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One Year On After the Guns Fell Silent at Vellamullivaikkal: Is There Foresight to Settle the Political Score?

In advising political leaders the Italian historian and political advisor Machiavelli (1469-1527) offered the   following words which have a relevance to the current predicament of the Sinhala political leadership after the war victory.

“But  when states are acquired  in a province differing in language, in customs, and in institutions, then difficulties  arise; and to hold them one must be very fortunate and very assiduous…He should also take precautions to check an invasion of the province by  a foreigner  as powerful as himself. Invariably, the invader will be brought in by those who are disaffected because of excessive ambition or because of fear [1] The North and East could be said to broadly resemble the province that Machiavelli refers to here. When regions are dissimilar in language, customs and institutions any politically astute ruler needs to understand that unless these rights to differing language, customs and institutions are recognized and respected, the political price for the state will be huge. Machiavelli wrote this cautionary advice to the Italian rulers about 500 years ago but his words also provide valuable insights to the current Sri Lankan political leadership too. His words demonstrate that one needs to be careful about the regional alignments of political forces in order to protect the sovereignty of the state. One year after the comprehensive military defeat of the Tigers, are we conscious of the huge task of reconciliation and resolution of Tamil grievances? Are we ready to learn from Machiavelli’s warning?

This short article attempts to make some observations on the difficulties of political resolution of the ethnic conflict but will try to argue for the recognition of multi-ethnic   and pluralist nature of our people and to preserve their dignity and rights within a Sri Lankan national democratic culture.

Primordial aspirations

Following the victory against the LTTE it appears that the hopes of a political solution have been somewhat dashed as the Sri Lankan government has yet to give any gestures towards such a move. The Sinhala political leadership appears to be playing a waiting game. A hawkish element within the Sinhalese leadership in government has been fostered by an ideology which does not recognize the humanity of other ethnic groups other than Sinhala people. Historically this has been the one of most negative and significant ideological factors which drove the Tamils and their political culture towards a separatist discourse. In both communities’ primordial national aspirations have been major obstacles in resolving the ethnic issue as they have taken very entrenched political positions.Premordialist national aspirations are described in the way in which the current national identities are articulated by using historical material and applied them to the past in order to gain political advantage. For an example inscriptions are used to prove a particular nation has the right to make political claims on the basis of such historical material. The academic research has argued very strongly to show the way in which our history is analyzed and its political implication. The history of Sri Lanka has generally been written in premordialist terms, with nationalist assumptions anachronistically applied to the past …  ancient chronicles and inscriptions which proclaim that Sri Lanka must be ruled by Buddhists to prove their point” [2] This is the situation in relation to the Tamil political leadership too.

The Tamil Tigers were responsible for driving the Tamil community to the brink of disaster from the inception of their organization. In the end when that brought their leadership to disaster and death they left behind their primordial national aspirations. Their utopia of a separate state on traditional homelands has still been the main ideological and political base for their political ambitions. These ideological and political aspirations were not buried with the Tamil Tiger leadership. This separatist ideology was readily adopted by the TNA and later the Illankai Thamil Arsu Kathchi (ITAK) and   it was made manifest when they   campaigned in the parliamentary elections on the federalist platform. They also claimed that before the advent of European powers the Tamils had a separate kingdom in the north highlighting again their primordial aspirations. No military defeat can vanquish ideology, though it may suffer a temporary setback. Following the defeat of war the LTTE’s proxy the TNA continued the political struggle with the same ideology and argued on the basis of those same aspirations.

Political will

The lack of political will on the part of the victor is yet another major obstacle for a just and lasting political solution. When a war is lost the struggle changes to the political arena where both sides test their political strength. Prior to, and since the elections the political struggle has continued. As Gramsci observes “then the defeated army is disarmed and dispersed, but the struggle continues on the train of politics and of military “preparation”.[3] When the political struggle continues on the terrain of politics then the hope of finding a solution appears to be less and less distant but in reality this perception can be deceptive, as the loser cannot negotiate on equal terms, nor gain concessions from the winner .  Both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections marked the highpoints of the political struggles. However, during this period the Sinhalese leadership failed to reassure the Tamil community or provide them with political gestures of reconciliation. To date, there has been no clear messages and no definite assurances to a community who underwent one of the most tragic experiences in the history of armed conflicts.

