Colombo, Constitutional Reform, End of war special edition, Human Security, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance



On May 17, 2009 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, (LTTE), the major Tamil resistant movement, admitted defeat in the war that was waged without any witness and vowed to silence guns against the Sinhala-Buddhist state. In May 18, Sri Lanka security forces announced that the LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed by “Sri Lanka’s military in a firefight that signaled the effective end to one of Asia’s longest-running military conflicts.”[i] There was and is a strong perception in the Southern Sri Lanka that Sri Lanka would embrace peace because the LTTE has been militarily defeated. This short article would attempt to discuss some issues surrounding the symbols and also would focus on how ethnic symbols are powerful and why they often become barriers to win peace when they are being politicized for war (by political forces).


Sri Lanka, which has been practicing democracy since 1931 (well before independence), now ranks as one of the poorest states in Asia and is notorious for the Tamil Tigers who were and are claimed to be a revolutionary product of the country’s seven decades old democracy. In other words, the competent political outbidding of Sinhala politicians on Sinhala-Buddhist emotions and symbols against the minorities, particularly the Tamils eventually produced a state-seeking violent Tamil resistance movement, which erased the country’s stunningly beautiful global image as a tropical paradise and made the country one of the most dangerous places on earth to live in.

Democracy in deeply divided societies can trigger dissonance and instability if politicians embrace irrationalized-emotional cards such as ethno-nationalism to win a political position. On the other hand, these symbols have a profound influence at the masses, who take political and religious sayings literally, particularly among economically and socially disadvantaged groups. Hence, when politicians employ symbols and myths, it is often with underlying political agendas, which serve to enable them to cling on to power without addressing other pressing socio-economic questions.

To induce people to make choices, political actors make use of existing or primordial identities of targeted groups such as language, mother-land, religion, ethnic values, national flag and food. The identity of the groups always matters and is sensitive because shaping their decisions and existence. Thus, it is likely that groups would respond positively to the needs of political actors when the latter sympathetically plays politics on the formers’ identity. Moreover, these symbols often work well in non-peace situations or to mobilize war against ethnic enemies. These symbols, on the other hand, would induce the people to make choices and support hostile or war against the others who do not share their symbols. In point of fact, this is the bottom line of symbolic politics theory. The essence of this argument, therefore, in S.J Kaufman’s words, is that “people choose by responding to the most emotionally potent symbols evoked.”[ii] Therefore, theoretically, we can define symbolic politics as a sort of political game by political elites and politicians on arousing emotions to win and hold a political power rather than educate the masses in a logical way to address the issues.


Sri Lanka’s Sinhala political establishment used Sinhala symbols in both war and peace with the LTTE. They were used and are being used to consolidate power of the Sinhala political class and to alienate the non-Sinhalese, particularly the Tamils. In fact, the politicization of ethnic differences began in the 1950s.  Successive Sinhalese political parties formulated policies such as Sinhala Language Only in 1956.  This made Sinhala the only official language in state and public affairs and sharply discriminated against Tamil speakers.  Then an educational standardization policy in 1972 allowed Sinhalese students to enter Science and Medicine schools with lower scores than the Tamil students.  The Constitution of 1972 conferred special status to Buddhism both in the state and public corner.

Besides, peace packages of the sucessive Sinhala ruling class did not provide either genuine political autonomy, in clear political science language power-sharing democracy  nor they had political guts or need to seek solution beyond the current unitary state structure, which is one of the major symbols of the Sinhala nation. The regime, led by Mr. Rajapakshe who came to power in 2005 by employing Sinhala symbos such as war aginst the LTTE and anti-peace slogans, successfully defeated the LTTE in May 2009 with the anti-Tamil statehood campain and with the support of the global political,economic and military aid that were represented by both liberal and illiberals.

The global actors assumed that the regime would deliver peace. But  it is plain fact that the regime in Colombo is not at any rate interested in building peace, and  in fact, it is difficult for the regime to commence genuine peace when the Sinhala political elites had used the symbols in its war against the Tamils. The political elite may think it can retract its symbolic promises once in power. However, recent study on Sri Lanka’s political outbidding strategies points that, when they have employed religion and/or ethnicity to maximize their votes or consolidate power, politicians find it next to impossible to backtrack on their divisive promises. And the same problem befalls their successors.[iii]

War destroys all possibilities for peace when it is being used by dominant groups against the  weaker section of the masses or marginalized groups. The key nature of symbols in politics is that when they were being used for war against the others, it would not permit any politicians to use the same symbols to build peace. This is the result of politicization of symbols. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala symbols (such as language, flag, and territory) are being politicized both for politics and war. Hence, politicians would find difficulties to fight the same symbols and to give justice to the ethnic others.  This explains the difficulties pertaining to win peace under the Rajapakshe regime.

