Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution: Tamil Eelam - Sri Lanka > Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka & Regional Security - Kumari Jayawardene

Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka & Regional Security

Kumari Jayawardene
October/November  1987  

Introduction The Beginnings of the Ethnic Conflict The Pre Colonial Situation The Colonial Period Sinhala Buddhist Identity Political Reforms  The Tamil Factor in Politics Regional Dimensions Government Policies Conclusion Notes References


The violent ethnic conflict that has ravaged Sri Lanka for a decade resulted in an agreement between the governments of Sri Lanka and India - the `Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement - to establish peace and normalcy in Sri Lanka' (signed on 29 July 1987) and the Provincial Councils Act (providing for regional autonomy) passed in parliament in November 1987. What has begun as an essentially domestic problem, arising from a minority ethnic group's attempts to overcome acts of discrimination and oppression, acquired over time a regional and an international dimension; it had ultimately to be resolved by the intervention of a regional power with the support of all the major world powers, but with opposition from both Sinhala and Tamil militants in Sri Lanka.

It is perhaps ironic that one of the most unfortunate ethnic wars of recent times should occur in Sri Lanka, an island reputed to have had a peaceful transition from `model colony' to stable Third World state achieving international praise for its excellent quality of life and democratic institutions. These were factors which made Sri Lanka a `country of concentration' for several aid donors, and after 1977, increased private foregin investment. All these expectations were seriously eroded by years of carnage and destruction when the `emerald isle' of tourists literature turned blood red. The civil war not only killed off thousand of innocent people (Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim) and brutalized civil society, giving rise to a climate of chauvinist hysteria and intolerance, but also left in its wake little alternative except outside intervention.

This paper, written close to 1987, will give a historical summary of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, and trace the many ways in which the conflict became a matter of concern in Tamilnadu, in India and internationally, resulting in a swiftly concluded agreement between the governments of India and Sri Lanka, over the heads of combatants.

The Beginnings of the Ethnic Conflict

The Pre Colonial Situation

The peopling of Sri Lanka has been a continuous process of migrants from India with indigenous and other earlier migrant groups [Bandaranayake: 1985]. The Sinhala or Sinhalese (74%) constitute the major ethnic group; the Sri Lankan Tamils, who inhabit the north and east form 12.6% and the group known as Indian Tamils (19th century migrants for work on plantations) 5.6% of the population. While Muslims constitute the third largest ethnic group (7.4%), there are also small minorities such as Burghers (people of mixed decent), and Malays. All the major groups in Sri Lanka belong to a similar ethnic mix of migrants from various parts of India, especially South India, to which there have been Southeast Asian, Arab and European admixtures. In spite of this, each ethnic group today has a distinct identity with strongly held myths of origin; the Sinhala believe that they are Aryans from Bengal, the Tamils claim pure Dravidian origin, and the Muslims aspire to decent from Arabs.

The history of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is the history of emergence of consciousness among the majority community, the Sinhala, which defined the Sri Lanka society as Sinhala-Buddhist, thus denying its multi-ethnic character. The growth of this consciousness impinged on the minorities in Sri Lanka to the extent that internal resolution of the problems become impossible.

The Sinhala dominated the country from about 5th century BC and succeeded in establishing a kingdom with its centre in the North Central Province of the island. The term `Sinhala' was first used to indicate the royal family of the island, then extended to cover the royal retinue and then further extended to include the people; this social process dating to about the 6th century AD is simultaneously the process of the ethnic consolidation of the Sinhala people. [Gunawardena: 1984:55-107] The Sinhala kingdom which controlled the entire island most of the time entered into relations both of alliance and hostility at various periods with the Chola, Pandiya and Chera Kingdoms of South India. There were frequent invasions from these kingdoms, and also frequent alliances and intermarriage of the four royal families. There were thus strong links with India, especially South India. This long history of links with South India is still present in popular Sinhala consciousness, with perhaps the aggressive acts being best remembered.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, certain developments in Sri Lanka determined its ethnic demography in a decisive way with effects that have continued to the present {1}. The demographic distribution lays down a territorial basis for the major ethnic groups; in the case of the Tamils, the territorial concentration grew into a concept of a `traditional Tamil Homeland'. This did not arise for Muslims since they were scattered over the whole island, with a majority presence in only a part of the Eastern province.

