Dayan Jayatilleka’s pragmatic politics


by Dayan Jayatilleka

Courtesy of,  where it appeared first on 13 Dec. 2009 and continues to excite comments. It is repeated here because it is as cogent as pertinent and serves as a means of reflection.

For their part, Tamil leaders have not yet made anticipated conciliatory gestures that might ease government concerns and foster a genuine dialogue”- Sri Lanka: Re-charting US Strategy after the War, US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Dec 7, 2009

Sri Lanka is a work in progress, a jigsaw puzzle that we have never been able to complete because the pieces haven’t been fitted together correctly.

The Sinhalese and Tamil ‘pieces’ of the jigsaw want places bigger than the spaces available that would permit the whole to fit together. Both the Sinhalese and Tamils overestimate themselves and underestimate the other. The Sinhalese overestimate their local preponderance while underestimating their external vulnerability as well as the vulnerability of the jigsaw puzzle as a whole. The Tamils overestimate their external spread while underestimating their domestic weakness.

The War and the postwar elections have dramatically emphasized certain basic realities which however have been imperfectly absorbed and reflected upon by both Sinhalese and Tamils. There are four outcomes or facts that should impress themselves upon the Tamil psyche.

Firstly the utter military defeat of Prabhakaran and the Tigers, who were thought invincible by the Tamil community.

Secondly, the ability of the Sri Lankan state/the Sinhalese/the South, to impose a defeat on the Tigers without a political package as prerequisite, parallel or postscript.

Thirdly, the inability or unwillingness of the international community/world opinion – Western and regional—to either halt the military offensive and drive the Sri Lankan state either to the negotiating table or a devolution package.

Fourthly, the disappearance of the pacifist neoliberal candidate (Wickremesinghe) and the emergence instead of a bipartisan consensus of sorts, with two Sinhala nationalist candidates, the one populist and the other militarist, neither of whom will compromise on secession, terrorism, and the unitary state.

The Tamil politicians and intellectuals, here and in the Diaspora didn’t get it at all. They neither foresaw the decimation of the Tigers by the Sri Lankan armed forces (relatively swiftly in this last war, I might add) nor the opening up of democratic space that would inevitably follow. I say ‘inevitably’ because that was what I told the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams in early 2007, in the presence of President Rajapakse, several Cabinet Ministers, senior officials and Church personalities including Bishop Duleep de Chickera. I gave a brief run down on the war as satisfying the major criteria of Just War theory (which was of course originally just war theology – Leo Strauss’s pet aversion, “political theology” at its best). While un-contradicted by the clergymen (Sinhala, Tamil and British) in the room, I was posed a question by Dr Williams for whom I had great respect because of his formidable intellect and his high profile opposition to the invasion of Iraq. His own work on Just War had made him focus on a just outcome, so did I think that this war would lead to one and if so why?

I replied the Archbishop saying that in the wake of the military defeat of the LTTE by the armed forces of the state, the inevitable reopening of electoral space and the re-enfranchisement of the Tamil voter, would, in the context of a highly competitive Presidential and parliamentary elections and proportional representation, give the Tamil people the leverage to re-insert their issues and demands at the very centre of Lankan politics. I recall saying, only half jokingly, that “President Rajapakse and his rival, whoever it may be, at the presidential elections will trip over each other to woo the Tamil voter”, as would the two major parties, because the administration that issues from a parliamentary election would be coalitional in character. In a postwar peacetime election, neither of the presidential candidates could get 50.1% nor could the major parties (under proportional representation) prevail on the basis of Sinhala Buddhist votes alone. These prognoses have been validated by events.

For their part, the Sinhalese must learn a lesson from the ironic spectacle of both Mahinda Rajapakse and Sarath Fonseka promising to go beyond the 13th amendment, to implement 13 Plus or even 13 Double Plus, mere months after the former was in effect talking “13 minus” and the latter was decrying the attempt to implement the 13th amendment in any form on the grounds that his boys didn’t give their lives for devolution! Even the EPDP which was willing to settle for the 13th amendment is now seeking to go beyond it. This turn of events is particularly amusing to me, since I was denounced by the Sinhala chauvinists for advocating the immediate postwar implementation of the 13th amendment from a position of strength, and possibly lost my job also because of that factor. The same Sinhala chauvinists, now divided, are gathered around two candidates, both of whom are pledging to go beyond the 13th amendment, something I never advocated.

So while the Tamils must learn from their military defeat that there are certain things that are unfeasible given the huge Sinhala preponderance on the island which the Sinhalese when roused will not hesitate to deploy to the full, the Sinhalese must learn from the political bargaining power of the Tamils even after their chosen or self appointed vanguard was decimated, that the ethnic Other will just not go away and cannot be cowed or reduced in significance beyond a point.

