Featured image courtesy Vikalpa
Since Independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has witnessed three unsuccessful armed struggles. Two of these (1971 and 1987-89) have been confined mainly to the Sinhalese South. The last one in the North and East of Sri Lanka waged an armed campaign for almost 30 years until the Tami Tigers were defeated in 2009. The manner of the Sri Lanka’s state victory created acute political wounds and left unresolved the fundamental problems that gave rise to Tamil militancy. The devastating effects of all three armed campaigns conducted by the state and non-state actors have scarred democratic governance in the country and its commitment to pluralism. These violent struggles have torn apart Sri Lanka’s social fabric and hindered economic wellbeing of its citizens. It has damaged the continuing efforts to create a healthy and pluralistic democracy for our young and fragile nation.
When SWRD Bandaranaike first attempted to reach an understanding between the Tamil and the Sinhalese in 1957, faced stiff opposition. James Manor observed ‘ this was an important moment in the Island’s political history. It marked a first cycle in a pattern, which recurred as central and poisonous feature of the political process at critical junctures. The party in power strives to foster communal accommodation. The majority party in opposition manipulates Sinhalese parochialism to wreck that attempt ‘.  This destructive cycle has continued, damaging fragile ethnic relations and the political unity as a nation.
The successive armed campaigns and the cumulative damage of the 30-year civil war has landed massive blows to democratic pluralism and narrowed our political space. Where democratic activity should have expanded and deepened people’s understandings of the collective challenges facing all citizens, it has instead narrowed them. Rather than healing ethnic frictions, it has exploited them. It has been too easy for the Sinhalese political leadership to whip up narrow nationalist sentiments to bolster their voter base. Even 30 years the Manor’s observation pattern has not changed despite the obvious need for a political settlement after a long and brutal war.
Even 30 years after Manor’s observation the pattern has not changed despite the obvious need for a just political settlement after a long and brutal war. It has become a severe testing ground of the country’s political leaders and as well as the leading political parties particularly of their political honesty and responsibility towards plural democracy. There is a huge gap between political promises and the willingness of their leadership to achieve them.
Democratic Political Space and Pluralism
Modern democracy cannot offer meaningful freedom and basic rights unless it is able to expand and deepen the democratic political space incorporating diverse needs of the people it serves. If the space is not dynamic enough to incorporate such needs the potential for political emancipation becomes a difficult task. ”Pluralism lies at the very core of modern democracy: if we want a more democratic society, we need to increase that pluralism and make room for multiplicity of democratically managed forms of associations and communities’ .
However, the introduction of the Westminster model of majoritarian democratic governance to Sri Lanka in 1948 without any accommodation of an inclusive multi-ethnic notion meant Sri Lanka was politically and constitutionally unprepared for what was to come. The new nation came into being with democratic and emancipatory aspirations amongst its ethnically diverse communities –but without the means to meet them. However, this was a logical extension of British colonial policy that had begun prior to Independence. Nissan and Stirrat have highlighted a major paradox at the heart of Sri Lankan polity under colonial rule. “On the one hand all citizens in Sri Lanka were to be treated equally: the island was subject to one set of rules and one set of governors; in terms of citizenship, all should be equal. Yet at the same time, British rule substantialized heterogeneity, formalizing cultural difference and making it the basis for political representation. This should not be interpreted as the manifestation of a wish to ‘divide and rule; it was done out of misguided ‘liberal’ sentiments which sought to protect different customs of different races”. However, this British policy and its continuation since Independence thus favored the further growth of majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist sentiments. Sinhala Buddhist supremacy occupied as the hegemonic ideology of the post -Independence political space, marginalizing minority communities and their right to be equal citizens. This marginalization has continued with utmost vigor despite some reformist zeal shown by the Sinhala leaders, which has tended to evaporate overnight when they faced with vociferous Sinhala Buddhist opposition,
The social and political spaces within a country or society are crucially important for human affairs and for any bond that is forged by the people as a collective. Limiting this space either politically and socially has an impact on human freedom and dignity. For an example the white rule in South Africa restricted and segregated political and social space on the basis of race or color and gender. Such spaces in a country should function without any restriction based on one’s nationality, language, religion or colour, gender or sexual orientation. ‘This is because whenever human beings come together be it in private or socially, be it in public or politically –a spaces in a country are generated that simultaneously gathers them into it and separates them from one another. Every such space has its own structure that changes over time and reveals itself in a private context as custom, in a social context as convention, and in public context as laws, constitutions, statutes, and the like. Whenever people come together, the world thrust itself between them, and it is in this in between space that all human affairs are conducted’ . If public space is restricted by the discriminatory laws based on personal characteristics, human freedom and dignity will be deeply affected.
