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The Major Picture In Understanding Our Ethnic Conflict

| by Laksiri Fernando

( June 9, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) One reason for our inability to understand, or understand fully, the ‘ethnic conflict’ in Sri Lanka may be our emotional involvement with the conflict one way or the other. This does not mean that the emotional dis-involvement could necessarily bring a proper understanding of the conflict. The reason is that apart from the emotional dis-involvement, it might require a certain amount of knowledge to understand the intricacies of the ethnic conflict. Ethnic conflicts undoubtedly are one of the most intricate problems in human society.

Emotional involvement is something that we acquire from our childhood or develop during our life experiences. It is circumstantial, nevertheless difficult to disentangle. By emotional involvement I do not however mean one’s appreciation or commitment to one’s own culture, language, religion, history or even the ‘group.’ What I particularly mean is the adversarial attitudes towards others’ culture, language, religion, history or group and condoning of the denial of others’ rights.

It is difficult to delineate what could bring ‘emotional dis-involvement’ in a precise manner. But it can be suggested that if one enlarges his or her knowledge on the subject that might even disentangle the emotional biases. Therefore, the second element is emphasized even to address the first element.

There are various ways of going about it. Dr. Rajasingham Narendran has discussed “Citizens, Nations and State” in a conceptual manner in his recent article. One might agree or not. That is not the point. It enhances our knowledge on the subject. More importantly, he has put forward his views and analyses in a non-polemical manner. That helps people to understand, engage and discuss in a non-emotional manner. That is however not completely the case judging by some of the responses to his article.

Global Picture

What I suggest here is to understand what we normally call the ‘bigger picture.’ It is to understand the forest without confining to the trees. This could mean basically two things. On the one hand, to expand our horizons to other countries or globally. On the other hand, to understand our problem within a historical or an evolutionary perspective. Here I don’t mean history, by limiting to the history of Sri Lanka, but the history of humanity.

There are over 7,000 identifiable ethnic groups in the world today. But there are only around 200 states or countries. To be more precise, in the UN system, there are 193 member states, two observer states, and 11 other states, whatever they mean. Only about a dozen of states or countries can be considered mono-ethnic even that with some qualifications. Many of the complicated multiethnic countries are located in the regions of South and Southeast Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and also the Middle East. All the ethnic groups in the world are fortunately not in conflict. Otherwise, it would have been a hell. The way they have avoided conflicts are largely by tolerance, co-existence, integration, multiculturalism and power sharing.

Open conflicts between ethnic groups have fluctuated over time. In early 1990s, the number of them increased to over 50, and at present it has reduced to around 20. Sri Lanka at present is not a country of ‘open conflict’ according to the criteria used by many institutions and analysts. This also means that even without an open conflict, tensions or unaddressed issues might remain with the possibility of them erupting again at any moment. In many conflicts, political factors and actors are predominant. Nevertheless, ordinary people are also involved at various levels prompted by perceived self-interests, tainted with prejudices, fears and even hatred.

Ethnicity has a potential for conflicts as many other group formations. One predicament of group formation is the suspicion and sometimes hatred it creates between ‘us’ and ‘others.’ Let me quote Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Stranger,” to illustrate this predicament and dichotomy. I am quoting only one verse given the space limitations.

The Stranger within my gates,
He may be true or kind,
But he does not talk my talk –
I cannot feel his mind.
I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,
But not the soul behind.
It is difficult to say what creates suspicion, fear or even hatred about the ‘other.’ Do we really need to ‘see the soul’ of the others? Perhaps not. There are so many who are not prone to this aversion. Some are neutral and some others are even attracted to the ‘other.’ Otherwise, how can we explain so many interethnic or interracial marriages in the world?

Ethnicity is not the only division in the world. Class, religion, ideology are some others at the societal level overlapping with ethnicity or not. There are some others at the global or international level. Class is more profound with a different dynamic which can even neutralize the ethnic divide. Ethnic conflicts are on the horizontal axis and often destructive. Class conflicts (or struggles) are on the vertical axis and often argued as developmental or progressive at least in the long run.

Ethnicity is different to race. Ethnicity is a social formation or a sociological phenomenon. Race is supposed to be a biological formation or phenomenon without much of a scientific basis. Does ethnicity has a scientific basis? Yes, in sociology and social sciences. The natural scientists who gathered twice to consider the race question under UNESCO’s auspicious (1950/51 and 1972) concluded that there can best be three (Mongoloid, Negroid, Caucasoid) or four broad racial groups in the world without clear connections with ethnicity.

But ‘race’ is in peoples’ minds influenced by racial ideologies. People seem to fancy believing something ‘special’ or ‘superior’ in them.

Evolution or Time Line

Let us look at a Time Line, of how these things must have evolved. The age of the earth is around 4.5 billion years. (By the way the Sinhalese or the Tamils were not there at the beginning!). Let us think about our great-great grandmother ‘Lucy’ although she was hominid and not yet human. (One may even ask whether we are still human!). Lucy’s ancestors were Great Apes. She was there 3 million years ago in Awash Valley of Ethiopia.

