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Nationalisms, Militarization and War Politics in Sri Lanka

by Ahilan Kadirgamar, 28 September 2008

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Any discussion of Sri Lanka at the moment can not avoid discussion of the war. And at the heart of discussions on the war in Sri Lanka, is the question of what will come after the war, at least after an end to the war in its conventional mode with defeats faced by the LTTE on the battlefield. It is indeed important to grasp that the current state of anxiety is not only about the war but also what will come after the war. From the London based Economist to Tamil activists in and outside Sri Lanka, this has become the central question. I write this article as a dissenting Tamil activist and as a member of that diverse set of Tamil activists both inside and outside Sri Lanka, who chose to stand independent of the LTTE, but whose politics nevertheless at the moment is dispersed from the Left to the Right, across a whole range of issues from class, nationalism, caste to gender. In thinking about the outcomes after the war, just as we could not predict the direction of the war prior to its resumption, we can not predict the outcomes after the war, which are part of the dynamic of war; it drastically changes the political landscape. But we nevertheless take positions on the war; on either side or against the war. And those positions are explicitly political, they are underpinned by a politics, whether they are pro-war or, as has been less commonly acknowledged that of anti-war. Indeed, an anti-war position itself can be arrived at from different political positions, from a pacifist stand to that of political expediency depending on the military fortunes of one actor or another. It is such politics of war that I intend to explore here in relation to the dynamics of nationalisms and militarization in Sri Lanka.

My concerns are in part theoretical - how nationalisms and militarization relate to each other and to the politics of war. But they are also existential, in terms of our practice as activists in the context of one of the most critical and devastating times in our history. I emphasize the latter, because we have been there before. The JVP insurgency and the State repression in the South during the late 1980s was an atrocious period in Sri Lanka’s history of human rights abuses. The massacres of Sinhalese and Muslim civilians by the LTTE, or for that matter the massacres of Tamil civilians by the State in the eighties and nineties, were of proportions that we can only hope that the current phase of war will not entail.

I will begin then with a few points in the form of thesis, or points forming a political position relating to the war that I believe are important:

· From the point of view of civilians, any cessation of hostilities is desirable and should be encouraged. Just as the humanitarian concerns of civilians are of utmost importance while the war continues, even a temporary cessation of hostilities will provide some respite for the civilians.
· The diminution of the dual nationalisms (Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and Tamil nationalism) is desirable. But it is not a balancing act, such that I only want to see diminution of one if it leads to the diminution of the other, even though as I will discuss below both are related. Independent of each other, I want to see both nationalisms politically challenged on their own terms.
· Demilitarization and an end to the political culture of militarism and war politics are desirable.
· Independent of the above three points and without any of the above three being conditional on each other, progress with any political process to resolve the national question (defined as the question of minorities and their relationship to the post-colonial State in Sri Lanka) is desirable.
· The rebuilding of inter-ethnic relations and a strengthening of minorities politics (defined more broadly along ethnic, caste, economically marginalized and gender) is desirable.

These points relate to each other in the dynamics of political engagement – we can rarely severe the links between extreme nationalisms and militarization - but I want to conceptually unpack the current political dynamic before addressing their inter-relationship. I also begin with this political position, not only to make it clear, but also to establish what I believe I inherited during the last decade from what I considered to be Tamil dissent. More simply put, the point is that we cannot join the LTTE to defeat the State, nor can we join the State to defeat the LTTE; even when the LTTE was on a project to eliminate Tamil dissent. Rather our activism has to focus on engagement with political processes addressing the national question. This is now a position that, unfortunately, when I look around at the broader grouping of dissenting Tamil activists, is unravelling along with the escalation of the war. Tamil dissent is also being cornered into taking sides on the war. This sort of blackmail is intrinsic to the logic of nationalism, you are either “loyal” or you are a “traitor”; it denies possibilities for ethical and principled positions.

I would also like to clarify the difference in my position in relation to the war, with some of the actors who comment and engage in the same terrain.

