How united Ceylon became divided Sri Lanka? What next?

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

Recently, Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama told a news conference at the University of Madras, Chennai in reply to the question whether he approved the military action by the Buddhist rulers of Sri Lanka: "I pray and hope some peaceful resolution is arrived at in Sri Lanka. I think the Sri Lankan government should accept reality." He also reiterated his averseness to the use of force. (Times of India 22 January 2009). Some Buddhist religious leaders and other Sri Lankans detesting violence have also stressed the need to recognize the realities in seeking a permanent political solution to the ethnic problem that is the root cause of the present gory conflict. There is awareness even amongst present political and military leaders that there is no military solution to the underlying problem.

Ignoring the realities intrinsic to the makeup of the whole nation in far-reaching political decisions is the main reason for the emergence and subsequent escalation of the ethnic problem into a full-scale war. Allowing the problem to remain unresolved for decades has only helped the warmongers. The violent disturbances have turned the serene island acclaimed earlier by foreigners as Paradise on earth into a cacophonous place where the residents feel insecure and visitors cannot travel freely to all parts of the country. The violent uprisings have destroyed over 200,000 lives since the first JVP revolt in 1971. The separatist war has also displaced tens of thousands of families from their habitats and caused immense suffering to many citizens throughout the island; the worst affected people are in the war-torn Northern and Eastern provinces.

Realities ignored by governments

The fact that the island’s population is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and linguistically divided with the Tamil-speaking people permanently settled for centuries in the North-East and the Sinhalese in the rest of the island was ignored by the Sinhala polity. The determined effort to settle Sinhalese in the historic habitation of Tamil speaking people was cause for concern to the ethnic minorities. The reluctance to formally accept the diverse demography of the provinces, especially the linguistic difference was increasingly apparent after the split in the United National Party (UNP), following the defection of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike who along with his followers in the UNP founded the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

With the support largely of the rural Sinhalese voters, the SLFP defeated the UNP by a wide margin at the 1956 general election and secured the reign. The UNP’s dominance since independence ended after two terms. The promise given to the electorate to adopt Sinhala the sole official language of Ceylon within 24 hours after forming the new government was the key to SLFP’s mammoth victory at the poll. As prophesied then by the LSSP leaders, the one official language policy divided the nation into two Sinhala and Tamil nations. The present euphoria of many Sinhalese following the capture of the territory in the North that was under the control of the Tamil Tigers is similar to that prevailed in 1956 immediately after the SLFP election victory. According to latest reports all towns in the Vanni region, LTTE’s stronghold, are now under government control. The key question now is will the government’s military victory pave the way for peace and unity or sustain the nationally damaging division?

Paradoxically the very same LSSP leaders played a crucial role in drafting the divisive 1972 constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka. The word ‘unitary’ was introduced for the first time by its architects. It was not in the previous (Soulbury) Constitution accepted by all political parties in 1947, following the assurances given by the then Sinhalese political leaders that the Tamils will have the same rights and privileges as the Sinhalese in independent Ceylon. The 1972 constitution not only specified the structure of the State as unitary but also removed the provision in Section 29(2) of the previous constitution that prevented the Parliament from enacting discriminatory legislation against a particular ethnic or religious group to which all other groups were not subjected. Section 29(2) was, on the whole, an attenuated version of what a bill of rights should be (Prof. A. J. Wilson in his book ‘The break-up of Sri Lanka’). Contrary to this tenet, the Sinhala Only language Act sanctioned by the Parliament in 1956 was included as a proviso in the 1972 Constitution. Buddhism was accorded special recognition in the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions, without depriving non-Buddhists their right to religious practice according to their beliefs and customs in any part of the country. Temples, churches and mosques coexist in all provinces.

But in the case of Sri Lanka’s ‘Sinhala only’ official language in all provinces, it was forced on the Tamil speaking people. The official policy on education not only promoted the ethnic division but was also unhelpful to the future of both the Sinhalese and Tamil students. They had no choice but learn all subjects in their respective mother tongue. English was completely abandoned at all levels of education from the primary to the tertiary. The cost of this blunder not only to national unity but also to the future of educated youth in the modern world has only been realized recently. With Sinhala only as the official language there was no avenue for the youth educated in the Tamil medium to seek secure jobs. There weren’t many employment opportunities in the manufacturing sector. Because of natural constraints not many were able to earn enough for living via farming in the North. The rainy season is relatively short restricted to the North-East monsoon and farmers depend on deep wells for irrigation. The undeclared division of the country along ethnic lines – Sinhala majority and minority provinces - was the underlying reason for neglecting the development of the historic habitats of Tamils and Muslims in the North-East where the Sinhalese are not the majority ethnic group, despite the known potential for national development. The neglect of Trincomalee is a salient case.

