Sri Lanka’s political moment: Rediscovering our kinship and common history

Photo courtesy EPA/M.A.PUSHPA KUMARA via Sky News

As the new administration has begun to unpack promises made during a hasty election campaign, it is clear that they are constrained by their own political capacity, the limitations of a minority government and more generally by what is politically feasible at present. Within the government, ministerial appointments have had to exceed the bounds that were promised in order to accommodate and retain the diverse – and unlikely – coalition that now controls the executive. Even then, multiple ‘government spokespeople’ have contradicted themselves and statements made by their leader on numerous occasions – indicating weak leadership and lack of consensus even among members of Cabinet. It is of primary importance – in my analysis – that we understand how the volatility within government and critical vulnerabilities in its policies imperil not only the present administration and its vital reforms agenda, but also the Sri Lankan state as we know it. I shall therefore focus this analysis on identifying critical vulnerabilities in the government’s policies that undermine not only its mandated reform agenda but also the geographic and political make-up of the Sri Lankan state – in the face of challenges posed by political forces that are at the fringe of government as well as those external to it. I will then discuss a key elements that I believe should necessarily be part of a comprehensive framework for addressing the question of national and political reconciliation in Sri Lanka; that would help overcome some of the long-term structural problems that have plunged the Sri Lankan state and generations of its people into cycles of violence for well over a century.

Despite a recorded history spanning two and a half millennia of advanced civilisation of the island by its people, the independent state of Sri Lanka is merely 67 years old. First let me illustrate my reading of the historic metamorphosis of human social organisation that have led to the formation of states – which I believe is not only relevant but essential to follow the rest of this analysis. Nation states are a relatively new form of political organisation in human history. For much of our evolutionary history, we humans have lived in small familial tribes not exceeding one or two hundred individuals. Family units and familial tribes foster the loyalty and faithfulness of its members to the collective because they provide individuals a strong sense of their common identity and shared history. The identity of the individual is entwined with the identity of the tribe through a common ancestry and shared history in a way that the two identities are inseparable. Their identities are so intricately linked that the individuals do not differentiate between an external attack on the tribe from an attack on themselves or any other member – and would therefore rise to defend the tribe even at mortal risk.

Civilisation – the formation of larger polities based on cities – emerged out of the cognitive revolution which enabled humans to imagine a kinship with those outside of their extended family and tribe. Any group of people who do not share a familial bond, require three criteria to form a stable and effective collective; names a common historical narrative that expounds how they came to be, a set of common values and beliefs and a shared purpose. They are recognisable characteristics of every successful and stable state. The United States for example has been based and evolved on the historical narrative of its founding fathers, with common values and beliefs articulated in the constitution and declaration of independence. The state of Israel and its Jewish identity is based on the biblical narrative of history and genealogy of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and the implied brotherhood. As Sri Lankans, we trace the genesis of our state to the arrival of Vijeya with his cohorts. I would argue that the conflicts and challenges to reconciliation that we face today are not so much caused by any event or series of events in history not historical grievances, but precisely because of divergent historical identities of the different communities that inhabit the island. But, there’s more to be discussed before we can dissect that issue.

First, it is worth looking at the collective history of humanity and what differentiates human society from herds of other animals. The agricultural revolution may have been the economic enabler of the first cities, but evolutionary biologists and anthropologists also cite key psychological factors that enabled large groups of non-related individuals to live cooperatively in a shared territory. The evolution of human thought to have taken place between 160,000 – 70,000 years ago and culminating in the emergence of the modern human languages, enabled humans to discuss abstract concepts, imagine things and believe in things unseen or intangible such as gods, karma etc. Communal beliefs and traditions such as early ‘primitive’ religions and rituals would have provided our ancestors a basis for a common identity that enabled social organisation and cooperation beyond their tribes. The religious roots of political organisation in the middle ages further illustrate the point –

the religious foundations of civilisation were evident in crusades carried out by the inhabitants of Europe – or ‘Christendom’ – and the spread of the Islam through the conquest of land in the early middle ages. ‘Hindustan’ was the land of Hindus. It took emperors with significant coercive powers to bring people of diverse cultures and religions under single rule – and even then, it was their prerogative to accommodate that diversity or coerce them to adopt the common faith of the emperor. Most of the great religions also offer a historical narrative that entwine the identity of the individual with that of the larger collective. Judaism for example, expounds the common ancestry of the Jewish people – literally – from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Islam and Christianity affirms the ‘brotherhood of humanity’ as ‘children of God’. Their narrative exposition of the common origins of humanity as well as the moral imperative of being part of a collective, entwine the identity of individuals with a larger society much like families and tribe were able to do but on a far larger scale. Therefore, religious ideology has been used throughout history as a foundation for political organisation and for achieving political objectives.

The religious wars of those past centuries illustrate why religion was not an optimal organising principle for ever larger populations that were increasingly coming into contact with each other. That is the context in which the modern, secular nation state was born. Secular states – as political units before them – are also defined by their unique historical identities, shared values and beliefs as well as aspirations. Except today, they are based on beliefs about political values and beliefs such as democracy or monarchies and about which type of economy enables the fair and equitable distribution of wealth – such as capitalism, socialism and communism. The transition from religious organisation and identity of society to that of the secular nation state is not clearly demarcated, and it is evident in most states that both religious beliefs and secular political beliefs compete for political influence and power in most states. Nationality as well as religion – in so far as they define our identity as individuals and as communities – are potent tools that can be exploited to organise and mobilise large masses for political purposes.

