Sri Lanka: Creditable achievement

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jul 22 16:53:05 UTC 2008

Creditable achievement

Among the few achievements that the people of this country could be
happy about is that the country has been able, during the last
twenty-five years to prevent the recurrence of the shameful and tragic
event that it ever experienced in recent times, namely the 'Black
July'.  It was indeed an occasion when some sections in this land
enriched by teachings Maithriya or loving kindness preached by the
Enlightened One descended to beastly levels where man's inhumanity to
man was displayed. It earned for this country a scar that remained
unerased for a long time. On that fateful day in July 1983 as the
bodies of thirteen soldiers who were killed in a Tiger ambush in
Jaffna were being prepared for burial at the Colombo general cemetery,
violence was unleashed on the Tamil community in Colombo. Violence
soon spread to other parts of the country producing the picture of a
pogrom against Tamil people. This gave the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE) the required impetus for intensifying their terrorist
campaign against the administration.

It is time for reflecting on the events that led to that sordid event
in July 1983. The failure to give what is due to the minority Tamil
community, attempts by some sections of the majority community at
dominating over the minorities, political opportunism that political
parties resorted to when efforts were being made to solve the problem
and extremism that some sections in both Sinhala and Tamil communities
indulged in were among the main causes that paved the way for the

The practice of unprincipled politics by parties and politicians that
prompted them to place party interests and personal ambitions above
the country's interests is clearly evident from the manner in which
they conducted themselves vis-à-vis the Tamil minority problem. It was
with the late leader S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike leaving the UNP and forming
the SLFP that intense party rivalry set in. The struggle for power
since then assumed such destructive proportions that all national
problems came to be viewed through political party coloured glasses.

The biggest casualty in this process was the official language issue
that developed into unmanageable proportions driving disgruntled Tamil
youth into rebellion against the state. The country's language policy
that remained to be giving equal status for Sinhala and Tamil
languages from the time of the State Council decision in 1931, came to
be hammered on the anvil of party conflicts. The issue assumed
turbulent proportions after 1955 with the then Prime Minister Sir John
Kotalawala, just prior to the 1956 elections, visiting Jaffna and
declaring at Kokuvil that he would make constitutional provision for
parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil languages and MEP leader
Bandaranaike countering it by pronouncing his policy in favour of
Sinhala only as the official language with a provision for the
'reasonable use' of the Tamil language. These declarations developed
into a acute controversy, Bandaranaike vowing to make Sinhala the
official language withing 24 hours and the UNP also later adopting
Sinhala only as the official language.

The Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) under the leadership of
Bandaranaike, having won a landslide victory immediately proceeded to
adopt the Official Language Act making Sinhala Only the official
language. The Tamil parties immediately were  up in arms engaging in
such protests as anti-Sri campaigns. Premier Bandaranaike then entered
into negotiations with Federal Party Leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam and
signed the famous B-C Pact. The main opposition party, the UNP opposed
this pact and launched protest campaigns including the march to Kandy
which was interrupted at Imbulgoda by veteran politician
S.D.Bandaranaike. These political rumblings finally resulted in the
1958 riots.

Following this tragic event, the government proceeded to enact the
Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act to give certain language
rights to the Tamils. However, it fell to the lot of the Dudley
Senanayake Government of 1965 to frame regulations under this Act.
Following the pattern of opportunistic politics, at that stage, the
SLFP led by the late leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike opposed that
legislation. The protest march from Vihara Mahadevi Park on that
occasion ended at Kollupitiya when a shooting took place killing a
Buddhist monk. The conduct of parties in subsequent years has not been
different. It was these vicissitudes surrounding this issue that
caused the escalation of this national problem into unmanageable

Both main political parties, the SLFP and the UNP have come closer to
a broad agreement on the problem. Both parties remain committed to a
policy of giving equal sttus to both Sinhala and Tamil languages. Both
parties are for solving the problem through negotiation on the basis
of devolving power to the periphery. Minor differences have now
surfaced with the present government launching a determined campaign
against terrorism with a view to bringing the LTTE to the conference

These parties should, therefore, strive to further narrow their
differences and embark on consensual politics deviating from
confrontationist attitudes they have hitherto adopted.

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