Sri Lanka: Self-destruction of a sovereign nation

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Sep 24 13:19:32 UTC 2006

Self-destruction of a sovereign nation

September 22, 2006 at 11:17 pm

By: Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The beautiful island with regionally diverse climate, beautiful scenery
and nonviolent affable communities was far ahead of many Asian countries
in human development. Thanks to the free education and health care,
literacy rate was high, infant mortality was relatively low; life
expectancy high and even the very poor did not die from hunger. Ceylon as
the island was known when the governing authority was transferred to the
natives was the envy of many countries in Asia beleaguered by internal
conflicts, food shortages, low income and poor living conditions. Today
these countries are far ahead of the island-nation with a new name - Sri
Lanka. Who started the process to destroy national unity and the
flourishing peaceful sovereign nation admired as a pearl in the Indian
Ocean? It was certainly not the minority Tamils.

Kumar Rupesinghe in his recent article titled Linguistic discrimination
against the Tamils has quite fittingly said: Language is a source of
identity and is a fundamental right of a person and it is also all
pervasive. It is a question of dignity and equality.  In Sri Lanka,
linguistic rights of Tamils have been a key source of conflict, which has
paved the way for the civil war and Tamil insurgency. The reasons for the
insurgency in its present vicious form are complex and these relate
largely to the failure to deal with the causes that led to the ethnic
problem in the mid 1950s and its continued exploitation by main parties
led by egoistic Sinhalese for achieving their narrow aims. Ethnic
discrimination was in its most spiteful form depriving employment
opportunities for the educated Tamil youth and making conditions insecure
for all Tamils. The future of the Tamil youth became bleak and the feeling
of being reduced to the status of second class citizens was widespread.
The periodic organized violent attacks against the Tamils also raised
doubts about their future safety and security. Apart from the emotive
belief that the entire island is innate to the Sinhalese and that the
other ethnic communities exist because of their benevolence, the contest
between the two major political parties for winning the broad support of
the Sinhalese voters crucial for victory at the national polls also
contributed to the discrimination. It is because of the unsafe and
insecure conditions created by the governments that the idea of a distinct
homeland for the minority Tamils in the North-East spread.

Divisive politics

The SLFP was formed in 1951 when its founder S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike
second-in-command in the UNP realized that there was not going to be a
future for him in the party. It failed to make much headway in the 1952
general election. The desperate need to win the support of the Sinhalese
masses compelled the liberal Bandaranaike to solicit the support of
underprivileged groups among the Sinhalese - Buddhist priests, indigenous
medical practitioners, vernacular teachers, village leaders and farmers.
They were promised policy changes to empower them, raise their social
status and improve the prospects for a better future. With these promises
Bandaranaike abandoned his liberal nationalism and became a prisoner of
chauvinistic and reactionary elements within his Government elected with
their support at the 1956 elections. The Sinhala Only Act introduced
hastily by his Government as promised during the election campaign raised
the morale of the Sinhalese masses. But it cast gloom amongst the ethnic
minorities. This legislation was the beginning of the process of dividing
the country along ethnic lines and the exploitation of the Sinhala-Tamil
divide in the contest for State power.  The post-independence divide and
rule policy was intended to negate the effects of the similar policy
followed by the colonial government. The beneficiaries then were mainly
the minority Tamils and the Sinhalese elites. Since the emergence of the
bitter rivalry between the SLFP and the UNP, each partys political
interest rather than the national interest largely influenced government
decisions. Moreover, their impulsive actions and inaction on national
issues intensified the ethnic division and destroyed the features of a
stable nation-state. No effort was made towards national integration.