Aftermath of the war

When the clear winner emerged, the government hardened their political stance towards an eventual solution. The Tamil political parties TNA/ITAK have signaled that they would accept a solution within a united Sri Lanka. Yet it is clear that they still cling to their primordial political aspirations, reminding the people of the existence of a Tamil state before the colonial rule began and going back to federalism as a political solution. Even though they have somewhat softened their position that was not enough to allay the deep mistrust that had been building prior to and during the war. The reconciliation would have had a chance if the both parties reconsidered their respective political projects and reformulated their political positions. Then, the struggle in the ‘terrain of politics’ could have won a profound understanding leading to a political resolution of the conflict. This opportunity still stands. Following their work and research in state building D.Rothchild and P G Roeder made the following observations ‘Yet the success of power sharing depends on the continuing commitment of the leaders of the ethnic groups to moderate their own demands and their ability to contain hard-line elements within their own communities. Such moderation and control are likely to be short supply after civil war” [4] The Sinhalese political leadership during and after the war did not show their ability to contain the Sinhalese hawks and moderate their political positions in relation to Tamil democratic rights. The same happened with the Tamil Tigers in relation to their political project of Tamil separatism. This state of affairs continued after the war and still continues to hamper any hope of reconciliation, though the onus on political leadership now rests with the Government and the Sinhalese leadership.

Sri Lanka’s fragile democracy needs strengthening to take up the essential task of democratizing our society. At present political dissent and tolerance has come under severe strain. The electorally weakened opposition or the UNP has neither strategy nor political will to tackle the issues of political democracy or good governance. When democratic structures are fragile it is not possible to fully ensure the democratic rights of a people who have experienced discrimination under a majoritarian rule. Therefore the Tamil democratic rights are realizable only with a wider democratic opening within the Sinhalese community. This benefits everyone, because a solution that protects Tamil democratic rights also protects the rights of the Sinhalese community.

Absence of resolution

We inherited a deeply divided nation that in the absence of a political resolution, we will in turn pass on to the next generation. Such a predicament will generate hopelessness that can be exploited by a new kind of militant outfit. Eric Hobsbawm in discussing the reasons for the rise of militant nationalism in Germany before the war makes the following analysis. ‘all the same, even if we do not see resurgence of militant nationalism as a mere reflect of despair, it was plainly something that filled the void left by failure, impotence, and apparent inability of other ideologies, political projects and programmes to realize the men’s hopes [5] The Sinhala political leadership should learn from these experiences and make sure that there is a political project that will give the Tamil people hope not despair and political strength rather than impotence. In order to achieve this, devolution of power is the most capable and suitable political project. Being Sinhalese and belonging to the majority community many of us will never understand the nationalist sentiments of an average Tamil youth who is overcome by hopelessness in the face of political and social marginalization. Benedict Anderson in his celebrated book “Imagined Communities” explains the nationalism’s attractiveness and vulnerability of people to the call to die for the nationalist project. “Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, nation is always conceived as 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 willingly to die for such limited imaginings [6] .In order to understand the reasons why so many youths came forward to die during the war in the North and East Anderson‘s explanation is useful. It is also useful in understanding the power of nationalist feelings and how it will drag us into another military project in the absence of a just political solution. Even though, the Tigers’ utopia of a separate state was buried with them at Vellamullaivikkal , even though their guns fell silent on 18 May 2009 the likelihood of their dream  resurfacing cannot be ruled out unless there is a political solution within a united Sri Lanka that can restore the Tamil community’s dignity and respect.

After a generation of the most destructive 30 year war in this country, there is a historic opportunity to lay bare the basic foundation for ethnically inclusive and pluralist political structures that would withstand the pressures of multicultural and multinational nature of our country. If this does not happen the Sinhalese leadership will go down in Sri Lankan history as a leadership who won the war but lost the peace.


[1] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (London, 2003) pp.10-11

[2] E.Nissan and R.L Stirrat, ‘The generation of communal identities’ in Sri Lanka, History and the Roots of the Conflict, J Spencer (Ed.), (London, 1990) p.40

[3] Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, (London, 2007), p.229

[4] P.Roeder and D Rothchild ‘Dilemmas in State Building in Divided Societies’ in P Roeder and D.Rothchild (edi.)Sustainable Peace: Power and Democracy After Civil Wars (Ithaca and London, 2005) p.9

[5] Eric   Hobsbawm,   Nation and Nationalism since 1780: Programmes, Myths and Reality (Cambridge: 1997), p.144.

[6] Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and the Spread of Nationalism (London 1893), p.7   Emphasis added.

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