First, my position is different from the position of say the mainstream human rights community, in that I do not restrict my opposition to the war to that of mainly opposing violations of international humanitarian law (also known as the ‘laws of war’), and of meeting the humanitarian concerns; the position that I understand to be that of the Amnesty Internationals of the world. Rather, I would as a point of principle at the immediate moment, call for a cessation of hostilities so it provides respite to the civilians, that civilians have the freedom of movement and are allowed to leave the areas affected by the war. Furthermore, I would want to join forces with those who challenge the dual nationalisms and who struggle for an end to militarization, and for progress with an inclusive political process.

Second, the position is also different from those in the conflict resolution camp. One of the disastrous outcomes of the Norwegian peace process and the NGO-ization of politics in Sri Lanka is that conflict resolution now takes centre stage in any discussion of peace. I do not call for negotiations between the LTTE and the State, because prior to any negotiations, there has to be willingness to adhere to certain principles of inclusiveness, pluralism and democratization, the absence of which could only lead to the further entrenchment of nationalism and consequent militarization. That is the lesson learned from the Norwegian peace process. Furthermore, the extent to which the LTTE is the vehicle of Tamil nationalism, or the JHU the vehicle of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and to lesser extent the JVP or for that matter the SLFP under Rajapakse, their political defeat is desirable in so far as undermining the two destructive nationalisms and militarization.

The question inevitably must arise as to why the emphasis on the diminution of nationalisms and an end to militarization, as it relates to the politics of war. Here I will begin with a theoretical discussion borrowing from an article by Newton Gunasinghe, who was also instrumental in introducing the writings of Gramsci and Althusser into the Sri Lankan political and academic discourse. I quote Gunasinghe:

“In a social structure which generates an ideology that religion does not relate to one’s personal beliefs but to one’s family antecedents, S.W.R.D.’s move to become a Buddhist and what is more, his vocal advocacy of Sinhala-Buddhist interests, testifies to his ability of political manoeuvre. S.W.R.D., through these able political tactics, was able to establish his personal hegemony, distancing himself away from his extended family group, while going against the old-established bourgeois strata, simultaneously cultivating solid political relations with newly emergent bourgeois and petty bourgeois strata emanating from diverse social backgrounds. But his ideology of populist Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, while creating the social base for his assumption of power, also alienated the Tamils in the northern, eastern and central provinces. Here, although S.W.R.D. was capable of encapsulating diverse social segments coming from various factions of the Sri Lankan social structure, this very encapsulation was done on the basis of excluding Tamils. Foucault’s comment that one could define ‘the self’ only in relation to ‘the other’ may be of relevance here. Nevertheless, this laid the political foundations for the terrible ethnic conflict, destabilisation and violence which we are obliged to undergo today.”

These notes, titled ‘A Sociological Comment on the Political Transformations in Sri Lanka in 1956 and the Resultant Socio-Political Processes’, were written by Gunasinghe not too long before his death in 1988. Gunasinghe claims that 1956, and the political manoeuvre which brought to power Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike on the platform of “Sinahal Only” (language policy) to power, was not adequately understood thirty years later when he wrote this piece. And we may reflect now twenty years after Gunasinghe, following two more decades of war interspersed with attempts to negotiate peace, that we are yet to understand the dynamic of not only Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, but also the consequences of two other destructive forces that Gunasinghe would not have fully understood twenty years ago, that of Tamil nationalism and militarization.

In thinking about the politics of war, I have to reflect on the legacy of Tamil nationalism particularly over the last thirty years. How first Tamil parliamentary politics and then Tamil militancy mobilized a Tamil base around Tamil nationalism. And then how the LTTE under the cover of Tamil nationalism, consolidated its base to eliminate all other opposition within the Tamil community in deploying its fascist claim of “sole-representation”. Such extreme nationalist politics of the LTTE also led to massacres, ethnic cleansing and the alienation of Muslims. Where the Tamil community has arrived today, with very little space for political engagement and decimation by war is a result of the inexorable logic of the LTTE’s fascist and militarist politics. Furthermore, Tamil nationalism now reinforces Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and vice versa; both nationalisms now need each other.