This is the ideal moment then for both sides to arrive at a realistic compromise. But will they? The Sinhalese presidential candidates have, at least at the level of rhetoric, come some way – and in practical terms the IDP situation has verifiably improved. However, one cannot say the same of the dominant tendency within Tamil politics, represented by the TNA. It may be said that they are no longer asking for a separate state but that’s a joke: separatism has no chance on the ground and the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s latest report shows that there are no serious takers in Washington DC either, for anything that is not squarely within a united Sri Lanka. Even so, neither the pro-Tiger elements in the Diaspora nor the TNA have repealed the Vadukkodai Resolution which called for the setting up of a separate sovereign independent state of Tamil Eelam. This is tantamount to the destruction of the Sri Lankan state in its current scale, scope and contours.

Some TNA MPs call for federalism as the basis of negotiations with both Presidential candidates. This is a perfectly legal and legitimate position, but it is lamentably foolish, because there will be no takers, and is yet another example of Tamil nationalist politicians pricing themselves out of the market.

The third example of the obduracy of Tamil nationalism is the demand that the Sri Lankan armed forces withdraw to the pre conflict, i.e. pre July 1983 positions in the North and East. It is one thing to oppose any attempt at Sinhalization and the setting up of military settlements outside of currently held state land. It is also reasonable to seek some significant shrinkage of High Security Zones. However it is absurd to demand a return to the pre-war status quo. After a bitterly fought war, no responsible state can withdraw to pre-war lines, because it is precisely the vulnerability of those pre-war deployments that were amply demonstrated during the war! Though the context is different – one of a foreign war – and the arrangements as they evolved are those of solid alliance, it must be noted that there are US bases on German and Japanese soil. Postwar deployment of the Sri Lankan army must ‘permanently’ prevent any possibility of the repetition of the LTTE’s military maneuvers.

On the one hand there must be no policies or deployments that smack of Occupation, Palestinianisation, or Sinhala Buddhist-isation by settler-colonialism. On the other hand the force posture of the Sri Lankan armed forces in the North and East, must, for the long duration, be one of prevention and preemption of separatist terrorism and irredentism. While there can be partial retrenchment, there can be no principle of pullback to pre-conflict lines.

The real chance for a revived Tamil politics is at the parliamentary election which will fairly swiftly follow the presidential one. The broader the bloc of the Tamil parties or of the Tamil–speaking parties (Tamil and Muslim), the greater the possibility of neutralizing the Sinhala ultranationalists, but only if their negotiating stance with the major Southern formations is a prudent one.

If the Tamil parties price themselves out of the market with their federalist fundamentalism, a tragic situation such as that of 1972 will obtain, where the two major parties sat smugly in a parliament turned Constituent assembly and myopically ignored the demands of the Tamil United Front. Certainly the Sinhalese and Sri Lanka suffered dreadfully from this absence of dialogue but none so horribly and at such colossal comparative cost as did the Tamil community.

What then should be the stance of a pragmatic Tamil politics? Any attempt to go qualitatively beyond the 13th amendment will, even if agreed to by this or that candidate will be shot down at a popular referendum, unless the pathway adopted is that pointed out by Prof Lakshman Marasinghe, in which case the degree of enhancement will have to be suitably modest. Far more prudent is a two point program: (a) insist upon the implementation of the 13th and 17th amendments to the Sri Lankan Constitution within an agreed upon time frame, coupled with (b) an anti-discrimination thrust as concretized in the revival of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Equal Opportunities Bill of year 2000.

Contrary to the caterwauling of the crackpots, the Zurich conclave of the Tamil parties was on balance positive, because any political conversation is better than none and the more inclusive the better. Best of all though is the tacit political and programmatic convergence of the PLOT, EPDP, EPRLF and EROS in support of the Rajapakse candidacy. This is the bulk of the historic “Eelam Left” as distinct from the federalist/separatist Tamil nationalist trend, the dominant one in Tamil politics, as represented by the TNA. If only this tacit confluence turns into a solid political bloc and adopts a policy of unity and struggle in relation to Mahinda Rajapakse, the ruling coalition may be shunted along Congress lines and Sri Lanka may be nudged along a more pluralist, National-Democratic path.

What then of the TNA? On present form, there is still the danger that the main party of Tamil nationalism will, like the Palestinians, once more demonstrate its propensity never to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. This may be true of the Sinhalese as well, but given the demographics, natural resource endowments and strategic competition (read the US Senate Foreign relations Committee report), they may be able to afford it for a while longer.

The Tamils have to decide whether they wish to be like the Palestinians and keep insisting on first principles, or be like the Catholic minority of Northern Ireland. Irish Republicanism has arrived at a settlement, without the achievement of any of its historic aims and demands: independence from the UK, the unification of the 26 Counties, the removal of British troops and liberation from the British monarchy.

