Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

The ‘Sinhala-Nationalist’s Burden’

Mr. Gomin Dayasiri’s article, titled ‘Tamil Grievances – Untouched & Unattended’ (Daily Mirror, 16 February 2010) reveals the Sinhala nationalist perspective concerning the kind of solution necessary for the resolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. It is an important piece, written by a respected senior lawyer, a nationalist. The author points to some valuable propositions. But there are certain aspects of it which are disturbing. The fundamental appeal made by Mr. Dayasiri reflects, to a large extent, a kind of home-grown version of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘white man’s burden’.

Mr. Dayasiri argues that the ‘government had failed to attend to the legitimate grievances of the Tamils’ and reminds us that if it continues to fail in this regard, ‘photographs of Prabhakaran will appear on the cadjan walls in the backwoods of the peninsula’. Mr. Dayasiri is correct. Analyzing the message sent out by the majority in the North and the East, Mr. Dayasiri states that it is a ‘protest vote’, and that it ‘carries the sound of a siren; it is a wake up call for the government’. He reminds us of the important work done by the ‘nationalistic Manel Mal Movement’ and reminds the reader of the necessity, on the part of the Tamil people, to show flexibility in their interest in safeguarding the ‘territorial integrity of the country’. Towards the end, he points out that ‘the government must create a climate that the Tamils are confident they can live with dignity and comfort’. The author is spot on.

Appealing to the ‘Sinhala Nationalist’

However, there are other statements that are similarly clear, but disturbing; statements, I believe, which send wrong signals and would further polarize the Sinhala-Tamil divide in the country. In particular, what is worrying is this reference to ‘Sinhala nationalists’ and what the Tamil people should in turn consider the term ‘Sinhala nationalist’ to mean within the present context. Reference to ‘Sinhala nationalists’ could very easily be misunderstood by the Tamil people, just as much as the term ‘Tamil nationalist’ would, by the Sinhala people. Why this nationalism now, and what ‘special’ purpose does it serve in addressing the grievances of the Tamil people in particular?

Mr. Dayasiri appeals to the ‘Sinhala nationalists’ that they should ‘be in the forefront in the struggle to find solutions for the genuine Tamil grievances’. And in doing so, he points out the need to distinguish between the grievances of the ‘Tamil people’ and those of the ‘Tamil politicians’. This argument seems to proceed from the need to address what the author believes to be the genuine grievances of the Tamil people – security, land and water, development, resettlement, cultural advancement, employment on merit, etc.

Sinhala nationalist and the Sinhala people

There are some fundamental questions that arise here. Firstly, before a ‘Sinhala nationalist’ proceeds to find solutions to the grievances of the Tamil people, it would be reasonable to inquire whether the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ has been able to find solutions to the grievances of the Sinhala people. Here, I am stating the argument put forward by persons such as Mr. S.L. Gunasekara – i.e. that the Sinhala and Tamil people share common problems, nothing more, nothing less (an argument with which I do not agree).

Take the issue of employment opportunities based on merit, for instance. Where is the evidence that shows that a young and educated youth from the Sinhala community can readily and conveniently obtain employment based on merit alone? Has this problem been answered, or has the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ resolved this problem? Similarly, what of other problems faced by the Sinhala people, relating to land, water, development, etc. especially in the rural areas? Is one to believe that these problems have been resolved, or that the ‘Sinhala nationalists’ have been successful in providing solutions to the grievances of the Sinhala people? Has the ‘Sinhala-nationalist’ approach resolved the problems of the Sinhala people? And if not, would it not be reasonable for the Tamil people to be concerned about the intentions of an approaching ‘Sinhala nationalist’.

If the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ is to be in the forefront of resolving problems of the Tamil people, one should be able to point out that the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ has been at least successful in resolving the problems of the Sinhala people. If not, I do not see why there is particular emphasis on the ‘Sinhala nationalist’. I strongly believe that the better approach, and the more acceptable one, would have been to invite the ‘people’ – both Sinhala and Tamil – to join and work together in trying to address their respective grievances. I fail to fathom this implication that the Sinhala nationalist is well aware and sensitive and is better able to address grievances and find solutions to the problems of the Tamil people.

Tamil politicians and the Tamil people

Secondly, it is impractical and extremely difficult to distinguish between the grievances of the Tamil people and those of the Tamil politicians. If by ‘Tamil politicians’ Mr. Dayasiri is referring only to the Eelamist elements within the TNA, there would be no problem. Mr. Dayasiri’s constant reference to ‘Tamil politicians’ does not suggest that that is so. It is a mistake, in my view, to lump them together. If the Tamil people continue to vote for Tamil politicians, this only reflects the obvious, i.e. the Tamil people consider the Tamil politician to be their genuine representative, in Parliament or any other administrative body, be it the Sampanthan group or anyone else.

Genuine grievances: the territorial issue

It is here that Mr. Dayasiri avoids answering a very uncomfortable question that relates to the grievances of the Tamil people. This concerns the list of ‘grievances’ set out by the author, which I believe is not exhaustive by any means.

Firstly, are the grievances set out by Mr. Dayasiri the only grievances of the Tamil people? Or are they only the immediate concerns/grievances of the Tamil people? To approach the Tamil people, there first needs to be agreement on what the grievances are. And it is certainly unfair if a ‘Sinhala nationalist’ is to approach the Tamil people and having approached them find that there are more serious grievances that the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ has completely and conveniently ignored.

One such critical grievance relates to the notions of territory and power-sharing. It is simply impossible to evade answering this question of devolution of powers and the issue of the North and the East; because one needs to accept the fact that the issue of power-sharing is fundamental to the resolution of the problems of the Tamil people.

Consider for instance the political demands put forward by the EPDP of Minister Devananda. He is one Tamil politician who stood firm with the Government during the war; anti-LTTE, anti-secessionist, anti-Eelam, pro-Mahinda, and one could go on. What is his, or his party’s, official stance on the political solution required to end the ethnic conflict? The vision of the EPDP revolves around the necessity for peaceful co-existence, power-sharing, a merged North-East and internal autonomy to the Muslim people in the East. What is then the EPDP’s 3-stage solution? Very shortly, the three stages are as follows: 1) the immediate and full implementation of the 13th Amendment, 2) conferring additional powers to ensure greater authority to the North and East Provincial Councils and 3) maximum devolution to the regions.

What is the position of the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ with regard to these issues? Mr. Dayasiri attacks the 13th Amendment as a wholly unnecessary and irrelevant thing. Does the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ believe so too, about the 13th Amendment? If then, how is he going to provide any meaningful solution to the problems of the Tamil people who consider power-sharing to be so vital, so critical?

It is vital to remember that territorial integrity should be preserved at all times. But it is also true that territorial integrity can be preserved in numerous ways. And in a context where the LTTE has been defeated, the claim for devolution of powers that starts from the 13th Amendment is a demand that the Tamil people would always make. If the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ is unable to deal directly with this question, my submission is that it is far better for the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ not to shoulder the absolute burden of resolving the ‘genuine’ grievances of the Tamil people. Each and everybody should play a role, no doubt – but whether the role of the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ is to be in the forefront is to be doubted.


Approaching the Tamil people with a self-made list of grievances is the wrong place and the wrong way to start going about this business of resolving problems affecting the people of the Tamil community. And in particular, such noble deeds cannot be done with a ‘nationalist’ attitude that reflects the tone and tenor of Mr. Dayasiri’s article. Let us not forget the seriousness of the problems involved and seriousness of the response needed to resolve those problems. This response cannot be one that is imposed or even seen to be imposed upon the Tamil people.