Historical opportunity for unity in Sri Lanka

By Thomas Johnpulle

(April 15, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) LTTE ‘peace’ activists used to say, ‘Europe which has a total population of 800 million is made up of 45 language based nation states. South Asia which has a total population of one billion and 45 languages is comprised of only six states.’ This essentially sums up what the LTTE, Tamil Eelamists and other separatists in South Asia are up against. That’s not all, the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh were marked in extreme bloodshed. The absurdity of imposing European examples in South Asia is also evident from this fact.

Sri Lanka must remain a united country for the benefit of everyone. The word united is used here not in its legal meaning but in the meaning of laymen. Unitary is the best form of unity and hence the ideal form of unison. Sri Lanka being a de jure unitary country need not take a step backwards towards a federal state to create ‘unity’ as division creates divisions not unity. People of all races have made it very clear they want unity, equality, democracy and recognition of pluralism right throughout the island nation.

The Bitter Historical Truth Avoided by Separatists

In order to promote division, it is common practice to distort facts and history after it is proven that violence is not going to achieve it. Unsubstantiated claims have been made to create history when history says otherwise! Sri Lanka has a history of over 2,500 years and in most part remained a single nation despite infighting and invasions as any other country. However, until the British conquered it fully in 1815, no foreign, mainly Tamil Nadu, invaders could do so. Their rule was interim both in terms of time and geographical spread. The mighty Cholas could only control parts of the island for only 77 years which is a life time and not more! All other Tamil Nadu invaders could rule only smaller parts of the island for lesser number of years. Apart from the British it was only the Sinhalas who managed to unify the country!

A lot has been said about the Jaffna Kingdom. There are disputes whether the Jaffna Kingdom was an independent entity. If Jaffna Kingdom was a separate entity, there is no history to say it started in 1215 apart from folklore, guesses and books written recently. According to TamilNet, “The earliest available reference to the city of Yaazhppaa'nam (Jaffna) is the Thiruma'nikkuzhi inscription from Tamil Nadu, dated to 1435 CE. The name is written in this inscription as Iaazhppaa'naayan-paddinam.” (Read as Iyalpanayan-pattanam.) In 1450 it was part of the Kotte Kingdom. However, it did fallout from the control of the Kotte Kingdom after 1467 following the fall of King Parakramabahu the Sixth. Portuguese appointed their henchman as the ruler of the Jaffna Kingdom and it completely fell in 1619. Then it went into the hands of the Dutch and British. And there was no serious demand by the people of Jaffna or their leaders for separate independence from Britain. However, since then there has been a number of sad incidents that pulled the two main communities apart.

The third bitter historical fact is that attacks on Sri Lankan rulers, predominantly Sinhala rulers, came mainly from Tamil Nadu and not from within Sri Lanka. Cholas, Pandyans, Senas, Ellalan, etc. all came from across the seas. Historically Tamils in Sri Lanka didn’t fight with the Sinhalas for self-rule or decentralization! And Tamil Nadu does not claim parts of Sri Lanka as their property either.

The fourth fact is that there were no race-based divisions in Sri Lanka in the past. At various times when there was no strong leader, parts of the country emerged into kingdoms but this was reversed when a strong leader took over. Therefore decentralization or federalism was never a characteristic of the history of Sri Lanka running back for 2,500 years.

Historical Irrelevance of Division

As explained above disunity and division in Sri Lanka came from mainly Tamil Nadu invaders and a Kalinga invader. However, today Tamil Nadu or Orissa cannot and will not invade Sri Lanka. They even don’t have an army of their own and do not claim parts of Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu interests are not necessarily Indian interests and a cordial relationship with India ensures Lanka’s safety. Further, India prefers an undivided Sri Lanka even though some pressure is exerted to adopt a particular form of ‘political solution’. Despite this fact, even the Thirteenth Amendment does not call for any change in the unitary status.

The remarkable benefits of ascribing into right forces (even to the detriment of others) can be seen from the present Sri Lankan administration where international relations is more than hospitality and yes-man-ship.

These developments offer Sri Lanka substantial opportunities to reassert its unitary status and use it for the maximum benefit of all Sri Lankans, the way they want it.

Sheer acts of none other than the LTTE made it easier for the government to reclaim the island mobilizing a large army that will be stationed in the North and the East for a long time to come. Sri Lanka security forces as the country’s largest employer will no doubt exert enormous economic, political, social and military pressure in future. In terms of numbers, it is close to 1.5% of the adult population of the country. These facts make division physically impossible and too costly. It also makes it imperative to align regional security and policing interests with national interests.

The other two major divisions that took place in South Asia, namely Pakistan and Bangladesh haven’t achieved political stability. Even democracy breathes with extreme difficulty there. These signs indicate why Sri Lanka should retain its highest form of legal unity (unitary status) and improve on the physical and human aspects of unity.

Sinhala Nationalism Verses Tamil Nationalism

To be honest, I have never come across Sinhala nationalism. Sinhala racism and Tamil racism, yes. Pro-LTTE elements used to call certain political groups as Sinhala nationalists but none of them call for a Sinhala nation. This is in wide contrast to Tamil nationalists who demand a Tamil nation in Sri Lanka. As explained above, South Asia unlike Europe does not follow one race-one nation concept. A nation here is a collection of many ethnicities living in harmony as they lived for millennia.

