US of South Asia: Can it be a reality?

The future of this region lies in the twin movements of decentralising all forms of centralised power while putting together a genuinely federal and democratic South Asia. The Sri Lankan crisis proves that

Satya Sivaraman Bangkok

THE SRI LANKAN civil conflict between Tamil and Sinhala ranks, along with Kashmir and the nationality struggles of the Indian northeast, is one of South Asia's most intractable, tragic and bloody conflicts. In terms of death, destruction and displacement, it is, perhaps, also the biggest humanitarian crisis in the subcontinent since the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971.

While official and most media estimates still routinely parrot official figures of around 70,000 people being killed in this three-decade-old war in the island nation, the numbers are, in fact, much higher, including those with  grievous injuries who subsequently die due to their disability. Plus, there are refugees killed in the course of displacement and those slowly dying due to adverse conditions, abject poverty, hunger, scarcity and abysmal lack of medical aid fostered by the conflict. Indeed, the number of the  dead has probably reached over a million in the last 30 years.

Sources from inside Sri Lanka report that since the beginning of 2009, and especially in the last few days of fighting before the reported killing of LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, probably as many as 25,000 people have died. Unofficial figures report 70,000 Tamilians dead. Most of these have been Tamil civilians taking shelter along with remnants of the LTTE in the so-called 'safe zone' that was nevertheless shelled continuously by a rampant Sri Lankan army. If this is not a genocide, what is?

And yet, these extremely large casualty figures, especially, in a country with a population of just 20 million, do not fully reflect the tragedy of what has happened over the years in this paradise-like island. Sri Lanka, at the time of Independence from British rule, had the best development indicators in all of South Asia. In the 1950s, when Singapore was formed, Lee Kuan Yew, as its new leader, proclaimed that his aim was to develop his country to become like Sri Lanka. Instead, what we see 50 years later is that it is Singapore that has become the model for the developing world while Sri Lanka has turned into Rwanda. A once plural, progressive, democratic and highly literate nation is today carrying out a virtual genocide against its own minority citizens. 

All this could have been different and Sri Lanka could indeed have been one of the most advanced countries not just in South Asia but indeed the entire world, if they had managed to keep majoritarian Sinhala chauvinism under control. Imagine, if a bunch of Sri Lankan Tamil guerillas were capable of making fighter aircraft while hiding in the jungles, how much they could have contributed to the advancement of a peaceful Sri Lanka!

Of course, as an Indian while I say all this and point fingers at a neighbouring country, I should also add that other countries in South Asia are not very different from Sri Lanka in their essentials. Throughout the region, the same kind of historical, ethnic, cultural, religious and other identity-based conflicts abound and none of our rulers knows how to handle these in a democratic, imaginative, rational or peaceful manner.

In fact, the truth is that our rulers don't even acknowledge the essence and praxis of democracy in reality. Despite all the light and sound show called general elections every four or five years, each South Asian country is essentially a coalition of many feudal or corporate dictatorships put together, while a section of corrupt politicians rule the roost.

I have always believed, for example, that it is impossible for a Hitler to emerge in India, simply because there are too many Hitlers in our country already and none of them is strong enough to dominate the others. The 'world's largest free-market democracy', is in practice, a wrestling pit for Hitlers of different shapes, sizes, colours and tongues. In South Asia, democracy happens to exist by default, not by intent of those on top and that is the root of our region's problems.

This is reflected in the attitude of feudal arrogance and intolerance our elites bring to every issue they deal with - particularly grievances of ethnic and other minorities. Everywhere, whether in Kashmir, the Indian Northeast or against the Baluchis in Pakistan, the answer is to suppress assertion of identities or differences of any kind with raw violence, the sheer might of State power - resulting in greater alienation, counter-violence, massive human rights violations and the erosion of whatever little formal democracy our countries have. It is a vicious cycle - first they create terrorists (like the Taliban) through their misguided attitudes and policies, then they call them a threat to democracy and, finally, they shoot them down and establish a dictatorship.

SO, WHAT ARE the lessons that Sri Lanka really holds for the rest of South Asia today?

The first lesson is about how civil war is the inevitable outcome of chauvinist politics pursued by majority communities against the minority. Frighteningly enough, the kind of racist policies pursued by the Sri Lankan political elite for so long against Tamil minorities find an echo in the prejudice promoted by votaries of Hindutva against Muslims and Christians in India. Similarly, majoritarian policies against Hindu and other minorities have been implemented at different times in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. If the experience of Sri Lanka is any indication, it is clear that such policies are a recipe for perpetual civil war, which when goes beyond a threshold, defies rational solutions of any kind.

The second lesson is that the conflict in Sri Lanka has been prolonged by the huge and expensive war machinery set up by successive governments, which have become a massive and organised source of corruption and illegal earnings by various vested interest groups. Again, the lesson for India and Pakistan - two of the heaviest spenders on armaments in the world - is simple: if you keep spending on war equipment in the name of 'national security', war will definitely keep on happening. And, if you can't invent enough foreign enemies to fight, then you will start killing your own citizens at some stage - like currently in Pakistan's horrendous civil war against the Taliban, which was basically created as a joint CIA-ISI-US-Pak project.

Yet, another lesson is that none of the major conflicts in the countries of South Asia can be solved entirely by players operating within the confines of their respective nation states. The chronic nature of the conflict in Sri Lanka, for example, has certainly festered due to the limited geographical and social space for manoeuver available to all the parties involved.

That Sri Lanka is an island and a nation at the same time is a double whammy of sorts as geography and politics reinforce the paranoid and insular mindset of the Sinhala elites. Even if the current Sri Lankan government offensive against the LTTE has succeeded militarily - given Sinhala prejudices - a just solution to the grievances of the Tamil-speaking minorities is still a long way off and only a regional if not international approach can help find a lasting solution.

Lastly, the most important lesson from history to learn in South Asia is that if we can't solve our internal conflicts in a democratic and sane manner on our own, the rest of the world - by which I clearly mean western imperialism - will solve it for you. Already, we have the NATO knocking at the door of South Asia in Afghanistan and it is just a matter of time before they get into Pakistan which they even now are bombarding at whim along its western borders. Next stop will be the US and NATO finding a 'solution' to the Kashmir dispute - and before you can say 'Barack Hussein Obama' they will be all over Connaught Place in Delhi.

For citizens of the South Asian subcontinent, the current situation in Sri Lanka is an opportunity to reflect on the common struggles against our own authoritarian rulers as also against predatory western imperialism. It is also time to promote a new vision of the region that goes beyond the narrow boundaries of the post-colonial nation State and call for a democratic, equal and egalitarian federation of all countries in the region.

The future of this entire region lies in the twin movements of smashing all forms of centralised power - particularly in the biggest country, India - while at the same time putting together a genuinely federal and democratic South Asia. The forging of a United States of South Asia or 'USSA' of sorts will be an example to the world of how very diverse people can live and work together in dignity and with mutual respect for each other.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2009