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A Political Solution and Conduits for Racism

A Political Solution and Conduits for Racism

(By: Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha; Secretary-General Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process)

The myth about bringing the two main parties together

Over the last year, I have been struck by the number of times I have been told that a political solution to our problems is not possible unless the two main parties get together. This argument is based on the historical record, inasmuch as two serious attempts at compromise, involving Regional Councils in the late fifties and then District Councils in the late sixties, were stymied because of forceful opposition by the main opposition party. Had the opposition in either case agreed to the compromise, it is held, our problems would have been solved.

“More concerted action on language, the recruitment of Tamils to the public and security services, infrastructural and economic development in the East, elections to local government bodies and the Provincial Council in the East, the Task Force in the North, are all excellent starts, but more, to institutionalize the concept and impact of power sharing, is desirable.”

There are two rejoinders to that. The first is that, even if support from the opposition would have been a sufficient condition, that does not make it a necessary condition. The second is, was it opposition from an opposition party, or something else, that destroyed the third attempt at compromise, the District Development Councils Bill of 1981?

My argument is that a little learning, combined with platitudes, can be extremely misleading. The point is that the District Development Councils Bill was actually passed, because the government had a more than sufficient majority. The main opposition, the SLFP, opposed it and boycotted the election, but the JVP, by then the leading left force in the country, accepted this attempt at devolution and contested the election and did reasonably well for a party engaging in electoral politics for the first time.

The destruction of the 1981 District Development Councils system

It was not the JVP in opposition in the District Development Councils, nor opposition from the SLFP in parliament, that destroyed the whole concept. It was first the mockery made of the election in Jaffna by the UNP itself, in sending up Cyril Mathew in a leadership role in the campaign. Under his watch the Jaffna MP was nearly killed and the Jaffna Public Library was set on fire. The TULF, which had contested the election in contravention of a call for boycott by the Tigers, was immeasurably weakened, and thereafter did not find it easy to defy the Tigers.

As significantly, the District Development Councils simply could not function effectively. They were starved of resources by the central government, and the District Minister, appointed from outside, a strange provision that the TULF nevertheless agreed to live with, could do nothing. The particular individual involved for Jaffna, the Dambadeniya MP U. B. Wijekoon, is supposed to have done his best, but his first loyalty was to the government, not the elected District Council on whose behalf he was meant to act. Unable to demand resources, he took on a passive role, and in the end the DDCs were seen as a joke.

In short, it was nothing to do with the opposition that that particular initiative failed, it was entirely because of a lack of will on the part of the government. And, employing Occam's Razor, which is a little known entity in Sri Lanka, we find that that precisely was the reason the previous efforts also failed. But in all cases we should also consider the background to that lack of will, why leaders who proposed measures could not take them through.

It was not, we should note, that all previous leaders were hypocritical, as J. R. Jayewardene certainly was. He had the majority needed to do his will, and he did it in every other particular, ranging from packing the Supreme Court to postponing elections to awarding contracts to his relations to destroying the foreign service by appointing friends and relations to all levels of jobs. No one protested, certainly not the chattering classes, who thought the Grand Old Man could do no wrong.

1956 and the inbuilt racism of the Jayewardene wing

Why then did he not forge ahead with the political measures necessary to resolve the ethnic problem, a problem he was in a sense responsible for creating through his first initiatives as a State Councillor in the forties? The answer quite simply is that he was the leader of the chauvinist wing of the UNP, what might be termed the Kelaniya Branch that had forced Sir John Kotelawala to retract his promise of making both Sinhala and Tamil official languages. It is totally forgotten now that, though it was Bandaranaike who introduced the Sinhala Only Bill, the 1956 election was called early by the UNP precisely to seek a mandate to introduce Sinhala Only, as per the resolution taken at its Kelaniya session in January 1956.

So it was Jayewardene then who, in accordance with his commitment to Sinhala Only, organized the march to Kandy to protest against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact. Bandaranaike overcame that protest, with S D Bandaranaike laying himself across the road, so invitingly as it was put, an invitation that Jayewardene and his goons did not dare to accept.

Why then did Bandaranaike, having achieved that victory over Jayewardene, also retreat? The answer lies in the opposition within his party, led by Vimala Wijewardene, wife of Jayewardene's uncle, close associate of the Kelaniya Buddhist tradition of the time (though that at least has changed) which ended up plotting Bandaranaike's assassination. This group proved powerful enough to have Philip Gunawardena expelled, to prevent what they saw as socialist excesses. This group, in short, were the champions of capitalist nationalism, a mantle Ranil Wickremesinghe was to take on a quarter of a century later when he claimed, in a ghastly glossing over of the horrors of July 1983, that "the tragedy that had now struck the non-Sinhala trader due to the machinations of an extreme political party as a result of their factories and business places being burnt down, was nothing compared to the tragedy imposed on the Sinhala entrepreneur by the Bandaranaikes since 1956..... Every step of their nationalization crippled the Sinhala entrepreneur. First came the nationalization of transport, then insurance, lands, housing and finally book publication and the newspapers, which were all areas virtually monopolised by Sinhalese.

