Lets dump communal viewpoints from Sri Lanka’s political landscape

Six years have gone by, since the close of the civil war. Six years of peace, with not a single shot fired* or a life lost to the ideology or the ground realities that fuelled the conflict1. As an ordinary Lankan who lived the first 34 of his 40 years shrouded in this rambling civil disturbance, I cannot overexpress my gratitude to the collective human endeavor that brought about its end, and ushered in an era of lasting peace.

And yet we continue to hear calls for “reconciliation” between the two communities (Sinhalese and Tamil)2. These two communities are represented by politicians as being the two participant “sides” in the old war, and hence thought of as former enemies in an “ethnic conflict”, whose underlying cause (devolving of “power” to the “Tamils”) remain unresolved3.

I’ve been thinking about this call for reconciliation, and what shape and form it should take. And though it may be unpleasant, I find myself dipping into the sordid history of this conflict, as it offers a storehouse of lessons for the future.

The “war” – or rather the succession of battles, acts of terrorism, and chronic social unrest – was an ugly, protracted affair that darkened our attitudes and hampered our country’s economic progress for nearly 35 years. When I say “ugly”, I don’t mean ugly in just the sense of the trail of blood it left behind. This in itself was bad enough; but, as with most armed conflicts, what was intolerably ugly was the ideology that fuelled it.

This ideology, popularly known as “Tamil Separatism”4, was a gross insult to the educated Lankan’s ethos, which is shaped by the nonviolent and unifying teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism. Furthermore, this notion of carving out self-governing territories based on ethnicity was also an insult to advancing secular human knowledge and its resultant codes of morality, which we are grateful to have acquired through centuries of contact with western intellectual discourse.

The British colonial government that ruled our nation for nearly 150 years left us saddled with a legacy of inquietude amongst the communities. The “Sinhala politicians” of the post-independence era grappled with two realities:

  1. The socioeconomic gap that prevailed between the Sinhala speaking rural masses of our country, who formed 70% of our population, and the English speaking “elite”5, and
  2. The relative dominance of high office by English speaking peoples belonging to the minority Tamil community, as a consequence of the British colonial strategy of subjugating the majority community and promoting minorities up the ranks6, 7.

Unfortunately, successive democratically elected post-colonial Lankan governments faced these two realities with grave shortsightedness. The declaration of Sinhala as the “official” language in 1956, done with good intentions8 to resolve these two “problems”, resulted in disastrous consequences.

Two such consequences became obvious in hindsight:

  1. The marginalization of the use of the English Language, which could have served as a better medium of learning and globalization9, and
  2. Although Tamil was introduced as an official language in 1958, the Tamils continued to face difficulties in securing government jobs and dealing with government departments, due to their inability to speak or write in Sinhala.

The government of SWRD Bandaranayke envisioned this move as a desperately needed change to uplift the socioeconomic condition of the vast majority of the Sinhalese population, and to restore the past glory of an independent nation. We must realize that there was a powerful movement during the pre-independence era comprising of leading Sinhalese and Tamils who wanted to make Sinhalese the official language25. SWRD would surely have been influenced by these ideals. The Tamils, because they were a minority that was doing very well at the time, were perhaps expected to “bear up” and learn Sinhala.

These grievances were woven together with a brewing resentment amongst the Tamil community about their loss of predominance10, as more and more members of the majority Sinhala community reached high office. The fairness of this trend was that there was no longer any purposeful discrimination against the majority community by the government. The unfairness was that due to the absence of the moderating influence of English, many Tamils found it hard to gain entry or rise in government service, and the representation of their ethnicity fell below demographic levels.

This situation catalyzed the dominance of racial politics11 amongst the Tamil community. One could haggle about the details, but the fact remains that something frightful began to take shape. One would have expected a strong, nonviolent political movement to immerge and right these wrongs. One could have anticipated civil disobedience to be a part of this essential corrective process. After all, civil disobedience was a key weapon in the “Second Emancipation Movement” of the African Americans12, which belonged to the same era. Instead, a far more sinister ideological movement arose. Its goal was not to overturn the shortsighted policies of the government(s) at the time, but instead to create a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka. Called Tamil Elam, it was envisioned to fulfill an ancient aspiration of Tamils across the world4.

The strategy adopted was to alienate Tamils from Sinhalese by means of well-organized terror campaigns and bloodshed, designed to instigate mutual hatred and backlash13. Alfred Duraiappah, the popular “Moderate Tamil” mayor of Jaffna, was the first victim of this sinister ideology. The young Prabhakaran, leader of the Tamil Tigers, shot Duraiappah dead in cold blood as a warning to all Tamils: the time had come to separate the races. Traitors to the cause (Tamil Elam) were to be made an example of.

After a period of minor skirmishes, the Tamil Tigers were desperate for creating a showpiece backlash. They plotted and killed 13 solders returning home for the holidays, thus successfully orchestrating the infamous anti-Tamil riots of 1983. This riot was Prabhakaran’s crowning achievement14, his ticket to lasting international sympathy and the string connecting him to the hearts and minds of the ordinary Tamils. The Tamil Tigers and their allied militant forces became “our boys in the North” to the Tamils of the South. Like feeding a viper in one’s neighbor’s woodshed, successive Congress Party governments of India, for selfish internal political reasons of their own, openly aided the Tamil militants16, 17.