The current electoral system was also devised to serve the interests of
the ruling party and its members undermining the democratic tenet. Under
the current system the minor radical nationalist parties are able to exert
undue influence on governments deprived of sizeable majority by the
system. This also made it difficult to introduce major amendments to the
constitution that required two-thirds majority. One should not be
surprised if these radical elements sabotage the ongoing efforts to reach
a bipartisan agreement on the approach to the resolution of the National
Question. They are now playing a crucial role in the destruction of the

K. Godage, formerly of Sri Lanka Foreign Service who has been constantly
urging the two main parties to make joint efforts to seek a permanent
constitutional settlement to the conflict that has bedeviled the island
for decades denying the masses peace and promising future wrote: The
political culture of this country has been built on adversarial,
confrontational politics without regard to the national interest. Our
politicians have missed the wood for the trees. This is the unfortunate
tradition which we seem to want to perpetuate. The cement that has held
this form of confrontational politics together has been, the vulgar
pursuit of political power, for with it goes the opportunity to mount the
gravy train and get rich quickly. In the process have we not become a
morally degenerate society? Other likeminded senior citizens too have
appealed for consensual politics. Indeed, it is the wish of all
peace-loving people.

The deplorable state to which politics has degenerated hindering the
progress of the country and the improvement in the living conditions of
majority of the population is reflected in a recent editorial comment in
The Island. To quote: There is no gainsaying that it has been the
continued degeneration of politics that has pushed this country to the
present parlous state. Our national problems could not have assumed the
present tragic proportions had our political culture been different. So
when the political culture for which the countrys political leadership is
responsible degenerates, its cancer spread to other fields is obviously
unavoidable. All the unhealthy features such as unbridled selfishness,
ambition, jealousy, competition, duplicity and intolerance characterize
and dominate todays politics. The quality of statesmanship which is sorely
required today to pull the country out of the present crisis has
increasingly been replaced by politics which is generally described as the
strategy of party and the lust for the spoils of office.

Indifference to unifying moves

The Federal Party leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam reached agreements first
with Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1957 and later with Dudley
Senanayake in 1965 to mitigate the difficulties faced by the Tamils as the
result of the Sinhala only legislation. Both pacts ensured the
preservation of the island as a single geographical entity. The first one
was abrogated even before implementation due to pressure from Buddhist
clergy and the UNP, the then main opposition party while the second could
not be implemented as intended due to obstruction by the opposition
parties. Regarding this unfortunate development V.P. Vittachi, who had
served as GA Jaffna district among other senior positions during his 25
years in the Ceylon Service has observed in his informative book SRI LANKA
- What went wrong? the following:

Dudley Senanayakes UNP Government (1965-1970) made an honest attempt to
solve the ethnic issue once and for all. The Tamil leaders trusted him. In
January 1966 he introduced a Bill to make regulations for the
implementation of the Reasonable Use of Tamil Act of 1958 which had
remained a dead letter. N.M. Perera joined Mrs. Bandaranaike in staging a
march to protest against the Bill. However, it was passed and the Tamil
leaders had cause to be content. Next Dudley Senanayake tried to create
District Councils  Again there was fierce opposition to this; N.M. Perera,
who had earlier said he was 100% for District Councils, said that he was
now 100% against District Councils. This time Dudley found he could not
carry his rank and file with him  the Federal Party quit the government.
Thus a chance for peaceful settlement of the conflict before it became
intricate was lost because of the contest for State power between rival
parties. In the case of the LSSP, the Trotskyites were bitterly opposed to
the UNP and they also realized the only chance to play a role in governing
the country was to align with the SLFP. The conservative Tamils were not
keen to cast their votes to the leftist parties, although they appreciated
their stand on the ethnic issue.

It was the same Dudley Senanayake anxious not to be sidelined by J.R.
Jayewardene who was preparing to lead a march to Kandy against the B-C
pact announced at a public meeting: I am prepared to sacrifice my life to
prevent the implementation of the BC Agreement, which is a racial division
of the Ceylon under the guise of the Regional Councils System and is an
act of treachery. He was not the only leader, there were others who had
taken opposing stands on the same issue, depending on which side of the
House they were sitting at that time.

Why Tamils lost faith in the unitary system?