The areas then by non-Sinhalese went unscathed. The non-Sinhalese entrepreneur thrived not through any contriving on his part but because of government policies at that time."

Opposition to Bandaranaike in 1958 and to Senanayake in 1968

Bandaranaike was, understandably if not excusably, nervous. He presided in any case over a fractious coalition and in the end, faced by demonstrations so ably organized by the Kelaniya wing, encompassing both its UNP and its SLFP components, he panicked. Long forgotten now are the pressures against him, which were fuelled also, as Dayan Jayatilleke has reminded us, by the proponents of that wing within Lake House, then an immeasurably powerful and politically committed media organization. Given Tarzie Vittachi's liberal credentials, I had forgotten that the more influential organs in that period were the Sinhala papers. I am not sure that Dr Jayatilleka is right in claiming that the chauvinist campaign was led by a Wijewardene, but given the predilections of, if not Vimala then her husband, author of 'Revolt in the Temple', and the close knit nature of the family, one can see that they would have been a potent conduit for racist poison. Dayan Jayatilleka does exempt Esmond Wickremesinghe from any guilt. I believe he was right, but as the man in charge at the time, until his brother-in-law Ranjith was of an age to take up his birthright, he cannot escape responsibility.

Ten years later the boot was on the other foot, in that Dudley Senanayake, back at the helm of the UNP, had reached agreement with the FP led by Mr. Chelvanayakam, with the Tamil Congress led by G. G. Ponnambalam in acquiescence. Wisdom now has it that the District Councils Bill had to be abandoned because of the opposition led by the SLFP, supported then by the leading left parties at the time, a shameful reversal that I am sure they continue to regret. Indeed Mrs. Bandaranaike herself should have known better, given what her husband had tried to do, and how he had been stopped.

However, it was not that opposition that finally convinced Mr. Senanayake that he could not go ahead. It was the opposition in his own party, led by Cyril Mathew, another Kelaniya stalwart. And, though Mr. Senanayake dismissed Mr. Mathew from his party post, he knew that behind him were other forces.

The Kelaniya Troika and its influence

These included not only J R Jayewardene, but also Esmond Wickremesinghe. The two of them, together with Mr. Mathew, saw themselves as the troika that had built up the party following its stunning defeat at the polls in 1956. Their technique had been, not to reverse the decisions of the Kelaniya sessions and try to win back the Tamil vote that had abandoned them with such disastrous consequences at the 1956 election (to the benefit of the left parties), but to continue on racist lines, as exemplified by opposition to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact.

And so in 1968 Dudley Senanayake was also nervous. He was convinced anyway that there was a conspiracy to topple him, a conviction fuelled by some loose talk that Mr. Wickremesinghe had indulged in while abroad, which when reported prompted the Prime Minister to have the CID follow both J R Jayewardene and Mr. Wickremesinghe. This may have seemed paranoid at the time, but on hindsight it is possible that Jayewardene's ambitions were even then unrestrained, and that Mr. Mathew's antics may have seemed to him the key to popular support. Certainly, before the July 1983 outbreak, Mr. Wickremesinghe used to talk of Mr. Mathew as a possible successor to Mr. Jayewardene, and believed that his chauvinist approach gave him a popularity that put him ahead of the others in the rivalry with Prime Minister Premadasa that was perhaps the dominant factor in Kelaniya wing thinking at the time.

So in 1968, while carefully watching his back, Dudley Senanayake abrogated his pact with Mr. Chelvanayakam. Once again, it was held, the two parties had failed to come together, and that proved the need for this if there were to be a durable solution. But as I have pointed out, 1981 showed that a solution was possible without the major opposition party being involved, with the then prevailing goodwill between UNP and JVP bringing the latter too on board.

The Wickremesinghe response to President Kumaratunga's initiatives

And the nineties showed that even when the two parties came together, nothing would emerge. On two occasions Mrs. Kumaratunga thought she had UNP support for constitutional reform, and on two occasions she was let down, on the second she thought in spite of a firm commitment. Of course, on both occasions other reasons were adduced, relating to adjustments she had made with regard to her own powers. But, while these could and should have been resolved after discussion, the point is that the UNP itself attacked the proposals on racist grounds. The argument that this was not in accord with the thinking of its leader is nonsensical, for anyone who knows the way the Party is run.