Religion also played a dominant ideological role in ethnic consolidation. Buddhism, introduced from India in the third century BC, became the religion of the Sinhala as well as the state religion. Hinduism remained the religion of the Tamils. Apart from the conversion of a section of both Sinhalese and Tamils to Christianity during the colonial period, the congruence between Sinhala and Buddhist on the one hand, and Tamil and Hindu on the other, was total.

The Colonial Period

Social and economic developments during the early colonial period under the Portuguese and then the Dutch - commercialization of agriculture, the registration of title to land, registration of births and deaths, proselytization - contributed towards a freezing of ethnic boundaries {2}. This meant in effect the consolidation of the Sinhala community in the central and south-western parts of the island and of the Tamil community in the north and on the eastern seaboard. Economic developments during the occupation of the island by the British gave rise to two other phenomena which made the ethnic picture in Sri Lanka even more complex.

First, the coffee plantations established by the British in the 19th century brought to Sri Lanka, as plantation labour, a population of over one million Tamil workers from South India. These were at first seasonal migrants but with the development of tea plantations the majority became permanently domiciled on the plantations. The question of their citizenship rights became an issue that subsequently soured relationships between India and Sri Lanka.

Second, economic developments during this period were mainly in the central and western areas of the island. This left the Tamil community in a disadvantaged position. They sought to overcome this by moving in large numbers to employment in the state services, in the private sector and by entering the learned professions. This process was helped by the growth of educational facilities in English in the Tamil regions, particularly the Jaffna peninsula. This meant not only that large numbers of Tamils migrated to the southern and central regions for purposes of employment but also that Tamil traders established themselves in these regions.

The opening up of the plantations transformed the economy of Sri Lanka and created opportunities for indigenous entrepreneurs to make large fortunes; some of them converted to Christianity and sent their children to Britain for education. These filled the expanding needs of the state services as well as the need for doctors, engineers, lawyers etc. The local bourgeoisie thus created was multi-ethnic, but predominantly Sinhala, with Burghers and Tamils too entering the various professions and the state services.

The Sinhala bourgeoisie found its expansion constrained in various areas. The main import and export trade was dominated by the British and Indians and retail trade throughout the country by Muslim and Chettiar traders. Sinhala traders could not break into these areas because of a lack of access to finance which was controlled by British bankers or South Indian Chettiars. The Sinhala professionals and the educated "petit-bourgeoisie" also felt this competition in so far as they had to vie with Burghers and Tamils for state and private employment. Workers at their own level found themselves confronted with migrant workers from Kerala and Tamilnadu as well as with workers of indigenous minority groups. [Jayawardena 1986: Chapters 3 and 5].

These barriers to their advancement were perceived by the Sinhala at all levels as being caused by the non-Sinhala elements. To understand why economic antagonisms should be perceived in ethnic terms, one must examine the way in which the Sinhala asserted a sense of national identity as the basis for winning political reforms which would give them more power.

Sinhala Buddhist Identity

In asserting a Sinhala identity and in legitimizing Sinhala control of the country's polity, the leaders of the Sinhala revivalist movement reconstructed an image of the Sinhala past using many elements of the 'origin' mythology. The Sinhala, it was claimed, were descented from Aryan migrants from Bengal in the fifth century BC; the arrival of their leader, Prince Vijaya, in Sri Lanka coincided with the death of the Buddha. It was claimed that the Buddha in his infinite wisdom saw that his doctrine would be preserved for 5000 years in Sri Lanka by these immigrants and their descendents; he therefore visited the island three times, consecrated it to his doctrine and on his death-bed instructed Sakra, the chief of the Gods, to safeguard Vijaya and to ensure his supremacy in the land. Thus Sri Lanka becomes the land of Sinhala and the land of Dharma - the Buddhist doctrine. The belief was that the survival of the Buddhist religion was dependent on the survival of the Sinhala people; the people surviving as long as they espoused the doctrine and controlled the land consecrated to the religion. Thus the religion, the people and the land were bound together in an indissoluble unity.