Although the Tamils had qualms initially, they later embraced the unitary
system inherited from the British rulers hoping they would have equal
rights under the principle of justice and equality for all citizens,
regardless of their ethnic, linguistic and religious differences. They
also expected the governments to foster unity in diversity essential for
the efficacy of the unitary system. Their belief in one unified system of
government was so strong that they rejected federalism advocated by the
Tamil leaders - S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, C. Vanniasingham and Dr. E.M.V.
Naganathan. In the 1952 general election, the leader of the Federal Party,
S. J. V. Chelvanayakam was defeated by the UNP candidate S. Natesan
(son-in-law of the revered Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan). It was Natesan who
at the inaugural meeting on 6 September 1946 moved the resolution to
establish the United National Party. The motion was seconded by T.B.
Jayah, another non-Sinhalese. There was goodwill and mutual trust amongst
the different ethnic communities. They had high hope of preserving the
newly independent country as a prosperous cohesive one nation-state.

The schools in the predominantly Tamil North utilized the services of
Buddhist priests to teach the Sinhala language to the students in order to
strengthen the ties between the Sinhalese and Tamil-speaking communities
and promote a common national identity. This was done voluntarily from a
sense of national patriotism. They were all proud to be Ceylonese despite
their diverse ethnic, religious and regional attachments. Sinhalese,
Tamil, Muslim and Burgher students all studied jointly in the schools
located in ethnically mixed towns. Tragically, this togetherness
disappeared after 1956 when the government led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike
elected on the pledge to make Sinhala the sole official language of the
country within 24 hours fulfilled the promise given to the Sinhalese
electorate. In protest, the schools in the North abandoned the teaching of
Sinhala and the teachers (the Buddhist priests) returned to their towns
and villages in the South.

The decision to replace English by Sinhala only was made ignoring the
future of the youth and the need to know an international language.
Teaching the children exclusively in their respective mother tongue was to
say the least unhelpful to their future well-being. All subjects were
taught in Sinhala to Sinhalese students and similarly Tamil students had
to learn in Tamil. These students when they entered the universities
(science courses) and even later in their lives regretted not learning
English. The colossal damage done to the unity and advancement of the
entire society became evident in the later years. Even the rural women who
sought employment as house maids in Middle East realized the importance of
English for communicating with their employers. Incidentally, the
remittances of the migrant workers are a major source of Sri Lankas
foreign exchange earnings. English as a link language would have also
helped to bring closer the two linguistically divided communities.

The powerful Sinhalese leaders found even the language policy to be
inadequate to satisfy their vote bank. The number of Tamil students
entering the universities had to be curtailed drastically in order to
admit more Sinhalese-medium students to the science courses. Prof. A. J.
Wilson (son-in-law of Federal Party leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam) in his
book The Break-up of Sri Lanka (Chapter 3: Competition for State Power)
has stated: The last policy decision which compelled the Tamil elites to
turn in despair to the concept of a separate state was the decision of
Mrs. Bandaranaikes 1970-7 government to give preference to
Sinhalese-medium students over Tamil-medium students in admissions to the
universities. The media-wise standardization of marks ensured that only
the Tamil students with considerably higher raw marks than their Sinhalese
counterparts could enter the universities. Furthermore, the area quota
system introduced in 1973 aggravated the problem faced by Tamil students
seeking admissions to the universities. According to the historian C. R.
de Silva, the intake of students to science-based courses from the
Tamil-dominant Northern Province between 1969 on the merit system and 1974
on the quota basis dropped sharply from 27.5 per cent to 7 per cent.

Many bright students were not only denied opportunities for higher studies
but also employment with the Sinhala Only policy. Moreover, appointments
particularly at the low and middle levels were on the basis of political
patronage that helped the Sinhalese job seekers. Had the Tamil youth been
allowed to study in the English medium as their Muslim counterparts, they
could have sought employment abroad. But this was politically damaging to
the Sinhalese leaders who were hell-bent on exploiting the Sinhalese-Tamil
divide for political advantage. Tamils must not be seen to be doing well
as this would be against the selfish and partisan interests of the
politically ambitious Sinhalese leaders. The frustrated Tamil youth
enthusiastically joined the Tamil militant groups in the 1980s fighting
against discrimination and oppression of minority Tamils by the
governments dominated by the Sinhalese.

