The Geopolitical Matrix of Sri Lanka’s Conflict

Image courtesy South Asia Monitor

I am appreciative of the fact that this is a seminar on geopolitics. I think geopolitics has been underestimated; perhaps overestimated earlier and then there was a reaction, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. I am not a geopolitical determinist. I do not believe that geography is destiny. If we look at the case of Cuba for instance, it is very clearly a dramatic rupture from any notion of geopolitical determinism. However, if we have a notion of long term history as recommended by Braudel, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, then we understand the importance of place. We are materially and psychologically constituted at least in part by where we are. Though I would not say that who we are is determined in a monocausal sense by where we are, it is certainly one of the decisive and perhaps one of the determinant factors.

So Sri Lanka, as most of us know is an island and this itself is a constitutive factor because Sri Lanka is shaped by the fact that it is embedded in the sea. It has no land borders, and this is important.

In the tourist books, in the journal articles, we would say Sri Lanka is that island off the tip of India. That would be the most obvious introduction, the shortest introduction to Sri Lanka. But that again is a fundamental factor in a geopolitical sense, in understanding the history and the trajectory of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has been defined by India but it has also defined itself, demarcated itself, as against India. So it is this dialectical relationship with India that has been the most important single geopolitical component in Sri Lanka’s evolution.

Now, it is usually the case that we tend to forget the specificities, the concreteness of a society, a nation, and we tend to put them in categories -which is necessary- but without due reference to their concrete specificities. However, there is also the other and opposite phenomenon, and this is true certainly of Sri Lanka but it is also true of the Unites States of America. Specificities are often confused for, or give rise to, notions of exceptionalism and of manifest destinies. It is true of Sri Lanka as well.

If we use the notion of the very long term of blocks of several thousand years of history which historians like William McNeill, theorists like Gunder Frank, Giovanni Arrighi and Immanuel Wallerstein have been using, then we would see that to understand Sri Lanka today you perhaps have to go back to an early version of the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, the struggle between Hinduism –the Brahminic concept- and Buddhism which did not unlike in the case of the Protestant reformation, result in major clash of arms as such. But there was a Counter-Reformation. I say Counter-Reformation because Buddhism had no notion of and even made a critique of the notion of caste, the sociological hierarchy into which one is born, which the Brahmanic or Hindu faith placed great emphasis on. In India after the zenith of the Emperor Ashoka, who was a Buddhist, there was a counter-reformation, and Buddhism itself was pushed back, pushed downwards to the South. It also migrated to the North and to the East; that is: Nepal, Tibet, China, the Far East and Japan. But in the South there was only one place that it could go and that was Lanka, or Sri Lanka.

So the successful counter-reformation or counter-revolution -ideological, sociological, and not violent in terms of well-known great wars (this is of course interesting) – pushed Buddhism to this little island to the South of India. And there, this philosophy was retained, one might even say contained, because unlike to the North of the subcontinent where there was the Silk Route, this was an island. Buddhism either converged or became an over-lay, on an ethnic community, the Sinhalese, who may have been auto-centrically evolved or who may have come from India -this is open to debate.

The Sinhalese constitute the arithmetical majority of the island, roughly two thirds, living in two thirds of the island. Three factors converged: ethnicity, language (which is Sinhala) and the religion of Buddhism. Buddhism appraised itself as a philosophy rather than a religion, but when it was absorbed and retained by this island it naturally took the sociological coloration and configuration of the pre-existing society. And one might even say that it shifted from a cerebral philosophy to a religion. So you had an amalgam of a religion that no longer dominated or was even no longer existent in the vast landmass of the Indian subcontinent and had no co-religionists anywhere around. In any case there were no neighbors; this is an island with only one neighbor, the Maldives, and nothing to the South of Sri Lanka. The next constellation of Buddhism was far away in what you would know as Indo-China, the Far East (Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar). So a religion on an island, adhered to by an ethno-linguistic community which had no co-ethnics or co-religionists. And the language itself, which had some affinities with one or two other languages in the area but not many, is not spoken by a large collective anywhere else in the world. Though for a language that was isolated in the island it developed considerably. It did not remain an underdeveloped language, and it is said that at least one of the texts is among the oldest pieces of history writing: the Mahavansa. Thus the combination of language, religion and ethnicity became a very strong amalgam.