It was in the early 1970s when the then SLFP-led coalition government introduced media-wise standardization of marks for admission to universities. This is not to be confused with the subsequent adjustments for the disparity in the facilities available for students in different districts. As a result, students from the backward districts with relatively low marks were able to enter the universities. The former was straightforward racial discrimination. The Tamil parents were denied the freedom to educate their children in the medium of their choice. If there was an option, many would have opted for the English medium. But this was politically undesirable to the Sinhalese leaders since the Tamils would have had a better chance to prosper. The denial of opportunities for higher education and employment was a major factor that gave rise to the violent protests by distressed Tamil youth in the North. These turned into a rebellion after the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. The widespread sense of hopelessness following the sense of futility of non-violent protests against the denial of equal rights, opportunities, security and dignity to the ethnic Tamils, the need for an armed struggle against the State to establish self-governing Tamil homeland in the North-East was increasingly felt, especially by the distressed Tamil youth.

Besides the neglect of the realities, the inability to take up a bi-partisan approach to resolve the conflict by mutual consent of the government and the opposition parties sustained the destructive process and the division of the country along ethnic lines. The main opposition party continuously opposed the political moves of its rival in government to amend suitably the lopsided system with the view to make it assuring and acceptable to the ethnic minorities. This drawback kept them permanently marginalized away from the center of power.

Rise and fall of Tamil Tigers

There were several Tamil militant groups campaigning for independent Tamil Eelam (homeland) in North-East Sri Lanka when open war broke out in 1983, following the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom and the provocative statements of President J. R. Jayewardene. He made it clear that he was not concerned about the Tamils, who were at the receiving end of the violent onslaught. He even said openly that the more he ignored them, the greater support he would get from the Sinhalese electorate. He was conscious that his political future depended on their votes. This awareness amongst Sinhalese politicians is not uncommon and has been one main reason for the failure to build a unified nation. Political leaders preferred to take the easy path to power, instead of leading the people along the right path. Provocative actions such as the outrageous burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981 by thugs brought from the South with the connivance of ministers close to the President was another factor that bolstered the Tamil campaign for autonomy.

With India’s direct involvement in the resolution of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, following the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, the Tamil militant groups were asked to accept the agreed devolution plan, disarm, abandon violence for good and join the democratic mainstream. The devolution of some powers to the provinces with the Northern and Eastern Provinces merged as one administrative unit was rejected by the Sinhala nationalists. President J. R. Jayewardene agreed to the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in order to stop the spiraling violence in the North-East by disarming the Tamil militants and restore normality in the unsettled region. Initially the LTTE along with other militant groups agreed to disarm but later its single-minded leader Velupillai Prabhakaran rejected the devolution scheme and the Tamil Tigers started to attack the Indian soldiers (Peace Keepers). This was the initial sign of the overconfidence of the LTTE leader in the fighting strength of his outfit. It is important to mention here that the LTTE soon had the support of the government under President R. Premadasa in their guerrilla warfare against the IPKF.

President Premadasa who was the Prime Minister during President J. R. Jayewardene’s reign was also against the Indo-Lanka Accord and the Provincial Council system established under the 13th Amendment. The LTTE found a useful ally in their move to sabotage India’s approach to political settlement. The ultimate aims of the new partners were totally different, as the LTTE leader wanted nothing short of fully independent Tamil Eelam. After India’s intervention, other Tamil militant groups in the North-East realized the futility of aiming for this separatist Eelam goal and opted to settle for a reasonable degree of self-rule within one unified State. Like the Sinhalese political leaders, the LTTE leader too was unwilling to accept reality.

The fourth phase of the Eelam war was started early 2006 by the Tamil Tigers thinking the long waited opportune time had arrived when their preferred candidate, Sinhala Buddhist nationalist Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected as Executive President in November 2005. The latter let the world know that it was the LTTE who started the war. He very effectively turned it into the ‘war on terror’. What followed later showed the fatal miscalculation of the LTTE leader. The Tamil community in Sri Lanka is in a weak position now than it was any time after the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. The opportunities that came with the 2002 ceasefire brokered by Norway were also not seized, because of the absolute confidence of the LTTE leader in his chosen strategic plan to achieve the vowed Eelam goal.

