Loss of collective ‘national interest’ after independence

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The citizens of Sri Lanka have a country they regard as their motherland but do all regard it as their nation? They had this perception before independence when they all proudly identified themselves as Ceylonese and jointly campaigned for self-rule. The Ceylon National Congress was truly national before this word got tarnished. After independence, the natives regardless of their ethnic, religious and regional differences regarded themselves as joint heirs to the sovereign rights.


[Dr.T.B. Jayah] 

Non-Sinhalese leaders like Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and T. B. Jayah were considered by all as national leaders. The Tamils accepted Sinhalese political leaders like D. S. Senanayake and Dudley Senanayake as national leaders.  The entire leftist leaders from the south were also highly respected. The sense of belonging to the multi-ethnic nation was deep among all Tamils. Despite the 1956 ‘Sinhala Only Act’ Tamils retained passionately their distinctive Ceylonese identity but this diminished following the hurtful and humiliating developments in the 1970s and 1980s.


[Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan]

With the change of the island’s name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, the common national identity started to wane, while Sinhala-Buddhist ethos escalated dominating the social environment. Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism was raised high by the Sinhalese leaders competing for power. The view that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist nation that happens to have some residents from minor ethnic groups also spread. This perception also increasingly influenced national politics. Several inconsiderate policies and actions taken by the Sinhala majority governments intensified the division between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil speaking people – Tamils and Muslims, damaging the unity of the nation. The split widened with the tragic events in which many Tamil lives and properties were destroyed. 

[Statue of the first Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake at the school bearing his name-D.S. Senanayake College, at Gregory's Road, Colombo]

The perception that the future of the Sinhalese depends on safeguarding their supremacy also grew, though this has no real basis. India from the very beginning has made it clear that division of Sri Lanka into two independent states will not be tolerated. Because of this stand, India lost former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who strived for a permanent political settlement of the ethnic conflict without endangering the island’s territorial integrity. There is no real reason for the Sinhalese to imagine they will become a powerless ethnic group just because there are more than 60 million Tamils living across the strait just 22 miles away from the island’s northern shoreline.

The first uprising in 1971 was planned and executed by distressed Sinhalese youth in the south because of the lack of opportunities for advancement. Although the situation in the North and East was even worse, the continual protests remained non-violent. The ineffectiveness of decades of peaceful agitations was felt strongly by the desperate Tamil youth after mid 1970s and they started to embrace violent methods. There was wide support for the young militants from the Tamil people who too felt the need for the liberation struggle.  Sadly it took a different mode and proceeded tactlessly along a blind alley. The overconfidence of the leadership was grounded on their belief than on the support of other powerful forces. The dire consequences of this approach are now visible.
Unsuitable education system

The suspicion and imagined fear in the minds of some Sinhalese can be traced to the teaching of history to children in their very early years in school that gave special emphasis to the conquest of land by chieftains in south India and importantly to the Dutugemnu-Elara saga. The history books gave undue importance to perceptions that have little relevance in the modern world. The method of teaching was also unhelpful for promoting inter communal harmony and the concept of unity in diversity. The distinction between the past and the present world is important for the children to view historical events in perspective. Anne Abayasekara in her sincere analysis, “Am I a Sinhalese first and a Sri Lankan afterwards?” (The Island 30 June 2008) has given the feeling she experienced as a 9 year old girl when the 4th standard teacher taught Ceylon history from the book written by L.E. Blaze To quote: “The chapters in it that I remember clearly after all these years, were those relating to King Dutu Gemunu. I was stirred. I became conscious that I was a Sinhalese and I admired Dutu Gemunu. I don’t know what effect it had on the Tamil girls in the class, because at 9 years of age you don’t appreciate the fact that there may be others who react differently to your hero and who might even perceive him as an enemy”.

She has also drawn attention to the damage caused by the segregation of Sinhalese and Tamil students in schools and colleges contrary to the aim of forging unity and building one nation. Indeed the education system too promoted the notion of two nations in the island. After half a century of neglect, the present leaders have realized the importance of teaching English that will serve not only as a link language but also enhance opportunities for employment in the interconnected world. With nostalgia she has recalled the old days, when girls and boys grew up in schools with a very mixed student population. Not only they were “very fortunate” but also the country that was free from the destruction and turmoil that followed as a result of the divisive policies pursued by successive government. 

In her concluding remarks Anne Abayasekara has said. “Tragically, we are more sharply divided than ever. There are a few schools and some homes where a real effort is made to instil our oneness into children, to show them that, despite our diversity, we are all a part of the Sri Lankan family and indeed of the whole worldwide human family. But what the vast majority of our young ones see and hear every day is the opposite. Yes, I am a Sinhalese, but I do believe I am first a Sri Lankan”. There may be many others who feel the same way but do the young ones who did not have the chance to mingle with persons from other ethnic groups feel they all belong to one nation? It is relevant here to ask what exactly Sri Lankan means? Does it mean belonging to a country, which is the case when travelling abroad with Sri Lankan passport or a nation of mixed ethnic communities sharing common national interest?