In a strange inversion the domestic geopolitics of the island of Sri Lanka are the reverse, a camera obscura, an upside down image of its giant neighbor India. In India the Southern most part, contains Tamil Nadu: 70 million people who speak the Tamil language, who consider themselves of the Tamil ethnicity and who are for the most part Hindu. On the island of Sri Lanka, which is separated from India by a very thin strip of water, it is exactly the opposite. It is not the Southern tip but the Northern tip that is pre-eminently Tamil. So, one third, the top of the island, is predominantly Tamil, the Southern two thirds is predominantly Sinhala.

This domestic geopolitical configuration has given rise to a certain narrative. Now I would not call it a history because I do not know whether we are talking about objective facts all the time. At least from Nietzsche we know that interpretation is as important and perhaps more important than fact –though that itself is an interpretation. The interpretation or the pre-eminent narrative, the hegemonic narrative of the history of the island has been one of a southward push from South India by the Tamil kings invading the island and leaving behind a residue from ancient times; of constant waves pushing southward and the Sinhalese pushing back northwards and attempting to rule the entire island. So this is partly a story of dual power, of shifting balances in a bipolar situation and much longer periods of uni-polar hegemony. We can see how the geopolitical configuration gives rise to a kind of a domestic geostrategic narrative of competing centers; of bipolarity and the attempt of one pole in the North to be auto-centric, and the other in the South, which considers that it has no strategic ‘defense in depth’ because it is a small island, to attempt constantly to prevail, to re-impose itself in a project of unification or reunification, reconquista.

The point I made earlier about specificity and exceptionalism comes in at this point. There are more than two major communities in Sri Lanka. In terms of religions you have the Buddhists, the Hindus, the Christians -which is the only religion that has both Sinhalese and Tamils (about 7%) as adherents- and you have Islam, the Muslim community. So, four religions, but two major ethno-lingual communities. Each of these two ethno-linguistic communities has a specific, distinctive kind of a collective psyche where both the Tamils and the Sinhalese consider themselves at one and the same time a minority and a majority. The Tamils feel that they are a minority on the island and therefore discriminated against as a minority and oppose that discrimination, but at the same time they see themselves as a majority because there are 70 millions co-ethnics across the water and of course another million in the Diaspora including in the West. This is possibly why the Tamil armed movements and even the unarmed Tamil Nationalist parliamentary parties will not accept the kind of solution that Northern Ireland’s Catholics, including the Sinn Fein, have accepted. This strange duality is true also for the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese feel that they are the majority on the island and therefore they deserve a certain special status, but this is reinforced by the sense of being a minority in the sub-region and in the larger region and in the global space. So there is a striving to assert itself as a majority but also to defend itself as a minority. And the fact that Buddhism in what is considered in a pure or more rigorous form (Theravada) is the most predominant faith among the Sinhalese, gives them a sense of exceptionalism. They are defending, protecting Buddhism in the area in which Buddhism hardly exists, and a Buddhism which they feel is purer than the variant of the doctrine that you find in Japan or China. If you look at it in terms of the history of Christianity, the parallel is the kind of Catholicism that prevailed on the Iberian Peninsula in Portugal and Spain until a few decades ago, a somewhat rigid orthodoxy. This is part of the matrix of conflict.

I would embed the contemporary violence and history in this matrix that I have set out. It is in this matrix that the war took place, the war of 30 years. We have been an independent State for 64 years and a little under half of this has been in a situation of war. Interestingly these wars have not only been between North and South or the two power centers which are preponderantly Sinhalese and Tamils. There have also been wars, anti-systemic wars, waged by an ultra-left insurgent movement, two insurrections in the South of Sri Lanka. Even in the North while the secessionist war was going on, there was a struggle between the left of the Tamil movement which was drastically weakened and the ultra-nationalist right of the Tamil movement represented by the Tamil Tigers. Now we have testimonies from former founder members of the Tigers, testimonies which say that at the beginning of the movement, the leader of the Tigers, Prabhakaran, was already an admirer of Adolf Hitler and that Mein Kampf had been translated and that even the LTTE’s salute was the fascist salute. As a political scientist, I note that in the 1920s and 30s you had in some parts of Central and Eastern Europe, movements that were ethno-nationalist but also of a fascist character- but this is another discussion all together.

