Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Sri Lanka’s never-ending political deadlock

Sri Lanka’s present administration is a “dictatorship masquerading as democracy” observed Prof. John Neelsen from the Institute of Sociology in Tuebingen, Germany. His judgement is not far from the truth. In this paper I shall argue that a virtual ‘Sinhala-Buddhist dictatorship’ has emerged in Sri Lanka as the outcome of the brutish military campaign that resulted in a humanitarian tragedy of scandalous proportions. Also, I shall show the colonial connection, particularly the British rule that sowed the seeds for the present political impasse in Sri Lanka.

Let me start with a brief description of the war that culminated in the destruction of the Tamil Tiger leadership along with its Tamil mini-state in Sri Lanka’s Tamil habitat.

Successive administrations in Sri Lanka succeeded in branding its nearly thirty-year war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as war on terrorism. This formula worked well in getting the foreign countries – to which hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled for protection – to ban the Tiger Movement and choke the flow of funds to the Tigers. Following the ‘9-11’ US tragedy, Sri Lanka nicely touted its war as part of Junior Bush’s ‘global war on terror’.

The Sinhala nationalist movement in Sri Lanka, on the contrary, correctly identified the Tiger leadership as the zenith of the Tamil minority’s struggle to establish its own Tamil state in the north and east.

The Sinhala/Buddhists saw the island as rightfully theirs. For them, the Tamil struggle is a continuation of the historic Sinhala/Tamil wars in a new form. The army commander, General Sarath Fonseka, in a recent interview articulated the Sinhala perception as follows: “I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese; but, there are minority communities and we treat them like our people…we being the majority of the country, 74%, we’ll never give in and we have the right to protect this country…They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.” [My emphasis]

In a similar tone, the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said: “In any democratic country the majority should rule the country. This country will be ruled by the Sinhalese community which is the majority representing 74% of the population.” In the same vein, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa, seeing the onrushing victory, said: “Soon the lion flag [VR: Effectively, the emblem of the Sinhala Buddhists] will fly from every house-top from Point Pedro to Dondra Head, from Colombo to Trincomalee.”

All three quotations above – from interviews and public speeches made by the top most personalities of the Sri Lankan state just prior to the final military victory – reflect the general mindset of Sri Lanka’s majority community that has primarily been fuelling the war all along, not terrorism. Terrorism was just a symptom both sides resorted to during the conflict.

Victory celebrations began to spread like wildfire in the Sinhala south shamelessly displaying the hubris of annihilating the Tamil separatists, rather than terrorism. Chief monks within the Buddhist clergy and the Sinhala press were openly referring to Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Sinhala king who should rule the country for good. Some are even suggesting turning the country formally into a Sinhala-Buddhist kingdom. Any sociologist who would study the post-war celebrations in the ‘Sinhala south’ would clearly see an entrenched supremacist mindset in action, nothing less.

All pre-war talks of ‘devolving power to the Tamils’ had vanished. The president was calling upon the people to discard the concept of ‘ethnic minority’ altogether and see everyone as a citizen of Sri Lanka.

However attractive this slogan may seem on the surface let me explain why this approach fails to appreciate Sri Lanka’s social realities; and how in practice this would amount to the defence of Sinhala/Buddhist domination in Sri Lankan politics.

The fundamental fallacy in the Sinhala-Buddhist perception results from the failure to distinguish between ‘ethnic minorities’ and ‘minority nations’. The fact is: Tamils in Sri Lanka are a minority nation trapped within the post-colonial straitjacket of a unitary state. [Later I shall show there can be forms of unitary structures that are capable of accommodating trouble-free coexistence of more than one nation.]

Tamils are in many ways similar to Scots in Scotland or Welsh in Wales. Tamils don’t see themselves as an ethnic minority living in the Sinhala/Buddhist country, just as Scots don’t see themselves as a minority living in the English country. Both Scots and Welsh perceive Britain as a voluntary arrangement by three nations for mutual benefit. The English-dominated state, for instance, conceivably cannot ban the separatist Scottish National Party driving them underground, send an English army to crush Scottish separatism and hoist the English flag all over Scotland. Why not? Because, the political value systems in the west have evolved too far for that; the atmosphere isn’t conducive to such behaviour.

The Tamils have a very long history along with the Sinhalese, though the latter has been the dominant political and cultural force through out Sri Lankan history. When the western colonialists arrived in Sri Lanka [formerly, Ceylon] over four centuries ago there existed one Tamil kingdom and two Sinhalese kingdoms in the island which the colonialists systematically dismantled. The British finally defeated the last Sinhala kingdom in Kandy and imposed a unitary state structure uniting the island for administrative purposes. [Ironically, the last king of the Sinhala kingdom, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, who confronted the British forces, was a Tamil; and that indicates the present extreme form of the supremacist mindset is essentially a post-independence phenomenon.]

During the Colonial rule both Sinhala and Tamil cultures were brutally suppressed, and parallel revivalist movements erupted independently of each other in the 19th century – in the Sinhala south to protect Buddhism and Sinhala culture while in the Tamil north to defend Hinduism and Tamil culture. These movements eventually snowballed into powerful anti-imperialist campaigns for freedom.

Unfortunately, these social realities and the robust aspirations of two nations were not reflected in the British-imposed state-structures at Sri Lanka’s independence. On the contrary, the British introduced a rigid unitary system paving the way for Sinhala domination that immensely contributed to future conflicts. There were no mechanisms for the Sinhalese politicians to fulfil the Sinhala-Buddhists’ justifiable economic, political and cultural aspirations without antagonizing the Tamils. [The so-called 29th Clause of the first post-independence constitution to protect the ‘minorities’ – which was contemptuously discarded by the Sinhala majority eventually – was pathetically inadequate to protect the Tamils from discrimination.]

