Broadening the Perspectives for Peace in Sri Lanka
by Prof. Asoka Bandarage
(Transcript of a Talk given at the Elliot School of International Affairs,George Washington University, Washington D.C. on November 10, 2003)
The conflict in Sri Lanka is being portrayed in the media as a power struggle between the Sri Lankan President and the Prime Minister. Thereís no doubt that there is an element of political gamesmanship involved. However, I want to go beyond the personality clash and look at the background of the crisis and some of the underlying issues. The actions by the government that precipitated the crisis have not been reported much in the global news. For instance, the parliament had tried to impeach both the President and the Chief Justice before the President took her unexpected moves. A five-member panel of judges of the Supreme Court recently upheld the Presidentís legal authority under the Sri Lankan Constitution as the commander in chief of the armed forces and the chief executive. In other words, the conflict between the President and the Prime Minister has been brewing over a long period of time; it wasnít a sudden thing that happened after the Prime Minister arrived in Washi
There has been much euphoria in the international community over the Sri Lanka peace process. Certainly, the cease fire which began two years ago, in December 2001, has held. That has been the most important achievement of the peace process and I donít think anyone, except the most irrational elements, want to resume war. This needs to be underlined. An MOU was signed in February 2002 between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE and many rounds of talks were held subsequent to that. There has been tremendous international support for the peace process and billions of dollars have been promised in international aid for reconstruction and rehabilitation of the war torn regions. Because of all of that, most of the news reports have been blaming the President, arguing that her actions were totally irrational and uncalled for and that she has scuttled the peace process.
While it is a time of crisis, it is also an opportunity to look at what has been happening in the name of peace in Sri Lanka over the last two years. It is an opportunity to go beneath the headlines and ask if this is a lasting peace and if the cease fire really equates peace or is it building up towards the establishment of a terrorist state in the north and the east of the island? This is not an easy question to address, but, I think it is very important to do so because peace and stability of the country and the security of the people are at stake.
According to reports there have been some 3,000 violations of the MOU on the part of the LTTE. In other words, there is a lot of evidence that they have not respected law and order. They have not given up arms and terrorism; instead, there has been a massive military build-up and increased troop recruitment over the last two years. Illegal shipments of weapons have been brought in during the cease-fire. According to the President, six of nine of those apprehended by the Sri Lankan navy were released under the instructions of the Prime Minister and Defense Minister. This is one of the charges that the President has made in taking away the portfolios of the defense, internal security and media ministers. LTTE armed camps have been built during the cease fire, 16 or 17 camps encircling the strategic harbor of Trincomalee. Both the United States and India have expressed alarm about this because it is a great threat to the security of the entire region. Apparently, before the ce
ase-fire there were only 3 LTTE camps in that area. There is another huge controversy over the Wan Ela camp in Manirasakulam built by the LTTE during the cease fire in a government controlled area. Both the Sri Lankan government and the Norwegian facilitators have not been successful in getting the LTTE to remove it despite repeated requests to do so. They have said they are not going to do it. This is a serious violation of the MOU.
There is tremendous concern in the country that the Norwegian facilitators are turning a blind eye to these violations. In addition, the Norwegians have been blamed for leaking information to the LTTE, for example, that they have come in the way of the government intercepting illegal weapons smuggled in by the LTTE. This in particular had led to the President asking the head of the SLMM, (Scandinavian Monitoring Mission), to be removed. All of this had happened before the eruption of the crisis last week. Over the last many months the President had been bringing these issues up repeatedly with the government and the Norwegians.
Within the country there has been increasing opposition to the Norwegians for being partisan toward the LTTE, the argument being that they were helping build up the strength of the LTTE in order to bring it to par with the government. Their approach to the peace process is built on the assumption that that there must be two relatively equal entities to negotiate a settlement. But, Norwegian requests to recognize the naval unit of the Tigers and to remove the Sri Lankan military from government held areas in the north have come under severe criticism as endangering the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.
