[lg policy] Sri Lanka: Lesson to be learnt: A point of view

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Aug 17 14:42:04 UTC 2010

Lesson to be learnt: A point of view
August 16, 2010, 7:55 pm


by Neville Ladduwahetty

Had it not been for the Revolutionary war of Independence, America
perhaps would have remained a colony of Great Britain for longer than
it did. It was the disregard of the demands by American colonists that
precipitated this war. The most significant reasons for their
discontent were taxation without representation in the British
Parliament, and the imposition of unreasonable taxes. If Great Britain
had had the foresight that its stand on demands made would precipitate
war, it would have been more accommodating. This would have delayed
the cry for independence. The lesson to be learnt by those in power is
how vitally important it is to continually gauge and ascertain the
mood of the people, if consequences with serious implications are to
be avoided.

Sri Lanka too has experienced revolutionary wars; one in the South and
one in the North. The one in the South was towards gaining control of
political power while the one in the North was to establish a separate
state. The cause for both was serious discontent among sections of the
population. The policies that gave rise to discontent disregarded the
early manifestations of the discontent. The ad hoc remedial measures
adopted addressed the symptoms, but not the causes of discontent. The
cumulative effect was to exacerbate discontent, culminating in
violence. The lesson not only for the Sri Lankan democracy is for open
dialogue with the widest possible exposure when formulating policies
and for responsiveness in a mature manner to public reactions
following the implementation of policies.

Sources of discontent

Although the Tamil community had realized that their position of
influence would erode with greater democratization long before
independence, it was the policies adopted by independent Sri Lanka
that were the source of increasing discontent in the Tamil community
and which became the justification for demanding political
arrangements based on the concept of separate and equal, in the form
of federalism and separation. These policies were associated with
language, university admission, colonization and disenfranchisement of
Indian Tamils. Each of these issues is addressed below.

The "Sinhala only" Act in 1956 is stated as the start of the process
of discontent. This policy was implemented despite serious protests
from varied quarters. However, with time, successive Governments
revised language policies from the reasonable use of Tamil in 1958 to
Tamil being made a national language in 1978, to Tamil being accorded
official language status along with Sinhala and English in 1987.
Despite the fact that the Tamil language is on par with the Sinhala
and English, it continues to be a source of discontent for the Tamil
people in Sri Lanka mainly on account of administrative shortcomings.
The expectation of the Tamil community is that the state should
provide facilities for them to conduct affairs in Tamil at every
Government institution everywhere in the country. This is not a
realistic expectation, and no country in the world has committed to
provide such a facility.

Despite this fact, no Government in Sri Lanka has attempted to explain
what is realistically possible. Instead, they have attempted to
implement policies incrementally from 1956 based on political
expediency, the latest being to train public servants to be functional
in all three languages, perhaps in the expectation of meeting the
utopian goal. By contrast, Tamil is only a regional language of India,
in Tamil Nadu. Outside the state of Tamil Nadu, the Tamil language has
no status in India. Unlike in Sri Lanka where Tamil is the language of
record in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and therefore the
language in which Court records are kept, in Tamil Nadu, Court
proceedings are conducted in English, and judgments are delivered in
English. The lesson to be learnt is that instead of a piece-meal
approach to a very emotional issue such as language, it is vital that
a clear and realistically implementable language policy is negotiated
without limiting these negotiations only to the Tamil leadership, but
involving the Tamil people as well, because language is at the heart
of education and social advancement of all citizens.

Another issue that was a source of Tamil discontent related to
admission to the university. The circumstances that caused the
Government to revise the basis for admission from raw marks (merit)
were not given sufficient publicity. For instance, until 1969 testing
for admission to the University was in the English medium and was
based on merit. During this entire period the percentage of Tamil
students gaining admission to the Engineering Faculty for instance,
varied between 30 - 35 percent, meaning 1/3 of the students in any
given batch were Tamil, while 2/3 of the students were Sinhala. Thus,
up to 1969 there were about twice the number of Sinhala students to
Tamil students in any batch. This was accepted as based on merit and
there was no contest. In 1970, the then Government implemented
admission testing separately in the Sinhala or Tamil medium with the
intention of continuing the shift towards University education in
these languages. Even though the basis for selection was merit, it
resulted in a complete reversal. Thus, in 1970 the number of Tamil
students qualifying for Engineering was 100 compared with 68 Sinhala
students (my current location prevents me from citing the reference
data from the relevant HANSARD). Hence when testing was based on
Sinhala and Tamil media, there were 50% more Tamil students than
Sinhala students.