Root of the ‘civil war’

Kumar Rupesinghe who has analysed the ramifications of state policies that led to the ‘civil war’ stated recently, it was “the politics of humiliation experienced by many Tamils, humiliation at the lack of access to justice, humiliation at the lack of access to (higher) education and employment and most of all, not being able to use their own language to conduct their business” with the state that turned the ethnic problem into an armed struggle. The Tamils were deprived of their sovereign right to make or at least influence decisions concerning their safety, welfare and future. The fulfillment of their aspirations was also not within their control. They lost their dignity and status as equal citizens. Their future also became increasingly uncertain as a result of frequent mob attacks on Tamil residents in the south. These were orchestrated with the knowledge and in some cases with the direct involvement of the authorities, as in the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. The destruction of the Jaffna public library was a callous deed intended to demonstrate the supreme power of the Sinhala majority government all over the island.

The Sinhala Only language policy and media-wise standardization of marks for admission to universities are by no means ‘affirmative actions’ like those taken to help the scheduled castes and tribes in India. The latter were in accordance with the Indian constitution intended initially to last for only 10 years. With the inclusion of the other backward classes in the underprivileged group, the proportion of the citizens needing affirmative action increased substantially in some states like Tamil Nadu. In Sri Lanka the discrimination was aimed at denying power, rights and opportunities to all non-Sinhalese. Ethnicity and not any socio-economic factor was the basis for the discrimination. Recently in India, a Muslim from Tamil Nadu and a Sikh had served the nation as President and Prime Minister respectively. In Sri Lanka no citizen from the minority ethnic communities can aspire to be the President or Prime Minister. Even if the politicians agree, the custodians of the Sinhala-Buddhist nation in Kandy will ensure that this does not happen.   

Separate homelands

There are many instances when government leaders have made a clear distinction between the privileged majority Sinhalese and unwanted ethnic minority Tamils. A case in point is the statement made by the head of government, head of State and Commander-in-chief of the armed forces President J. R. Jayawardene in an interview given to Ian Ward of the UK Daily Telegraph (11 July 1983) days before the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. He told: “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now … Now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or of their opinion about us. The more you put pressure on the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here. Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.”

The forced expulsion of Tamils including the aged and the ailing in a prearranged coordinated move from their lodgings in Colombo on June 7, 2007 by the security forces for no valid reason other than the fact they were Tamils from the North or East also shows the negation of the concept of one people and one nation. None were charged with any crime. The stated position of the authorities was they had ‘no valid reason’ to be in Colombo, which is “not their home territory”. On July 2 this year some 800 Tamils including women and children in Colombo 15 were unceremoniously forced out of their beds by the Modera police to be video graphed in their night clothes (Sunday Leader 6 July 2008). Is it fair to assume all Tamils are ‘terrorists’ or their agents? It is this kind of insensitive behaviour that has also prevented the evolution of one strong indivisible nation. The claim for a separate homeland for the Tamils came after enduring prolonged discrimination and humiliation. Anne Abeyasekara’s remark, “Our leaders - both religious and political, alas - have never honestly tried to create a Sri Lankan nation, nor are they making any noticeable attempt to do so even today” is the sad truth.

1972 and 1978 Constitutions and ‘stark reality’

The 1972 and 1978 Republican constitutions reinforced the Sinhala majority rule introduced in the 1948 Soulbury Constitution. Section 29 in the first constitution intended to protect minority rights and prevent discrimination was abandoned in the two Republican constitutions. The need for nation building and promoting the unity of the people would have been deemed necessary had there been any constitutional provision that required the consent of all ethnic groups on decisions concerning their present and future well-being and security.  In its present form, the unitary system which supports the Sinhala majority rule has also ensured that this depends crucially on winning the support of the majority of Sinhalese voters. This necessitates focusing more attention to their needs and aspirations than those of the ethnic minorities. The methods used to win this crucial support have also been in conflict with one nation concept.

It was not the collective national interest of all ethnic communities that influenced the design of the 1972 Republican constitution. The 1978 constitution went further and incorporated the personal ambitions of its chief architect disregarding completely the risks to the unity and stability of Sri Lanka. Even the harm to the democratic process which is evident now was ignored. It was drafted with short-term objectives in mind but made to last long by laying stringent conditions that virtually denied any decisive role for the ethnic minorities in constitutional reforms. The 1978 Constitution is also unique for another reason. The welfare and security of the politicians gaining seats in the House of Representatives with extras for those in executive positions are assured.  An apt description of democracy in Sri Lanka is – government of the politicians by the politicians for the politicians at public expense.