Such a revivalist ideology attempted to established a Sinhala - Buddhist hegemony of the island antagonistic to non-Sinhala, non-Buddhist groups. It is this Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness that has resulted in the denial of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious character of Sri Lankan society and in a refusal to accept the collective rights of other minority groups. This consciousness was counterpoised by its ideologues against the British imperial state, which was seen as foreign and Christian; the revival was thus more anti-Western than anti-imperialist, asserting a Sinhala Buddhist identity against all foreigners and minorities. Over the last 100 years, it has been asserted against Muslims, Christians, Tamil plantation workers, Malayalis and Sri Lankan Tamils. [Jayawardena 1986: 14].

Political Reforms

The agitation spearheaded by the political reformers of the early 20th century was primarily intended to expand the scope and powers of Legislative Council (unreformed from 1833 to 1911) by extending representative government based on a limited male franchise; it was conducted by the new stratum of merchant capitalists and professionals who fought for the representation of these new class interests in the political institutions. The British Governor (following the old stratagem of divide and rule) had nominated members to the legislature on the basis of ethnicity (Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burger); the agitation initially rejected ethnicity as a basis of representation and served to bring together the emerging bourgeoisie of all ethnic groups into a common front. Even though this constitutional agitation did not penetrate far down into population, it nevertheless presented a picture of ethnic harmony with the first president in 1919 of the main political organization, the Ceylon National Congress, being a Tamil, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam.

The unity of bourgeoisie broke down over the question of ethnic representation, more particularly after 1931 when the British constituted a State Council with territorial representation based on universal suffrage. These reforms of 1931 did not meet with the favour of minority ethnic groups who believed the constitution would ensure the dominance of the Sinhala majority; they argued, at the least, for constitutional safeguards for the rights of minority ethnic groups. However, the constitution was enacted in the face of minority protests and minority fears were realized in 1936 when a totally Sinhala Board of Ministers was chosen. One other result was the emergence of ethnic based organizations. This was justified by the Sinhala "Maha Sabha"'s leader, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who argued that, `surely the best method was to start from low rung; Firstly, unity among the Sinhalese and secondly, whilst uniting to work for higher unity, the unity of all communities'. Other ethnic groups also set up similar organizations whose avowed purpose was to the good of the particular group. However, the United National Party (UNP), formed in 1947 in preparation for the first post-independence election, included members of all ethnic groups, as did the Left parties. Nevertheless all these fell prey at various times to chauvinist tendencies that manifested themselves after Sri Lanka gained its independence in 1948.

The United National Party took power after independence; among its MPs were many of those who had been members of legislature before independence and was, in its origin and intentions, a party dedicated to the ideal of a plural Sri Lanka. It was also representative of those elite groups that had grown up and prospered under colonial rule. However, underneath the apparently smooth surface of Sri Lankan politics, turbulent currents were stirring. The Sinhala-educated intelligentsia reiterated the ideals of Sinhala-Buddist resurgence not only against minorities but also against the English speaking members of the upper class who wielded economic and political power. Even the United National Party was not immune from these influences. One of their first act was to define Sri Lankan citizenship in a way that (in 1948) disenfranchized plantation Tamil workers who had enjoyed the vote since 1931.

The UNP tried to maintain itself in power by adjusting to the Sinhala nationalistic current. It even went back on a pledge to make both Sinhala and Tamil official languages by agreeing to the policy of `Sinhala Only'. But these moves were insufficient. In 1956, the UNP was voted out and a coalition led by S.W.R.D, Bandaranaike came to power in a landslide victory. This coalition represented mainly Sinhala "petit-bourgeois" and rural elements and its dynamism was supplied by the Sinhala intelligentsia, including Buddhist monks, teachers and "ayurvedic" (non-Western) physicians. In its policies, it was populist and radical and one of its first act was to replace English by Sinhala as the only official language. Since English (the language of the ruling class) had been spoken and understood by only 6% of the population, the move to Sinhala was democratic and egalitarian, but it had the unfortunate effect of alienating the Tamil-speaking part of the Sri Lankan society.

