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Home > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle > > Peace with Justice, Australia > The Conflict - A Historical Overview
International Conference on the Conflict in Sri Lanka:
Peace with Justice, Canberra, Australia, 1996
The Conflict - A Historical Overview
Dr. John Powers
Senior Lecturer attached to the Asian History Centre, Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University. Dr.Powers has published on a wide range of subjects including Buddhist Philosophy, Western Analytical Philosophy, Indian Logic and contemporary human rights issues
Since I am at an Asian History Centre I am going to do a sort of historical overview. I find that in situations like this where you have a long standing conflict it is often very helpful to sort out the various strands of history, and in this case will be fairly recent history.
In lots of cases it will help to make the situation clearer. So what I'm going to do is to look at what I think are the major stages of the conflict and at the end I'll suggest some ideas about moves that I think can be made in the future for resolution. As Mr. Armstrong said it is a very complex conflict and I think if you start to look at some of the histories it starts to become clearer. You will find that a lot of the major stages of the conflict parallel those of other states similar to Sri Lanka, i.e. fairly recently de-colonised states.
One of the problems, I think, with many of the newly de-colonised states begin with the experiment in democracy. In many cases it is the first time these countries have experienced democracy. And the problem is you have Western powers like the United States, for instance, supporting the idea of democracy and the process of democracy in these states. The problem is that the way democracy is practised in these newly decolonised states tends to be quite different from the way you find it in the Western democracies and in the older and more established democracies.
You can see this very clearly in Sri Lanka. In the Western democracies political parties form along political persuasions - they usually tend to have conservative parties and liberal parties and others. The fortunes of these parties will change in accordance with economic trends, public perceptions and so forth. But whichever party is in power the other party always has the opportunity of or at least the hope of being able to take power again by changing its image, by introducing new policies, and such. In a place like Sri Lanka this certainly is not true and the reason why is because the lines of the party are largely drawn in accordance with ethnicity and religion which means that the ethnic majority is always going to be in power. And no matter what the minority does there is no sort of policy that they can propose that would bring the ethnic majority to their side.
From the point of view of Western democracies you do have democracy being upheld in the country - that is you have political parties and you have elections, you have winners and losers and so forth - but the problem is that the winners are always going to be from the same ethnic group when the lines are drawn according to ethnicity. And one of the problems is once the majority comes into power there will be a tendency on the part of the majority to feel that they have a popular mandate for whatever policies they propose which of course are going to be in line with what the majority ethnic group wants to have happen .
From the point of view of the ethnic majority, of course this is a very happy situation because the people who come into power are going to represent their interest and values. From the point of view of the minority it is a very difficult situation because there's really nothing they can do to gain power themselves as they are always going to be on the outside in that sort of power struggle. So that is the sort of background to this.
In Sri Lanka I think this is particularly problematic in that the Sinhala majority - which constitutes about 74% of the total population - in addition to being the majority, has also two additional attitudes which tend to harden its attitude towards the Tamils. First of all is the idea that they are the sole legitimate inhabitants of the island, that they have been there since Time immemorial and that they have the sole right to be there. And also that the island is a Buddhist country and that it should remain a Buddhist country and that it is very important for the Buddhists to fight against any sort of encroachment by Indian Hindus.
This was particularly important in terms of moves by the Government to grant even limited autonomy to the Tamils. Conservative elements within the country are very resistant to this because they see this as the beginning of Indian encroachment into Sri Lanka and the eventual engulfing of Buddhist culture which is of course deeply problematic in the view of Buddhist Sinhalese. There are also some long-standing attitudes of racism. On the part of the Sinhalese there is the notion that they are descended from Aryans and thus racially superior (when in actual fact this is not really true but they just tend to believe this) and that the Tamils are racially inferior and represent a foreign influence in the country which needs to be eradicated in order for the country to reach its full potential.
So with this sort of attitudes it would be difficult to imagine a possibility for dialogue unless these attitudes are exposed for one thing and looked at in terms of the historical facts of the matter. The first stage of the process as I see it after independence in 1948 from Britain was the suppression of a minority - that is the Tamils primarily and also the other minorities - by the majority and reasserting its fundamental rights over against a minority which in their opinion had been unfairly advantaged by the British.
And this is another important part of Sinhala attitudes. It is a very common Sinhala attitude or perception that during the British Raj the Tamils had an unfair advantage in terms of education, access to employment ( particularly government and professional employment), etc. After the Sinhala majority came into power one of the things they began doing is similar to what you saw in Malaysia: implement affirmative action policies that would bring the Sinhalas on a par educationally and professionally with the Tamils.
And this was done in the early years. Fairly quickly the Sinhalas not only achieved parity with the Tamils but soon came to acquire a superiority in terms of education. One of the things that was particularly important in all this was the passage of the Language Act which made Sinhala the sole legitimate language of the country. Along with that there was a tendency not to teach Sinhala in the Tamil areas which meant that the Tamils had very little access to education or to professional employment which was one of the main requirements for this was a thorough knowledge of Sinhala , and in some cases there were quotas in the Universities which made it even more difficult to get a professional education.