Evidences do not suggest that Rajapakhse regime has political will, for that matter maturity to challenge symbols and to broker peace with the ethnic Tamil nation and minoritites.  In actual fact, peace is serious buisness than war, and when divided and conflict-ridden socities represented by power-hunger elites who resort to symbols to cling to power, peace would face severe challenges.   The fact is that ethnic reconcililiation  is a serious political exercise, but given Sri Lanka’s current political climate and inability to seek political solution  beyond the unitary state strucrure would effectively wane any hope for true recocilaition and evocative democratic practices.

One of the major challenges for ethnic reconciliation directly links with  the war crime accusations targeted at the Sinhalese dominated security forces. The way the war had been fought by the Sinhala political and military establishment to defeat the LTTE trigered the global concerns. As luck would have it, this ugly war, in the name of just war, was naively applauded by some political intellectuals who often serve to power.    The war won without witness and the Tamil deaths, including children, and sufferings by the secutity forces were deadly ugly and had constituted some acts that can be safely cited to make a case for ethnic genocodial war against the Tamil nation. Also true that,  according to ICG, the LTTE and its leaders committed some form of war crime[iv]

But when state kills its own people, it loses legitimacy to represent and rule the people

The recent sources suggest that the security forces got the order from the top (political and military hierarchy) to kill everyone, including Tamil civilians.[v] Moreover, according to the International Crisis Group investigation, many thousands of Tamil people may have killed in the so-called “No-Fire Zone” due to government fire “than previously estimated and targeted hospitals and humanitarian operations as part of their final onslaught on the rebel Tamil Tigers.”[vi]

The findings are very serious, and thus there must be global efforts to push for an impartial global investigation on to these grave human slaughters allegedly committed by the security forces of Sri Lanka. On the other hand, state killing and war fades the prospect of ethnic reconciliation and peace between the Tamil-Sinhala nations, because they reveal state’s nature and its desire to uphold Sinhala symbols and identity. Sri Lanka would not run into any serious ethnic reconciliation as long as (1) there are allegations of war crime against the Tamil nation and (2) Sinhala elites constantly pursue hostile symbols for electoral and  war purpose.


The future, however, offers three stark alternatives, (1) kill all Tamils [all out war against the Tamil nation] (2) power-sharing package and (3) partition. Ethnic war will increase into pogroms, ethnic cleansing, emigration, and genocide.  Violence leads to retaliation and counter-retaliation, as society rides a downward spiral of distraction.  Chaim Kaufmann pointed out, “war itself destroys the possibilities for ethnic cooperation.”[vii] The second alternative is to find a solution that provides guarantees for  security, stability and ethnic peace, which can be materialized in ethnically divided societies through restructuring the state system with power sharing (consociational democracy). Such a peaceful resolution can not be won by force.

This requires genuine efforts to build power-sharing measures with the Tamil nation and minorities. The military defeat of the LTTE provides opportunities to commence serious discussions on power-sharing with the Tamil nationalists. In actual fact, power-sharing could strengthen Sri Lanka’s democracy, its war-ridden economy, and religious and ethnic harmony.  But many Tamils both at home and abroad (Tamil diaspora) are completely convinced that Sinhala political establisment would not offer any meaningful power-sharing democracy or federal system. The behaviousr of sucessive Sri Lanka’s Sinhala ruling class correctly prove the Tamil conviction. [viii]

If there is a resistance to offer power sharing, the third option is partition.  The demand of separation becomes strong when a power-sharing arrangement is not possible.  Some may fear that partition may further strengthen the ethnic hostilities between two nations, but even if it provokes a period of violence, it would offer the separated ethnic groups much needed stability and security in the near future.  In actual fact, the demand of separation would not be in vain if the separation reduces the ethnic fear and offers social and political security, as well as stability, to the different ethnic groups.