There was the obvious need to improve the quality of life of the rural
Sinhalese masses; the vast majority did not have the opportunities to
advance as their urban counterparts and the Tamils who benefited under the
divide and rule policy of the British rulers. But the decision to obstruct
their advancement mainly to please the Sinhalese masses was ill-conceived
myopic move. The belief that the territorial integrity and sovereignty of
the country as well as the future of the Sinhalese would be safeguarded by
the majoritarian rule led to the marginalization of the Tamil-speaking
people in the political and economic fields. Paradoxically, it has turned
out to be a threat to the preservation of the country as one nation-state.

The 1972 and 1978 constitutions were adopted ignoring the interests,
aspirations and sovereign rights of minority Tamils. Moreover, the biased
way the governments functioned intensified the loss of faith in the
unitary system. The UNP manifesto for the 1977 elections stated
emphatically the grievances of the Tamils must be addressed, giving hope
that the party when elected will take appropriate actions. The party led
by JR Jayewardene won the contest with five-sixth majority which he
retained for another term through the questionable referendum in 1982.
Given the strength of the mandate, he had a golden opportunity to settle
the ethnic problem and bridge the divide between the two major
communities. But he did the opposite. His governments role in the 1983
anti-Tamil pogrom which strengthened the case for an autonomous Tamil
state in the island is part of Sri Lankas dismal post independence record.

Importantly, it was Section 29(2) of the first Constitution of independent
Ceylon that gave confidence to the minority ethnic communities in the
unitary system. It read: No (such) law shall (a) prohibit or restrict the
free exercise of any religion; or (b) make persons of any community or
religion liable to disabilities to which other communities or religions
are not made liable; or (c) confer on persons of any community or religion
any privilege or advantage which is not conferred on persons of other
communities or religions; or (d) alter the constitution of any religious
body except with the consent of the governing authority of that body. V.P.
Vittachi had said that the omission in the new (1972) constitution of any
similar provision was widely regarded among minority groups as sinister.

Poor implementation record

Kumar Rupesinghe in his article has said: The Foundation for Co Existence
[FCE] recently commissioned the Social Indicator of the Centre for Policy
Alternatives to conduct a study to examine the current position of the
implementation of the official languages provision in areas outside the
North and the East, where there is a substantial presence of Tamil
subjects. The findings of the Language Audit relevant to this article are:
When asked about the publics satisfaction with the Tamil language
competence of the staff at the institutions surveyed, 77.4% of the
respondents expressed that they were either very dissatisfied or somewhat
dissatisfied. When the respondents were asked whether the institutions
they visited provided an official Tamil translator, 94.1% replied in the
negative. He concluded poignantly: Such a situation after 58 years of
independence, one can only say is nothing short of dismal and paints a
very bleak picture of the interest given by the Sri Lankan State to the
implementation of the language rights of the minorities. This is a typical
case of dealing superficially with difficult problems by making
appropriate legislative or policy changes without implementing them fully.

Despite the impressive duties and functions listed in the District
Development Councils Act No 35 of 1980 for the DDCs set up under this Act
which the TULF supported, the system failed to play any meaningful role.
The controlling persons were the Finance minister and the concerned
District Minister appointed by the Government. The Councils were really
appendages of the Centre. The funds needed for their efficacious
functioning were not forthcoming. And with other adverse developments that
occurred then (1981-1982) the scheme collapsed.

Another example of half-hearted implementation is the subsequent
Provincial Councils Act No. 42 of 1987 legislated under the 13th
Amendment. Ketheshwaran Loganathan in his book Lost Opportunities had
mentioned: The experience of the North-East Provincial government has been
that even the meager powers devolved by the Thirteenth Amendment were
systematically denied to the province by the Administration of the Sri
Lankan Government. The Thirteenth Amendment itself was being interpreted
by the Sri Lankan side to the disadvantage of the Tamils.