However, nationalisms alone can not and have not in the past constricted the space for dissent or political opposition to the current extent. And this is where I think it is important to relate militarization to the dynamic of nationalisms. A protracted war over two and a half decades changes the political landscape with militarization becoming the brutal expression of the nationalisms. If I can borrow from Althusser’s ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, the situation has deteriorated to an extent where the Repressive State Apparatuses have come to the fore, reducing the possibilities for contestations with the Ideological State Apparatuses. So it is not so much the religious clergy or the teachers that in carrying out their ideological mission are waiting for an S.W.R.D. or a Tamil nationalist leader to perform a manoeuvre. Rather, the situation has deteriorated over the last two years in the South to an extent that the military establishment and its war propaganda have now gained political ascendancy. Similarly, the LTTE has ensured over the last twenty years that there is little space for politics outside of its totalitarian militarism. Indeed, the dominant ideologies as expressed by both nationalisms are in full force, particularly in the context of their militarization and the war; on a day to day level, we see it in the production of culture to that of the media. However, I would argue that in such critical times of war as during times of coup d’etat, the Repressive State Apparatuses come to the fore drastically reducing the political space to challenge dominant ideologies. Furthermore, in the Sri Lankan context, much as there are the dual nationalisms reinforcing each other, militarization also has a dual logic, with the LTTE and the State reinforcing each others militarization.

This reinforcing dynamic of both the nationalisms and militarization has to be broken, and that is something I find lacking in the positions of both those who support the war and oppose the war in Sri Lanka. Breaking that reinforcing dynamic would entail a commitment to demilitarization and to push for the retreat of the Repressive State Apparatuses. All the more so, because it is the retreat of the Repressive State Apparatuses that will provide the space to engage in the realm of ideology and to challenge the Ideological State Apparatuses. Ideology as well as Ideological State Apparatuses for Althusser are located in the domain of constant contestation. Following from this, I claim that in addition to the historical decimation of progressive politics in Sri Lanka, it is the Repressive State Apparatuses coming to the fore with the war, that has paralyzed challenges to the dominant ideologies of the nationalisms.

The current developments in Sri Lanka, and analysis of the military fortunes of both the State and LTTE are increasingly pointing to a possible military defeat of the LTTE. While as I mentioned early on, the political defeat of the LTTE is desirable, what of its military defeat? Independent of supporting the State politically and independent of civilian casualties, the LTTE’s defeat is desirable, but with one caveat. How we define the LTTE is contentious - so many of its cadres are youth and children, who had little say about the war which the LTTE resumed. Even if I don’t take a pacifist position, I cannot accept their deaths as “collateral damage” or as a consequence of their status as “combatants”, so I make a clear distinction between the LTTE leadership and the lower ranks. This has been the real tragedy of the war, the loss of an entire generation to a senseless war.

Now in response to this call for the LTTE’s defeat there is the counter-argument from people not necessarily aligned with the LTTE that the victory of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism will spell doom for resolving the national question, the political problem of minorities. This argument is posed in those terms as the Rajapaske Regime has given centre stage to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in its war propaganda and more recently even refused to acknowledge the national question. Here I want to again make a theoretical point borrowing from the same essay by Gunasinghe, where he refers to Karl Marx’s ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ and makes a distinction between state and regime. Gunasinghe understands S.W.R.D.’s manoeuvre as an attempt by S.W.R.D. to take hold of the State. But I want to extend that theoretical distinction of regime and state to include the other meaning of regime; that is the ideological regime of war politics and of militarized nationalism.

The dynamic around the politics of regime currently going on in Sri Lanka has two important aspects. On the one hand, the Rajapakse Regime is trying to consolidate itself, in opposition to foregoing regimes that have historically ruled Sri Lanka, whether they are the SLFP Bandaranaike regimes or the various UNP regimes. But in parallel it is also promoting a militarized nationalism through an ideological regime of war politics. It is that ideological regime that has emboldened attacks on democracy as in the abuse of the constitution (the 17th amendment to the Constitution has been disregarded with direct appointments by the President to key independent commissions) or the physical attacks on journalists and repression of the media.

