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Predicament of Political Change

It appears that both Nepal and Sri Lanka are on the brink of reconstituting the existing state. The difficult task in both countries is to ensure that reconstitution of the state will facilitate an improvement in the quality of political life of all communities as well as citizens.

Letter from South Asia

Predicament of Political Change

It appears that both Nepal and Sri Lanka are on the brink of reconstituting the existing state. The difficult task in both countries is to ensure that reconstitution of the state will facilitate an improvement in the quality of political life of all communities as

well as citizens.


olitical events in Nepal and Sri Lanka seem to have acquired a new momentum with a great deal of volatility in recent weeks. The two countries appear to be at the doorstep of some painful change. And it is a painfully prolonged process too. In Nepal, a bloody confrontation between the monarchy and the people is progressing in the streets of Kathmandu. The king does not seem to have realised that the time has come for the entire system of monarchy to leave the political centre stage. His determination to stay in power amidst mass protests can only prolong the agony of political transition in the “kingdom” of Nepal.

Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, the government and the LTTE are engaged in an undeclared mini-war to settle some procedural disputes relating to reviving the stalled peace process. The two sides were supposed to return to Geneva in mid-April to review the progress of commitments made in February to uphold the ceasefire agreement. International ceasefire monitors have expressed frustration over what they see as petty squabbling by both sides, designed to avoid the return to the negotiation table. Arguments have emerged from within the camps of the Sri Lankan government as well as the Tamil Tigers that return to war, not to Geneva, is necessary and inevitable. This is despite the fact that both sides are aware of the exceedingly high cost of a full-scale war. It appears that Sri Lanka’s peace process, which began in early 2002, has now exhausted all its potential. Some in Colombo even argue that a new peace process might emerge after a new phase of war.

In south Asia, there is no multilateral mechanism to deal with domestic political crises and conflicts within states. After decades of insurgencies and rebellions in almost all the south Asian countries, there is no regional or institutional body to work towards preventing any country from relapsing into civil war. Not even a regional civil society or intellectual forum to discuss the crisis and explore constructive and peaceful options. Bilateralism in interstate relations has not been of great help for any country seeking external assistance to address domestic conflicts. The two powerful states in the region, India and Pakistan, have often complicated and even made intractable existing crises in the states in the neighbourhood. Even if Nepal and Sri Lanka approach the breaking point, the big neighbours will, to put it somewhat crudely, first worry about the spillover effects of the crisis. Then they will continue to manipulate the events with the mistaken belief that they will have a say in the final outcome of the crisis. Meanwhile, there is hardly anything that other states, or even the people, in the region, can do, for example, to prevent Nepal or Sri Lanka from plunging into full-scale civil war.

Reluctant Onlookers

We all are now reluctant onlookers to new and renewed processes of conflict escalation in these two countries. In Nepal, king Gyanendra has demonstrated an exceptional ability to ignore the political writings on the wall. In fact, Gyanendra and his advisors also display a remarkable political blindness to changing realities. Their incapacity to see the process of their own isolation at home has been paralleled with a peculiar will to cling on to power, with the hope that the global state system, with its new crusade against “terrorism”, might in the final reckoning come to their rescue. But, indications are that when a decisive showdown is in the making, the space for global and regional big powers to alter the trajectories of crisis is becoming rather limited. It appears that in Nepal, the Maoist insurgents have already seized the initiative to define the events to come.

Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers are making every effort to define the future trajectories of the conflict. That they have been doing in recent weeks by challenging the state to an all out war. Every new claymore mine that explodes the lives of a group of government or LTTE soldiers carries the message that in an essentially instrumentalist sense, the return to war has become a necessity. There is very little that the regional and global powers can do to break up this logic and arrest the sliding back to war.

The year 2006 seems to be crucial for both Nepal and Sri Lanka. In Nepal, the popular struggle against king Gyanendra’s autocratic rule has reached a qualitatively new and decisive stage. The sign of that transformation is not that the Maoist insurgents and opposition political parties have formed a coalition to oppose the king. There is now a real and unmistakeable sign that the Nepal crisis has reached a point of no return. The ordinary people in Kathmandu and other cities have begun to defy the day curfew imposed by the king. They are joining protest demonstrations and other acts of public resistance disobeying the king’s orders. This is how an unwritten law in resistance politics appears to be working. When the ordinary people begin to defy the emergency laws as well as the curfew orders imposed by the state, the authority of the rulers has really ceased to command the respect of its citizens.

In the coming months, Nepal is likely to see a radical shift in the way in which the country is politically run. The monarchy, rotten within, may either fall or give way to a parliamentary set-up with the

Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006

king as the constitutional head of state. In either eventuality, a major bloodbath seems to be unavoidable. Prachanda, head of the Maoist insurgent movement, said it well in his BBC television interview a few months ago. The Nepalese king, according to Prachanda, had only two options: Abdication or facing execution! No admirer of BBC political documentaries would have missed the clinical and self-assured way in which Prachanda made this extraordinary statement.