In Sri Lanka, since Independence, such discriminatory laws were introduced for the first time by depriving the citizenship rights of the Tamil community of Indian origin in the hill country. ‘Of these, most notable were, first, the Citizenship Act of 1948, the Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act of 1949, and Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Act of 1949) which deprived the great majority of the Indian Tamil residents in Sri Lanka of their citizenship rights and franchise’ . This set the scene for a post-independence political era where citizen’s rights were not protected or enhanced, but communities and groups were discriminated against by the state. . Already, the project for democratic pluralism had suffered a setback. Sri Lanka was now ready for a journey towards violence, the suppression of minority sentiments, and their democratic rights with Sinhala Buddhist supremacist tendencies occupying the driving seat.
The introduction of ‘the Sinhala Only Bill’ in 1956 as an election pledge of the 1956 general election, in which Bandaranaike was elected to power set the ground for communal disharmony between Sinhalese and Tamils as never before. It created decades of friction and sowed the seeds for the violent confrontation that finally engulfed the country. In 1956 the Federal party’s negotiations on behalf of the Tamils, with autonomy for the North and Eastern Provinces on the basis of federalism, parity status for the Sinhala and Tamil languages, and the citizenship status of the Indian residents could have formed the basis for a democratic solution. However, it was strongly opposed by the hardline Sinhala Buddhist extremists whipping up anti-Tamil sentiment and political opposition within parliament led by the UNP (United National Party). That set off waves of communal outbursts and violent communal clashes all over the country in May 1958.
After the 1958 communal clash, in 1966 there was another attempt by the UNP (United National Party) government to introduce a devolved political power structure through District Councils but this was opposed by the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) who were now in opposition along with the traditional left wing parties, namely the LSSP (Lanka Sama Samaja Party) and the CP (Communist Party). The wreckers were successful again.
Left Parties and Democratic Pluralism
The role played by the Sri Lankan left wing parties and their lack of commitment to oppressed Tamil people in the North and East as well the upcountry Tamils of Indian origin provides a useful lesson in how they effectively drove the Tamil community into the hands of extremist organizations. The traditional radical left parties committed this mistake when they turned their back on the oppressed Tamils in the North and East and in the upcountry areas. But the radical left also took significant steps forward in excluding the Tamils – ideologically politically and organizationally – from their ranks shattering any hope of their liberation in unity with the Sinhalese in the South.
Sri Lanka’s project for democratic pluralism had already come under attack from both the Right and the Left when the 1970’s began. In 1972, the then SLFP government in coalition with traditional left parties the LSSP and the CP introduced a new Constitution and accorded the foremost place to Buddhism as the state religion, which meant it was the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism. The Constitution also recognized Sinhala as the state language. These moves enshrined discrimination within Sri Lanka’s Constitution and within our democratic and social life.
Along with these developments, there had been dozens of secretive and radical left wing political groups in formation in the South, amongst the rural Sinhala Buddhist youth, making preparations for the armed struggle. By the end of 1960’s the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna/People’s Liberation Front) emerged as the largest and most successful militant organization. In their political camps, they introduced in their indoctrination program a class entitled ‘Indian Expansionism’ which branded the Indian Tamils of the up-country as an alien force who would be sent back to India by their revolutionary government. They also did not do political or organizational work in the North and East in the Tamil areas. When they attacked police stations on 5 April 1971, in their abortive insurrection, the JVP’s ideological and political practice was further revealed as to what they really meant in their exclusion of Tamils. There was no military activity in the Tamil dominant areas in the North and East as well as the upcountry tea growing areas.
By the late 1970’s the Northern youth organized themselves in armed groups similar to the process that took place in the South in the mid 1960’s. By this time it appeared that sections of the Tamil community felt peaceful agitation had been exhausted. The TULF (Tamil Liberation United Front) fought the 1977 general election on the slogan for a separate Tamil Sate in the North and East and received a landslide victory – but it had no mechanism or political vision to make it a reality. The armed groups filled that vacuum by the end 1970’s and continued to do so afterwards.
The communal clashes that erupted in 1983, in which Tamils were attacked, killed and their properties were burnt down in Colombo, was a turning point for the Tamil community. Many Tamils in their thousands had to be sheltered in refugee camps in Colombo and others went back to the North and East. The youths who were affected by daily anti-Tamil discrimination were now confronted by this unprecedented communal violence by Sinhalese mobs. Many joined the armed groups in the North to be trained as fighting carders. They also had established rear-guard bases in Tamil Nadu in India. They were able to extend their theatre of war to the South that made the Sri Lankan state very vulnerable. India made efforts to facilitate a peaceful settlement but it appeared both sides were hardening their positions.