Another problem of course is the fact that the island is highly segregated. Even on the village level the villages tend to be segregated along ethnic lines. This means that prior to the British colonial period there was really very little contact as far as I can tell between Sinhalas and Tamils. I have heard a number of Tamils tell me - and I don't know how true this is - that until they came to Colombo they never met a Sinhala. Though this may not be largely accurate it does indicate that there is a tremendous lot of separation and that the two see themselves as separate and have very separate histories and so forth. Ethnic problems are exacerbated when populations are concentrated in pockets so that there is very little interaction between them. The Sinhala are a minority in 8 of the 24 districts on the island. Sri Lankan Tamils are in the majority in 5 and Indian Tamils in 1 and the Moors are in the majority in another.
One of the first stages in the conflict began shortly after Independence when the Sinhala dominated Government came into power. The began passing a number of measures that actually discriminated against the Tamil population. The Language Act was one of the most important ones in that it served to keep the Tamils away from education and from professional employment.
One of the more important ones symbolically was the policy of repatriation, in which the Government proposed initially to repatriate 300,000 people compulsorily. 400,000 would be granted Sri Lankan citizenship and another 250,000 would become permanent residents according to the original formula. Behind this was the idea that the Tamils did not really belong there on the island. Although Tamils had been on the island for thousands of years, this was a common perception ( deriving largely from the fact that during the British Raj they brought Tamils from India as cheap labour for the plantations). There was a widespread idea among Sinhalas that the Tamils were all from India, that they did not belong on the island, and that India was really their motherland and that they ought to go back there. And that if they had problems with the current situation in Sri Lanka it was not really their problem because it was not really their country and therefore it would be best if they were sent back.
But one of the problems was, of course, that from the Tamil point of view India was not really their homeland and it is very rare to find many Tamils who feel any real connection , any sort of memory of India. Even those who were brought to the plantations and their successors living there today only know Sri Lanka . So Sri Lanka, for the Tamils who are living in Sri Lanka, is very much their homeland and not India. But even with that the Government went ahead with it.
In 1954 the Prime Minister Kotawala began to try to implement this. The problem was that the number of applicants far exceeded expectations. 400,000 applied for Indian citizenship, 700,000 applied for Sri Lankan citizenship and as the Government went through each case individually it became clearer that this wasn't going to work - the reason being that as the Government began processing the applications and hearing all the petitions and so forth people were still continuing to have children so the population was increasing faster than the rate of repatriation.
So this became a comical scene in which the Government was trying to send people back to India, a place with which they felt no kinship, but the people in Sri Lanka were continuing to have children who saw themselves as residents of Sri Lanka and as citizens of Sri Lanka though they weren't officially citizens of Sri Lanka. This situation was exacerbated by the Buddhist Revival Movement in the 1950's and culminated in many ways with the 1956 Election of S.W.E. Bandaranaike which was very explicitly backed by the Sangha and very explicitly committed to Buddhist chauvinism.
This was part again of the First Stage where the newly emerged majority saw this as having a popular mandate and pushed forward an agenda that was in line with the wishes and aspirations of the majority but which was deeply resented by the minority . But at this stage the minority was not really well organised and so was not very effective in challenging this.
After the Tamil Federal Party was formed and began having peaceful demonstrations is what I see as the beginning of the Second Stage. The First Stage is characterised by the Government pushing for more and more an agenda that marginalises and disadvantages the minority. At some point the minority becomes politically aware, begins to organise and begins to hold political demonstrations. When that happens, the next phase, which again you will find in many decolonised states - the Government responds by increased oppression, the idea being that the way to stop conflict is to nip it in the bud with extreme force.
The majority does not generally see what the minority's problem is. So they see the agitators as people on the fringes, who, if suppressed, would make the conflict go away. Of course that does not happen. What happens is that violence begets violence and when the Government begins using violence against the demonstrators the moderates in the Tamil faction became more and more militant. What it tends to do is to polarise attitudes. It polarises attitudes on the part of the minority but it also polarises attitudes of the majority. And another thing that inevitably happens in this sort of conflict is that the minority group becomes more and more militant as the Government uses more and more force. Moderates become less and less influential within the movement and the militants within the movement become more and more influential as the minority responds to what the Government is doing.
The next stage is when the Government realises that violence is not going to bring about a solution to the problem. It then begins to make meaningless and meagre concessions - which the Government did. At first it relaxed a little bit on language. It agreed that Tamil would become an official language of the country and would be recognised as the language of an ethnic minority but Sinhala was still going to be the language of the Government and the language of higher education. But they still did not teach Sinhala in the Tamil areas which meant that the Tamils had very little access to education.
