Undertones of the Sri Lankan conflict

“Indeed, the ethnic bomb is easy to explode. The primary inputs are twofold: a few perceived lapses on the part of the dominant group of the given polity and some Machiavellian leaders among the uprising group. Then the fire is ablaze: business interests, arms dealers, drug dealers and regional power politicians come into play remaining in hiding for obvious reasons and concealing the growing complexity of a campaign which to the unsuspecting public manifests itself only as an straight-forward struggle for self-determination.”

by Shyamon Jayasinghe

(March 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka, ‘Ceylon’ during the days of the British Raj, has been in the grips of a civil war where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), acknowledged as one of the world’s most ruthless guerrilla groups, has been battling with the Sinhalese-dominated government over the last 17 years in order to form a break-away state (‘Tamil Eelam’) comprising the island’s northern and eastern provinces as a homeland for its Tamil inhabitants.

In this country 65,610 sq km in size, the Sinhalese constitute about 74 per cent of a total population of 18 1/2 million and Tamils constitute about 2.6 per cent. The Sinhalese are mainly Buddhists while the Tamils are mostly Hindus. It is estimated that the war has already cost over 60,000 human lives and has brought political disintegration to what was once a vibrant and thriving democracy.

The emotional power of appeals to ethnicity has created a curious dichotomy in a contemporary world characterised by the forces of globalisation and the shrinking of boundaries. Demands by ethnic groups in several countries for secession from the wider polity have become a fashionable political development. "Should we allow a secessionist free-for-all?" asks a writer in the London ‘Economist’ in an interesting article appearing in its issue of 29th January- February 4th of this year. A critical question for today’s global and regional leaders: Are there rules, which could guide us through the darkness of these conflicts?

Indeed, the ethnic bomb is easy to explode. The primary inputs are twofold: a few perceived lapses on the part of the dominant group of the given polity and some Machiavellian leaders among the uprising group. Then the fire is ablaze: business interests, arms dealers, drug dealers and regional power politicians come into play remaining in hiding for obvious reasons and concealing the growing complexity of a campaign which to the unsuspecting public manifests itself only as an straight-forward struggle for self-determination. The morale of ordinary followers is kept up by romanticism and a halo built around the cause and its leader.

Human Rights activists and influential writers who have hitherto supported separatist movements as a matter of routine on the basis of the old argument about self-determination, find their enthusiasm waning partly due to the human rights violation blatantly carried out by such organisations against civilian populations. Salman Rushdie, well-known British writer, disenchanted with the LTTE campaign against the Sri Lanka government, wrote thus in Australia’s AGE newspaper (issue of 27th January 2000): "... terrorism isn’t justice-seeking in disguise. In Sri Lanka it’s the voices of peace and conciliation who are getting murdered".

The doctrine of self-determination is no longer regarded as valid in all situations. The writer in the Economist enunciates four "rules" for determining support of any given secessionist movement, and self-determination is not one of them. The first rule is "that secession should neither be encouraged nor discouraged: it is in itself neither good nor bad". It depends on the circumstances.

The second rule is that the decision to secede should be "carried out only if a clear majority have freely chosen it, ideally in an unbiased referendum held in tranquil circumstances". We shall apply these rules to the Sri Lankan case: Would the LTTE, for instance, allow such a referendum? They will have to quit their "controlled areas" and guarantee a vote under tranquil circumstances. The LTTE is a totalitarian organization and it would be foolish to imagine the Tigers laying down their guns and participating in a democratic exercise of this nature exposing themselves to competition from other rival Tamil groups that are bound to assert themselves freed of constraint in a democratic environment. Other than ascertaining through the mechanism of a referendum there is no available objective indication of the general stand of the Tamil community with regard to the issue of autonomy. It is clear that their stance falls in a political spectrum beginning with indifference at one end, through a demand for simple autonomy and going onto secession at the other extreme.

The third rule enunciated in the Economist is that "the secessionist territory must offer guarantees that any minorities it drags along will be decently treated". In the Sri Lankan scenario there are the ‘low-caste Tamils’, the Tamils of Batticaloa who constitute a subculture of their own, the Sinhalese themselves who inhabited those regions until the LTTE expelled them, the Portuguese descendants in Batticaloa and the large block of Muslims in the eastern province. These groups would all constitute local minorities of ‘Tamil Eelam’. History has many an example of a successful secessionist group denying the very fundamental rights which they purportedly fought for, toward minority groups within their newly won jurisdiction. In the Sri Lankan instance, the very wording of the proposed new State with the prefix ‘Tamil’ would obviously rule out minorities who are not Tamil.

The fourth rule is "that the secessionists should be able to make a reasonable claim to be a national group". The Tamils in Sri Lanka can undoubtedly claim to be a distinct community, but they are too dispersed geographically and are not as a whole concentrated in the territory, which the LTTE claims. Indeed many Tamils have been living for ages in what the LTTE rhetoric refers to as "Sinhala Areas". It is most unlikely that these preponderant numbers would agree to leave these areas for a new life in "Eelam". They mingle freely with the Sinhalese: they own property, work freely in the public service and in business on equal terms; they intermarry; their children attend the same schools and they share all public facilities without hindrance. This fact, by the way, undermines any accusation that Tamils are a persecuted group.

This brings us to a consideration of a fifth rule, which is outside the article in the Economist: "are the secession-seeking group and the dominant community so incompatible that severance is the only option?" On the other hand, is the perception of incompatibility shared only by a power-wanting political elite that has chosen to play upon ethnic differences? Exploiting ethnic differences as an easy road to power is a common modus operandi of politicians. The LTTE is doing just that. It has created a generation of brainwashed people who have been conditioned from childhood (child soldiers) to hate the Sinhalese. Their suicide bombers are the products of such robotic material.