In 1987, India had worked out with the Sri Lanka Government to offer devolution of power under 13th Amendment to the Provinces. The Sinhala hardliners and all opposition Sinhala political parties branded it as a sell out which would lead to separation of the country. India sent the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) to facilitate the implementation of the package in the North and East.
The JVP who were then a banned organization at the time falsely accusing of supporting the communal clashes in July 1983 launched an armed struggle against the supposed division of the country by the Jayewardene regime in collusion with India. According to them, this was a patriotic war to unite the country. They opposed the devolution of power under the 13th Amendment and asked the government to send the IPKF back to India. Anyone who supported the devolution package became a military target. They killed thousands and the government used similarly barbaric methods of killings and abductions to put down the rebellion. The JVP’s military campaign was an extension of their 1971 insurrection. This time they not only excluded the Tamils – they demonstrated their violent opposition to an ethnically inclusive democracy itself.
In the meantime the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam) were also embroiled in military clashes with the IPKF. Both the LTTE in the North and East and the JVP in the South had similar approaches in dismantling the basic democratic rights of the people and closing the democratic space violently. Both groups were unable to deal with political dissent, branding all critics as traitors. Many thousands in the South who supported the devolution paid the ultimate price. The LTTE destroyed all the other armed groups in the North becoming the “sole representative” of the Tamil people. The LTTE also forcibly expelled the Muslim community from Jaffna in October 1990 giving people only 24-hours notice to leave, a tragedy amounting to the ethnic cleansing of Tamil areas. It was also a narrowing of Tamil identity and the Tamil community. The LTTE made clear that it mirrored the intolerance shown by the Sri Lankan state towards minority communities.
By 1990, the government had defeated the JVP armed struggle and now they have become a legally recognized party. In 2009, the government decimated the entire Tamil Tiger leadership and they do not exist today as a meaningful organization. However, their defeat has left a huge political vacuum created by the unresolved issues arising out of the 30-year brutal war and the failure of the Sri Lankan state to make any progress in the creation of a democratic, pluralistic country.
The JVP also supported the war efforts of the Sri Lankan state and this further eroded trust of the Tamil people who had historically placed their trust on the Left wing parties to gain justice and equality for their community. The JVP as the radical left in the country, ideologically and politically could not draw a line between the democratic rights of the Tamil community and the parochialism of the Sinhala Buddhist Forces in the country. Theoretically they envisaged that once they captured power, a democratic transformation was possible. They have not entirely changed their theoretical and political positions but have shown some willingness to change their hardline approach. But they are still classical Marxists. ‘The classic conception of socialism supposed that the disappearance of private ownership of the means of production would set up a chain of effects, which over the whole historical epoch would lead to the extinction of all forms of subordination. Today we know that this is not so (Local and Moufee, . In refusing to understand this, the radical left as well as the traditional left could offer only equality and justice to the Tamil community once they are in power in the distant future – and not before.
Aftermath of the War
Why, when the Tamil Tigers were defeated, did the prospects for a sustainable political settlement look as bleak as ever? The Sinhalese political elites seem to take the view that military terms imposed by the battle that decimated the Tiger leadership should be accepted as the condition of peace. The military victory in 2009 was followed by a huge wave of triumphalism that refused to countenance any concessions or measures to tackle social and political injustices.
The current regime that came to power promising a new Constitution to reform the state structure has now started delaying any progress through to the next stage. The security forces are still holding on to houses and lands taken from the people during the war even though some progress was made solely due to the agitation carried out by those affected. There are the other crucial issues of those who were made to disappear without any trace –thousands youths- which have not been addressed. No death certificates have been issued for those who are disappeared and missing. The war widows of about 60,000 single mother headed households are without any financial support.
The issue of the existing political prisoners has not been resolved. The JVP political prisoners of the 1971 insurrection and of the 1987-89 armed campaign were pardoned and released but there are Tamil political prisoners who have not been offered pardon. We are now witnessing a political situation worse than that before the civil war began but the Sri Lankan state still has not made any concession that would reassure a community that underwent a war that they never demanded.