Some of the serious violations of the MOU have involved the kidnapping and forcible recruitment of child soldiers. According to the President, during the cease-fire, the LTTE troops have been boosted from 6,000 to 18,000 or 20,000 largely due to under-aged recruitment. She has also claimed that the government has neglected its own armed forces which threatens the security of the country. These charges have not come from the President alone: media and other reports have also documented the rebel arms build-up, violations of human rights and democratic norms. In many districts in the East, particularly in the Batticoloa district, each family has to provide one child for the cause, to the LTTE. Of course these children are drawn from the most distressed, poverty- stricken families. Details on these issues are available in the web site of the University Teachers for Human Rights of Jaffna, based in Colombo. They have provided report after report on child recruitment and the ki
lling of dissidents by the LTTE during the course of the cease-fire. UNICEF has also made repeated attempts to put a stop to child recruitment, but it still continues. There are some controversies surrounding UNICEF involvement with this issue, but, may be, we can talk about this later.
There has been a continuation of the systemic killing of Tamil dissidents. The number given is over 100, which includes intelligence providers killed by the LTTE. Alternative voices and Tamil moderate parties are not allowed to exist. For example, the TULF leader has openly said that the LTTE is not the sole spokesman of the Tamil people and there are reports of attempts to silence him. All this has occurred during the course of the MOU. There has also been ethnic cleansing and ethnically based violence, especially extortion and disappearances of Muslims in the eastern province as well as of Sinhalese. If you have followed the news, you know that this has been happening over time. There have been repeated clashes, particularly between the Muslims and the LTTE in the eastern province and frequent curfews have been imposed. Due to the fear that Muslims have about living in an LTTE dominated area, Muslim militancy has been growing. And for the first time, there are reports
that Muslims are beginning to use guns. There are reports that three armed Muslim groups have emerged. Thatís a serious issue. In February this year, some Muslims issued something called the Oduvil Declaration calling for their own self-determination and a separate Muslim administrative unit in the eastern part of the island. I will share some maps of that region with you later.
Turning to the Southern part of the island, there has been growing violence there too, particularly gang violence, police corruption as well as political violence. The deteriorating security situation has been given as a reason for taking away the interior ministerís portfolio by the President. In justifying the taking of the portfolio of the minister of communications, the President has said that the state media has provided a very biased, one-sided picture without adequate reporting of the controversies and problems with the peace process. Her own moves, however, have been severely criticized within and outside the country as attempts to curtail press freedom.
The MOU signed between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE , is considered to be unconstitutional because the President, who, like the Prime Minister is elected by the people, had not been consulted. Moreover, the President had not been informed of many of the steps taken during the course of the peace talks and had felt marginalized despite her supreme executive authority. The President claims that she did not assert the extensive powers granted her by the Constitution prior to this because she wanted to give the peace process a good chance to succeed. However, after the LTTE released its proposals on November 1st, and given soaring fear and alarm in the country, she intervened.
I am sure many of you have seen the LTTE proposals. They are a blue print for the creation of a separate state administration, not just a separate administrative unit. There is a call for a separate armed forces, which includes an army, navy and air force; a separate judiciary, separate revenue and taxation system and also the right to negotiate with foreign governments for aid, trade and so forth. These institutions have already been built up by the LTTE during the cease fire. The proposals, if accepted, would consolidate what has been happening over the last two years. The proposals also provide a provision that if, after five years, a negotiated settlement is not agreed upon, then, the LTTE would have the right to secede from Sri Lanka. There is no recognition of the Sri Lankan parliament in these proposals because the agreement and the establishment of the interim administration are to be done outside the Sri Lankan constitution, outside the legal democratic process. The
re is tremendous fear in Sri Lanka about what this would entail, particularly because the government has been giving in to each and every demand of the LTTE up to now in order to keep them in the peace process and to stop them from resuming war. So, there is increasing fear that this ëpeace at any costí approach will ultimately lead to the creation of Eelam. The LTTE proposals lie outside the fundamentals of the peace process. At the Oslo peace meetings, the LTTE announced that they had given up the demand for a separate state and that they would agree to devolution and a federal solution within the confines of the Sri Lankaís constitution and sovereignty.
Unfortunately, much of this background to the current security crisis has not been reported in the global media. The crisis has been reported more or less as a personality issue and a power struggle between the President and the Prime Minister and itís very tempting to leave it at that. But, it is important to make use of this opportunity to broaden the discussion and see what has been happening in the name of peace in Sri Lanka.