The yawning gap between declarations and accomplishments is also another
characteristic feature of the political culture that evolved as a result
of the lust for power. The announcements that independent commissions
would be set up to investigate thoroughly some recent brutal killings in
the renewed fighting this year remain to be seen as a positive change in
the way the government functions. The current spate of abductions and
killings with each side blaming the other gives the feeling that the
parties have not taken seriously the firm announcements to set up
independent investigations into the killings! The Rt. Rev. Duleep de
Chickera, Bishop of Colombo in a statement issued on September 20
following the massacre (September 17) of 10 Muslim workers who went to
repair, Rattal Kulam, a water tank, 9 km south of Pottuvil in Amparai
district said: I also express my disappointment that despite promises, no
Commissions of Inquiry have got off the ground and completed their work.
It now appears that there will be no international investigation into the
massacre of the 17 ACF aid workers in Muthur. The investigation into the
killing of 5 students in Trincomalee and persons in Pesalai and Allaipiddy
are further cases where justice is being delayed. It is the reputation of
the government that is at stake given the global concern over the several
massacres of civilians this year. The conflicting media reports have cast
doubts about the true perpetrators of the crimes. By not vigorously
pursuing the investigations as declared, the rule of law is being

It is not just the absence of foolproof safeguards in the Constitutions to
prevent the enactment of discriminatory legislations but importantly the
discriminatory ways authorized Acts and official policies were implemented
that promoted distrust of the Tamils in the administration. Even in the
first Constitution there was no provision to safeguard against
administrative discrimination. Prof. A. J. Wilson in his book (The
break-up of Sri Lanka, page 48) has pointed out: Section 29 did not
provide safeguards against administrative discrimination such as
preferential treatment for Sinhalese in public appointments, the
setting-up of state projects in Sinhalese areas  Section 29 was only
concerned with legislation. What is crucial for non-discriminatory
governance is devotion to underlying principles in the relevant
legislative acts and approved policies. The lack of this resolve has also
contributed to the distrust of the minority communities in governments.

By mid 1970s the distrust had intensified considerably. In essence what
the two main rival parties competing for State power did since
independence was to strengthen constitutionally the unitary system and the
accompanying majoritarian rule, while promoting an environment unsuitable
for its viability.

State terror and rise of Tamil militancy

The failure to obtain equal rights through non-violent methods for two
decades with no sign of letup in the discriminatory and violent acts
against the powerless Tamils led to the belief that the Sinhalese polity
would not agree to any meaningful power sharing arrangement with minority
ethnic communities. It was in this backdrop the Vaddukkoddai Resolution
was adopted in 1976 at the first National Convention of the Tamil United
Liberation Front (TULF), a coalition of mainly the two Tamil parties, the
All Ceylon Tamil Congress and the Federal Party. The resolution stated
that the Tamils are a slave nation ruled by the new colonial masters, the
Sinhalese, who are using the power they have wrongly usurped to deprive
the Tamil nation of its territory, language, citizenship, economic life,
opportunities of employment and education and thereby destroying all
attributes of nationhood of the Tamil people  and therefore  resolves that
the restoration and reconstitution of the Free, Sovereign, Secular
Socialist State of Tamil Eelam based on the right of self-determination .
This was the Tamil response to Sinhala nationalism given from a state of
utter desperation.

The convention also called upon the Tamil nation in general and the Tamil
youth in particular to come forward to throw them fully into the sacred
fight for freedom and to flinch not till the goal of a sovereign,
socialist state of Tamil Eelam is reached. This statement has been cited
many times by the LTTE leaders to justify their violent struggle for
independent Tamil Eelam. There was fervent support for the resolution
among Tamil youth as they were also frustrated as the Tamil political
leaders by the intransigence of the Sinhalese polity. The word Eelam
gained great significance and was included in the names of the Tamil
militant groups that emerged after 1976. Although the TULF did not suggest
violent struggle to achieve the Eelam goal, it did not oppose violence
directed against the new colonial masters. Individually, some ambitious
Tamil political leaders encouraged the boys towards an armed struggle,
hoping to be politically powerful with their help. They did not think the
boys will eventually throw them out. And indeed a few were eliminated by
the very same boys. The international community that is taking much
interest in ending the armed conflict through negotiated political
settlement did not show any concern earlier for the plight of the Tamils
in Sri Lanka under discriminatory rule.