Not only the political ambition of the LTTE leader was unrealistic but also the methods used in seeking it were counterproductive as evident from the international condemnation of the outfit as a bunch of terrorists and approving the military offensives of the present government as necessary to wipe out terrorism in the island. India was the first country to ban the LTTE following the thoughtless assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 on Indian soil. This is the biggest blunder made and the consequences are felt even at this critical time. Ignoring the rejection by the international community of LTTE’s goal and the abhorrent methods, the LTTE continued the armed struggle for Tamil Eelam along the same violent path

The rebel leader’s strategy was to speed up the division of the country started by the Sinhalese leaders after independence by promoting racial prejudice and animosity. Even a repeat of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom would have been welcomed. The uncompromising stand of the Sinhala nationalists on the ethnic issue was considered helpful to the LTTE’s cause. It is the moderate Sinhalese who are regarded as the obstructionists impeding the division of the country. The blind Sinhala nationalists rely mainly on the self-assuring word ‘unitary’ to prevent division while their utterances and actions have the opposite effect!

The method to establish the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil people was from the very start autocratic. Tamil politicians and intellectuals advocating a different approach to the resolution of the ethnic conflict were considered traitors and eliminated. Nothing useful to the Tamil cause has come from the killings of civilians including intellectuals, politicians, national leaders and moderates seeking peace and harmony through constitutional reform. On the other hand, the lack of forward thinking and the will of Sinhalese leaders to solve national problems have denied peace and prosperity to the people. National development was also severely hampered by these drawbacks. The leaders have not learnt anything useful from past mistakes that damaged the unity and hindered the general welfare of the population. The present government’s strategy to talk about a political settlement without making serious effort towards sensible settlement seems to follow this line.

Among other reasons for the set backs of the LTTE, the following are significant. The defection of Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan aka Karuna from the LTTE in 2004 affected badly the LTTE’s fighting strength. The army received useful help from the renegades in their campaign to oust the LTTE from the East. After the revolt, Karuna also sent home a large number of cadres who were under him in the East. This is said to have adversely affected the morale of the remaining fighters. The forcible recruitment of civilians, especially underage children by the LTTE had caused widespread resentment internationally and within a section of the Tamil community who had lost their sons and daughters in the battle field. It is significant the Tamil community as a whole, particularly the diaspora turned a blind eye to this practice.

The LTTE lost heavily the weapons and equipments in their possession following the successful operations of the Sri Lankan Navy in the high seas and the destruction of LTTE’s fleet of vessels. Sri Lankan government also got the support of the Indian authorities to stop the smuggling of weapons, fuel etc through Indian waters. India also supplied ‘defensive’ weapons to Sri Lanka for defeating ‘terrorism’. Not only transportation but also procurement of weapons became difficult as other countries also intensified surveillance over Tiger operatives in their countries. The Tamil Tigers underestimated the combined strength of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Unlike in the past the military leaders prosecuted the war independently without the interference of political leaders.

The ascent of the LTTE despite the objectionable practices like the killing of innocent civilians and forced recruitment of children is due largely to the felt need of many embittered Tamils for a powerful force to challenge the Sinhala majority rule. Many Tamils in the Diaspora seem to have a grudge against the past governments because of the discrimination, personal losses and indignity sustained in their motherland. The attitudinal difference between the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the expatriates is understandable given the prolonged ordeals and trauma of those who remained in the island.

Countering terrorism

Jegan Vincent de Paul in the guest opinion column ‘What matters’ of the Alumni Association of MIT, Massachusetts, Cambridge, USA has opined: “The LTTE has been condemned the world over, because its tactics of war have concurrently been appropriated by ideologically driven religious groups to attack the West. The identity of the LTTE has been consequently corrupted with its stated goals for nationhood systematically subverted and recoded to neatly align with a fabricated global ideology of terror—one being actively constructed by the United States and fully exploited by the Government of Sri Lanka”.

