Homegrown Solution to the Ethnic Problem

Somapala Gunadheera

Courtesy of the Sunday Island, 28 March 2010

“For forms of government let fools contest; Whate’er is best administer’d is best,” Alexander Pope

I stand between Jolly Somasundaram, my colleague in Trincomalee and Devanessan Nesiah, my colleague in the RRAN, as they cross swords in the Island on the issue of “Turnaround Challenge to NE Tamils”. The bone of contention appears to be the choice of the TNA for support at the last Presidential Election (PE). Jolly thinks that they ought to have sided Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) while Deva stands by their choice of Sarath Fonseka (SF). Obviously the choice could not have been motivated by emotional attachment. It was a preference for the better of the two options. Jolly sent me a draft of his article before publication. I asked him, “Why MR?” and he replied, “The known devil is safer than the unknown. At least we know his weaknesses. Who knows whether the unknown devil would throw us into the fire from the frying pan?”

Results of the election have shown that the TNA backed the wrong horse. That was bad speculation but was it bad wisdom? That is a question that only the evolving sequence of events can answer. The present situation is that MR has no moral obligation to help the TNA in the absence of a quid pro quo while SF is unable to help as he has been physically cornered and politically marginalized, at least for the time being.

SF’s ability to redeem his debt of gratitude to the TNA will depend on the outcome of the plethora of ongoing investigations against him. On that will also depend his moral capacity to be relevant and the validity of his credentials to help the Tamil cause. If the allegations against SF’s racial prejudices are established, he will turn out to be a wolf in Grandmother’s clothing for the Tamils. Thus the final verdict on the TNA’s choice of SF has to await the end of the legal battles that SF is facing at the moment.

It is unlikely that MR would hold TNA’s disregard of him, against the Tamils. He will certainly not make the situation worse for them. The question is whether he had the guts and the vision to make it better. Of course MR promised to save the Tamils after the war. When the war was over he re-fixed his target till after the presidential election (PE). Now it stands re-fixed again till after the General Election. In any case, the TNA not supporting MR for the PE has to be attributed more to the latter’s political shrewdness, rather than to the folly of the former. That shrewdness is reflected in MR’s 1.8 million majority.

Strategy v. Concept

The debate between Jolly and Deva is based on a point of strategy but strategies are mere means to an end. They may succeed or fail depending on luck and circumstance but they can be readjusted with experience and circumspection. What is integral is the conceptual approach to the problem and as far as that is concerned, both protagonists are happily on the same platform. They both believe that the solution to the Tamil problem has to be worked out internally in a way that all communities might live amicably with dignity and equal rights.

The predilection to find a homegrown solution to the ethnic problem is a post-Prabhakaran phenomenon. It might have been there earlier but in the atmosphere of terror and trepidation that then prevailed, no one was fool enough to talk about it. Now that uninhibited space is found for discussion of the subject, more and more Tamil intellectuals are coming into the open with pragmatism and wisdom. The solution is a sine qua non to the Tamils who want to spend the rest of their life in the country of their birth, despite its limitations in comfort and facilities.

For the Diaspora, the solution is only an intellectual and emotional problem. They will not give up their new found life of ‘luxury’ and revert to their roots however satisfactory the ultimate solution might be. Theirs is a battle to avenge the indignities that pushed them out of their native land. Their need can be satisfied by notional concepts like, interim governments, separation and realignment. Native intellectuals like Jolly and Deva are opting for a down-to-earth pragmatic solution. They are conscious of the economics and geo-politics involved with separation.

This wholesome trend amply deserves unstinted support by the intellectuals of the South. Even the JVP and NDF who have been fighting tooth and nail against the Thirteenth Amendment, are vociferous about quick action to safeguard the rights and dignity of the Tamils. Their reservations are confined to separation in all its forms. From the economic point of view at least, separation should be more harmful to the Tamils, as evidenced by the spurt of sudden affluence pumped into the North by the ‘voyages of discovery’ undertaken by the inquisitive South, in their new found freedom of movement.

Extra political overtures

I am pessimistic about finding an early political solution to the ethnic problem despite repeated promises to do so. The reason for postponing the initiative from election to election, seems to be an apprehension of resentment by the majority. This fear appears to be misplaced. The Sinhala electorate has come a long way after the 1983 Riots. Even in the Riots, the Sinhala reaction was superimposed, not spontaneous.