The strengthening of the Sinhala majority rule in the 1972 Constitution is evident from the following provisos.

(i). Removal of Section 29 (2) of the Soulbury Constitution;

(ii). Entrenching Sinhala Only Act in the constitution;

(iii). Special reference that that ‘The Tamil Language (Special Provisions) regulation, which was the only gain for the Tamils within the two decades of agitation, shall not be deemed a provision of the constitution;

(iv). Making Sinhala the language of the court in the entire country and failure to give Tamil a place even in the Northern and Eastern provinces. (The only concession granted was the right of interpretation.); and

(v). Chapter 2 of the 1978 Constitution accords pre-eminent place to Buddhism. Aforementioned provisos (ii)  – (v) were not in the Soulbury Constitution. (Ref: “The voice of conscience”   S. Thavarajah June 7, 2007 federalidea

The fact that the structure supporting Sinhala majority rule cannot be amended, unless the Sinhala polity decides otherwise is highlighted by Neville Ladduwahetty in ‘The Island’ 30 June 2008 – ‘Explaining Sri Lanka’s political and military dynamic’.  To quote: “The current constitutional provisions are viewed by the Tamil community as inadequate to meet their expectations. Meeting expectations would therefore require a constitutional change. Such a change requires 2/3 approval by Parliament and approval at a national referendum. Since election to Parliament is based on proportional representation no political party can secure an outright majority leave alone a 2/3 majority. Consequently, the majority needed to effect constitutional change would require parties coming together. But, given the rivalry among political parties this is an unlikely prospect. This dynamic prevents Sri Lanka to explore options other than the provisions in the current constitution; a stark reality that has NO bearing on the political will of governments or the lack thereof. This leaves Sri Lanka with NO political options other than the provisions in the current constitution. Therefore, the current constitution HAS TO BE the political solution”. The author’s emphasis shown in capital letters is significant. It is those who do not want any changes to the unitary system will revel at this dilemma. Paradoxically, the constraints provide rationale for LTTE’s lack of genuine interest in negotiated political settlement. The LTTE leader has all along been saying emphatically that the Sinhalese will not willingly grant self-rule for the Tamils in their ‘homeland’.     

If the ‘stark reality’ is the rigidity of the present structure, then what is the real motive behind the government’s sermon now and then on ‘negotiated settlement’ of the conflict?  Recently Basil Rajapaksa, brother and Senior Advisor to President Mahinda Rajapaksa soon after the sudden visit of the high-level Indian delegation (comprising National Security Advisor M. K. Narayan, Defense Secretary Sri Vijay Singh and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon) to Colombo mentioned in an interview that “the President is always willing to have negotiations and a settlement."  Whenever there is a call from the international community for a political settlement, notably from the USA and India, the response is seemingly positive, though vague and not without any condition. The APRC process which some have described it as farce is used to buy time hoping the demand for permanent political (constitutional) settlement will somehow die down. There is some justification to believe that the contemplated solution to the conflict is to adopt the same Eastern Province formula, hoping the promised implementation of the 13th Amendment will subdue the reform seekers.   

Serving whose interest?

The lack of interest of successive governments in implementing fully the 13th Amendment introduced soon after the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord is widely known. This is mainly because the Sinhala nationalists think that the devolution system therein undermines the majority rule entrenched in the unitary constitution. But the disinterest in implementing the 17th Amendment which provides for the establishment of a Constitutional Council responsible for setting up independent commissions to ensure competent persons (not cronies and stooges of politicians) are appointed to senior posts in public, police and judicial services and in general to promote good governance cannot be attributed to any such excuse. The independent electoral commission to ensure free and fair elections has also been not set up. Are these being delayed in the national interest?    

Many unaffordable expenditures of the government are not for meeting any urgent public or national need. It is not possible to list here all cases of lavish spending from public funds for political or some nonessential purposes. There are now 108 ministers (after the one who resigned recently) and 168 Presidential advisors. Their high salaries, perks and privileges as well as security arrangements and related expenses together consume sizeable portion of the public kitty. Apparently, the people including the civil society leaders do not realize it is they who pay for such extravagant expenses depriving funds for more worthy causes. Keeping the people ignorant of the implications of these excesses and the huge losses of public enterprises also serves the interest of the political class. In whose interest, no action has been taken on the alarming findings of the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprises?
Culture of impunity    