The rest of the Tamil Tiger exploits are part of documented history, and can be summarized as a blaze of carnage aimed squarely at alienating the Tamils from The Sinhalese13.

It is curious to note that from the early days of mass brutalization of villages, through countless bombings and assassinations, to the closing of the Mavil Aru anicut leading to the final Elam War, the Tamil Tigers made no hesitation in drawing first blood, feeding on the “guilty” conscience of the Sinhalese: “you made the initial mistake with Language Policy, and you committed mass murder during the 83 riots. You owe us.” Thus, they freely raped and pillaged the country for over a quarter century, until the MR Administration put a final stop to their havoc in May 2009.

Coming back to the present, we should not afraid to call a spade a spade. There can be no so-called “Homelands” for “Tamils”, or “A Federal Solution”, both euphemisms for a region in Lanka ethnically cleansed of other communities, and cut out for the preferential residence of the “Tamil race” (a shaky concept in itself because the Sinhalese and the Tamils seem to be genetically intermixed15). This solution seems conceptually abhorrent as a viable method of addressing any practical grievance that a person or community of persons may face. To quote our former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar (an intellectual luminary from the Tamil community, sadly assassinated by the Tamil Tigers as part of their campaign of alienation), “we (Lankans) are not tribalists”.

Living in Sri Lanka in the 21st Century, we all share existential challenges, none of which are peculiar to one community or race. Contemporary leaders from the Tamil community must speak up and take partial responsibility for the post-war healing process, even if they had nothing to do with the actual atrocities of the LTTE. “Tamil politicians” must not act like spoilt babies demanding rations from their parents (usually personified as the “Sinhala” government). They must follow the example of countless “Sinhala politicians” like CBK, RW or MS, and “own up” as the community within which the Tigers flurished18.

We must hear sentiments such as “We (Tamils) were wronged, but we in turn were very wrong ourselves. Our misguided political leaders led us astray, advocating alienation and ethnic purification as an answer to the changes and challenges that took place as a consequence of the poorly thought-out dismantling of colonial government. If the decision to make Sinhalese the “official” language was a blunder in public administration, then the decision by militant Tamil leaders to use this mistake as an excuse to take up separatist ideology and attempt an obliteration of the two other races from one third of Sri Lanka was foolhardy. Tamil, Sinhalese and English are official languages today. Governments (past and present) are firmly committed to accelerate economic development in the regions of past conflict. We now see the way forward for all “Tamils”, without the need for continuing to tout “discrimination”, like a beggar’s sore. Sinhalese and Muslim Brothers and sisters, we too are sorry. Sorry for all the death and destruction that took place as a result of the damaging aspirations of our political and militant leaders. This problem could have been solved in a better way, and now that the war is over, any remaining redress for all victims of the war must be done collaboratively and objectively, without any separatist ideology19 clouding our vision.”

If we are to consider the healing of hearts and minds, then we must accept that the mind of the mother grieving for the loss of her child, blown to bits by an artillery shell fired by government forces during the final stages of the battle to defeat the Tamil Tigers, is no less distraught than the mind of the grieving father who’s daughter was disemboweled by the Tigers, simply because she was “Muslim” and residing in a hallucinatory “Tamil homeland”. If successive recent governments led by so-called Sinhala politicians (e.g. CBK, RW, MR and MS) have taken many practical steps to reconcile differences, then so must the Tamil politicians. We find just one outstanding exception of a true reconciler on the “Tamil side” of the affair, the ex-Tamil Tiger militant Karuna. To quote his words, “what have you [the “Tamil Politicians”] done for the Tamils, in comparison to the [MR] Government?20” There aught to be more plain-speaking “Tamil politicians” like this.

People of all walks of life were badly hurt by this conflict. But, we have now moved away from the three biggest shadows of the past.

  1. We don’t have terrorism
  2. We have moved away from the early postcolonial shortsightedness, when dealing with the administration of different ethnic communities (e.g. all three languages are official languages, and English is returning as a powerful medium for globalization), and
  3. Elected governments are now highly sensitive to the folly of touting parochial, iron-age ideology (e.g. Sri Lanka is a “Sinhala-Buddhist Country” etc.)

Recent governments like those of CBK, MR, MS and RW were responsible for bringing about #2 and #3.

The MR government alone was instrumental in bringing about #1. There was targeted military action against the worst elements of society, who held a third of the country at ransom and kept the entire world in terror of them. The MR government did everything in its power to negotiate, and when negotiations failed, to minimize the loss of civilian life. The LTTE : Civilian Death Ratio during Elam War IV was 17,605:11,16721. Assuming “charitably” that the accountability for all civilian deaths belongs to the SL Government – rather a joke because A) the LTTE dragged around their shifting headquarters an entire population of approximately 300,000 civilians as human shields in 2009 and B) the LTTE were responsible for the bulk of the civilian deaths during 2006 – 2008 – this ratio is still “better” than the figures from wars such as Iraq23 or Vietnam22.