Popular opinion also saw the enactment of this language policy as a means not only of reducing the position of Tamils in state services but also of increasing the access of the Sinhala-educated to prestigious jobs. Insistence on the knowledge of Sinhala as a necessary requirement, quickly reduced the Tamil intake and, by the late 1970s, Tamils were seriously underrepresented in terms of ethnic percentages in the state services. [Abeysekera 1985:243]

The effort to achieve this kind of ethnic Sinhala hegemony was also demonstrated in the field of education. Primary and secondary schooling had generally been conducted in Sinhala and Tamil; the scheme of using `mother tongue' was extended into the universities in the 1950s. The free education scheme had resulted in an explosion of the school-going population. Universities too expanded, but not at the same pace; university places remained at about a fifth of all those who qualified to enter. This created an intense competition which government sought to answer in the 1970s by a system of `standardization' for science students, whereby `the minimum entry requirements for a Tamil student were higher than for a Sinhala medium student.' [Bastian 1985:220] This was clearly discriminatory and created the impression that the government, having deliberately reduced the opportunities available to Tamil youth in government service, was now bent on also denying them educational opportunities in the prestigious fields of medicine and engineering. This was an explosive grievance in a community that had long looked on education as the main means of social and economic advancement {3}.

While discrimination against the Tamil-speaking people was growing in the period after independence in the fields of employment and education, there was another sphere in which the Tamil ethnic group felt itself imperilled, that of land colonization. The north central areas which had been served by an irrigation system had reverted back to jungle. The British initiated a programme of repairing and restoring these irrigation reservoirs and settling people in the reclaimed areas. The peasants thus settled were mainly Sinhala from densely populated south-western and central areas. This process was accelerated after 1930 and soon Sinhala settlements began to appear in the predominantly Tamil eastern province as well. This led to a shift in demographic patterns; for example, in the Trincomalee district there was an increase of the Sinhala population from 20.7% to 33.6% in the period between 1946 and 1981. This process of state-aided colonization was seen not only as a thereat to the political status of Tamils in the affected areas, but also as a threat to existence of the Tamils as a community with its own linguistic and cultural identity.

All this took place in a context of violent riots against Tamils which occurred with increasing frequency (1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983) and cultural vandalism such as burning down by soldiers of the Jaffna library.

The Tamil Factor in Politics

The Tamil ethnic group sought to counter this growing discrimination by demands at a political level. Before independence, the Tamil Congress unsuccessfully demanded balanced representation - 50% seats for the Sinhala and 50% for the combined minority ethnic groups. Later, in the face of continuing discrimination, a Federal Party emerged which asked for a federal political structure that would give Tamils a degree of autonomy in the areas inhabited by them, as well as adequate represen- tation at the centre. It was in this period of accelerated demands and rejection that Tamil political leaders concluded in 1976 that only a separate state could ensure the security and welfare of the Tamil people, a state carved out of the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka to be called Tamil Eelam.

The main political parties were not totally insensitive to this process, S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike, Prime Minister and leader of the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) arrived at an understanding with the leader of the Federal Party (the Bandaranaike - Chelvanayakam Pact of 1958) which gave Tamils a degree of regional autonomy, including control of the land settlement in their areas. However, Bandaranaike had to abandon the pact in the face of opposition from the United National Party (UNP) and was killed by a monk in 1959. Likewise, when the UNP was again in power, Dudley Senanayake, the Prime Minister, worked out a somewhat similar understanding in 1967; this too was scuttled in the face of opposition, this time mainly from the SLFP. The demands of the Tamil people had by this time become a major factor in Sinhala Politics. Sinhala political hegemony was also becoming institutionalized. The republican Constitution of 1972, while proclaiming Sinhala as the official language, declared that Buddhism had the 'foremost place' in Sri Lanka, thus almost affirming a Sinhala-Buddhist state. It is precisely this history that persuaded the Tamils that co-existence with the Sinhala in a single polity was no longer possible.

