One Man’s Political Solution, Another’s Ethnic Problem?

“The political solution should actually create disunity in the country to the extent that space is created for Tamil aspirations. If the country remains unitary (the highest form of unity), there would be no space for these Tamil aspirations.”

By Thomas Johnpulle

(January 26, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Harping on a political solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka has become the favourite pastime of many. According to them there is an unspecified political solution to the ethnic problem. It is easy to blame politicians for not coming up with a political solution but it is complex than what meets the eye. In fact many political solutions were given to the problem, but, all failed to quell it. The 13th Amendment proved to be a very costly experiment. It established Eight Provincial Councils with a very heavy public burden. However, nothing happened, nothing changed! Many more political solutions were proposed. Ironically they were cut down by the very same people who are now crying for them! Premier Tamil politicians were instrumental in crippling the ‘political package’ that was proposed by the CBK administration. A few Sinhala and Muslim elements also did their share to cripple the political solutions process. Even if it had gone through there would not have been any difference.

It is important to define the problem before attempting a solution. Few facts need to be addressed beforehand.

01. Is there an ethnic problem in Sri Lanka? Yes; for reasons explained later.

02. Will a political solution end LTTE’s violence campaign? No; because LTTE is not driven by the people and violence is a way of life for senior LTTE leaders who can run their project regardless of what Tamil people feels about it. A classic example is the plight of about 250,000 Tamils civilians trapped in Vanni. They know that more than 2,000,000 Tamils are living outside LTTE controlled areas. The few that are trapped very much want to escape the LTTE but have no say and no way. LTTE tells them what is good for them!

03. Will there be permanent peace if both the ethnic problem and the LTTE problem are resolved? No; Sri Lanka, as any other developing country, will have its share of violence in the society. Wide spread discontent in the society irrespective of ethnicity, the high crime rate, high suicide rate, the likelihood of a third JVP-style insurgency, violent trade union action and counter-action, bad effects of globalisation and political violence are possibilities. These have long term solutions and until such time, they will remain unresolved. It is worthwhile to note that within 12 years of gaining Independence, a Prime Minister was gunned down in this country. What’s worse; culprits were not punished! It testifies to the ample violence in the society even before the beginning of the war. Expecting a utopian peace in the short term is foolhardy.

04. Is there an ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka? No; although there is an ethnic problem and a conflict there is no ethnic conflict. If truth be told, contemporary Sri Lankan society in government controlled areas is an example of ethnic unity amidst war. If the conflict were an ethnic conflict, Colombo would be the battlefield, not Vanni!

Unfortunately these four trivial and straightforward issues dominate the discussion about political solutions and as a result, real issues remain buried.

The biggest hindrance to solving the ethnic problem is that it has at least two contradictory definitions. There is no possibility that these contradictory definitions can be summed up into one definition; they by definition contradicts one another. If anyone gives a combination of both definitions, he is only suppressing one and elevating the other.

Definition Number One

Ethnic Problem is the lack of unity among people of various ethnicities and the lack of ethnic diversity in parts of the country.

This is the popular view. Unity, coexistence, interdependence and harmony among people of various ethnicities in Sri Lanka is an untold success story. There is no ethnic disunity in any part of the government controlled area in day to day life. Every district of Sri Lanka houses thousands of Tamils. However, divisive forces are still at play. They play the race-card for their survival. A good example is race-based political parties. Although a large number of Tamils and most Muslims have embraced the two national political parties, race-based political parties still exist. Their very survival depends on ethnic division.

Also there are at least three districts in the north where Sinhala and Muslim civilians were completely genocide by the LTTE. Today Sinhalas and Muslims cannot live in these districts because of their ethnicity. Stemming from this is the next aspect of the problem: lack of ethnic diversity in the north. Vast resources including infinite expanses of land in the north must be available to people of all ethnicities.

A political solution should strengthen unity among ethnicities, erase demarcations and divisions and cause ethnic diversity in the north. For such a solution, there is no need to create regions vested with power, no need of devolution, no need to have racial bargaining and absolutely no necessity to entertain racial aspirations.

The argument justifying devolution based on development doesn’t hold water. Undeveloped areas are best developed according to a national development plan than pursuing a regional development plan. The tragedy of provincial councils in carrying out development work is well known. This has happened despite the fact that all these councils have the same ruling party as the centre. It is up to the imagination to see what would happen when different parties run the two institutions! It will be total havoc. In addition there are enough and more regional administrative bodies like municipal councils, town councils, pradeshiya sabhas and GS divisions that can handle all regional issues.

The concept of racial homelands is totally rubbished by this view that only recognises one undivided nation for all the people to live everywhere. Race is not a consideration in this definition. Grievance handling is done without regard to ethnicity. The overriding notion is that “Sri Lanka should be for Sri Lankans”.

Military operations are enablers of this solution and military deployment in troubled areas is consistent with this view. As this is the popular view, it assumes that democracy should be allowed to make decisions.