Sri Lanka presents a slightly different, yet structurally similar, case study of failed politics in managing an internal political crisis. Piripaharan, the LTTE leader, has not faced the BBC documentary camera as yet. He does not have the appearance of a university professor, as does comrade Prachanda of Nepal. But he has been defining the political agenda for the Sinhalese political class in a decisive manner that is rarely understood in south Asia. He gives political and military expression to the sovereignty claims of Sri Lanka’s Tamil “nation”. The nationalist insurgency which he has been leading for the past two and a half decades has produced two crucial outcomes: a powerful and resourceful military structure in the northern province and a parallel sub-national state. The regional state is founded on the ideology that views the Sri Lankan Tamils as a sovereignty-seeking nation. It is run by means of an extensive network of administrative and law and order institutions and protected by the military power of the LTTE. Dealing with this “reality” is an exceedingly difficult challenge faced by Sri Lankan government as well as the international custodians of Sri Lanka’s current peace process.

Politics of Reform Resistance

I take the examples of Prachanda and Piripaharan to make another point that is quite obvious, yet needs to be repeated. There is a continuing agenda for change in south Asia that is built on the powerful premise that both protracted counter-state war and violence are necessary and inevitable to reform the existing political structures. This premise has been reinforced by the politics of reform resistance repeatedly practised by south Asian political elites who preside over states that continue to generate resistance from within. It is quite remarkable that a culture of reform resistance has set in even in countries where armed rebellions have sought structural reforms, revolutionary change and secession. Let us take the example of Sri Lanka where the politics since the early 1970s has been marked by multiple armed insurgencies against the state. What have the ruling classes done in Sri Lanka to constructively manage the existing rebellions and prevent the new ones? Not very much. Even after 25 years of a secessionist ethno-political civil war, influential sections of Sri Lanka’s political class still seek a solution to the ethnic conflict within the framework of a unitary state with mere administrative decentralisation. This is a kind of political conservatism that begets permanent ethno-political rebellions.

Then, what is the alternative that the rebellions are likely to offer to societies in deep conflict in South Asia? The Maoists in Nepal have the idea of a republic as the alternative to monarchy. The LTTE seeks a separate state, or confederal regional autonomy. The path to those goals has been the so-called armed struggle, a path existentially rationalised by the repeated refusal by the ruling classes to reform the existing state and its structures. Counterstate war has been both a political critique and a practice in Nepal and Sri Lanka. But, without it being realised by its practitioners, the counter-state war has also been losing its capacity for political emancipation.

To make a provocative point, one may even say that the politics of counter-state war and violence that seeks political change is caught in a trap that is of its own making. To put it in a somewhat exaggerated manner, it sometimes offers the pleasures of resistance, and not much in terms of political democracy and emancipation. I was struck by this paradox of the politics of armed rebellion in south Asia last year when I spent some time in editing a volume on militarisation in Asia for the Hong Kong-based journal Asian Exchange. The three chapters on Nepal, Sri Lanka and India carried accounts of the militarisation that has taken place in these societies not only at the level of the state, but also in the political movements engaged in armed resistance to state oppression. These studies showed that the violence practised by Maoists or nationalist rebels in Nepal, the north-east of India and Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces had been directed not only against the state that deployed violence in counter-insurgency war, but also against civilians. And those civilian populations had already been subjected to structural and direct violence of the state. Hopefully, the situation in Nepal has now changed with the emergence ofamulti-party coalition to lead the struggle for a democratic republic. The transition to democracy there will involve not only dismantling the oppressive structures of the monarchical rule, but also demilitarising the political cultures of extreme violence attached to the armed resistance.

Meanwhile, in instances where the state has retreated and the rebels have set up their own power, the emerging state, relying essentially on the instruments and practices of extreme social coercion, is both “primitive” and pre-democratic. Primitive in the sense that the “primitive accumulation of state power” has been an excessively militarised process. Pre-democratic in the sense that these rebels seem to think that the establishment of counter-state state power should take precedence over the political emancipation of citizens. Indeed, militarism and “undemocracy” have been defining attributes of the politics of counterstate war as well. This is what Sri Lanka’s Tamil nationalist rebellion has produced after two and a half decades of a “national liberation war”. The nationalist Tamil polity in Sri Lanka has to settle accounts not only with the Sri Lankan state, but also with its own politics of democratic negation. But the Sri Lankan Tamil nationalists, engaged in a bloody fratricidal and internal war as well, are unlikely to look inwards critically.

It appears to me that both Nepal and Sri Lanka are on the brink of reconstituting the existing state. In Nepal, the monarchy is likely to be overthrown, or disempowered. The regional or global state system will not have much space to define the trajectories of change to come. Sri Lanka is also moving in a similar direction, little noticed by its citizens, political leaders and the regional and global powers. The difficult task in both countries is to ensure that reconstitution of the state will facilitate an improvement in the quality of political life of all communities as well as citizens.


Email: uyangoda@gmail.com

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Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006

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