Even those responsible for the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972 have yet to be punished. If after 450 (taking the long view) or 30 years of struggle, and the failure of the British army to eliminate the IRA militarily – in contrast to the decisive Sri Lankan military achievement—the Sinn Fein and the Northern Ireland’s Catholics have settled for devolution and economic prosperity within a unitary state, why shouldn’t Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority? What’s good enough for Gerry Adams and Martin Mac Guinness should surely be good enough for the leaders of the Tamil National Alliance– and as they say in Parliament, if not, why not?

Posted by transCurrents on December 13, 2009 07:51 AM | Permalink Contact Email:

3 Comments [more followed later in transcurrents]
The “sinhala chauvanist forces” who sacked Dayan J,are led by Mahinda Rajapakse who is even now his choice for the presidency.TNA want army rule of the northeast to end.Only then tamils can live without fear of the killings,abductions,armed robberies,rapes and desecration/theft of statues of hindu temples.US armymen in bases in europe do not go into civilan areas unless in civil dress,on leave.Rowan Williams wanted “surgical strikes” to end the war.Brian Seneviratne wrote a good & fitting reply to him.The persecution/repression of tamils with Military Governers in charge,cannot be compared to the travails of palestinians or the irish catholics who do not experiance what is happening in the northeast.

This is feeble attempt to justify the repression of the tamils,even when the LTTE have been militarily crushed.
Tamils must vote for Fonseka – he surely will not be as bad as MR.

Posted by: Thamilan | December 13, 2009 10:19 AM


As suggested by DJ it is high time all Sri Lankans engage with each other to iron out differences and build a strong and prosperous nation. Other countries which have minorities have done so, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore are good examples of what can be achieved. Otherwise we can continue to debate and fight about various princples and theories till the cows come home. Sitting on the fence or doing nothing is not an option.

The main requirement for any ordinary person is Human Rights, Democracy, Rule of Law and Good Governance. All these solutions advocating 13+, Federalism, Unitary State etc are useless unless these conditions met.

Posted by: SriLankan | December 13, 2009 10:48 AM



The debate to unite the Sinhalese and Tamils continues – and, it must continue till we succeed. Fortunately, as matters stand today, the gulf is narrowing with even the usually obstinate JVP mellowing towards reason. But if you think Tamils today are pushed to negotiate from a position of weakness – this will not sell.

They have been pushed to this corner before and they have come out fighting and with greater muscle – because, let’s admit it, reason is on their side. Boy! Am I not trying to preach to the converted? The A of C Dr. Williams is undoubtedly a good man but between the time he arrived and left here he left the Tamils with the impression he lacked the faculties of speech – the bold and fearless variety, if you like.

That Man from Galilee would have been disappointed someone using his name did’nt have it in him. His Grace was as collutionist as his nammadai-aal John Holmes, the man who comes here only to give Clean Certificates to GoSL. Poor Shirley (who greets you in those walls at the Baker Street Tube Station) must be turning in his grave with that Baskerville cur. And, of course, it is elementary knowledge faithful and good aide Watson could be lying not far away.

In your resurrection with the regime you might repeat your counselling not to leave room for further adventure. The climate for this appears to be just right because anything pro-Tamil will sell at those hallowed TT grounds at Colpetty. As for the Tamils it is the loss of one battle but the Struggle – War, is too dirty a word – will continue until sanity prevails on majority minds. Bringing down existing Hindu temples and putting up Buddhist Viharas in the vicinity will not bring the expected unity and peace.

It simply increases the suspicion. It will simply be the breeding ground for a newer and probably more fiercer insurrection – this time with sympathetic foreign countries coming in openly as well – wearily. The TNAs request for the withdrawal of the army from Tamil areas may sound outrageous but remember it was the very sight of army men in the early 1960s that brought in the “Sinhala Occupation Army” description – and that was a high recruiter in a docile race. In limited territory such as Jaffna, surely the Police can take care of matters.

Alert as they will be, may not fail to see “unusual activity” in which case the State can move – if it comes to that. Which is unlikely anyway because the militants and their leaders are all long gone. And that is the Govt speaking. Last week they did it in writing as well – to those Delhi Wallas. Even those Tamil folk who, out of desperation, may have agreed to a military option earlier have lost their apetite for the ayudha porattam.

The call in the Tamil community within and outside in the diaspora is an unequivocal Farewell to Arms (Ayudha kalacharam vendaam – Down with the armed culture) Zurich said it best – if you and I agree who was eventually behind it. Finally, you came out recently with a more feasible option – that you call 2 Regional Councils and I – the 2 nation theory under one country.


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