The ‘Out of Africa Theory’ says, after ‘Lucy,’ her off springs gave birth to Homo sapiens (250,000 years ago), then they started roaming around the world settling in different continents. First migrants had settled in the Middle East around 100,000 years ago, then moving into Siberia and China thereafter (70,000) and Europe around 40,000 years back. Their coming to South Asia and then to Australia occurred around 40-60,000 years ago. When they reached Japan it was around 20,000 years and then to North and South America much later.

They had possibly replaced or intermixed with even Neanderthals or other Homos in different regions to produce extremely broad racial groups under different climatic/ecological conditions. It is best to consider all as Homo sapiens or ‘common humanity.’

The above theory jolly well fits with our own archaeological evidence. ‘Balangoda Man’ dates back to 38,000 years. It is futile to ask whether he/she was Sinhalese or Tamil.

Humans have initially lived an Indigenous life, closer to the nature in small groups or wondering individuals or pairs. Over time, the living patterns have changed with differentiations in different regions or countries. Then came the Tribes, fairly formed into groups even with proto-identities and dialects.

Sri Lankan Case

Let me try a timeline for the ‘pious joy of the people.’ In respect of ancient Sri Lanka, initially, there had been Indigenous People according to archiologycal and other evidence, even continuing until the modern times. Native Vaddas were the culprits.

Then there were Tribes, originating here and migrating from ‘there’ according to chronicles and inscriptions. If I name them it can lead to unnecessary controversy. These tribes were numerous and some names were even similar to tribal/ethnic groups in Nepal, Cambodia and Indonesia, not to speak of India. Some of these tribes were obviously nomadic.

The earliest formation of the State may dates back to 7,000 years in the Middle East. By the time of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) it was well formed. But in Sri Lanka, apart from the chronicles indicating the kingship since 543 BC, the inscriptions reveal law making rulers at least since the 3rd century BC. The State was closely related to Religion or religious beliefs as in many other countries. But the primary role of the State was to facilitate and organize the livelihoods of the people, converting the tribes into Castes for particular services or trades. Hydrolic system was the main catalyst.

The formation of ethnicity/ethnicities based on language/s was a later development, the dates and processes being much controversial among the historians. The early distinctions perhaps were based on religion yet different religions and religious sects co-existing and intermixing and also conflicting at times. The formation of the ‘Sinhala’ ethnicity must have been a process like the following.

Dynasty -> Language -> People

It perhaps was a process of integration (and mutual assimilation) of various groups including the initial people of Tamil origin culminating towards the end of the ancient period (10th century). However, this process left the Vedda community intact. So the society was plural. That was the first cycle of ethnic formation.

Then when and through what process a permanent Tamil identity/ethnicity became established in Sri Lanka? It was by and large during the medieval period (11 – 15 centuries). To be sure, the Tamil ethnicity was already formed in South India well before. Chola and Pandya dynasties overlapped on Sri Lanka and gave birth to a Tamil kingdom. Whether it was completely independent or accepted the suzerainty of the dominant kingdom in the country is of much controversy. But the process that created the Tamil identity, probably absorbing the Sinhala origin people in those areas, was similar to the formation of the Sinhala ethnicity before. This was the second cycle which was very much similar to the first cycle: dynasty, language and people.

By the time of the arrival of the Portuguese in the modern period, there were Muslims in addition to the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Veddas. It was truly a plural society without (much) conflict. There were cross breeding, interaction and exchange particularly between the Sinhalese and the Tamils both at the kingship and the people’s level.

Back to the Global

Let’s get back to the global picture. Ethnicity and nation are two different things but possibly overlapping. Ethnicity is a sociological formation. Nation is a political formation. A nation can be of two varieties: ethnic or civic. Ethnicity + politics can produce a nation and nationalism but an ethnic-nation or ethno-nationalism. That is not healthy. In ordinary parlance, ethnicity is also or often called a ‘nation.’

If we go along our Time Line, after the formation of ethnicities, the societies evolved into modern civic nations or nation states. Capitalism and democracy enhanced the processes. This could be seen particularly after the French and the American revolutions in the West. A similar incipient processes could be seen in some Asian countries that became disrupted by colonialism. After colonialism, divisive forces have emerged, not necessarily due to colonialism but for host of factors, underdevelopment being a major one. Premature or distorted attempts at socialism, also have disrupted the formation of healthy civic nations in Eastern Europe, former Soviet Union and perhaps even in China. The collapse of these systems also has generated major ethnic conflicts.

Ethnicity reemerged again even in Western countries in recent times after the formation of democratic and civic nations. Canada, Belgium, Britain and Spain are some examples. This shows the evolution that we have outlined from indigenous groups to tribes, from tribes to (castes in the case of Sri Lanka) then ethnicities, and ethnicities to nations is not linear, but tortuous and overlapping. This was the case in the past, this is the case in the present.
If this is still the age of nation formation, the major dilemma that many societies facing today are between ‘ethnic nations’ and ‘civic nations.’ Facing ethnic conflicts or major disputes between ethnicities, the best solution might be to implement ‘power sharing’ mechanisms and ‘multicultural policies’ based on democracy, justice, equality and human rights.

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