The post-colonial political system, in effect, motivated the Sinhala politicians to whip up anti-Tamil sentiments as the easy way to secure the majority’s vote base. This factor along with the dragging feudal consciousness in Sri Lanka proved to be a lethal combination.

The latter point, I think, deserves a brief explanation: In countries like Sri Lanka, capitalism did not organically evolve from feudalism. Unlike in Europe – where capitalism grew within the womb of feudal society systematically challenging all aspects of feudal consciousness and institutions – Sri Lankan capitalism was arbitrarily imposed by colonialists on a feudal society. Therefore, the feudal consciousness continued to persist in various forms. The Sinhala politicians’ pathological failure to politically solve the Tamil Question, I believe, is partly a result of that.

True, for a developing nation – battered by imperialism for centuries – the glorious memories of a bygone past may be useful to sustain a nation’s badly needed self-confidence. But, they could easily turn into a toxic force, as happened in Sri Lanka, when mixed with political structures that encourage racism.

In fact, the language and the symbolism used during the post-war victory celebrations could, I believe, provide fertile fields for anthropologists to study a very important social phenomenon. Virtually everyone in the Sinhala/Buddhist ‘camp’ – including the president, military leaders and government ministers – perceived the Tamil Tigers’ demise as the modern version of the historic defeat of the Tamil king Elara at the hand of the Sinhala/Buddhist king Dutugemunu.

The real content of the Tamil struggle, the war and the eventual Tiger defeat, however, is vastly different. As I have already explained, it is very much to do with Sri Lanka’s post-colonial state-structures’ inflexibility to even-handedly deal with the political, economic and cultural aspirations of two nations emerging from colonial oppression.

Clearly, the unitary state has been instrumental in pushing the two communities towards head on clash, rather than helping them to see the benefits of coexistence. The successive governments’ one-sided efforts to promote Sinhala language and Buddhism, for instance, turned out as blatant anti-Tamil discrimination. The Sinhala-dominated state’s biased approach against the Tamil regions in infrastructure development is visibly clear. Just like the colonialists who were only interested in developing their central economic hub, Colombo, and related areas, the post-independence governments also neglected the crucially important north and east in the distribution of national wealth. Consequently, the Tamil regions remained undeveloped forcing the Tamil youth to migrate to the Sinhala south for jobs, businesses and prosperity. Thus, the poverty-ridden Sinhala majority increasingly began to perceive the Tamils as a threat to their jobs and businesses. Accordingly, communal riots and anti-Tamil pogroms became a striking feature of Sri Lanka’s post-independence history.

Tamils’ non-violent campaigns for a federal state were brutally crushed by the successive Sinhala governments – a trend culminated in the banning of Tamil representatives from the parliament using draconian laws. The Tamil armed-struggle for a separate state was a direct result of the Sinhala state’s violent efforts to put down Tamils’ Gandhian campaigns. Tamil Tigers’ determined venture to build a Tamil mini-state and militarily protect it was a logical development in response to the Sinhala state’s violent approach.

Now that the Tamil Tigers’ mini-state strategy has been defeated, the Tamils internationally have responded with their new strategy to create a “transnational government” based on the numerically and financially strong Tamil Diaspora that may eventually raise a formidable ‘global’ challenge to the Sinhala state. Whatever the viability of the Tamil leaders’ high sounding objectives abroad, at least a solid movement could emerge to consolidate the Diaspora’s unprecedented energy erupted in response to the war. Thus, it may prove to be a powerful counterpart to the political developments in Sri Lanka itself.

Does the Sri Lankan government have the vision to handle the new developments by politically solving the Tamil question? Highly unlikely, I should say.

After the Tamil Tigers’ military defeat, Sri Lanka’s president Mahinda Rajapaksa made it amply clear that he is not going to devolve power to the Tamils as a separate unit living in the north and east of the island. As mentioned earlier, for him there are ‘no ethnic minorities’ in Sri Lanka to devolve power along ethnic lines. Tamils grievances could be addressed within the existing unitary structures, he said.

However, the Rajapaksa-friendly Tamil politicians – who are getting discredited among the Tamils by the day – and the international community keep pressurizing the government to give in on this issue. [Reportedly, at the recent UN vote on a ‘possible genocide probe’, the government has covertly hinted its readiness to implement an improved version of the 13th amendment – the brainchild of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 – as a devolutionary package to the north-east Tamils. However, such misleading signals appear to be part of Machiavellian tactics to hoodwink the UN. The harsh reality is that the president is struggling hard to avert the devolution issue altogether paying lip-service to a possible ‘home-grown’ solution in the ‘near future’]

President Rajapaksa’s post-victory speeches indicate a pluralist vision of the Sri Lankan society in which members of diverse social groups develop their traditional cultures or special interests within a common civilization. Thus, he seems determined to avoid any solution along ethnic lines.

This approach seems attractive to many Sinhala intellectuals too, because of its obvious modernist connotations, as opposed to outdated nationalist prejudices. But, in a country like Sri Lanka with a ‘minority nation’ of highly evolved nationalist aspirations, the pluralist vision has many pitfalls as its post-independence experience has graphically illustrated to its detriment.

Even in an economically advanced country like Britain pluralism has not worked. How imprudent it is to believe pluralism to be the answer in a poor country like Sri Lanka after decades of brutal war to crush a minority nation.