My current work is on the origin and evolution of the ethnic conflict, the discriminatory, linguistic and other cultural policies of the post independence era, the colonial history prior to that and the unequal incorporation of different ethnic groups into the political economy that created the context for the contemporary conflict. But if I get into that here, I will not have enough time to consider the current situation. If you would like some good reading material on the background, I recommend a book by Partha Ghosh, Ethnicity and Nationalism. Ghosh is an Indian writer and he gives a very objective and balanced discussion of the historical background to the conflict. In my own book, Colonialism in Sri Lanka, I have also discussed the colonial political economy and the plights of the Sinhala peasantry and the Tamil, Indian plantation labor that was brought in by the British. In my current work I am also exploring how colonial economic and cultural policies subordinated l
ocal cultures and how that led to the grievances and resistance particularly by the Sinhala Buddhist majority. But, right now, I would like to share some maps on the contemporary demographic and ethnic distribution which can shed light on the crisis and some of the problems in the current peace process.
(Map 1) ( Maps can be accessed in Power Point)
Sri Lanka is very close to India separated only by about 18 miles of sea. In Tamil Nadu, there are about 55 million Tamils, who have very close cultural ties with the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. The Indian Central governmentís support for the Tamil nationalist movement and the LTTE was not simply because of these cultural ties, but, also the need for the Tamil votes in the south of India. Moreover, India did not want any other major power to play a dominant role in the Indian Ocean region because India wanted to keep things under her control. It is well known today that the Indian government and particularly the RAW wing were involved in the training of Sri Lankan Tamil rebels on Indian soil. Indira Gandhi is blamed for this. In 1987, the IPKF (Indian Peace keeping force) were brought into Sri Lanka to maintain peace in the north and the east. Very soon they came to be hated by both the Sinhalese and the Tamils and there was collusion between them to get the IPKF out afte
r a lot of damage and thousands of lives had already been lost. These events also led to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in South India which is attributed to the LTTE. Subsequently an extradition treaty was signed between India and Sri Lanka for extraditing Prabakharan, the leader of the LTTE, to stand for charges in India.
Things have changed much since the late ë80s and early ë90s, and today more and more groups in Sri Lanka want India to play a central role in the resolution of the current crisis. The Sri Lankan government recently signed a defense treaty with India and the LTTE does not want to involve India. The LTTE is asking for the recognition of its own naval forces in the northern seas around Sri Lanka. This would lead to the operation of three naval forces and it would be a very complicated situation, which would threaten the stability of the region. There have already been conflicts over fishing rights between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen.
Here you have 2 versions of the Tamil homelands claimed by the LTTE. Recent maps claim even more of the territory of Sri Lanka going all the way down to Hambantota in the south and Chilaw in the northwest. I am not going to take up the Tamil homelands thesis here because it would take up too much time, but simply mention that the historical basis for this claim is derived from a Tamil kingdom in the Jaffna peninsula that existed for about 400 years. But, in the long history of Sri Lanka, it is a relatively short period of time. The Jaffna kingdom was restricted to the northern peninsula and even today, there are 276 Buddhist sacred sites in the eastern as well as the northern province claimed as the Tamil homelands. There was also a Muslim presence in the north, perhaps even before the Tamil kingdom came into being.The north and the east are two provinces that were created by the British in order to break up the old Kandyan kingdom, which was the last of the Sinhalese kin
gdoms to resist foreign conquest.
The British created an administrative system with very strong central authority based in Colombo, the capital. The outlying regions such as the north and the east were relatively neglected because much of the plantation economy was based in the central highlands and the mercantile activities around the capital of Colombo. A lot of Tamils and others who wanted to make use of the new opportunities came to the south during the British period. So the neglect and the relative uneven development had their origins in the British colonial period, as I have discussed in some of my writings.
Before we look at the ethnic distribution, I would like to say a few words about the overall demographic situation in Sri Lanka because I want to move away from the historical issues to the contemporary realities. Sri Lanka is one of the most densely populated countries in the world according to some reports the 10th most densely populated country in the world. By that, what is it meant is the south, particularly the southwest of the island. The demographic explosion which emerged under colonialism is one of the reasons why resettlement of populations and so called agricultural colonizing schemes were started in the relatively under-populated dry zone including the eastern province.