I for one don’t feel guilty of the way this curse of terrorism was lifted from our country. I instead feel sorry for all the combatants and civilians who were affected. They were all sons and daughters of Lanka, whom history had pitted against each other. We don’t have to glorify dead terrorists, but at a larger metaphysical level, we must understand that whilst they (the LTTE and its sympathizers) stood on the wrong side of humanity, they were simply fallible humans like us, led astray by harmful ideology.

So the lesson I see from history is that we are desperately in need of a raising of our collective Lankan consciousness, akin to what the feminists did in the western world in the decades gone by. It need not be “illegal” to form a political movement with a race or community in its name; but we must develop a social aversion to it; where people wince when they hear a political party named as a “Tamil National Alliance” or a “Sinhala Urumaya [Inheritance]” or a “Muslim Congress”. Allegiance to race or religion is parochial and has little to do with the broader administrative problems facing a country like ours. Political forces must transcend such cultural or anthropological distinctions in favor of more fundamental concerns of administration and good governance.

How do we develop our economy? How do we educate our children? How do we protect our environment and ensure its long-term habitability? How do we ensure the long-term security of our nation in a turbulent era? How do we improve our standards of good conduct and fair play? Is our police force effectively enforcing the law? Are our streets safe to drive? Our political parties should represent alternative strategies for confronting problems such as these, and not hanker after homelands for races (sadly some still do, such as the TNA). Politicians should feel ashamed to start “working for the Sinhalese/Tamils/Muslims”. They should be working for administrative subdivisions and individual concerns.

I’m not suggesting that we should shun our sociocultural inheritances. On the contrary, we should treasure and celebrate them publicly, but in a benign, non-political fashion. Some Tamils do celebrate Vesak, and almost every Sinhalese goes to a Kovil at some point in their life. Our inheritance of monumental architecture, art, music and craft is marvelous, and a cause for national pride. But we must know where to draw the line. We overstep the line when we begin to incorporate communal structures into government. This has terrible consequences, as we have seen.

It is not difficult to take this essential step, when we accept that whilst our spiritual makeup might be closely tied to our ancient sociocultural inheritance, the “truths” that these inheritances profess are inadequate when navigating today’s world.

Without a shade of doubt, we know that there are greater truths to the workings of nature than those revealed by the Bhagavad Gita, or Gautama Buddha, or Jesus. There have been countless other enlightened folks24 who have over the centuries trod the earth and contributed to our social and spiritual uplifting. It is the collective insights and hard work of these (often nameless) people that, over the centuries, have allowed the emergence of modern systems of government, law, education, science, technology, medicine, culture and morality. We must acknowledge that ancient religious or cultural viewpoints are parochial and don’t address the needs of different people.

So, unlike religious or communal interests, politics must operate through ideologies that are extensible across different communities, addressing the needs of the individual, and perhaps the nation as a whole administrative unit. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, we should stop toadying to “communities” as part of a general abolition of all community privilege.

* Some militant LTTE carders were killed in clashes a few days after the official closure of the war.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

References:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-conflict_history_of_Sri_Lanka
  2. http://www.gulf-times.com/sri%20lanka/251/details/437441/kerry-warns-sri-lanka-that-tamil-reconciliation-will-‘take-time
  3. http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=13952
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamil_Eelam
  5. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTSRILANKA/Resources/App1.pdf
  6. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~lkawgw/colonial.html
  7. https://books.google.lk/books?id=hPEOYtC5_zwC&pg=PA227&lpg=PA227&dq=british+preference+for+tamils&source=bl&ots=M3EE5sgULt&sig=2n21WcwG6fNXB75BF2OsD5flBr8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=_0hXVZP7JMr68QWsoIH4Ag&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=british%20preference%20for%20tamils&f=false
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NP13RWkd4vM
  9. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/09/world/asia/09iht-englede.1.5198685.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
  10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinhala_Only_Act
  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lankan_Tamil_nationalism
  12. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_Civil_Rights_Movement_(1954–68)
  13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_attacks_attributed_to_the_LTTE
  14. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_July
  15. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_studies_on_Sinhalese
  16. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberation_Tigers_of_Tamil_Eelam
  17. http://www.terminalx.org/2013/07/indian-army-trained-financially-sponsored-ltte-militants.html
  18. http://global.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/581988/Tamil-Tigers
  19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmbhjfCU8bY
  20. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odHSunSt5hM
  21. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Sri_Lankan_Civil_War
  22. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War_casualties
  23. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Iraq_War#Iraqi_civilian_casualties
  24. http://www.ranker.com/list/greatest-minds-of-all-time/walter-graves?page=3
  25. http://www.atimes.com/ind-pak/CK24Df05.html
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One Response to Lets dump communal viewpoints from Sri Lanka’s political landscape

  1. Mano Yakandawala says:

    very true and honest, i agree 100%, hope our tamil and sinhala friends find this true.

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