Many explanations were offered as to the possible reasons for the
reversal and the issue was also debated in Parliament. Notwithstanding
the causes for the reversal, a correction for the aberration was
undoubtedly justified, resulting in a revision of the basis of
admission to University. Since that revision other revisions were also
introduced, all in an attempt to compensate for inequality of access
to facilities and resources due to geographic location; a reality that
exists in every country. This Affirmative Action targeted for benefit,
the less privileged of all communities. The lesson to be learnt is
that insufficient transparency in the rationale to justify the need to
revise the basis for admission resulted in Tamil students perceiving
the Government’s measures as being discriminatory, thus giving grounds
for them to be willing recruits into the LTTE.

Another source of discontent was ‘colonization’ - an administrative
term derived from British colonial times for settlement of people in
newly opened areas of agriculture. The Tamil leadership supported by
academics portrayed colonization as an effort initiated by independent
Sri Lanka to recreate the glory of the past. This was a total
distortion because colonization was initiated during the Governorship
of Sir Hugh Clifford in the 1920s.

Another issue was the so called "disenfranchisement" of 1 million
Indian Tamils. The facts are: (1) only 1/4 of this number (~250,000)
was eligible to vote even under colonial rule. (2) The legislation
relating to citizenship eligibility was based on negotiations
concluded and agreed upon between Indian officials and a delegation
led by Mr. D.S.Senanayake.


The issues cited above have been stated by the Tamil community as the
reasons for triggering the demand for a separate state that was
justified even through violence. For the sake of genuine
reconciliation it then seems appropriate that the issues that ignited
the conflict are revisited to ascertain whether the perceptions that
prevailed three decades ago were in fact correct, or have been
distortions that concealed other agendas. If such an inquiry is
undertaken with openness and transparency it would perhaps demonstrate
that circumstances had existed to vindicate some of the policies
adopted by successive Government. Such acknowledgement would go a long
way to foster healing and reconciliation among communities and
transform the attitude of the International Community towards Sri
Lanka. The lessons to be learnt are that Governments in power should
involve the people and that there should be transparency in the
decision making process regarding issues that affect them. The mistake
of not doing so is being repeated even today, at best because
political leaders fear that this may result in an opening of a can of
worms, or at worst, in the misguided notion that leaders know what is
best for the people.

Over a period of three decades the issues that became the causes for
the conflict have undergone radical changes. Except for language and
colonization the other two issues are non-issues. Since language would
continue to be a source of future discontent because of its impact on
education and employment, it is vital that open and frank inquiries
are held in order to evolve acceptable and doable arrangements if
history is not to repeat itself. This would require a Parliamentary
Select Committee to be appointed to evolve overarching language
policies for administration and for education with the objective of
transforming the society into a unified nation. Similar attention
needs to be paid to colonization. The Northern and Eastern Provinces
cannot be developed with the manpower currently available in these two
provinces. Therefore, infusion from the rest of the country is
inevitable because the alternative of limiting development to existing
man power availability is unacceptable. This would alter demographics
with impact on political representation. These contentious issues need
to be negotiated and resolved in a transparent manner with minimum
effect to the interests of those concerned. The lesson to be learnt is
that decisions and policies relating to issues with serious
consequences should be held in all parts of the country in order to
seek out as many perspectives as possible, maximizing public


What are the lessons that could be learnt for the future? If a frank
and open inquiry reveals that there are grounds for vindication of the
policies adopted by successive Governments, the causes for discontent
must then be due to the people being ignorant of the circumstances
that warranted the policies implemented. Such ignorance is due to the
people being marginalized in the decision making process; a
consequence of a top down approach to decision making. If the mistakes
of the past are to be avoided in a country like Sri Lanka with its
high political awareness, the focus has to be in building institutions
that strengthen democracy and attendant democratic processes. Since
practically all decisions that have a consequential impact on the
lives of people are made at the center, the focus of strengthening the
democratic institutions should be at the center rather than at the
periphery. The four sources of discontent that gave cause to initiate
the conflict originated at the center. If the democratic process with
its attendant safeguards had functioned effectively at the center the
extent of discontent could have been mitigated. The lesson therefore
is to ensure that democratic processes and arrangements are
strengthened so that they function more effectively at the center than
was done in the past. Most importantly, there has to be greater

If mistakes of the past are to be avoided, the democracy deficit has
to be made good. Since most of the decisions with far reaching
consequences could continue to be made at the center regardless of the
powers devolved to the periphery, it is vital that the institutions
and arrangements at the center are organized in a manner to foster the
best practices of democracy with fairness and justice - not in its
most elemental form of majority rule under all circumstances. This
means strengthening Parliament to oversee Executive action and making
the Executive accountable to Parliament.


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