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Current Concerns  >  2008  >  No 15/16, 2008  >  Sri Lanka: The State Changes Face [printversion]

Sri Lanka: The State Changes Face

During the course of the 25-year long civil war, the Sri Lankan state has changed character, which is now manifest very sharply. Sri Lanka has become a national security state where civil and political rights remain suspended, where the civil-military relationship has changed and the military has been accorded greater say. The ethnic communal and majoritarian nature of the state is also now very apparent. The idea of Sri Lanka as a multiethnic and multi-religious society is one which the establishment refuses to accept.
Sri Lanka‘s raging war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has given rise to a host of public debates and controversies. The constant revision of the military‘s deadlines to “defeat” the LTTE in battle has raised serious misgivings about the Rajapakse administration‘s understanding of the nature of the country‘s protracted civil war. The government‘s cavalier attitude to the human rights and humanitarian consequences of the war and its hostile attitude to the international actors who raised concerns have to some extent isolated the regime internationally. The English-speaking spokesmen (they are all men with beards!) of the government seem to believe that they can intimidate regional and global powers into submission on humanitarian issues. Meanwhile, the sorry fate of the Tamil civilians who are caught in the cross-fire has caused much political controversy in Tamil Nadu. It seems that the Tamil Nadu political parties have suddenly woken up to a reality that they had forgotten: their central government has been aiding and abetting a warring party that treats the Tamil citizens in a particularly degrading manner.

Controversial Statement

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka‘s army commander has also created a controversy by pouring out his heart to a Canadian newspaper. In an interview, he has said, among other things, that Sri Lanka belonged to the majority Sinhalese nation and that the ethnic minorities should not put forward “unjust” demands. Two issues have been highlighted in the ensuing public controversy. The first is about whether it was proper for the army commander to make political statements, a function which is usually reserved for civilian politicians. The second is about the political incorrectness of the statement itself when one considers the fact that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Muslim and Tamil political parties in the opposition and civil society activists have expressed their shock over this statement. According to them, only extreme Sinhalese nationalists believe Sri Lanka to “belong” to the Sinhalese. How, as critics pointed out, can the head of the country‘s army make such an outrageous statement while an ethnic civil war was going on?
There is also another way to look at this controversy. The army chief‘s statement, however outrageous and politically incorrect it appears, actually demonstrates some of the dynamics of the politics of Sri Lanka‘s ongoing war. Two of them can be easily discerned. The first is that the army chief makes important political statements, not because he has forgotten that he is a military man, but because he is a military man. He knows that the traditional civil-military division of labour in the country has now been altered. It has been altered under conditions of the present war of which he is a leading stakeholder. The second is that the Sri Lankan state is both ethnic majoritarian and communal, a tendency which has resurfaced quite strongly under conditions of the present war.

Supremacy Of Military

Concerning the first, it needs to be noted that Sri Lanka no longer seems to be an exceptional “third world democracy” in which the military is strictly under the civilian control. Twenty-five years of protracted internal war seems to have changed that old equation in favour of the defence establishment. This process began slowly during president Chandrika Kumaratunga‘s time when she created the space for the military establishment to influence political decisions concerning the war against the LTTE. Quite symbolic of this change, she allowed her civilian deputy defence minister, an ex-colonel in the volunteer army who happened to be her uncle, to wear the military uniform. She even promoted him to the rank of general in the regular army! Under the present president, things have gone a little further. President Rajapakse has appointed his younger brother, an ex-colonel in the regular army, to the position of defence secretary. He does not wear the military uniform though. Thus, the conduct of the war in Sri Lanka continues to be a mini family affair as well.
This lighter side of it apart, political observers of Sri Lanka can hardly fail to notice the way in which the Sri Lankan state has undergone a qualitative change in the context of the civil war, the clear signs of which have become visible only recently. Sri Lanka now is a full-blown “national security state”. Under the continuing emergency regulations and the prevention of terrorism law, most of the political and civil rights remain suspended. Emergency law has actually become the normal law of the land. Unlike in the past, the defence establishment now controls all aspect of the war, including how it is reported in the media, and how it is even commented on by professional analysts. Journalists and commentators avoid even mild criticism of the military establishment for fear of severe consequences. In the past, it was civilian politicians who controlled the media, who restricted the civil and political rights. Now it is the military that takes an activist role in these matters while civilian politicians only defend what the military decides and does.
There is no other state institution, not even the judiciary, to act as a check on the defence establishment, because of the position of supremacy maintained by the latter. In short, the defence establishment has stepped into the domain of governance at par with the office of the president, and this is a new development. Sri Lanka‘s cabinet is a grotesquely overgrown entity, with over 100 civilian ministers. But such a huge cabinet is not an actual power centre. Parliament has long ceased to be a centre of power. There are actually two power centres at present – the president and the defence establishment. They are mutually dependent. That is the equilibrium under which the national security state has developed in Sri Lanka.

Ethnic Majoritarianism

On the question of the majoritarian communal nature of the state, the Sri Lankan state has always been an ethnic majoritarian and communal one. That is why Sri Lanka produced a deadly ethnic civil war in the early 1980s. But, there has also been a parallel political process in Sri Lanka in the direction of making the state multi-ethnic and pluralist by means of reforming the state. But Sri Lanka‘s political, bureaucratic, military, and media establishments have never been convinced about the multi-ethnic and pluralistic argument. Sri Lanka‘s continuing failure to reform the state on its own in order to accommodate ethnic minority demands for state power sharing is not an accident. The only state reform initiative implemented in 1987 had to come from outside. India imposed it on Sri Lanka by force, because the majoritarian communal state was refusing to reform itself voluntarily. That continues to be Sri Lanka‘s problem even today. The present war, along with incessant propaganda about an imminent victory of the Lions over the Tigers, has given a new relevance to the popular Sinhalese belief that “this land belongs to us, the Sinhalese”. An ethnic war has to be, and is, a communal war. And when political leadership in the country has abandoned the search for a political solution in favour of a military one, the military can only tell the world what politicians are still afraid to admit in public – “this land belongs to us, the Sinhalese; minorities better behave as minorities.” Meanwhile, I learned a very good lesson about ethnic majoritarianism recently. I believed for quite some time that ethnic majoritarianism is a political condition that the political leaders of the majority community impose by means of coercion on the ethnic minorities. It accords an unequal, at best second class, status to the minorities. Minorities do not accept majoritarianism and they resist it. That is why ethnic conflicts flare up. Observing how the Tamil and Muslim political parties in Sri Lanka have come to accept the second class and unequal status with great pleasure, I changed, realising that my understanding of majoritarianism was an incomplete one. I now know that ethnic majoritarianism is not necessarily coercive. It has a strong element of consent of the minorities, or at least their political leaders. Majoritarianism is completed when the political representatives of the minorities accept, with happiness and even in intense competition with each other, the condition of inequality. They do so in exchange of other benefits which are usually couched in the respectable language of “development assistance to our community”. That is what the 25 years of civil war has done to the minority rights project in Sri Lanka.

Source: Tamilnet, 13 November 2008