Democracy and Ethnicity

It’s not always that visiting officials from other nations discuss Sri Lanka with India and Indian States (Provinces). Norway and Japan did so, engaging only New Delhi, when they were involved in peace-facilitation. They had as much to learn from the Indian experience as they had to tell India on what was in the pipeline.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s references to Sri Lanka, both in New Delhi and later in Chennai, where she called on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa thus assumes significance. Clinton did not say anything that her aide Robert Blake had not said earlier in the year in Colombo.

In context to times, there was no mention of ‘war crimes’ in Clinton’s references. An Indian statement ahead of her visit had in fact referred to questions being raised about the Darusmann Report, commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in international forums like the UN Human Rights Council.

Clinton’s reference to the US looking for ‘innovative and creative ideas’ to ‘break the impasse’ was in relation to Jayalalithaa mentioning post-war rehabilitation in Sri Lanka. In a 12-para Tamil Nadu Government Press release on the meeting, references to Sri Lanka was in the ninth.

The references to Sri Lanka in the Press release were preceded by Tamil Nadu’s economy and investment climate. Paragraphs were allocated to the automobile and auto-component industries, the solar energy sector and skill-development in the State. Read in the context of the two resolutions the Chief Minister got passed by the State Assembly on Sri Lanka related issues only weeks earlier, her references at the Clinton meeting were more focussed and issue-specific.

This was the case with the pre-resolutions address of State Governor Surjit Singh Barnala. The Jayalalithaa Government drafted the speech, the Governor delivered the speech. The resolutions followed, and without notice. These are all compulsions of democracy, and of running governments.

A day after meeting Clinton, the Chief Minister received Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India, Prasad Kariyawasam. It was their first meeting after her return to power. Accompanying Kariyawasam in what was termed a ‘courtesy call’ was the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner at Chennai, V. Krishnamurthy. Here again, the Chief Minister confined herself to the issues of rehabilitation in Sri Lanka, and also spoke about the concerns impacting on the Tamil Nadu fishermen.

Sri Lanka needs to comprehend the complexities of the situation arising around it. The Tamils in the country have to appreciate their circumstances, and act accordingly. The on-going negotiations between the Government and the TNA, while being slow, can be the only way out. The world has to take note of the negotiations.

Power-devolution and political solution, to sustain, should be a product of negotiations. It cannot flow from the barrel of the gun or a process aimed at tiring out the other side. Nor can development models be substitutes for devolution of power. No political solution can be effective, if achieved for the Tamils by the international community holding the gun to the head of the Sri Lankan Government.

Such a course can only be counter-productive, and the results worse than the fate that the Tamils had suffered over the past decades. For some, particularly in the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, still wedded to a ‘separate State’, it might offer a window in the post-war context. The world, as also the Tamils in Sri Lanka, need to make their choice – and spell it out clearly. Else, they would have been misled by the time they both realised.

Independent of the results of the second phase of local government elections held in the North, along with the rest of the country, the Tamils in Sri Lanka need to understand what have become certain thumb-rules of Third World democracy. Use of ‘State power’ to win elections is not linked to ethnicity. It is linked to political greed.

In the end, the Tamils often charge their brethren with misusing State power, money power and muscle power to try and win elections. Similar charges have also been laid out against the party in power at the national-level, by those in the political Opposition, almost since Independence.

It is a political reality elsewhere, too, that includes the West, starting with the US, the most powerful of the world’s democracies. The Afro-Americans, despite their numbers and physical strength, have often complained about being kept out of the US poll system. In India, the situation has begun changing for the good.

The Tamils in Sri Lanka need to distinguish between what flows from the inherent deficiencies of democracy in the country and their own ethnicity. This confusion of attributing larger national concerns to ethnicity-linked bias should end. The contradictions could begin ending there, too.

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