As I discussed in my research on ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, “partition expereinces of Pakistan from India, Eritrea from Ethiopia, Bangladesh from West Pakistan, and Greeks from Turks on Cyprus all show that partition can be helpful, even if it is less that completely successful in terminating violence.”[ix] The world recognizes that if the people do not want to co-habit in the same polity then, partition should not be automatically neglected as a solution.   This might be one way to manage Tamil nation’s demands for political space and self-dermination since 1977.

It is not clear to what extent the developments of the past  can help resolve the basic issue at stake: whether, federalism–as repeatedly asked by the Tamil nationlists, Sinhala political elites woul not seek beyond the failed 13th amendment. Then again, one would have to be a considerable optimist to believe that the global pressure will compel Sinhala ruling hardline elites to change direction toward the Tamil question.


[Dr. AR.M. Imtiyaz’ research and teaching is mainly focused on ethnic poltics and Islamic transnationalism. He has published widely in peer-reviwed international journals. He currently teaches at the Department of Political Science, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA, and affilaited as a research fellow at Global Vision, Kandy, Sri Lanka.]

End of War Special Edition

[i] Emily Wax, Death of Rebel Leader Marks ‘End of an Era’ in Sri Lanka < > ( 21 May 2009)

[ii] S.J. Kaufman, Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2001): 15-47.

[iii] A.R.M. Imtiyaz and Ben Stavis, “Ethno-Political Conflict in Sri Lanka.” Journal of Third World Studies, Vol 25, No.2, fall 2008, pp.135-152.

[iv] War Crimes in Sri Lanka,, accessed on May 19, 2010.

[v] Sri Lanka Tamil killings ‘ordered from the top’, accessed on May 19, 2010.

[vi] War Crimes in Sri Lanka, Op.Cit.

[vii] Chaim Kaufmann, “Possible and Impossible Solutions to ethnic Civil wars” in Michael E. Brown, (ed.), Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict (Cambridge: MIT Press. 1997), p. 266.

[viii] Fear complex plays stronger role in shaping Sinhala-Buddhists political ideas, which deem Tamils as the major enemies of the Sinhala existence. I was proved this ethno-psycho mentality when I interviewed the Sinhalese students, scholars, and ordinary workers and farmers in 2001 for my doctoral degree project. Many of the respondents said that the Tamils would get separate state soon if they were allowed ruling the federal administration in the Northeast. They fear that such a federal state eventually end the Sinhala-Buddhists domination in the island.

[ix] A.R.M. Imtiyaz and Ben Stavis

  • Susantha

    Dr Imtiyaz
    Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country you try and understand that and like you said any force against it will be Silenced.You can recommend partioning and devolution in Tamil Nadu Sri lanka is the Sinhala country and tamils do not have a right to self determination and I will give you a fifth option that is if you have a problem with the Sinhala dominance of Sri Lanka (The Sinhala country) GET OUT of the country.remember international pressure to go for devolution was there before the tamil terrorists were annihilated pressure for devolution has reduced greatly after last may and do you think the government that withstood British-US-French-India combined pressure to halt operations will ever go for a devolution Mahinda Rajapakse has impliedly made it absolutely clear that there is going to be no devolution.Once in a way he may say something that is in line with the liberals but he cant afford to commit political suicide and he came to power strongly on the Sinhalese Nationalist ticket

  • Susantha

    Dr Imtiyaz

    i will give you more.

    fourth option go back to Tamil Nadu.

    fifth option is to go where Prabhakran went.

    try to understand that Sri Lanka is was and always will be a Sinhalese Buddhist country getting that into your head can save you from a lot of trouble

  • kibo

    Well written and truthful article, Dr Imtiyaz.

    Susantha is the living example of the many issues the country faces due to blind chauvinism based on ignorance and obliviousness. With a mindset as hers, the conflict will prevail for a long time with the third solution being the only reasonable option for long-term peace. The level of argumentation is frankly spoken pitiful and the continuous ignorance founded on misinformation is hard to battle. Coming to terms with a reality of a multi-ethnic country with minorities that are just as native to the country as the majority are, or differently expressed are all together foreign descendants of migrants from the Indian subcontinent, is the first step towards functioning cohabitation. Chauvinism just as Susantha’s is a reverse result of a high level of anxiety and complexes. It lays in the hands and minds of the moderate Sinhalese Buddhists to propagate reason and moderation to the masses, in order to gain a true understanding of the past and present and successfully find ways to live together without feeling superior towards the non-Buddhist minorities of the countries.