The two power centers on the island, almost naturally, instinctively, tried to play the larger geopolitics of reaching out to allies, in the region and outside the region, over the past thirty years. These attempts of alliance and of blocs of power balancing underwent drastic, radical recomposition. It was not the same set of alliances that prevailed during the period of thirty years. Most dramatic is the role of India, which, because of Tamil Nadu, was originally supportive not of the project of an independent Tamil country but of the armed movement as a kind of counterweight to the central government in Sri Lanka, the power centre in Colombo. For one phase of the war, from the late ’70s through the ’80s, Delhi was dragged in by Tamil Nadu. The role that Tamil Nadu played and still plays is rather like the role of Miami in the USA, in relation to Cuba.

There was a dramatic turning point, when the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, used coercive diplomacy but played a kind of Bonapartist role and got the Sinhalese government to sign a peace accord which provided provincial autonomy to the Tamil majority areas and sent a peace keeping force of 70 000 Indian troops to police this ceasefire. Now, dramatic as that was, what was more dramatic and illustrative of the specificities of the Tamil ultra-nationalist movement and of the Tamil Tigers, was that the Tigers, far from supporting this reform and making it work and perhaps playing a longer term game of greater autonomy, instead fought a war against the Indian peace-keeping forces, and after the peace-keeping forces were withdrawn not least because of the Tamil Nadu politics, assassinated Rajiv Gandhi by suicide bomber, on the soil of Tamil Nadu, exactly 21 years ago. That caused a dramatic shift in all these alliances, and from that point on, it was not that there was a convergence or an open alliance between Colombo and Delhi but there was a steady rapprochement. When the decisive stage of the war arrived three years ago, the enormous -and now, stronger than ever- geopolitical weight of India was on the side of the Sri Lankan State in determining the final outcome.

From the point of view of geopolitics, it is also interesting that not only India but also China supported the Sri Lankan State in the final phases of the war. This is interesting because as we know the relationship between India and China in Asia is not devoid of an element of competition though there is also great economic cooperation as well. Why did India and China put aside their competition and support the Sri Lankan State in the end game of the war? There we come to the term “Eastphalia” because even Dr. Henry Kissinger in his new book on China has made a point -made by others as well- that the classic Westaphalian notion of State sovereignty which is no longer observed strictly, in the West, certainly in Europe, has migrated to Asia. Why? This is another discussion, though Dr. Kissinger does not go into that in his excellent book on China. I would say that perhaps Asia is at that particular historical stage of State-building -which had been superseded by Europe- where national/State sovereignty becomes of paramount importance.

So it is the convergence of a particular historical moment and particular geopolitical balances on the island, in the region and beyond, between the East and the West, you may even say the global North and the South, which jointly determined the outcome of the Sri Lankan conflict.

Of course the story is not over. It is still being played out, in the aftermath of the war, in the debate and struggle on the kind of peace. While Sri Lanka has won the war could it lose the peace? We have seen this happen in the Middle-East in the decades after the 1967 which Israel so brilliantly won.

There are many questions, but I will conclude by saying that while domestic dynamics and dialectics led to the Sri Lankan war and its outcome, we may, borrowing a term from Lacan and Althusser, say that geopolitics played a role of “over-determination”.


On 6th March 2012, Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka participated as a special guest lecturer at a seminar organized by Prof. Michel Korinman, professor of geopolitics at Sorbonne University (Paris IV). Prof. Korinman is also the editor of “Outre-Terre” a French periodical on geopolitics. Among the participants present were French officials, journalists and academics.