While the established political party of the Tamils - the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) - was demanding a separate state and using parliamentary democratic processes towards obtaining it, some Tamil youth, dissatisfied with the non-violent policies of the TULF, formed groups which took up arms in the same cause {4}. It is not proposed to go into the details of the armed struggle in this paper. It is only necessary to state that it led to a protracted and bitter war in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka during the course of which the state security forces were guilty of severe excesses, attacks on civilians and serious violations of human rights of the Sri Lankan citizens, while the armed groups in turn resorted to brutal killings of both the Sinhala civilians and those Tamils thought of as 'informers'. The number of deaths has been estimated at 6000 by the government and 15000 by Tamil groups; damage to property has been incalculable.

At the ideological level, the response to Sinhala chauvinism was the emergence of Tamil chauvinism and extreme forms of nationalist mythmaking. According to Radhika Coomaraswamy, these include the myth that the tamils are pure Dravidian by race, that they are heirs to the Mohenjadaro and Harappa civilizations of India, that they are the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka, that the Tamil language in its purest forms is spoken only in Sri Lanka and that the "Saiva Siddhanta" form of Hinduism has 'a special homeland' in Sri Lanka [Coomaraswamy 1987:79]. Many of the Tamil militant groups have also been sustained by such ideologies, and expressions like 'Dravidian Drive' and 'Chola charisma' have been used in their literature to mobilise support for armed struggle.

Another effect of the Sinhala-Tamil strife has been that the class solidarity among workers of all ethnic groups has been replaced by a sense of trans-class ethnic solidarity on the part of both the Sinhala and Tamils. As newton Gunasinghe has observed, in both the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic formations "class contradiction are overdetermined in the Althusserian sense, by ethnic conflict", while among the Tamils, "class contradictions are softened and even submerged" in the face of a perceived "danger to its collective social existence"; among the Sinhalese masses, "dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs has taken a false external direction against what is perceived to be the unreasonable demands advanced by already privileged Tamils." [Abeysekera and Gunasinghe 1987 : VI]

Regional Dimensions

It is against this historical background that the regional and international dimensions of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka have to be investigated and understood. The pogrom against Tamils in July 1983 and the resulting clashes had two very important demographic consequences. One was the exodus of over 100,000 refugees from the northern regions of the island to Tamilnadu in South India; these were primarily civilians who had become victims of the government's drive against Tamil militants. It is well established that Sri Lankan security forces often turned against Tamil civilians in their attempt to flush out the militants. The second consequence was an exodus of Tamils living in southern parts of the island amidst the Sinhalese, to their 'traditional homes' in the north and east. Paradoxically as it may seem, the violence of July 1983 convinced many Tamils that they could be safe and secure only in their own areas, this despite the presence and operations of the army. These moves immediately strengthened, one the one hand, the notion of a Tamil homeland in which Tamils would have their own state, and on the other, it established a close link between the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the Tamils of India, resulting in the Sri Lanka Tamil issue becoming the major issue in Tamilnadu politics.

The presence of Sri Lankan Tamil political and militants leaders and a large number of refugees in Tamilnadu necessarily had an impact on the politics of that state.{5} Tamilnadu was extremely conscious of its cultural heritage and its role vis-a-vis Tamil communities in the other parts of the world. It had also been the scene of separatist demands for an independent state in the 1960s. Although these demands died down, the embers of Tamil nationalism were kept alive by the "Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam"(DMK) which was in power between 1967 and 1977. [Kodikara 1983] After July 1983, the DMK, which was by then in opposition, wholeheartedly took up the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. It described the actions of Sri Lanka as genocide against the Tamils and called on the Indian government to send its armed forces to Sri Lanka in order to save the Tamils.

By 1983 the ruling party in Tamilnadu was the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kashagam(AIADMK), a split from the DMK, and its leader, M. G. Ramachandran also spoke out on the behalf of the Tamils of Sri Lanka. It accorded a measure of state patronage to the TULF and militant leaders as well as Sri Lankan refugees. It also mobilized public opinion by first organizing a state-wide stoppage of work, protesting against the oppression of tamils by the Sri Lankan government; a resolution was passed in October 1983 in the Tamilnadu State Assembly condemning the violence of Sri Lanka and urging the United Nations to intervene in the pursuit of a peaceful solution. Even though the AIADMK's support for the Sri Lanka Tamil cause stopped short of support for a separate state, the Sri Lankan Tamil Issue became a focal point in the internal politics of Tamilnadu itself.