Definition Number Two

Ethnic problem is about not fulfilling Tamil aspirations. Tamil aspirations include the acceptance of the Tamil homeland, Tamil right of self determination and Tamil nationality. Ethnicity matters most. If these demands cannot be granted outright, they must be granted in part. By the very least something must be granted that can be subsequently developed into these aspirations.

The political solution should actually create disunity in the country to the extent that space is created for Tamil aspirations. If the country remains unitary (the highest form of unity), there would be no space for these Tamil aspirations. Too much unity means Tamils will have to conform to the general Sri Lankan values and lose their aspirations.

North and the east must be unified so that a large part of the traditional Tamil homeland will remain in one piece. Colonisation schemes that change the ethnic balance of the north-east should stop. Regions should be vested with power, including legislative power and power over the subject matter of land. Power should be devolved to the largest possible unit created in the north-east. Development is a secondary objective as development without Tamil aspirations means nothing!

Race-based political parties are the key to governance and they must be promoted. The overriding concept is Tamil aspirations and Tamils, especially Elam Tamils have a say in governance of the north-east whether they live in Sri Lanka or not. Tamil Diaspora’s role is critical.

Military operations stand in the way to peace, in this view. Essential military activities may be carried out, but they too should cease at the earliest. Certainly no large “occupying army” should be barracked in Tamil majority areas. Democracy alone cannot guarantee this type of a resolution. Therefore, a certain amount of imposition is required to quell the majority rule. Help and pressure of international actors are musts in finding a solution based on this view.


Each of the definitions (the first definition and the second definition) contradicts the other. What’s more interesting is that a solution found according to one view, is a problem according to the other.

Suppose a solution was introduced that further strengthens the unitary status (the strongest form of unity) of Sri Lanka, allows “colonisation” of the north, helps national political parties to gradually replace race-based political parties or establishes a grievance handling procedure without regard to race, that “solution” will be seen as the intensification of the ethnic problem by those who hold the other view.

Similarly, if a solution introduces a federal structure in place of the present unitary structure, starts addressing race-based grievances, starts addressing problems from a racial perspective or further strengthens race-based political parties, according to the definition number one this “solution” would amount to the worsening of the ethnic problem.

One man’s solution is another’s problem!

All the pundits who advocate an unspecified political solution carefully avoid this reality. Those who suggest specific solutions, try to impose themselves on others. No attempt has been made to understand and respect these differences. It must be noted that no lasting solution can be implemented by hoodwinking one or both groups. These two views cannot coexist as they contradict each other. Superficial attempts to reconcile the two fail to bridge differences that arise outside the drawing board.

A Compromise

Theoretically a compromise should be possible. However, given the completely opposing views, a compromised solution will not work at all. A compromise between the two would only disappoint both groups and aggravate the problem. This has happened too many times. A worse situation can arise from a compromise. If only one party compromises, the other (the uncompromising party) can demand further compromises. This way the uncompromising party can gradually drag the other party into it’s extreme. Unfortunately this is what happened with all political solutions in Sri Lanka. Tamil Elamists demanded compromise after compromise from others while not budging a bit. Their greed knew no end that it ultimately led to the total breakdown of the political process. Certainly a compromise is not going to work again; it will only disappoint both groups and convince them to adopt graver methods!

Ignoring the problem is another way to handle it than complicate matters! Most Lankan politicians took the easy way out. However, the ethnic problem demands a resolution.

What should the resolution be?

The solution is out there

The ethnic problem coupled with the war, wrecked havoc throughout the country; mostly in the north-east. Commander after commander plundered the north-east in search of peace. Tigers too bombed civilians in the south hundreds of times. Amidst all these chaos, there are people who found solace, harmony and relative peace. They ran to these oases in hundreds of thousands from warzones.

There is a big difference between where they ran from and where they ran to. They essentially ran from mono-ethnic enclaves in the north to multiethnic communities in the south. Race mattered most in the mono ethnic enclave but it mattered less in multi ethnic communities. Belonging to the “right” race was a prerequisite to live in the mono ethnic north but was not so important in the multiethnic community in the south.

Had they waited till politicians found a solution to their problems, they would have died by now! Not only did they run to the solution, they became an integral part of the solution! Unfortunate events of 1983 didn’t repeat thereafter thanks to the multiethnic community that flourished in the south. Few unfortunate matters that affected only a fraction of the Tamil community in the south has happened by that left hundreds of thousands of them without a scratch. Unfortunately the north was cursed with tribalism and ethnic isolation which further bred intolerance.

If the southern model is introduced to the north, it will be as peaceful as the south. Of course it will not solve the terrorist element which has to be addressed militarily.

This solution although looks like a combination of the above discussed definitions, is actually divorced from both views. It is not based on a theory to begin with. It all started when people found a solution out of the mess that existed around them.

Politicians, academics, professionals, diplomats, priests and even Maharishis can split hair about importing alien solutions but none will work as the people’s solution has worked.

Also it is a fact of life that some problems do not have solutions. For instance there is no room for a separate Tamil (or Sinhala or Muslim) nation in the island of Sri Lanka. This fact must be formally established. That will not give any solace to those who want it, but it will help them recover from the misery of not having a solution to their problem. No solution can satisfy all.
- Sri Lanka Guardian