Perhaps, it is time to learn a lesson or two from the architect of Sri Lanka’s unitary setup, Britain. How did Britain deal with Scottish and Welsh separatism? The London parliament offered a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, both explicitly based on Scottish and Welsh right to self-determination. [The British proposals were put to the Scottish and Welsh people separately in the form of referendums for their approval]

Of course, Sri Lanka cannot copy the British answer to separatism from word to word. Sri Lankan situation is quite different. In Britain, for instance, the central administration is far more advanced than its counterpart in Colombo; therefore, whether the British Prime Minister is English, Scottish or Welsh is irrelevant where as in Sri Lanka, at present, a Tamil or a Muslim President is an unthinkable quantity. Also, still the English majority has not strongly felt the need to rush for a regional English Parliament, though the existing lopsidedness of the British state structures is widely being acknowledged.

Thus, the British solution cannot fit the Sri Lankan situation like a glove. What is important is to learn at least the general principles of a democratic approach to somewhat similar problems.

Let’s have a brief look at some relevant demographic and geographical features of the present day Sri Lankan society: Although the Tamils identify much of the northern and eastern provinces as their traditional homeland there are hundreds of thousands of Tamils, including the Tamil plantation workers in the upcountry, live among the Sinhala majority. [Note that the Muslims also use Tamil as their first language.] Also, a substantial section of Sinhalese and Muslims have been living in the Tamil regions for generations. Therefore, considering the deep rooted prejudices prevalent on both sides, it would be in the interest of all concerned to have radical changes in the central administration. In this sense, power devolution to the Tamil regions would be of lesser significance relative to the changes at the centre.

Moreover, geographically Sri Lanka should be seen as a single unit. The water distribution, for instance, is uniquely intertwined. The rivers that fertilize Tamil lands of the north and east originate from the hills located in the Sinhala midlands. Even the climatic zones of the island are distributed as parts of a single whole.

Culturally too there have been close interactions between the two peoples that have mutually enriched each other through out history. Virtually in all Buddhist temples there are shrines for Hindu gods. Most Buddhists are devotees of Hindu gods too.

Consequently, all communities’ long term interests would be better served by designing an island-wide political transformation whatever the shortcut measures needed to solve the immediate problems. Two hostile political entities side by side would be counterproductive for both.

Thus, a realistically creative solution, in my view, should have a mechanism for Sinhala and Tamil people to fulfil their cultural aspirations in their own regions through two regional parliaments while the highest level institutions of the economy, judiciary, defence, foreign affairs etc., are secured in an equality-based centre. In more simple terms, there should be a democratically-transformed Supreme Parliament to deal with issues related to the country as a whole, while two regional parliaments look after the Sinhala/Tamil cultural and other interests in their own regions. [For, clarity’s sake I shall avoid dealing with the special interests of Muslims and other tiny communities here.]

How to transform a Sinhala-dominated supremacist centre into a democratic and equality-based Supreme Parliament is the trillion dollar question. This is the key issue to be negotiated with the Tamil political leaders. The Europeon Union, for example, has been going through valuable experiences on similar issues, and if so many nation-states can continue to build mutual confidence on such a vast scale then a tiny island with a few races should be able to do that far more easily. But, without discarding the chauvinist mindset the whole thing is a non-starter.

To start with, the government will have to abandon the “no minorities” delusion. The truth is: with entrenched nationalist aspirations and prejudices of a post-colonial society the ‘pluralist solution’ will only amount to a reinforcement of the Sinhala Buddhist domination that continues to provoke the Tamil struggle to re-emerge in a new form.

Devolution of power to a separate Tamil Unit without touching the centre could also, in my view, further deepen the ethnic divisions along dangerous lines, particularly in the context of the growing regional rivalries between China and India. There is a serious possibility of the Sinhala-dominated centre turning into a Chinese puppet-state while a northern Tamil administration gets swamped by India’s regional interests. If this were to happen, the chances of Sri Lanka becoming a playground for regional power-politics are very real indeed.

But, is it realistic to expect the Sinhala political elite to change its Mahavamsa mindset and go for a radical transformation of the state-structure along the lines I have suggested earlier? I don’t think so. The government seems determined to stick to its militarist agenda of violently demolishing the Tamils’ cry for freedom. Therefore, all fascistic trends the government has been showing in the south so far are likely to grow worse in the coming period.

Alternatively, will the government – under international pressure – go for an asymmetric devolution of power to Tamils in the north and east as being demanded by the mainstream Tamil politicians in parliament? Such a move, in my view, is highly unlikely, because that could anger the southern Sinhala-Buddhist movement that perceives it as a Tamil tactic to split the country. The People’s Liberation Movement (JVP) with a strong base on the Sinhala side has been warning against any such move. This would amount to a betrayal of thousands of Sinhala soldiers who sacrificed their lives in defence of the country’s integrity, the JVP claims.

There are major problems with the 13th Amendment which the anti-Tiger Tamil politicians might like to resolve. The North-East provincial council that existed until 2006 was just one of several councils in the country that exist at the mercy of the Sinhala-dominated centre. The centre can abolish them at will. Also, there are controversial areas such as policing – which the centre wants to keep in its hands ignoring the anti-Tiger Tamil politicians’ request.

Clearly, the 13th Amendment is worthless unless asymmetrical power devolution to the Tamil Unit with extra laws to protect it from arbitrary central interventions is secured. Already, the centre has demonstrated its domination over the provincial councils by abolishing the north-west council on one occasion. Also, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has recently nullified a cornerstone of the 13th Amendment, i.e. the merger of the two Tamil-majority provinces, as unconstitutional. Thus, a fundamental aspiration of the Tamils, i.e. to unite northern and eastern provinces, is already in jeopardy.

Moreover, the Sinhala side firmly believes that an asymmetrical devolution of power to Tamils of north & east would only be a steppingstone for a Tamil state. This was a major factor in the deepening distrust between the two sides all along. And, now that the Tamil Tigers’ mini-state project has been militarily wiped out, it might be futile to expect the Colombo administration to create a north-east council free from centre’s control. President Rajapaksa’s constant lip-service to a ‘home-grown’ solution may well be a cover to dodge the mounting international pressure to devolve power to Tamils.