My argument then is that a strong willed government does not need to ensure the opposition is on board to promote political reforms to solve the ethnic problem. All it needs is parliamentary support, and the will to use existing powers to the maximum to activate and institutionalize the necessary reforms. All this will be impossible if there is an opposition that will agitate against such action forcefully - which means forcefully enough to rattle forces within the government that may panic and therefore reduce the effectiveness and perhaps even the life of the government.

Contrariwise, I would also argue that attempting to get the opposition on board, when it is the UNP in thrall to its Kelaniya wing, is a waste of time. As noted there is an inbuilt chauvinism in that party, a chauvinism that, combined with nationalistic capitalism - with no sensitivity to social problems and the need for equity - would be fatal in today's world. Sadly, that chauvinism is combined with a chicanery that is willing, through both propaganda and financial inducements, to work together with any force that will help it to undermine an elected government. Thus we saw how bribery together with some principles brought down Mrs. Bandaranaike in 1964, and how bribery, together with astonishing inefficiency which provoked many capable people into revolt, brought down Mrs. Kumaratunga's government in 2001. In dealing with such forces, the government does have to be careful, which is why it would have made no sense to push forward with reforms for which it might not find a parliamentary majority, let alone the two thirds that might be needed for some measures. And the extent to which the UNP under its current leadership would go, exemplified in the attempt at association with the JVP in the recent strike, suggests that any and everything would be used to undermine the elected government.

Current reasons for optimism

All this may sound very pessimistic. But the point is that the situation has changed now, and it is clear that the Kelaniya forces, together with their potential allies, are no longer in a position to agitate against positive government initiatives. Fortunately for progressive forces, and in particular those forces in the UNP who represent a more enlightened tradition, the current leadership has been both arbitrary and extreme in its authoritarianism, to an extent that it can no longer be effective. Of course a mistake by the government might give Ranil Wickremesinghe a new life, as was done for instance when in all good faith the government signed an MoU in 2006. Fortunately Mr. Wickremesinghe over-reached himself as usual and, in trying to get rid of his Deputy Leader to consolidate his own hold, he precipitated a revolt that strengthened the government. This allowed it to move forcefully to regain the East without being characterized as chauvinist or being driven into dependence on chauvinist forces.

It is perhaps in recognition of current weakness that Mr. Wickremesinghe has now sought new allies, the wonderfully incompatible pairing of Gen. Janaka Perera and the JVP. The failure of the strike last Thursday makes it clear that the second option is not going to be even as fruitful as the UNP cultivation of K. M. P. Rajaratne (leader of another JVP, but an overtly racist party) in 1964. And unless there is an unexpected setback, it is not likely that Gen. Perera will provide the miracle that Mr. Wickremesinghe needs. Indeed, it is clear he has already begun thinking on more familiar lines, in putting forward an actor with very different attractions to lead his team in Sabaragamuwa.

In short, if a cooperating opposition is a sufficient condition for reform, another is an opposition that is dysfunctional. The SLFP no longer has a chauvinist wing that will revolt against its leadership as Vimala Wijewardene might have done in 1958. And, though the opposition mutters darkly about the JHU and the MEP, the government has shown that measures to promote rights and empowerment for minorities within the context of a united country will not entail opposition. There is no problem whatsoever about those parties being pro-Sinhala (for much needs to be done for deprived Sinhala majority regions too) provided they are not anti-Tamil or anti-Muslim - and, though elements supporting them may not understand the distinction, since the leadership does there should be no difficulty about the government taking firm action to stop any intimidation. That is essential, and quite possible without fear of being weakened, in a context in which there is no danger at all of the current opposition, whether led by the UNP or the JVP, mounting any threatening chauvinistic campaign, whatever their earlier predilections might have been.

“The SLFP no longer has a chauvinist wing that will revolt against its leadership as Vimala Wijewardene might have done in 1958.”

It is clear then that now is a good time for the government to proceed. It is not only good, it is essential, since one of the necessary conditions for dealing with terrorism is showing that it is possible to eliminate through democratic pluralism the root causes of support for terrorist action on the part of basically decent people. More concerted action on language, the recruitment of Tamils to the public and security services, infrastructural and economic development in the East, elections to local government bodies and the Provincial Council in the East, the Task Force in the North, are all excellent starts, but more, to institutionalize the concept and impact of power sharing, is desirable. There is no better time to move than when the country at large has confidence in a government that has achieved so much in terms of security as well as equity in the face of considerable odds.


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