Roeder and Rothchild have highlighted the importance of political concessions after a civil war to lay the foundations for peace and democracy ‘The dilemma of power sharing emerges from the gap between the promises needed to initiate the transition and the performance necessary to consolidate peace and democracy. At the end of a civil war, parties’ agreement to accept the constraints associated with power sharing institution is a powerful signal of their commitment to resolve future disputes peacefully and not to abuse the other side once it has laid down its arms. In particular, the willingness of the majority to tie its hand or at least to submit to rule a power sharing government is a costly signal that may convince the minorities of the majority’s commitment to treat them fairly’ . Such gestures or commitments from the majority community are not forth coming in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala leadership’s commitment and capacity to build a sustainable democracy is very limited and the fear of contracting their voter base in the South is a real political nightmare for them compared to creating a lasting political solution by tackling the thorny political issue of reconciliation with the Tamil community. They have become entangled in the corrupt political web, ensnared by populism and a loss of their political soul.
How long will it take for Sinhala hardline forces to understand that the Tamil community needs to have a dignified existence and political rights in order to be [i]equal citizens? Despite the Tamil moderate leadership’s assurance to live in a united Sri Lanka there is no such accommodative gestures to reassure the Tamil community. ‘A nation never has a real interest in being annexed or holding on to a country despite itself. The desire of nations to be together is the only real criterion that must be always be taken into account’ .
The victory against the LTTE has not addressed the Tamil community’s real and just demand for democracy and justice. They continue to be excluded within a nation, which fought a 30-year war to keep Sri Lanka united. They are forced to live within a nation which doesn’t recognize them; as a feelings that they are compelled to live in a country that does not make them part of the Sri Lanka nation. ‘This situation cannot but make men into nationalists, and it is better to try and deal with the conditions which engender nationalism than to preach at its victims and beg them to refrain from feeling what, in their circumstances, it is only too natural to feel’ . The inability of the current regime to reassure the moderate Tamil leadership will only strengthen the hardliners in the Tamil community over time and this will increase further the nationalist feelings in the Tamil community. The possibility of another armed uprising is very remote and the regional and the Indian concerns would not encourage such an outcome. However, dynamics in the Tamil community could change in view of the hopelessness that prevails without resolving at least the issue that has arisen after the war. When it comes to national humiliation and loss of dignity one should not take anything for granted. In the late 1970’s, the relative peace in the Jaffna society was so conspicuous that any observation on the proliferation of armed groups would have belonged to the fanciful world of nationalist political discourse. However, they emerged. They were real. They lasted for decades. ‘Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as wiling to die for such limited imaginings’ . While Sinhala supremacist forces felt more comfortable facing the violent LTTE rather than the democratic demands of the civilian community, is the responsibility of the State to deal with the political reality of the challenges facing all Sri Lankans.
The State and the armed actors who claim to be the agents of liberation have attacked Sri Lanka’s democratic pluralist project – and its prospects. The Tamil community has been left in a worse situation after the 30-year war than before and now they have no one to stand by them but themselves. With mounting difficulties in sustaining their families and the community is in fragile political circumstances after a barbaric war, it is inevitable that resentment will grow and nationalist sentiments will grow with them. Unless the Sri Lankan state and the Sinhala political class and the parties in the South can reformulate their political strategy towards democratic inclusiveness the political unity as a nation state will be an unstable entity.
The greatest challenge for Sri Lanka now is to liberate our people from the oppression of the past and create resilient and democratic structures for a peaceful future that does not repeat the mistakes of the past. It is a challenge that must be grasped by our political leaders before it is too late.
 James Manor, The Expedient Utopian, Bandaranaike and Ceylon, Cambridge: 1985, Cambridge University Press, P.269.
 Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political, London: 2005,Verso, P.98.
 Elizabeth Nissan and R.L.Stirrat, ‘The Generation of Communal Identities” in Sri Lanka History and Roots of Conflict, Jonathan Spencer, ed. London: 1990:Routledge, p.29.
 Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics, New York: 2005 Choke Books, p.106.
 K.M.de Silva, A History of Sri Lanka, and Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, p.605.
 Ernesto Laclau & Chantale Mouffe, Hegemony & Socialist Strategy, Towards Radical Democratic Politics, London, 1985,Verso, p.178.
 Philip G.Roeder and Donald Rothchild”Dilemmas in State Building in Divided Societies”, in Philip G.Roeder and Donald Rothchild, eds. Sustainable Peace, Power and Democracy After Civil Wars, Ithaca and London: 2005Cornell University Press, p.13.
 Earnest Renan,”Qu’est-ec qu’unecnation?”in Nationalism, John Hutchinson and Anthony D,.Smith eds.Oxsford:1994:Oxford University Press,p.18.
 Ernest Gellner, Nationalism, Phoenix: 1997,p.103.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London: Verso, p.7