It has sometimes been said that it was the pressure emanating from Tamilnadu that forced the Indian central government to intervene in the matter. The Tamilnadu government was no doubt concerned to see the divisive issue was settled, but it is now apparent that the central government of India was also motivated by reasons of national security as much as the pressure from Tamilnadu.

Mediation by the central government began very shortly after July 1983. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi offered India's good offices in order to facilitate a political solution and this was accepted by Sri Lanka. G. Parthasarathy, a well known Indian diplomat and advisor to Indira Gandhi, visited Sri Lanka, discussed issues with leaders of the government, political parties, including the TULF, and by December 1983, had developed a set of proposals to resolve the conflict.{6} These were presented to an All Party Conference in January 1984 which, however, ended inconclusively in December 1984. This ended India's first mediation effort. It was activated on the premise that a conscious on the ethnic issue among the major political groups was desirable. Hereafter Indian mediation efforts were primarily to concern the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil parties and groups. During 1984 and 1985, while negotiations towards a peaceful solution were proceeding rather desultorily, the military conflict intensified, claiming ever more civilian casualities on both sides.

The Sri Lankan President and the Indian Prime Minister met in early June 1985 in New Delhi and this produced a quickening of efforts at mediation. Peace talks followed between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil political and militant organizations in Thimpu in Bhutan, but these failed too.

From August 1986 and in the subsequent months, officials of the two governments held talks in Delhi and arrived at what were described as 'draft terms of Accord and understanding'. These terms envisaged a system of devolution at three levels, divisional, district, and provincial. Powers at the provincial level were defined allowing broadly for devolution with respect to law and order, agriculture, land settlement and other functions. This framework was the object of discussions between the two governments as well as the government of India and the Tamil groups in Madras and produced an expansion of some powers devolved at the provincial level.

Many attempts in 1986 to solve the conflict proved abortive {7} but the next stage in this process of resolution moved with amazing rapidity. A car bomb exploded at a busy bus station in Colombo at the end of April 1987, killing 113 people. The government, faced with popular outrage, launched what it called an ' all-out offensive' on the Jaffna peninsula and by the end of May captured a large part of it at great cost in terms of life, property and the massive dislocation of inhabitants in these areas. It was at this stage that the Indian Government intervened directly and decisively. Arguing that army offensive had rendered the people of Jaffna totally destitute, it decided to send in 'humanitarian relief'. When a flotilla of boats carrying relief supplies were turned back by the Sri Lankan navy, India dropped relief supplies by air and then negotiating with the Sri Lankan government for the further supplies.

The idea of resolving the ethnic conflict through an understanding between the two governments had been in the air for a few months. Moreover, Sri Lanka found itself under great pressure from donor countries to solve the conflict -- especially in view of economic devastation the war has caused and increased military expenditure. The Indian government thus found itself in a position it could enforce willingness both from Sri Lankan government and from the main military group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). The Agreement which signed in July 1987 was the result. India had moved from the position of mediator to that of direct participant, a participant with separate and specific interests of its own.

The agreement had three components -- first, the 'modalities' of settling the ethnic conflicts through devolution of power to a Tamil region combining the northern and eastern provinces; second, the guarantees and obligations of the government of India with regard to the implementation of the accord; third, (in letters exchanged alonged with the Agreement), the undertakings given by the government of Sri Lanka to India which are not related to the ethnic conflict but concern India's security interest's in the region.