However, there are at least three reasons why the government would loose its nerve unless an acceptable political solution for the Tamils is presented soon.

Firstly, the government is increasingly becoming conscious that the military victory does not mark the end of the Tamil struggle. The government has succeeded in demolishing the Tigers’ ‘mini-state project’ only to pave the way for a changed form of struggle. Consequently, the security nightmare that plagued the country for so long is nowhere near ending. And the government will go on ‘disappearing’ every Tamil showing any sign of freedom-sentiments. This will only drive the politically conscious Tamils underground, making the situation increasingly difficult to tackle.

Secondly, Sri Lanka’s dithering economy – already overwhelmed by mounting debts – is showing signs of grave problems, and the potential for social unrest in the south is very real indeed. This could turn the post-war exuberance into its opposite in no time.

Thirdly, the presently raging debate within the Sinhala intelligentsia and the left movement as to the hollowness behind the military victory seems to be gathering momentum. It may well become the catalyst for a new awareness away from the mainstream supremacist mindset. And, there are politically conscious Tamil campaigners who see the significance of relating to the Sinhala progressives. A potentially formidable unity between the rising Tamil movement and the Sinhala progressive forces would be the last thing the Rajapaksa administration would like to see happening.

There’re good reasons for the growing frustration in the south. Many thought the Tigers’ military defeat would bring peace in a perceptible way. But, in the midst of victory celebrations the military commander Sarath Fonseka in a TV interview said he was going to expand the army by 50%, surprising everyone who couldn’t understand why peace needs more soldiers than the war. Also, extending the draconian anti-terrorist law in the parliament was one of government’s immediate steps in the post-war Sri Lanka. In brief, the military victory does not seem to have brought security to the country in a tangible way.

The developments within the Tamil community both inside and outside Sri Lanka are not conducive for peace at all. Inside Sri Lanka the Tamil anger seems to be reaching boiling point by the day. Perhaps, it’s worth quoting the Vavuniya Tamil legislator Suresh premachandra’s account given on June 14 in some length.

“250,000 Tamil civilians are held in camps. Over 1000 were killed. A large number was injured. Children have no parents. Mothers have lost children. Wives have lost husbands. Pregnant mothers and others lack healthcare. No houses; no water. Bathing is limited once in four days. No food; no toilets. One cannot go out since a Sinhala Army has surrounded them. No connection with the outside world. How can the people be happy?” he said. “In Jaffna, we cannot get out of the houses. Checkpoints are everywhere. 600,000 Tamils are ruled by 40,000 Sinhala Army. One cannot come to Colombo at least for an emergency. An air ticket is Rs. 20,000. A-9 road is closed. Roads in Jaffna are closed at any moment the Army patrols on them. Tamils are suppressed day by day.” And in a warning tone he added, “Both sides have the patriotism.”

In a mood of utter frustration he said: “Youths are arrested from camps. Parents cannot go to complain to police. Human Rights organizations are denied access. We cannot do anything. We are also not allowed. Six MPs including MP Srikanthan wrote a letter seeking permission to visit camps. But no reply. MP Kishore sought the President’s permission over the phone. Then the President asked him to join the government. I cannot go at least to my birth place. I cannot look into the welfare of people that voted me. This government is engaged in an opportunist politics violating the human rights and democracy.”

The Tamil MP was describing the situation in the Tamil north. The government says there’re thousands of Tigers at large in the south. Also, there are hundreds of thousands of Tamils in the south who live in fear, as second class citizens, and in constant worry about their relatives suffering in the detention camps. Thus, the question is: how long this state of affairs is going to last without blowing up?

There is no sign of pacification within the Tamil Diaspora either. Quite apart from the protests and lobbies, the think-tanks are busy debating the ways of rebuilding the Tamil campaign on a global scale. As already mentioned, the some Tamil leaders abroad have already begun forming the ‘transnational government’ and strengthening their global campaign. They may try and manoeuvre India’s growing nervousness over China’s systematic encroachment into her outskirts using Sri Lankan state’s predicament. On the other hand, even China – with its ‘global-superpower’ ambitions – may want to build its moral-image globally, and put pressure on the Colombo administration to get its act together.

Also, there are others who encourage the Tamils in the country to join progressive Left parties en masse and compel the Tamil political parties to come to a united front with the Left, anticipating a socio-political turmoil worse than the recent Iranian crisis. The deteriorating economic conditions in Sri Lanka, they think, would be the additional factor.

This last point needs some elaboration:

Sri Lanka is a tiny part of the global economy that is almost entirely dependent on exports and imports for its survival. There’s no viable internal market for capitalists to thrive on. Its foreign exchange earnings have been primarily centred on tourism, tea, garment/textile exports and the ‘export’ of labour mainly to the middle-east for the inflow of foreign exchange remittances – all of which have been drastically affected by the global recession. During the past few decades, easily available global credit facilitated Sri Lanka’s economic and political survival. The global credit crunch has badly affected the major pillars of the Sri Lankan economy causing unexpected problems for the economic pundits.

The war cost has been totally beyond the capacity of a poor country like Sri Lanka. The coffers are empty and the government is totally dependent on foreign loans and aid. The war forced the government to borrow untold quantities of domestic credit too that kept the central bank’s printing machines very busy indeed. Colossal amounts of paper money now circulating within the economy can be seen forcing the living costs to rise uncontrollably while the foreign exchange reserves have slumped to dangerous levels. The dragging global economic doom is not helping the situation at all.