Out of about 20 million or so population, the Sri Lankan Tamils are said to be about 8% of the population today ( this is an estimate from the London The Economist). And the Indian Tamils, the descendents of those who were brought by the British to work on the plantations, are about 5.1% ( according to the 2001 Sri Lankan Census). The north and the east are relatively under populated areas. The LTTE did not allow the government to carry out the 2001 census in the north and in certain areas of the east. So there are no accurate census figures and these projections are based on the 1981 census. The north and the east may have about two million people while the rest are all crowded in the south. What is also overlooked often is that the majority of the Tamils, about 58-60% live outside of the north and the east which are being claimed exclusively as the Tamil homeland. In the south, especially the southwestern areas, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims have been living side by s
ide for centuries. Ethnic riots especially the 1983 Sinhala riots against Tamils have justifiably received international attention. But, what has not received sufficient attention are the long traditions of pluralism, democracy and mutual co-existence The threats posed to these traditions of relative harmony by the current ìpeace at any costî approach have not received international attention.
Let us move on to the ethnic distribution. The northern province, (which is indicated in the dark green), is 100% Tamil today. But, in the 1981 Census, the population there were about 9.8% Muslim, 7.7% Sinhalese, and 12.4% Indian Tamils, although, today, the latter is counted with the Sri Lankan Tamils as one group. There has been ethnic cleansing during the course of the war. In 1992, anywhere from 70-100,000 Muslims were told to leave the northern province within 24 hours by the LTTE. And these people had to leave everything behind and they became refugees in the eastern and southern provinces, which is one of the reasons for the Muslim distrust of the LTTE. Then, if you go to the eastern province, the situation is much more complex, the Sri Lankan Tamils are not a majority in the eastern province, but they are a plurality, that is, no one group has more than 50% of the population.
The eastern province is called the Balkans of Sri Lanka. Roughly speaking, the Sri Lankan Tamils, the Muslims and Sinhalese are about one-third each in the eastern province. In Tincomalee there is a Sinhalese plurality. In Batticoloa a Tamil majority. In Ampara district as a whole, in the 1981 Census, there were 38% Sinhalese and 42% Muslim. Map 8 shows that the Muslims, like the Tamils, in Ampara are concentrated in smaller pockets on the coast and the Sinhalese are spread out over a larger land area (Moor is a term used by the British for the Muslims.) Sinhalese are said to own over 55% of the land in the Eastern Province.
If you break the distribution down by Assistant Government Agents districts, the situation is even more complex. In these particular districts, there are certain areas where one group has a plurality over the other. The point is, the homogeneity and contiguity that are necessary for creating separate ethno-nationalist states donít really exist. People of different ethno-religious groups are living very close to each other. (Map 6)
You see the context for ethnic conflict here. The Tamils are a majority in the Batticoloa district and the northern province, but they are not a majority in the Trincomalee and other areas in the east. So, the merger of the north and the east is going to be very problematic because there is a Sinhala dominance in the Trincomalee district and there are Muslim populations in certain pockets that do not want to live under a Tamil, LTTE dominated regime. The Sinhalese in the east have become very powerless and marginalized because they do not have any spokesmen/ women and have not been represented in the peace process.
Map 7, Map 8, Map 9 you see the ethnic break downs in the three district of the Eastern Province. So, you can see why creating ethnically based territorial units in this pluralistic setting would be a recipe for disaster. This also shows where the Muslims are now talking about having their own administrative unit. The Muslims are supposed to come out with their own proposals in two months time and it will be interesting to see what their demands are.
Another potential and explosive development would be the creation of a separate unit for Indian plantation Tamils in the Nuwara Eliya and Baddula districts in the central province. This is not just an imaginary fear on the part of Sinhalese people in that region. In Map 5, you can see that in the Badulla and the Nuwara Eliya districts the Indian Tamils, descendants of plantation laborers brought by the British, are a plurality, today.
According to some news reports, the Community Development Minister of the Sri Lankan government, who is Indian Tamil, had asked the Norwegians to join these two districts and bring it under a LTTE dominated northeast council when he was in Oslo recently. There was also a recent report attributed to the LTTE that 35% of their cadres come from the Indian Tamil population in Sri Lanka. This raises a lot of questions about the Tamil homeland because Indian Tamils do not have a real claim on a traditional homeland they being descendants of workers brought in by the British during the 19th and 20th centuries.