In this backdrop, the government’s strategy to exploit the global ‘war on terror’ and weaken the LTTE paid off. The intense shelling and aerial bombing were said to be to counter terrorism. The government’s approach to achieve its objective has some similarities with LTTE’s. It has been successful on two fronts besides the capture of territory. The support of the Sinhalese electorate to the government has jumped sky high, despite the economic hardships endured by them. The government has also been successful in its propaganda campaign. Curtailing media freedom without formal censorship was possible to some extent using selectively the emergency regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. With the assassination and arrest of many journalists, Sri Lanka is considered by international organizations as the most dangerous place after Iraq for journalists. There was a time when the LTTE forced the closure of journals published by Tamils that criticized their extreme militant activities. Like the LTTE the government too conceals negative or unfavourable facts. The public does not know the total losses incurred by both sides since the war resumed in early 2006

The inhuman ways the civilians both the escapees as well as those held captive inside the conflict zone have been handled by both sides are equally deplorable. The LTTE cadres have opened fire at those trying to escape and many including children have been killed or injured. On the other hand, those who managed to escape and enter government controlled areas are detained in the so-called ‘welfare camps’. These are nothing but internment camps and the welfare of the detainees is not the main concern of the authorities, according to HRW personnel and others who spoke at the US Senate Foreign Relations Sub-committee (Near Eastern South and Central Asia) hearings. The detainees are not allowed to leave the heavily guarded camps with barbed wire fences and also denied visitors including close relatives. With the declared ‘war on terror’ the culture of impunity has grown.

For listening the video recording:


Also United Nations Webcast:

[UN Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs & Emergency Relief Coordinator Sir John Holmes briefing to the UN Security Council on his findings about the IDP camps in Vavuniya, which he visited on 20 February 2009.]

When SL Government ordered all staff attached to UN agencies and NGOs to leave the LTTE-controlled areas and denied reporters access to the region, it was not only helping to conceal the excesses of its military but also LTTE’s. Both warring sides have violated international humanitarian law and committed some other crimes; the difference is in the degree and the violation period.

What next?

Rajan Philips in his exposition of Tamil standpoint in Sri Lanka (Sunday Island 1 March 2009) has said: “Among the Sinhalese, there is jubilation over the outcome of the war and the victories of their soldiers. President Rajapaksa himself has led the celebrations, setting an atavistic tone that has done little to dispel the dominant perception that Sri Lanka is Sinhalese and the Sinhalese are Sri Lanka. This unfortunate and outdated perception is second nature to many influential Sinhalese politicians but anathematic to all others including large numbers of Sinhalese who positively support a plural Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, many Tamils, not all, are dejected by the defeat of the LTTE. Almost all Tamils, even those who are not supporters of the LTTE, are concerned that the Rajapaksa government will use the defeat of the LTTE to deny them their equality. Sri Lankan Tamil politics has never been as rudderless as it currently is. Nor has it been as existential – their land has been scorched, tens of thousands of civilians are caught in the crossfire, and several more are living in a virtual state of nature in the North and East”. This mixed feeling for the LTTE in the Diaspora is seen from the mass demonstrations in foreign countries calling for immediate ceasefire.

The difficulty in securing durable peace without foreign intervention is increasingly clear. Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka in his suggestion to find a middle way between the recognition of reality and striving for balance has rightly given importance to powerful neighbour India, particularly to Tamil Nadu. Although he is currently Sri Lanka’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, he has been expressing often his personal views on the national problem.

To quote: “Given the demographic reality of an ethnic group that cross cuts the borders of India and Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s Tamil issue is not only a domestic problem for Sri Lanka, it is a domestic problem for India as well. It is for Sri Lanka, an internal problem with an external dimension while for India it is an external problem with an internal (Tamil Nadu) dimension. An unresolved problem with Sri Lanka’s Tamils can and probably will jeopardize Sri Lanka’s relations with India, while a bad relationship with India will deprive Sri Lanka of one of the instruments which can help safely regulate our relations with our Tamil minority. Given our aloneness on India’s doorstep, we cannot afford to sustain a negative strategic relationship with India. For this reason too, we have to resolve our problem with our own Tamil minority” (TamilWeek - Posted by transCurrents on February 14, 2009).

The post war challenge is to find a way to unite for good the divided Sri Lanka. Neither separation nor ethnic majority-minority division within a unitary state that is associated with Sinhala majority rule will bring peace to the island. The time has come to be realistic and shun imagined fears and unrealistic aims. The Sinhala nationalists who are against devolution because of the fear of weakening the Sinhala majority rule which they consider necessary to safeguard the future of the race given the existence of some 65 million Tamils in adjacent land across the narrow Palk strait do not realize the promotion of the solidarity of Tamils in the two countries is counterproductive to their very aim.

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