Ordinary members of the majority have a genuine appreciation of the untold hardships that their siblings in the North went through under decades of absolutism. The ongoing rush to the North is partly motivated by a sympathetic inquisitiveness about the depressed conditions there. This is the psychological moment to exploit that empathy and call for majority support to ameliorate the conditions of the North. This is not the time to highlight Dutugemunu in his duel with Elara but to renovate his Elara mausoleum.

Response of the political leadership to ethnic integration would depend on its own life experiences. President Premadasa was the only Head of State who grew up among all the minorities at the lowest level. That background made him empathize with the minorities to an unparalleled extent. The attitude of other national leaders after independence varied in proportion to their level of education and exposure to cosmopolitan culture. ‘Tamilophobia’ created by decades of communal propaganda that sees a tiger under every bush may perhaps, explain why the All Party Conference has been made to drag its feet. This trend is further aggravated by paranoia arising from hypersensitivity to Sinhala reaction.

To my mind the ultimate solution to the ethnic problem is not a pure and simple legislative option for the political leadership. It is not something that could be produced by waving the political wand to amend words in the Constitution. Nor can it come about by mechanically implementing provisions that lay comatose from their inception. What is more important is to create the atmosphere in which the statutory changes could thrive, making a real difference to hitherto marginalized segments. I can see two main factors that would have a far-reaching effect on creating that atmosphere. They are,

A. Reform of the education system

B. Economic emancipation of the Tamils

Political leadership can contribute far more effectively towards a solution to the ethnic problem by creating a climate for the proposed constitutional amendments to take root. Such constructive social engineering is an essential prerequisite, if the Legal Draftsman’s amending words are to make a real difference to the Tamils.

Educational reforms

As I have pointed out elsewhere, our educational policy has fallen far short of creating the background for national integration in its preoccupation with turning out mismatched aspirants for the job market. It has failed to pull us out of the rut of separatism. Our schools, except for a few outstanding exceptions, have been confined to a single stream. Mother tongue has been their obsession.

It is encouraging to see the belated effort to introduce Tamil to the curriculum in the Sinhala areas. Let us hope that the reverse would be practicable in Tamil areas with the dawn of long awaited peace. The emphasis on English is appreciated but the national languages should take precedence. A vast majority of the common people do not need English to get about but mutual fluency in the national languages is the bed rock of national integration.

Wherever possible, our schools have to be made multi-stream. It would appear that our leaders who have been most amenable to unification are products of such schools. But with the Swabhasha Moment, even in the few such places that already exist, the combination has been reduced to a formality. Students of the different communities there run on parallel lines.

Multi-stream schools should be encouraged to create opportunities for children of all communities to come together socially. Formation of multi-racial groups like clubs, societies, troupes, teams and battalions in them would go a long way to achieve integration. Where schools are limited to a single stream necessarily, the merging has to be realized through visits, educational tours, competitions and exchanges of students etc.

The sitting Minister of Education has promised to introduce an education reform package after the coming election. All good things in this country appear to be coming after elections. One wonders why they could not come before. In an acutely politicized country, even reform is reduced to a bargaining chip. Be that as it may, it is hoped that the promised package would usher in a system that would weave growing minds from all directions into a pattern of national unity.

conomic emancipation

In my article, “The choice before the Tamil Diaspora” (Sunday Island 17.01.10), I wrote that in the present state of uncertainty, “the Tamils have to think of a second string to their bow and that string is economic advancement. Now that the end of the fighting is granting mobility to the North and the East, progressively, these regions are getting closer to means of production. Their long neglected resources can now be exploited to their maximum advantage. Such economic development would certainly consolidate the dignity and self-respect of the war-torn and strengthen their bargaining chips”.

The Diaspora has a lot to do to bring about this economic resurgence and persons like Jolly and Deva who have stuck to their motherland through thick and thin, have a special role to play here. With their intellect and experience in management at the highest level, they should spearhead the revival. Three decades of fascist rule superimposed in the North, has left a hiatus in leadership after the collapse of that regime.

If the Diaspora invests on the proposed economic revival of the North, half of what it had put on the LTTE arsenal, voluntarily or under threat, their native place would be turned into a Singapore before long. Politics will take a back seat in such an affluent atmosphere. By then Tamils would have gathered adequate confidence and power to deal with their political problems on an equal footing

In the ultimate analysis, what matters is not strategic gambles like backing MR or SF. Perceptive approaches in education to fuse the growing population from all communities into nationhood and economic emancipation of the marginalized should be the cornerstones of a homegrown solution to our ethnic problem. If this initiative is handled with wisdom and foresight, I would not be surprised to see a Tamil President elected by the South, against the proverbial divisive proclivities of the North that appear to be harming Tamil interests even in the forthcoming General Election.

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