  • Susantha


    Do you have any proof that tamils have history in Sri Lanka as a Civilisation

  • billy

    what these blood thirsty tamil racists unable to grasp is that no country in the world gives equal rights to communities where every country favors the majority community even though most including lanka guarantees equal rights on individual basis!

  • billy

    the most hypocritical thing is these racist tamil pseudo intellectuals trying to take the higher moral ground by showing the faults of the current system while advocating to create a similar unit for their own. if these communal minded racist Tamils have any sense what they should do is to make the center more accommodating and not to create separate units for their races so they can act Sinhalese… [edited out]

  • Ari

    Agree with what Susantha says 100%.

  • I was reading Dr. AR.M. Imtiyaz’ article and I was thinking how wrong he was and formulating a few questions to ask him, perhaps not in nicest terms. But then I read Susantha’s comment and lost it all.
    I do not like anyone who tries to paint LTTE as freedom fighters or advise us to to the same ends that they were seeking with intellectual sounding words like devolution and theoretical separation. Imtiyaz’ even tries to ride coat tails of International Crisis generation (ICG) company.
    But do I want to kill him or chase him away from the country. No! (By the way he is far away from Sri Lanka)
    It is just not right, why can’t we have a civil conversation. no extremes will work at the end. One way to solve a problem is to have a dialog.
    Perhaps Dr. AR.M. Imtiyaz’ is wrong in his views or ideas. But he took time to write an article (on the contrary I have not written a single article that took more than 10 minutes of my time, be it something about Sri Lanka or a paper for my school.) Every article could be a conversation starter. He brought out his thinking and if we think he is wrong, we should counter ideas and provide our solution to what he imagine is a problem, instead of wishing a part or a class of Sri Lankans will disappear, they were here yesterday and they will be here tomorrow. I want all Sri Lankans to come together, how ever hard it is. It hurts to see that we forgotten how to respect another human being.
    If you need to read about your fellow Sri Lankans, Susantha, please read ( ) and if you want replace Kilinochchi with another border town and Kanthasamy Piratheepan, and Janaki with two names you are familiar with. That is THE Sri Lanka we need to take care of. It can happen in many a ways. It is certainly not what Imtiyaz’ wishing. But we need to engage. If you want be nasty, you can ask Imtiyaz’ about the freedom he is enjoying the great USA (where discrimination is never heard of) with an Arabic name, specially when flying.

  • Nithyananthan

    Fine! Let’s realize that God did not NEED to install in us a fleshy enormous capacity (the brain) and capability (Intellect) that holds the essence of the message we derive from our forefathers, just ONLY to formulate and compute what we want and could learn on our own. Instead, God gave us a mind (coupled with Memory & Intelligence) with which we could acquire and develop abundance of useful knowledge from what we inherit that would in-turn be helpful to the future generations – as we got from our forefathers. (Source: Good News/UCG/USA)

    Our average Singhalese brethren, including those who feel belonging to the group of political elite, can not pretend any longer that they are innocent, don’t know any clue as to what’s wrong with the Lankan democratic system of governance. Until such time the cardinal awareness of respecting the individuality of the fellow human – that emanates from grass root level there is no …! It has become inevitable – basic prerequisite for Singhalese brethren if they want the Tamil Speaking (Hindu, Islamic and Christian) population feeling comfortable to live and wholeheartedly identify and introduce them as ‘Sri Lankan’ in territorially undivided and ethnically united Sri Lanka – in Tamil E’lankai, and work together towards prosperity.

    Bogus, pompous still boisterous rants and violent ravings on public forums are not going to serve any useful purpose – even tomorrow’s bread.

    I find as if Dr. Imtiyaz is looking at his country of birth from a distant continent – the USA, using a powerful telescope – his broad political intellectual capacity and summarized his observation and hypothesized the predictable effects of what he has seen through the lens and suggested some remedies in order to head-off / prevent political uncertainty. They are for the wellbeing and prosperity of intended beneficiaries – the majorities and minorities. I don’t wish to see this essay as a ‘Write-up’ for a sermon to the general political majority of Lanka but want to see and happily endorse as a narration intended to share a useful truth – for those who speak, write and act like human beings. Thank you, Sir, Dr. Imtiyaz! Nithy!