The perpetrators of many extra-judicial killings, abductions, involuntary disappearances and assaults (lately the focus has been on journalists and high-ranking media staff) remain to be apprehended and brought to justice. Sri Lanka has been described as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. The Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) together with the Newspaper Publishers announced on July 2 a reward of five million rupees for information leading to the apprehension and prosecution of the assailants of SLPI’s Acting Manager, Advocacy and Sri Lanka College of Journalism (SLCJ) Course Coordinator Namal Perera. He and his friend Mahendra Ratnaweera, Political Officer of the British High Commission in Colombo were attacked on June 30, while returning home after work. According to SLPI and Free Media Movement (FMM) this attack was an attempt to abduct Namal Perera in the same way Keith Noyahr, Associate editor and defence analyst of ‘The Nation’ was abducted on May 22 this year. He was released the following day after brutal assault because of timely outcry by his associates and complaint made direct to the President and other influential persons in the hierarchy. However, the culprits have still not been arrested. The SLPI in its public statement drew attention to the location where the incident occurred. It was “on the busy highway, in the vicinity of an army installation, the government Information Department and the security checkpoint”. Within the past two-years, 14 journalists and media workers have been killed. Some have fled or stopped writing. The veteran Sunday Times defence columnist Iqbal Athas is one of them.


[at the Colombo courts on June 23, 2008 : Jaseharan and journalist J.S.Tissanayagam] 

FMM in the statement posted on July 2 in its website drew attention also to the detention of senior columnist and news website editor outreachsl.com J.S. Tissainayagam, and printer and manager of the outreachsl.com Jaseharan and his partner Valarmathi by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) since 7th March (more than the statutory 90 days) without being charged. It also mentioned the “disturbing reports of torture and psychological abuse of journalists detained by the Police. Ironically, instead of investigating and preventing attacks against journalists, the Police have themselves attempted to abduct journalists”.  The ongoing internal conflict which has been transformed into a war like those between nations has also become useful as both a defensive and offensive political weapon in the internal struggle for power. It is being used to silence dissenting voices and calm down the people struggling to make ends meet in the wake of the steep increases in consumer prices (inflation rate is nearly 28 per cent).   

In conclusion

Eliminating terrorism militarily will not solve the national problems that have plunged the country into the present hopeless state. At present Sri Lanka is on the brink of being recognized widely as a ‘failed state’. A great deal remains to be done on the political front to create a climate conducive for remedial actions. The indifference of the government and Sinhala nationalists to the international community’s emphatic point – ‘there is no military solution to the ethnic problem’ is another blunder. There are a lot of similarities between the thinking and blunders of the leaders on either side of the ethnic divide. The opportunities missed for settlement are losses incurred by the nation.  

Diplomacy has also been a major casualty in the emergent culture. Sri Lanka has antagonized many foreign donors whose support is vital for national development. The widespread corruption and abuse of powers for personal or political advantage also reflect the culture of impunity. National Peace Council of Sri Lanka in the statement issued on July 1 said the issue of human rights violations with impunity has reached a critical juncture hurting everyone. This could also have far reaching implications for the future well-being of the country. It also referred to the patent contradiction between words and deeds of the government. Politics in Sri Lanka has become increasingly devious.

There is a fundamental difference between the politics of power and selfless politics that focuses on the unity, welfare and integrity of the nation. It is the lack of national interest that induces misuse of power denying welfare to the people and the nation. Broken promises and abandoned pledges indicate the lack of courage to act in the larger interest of the nation. Nations that are stable, united and peaceful have not been built by self-centered power seeking leaders. Statesmen who worked selflessly and resolutely elsewhere contributed to the evolution of robust nations. In Sri Lanka’s case the national flag itself depicts the ethnic majority- minority division. There are no deceptive ways to build trust between different ethnic communities and unite them as equal citizens of one nation. Sadly, the country’s political process ignored this vital need.

President Rajapaksa’s cool response to the wide international condemnation of the violence against free media is indicative of the weakness in leadership, unhelpful for promoting and sustaining good governance and the rule of law. According to him, “these are part of the conspiracies hatched by certain groups to tarnish the image of the country when victories are scored in the battle against terrorism”. He also denied the involvement of any state agencies or government parties in the abductions and attacks on various persons when he met some religious leaders recently. Isn’t the government responsible for the lapses in maintaining law and order, even if the culprits are from the opposite camp?  Have the offenders from the same side been punished? It is public knowledge that goons led by Minister Mervyn Silva assaulted employees of the state-run Rupavahini Corporation last December. Their main target was the News Director of the corporation. Though the government and police pledged investigations, none of the perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice. This has been the norm during the past two years. The government will not be able to extricate itself from the continual allegations until such time as the real culprits are brought to justice.

Recently, the internationally respected leader Nelson Mandela at his 90th birthday function in London said that the repulsive situation in Zimbabwe was due to the “tragic failure of leadership”. In Sri Lanka’s case the failure of the leadership in varying degrees since independence can be ascribed to the preoccupation with matters useful for strengthening the hold on power. The lack of political will and the courage to act responsibly in the national interest is associated with this obsession. The political system that emerged after independence itself is helping to sustain the basic weaknesses.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]