Government Policies

Before examining the specific security interests India sought to assure in the Agreement, it is necessary to turn back and look at some of the changes in Sri Lanka's economic and foreign policy which had a bearing on the Agreement. From 1956 to 1977, Sri Lanka had followed an economic policy that was characterized by state regulation of both local and foreign investment, emphasis on the public sector as the favoured means of growth, import-substitution in industry , fiscal policies directed towards an egalitarian distribution of wealth, welfare policies that sought to ensure to all citizens basic needs of food, health and education. The foreign policy was one of non-alignment, with a tilt to the 'socialist' bloc in terms of assistance for public sector industry. Sri Lanka was a strong member of the non-aligned, anti imperialist Third World. During this period, Sri Lanka's foreign policy was totally congruent with that of India. There seemed to be hardly any divergency between India's and Sri Lanka's interests, and the last areas of disagreement (the question of an island, Katchativu in the Palk Straits, and the citizenship of plantation workers) had been solved.

However, these economic and social and social policies were accompanied by very slow economic growth rates. Unemployment soared and scarcities began to appear as foreign exchange became difficult to obtain. Dissatisfaction mounted and in 1977, the people defeated Sirima Bandaranaike and voted in the government of J.R.Jayawardene which was committed to a different set of policies. The changes in the economic sphere were drastic. Most regulations were scrapped; foreign investment was encouraged, and Free Trade Zones established. Most subsides were removed and the market place became the determining factor in investment. In contrast to earlier policies, private investment and entrepreneurship were encouraged and some parts of the public sector were privatized. Moreover power, irrigation, transport and communication facilities serving the interests of private capital were strengthened. Although the earlier welfare measures were retained, the new emphasis was on growth, not distribution. This economic policy had important foreign relation implications.

Foreign investment had to be sought from abroad and massive infrastructure needs of the public sector had to be obtained as grants and loans - mainly from the western countries. This whole process also required close collaboration with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In short, the Sri Lankan economy became firmly bonded with the capitalist world market. This swing away from an inward-looking regulated economy to an open, export-oriented economy had a determining influence on the country's foreign policy.

Sri Lanka chaired the Non-aligned Movement from 1976 to 1978 when J.R.Jayawardene handed over to Fidel Castro of Cuba. Professedly, Sri Lanka continued to follow a policy of non-alignment, but the imperatives of the economic strategies she had adopted pushed her in the direction of the Western camp. The principal aid donors became the industrialized countries of the West and Japan and their foreign policy needs came to the fore. To give an example, Sri Lanka was one of the very few Third World countries to vote with the UK on the Falklands issue, influenced no doubt by the fact that Britain is a major donor to the government's irrigation and hydro-power programme.

The government in 1980 permitted a significant facility used by the Voice of America and also approved the establishment of a broadcasting facility for West German Radio near Trincomalee. These links were seen as a further erosion of Sri Lanka's non-aligned status and a push in the direction of the US and the West. There was also some speculation that the US was interested in obtaining facilities at Trincomalee harbour, including the use of its oil storage tanks. The US denied such an interest but the uncertainities surrounding the lease of facilities in the Philippines proved a fresh impetus to such speculation.

These tendencies away from a non-aligned stance were strengthened after 1983 by the course of the ethnic conflict. The Tamil militants were based in India; their presence was tolerated by the state and central governments. Though officially denied, it was obvious that the training and staging grounds of the militants were in India. During the latter days of the conflict, the patronage given by the Tamilnadu government to the militants was demonstrated by open financial gifts. Given this situation, the government looked to non-Indian sources for weapons, equipment and training. Thus links grew with Pakistan, which became the main centre for the training of the security forces.

Weapons and ammunition were obtained from Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and various commercial organizations. The services of Israel were obtained for improving and expanding the government's intelligence apparatus and Israel was allowed to open Special Interests section in the US Embassy in Colombo. The government also procured the services of various mercenary organizations, primarily the KMS (Keeny Meeny Services) of the UK for training its Special Task Force of troops. Thus the Sri Lanka Government began to build up links with many governments and organizations seen as hostile to India, links that many suspect may have matured into strategic relationships.

It is in this context that one can examine those provisions of the July 1987 Agreement concerned with India's security interests. Sri Lanka, it was said, "agreed to meet some of India's concerns", which were itemized as follows:

(i) ... an early understanding about the relevance and employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel with a view to ensuring that such presence will not prejudice Indo-Sri Lanka relations;

(ii) Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India's interests;

(iii) The work of restoring and operating the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm will be undertaken as a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka.