Thus, the continuing triumphalist conceit could soon run out of steam. Economic catastrophe, social unrest and political dissent may well be on the cards. In such a scenario, I think, the spectre of possible link up of Sinhala/Tamil aspirations on a common platform, could become more real than many appreciate at present.

In conclusion, let me briefly mention the essence of the analysis: The post-colonial state-structure – initially floated by British imperialism – was the albatross that reinvigorated a dormant mindset. The political process since has now reached its logical end: a virtual Sinhala-Buddhist dictatorship. However, it has also created the conditions and the potential for a social revolution that could eventually bring about the real democratic transformation Sri Lanka is crying for.

  • Humanity failed in Sri lanka
    I am not worried about the opinion of the Tamil people… now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion… the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhalese people will be here… Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhalese people will be happy.
    J.R.Jayawardene, Former President of Sri Lanka – London Daily Telegraph, 11th July 1983

    It is a systematic genocide going in Sri lanka, we cannot tolerate it or we cannot be a silence spectator.
    Indra Gandhi Former Prime Minister of India in July 1983.

    Tamils have been done systematic injustice since independence to this day. When they tried reconciliation pacts with the party in power the opposition always opposed. When they tried peaceful means they were crushed and militarisation of Northeast began in the 60s. The message was: Tamils, you can’t agitate for justice. When the youth began armed violence: draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act was enacted and arrests and disappearances have been going on to this day. No genuine investigations except a few ‘eyewash’ investigations go on for so long that many Tamils don’t even bother to file cases and in cases ”tried” none will be prosecuted:
    UN and Amnisty International archives will prove it.
    Violence of LTTE is wrong. But the structural violence of successive governments is worse (systematic and slow genocide).
    There must be a mechanism whereby when states ill-treat their ethnic minorities, it can be arrested in early stages.
    In the last three years the whole of the heavily militarised Northeast has been cut off from the rest of the country and abduction-murders have run into thousands and no investigations!! Journalist after journalist was killed whenever they tried to question the government.
    This is an island and there has been no mass exodus into neighbouring countries which would have attracted more attention much earlier – unfortunate oppressed and fortunate oppressor.
    Who will come forward to resolve this most vicious Sri Lankan intrastate crisis?

  • this is a very very good artical.the people who have internet please go to tamil canadean,com and read this atical and tell your friends to read this artical.the people who read this artical will know who are the tamils and who are the sinhalies.one thing in this artical is missing that is for long years before the tamils are in majer possitions in work places in sri lanka. now there is no one.

  • Belle

    Vasantha,
    This is the best article I have read explaining the SL situation! You have explained the current situation very well in terms of both the historical forces as well as global forces now impacting on it, and what all this means to the future. I was especially intrigued by your analysis that giving Tamils a separate province within a unitary state will lead to the country being divided by the China-India tussle for power. That is very possible.

    In theory, your idea of two regional governments and a central Parliament is excellent. However, the two regions will still be determined based on the Sinhala/Tamil divide. This will mean that the chauvinistic Sinhalese and their parties will still raise issues of race and create trouble–because they do not see the Tamils as having equal claim to Sri Lanka. Perhaps one way of solving this is by setting up three such states–two in predominantly Sinhalese areas and one state unifying Tamil areas. This may be more acceptable to the Sinhalese, and therefore be a more realistic option.

    Your analysis of the class movement (of an ursurge of dissatisfaction against the SL government issuing from poor Sinhalese) is very sharp and credible. But I am not sure that Tamil politicians teaming up with the left will resolve this issue. History shows us that when faced with such a class movement, governments will play the race card against class. This happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s and the growth of fascism, especially in Germany. I see the SL government using this route–whipping up racial frenzy, and saying that the answer to the economic problem lies in getting rid of Tamils. They will say ‘look at how the Tamils and their Tigers destroyed our economy’. There will be a stepping up of genocide. A united class movement will not be able to withstand the volume and power of this frenzy.

    Sinhala chauvinism and the state’s stirring up of Sinhala supremacy is a real problem that will get in the way of all solutions. A UN peacekeeping force and international mediation is required. In this manner, it will become evident to the Sinhalese majority that they have done something shameful, something that is unacceptable to the current state of world civilization. Right now, government media control prevents Sinhalese from realising the extent of government and Sinhalese misbehaviour. It is only when the Sinhalese become aware that they have made mistakes that they will then become sufficiently flexible to discuss new options in governance.

  • Heshan

    So it is the failure of institutions to evolve combined with the feudal mindset of the rural Sinhala-Buddhist populace that drives the conflict on. If this were not the case, why would Sarath Silva in his farewell address admit the Supreme Court has failed… and why this perception of Mahinda Rajapakse as a king? The feudal mindset is also an obstacle to any viable political solution, as it tends to veer between extremes rather than take a more balanced approach. Perhaps this is why one finds extremists in the Sri Lankan Parliament (JVP, JHU) co-existing with a few moderates, e.g. UNP. One does not find such a ratio of extremists to moderates in Western Parliaments. On another note, I think the feudal mindset is more dangerous to Sri Lanka’s future than the LTTE. The LTTE was a temporary phenomenon; there were mechanisms to deal with it, either diplomatically or military. Many of the ideals and aspirations that it embodied (I say many, not all) existed well before it came into play as a powerful opponent, and of course, as the article points out, these ideals and aspirations will continue indefinitely. Whereas the feudal mindset is more pervasive; it has resulted in the fragmentation of vital institutions and continues to serve as the prime obstacle to a badly needed political solution.

  • rajivmw

    What an excellent article – deeply insightful, thoughtful, and provocative in all the right ways. Please forgive me Vasantha Raja for being just a little bit surprised 🙂

  • Wasantha Ranagala

    Socialist forces of yore led by genuine humanists such as NM, Colvin and Shanmugadasan are no more. Those who are trying to emulate new doctrines with labels displaying liberals are the neo colonialists serving the brigands in US and EU. The ultimate objective is helping in the plunder of human and material resources of undeveloped nations for a few dollars.