If there is a balkanization of Sri Lanka, it is unlikely to guarantee peace. If the current peace process continues on this track of appeasing terrorism and giving into each and every demand, itís going to result in balkanization as well as border wars. There will be struggles over water because the rivers originate in the central highlands and it could lead to other kinds of political violence and perhaps calls for population transfers. The objective is not to engage in fear mongering, but itís important to look at the real possibilities of this happening. According to Paul Harris, 60% of the land in Sri Lanka could be taken by LTTE. They have already asked for two-thirds of the coast. Itís interesting that Paul Harrisís visa was not renewed by the Sri Lankan government. Harris is a British journalist; his reports may have been sensational, but he was one of the few who was raising some of these difficult issues.
Itís easy to get into the doom and gloom of predictions. But, I would like to consider what can be done to broaden the prospects for peace even at this late stage. On one extreme is the resumption of war. Some extremist Sinhala and Tamil groups may want a resumption of war on the ground that only military victory can assure peace. But, the war was horrific. According to the official count 65,000 people were killed when in reality the numbers were higher. The war was devastating; it affected every aspect of society. A country that could have developed economically was severely set back. It will be generations before the psychological scars can be healed. Some of the Sinhala nationalist groups that want the MOU scrapped and the Norwegians to go home have not put forward alternative solutions. Their critical perspective are important, but they have to come up with alternative strategies for peace.
The other extreme is the peace at any cost approach the dangers of which have not been sufficiently understood internationally. This is also an extremist position because it has been aiding the building up of a racist, totalitarian regime under one leader in the north and the east, a terrorist regime at that. So, that is not going to bring about a lasting peace either.I am going to read a piece here from an Indian journalist Swapan Das Gupta, which was on the internet today.
ìWhat has been taking place under the cover of the peace process is a complete vivisection of a nation. In her own inept way, Chandrika was trying to mobilize opinion in her country against this outrage. Her failure also signaled the defeat of a united Sri Lanka and Eelam run by the most ruthless, blood thirsty and intolerant band of terrorists is more or less a reality. Thanks to some Scandinavian bleeding hearts and some American strategists, who are unable to distinguish between good and evil, India may soon be faced with a new hostile force along its southern coastline. Will we also look the other way and permit the poison to enter Tamil Nadu as we did in the ë80s.î
And he goes on to ask further questions about the precedent setting nature of the Sri Lankan peace process.
ìThereís a lesson from Sri Lanka for those who believe that New Delhi should be talking to the separatists in Kashmir without preconditions and using the services of a third country.î
The Sri Lankan crisis is not just a local issue, but a regional and international issue. That is why we need to take this opportunity, to open up for global discussion what has been happening in Sri Lanka in the name of peace. Unlike outside observers, people from the country cannot afford to give into the pessimism. We have to keep looking for solutions and a way out. We have to try to find a middle ground between the two extremes, war on the one hand and the peace at any cost approach on the other hand which would lead to further war.
Certainly, there has to be a negotiated political settlement and there has got to be compromise and creative efforts on the part of all of the groups involved. Also, itís important to bring in the many groups that have been marginalized in the process, those who have been left out, the Muslims, the Tamil moderate groups and many Sinhalese groups, including the President and the opposition parties, in order to broaden the peace process. The global influence is very important here and India and the U.S. have very important roles to play in getting the LTTE to compromise, to respect the rule of law and find a resolution within the constitution and the democratic process. Tamil expatriates and Sinhalese expatriates, of the Sri Lankan diaspora also have an important role to play. We must not give into the ethnic polarization which has happened over the last 20 or more years; we have to help transcend it. Academics also have a great responsibility in this. The dominant analysis i
n the literature on Sri Lanka is highly biased. It has not looked at things in a multi-faceted way. Also the NGOs, especially the powerful international NGOs need to move away from the myopic peace at any cost approach and help bring about a genuine peace with democracy and pluralism.
The national government of reconciliation that the President is calling for may seem like a miracle, a pie in the sky. I still think that itís really important to speak about that, to put pressure on both the President and the Prime Minister to come together because without their coming together itís not possible to have a negotiated settlement. There is a lot of amusement in the media about the quarrel between Chandrika and Ranil, the fact that they both come from elite families, that they were childhood playmates and seem like two kids fighting.