Another thing that happens is that though the Government may make some symbolic and meagre concessions it generally does not follow through with this. They announce them but the conservative elements within the dominant party will tend to react against any sort of concessions at all towards the minority. So the Government is forced to withdraw from anything but a symbolic concession.
This of course leads to further militancy on the part of the minority. As the Government withdraws more and more from actually implementing even fairly meagre concessions ( or even if there is some genuine meagre concession) , at this stage ( which I would refer to as the Third Stage) there is a gap between the aspirations of the current leadership of the minority and what the Government is actually offering. By the time the Government is ready to recognise that there is a problem and begin making any real concessions the demands of the marginalised groups of the minorities - in this case the Tamils - have increased. They have increased to a point where the Government is no longer willing to make those concessions because they have escalated ( from the point where the granting of meagre concessions could have satisfied the minority) . So they are no longer in a position to make the sort of concessions that are now on the table on the part of the minority.
When the Government refuses to do this what we see is an increase of violence as we see today. And the growth of movements like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam which is fully committed to a full separation . Initially the Tamils were willing to exist within a federation - with their separate identity, language, culture, etc. respected. Now opinions on both sides have hardened to such an extent that this is no longer viable for many Tamils . Tamil leadership especially the leadership of the LTTE is completely committed to Tamil Eelam and has shown no willingness to negotiate on this. Any negotiation that does not begin with the recognition of Tamil Eelam is generally unacceptable to the Tiger leadership which I think is one of the problems we face today.
The next phase that comes off my list is outright Civil War as what we have today. You have a complete fragmentation of the society, a polarisation along ethnic lines and as the conflict escalates there is very little room for compromise on either side. I think it is sad too that the newly elected Government of Chandrika Kumaratunga came in with the promise of being able to make some real changes. It was surprising to me as I was following that despite the fact that she was the daughter of Bandaranaike (and there was suspicion on the part of Tamils because of this ) there was a tremendous amount of hope on the part of the Tamil community she came into power that she was actually going to follow through on the sort of promises that she was making . It was disappointing that when the peace talks began the Government offered a package that was supposed to be the basis of negotiation , there was really very little to it - i.e. it was mostly a lot of empty words and rhetoric but very little substance. So the Tigers, rather foolishly I think , walked out on the negotiations because the Government wasn't really putting anything on the table.
In doing that I think they undermined their own credibility internationally as an interest group. I think they were correct in that the Government was not really offering much but they made a very bad move in the interest of their public image. In walking out of the negotiations they showed the world that they were unwilling to negotiate. Even if the Government was not offering much it would have been better for their public image to have stayed in the negotiations. The Tamil leadership has become so radicalised that it is very hard to imagine that they are going to be able to agree to anything that any conceivable Sri Lankan government can propose . The Tamil leadership is fully committed to Tamil Eelam and nothing less and I cannot imagine personally any conceivable Sri Lankan Government being able to grant autonomy.
So I come to the point where I suggest some of the proposals that might lead to a solution to the conflict. One thing that I thing is necessary is a giving on both sides. This was mentioned in some of the earlier talks. As long as both sides remain intransigent this sort of conflicts tend to continue. Both groups are locked in a conflict that neither can win. The Sri Lankan military despite its recent success in the conquest of Jaffna has only managed to control a very small part of Jaffna and all that really happened was that the Tamils just faded into the jungles of the East to continue the struggle. The Government lacks the resources to be able to win the struggle. Similarly the Tigers also lack the resources to win the struggle. There is no way in which the Tigers are going to be able to defeat the Sri Lankan army and no way in which the Sri Lankan army is going to be able to defeat the Tamils.
Given that, there has got to be some compromise. In conflicts like this three things tend to happen: a/ minority wins and they take power which is very unlikely in this case ; b/ the majority is able to crush the minority militarily ( as in places like Tibet and East Timor) and continues to suppress any attempt at demonstrations and so on ; this is also unlikely in Sri Lanka c/ the third thing which happens is that the conflict drags on - this is what you see today; neither side can win, but both sides are trying to exact as much retribution as they can from the other side, and to do as much damage as they can to the other side. But this not going to lead any sort of resolution. The only thing that can effect a resolution is when both sides compromise and work things out. But so far the leadership on both sides seems to be completely intransigent to any sort of real compromise.
This brings us back to the problem of democracy in decolonised states that are divided along ethnic lines. As long as democracy is completely majoritarian it is unlikely that the minority is ever going to be satisfied with the situation . And I think new forms of democracy have to be worked out in these sorts of states. There is some sort of mechanism for minorities to veto moves made by the majority that disadvantages them. This of course leads to a very cumbersome sort of state; leads to long negotiations; it leads to great difficulty in actually getting anything to actually happen. But on the other hand it does force the majority in power to actually sit down and negotiate with the minorities. I do not know how this is going to happen but this has got to be implemented within some sort of federal system in order for the situation to resolve itself. Otherwise I do not really see a solution to it except for continued fighting which is not really a solution at all.