  • paul

    The only beheadings of children, and slaughter of children was done by Tamils against non-Tamils when they ethnically cleansed their so called “homeland” of non-Tamils. They took Sinhala children by their legs and smashed their heads against trees and walls forcing their parents to watch then hacking to them to pieces. In other cases Tamils used to raid Sinhala villages and threw children into frying pans, hacked to death pregnant Sinhala mothers, and submitted men to AK-47s rains –these cleansing programs all started in the late 60s. All these Tamils were backed, supported and funded by the West, so you have already “taken a side” and blood is on your hands. Comically you lecture us about “human rights” and “high morals” because you think you are superior by your white skin. Let it be remembered that Tamils were imported into Sri Lanka from their actual homeland of Tamil Nadu in India (home to 60 million of them) by Europeans to be used as a brutal military hit force to suppress Sinhalese and a demographic bomb to “dilute up” the population to make subjugating Sinhalese easier. You created this “minority” in Sri Lanka to destroy the native majority and remote control the Sinhalese using brutal violence a tactic which serves you to this day as Tamils continue their role as your loyal lackeys. All their violence and barbarism against us is what they learnt from the West and were encouraged to do, and which your kind continue to insist they follow and support them for it. Hang your heads in shame.

  • paul

    The West has always been backers of Tamils, Tamil Chauvinism, terrorism and brutal violence against Sinhalese. Just look at history: Tamils were imported in to Sri Lanka by Europeans as indentured labourers, a military force to subjugate Sinhalese with and a tool to alter demographics to dilute up the then hostile anti-Western Sinhala population with its own proud civilisation, values and culture that was far purer with pro-Western Tamil lackeys so governing Sri Lanka would be easier. Least we forget the slaughters and conversions of Sinhala Buddhists since 1505. The worst being in 1818 and 1848 by the “holiest” of Human Rights crusaders: the British. Today under the guise of human rights they are doing what they did since 1815, using Tamils to fight and crush Sinhala Buddhists to ensure their dominance and economic and geopolitical interests. The bulk of the Tamils today in the Jaffna Peninsula (Yapnapura) were brought in by the Dutch to cultivate Tobacco. Tamils in the East were originally settled there by the British as a “reward” for killing Sinhalese in 1818 and 1848 hence why the gigantic Eastern province (made so when the British drew it on the map to punish Sinhalas and the Senkadagala Kingdom) has a Tamil “majority” which is amazingly enough concentrated in Baticalo town, not spread out. The bulk of Tamils in the Wanni jungle are in fact Tamils from the plantations moved their by the Norwegian NGO “Redd Barna” back in the 1960s to subvert the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact back originally designed to send Tamils in the central province back to their homeland of Tamil Nadu in India. Instead Norway intervened (no surprise there) gave them lunch packets to last 2 days, hired a train and sent them into the jungles of the Wanni in the middle of the night. Funnily enough they then became part of the so called “Sri Lankan Tamils” who we have just spent the last 30 years fighting, when not only are they NOT unique to Sri Lanka, but were treated like dirt by the racist chauvinistic Jaffna Tamils. Same Jaffna Tamils who are to this day drunk on power, racism and supremacy their European masters had inoculated them with against Sinhala Buddhist people that they want to return to the British apartheid system of governance where Tamils were favoured, privileged and buttressed ahead of non-Tamils for simply being Tamil. The idea of being on an equal platform to people they viewed as inferior, as has been the case since 1948, is something they find hard to stomach. It is the loss of these privileges and power that Jaffna Tamils called “discrimination” and started a war against Sinhalese with (dragging in the other relatively peaceful Tamils communities who they themselves systemically oppressed and discriminated on class, caste and language and then excused their behaviour to fellow Tamils by blaming the Sinhala boogie man as always). The last 30 years of Tamil induced brutal violence, and 60 years of Tamil induced political agitation and uncertainty were all in fact a manifestation of Tamil greed, hunger for power, desire for apartheid and suppression of non-Tamils human rights.

  • Banjiappu

    people like Susantha should need sorta a training in which they can see the reality finally with their eyes. How can we say that the country is sinhala buddhists after facing all the alarming problems during the last 3 decades because of the sinhala govts^s incapabilities to introduce and implement good policies to the country which is almost not much different from Malaysia. I am a sirlankan born buddhist, I would never name our country is a only for one nation. Having lived in the european countries over two decades, I know if a majority would react against minorities, how they woudl really feel it. Be it in a country or a small staff consisting of minorities is the same. If you want to achieve peace that we every srilanken to allow peace and prosperity, we finally understand that the country for all srilankens.