State sponsorship of a nationality or religion – if not coercive conversion or exclusion of others – has been used as a basis for political organisation by indigenous kings in Sri Lanka since King Devanampiya Thissa, subsequent European colonisers as well as contemporary political forces; both to unite diverse peoples of this island for a common purpose as well as to divide and mobilise them against each other for petty gains. Modern secular states – in theory – derive their strength by not privileging any religion or nationality. The ability of a state, organisation, or team to attract more people to join them and foster the best talent available – is directly proportional to its ability to accommodate people from multiple nationalities and religious groups as equals and provide them equal access to opportunities and justice.

Sri Lanka is inhabited by a majority Sinhala speaking community and a Tamil speaking minority. The historical identity of the Sinhalese is based on the legend of Sinhabahu – a mythical Lion-Man from which the Sinhalese are descended – much like the shared patriarchy of the Jewish people. The historical identity of the Tamil speaking minority of Sri Lanka is not only excluded from the historical identity of Sinhalese, but the Tamil community is often perceived as hostile invaders and therefore historical enemies of the Sinhalese. Tamil is arguable the oldest living language in the world and those who speak the language originally can trace their roots predominantly to Southern India and the North and East of Sri Lanka. The origins of the Tamil language and culture may extend beyond historical memory and the historical identity of the Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka has always been constructed exclusive of the Sinhalese.

Despite the multitude of petty distractions in contemporary Sri Lankan politics, the most pertinent political project and the most significant political challenge of the present political moment is to reconcile the people of Sri Lanka in a peaceful, stable and cooperative order. Dr. Dayan Jayatilake has been expounding a vision that strengthening the structure and power of the Sri Lankan state to maintain its territorial integrity and sovereignty is both the most urgent and requisite task at present. His detractors have been arguing the position that sharing political power and addressing the grievances – both of the past and present – of the Tamil speaking community is the more imperative. While I am inclined to agree on principle that the structural strength that the Sri Lankan state derives from the presidency must not be unduly undermined and also that political grievances of all communities must be addressed, I do not believe that either of these represent avenues for the long-term viability of the state or the prosperity of its people that can only be achieved through meaningful reconciliation of all communities and individuals of Sri Lanka under a strong uniting identity, shared values and beliefs as well as common aspirations as Sri Lankans. I argue that the divergence of communal identities will continue to give rise to grievances and strengthening the executive powers of the state has often come at great expense to the people’s access to welfare and social justice.

The path to true reconciliation lies across a shared historical identity and in re-discovering our common values and aspirations. The Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka may be heirs to two great cultural traditions and rich, but distinct languages, but we are the same people. Sri Lanka has been ruled in the past by both Sinhalese and indigenous Tamil Kings and the royal families of the island shared close familial connections with their South Indian and Tamil counterparts right up to the British occupation in 1815 (exactly 200 years ago). Our society was not divided by language or culture, but by caste – and it has always been common throughout our history, for Sinhalese and Tamils of similar castes to inter-marry. Before the advent of motorised transport in the 20th century, people migrated to settle and in the absence of long-distance communication, they soon lost touch with their place of origin and adopted the culture and traditions of their adopted communities. The various regional dialects and traditions in our small island still bear witness to that fact. Much like the descendants of Sri Lankans who migrate to Western countries today adopt the language and culture of those societies; Sinhalese who migrated to Tamil areas became Tamil and Tamils who settled in Sinhalese areas became Sinhalese as similarities in surnames of many Sinhalese and Tamils bear witness to this date. Simple arithmetic would compel us to acknowledge that the entire population of a small island such as ours must necessarily be able to trace back our lineage to a common ancestry within about 20 generations into the past. It is impossible for most Sinhalese and Tamils to have cohabited Sri Lanka for two millennia and not have a genetic mix that makes them virtually indistinguishable from each other and relatively more distinct from human populations outside of the Island.

The 21st century has provided us with multiple tools to counter the divisive political narrative that has been constructed by both Sinhala and Tamil politicians and political movements in the past. A genetic study of the communities would – if undertaken at a national level – demonstrate the close kinship of all Sri Lankans. Failing that, there’s always Kumar Sangakkara’s 2011 MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture! Both the riots of 1958, 1977 and 1983, the far-less bemoaned, though equally heinous, acts of the LTTE on all communities in Sri Lanka – two generations of Tamil children, intellectuals and moderate political leaders not least among them – as well as the treacherous ‘genocide resolution’ passed by the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) arise from the same artificial fracture in our historical narrative that some politicians continue to exploit. As much as the present political moment offers an opportunity to forge a new path of reconciliation for all communities, the Sri Lankan political landscape is still rife with opportunists who are eager to plunder to advance their personal power and wealth and those of their cohorts.

What would a successful reconciliation project look like? At present, the political aspirations of Tamil Nationalists is to get more autonomy in the north and east administrative regions, perhaps leading eventually to secession. Religious minorities aspire for the freedom of belief that has been under threat by militant Buddhist groups for nearly two decades. The political agenda of Sinhalese nationalists is one based on a desire to dominate the political landscape to an extent where the other nationalities become politically irrelevant – as evident in the notion made by some sections that “Mahinda Rajapakse got a majority of Sinhala votes, but still could not win because of the minorities”. The divergent political aspirations of these communities were indeed made clear by their distinct voting patterns at the last presidential election. The political value of minority communities as made evident in that election is nevertheless a cause for great optimism because it confirms the cost of divisive political tactics. If Sri Lanka was indeed a united, equal and just state, the voting patterns of all communities would have been indistinguishable from one-another. The task of those who recognise the opportunities and pitfalls of the present political moment should be to mobilise intelligently and patriotically to build and strengthen such a state; and not be distracted by those who obstruct their path.