    In reality it was these humble Buddhists who accepted Sri Wickrama as their ruler albeit a handful of power hungry Adhikaram who conspired to topple his throne. A restricted adjective to Sri Vikrama as a Tamil is yet another distortion of history. He was a Tamil who embraced the developed culture of Sinhala civilization and the supreme religion, Buddhism, and followed to a great extent as a vegetarian and a teetotaler. In the context the more you brand Buddhists as chauvinists you deprive the Tamils the opportunity to survive in this land as equals.

    Vaddukkodai to Nandikadal we have heard similar rhetoric. If that’s what you still believe in then you are free to restart from the beginning and perish at your own will. As for the hegemony of India, why not you extend your graphical illustration little further with the dormant rationale as to how this country retained its identity as Sinhala nation for two and a half millennia with the so called giant neighbor at a hoots distance.

  • Belle

    Just read that the President has called for Buddhist nations to support Sri Lanka, and that government will be conducted more in line with Buddhist principles. Yes, so we can see now how devolution of power for Tamils will be achieved!

  • bellepepper02

    Wasantha Ranagala,
    You call Buddhism the “supreme religion”, and yet want to deny the charge of chauvinism? Non-chauvinists do not view their own religion as better than others or as the ultimate or only truth that everyone else should abide by. Buddhism is certainly a great religion, but Sri Lanka is the very worst recommendation for that great religion in the world today. Your country has been spitting on its own great Buddhist heritage for half a century.

    I come from a country with a majority of Buddhists outside Sri Lanka. They do not work actively to deprive others of their human and citizenship rights; they do not rape helpless women cordoned off in incarceration camps; they do not regard innocent civilians as justifiable collateral damage in war. In fact, they do everything possible to avoid war and violence. In governance, they do not impose their own religion over others.

  • Wasantha Ranagala

    Dear bellepepper02

    Where have I said that Sinhalese follow Buddhist principles to the letter and spirit? My comment only described Buddhism as a supreme religion which you too have agreed.

    Sinhalese are first a group of people living in a beautiful civilisation built by them to survive and then Buddhists as trying adherents to the principles of its discourse.

    How easy for one to quote ‘your place in this society as a Buddhist is, to sacrifice all the worldly possessions and retreat to a jungle ashram in search of noble bliss of enlightenment. Dr.Thambia with his “Buddhism Betrayed” preached this strategy in testing the water at the early stage before declaring Eelam with kamikaze approach.

    Rape, internment camps, violent massacres of innocents running to 5 to 6 figures are all part of the Gobbles theory which we have heard from roof tops. It’s only our Tamil brethren now have the option which path they would prefer. In the process they must not forget that the guiding principles of democracy followed by the west where the majority rule is the law.

    Regards

  • Hari Narendran

    Dear Wasantha,

    On the contrary most Western governments have as their basis constitutions that are designed specifically to avoid the tyranny of the majority. Individual rights are enshrined in their constitutions that prevent a majority from voting away the rights of a minority. Sri Lankas problems be it with the minority communities or the culture of violence the government perpetrates against its perceived enemies are directly tied to the failure of the constitution to guarantee life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all its citizens.

  • Bruno Umbato

    The ideas of quotaions attributes to Gotabhaya and Sarath F are facts. Are not they true? Compare that to lies spread by ealam supportes regards lot of things happennigs in SL (like genocide/discrimination …etc) The truth is that around few in SL and lot out of SL want a country of their own based on ehinicity and it is 2/3 of coastal lines and 1/3 of whole country. By the way, whole SL tamil population may be around 5-8% now (in last census around 2.2 tamil were in SL and around 0.8 million have left since then)
    Take discrimination. In 1983, the chief of police (IGP) is a tamil (Rudra Rajasingham) and all DIG’s (2nd level of hierachy) were tamils. Remember 1983 unfortunate unjust civil thuggery against SL tamils. What did the main responsible authority police leaded by tamils did to protect these helpless civilians. What about the government/private institutions which had lot of tamils in their top and middle level managements positions way way above their percentage population. One time, leader of opposition was a tamil. But, eallamists trvavelled long distance on the back of the lie ‘discrimination’. So the problem in SL is simple. It is not about discrimination or genocide of tamils. It is about the carving out a country out of tiny SL exclusively for tamils at the expense of majority sinhalese.
    These ealamists do not want to see the truth. They distort and make lot of lies. Look at what Vasantha Raja says .. “Thus, the continuing triumphalist conceit could soon run out of steam. Economic catastrophe, social unrest and political dissent may well be on the cards.”
    …. These are the things the ealamists wants to see but not the reality. Inshort, they want to see SL to become failed state and chaos in every sphere of civilian life so that they can fish in the troubled waters. But, SL with the vision of current leadership will not fail Sri Lanka’s glory this time. Current crop of SL’s leadership is the best in the world (like the defence forces of SL) and they know who genuinely love their country and who do not. In my opinion, this is the first time in SL that truly capable/patriotic government has come to power and there is no question that it would put SL in the top in the economic powers of in asia within a short time. You can lie and succeed for a some time (even decades) but truth will prevail at the end. End has come for liars.

  • bellepepper02

    Wasantha,
    I did not say Buddhism was a “supreme” religion, but a “great” religion–on par with all the other great religions of the world.

    Your erroneous description of democracy as involving majority rule helps me to understand why Sinhalese government is able to kill citizens with impunity.