Since 1958, the Tamils have been the victims of several communal riots.
Immediately after the 1983 riots, support for the Tamil rebellion within
the community increased dramatically and the whole world became aware of
the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The tragic events also confirmed
the irrelevance of conventional politics, particularly among the Tamil
youth. They also lost faith in the traditional non-violent protests. The
exodus of Tamils to foreign countries turned out to be helpful to the
Tamil Tigers. The destructive power of the Tigers was stronger and direct
than the political forces in the South that started the self-destruction
process soon after independence.

Ironically, the self-destruction by the Northern forces is felt intensely
by the Tamils in the North-East with many internecine killings, forced
child conscription and continual displacements with many not resettled in
their habitats. The suffering of the Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu
before and after leaving their homes is very pitiable. For the community
as a whole including those settled abroad the losses are by way of
break-up of family ties, destruction of property and the erosion of
cultural and human values.

Although India does not want to get directly involved in Sri Lankas peace
process, it was Indira Gandhis government with its own agenda to stop JRs
moves to promote US influence in the region that provided arms and combat
training to the Tamil militant groups. All Tamil militant groups including
the LTTE were then seen to be fighting for the same Tamil cause. The fact
that the Tamil Tigers had a different agenda became apparent after it
started eliminating the leaders and members of other groups as well as the
leaders of the TULF. The latter were also considered as traitors who had
abandoned their own goal of Tamil Eelam which they vowed to achieve in
1976. The divide between separatists and federalists (or devolutionists)
became clear after 1987 when the LTTE rejected the Indo-Lanka agreement
and started fighting against the Indian troops, present in the North-East
as members of the Peace Keeping Force. This divide could also be
considered as between ideologists and pragmatists.

If the Sinhalese political leaders thought they were clever in the art of
deception, the Tigers have proved them wrong. With the help of the
Premadasa government the Tigers succeeded in ousting the Indian troops.
This bitter experience of the Indians in the North-East region and the
assassination of their former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a Tiger
suicide bomber are now hurting both the Sri Lanka government and the Sri
Lankan Tamils. President Premadasa also encouraged the Tigers to fight
against the Indian troops and even provided direct support to sustain
their fighting strength. Thus, this was a joint venture in
self-destruction. In this process, President Premadasa himself got
destroyed. A golden opportunity to settle the conflict peacefully with
India as guarantor was lost.

An objective study of LTTEs tactics to make the division of the country
inescapable will point to the need for a realistic approach to counteract
their moves and secure lasting peace. The LTTE has taken violence to the
extreme to the point of being considered by many foreign countries as
terrorists. The Tigers also use indirect methods to achieve their
political aim. The latter include the exacerbation of the mistrust and
racial hatred caused by the acts of commission and omission of governments
mentioned earlier. These have been used to motivate the cadres to fight
and brainwash youngsters to sacrifice their lives and become martyrs. They
are made to believe there is no future for them in governments dominated
by Sinhalese. The peace process was used not to win the trust of other
communities but to deepen distrust.

Joint political moves needed

For any negotiation on major political issues to succeed there must be
mutual trust between the negotiating parties. If they are to accept
something conceptually different from the original objectives through
compromise, mutual trust is essential. The conceptual difference between
separation and one unitary state is so vast that unless both sides are
willing to compromise negotiation will collapse at some point. This was
evident from all previous talks between the LTTE and Sri Lanka government
since 1985.

President Mahinda Rajapaksas call from Havana and New York asking the
Tigers to trust him is not good enough. Deeds and not words are needed to
undo the damages done earlier by failing to do what is right for the good
of the country and all the people, regardless of their diverse origins and
political affiliations. The self-destruction process must stop now. The
two main political parties that have governed either alone or in
partnership with minor parties since independence have a moral duty to
join in this constructive effort. India too has a moral obligation to help
in this momentous task. The civil society has ignored its responsibility
to safeguard the nation by deterring those politicians from taking
damaging actions against the national interest. What should be sought is
not military victory but political moves to frustrate the process of
self-destruction of the Nation. This is the correct path to take in order
to make the armed struggle unnecessary and indeed for securing lasting

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri
Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list