However, Sri Lankan nationalism is very much real and has stood firm against various forms of Tamil nationalism advocated under various banners including the banner of resistance, public disobedience, peaceful separatism, rebellion, terrorism and even Gandhianism! The mere fact that Sri Lanka withstood all these moves proves that it is a successful model capable of withstanding separatism. This is further proof that there is no need to disintegrate Sri Lanka.

This does not mean Sinhala extreme elements are less undesirable. In fact the government should be careful not to give into any race-based political demands whether it be Tamil or Sinhala. This is the spirit of South Asia and the basis of its remarkable unity whatever European standards say. In fact the Europeans have realized that something went wrong and started to imitate the South Asian unity through the European Union.

Another salient characteristic of local politics is that there aren’t strong political forces upholding Sinhala extremisms as much as there are Tamil political parties holding Tamil extremism. It is unthinkable that a Sinhala United Liberation Front or a Sinhala National Alliance would emerge in Sri Lanka. All three permanent Sinhala majority political parties depend on Tamils and Muslims to maximize their political clout.

Policy and Priority Congruence

What LTTE and TULF claimed as Tamil Eelam is an area of over 18,000 square kilometers and over 800 kilometers of coastline. Use of these resources is imperative for the development and wellbeing of the country. That’s not all; the use and development of these resources must follow a national plan for it to be most beneficial to the nation. This is called congruence of policy and priority. In fact this is not something alien to the provincial council system of Sri Lanka. Ruling parties strived very hard to take control of all provincial councils. Greed and craving for political power although popular reasons, the real reason is to achieve goal, policy and priority congruence through out the tiny country.

In 1988 EPRLF could take control of the North-East Provincial Council when the IPKF was the boss. Indians knew too well the fate that was awaiting the EPRLF run PC and they hatched a plan. Indians trained an armed group by the name Tamil National Army. However, Sri Lankan troops routed them with the help of the LTTE. Soon the government made it impossible for the EPRLF to run the show and that was the end of their rule in the provincial council. In early 1994, a UNP-led group won the North-East Provincial Council. The next provincial election was the 2008 Eastern Provincial Council election in which the ruling party won. The ruling party will strive very hard to win the Northern Provincial Council election as well. The fourth example is the fate of District Development Council elections of 1982 in which the ruling party wanted to win every district. The fifth example is the indefinite postponement of the North-East provincial election during CBK administration knowing the likely outcome of an election very well.

This is exactly what will happen even in future due to pressures of national development and policy congruence requirements in order to achieve what is best for the nation as a whole.

Tamils in a Unitary Sri Lanka

Tamils were doing well in unitary Ceylon from 1833 to 1948 without a hint of a doubt. Apart from a few isolated incidents involving lawlessness, there is no adverse connection between Tamil welfare and the unitary status of the country. Of course with the advent of democracy some benefits enjoyed by Tamils got eroded but this is to be expected and people have got accustomed to democracy today.

All Tamil grievances can be addressed in a unitary nation. Due to the widespread presence of Tamils in all 25 administrative districts of the country, and given the desire of the community to have the strength of numbers, a unitary Lanka is actually better than otherwise. Simply put it, it is the Obama model that suits Sri Lanka more than the Martin Luther King model. We don’t need any further divisions; certainly not along racial lines. It’s a shame that those who talked so much about Obama have gone silent today!

Tamil aspirations as described by the LTTE and other separatists may not be accommodated in Sri Lanka whatever the format is. It makes no sense to again unleash violence on the state and the people to achieve these aspirations because it will spectacularly fail again.

The unitary challenge is ethnic integration, inter-dependence and harmony throughout the country. It demands people of all ethnicities to live together and work towards what is good for them as one unit. There has never been a better time to reclaim the unitary nation. Obviously there are opportunities for reasonable devolution and other forms of power sharing in a unitary nation.
-Sri Lanka Guardian
jean-pierre said...

Very well organized, coherent article. Tamils enjoyed an excellent lead in commerce, banking, professions and every other walk of life till about the 1960s. All this was lost by the folly of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (note the race-based name) which evolved into the TULF and created the youth gangs and produced the LTTE. If the ITAK had cooperated with the Sinhalese and the Muslims, and worked with the Hill country Tamils instead of treating them as low-caste people who were only politically useful, the Tamils would have retained the lead they had in the 1960s. Even now, in Colombo and other provincial capitals, there is a strong multi-cultural society that should be replicated in every part of Sri lanka.

sweetwrangler2004 said...

I am indian tamil who happened to come across this article. few mistakes in this article, first europe doest have 800 million population, the maximum is 350-400million population. Then South asia may have 6 countries, but India which is union of 28 states divided mainly by languages. Then there is a comment i guess made purely for sarcasm that Tamil nadu and orissa dont have armies. Author forgot that they now in indian union and have indian army. Author should remember that india was never one country until british came. I believe that british made a big mistake. They should have made sri lanka as one of indian states and now we wont have this big problem in the region. sinhala would have been one of india's national languages(as tamil) and they would have same rights as rest of indians.