I think one of the reasons that this is happening is not simply the peculiar nature of the Sri Lankan constitution and the bifurcation of power, but also the existence of democracy. With all of its shortcomings, there is still democracy and differences of opinions and dissension in Sri Lanka, that is in the south. The reason that the Tamils seems to be speaking in one voice is precisely because unfortunately there is no democracy, because there is only totalitarianism. This has got to be recognized. If there isnít a recognition of that, we are going to see the loss of democracy and pluralism in the south as well. On that note, I will stop and simply say that each one of us has a role to play in fighting for peace with democracy and pluralism, not only in Sri Lanka but around the world. Sri Lanka is a microcosm of the world, we are facing the same issues around the planet today.
Q & A
Q: When was MOU signed and why didnít the President have better control over it?
A: The MOU was signed in February 2002. The President is the one who began the peace process when her party was in power. She was the leader of a coalition, the Peopleís Alliance that had the parliamentary majority before the current government came into power. She invited the Norwegians and she had started a peace process but those negotiations failed. She has been supporting a negotiated settlement all along. She claims that there was, perhaps, a secret agreement between the LTTE with the current government before it came into power and that she was sidelined. Apparently, she did not assert her authority because she wanted to support the peace process and see where things would go.
Q: You mentioned the Norwegians were favoring the LTTE. I accept your statement as fact, but my question was why? What are the politics of Norway that led to this?
And my second question is you or they have lumped the Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils together, but the Indian Tamils donít even have citizenship in Sri Lanka so what is the relevance?
A: I think the Norwegian strategy is that you have to have roughly equivalent powers to negotiate with and they may have been trying to equalize the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. Another reason is general sympathy for the Tamil cause. The violence of 1983 and the post-independence policies of discrimination led to world wide sympathy for Tamils as a minority and the Tamil diaspora has been very effective in voicing their exaggerated grievances internationally. It is important to recognize the justifiable Tamil grievances of Tamils. It is also important to look at the colonial history of Sri Lanka and what actually happened there. The divide and conquer policies of the British, how the Sinhalese Buddhists were discriminated against and how they reacted by coming up with discriminatory policies of their own in the post-independence era. Discrimination against any group must not be justified. There were some very serious mistakes made in the post-independence era.
With regard to the other question, perhaps there are other people here who know more about the Norwegians than me.
A (not Prof. Bandarage): It could possibly be that the Tamil diaspora in Norway and the lobbying that they may have done. It happens in this country, where the various South Asian diasporas have money, power and connections with politicians.
A: Thatís a good point. Yes, the Diaspora and their lobbying have been very critical in this conflict. There was an interesting report recently that a person who is openly supportive of the LTTE ran in a local election in Norway and won. Following that, there was a big scandal that the election had been rigged and there was concern expressed that Sri Lankan politics are being brought into Norway!
With regard to the Indian Tamils, until recently, they were considered a different ethnic group from the Sri Lankan Tamils. As among the Sinhalese, there are lots of differences among the Tamils. There are significant differences between Batticoloa Tamils and Jaffna Tamils and then the Indian Tamils who are low caste and were classified as ìcooliesî by the British. All Indian Tamils have now been given citizenship. The last batch received Sri Lankan citizenship just a few weeks ago. Thatís important if you are talking about a pluralistic society.Sri Lanka has been a pluralistic society and has incorporated different waves of migrants from different places over her long history. But to give Indian Tamils citizenship and then on top of that provide a separate Tamil state, which would constitute one-third of the island and two-thirds of the coastline, is too extreme. You canít do both in this small place. I think you have to make the country more democratic and respect the rig
hts of all groups rather than creating little ethnic units, which is not going to work.
Q: I would like to take up the last point and ask you to elaborate on the issue of the donor community. What is the donor community doing with regards to democracy? Are they interested in democracy or the bifurcation of Sri Lanka?
A: The donor community ó that is a very controversial subject! The international donor community is held in more and more distrust by various groups in Sri Lanka. It is believed that at this point the peace process has more support outside of the country than inside the country. The donor community is concerned about economic development and growth. There are promises of billions of dollars, but without democracy and political stability, I donít think that trade and aid will flourish. For the outside forces, it doesnít matter, if the country has sovereignty or if it is divided into 3, 4 or 5 pieces. This creation of ethno-nationalist states seem to be what is happening around the world.