    Majority rule as law is not democracy–it is FASCISM. It is Hitler, Mussolini, General Franco of Spain, all the fascist leaders of the world, who stood for majority rule. Fascism is the opposite of democracy.

    Democracy enshrines equal rights to all, including the tiniest minority. Not only does it promise it in the constitution, but there should also be supplementary legislation that criminalises discrimination. This is why democracy rests on secularism. To give any religion a place in government over other religions in a pluralistic society is undemocratic. In addition to Buddhism, Sri Lanka’s citizens practice other equally great religions such as Islam, Hinduism and Christianity.

    Equal rights means everyone has 100% of rights, not rights proportionate to the size of the population.

    Not just you, but the SL government need to attend a PoliticalScience 101 course that will enable you to tell the difference between democracy and fascism.

  • Dear Hari,

    As I’ve explained in the article, the success of your kind of constitutions depend on the way various societies have evolved. In Sri Lanka, like in Britain, this is not going to work. Instead, transitional institutions (like regional parliaments) may have to be introduced to overcome entrenched suspicions while an equality-based Centre retaining the highest level of powers. Remember, this is essentially a unitary solution.

  • R.S.Ganeshan

    Wasantha Rangala

    …”how this country retained it’s Sinhala nation identity for over a two and a half millennia……….

    Your contention is incorrect because the island was not known by it’s present name two and a half millennia ago but was known by several names.Even the Mahavamsa does not refer to the island as Sri Lanka. The subcontinent was referred to by foreigners by different names. As the sub-continent and the island were in geographical proximity to each other the peoples of these lands interacted and were not in any way isolated from each other for many many millennia not merely two and a half.No one can deny that fact.

    The language,traditions and cultures of these peoples were influenced by various changes over time by what the monarchs of the subcontinent and the island said and did and were cosmopolitan in character. There was no divisiveness or sectarian rancour. To the people then, god was one and could be worshipped in any shape or form. That was a time when there was no fine distinction or dissenting sects or wars fought between the established religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. So much so it is no wonder that Gajabahu built a temple for goddess Pattini and Parakramabahu built the Sivan temple in Polonaruwa and the last Tamil king in Kandy Wickrema Rajasinghe espoused and protected Buddhism. There was no Sinhala or Tamil Nation during their time. Tamil Hindu and Sinhala Buddhist came later. That is a twentieth century phenomena ,which is the cause for all the rancour and suspicion manifesting as the Hela Urumaya and the LTTE. But the underlying cause is purely economics.It’s a rice and pol-sambol issue. So to say that the Sinhala Nation has held it’s own identity against that of the sub-continent mirrors the Vaddukoddai Nandikadal rhetoric and that is something which is utterly incongruous in this twentieth century world.

  • SomewhatDisgusted

    R.S.Ganeshan >>

    Beautifully put.

    Wasantha Ranagala >>

    You should read this: http://www.pjeganathan.org/south-paw/2009/5/4/sri-lankas-conflict-an-interview-with-pact-part-i.html

    Identity is something that’s always evolving. I think it’s high time we left these medieval ideas like Sinhala and Tamil identities behind and think of a Sri Lankan identity. Otherwise, all your rhetoric about Buddhist philosophy being supreme is moot, because it has obviously not helped you to understand the transient nature of all things and your “attachment” to a Sinhala identity is completely against the doctrines that the Buddha preached.

    The same can be said for these die hard Eelamists and other assorted Tamil nationalist nut jobs, who together with Sinhalese nationalist fanatics, seem to be stuck in a fabricated past somewhere in the 17th century, making it really hard for the rest of us to think of a bright and civilized future.

  • Jayzee of NasalRot

    Once upon a time, in the year 2009 AD, the ‘Agent of RAW’ appeared to Jayasaf in a dream and said, “Don’t hesitate to take MIAree as your wife! For the child within her has been conceived through an ‘International Conspiracy’ while she was in the ‘Please Don’t Fire We Are Innocent Tranquils Zone,’ and she will have a son, and you shall name him Jayzee and he will save his Tranquil tribes people from the misery they have undergone at the hands of the Stinkerlees tribes people for over 61 hundred years!”

    When Jayasaf awoke, he did as the ‘Agent of RAW’ had commanded and took MIAree and surrendered to a ‘Welfare Concentration Camp,’ surrounded by barbed wire and armed SS. Jayzee was born in such a camp, in a canvas tent in the town of Bretleehom, during the reign of King Adolf Rogerproxy, Dictator of Idiot Island. At about this time, three wise dignitaries from Western lands arrived in Koolamboo, the capital of Idiot Island, asking, “Where is the newborn King of the Tranquils? For we received news of his birth from satellite images, and have come to worship him and make an independent confirmation.”
    King Rogerproxy was deeply disturbed by the satellite evidence from the ‘Eye in the Sky,’ hovering over Bretleehom; the sole witness to all that transpired in the Tranquil homeland towards the north of Idiot Island. So he immediately called a cupboard meeting. And when the hundred an eleven cupboard polytikboobees arrived he asked, “Did our intelligence comedians inform us where the King of the Tranquils would be born?”

    “Yes Sir! No Sir! In Bretleehom Sir!” they all chroused.

    Then King Rogerproxy sent three SMS messages to the three wise dignitaries, asking them to come and see him; at this meeting he found out the exact time and date that they received confirmation from the satellite. Then he told them, “Go to Bretleehom and search for the child. You will be allowed free access to all the ‘Welfare Concentration Camp,’ with no restrictions whatsoever. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him too!”
    After this interview, the three wise foreign dignitaries started their journey towards the north. And lo! And behold! The satellite appeared to them hovering over Bretleehom, and their joy knew no bounds! Entering the canvas tent where the baby Jayzee and MIAree his mother were, they threw themselves down before him, worshiping. Then they opened their presents and gave him a state-of-the-art satellite phone, a laptop with a high speed internet connection and a gift voucher to shop at the ‘OD HELL Warehouse.’