The critical question for me then is whether that ideological regime of war politics can be challenged now or in the near future. And here I would make the conjecture that the defeat of the LTTE and an end to the war, while it may immediately provide opportunities for the consolidation of the Rajapakse Regime in possible electoral victories soon after the war, it will nevertheless weaken the ideological regime of war politics and of militarized nationalism. And to the extent that the Rajapakse Regime has depended on the ideological regime of war politics to consolidate itself, its political fortunes will also unravel. Both regimes need war. This is indeed a debatable point, but I am unwilling to merely accept more of the same, that of a politics of war or for that matter anti-war that is unwilling to engage the politics of militarization related to the nationalisms.

In thinking about these questions relating to the war and its aftermaths, which as I mentioned earlier are part existential and part theoretical, I sense a paralyzing state of political anxiety among those who fall broadly into the progressive camp or for that matter Tamil dissent. In re-reading Gunasinghe and in thinking through his intellectual preoccupations - the concepts of regime and manoeuvre, the theories of Gramsci and Althusser - I am revisiting an intellectual discourse in Sri Lanka that attempted to grapple with difficult political questions. It is not that such theorization necessarily provides any answers, but it stimulates debates that can only sharpen our political engagement.

Unfortunately, such political debates and engagement are almost non-existent, and the causes of this state of affairs must also be carefully considered. Indeed, if there is to be the opening of political space to challenge oppressive ideologies or for that matter to address the national question after the war, what would the terrain of political engagement look like?

Here, I must say that just as the Sri Lankan elite, the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie if you may, failed to address the shortcomings in building a bourgeois democratic state, there is also the failure of the Left in Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history in putting forward a progressive politics that could galvanize the masses. Or more specifically, the failure of a certain middle class (from sections of the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie) progressive politics promoted by the Sri Lankan intelligentsia. This failure of middle class progressive politics was hastened by the accelerated political ascendancy of nationalism and militarization, which they found difficult to respond to even in the 1980s when the likes of Gunasinghe were active. The failure of that generation of intellectuals is characterized by the emergence of visionless NGO politics and the hegemonic hold of nationalist or Statist politics that we see today.

Here I must also add to the list the limitations of middle class politics of dissent, which some of us treasure and which had the important role of keeping some sanity going during the last two and a half decades of war. I don’t think that middle class dissent can also escape this generational failure. And when it comes to Tamil dissent, the generation before me that formed it has either been liquidated by the LTTE or driven into exile for the most part. While dissent in the Tamil diaspora is important in challenging the destructive support for the LTTE (support in both political and financial terms for a war they do not have to face), Tamil dissent in the diaspora as with the diaspora as a whole can not provide an alternative nor be a significant actor for shaping progressive politics in Sri Lanka.

Therefore, I don’t think we can return to the politics of the generation that Gunasinghe represented nor should we romanticize that generation. Rebuilding a democratic political culture will be as difficult or perhaps more difficult than rebuilding the war-ravaged areas and this is going to be all the more true within the Tamil community decimated by the war.

I do not see another middle class generation providing any radical alternative in Sri Lanka; there needs to be a break with the Colombo-centred and paternalistic politics and a serious rethinking of intellectual leadership in the face of its failure. And if I am to place my hope in the emergence of a slow but eventual challenge in the sphere of Sri Lanka democratic politics, I would place it in those who were marginalized by the politics of war, of the militarized nationalism of the last few decades. Those are the youth of the Muslim community and the Up-Country Tamil community, but also the subaltern classes in all communities and among women. It is the caste minorities and the economically marginalized that have been the canon fodder of this war, and it is the women who have had to bear the brunt of the war in economic and social terms, not to mention the particular forms of gender violence. These forms of subaltern and feminist politics might also provide possibilities in the face of the failure of middle-class male radicalism. An end to the politics of war and end to militarization will provide room for the political foundations and the emergence of such politics. It will require re-thinking solidarities and of coexistence, but also to borrow from Gramsci, politics engendered by organic intellectuals. Forms of politics that may be more akin to democratization, and can challenge the nationalist ideologies, and reframe and engage the national question.

Ahilan Kadirgamar is an activist with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.