But, in Sri Lanka it would not be a justifiable division. If the ethnic distribution justified it, it would be a different question, but itís not so, it is a very complicated situation. As I said, partition is a blue print for disaster, not a blueprint for peace. And itís unfortunate that the donor community has not taken the underlying conditions for peace into sufficient account in their constant visitations and homage paid to the LTTE. Donor activities have led to increased legitimizing of totalitarianism rather than questioning it. If the country goes down the path of anarchy and totalitarianism, then, the donor community and the international community are also held responsible.
Q: My question goes toward your book. I was interested in what kind of framework you are adapting thereÖ
A: The book ó yeh ó I would prefer to talk about the origin and evolution of the conflict because my work is on the historical material. But, given the current crisis and the interest of the audience, I thought I should focus on that. My work starts with a literature review looking at how the conflict is being viewed. The dominant analysis presents this conflict as a primordial conflict between two groups focusing mostly on Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as the villain of the peace. This approach has contributed to ethnic polarization by overlooking the traditions of pluralism and mutual co-existence.
Developing a broader analysis, I focus on the colonial period ó the uneven economic development, the unequal incorporation of different groups into the economy and the constitutional and educational processes which privileged the Tamils, who were a minority, but had proportionally greater representation in the colonial bureaucracy and the professions. And also in devising constitutional arrangements, the Tamils were treated as a majority community rather than a minority community. It is frequently said that because of colonial policies, the Tamils came to have a majority complex while the the Sinhalese, although numerically a majority, had a minority complex.
What is even less explored in the literature is the contemporary period of globalization and the open economy and how that has exacerbated poverty and economic disparities. In Sri Lanka, like elsewhere, policies of privatization and cut backs in social welfare spending have impoverished many people. Sri Lanka had a welfare state which provided free education, health care and other benefits like subsidized transportation and even essential food items. But, recent policies have done away with that. Recruits for armed struggles have been drawn from poor families on both sides of the ethnic divide. I have explored the relationship between globalization and the rise of ethno-religious fundamentalism in some of my other writings as well. So, I try to provide something much broader than what I have presented here in my book.
Q: Could this conflict be resolved as long as there is a despotic leader on the Tamil side?
A: You may remember that at the beginning of the peace process when LTTE negotiator Balasingham said that Ranil Wickramasinghe is the Prime Minister of the south and Prabhakaran is the Prime Minister and the President of the north. The totalitarianism and the one man supremacy are ingrained. Thereís no indication that there is going to be something different unless some drastic interventions are made to democratize the peace process.
Q: This is still a peace process, not a conclusion. It is expected that warring factions will bring to the table their most extreme demands and the whole point of the process to bring a compromise. And the timing and manner of President Kumaratungaís actions strike me to be highly anti-democratic. You talk about democracy and pluralism. Actions such as suspending parliament and sacking ministers while the Prime Minister is on a trip to Washington is to me a very negative message so far as democracy and pluralism and that is why her intervention has been described, in personal or political terms, an attempt to derail a process that appeared be to be getting somewhere. Donít you think that her intervention has very negative implications?
A: Well, itís hard to say where this is all going to go. As I have pointed out before, the Presidentís actions were not anti-democratic, they were entirely within her constitutional rights. As I also described there have been very serious problems with the peace process that have not been reported. This is an opportunity to look at that and at the desperation that many groups in the country have been feeling. There has been rally after rally bringing out hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets in recent months and increasing concern about the deteriorating security situation and the threats to soveregnity. Yes, these are proposals, only, but,up to now, the government has been acceding to each and every demand of the LTTE. There have been violations to the MOU. The MOU hasnít been respected, the Wan Ela camp issue being one example. There has been no respect for Norwegian monitors, no respect for Sri Lankan law and authority. So an anarchic situation was already de
veloping. The Prime Minister is here and President takes these drastic steps, but even before that happened, the question was being asked, who is in control here while children are being conscripted in total violation of the MOU, dissidents are being killed and gangs operating in the south. So, given this background, when the LTTE put forward its proposals there was a soaring of fear and alarm.
The President has affirmed that she upholds the MOU and the cease fire and supports the peace process. So its not an extreme position as it may seem particularly given all the powers at her command. It is not about going from the peace at any cost approach to war again, but, to find a middle ground where the different parties can work together.