    When they returned to their own lands in the West, they didn’t go through Koolamboo to report to King Rogerproxy, for an ‘Agent of the SeeHighHay’ had warned them in a dream to take a boat to Tranquil Naadoo and hop a flight home from there. After they had gone, the ‘Agent of RAW’ appeared to Jayasaf in a dream. “Get up and flee to Tranquil Naadoo with the baby Jayzee and his mother,” the Agent said, “and stay there until I tell you to return, for King Rogerproxy is going to permanently rehabilitate the child and blame it on an ‘International Conspiracy’ to put the Kingdom of Idiot Island into disrepute.”
    That same night, Jayasaf left for Tranquil Naadoo with MIAree and the child, and stayed there until he received further instructions from the ‘Agent of RAW.’ King Rogerproxy was furious when he learned that the three wise dignitaries had disobeyed him. Sending his SS to Bretleehom, he ordered them to permanently rehabilitate every baby boy two years old and under, both in the town and in the various ‘Welfare Concentration Camps.’ This humanitarian action of King Rogerproxy fulfilled the prophecy of the ‘Agent of RAW.’ The screams of anguish, the unrestrained weeping and gnashing of teeth for their permanently rehabilitated children was recorded by the ‘Eye in the Sky’ satellite and relayed to BooBeeSee, See & End and Helljayzee Raw who broadcast these images to every nook and corner of Planet Mirth.

    King Rogerproxy and his hundred and eleven cupboard polytikboobees once again screamed till they were blue in the face, claiming that this was another ‘International Conspiracy’ to tarnish the image of the Kingdom of Idiot Island. But the Mirthlings around Planet Mirth could not be fooled.

    “Shame on you!” they said, and asked for an independent commission to look into the human wrongs committed by the SS, but King Rogerproxy rejected this outright. When King Rogerproxy eventually died, (some say of ‘swine flu’) the ‘Agent of RAW’ appeared once again in a dream to Jayasaf in Tranquil Naadoo, and told him, “Get up and take the baby Jayzee and his mother MIAree back to Idiot Island, for those who were trying to permanently rehabilitate the child are dead.

    So Jayasaf returned immediately to Idiot Island with Jayzee and his mother. But on the way he got to hear that the new king was Rogerproxy’s son Nomaleproxy. Then in another dream, Jayasaf was warned (by who else) but the ‘Agent of RAW,’ not to go back to Bretleehom due to security reasons. So they went to live in NasalRot, just a stone’s throw away from WallHerWhatHer. Jayzee’s parent’s Jayasaf and MIAree registered themselves at the local police station, before they rented a small apartment after paying a five year advance. Jayzee went to the local international school and was a good student. He was called ‘Jayzee of NasalRot’ by all hi friends, and his enemies called him by many other names (but that’s another story). And so Jayzee and his parents lived happily ever after.

    Quite an anti climax isn’t it? If you were expecting plenty of blood and gore and murder and mayhem, you should have switched on to ‘Idiot Island Television’ and watched ‘Humanitarian War’ instead!

  • Wasantha Ranagala said, on June 21, 2009 @ 5:58 pm, above: “Sri Vikrama [was] a teetotaler.”

    No, he had a fondness for cherry brandy. 🙂

  • Sinhala_Voice

    There is NO Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka.

    If there is a Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka then there are the following Nations as well:

    Sinhala-Buddhist
    Sinhala-Christian
    Mulim
    Veddah
    Burgher(Eurasian)

    + Tamil Nation which Vasantha Raja claim exists in Sri Lanka.

    If there is ethnicity based devolution then the powers has to be devolved along above mentioned Ethno-World View groups.

  • I like to make a brief effort to try and sort out confusions expressed by some commentators: The last four rulers of Kandy (1739-1815) were non-Sinhalese who belonged to Nayakar Dynasty originating from the Royalty of Madurai, the second largest city of Tamil Nadu. Sinhala kings of Kandy prior to that had close marital relationships with Nayaks which paved the way to the subsequent creation of “Nayaks of Kandy”. These kings were Hindus later converted to Buddhism and were dedicated to protect Buddhist culture and tradition.

    Similar events are not uncommon at all during the feudal era in Europe too. In Britain, for instance, King George 1 of the Hanover Dynasty was a German whose knowledge of English was minimal.

    The principle of feudalist political, economic and social organization was the division of society into rigidly established castes. Political power, economic status and social relationships were primarily defined on the caste-system. Thus, ethnicity was of secondary importance.

    It was Sri Lanka’s anti-imperialist struggle that marked the beginning of the modern version of Sinhala/Tamil nationalism. The Southern campaign to revive Buddhism and the Sinhala culture and the northern campaign to revive Hinduism and the Tamil culture emerged independently of each other, and later developed into political struggles for independence.

    What I point out in the article is: the political structures imposed at the Independence Settlement haven’t done justice to the evolving phenomenon of Tamil nationalism on a par with Sinhala nationalism. To dump the ‘minority-nation’ of Tamils along with other ethnic minorities is a big mistake. [Indians, Africans or Sri Lankans living in Britain would gladly see themselves as ethnic minorities, but the Scots and Welsh would not; because the historically evolved mindsets are different. The English majority in Britain have the commonsense to understand this. The Sinhala extremists unfortunately don’t have that commonsense.]

    Thus, it is clear that the post-colonial version of Sinhala extremism that brought about Tamil extremism as its counterpart is very much linked to the post-colonial political set-up – which has to be radically changed to transcend the dragging deadlock. My article – which proposes a unitary solution – is aimed at doing precisely that.