weaken the LTTE’s distrust of these liberal forces.  However, if the southern elites and political leaders deny enlightened approaches and continue their outbidding political culture, then Sri Lanka would continue to be the homeland of deadly ethnic conflict in Asia.

Why do they rebel?

Technically, guerrilla-style insurgency or terrorists’ activities pose a serious challenge to the state and its forces.  What the Iraq insurgency against the Anglo-American invasion clearly proves is that even sophisticated military powers can be successfully challenged if the insurgency loses trust in the political establishment and has sufficient motivation to rebel against the system.  Noone was born a terrorist.  Insurgents or terrorists are the product of their political and social system.  In other words, when the political system acts unfairly, rebellion will occur.  When the 'rules of the game' are unfairly fixed or the rules are set to serve a particular community in divided societies, marginalized groups rebel against the state and its institutions.  That is to say, a set of unfair rules of the game in a political society will likely motivate the marginalized people to rebel and to support either political or violent mobilization.  The LTTE comes to this theoretical understanding since they are a product of southern elites’ ethnocentric policies to outbid their opponents.

The motivation of insurgency largely comes from oppression and discrimination.  Nevertheless insurgents’ motivation can be disturbed if the political elites carefully change their game plan to one which at aims at power-sharing democracy with those illiberal forces.  (By illiberal, I mean ones that act outside the current state-centered system of government.)  This would facilitate those illiberal forces to grow more trust in the state and its institutions.  The more the ruling elites develop a willingness to share power with the illiberal forces that rebel against the state, the more the illiberal forces' trust is raised in a democratic system.  Trust always matters and it strengthens illiberal forces' confidence in a democratic system.  The LTTE might have more trust in the country’s political establishment if it were convinced by being granted wider political autonomy.

Power-sharing with illiberal forces

Recent political science studies prove that illiberal forces' influence in deeply divided democratic societies can be challenged effectively if the liberal forces in societies show the political maturity to share power with those illiberal forces.  Generally, almost all oppressed ethno-political groups in ethnically divided societies are illiberal, out of necessity.  One could observe this reality from India to China to Sudan to Northern Ireland to Quebec.  These forces can grow stronger, even challenge the whole political establishment and seek a separate state and institutions if they are geographically based.  Existing political science literatures suggest, however, that these illiberal forces can be contained if the political elites have an interest in making peace.

It is very encouraging to observe ruling elites in Colombo express great enthusiasm to continue the fragile no-war treaty.  Both the ruling elites and the LTTE need to work hard to re-build their crisis-ridden confidence.  The state has more responsibility in this endeavor.  Winning the marginalized people's trust is a difficult and intricate task, but it is not an impossible job.  Trust-building exercises would encourage the illiberal forces in the ethnic conflict to  compromise their rigid policies and tactics.  Efforts by the state would also spur the international forces to apply significant pressure on the LTTE to negotiate with the southern (ruling) political elites.  

However, the ruling elite’s refusal to offer power-sharing democracy would not only strengthen the LTTE’s cause and campaign, but also would isolate southern elites from international opinion.  Sri Lanka will meet a painful end if it continuously defies international opinion.

For that reason, major southern liberal political elites should not give up their willingness for a negotiated political settlement based on a federal formula.  It is, in fact, a daunting task, but the best, most viable way to defeat the LTTE.  International leverage must be placed on the Southern elites to seek serious political negotiation with the LTTE.  Political elites need to think at least little bit for the country’s betterment.  Sri Lanka cannot afford to listen to those who advocate war.  The economy is already in a bad shape as investors express deep distrust in its stability and it cannot, in practical terms, afford any nationalist-inspired ethnic war against the LTTE.

Sri Lanka: Paradise or home of suicide bombers?

Ethnic elections in Sri Lanka have played key role in marginalizing minorities and, particularly, the Tamils.  Political elites and leaders need to think of new strategies to win elections rather than riding the anti-Tamil or anti-peace platform.  The earlier the political elites give up ethnic outbidding on the minorities, the sooner Sri Lanka will face a decent future.  

The point is that the road is still wide open for a consociational map.  The choice is in the hands of Sri Lankan elites and political leaders, particularly the Sinhalese, to lead the island into what it truly was at one time - a paradise.  Failure in this enterprise will not help to erase Sri Lanka’s current image in the international arena as a home of Tamil suicide bombers and uncompromising radical Sinhala-Buddhists nationalists.

Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz is doing research on the ethno-political conflict in Sri Lanka at the Department of Political Science, Temple University, USA.

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Posted August 26, 2005