Q: I think your presentation makes it really clear that the partition of the country on ethnic/territorial lines doesnít make sense. And I think South Asia has enough experience of precisely this to make us all feel quite sure that this is the right way to proceed, but I think that still stops short of helping us understand what your vision of a Sri Lanka where ethnic issues are not the central political problem would look like. Whether one likes it or not, Sri Lanka has over the last 25 years defined itself as a Sinhalese Buddhist country and itís not difficult for minorities whether they are Tamils or Muslims to consider themselves some what at risk. There are many intervening variables here so I donít want to make too much of this, but can you imagine for example a constitutional answer or a non-territorial answer to helping us get some idea of what a reasonable form, reasonable as in politically viable form of democratic politics in a future Sri Lanka might look like
A: Yes, these are problems facing many countries, not only Sri Lanka, and these are very difficult issues. I think a negotiated settlement, even if involves a certain kind of devolution, if it is acceptable to the different parties concerned and if it doesnít lead to the creation of ethnic states would be a compromise solution. But thatís not something that all groups want. For some, itís one-nation and others two nations with separate states. I think we need to look at something in the middle. And similarly yes, at constitutional changes. Not everyone supports a secular state because prior to the arrival of the British, the Sri Lankan state was strongly identified with Buddhism and some Buddhist groups still want to go back to that. I think things have changed a lot over the course of history, particularly during the colonial period and we have to think in terms of a secular state.
In terms of some of the discriminatory policies of the post-independent Sinhala states like language, university entrance and quota systems, they have been been changed. Tamil is an official language and it is not an official language in some other countries where there are substantial Tamil populations. There have been attempts to create a more accommodating system and I think that is where more of the energy should go so that all the different groups can take part. There is a lot of work that can be done, but so much of the energy has gone into the north and the east conflict and many efforts taken in the south to redress earlier policies have not received enough attention.
Q: These last questions have started to draw a little bit of your idea of middle ground. I was initially a little disappointed because initially you were talking about the Presidentís thought process and then you wrapped up with this description of the Indian journalist talking about good vs. evil and poison and I didnít understand where you were getting the middle way with this. One question I would have for you is why doesnít the media represent what you say as the broader picture? Where does that lack come from?
A: Itís a very interesting and a very complicated picture. The post-independent policies, particularly those giving priority to the Sinhala language actually backfired on the Sinhalese because a lot of the Sinhalese became a mono-lingual people and some of the very able university students were cut off from access to the global society because of the language impediment. Thatís one reason, that the Sinhala perspective has not been adequately represented in international fora. The historical fact of very extensive discrimination against the Sinhala Buddhist culture, particularly in the British colonial period, in terms of education and the dominance of missionary activities, have also been overlooked. This is replicated in the academic literature. Book after book is written about Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and Buddhist monks and their contribution to the ethnic conflict. I am not denying that prejudices and problems exist in the Sinhala Buddhist community. But, there h
asnít been an equivalent analysis of Tamil nationalism and the unjust demands of some of the minority groups which have also contributed to the problem. Also, the ready equating of the LTTE with the Tamil cause has been a problem. They are two different things and overlooking that and the writings and concerns of Tamil dissidents have done much damage. The failure on the part of some members of the international community to make those distinctions have led to ethnic polarization ó to seeing the Sinhalese aggressor against the Tamil victim, and thatís too simplistic.
Q: Neither India, the United States or Sri Lanka want to see the vivisection of the island. It is clear that the path that everyone wants to follow is a multi-ethnic, multi-party democracy. Given that the LTTE is pretty much the main obstacle towards that solution, is the recent Indo-Sri Lankan accord a step toward that direction?
A: It shows that there are stronger forces in the region and certainly India does not want to see a separate state in Sri Lanka because that poses a threat to India and also sets a precedent for other secessionist movements in India. So, I think the important thing is to assert that authority without going to war. A situation like the IPKF also is not welcomed at this point despite the calls for Indian participation. Yes, everyone wants to know what India is doing.
There are no easy answers, but as an academic, I can simply say is the opening up of the debate and engaging in these discussions is very much part of the democratic and peace process. There hasnít been enough discussion. The Sri Lankan process has been something of a closed deal and anytime questions are raised, one is called anti-peace. But, we are talking about creating a long term and sustainable peace. That is a much more difficult thing than the kind of peace that would come with totalitarianism.
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