Tamils are not persecuted in Sri Lanka. Even the Tamil leaders of the past who argued for autonomy did not go on record saying that Tamils were persecuted. Some Tamil leaders held portfolios in successive Sinhala-dominated governments of the past. Also, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, who is a Tamil, would not remain in a government, which persecutes Tamils. Furthermore, not a single court case has ever been filed invoking the strong provisions available in the constitution, then and now, alleging discrimination on the grounds of race in Sri Lanka. And, mind you, Tamils have graced top positions in the judiciary. These are telling objective indices that refute any charges of persecution or serious discrimination. There was the riot of 1983. But that was not a grassroots movement like, for instance, ethnic riots in places like Kosovo or parts of Africa. It was organised by a handful of dirty politicians with the aid of the urban underworld. The scale and intensity of that campaign was relatively small and confined largely to a few Colombo suburbs.

The Sinhalese community has not been guilty of acts like forceful assimilation, threats to Tamil culture or ethnic cleansing. There are numerous common strands in cultural attributes between the two communities. The Buddhist ethic, dominant among the Sinhalese, as well as the latter’s exposure to modernised western ways, have made them, by large, a tolerant and non-insular community. The Sinhalese have never been a conquering or militant civilization. This milieu partly explains why they have never resorted to backlash action. since 1983 despite countless provocative attacks by the LTTE. These attacks included the slaughtering of 30 Buddhist monks at Arantalawa while on their way to an alms-giving, the killing of innocent devotees at one of the most sacred shrines of Buddhists, the Siri Maha Bodhi, and, most provocative of all, the bombing of the crowning possession of Sinhalese Buddhist civilisation – the Dalada Maligawa. Indeed it may be said that the passiveness displayed by the Sinhalese in the face of such offences is rare in the world’s history of ethnic conflict.

Instances of discrimination (not persecution) against non-Sinhalese communities (Tamils included) did occur but they occurred as unintended consequences of attempts on the part of the Sinhalese to regain privileges lost under colonial rule rather than as deliberate attempts to avenge minorities. The ‘Sinhalese only’ language policy was the outstanding example. This admittedly disadvantaged the non-Sinhalese. As a result of that, the Burghers left for Australia and the Tamils stayed behind to fight. Under ordinary circumstances, a very large majority group such as the Sinhalese would have been unimpeded in pushing such a policy. However, the Sinhalese politicians at the time failed to realise that the doctrine of majority rule is not unconditional in its application. The ‘Ceylon Tamils’ are, understandably, a proud community with a rich cultural inheritance. The language policy infuriated them, and when it was later modified their populist politicians had already exploited the blemish.

Nevertheless, the Sinhalese have now grown out of that experience. Opposite trends among them are now clear: They have displayed a great deal of political maturity as is seen by the fact that extremist groups among them have not been able to take root.

They have experienced adult franchise over the past 70 years and over ninety per cent of the Sinhala population are literate. Besides, the major political parties are deeply committed to the idea that only a political solution on the basis of power devolution can bring sustainable peace.

Two more rules need to be added: The sixth rule can also be framed as a question: ‘Will secession seriously affect the viability of the new constituent units?" ‘Tamil Eelam’ would mean that a third of the mainland of Sri Lanka and two-thirds of its coastline would go to the new state. Tamils are already occupying large areas of the ‘non-Eelam territory’. Hence, in effect and in ethnic terms, non-Tamils would have even less mainland territory to support a naturally expanding population. Sri Lanka, already a tiny market, will be redrawn into two smaller states each losing advantages of scale and made tragically poorer as a result. In the current context the area to be allocated for ‘Tamil Eelam’ is subsidised by the rest of the island.

In the light of the above realities, the post-secession era would see the LTTE having recourse to two possible strategies both of which would impinge on our final rule, namely: "Will secession lead to regional / international instability?" Because of the consequences of these two strategies the answer will be an obvious ‘yes’. What are the strategies? Firstly, the LTTE will tend to encroach and invade the ‘non-Eelam sector’ on the pretexts of ‘border disputes’ (Ethiopia vs. Eritrea?) and disputes over the inevitable need to share common resources.

The LTTE’s steel-like intransigence and unrelenting hostility would leave no other options open. The war will enter a new and more vicious phase. The Sinhalese, who have only Sri Lanka to call their home in the whole wide world, would undergo a metamorphosis and fight back developing their own suicide bombers and their own Velupillai Prabhakarans. Peace for Sri Lanka will be a receding dream even to those Tamils who now think that Eelam would be the lasting road to peace. An opportunity is open for international power players.

The second strategy would endanger neighbouring India. The LTTE once declared its ambitions about an all-encompassing Tamil State (‘Greater Eelam’) including Tamilnadu. Leaders in the latter state were reported seen in the island’s Jaffna peninsula as far back as the 1960s, fanning racism. The LTTE’s anti-Indian stance has never been a secret. The World Tamil Movement is one of the principal sponsors of the LTTE. The emotional potential for fuelling a pan-Tamil racist state cannot be underestimated. The 20th century was scarred by the nightmare of Hitler’s dream for the Aryan race. Will the 21st century witness a similar phenomenon in a strangely unexpected quarter of the world?

(Article published in the October 2000 issue of ‘Contemporary Review’, Oxford, England. The writer was a career civil servant in the Sri Lankan government heading several Departments and teaching and writing on Public Management until his retirement. Presently based in Melbourne, he works as a political analyst and freelance writer.)
- Sri Lanka Guardian