Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

What is the solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka?

Any satisfactory answer to this question must examine, and consider the root causes for this problem; however, the solution must be sensitive to the numerous complexities brought about by the conflict itself. In the case of Sri Lanka, it would be naive examine this problem from a purely pre-1983 perspective.

The fundamental cause for this conflict is the perception by one race that the other race was privileged; there was a general perception racial inequality was prevalent. How did this perception arise? The origins lie in the 19th Century; the American missionaries established a wide network of schools in the Jaffna peninsula that molded an educated, English speaking group of people. The British then tapped into this ready pool of resources in order to fill posts in the Civil Service. Another reason for this was the British colonial policy of “divide and rule”; in fact, there is evidence that the British actively discriminated in favour of Tamils when allocating senior positions in the Civil Service. Hence, the Civil Service became dominated by Jaffna Tamils; their often arrogant attitude and simply the fact that this small minority held vastly disproportionate power was a cause of great resentment on the part of the Singhalese. This was amplified by the fact that Tamil’s were often able to use the administrative system more effectively; for example if a non-English speaking Tamil went to a government department the Tamil civil servants there would aid him in filling up the necessary forms etc. and explain the process in the vernacular. However since most of the Tamils did not speak Singhalese, those belonging to the Singhalese majority would not be able to do the same and hence felt resentment against the Tamils.

Economic success was another reason for the Singhalese antipathy of the Tamils. The Jaffna Tamil originated from an extremely harsh, dry environment where existence depended on careful planning and investment combined with frugal consumption. The Jaffna Tamil applied these experiences when conducting business; and was content to operate on small margins, live thriftily and ruthlessly plough back profits as investment. Therefore, a state arose where a small minority, the Jaffna Tamils, controlled a large proportion of wealth and power in Sri Lanka; the Singhalese naturally resented this modus operandi, however the power of the British Raj prevented them from actually responding.

After the bestowing of independence in 1948 the relative peace that prevailed in Sri Lanka in the preceding century was steadily eroded. The process began with the venting out of popular Singhalese umbrage against the Tamils by electing S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike for his “Sinhala Only” (a policy of making Singhalese the sole official language) policy in 1956. The treachery of S.W.R.D with regard to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanyagam Pact of 1957 amplified increasingly strained relations between the two races. These reached a boiling point in May 1958 when riots broke out in Colombo and the provinces; the most notable implication of these pogroms, besides the greater level of antagonism between the races, was that the Tamils began to lose confidence in the Government of Sri Lanka to safeguard them and treat them as equitable citizens. The primary reason was for five days the government had stood aside and had done nothing. This perception was intensified by the riots of 1977 (where the government again failed to protect Tamils from Singhalese gangs), the burning of the Jaffna Public Library (a symbol of Tamil culture and an important repository of original texts relating to the origins of the Tamils).

The role of standarisation must not be forgotten; the Jaffna Tamils depended on education for economic advancement. The introduction of standardization in 1973 meant that Jaffna Tamils would lose their niche position in the Civil Service and private sector.  In 1969, the Northern Province, which was largely populated by Tamils and compromised 7% of the population of the country, provided 27.5 percent of the entrants to science based courses in Sri Lankan universities. By 1974, this was reduced to 7%. This is repeatedly cited as evidence of State discrimination against Tamils, and hence contributed in undermining the Tamil’s confidence in the State.

In conclusion, by 1983 the Tamils were treated as second-class citizens; their language not recognized, advancement in the civil service limited, discriminated against in terms of education and not protected by their State.  Furthermore, they were considered aliens in their own land. This general perception was dominant at even the highest levels of government:

“If there is discrimination in this land which is not their (Tamil) homeland, then why try to stay here. Why not go back home (India) where there would be no discrimination. There are your kovils and Gods. There you have your culture, education, universities etc. There you are masters of your own fate”

– Mr.W.J.M. Lokubandara, M.P. in Sri Lanka’s Parliament, July 1981

This can be considered with ease as a lucid breach of the social contract; the Tamils then felt it their right to rebel and restore their rights. The Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 had firmly placed this restoration in terms of a separate sate. A guerilla movement emerged from those dissatisfied and brought the conflict into a new phase.

 One must not fail to note that the riots of 1983 were caused by Tamil militants viz the LTTE. Tamil militancy, by this time, had already developed to the extent where attacks of this nature ( 13 soldiers were killed) could be successfully completed; this revealed that 1983 did not instigate the ethnic conflict but was a manifestation the extent to which it had developed and that events were increasingly reaching an ever higher crescendo of violence and hatred.  The widespread backlash, the killing of thousands and the governments repeated failure to protect its citizens convinced the Tamil population that its rights would not be respected and that they would be classified as second-class citizens if they remained within the Sri Lankan state.

The next 25 years was fraught with greater violence, hatred and oppression. Both the LTTE and the government committed numerous human rights abuses. The LTTE repeatedly attacked civilians, such as the massacres at Anuradhapura in 1985 and repeatedly at border villages such as Thiripane, not to mention the bombing of busses. Government forces too have committed many violations of human rights e.g. thousands of disappearances, the killing of aid workers, and the rampages of soldiers are but a few of the many instances. The mutual animosity that existed before 1983 has deepened and matured into a state of utter mistrust and bitterness. Many, if not most, members of a certain ethnic group view the members of the other group as subhuman and not worthy of existence due to the above reasons. This psychological and sociological baggage cannot be ignored and must be dealt with if any solution is to exist today.  

In conclusion, the root cause of the ethnic issue is the feeling of inequality and oppression and for the ethnic conflict to be solved these must be dealt with; however this must be done within a framework considering the mutual hate and the deep rifts created in the last 25 years.

Today, 30th April 2008, a country deeply divided, over 60,000 dead, a generation (or two) lost, children brainwashed, hatred and above all fear. What can be done?  The solution is simple yet concurrently complex. It is that the based on the cry of the French Revolution “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”; all ethnic groups must be treated as equals. How it is to be achieved? The solution lies in the creation of a modern liberal democratic structure that ensures the rights of all citizens are equally upheld. All citizens must be treated equally. A sense of national identity based on the principle of the nation state rather than ethnicity must be instilled and cultivated.

On a practical level this means that the government should not consider the race of a person for any purpose e.g. the indication of race on national identification is unnecessary and counterproductive. Furthermore, the use of a common non-sectarian language (such as English) should be encouraged. In addition, a culture of principle and policy, not ethnicity, politics must be encouraged. A firm independent judiciary with power to enforce its decisions must be developed. Finally, the state must be secular, in order to prevent discrimination from that direction.

For all of this to occur legislative, constitutional, administrative and sociological change must occur. The LTTE will not accept any system of plurality and hence it would be naïve to expect any change from the LTTE, or the brainwashed and oppressed people under them. The burden lies on the average Sinhala voter (the majority) to elect a government that will ensure that all these goals are achieved.  The perceptions of the Sinhala voter must be changed via education and exposure (and perhaps war weariness). Only when these goals are achieved and all ethnic groups feel they are equal citizens  the “voice of strife” be dumb and only then will “we march to a mighty purpose”, the betterment of all our citizens, united as one.