Sri Lanka, a case of political inequality
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Sat Jul 5 14:11:00 UTC 2008
Sri Lanka, a case of political inequality
[TamilNet, Friday, 04 July 2008, 16:38 GMT]
Striking a sharp contrast to Colombo's portrayal of Eezham struggle as
a terrorist issue, Frances Stewart, the director of the Oxford based
Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity
(CRISE), looks at the crisis as a case of inequalities in political
power between the Tamils and Sinhalese. In an interview that appeared
in Human Rights Tribune, on Thursday, she said: "Horizontal
inequalities have political, economic, social and cultural dimensions…
Inequalities in political power, which are very important, where one
group may have total dominance of the political system, and another
group does not have any access, which is the situation more or less in
Ms. Stewart said it while answering to a question posed by IPS
correspondent Michael Deibert, who interviewed her in relation to a
publication of CRISE, 'Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict:
Understanding Group Violence in Multi-Ethnic Societies', which is
going to be released shortly. CRISE, directed by Ms. Stewart is a
Development Research Centre within Oxford University, supported by the
British Government Department for International Development (DFID).
Answering another question on steps that should be taken by
governments and international institutions to address these
inequalities and prevent conflict in the future, she said: "This issue
has been surpassingly neglected by the international community. If you
look at the normal policies that we advocate, such as democracy,
saying that countries have to be democratic and they have to have many
parties, we don't think about the implications between groups."
"Democracy can lead to quite a dangerous situation in a multi-ethnic
society unless you accompany it with policies to protect groups. If
you have one group that is in a majority, they can really suppress the
freedoms of a minority group," she said. "On the political side, what
it requires is recognition of the importance of distributing power
across groups and not having exclusive power."
A CRISE working paper by Ms. Stewart, titled "Horizontal Inequalities:
A Neglected Dimension of Development," available at the Centre's
website, reveals that the research was based on nine case studies,
ranging from Africa and Asia to Latin America.
The paper says that Horizontal Inequality has provoked a spectrum of
political reaction, including severe and long-lasting violent conflict
(Uganda, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Northern Ireland), less severe
rebellion (Chiapas), coups (Fiji), periodic riots and criminality (the
US), occasional racial riots (Malaysia) and a high level of
"Where ethnic identities coincide with economic/social ones, social
instability of one sort of another is likely –ethnicity does become a
mobilising agent, and as this happens the ethnic divisions are
enhanced. Sri Lanka is a powerful example; Chiapas another," is one of
the conclusions found in the working paper.
However, the main problem in the development analysis of the CRISE
research is its basis that Tamils were better placed in development
than the Sinhalese under the British rule, said a Sri Lankan
development analyst in Colombo when contacted by TamilNet.
The CRISE paper places Sri Lanka along with Malaysia, South Africa,
and Uganda and says these are situations where the politically
powerful represent the relatively deprived. The paper argues that the
government policies to bridge the gap in Sri Lanka provoked serious
violence because the policies were culturally (language policy) and
economically invasive and because of the geographic concentration of
Tamils in the Northeast, facilitating a demand for independence unlike
the case of the Indians in Fiji.
The paper also compares and contrasts Sri Lanka and Malaysia:
"Both apparently started in a similar situation, with the political
majority at an economic disadvantage, but while attempts to correct
this situation in Malaysia were successful, they actually provoked war
in Sri Lanka."
The paper continues with statistics in education and government
employment in Sri Lanka and argues that government policies to bring
in horizontal equality by reverting the better position held by Tamils
earlier, were successful, but provoked crisis.
But, according to the Colombo analyst, the better position held
earlier by Tamils in education and government service, doesn't mean
that they were better developed. This is again falling a prey to the
sophisticated propaganda of the Sri Lankan state to justify its
genocidal programme. Not only the international study groups, but even
some Colombo-centric Tamil intellectuals have taken the bait, he said.
"Education and government service never meant an economy for Tamils in
their own land and never helped the accumulation of capital in the
"Economic autonomy last prevailed in the Tamil areas only under the
Dutch. At that time, there were Eezham Tamils who were able to compete
with officials of the Dutch East India Company in getting the
The British period marked a decline and eventual disappearance of the
foreign trade of Tamils. "The plantation based economy of the British
helped only the accumulation of capital in Colombo and made Tamils to
depend on it," he observed.
The ports and communication infrastructure of the Tamil regions, which
were vital for development, were neglected under the British.
"For instance, while railway was introduced to southern Sri Lanka in
1864, it came to Jaffna only in 1905. The coastal highways linking the
Tamil areas were never developed. Even the Jaffna - Colombo coastal
route was abandoned in British times."
Observing further, he said that there was no urbanisation in Tamil
areas under the British.
The last population influx to Tamil areas was only under the Dutch, if
the Sinhala colonisation schemes are not counted. "The fact that
people were moving out from Tamil areas and urban centres since
British times only indicate that there was no development."
Talking on education as an index of development, he said that
education in Tamil areas were actually developed by the American
Mission, whom the British wanted to downplay at that time by sending
them off to a region, which was not in their priority.
The kind of education that was developed first by the missionaries and
later by the native schools, helped a middle-class formation, produced
professionals and was the only option for livelihood, but this was
never translated into a sound basis for the development of the Eezham
Tamil region, he opined.
"It is a myth that the Tamils were the favourites of the rulers and
received advantages under the British. Anyone, who doubts it should
read the British government assessment of Ceylon communities in the
Donoughmore report of 1928. The coastal Sinhalese were assessed as the
most progressive community and not surprisingly independent Ceylon was
transferred to them in 1948."
"Had the Tamils been 'the developed' and the 'favourites,' they would
have seen Eezham in British time itself," said the Colombo based
analyst, who doesn't wish to be named due to the naive ban on TamilNet
and the prevailing security situation for journalists and academics in
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