(iv) Sri Lanka's agreement with foreign broadcasting organizations will be reviewed to ensure that any facilities set up by them in Sri Lanka are used solely as public broadcasting facilities and not for any military or intelligence purpose.

In concrete terms, the Agreement ensures that Pakistani, Israeli and other influences on the armed forces of Sri Lanka seen as inimical to India are removed, that Trincomalee would not be used in a way injurious to India's interests, that the Tank Farm would be under India's partial control and that the US and West German broadcasting facilities would not be used to spy on India.

Moreover, what the Agreement guarantees is not only the removal of hostile influences on Sri Lanka's security forces; India actually substitutes herself, undertaking as a reciprocal gesture, to 'provide training facilities and military supplies for Sri Lankan security forces'. By means of the Agreement, India removed perceived risks to her security in Sri Lanka and assured herself that such a situation would not occur again by reinforcing her influence over Sri Lanka. In undertaking to ensure the due implementation of all terms of the Agreement, India was also able to station her troops in the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka as a peace-Keeping force.

India's intervention in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka began as a genuinely mediatory role. The conflict had become significant factor in the politics of Tamilnadu and it was necessary that its influence on the inflammatory Tamil separatist tendencies be minimized. It was not in the India's interest, nor that of Tamilnadu state, to allow Sri Lanka to crush Tamil opposition and assert Sinhala hegemony over them. Such a situation would have been unacceptable to Tamils of India. Indian tolerance of Tamil militant groups has to be seen in that light -- an effort to prevent a military victory by the Sri Lankan government.

However, a victory by the Tamil militants and the establishment of a separate state would not be in India's interest either. The Indian state itself is plagued with a number of separatist and secessionist struggles and in this context, the emergence of a small state in Northern Sri Lanka would not have been a desirable precedent. It could also exert an influence on the volatile sentiments of Tamilnadu; an independent Tamil state might have become an attractive magnet for separative sentiments.

Thus India would have wished neither for a Sri Lankan military victory nor military success for the Tamil militants. Its best interests would be served by a resolution of the conflict whiched recognized Sri Lanka's unity and territorial integrity, but which also allowed for democratic, political and economic rights of the Tamil people as a collectivity.

This conclusion would also assume that Sri Lanka's movement away from a non-aligned policy in its foreign relations would have been no more than an irritant in the eyes of India. It was unwelcome, but posed no immediate threat to India's security interests. That India looked on this problem as one of human right is also evident from the fact that the only international forum at which she raised it was the US Commission for Human Rights.

However, the course of developments during the escalation of the conflict was instrumental in pushing Indian security concerns to the fore. These were the growing military relationship between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Israel and certain Western countries, the growing influence of such countries on Sri Lankan security forces, the linkages seen to be developing between Sri Lanka, Pakistan and China. Taken together these indicated s security threat on India's southern flank, an area which had previously appeared secure. Thus the resolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka became bound up with the safeguarding of India's security interests.

It is the contention of many that India's security interests played a larger role in the accord than the actual resolution of the ethnic conflict. V. Prabhakaran, the leader of the most powerful Tamil militant group, the LTTE, has openly declared that he has no alternative but to acquiesce in the Agreement, even though it sacrifices Tamil aspirations and hopes to India's security concerns; he expressed dissatisfaction with the temporary nature of the merger between the northern and eastern provinces and said that LTTE would continue to work towards a separate state. There have been equally vehement attacks on the Agreement from the Sinhala side. The Jayawardena government has been accused of accommodating Indian security concerns to the extent of seriously compromising Sri Lanka's sovereignity and independence. This view rests on an analysis of the Agreement that places greater emphasis on the security issues; it argues that India was prepared to dismantle Tamil militant camps in India only when Sri Lanka agreed to give in on the security issues.

The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement also has many implications for the security of South Asian region. It is a known fact that all of India's neighbours have problems which involve India in some way. Nepal is faced with internal unrest led by movements which evoke some sympathy in India; while expecting Indian support in meeting these threats, Nepal is at the same time attempting to modify some of the provisions of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship entered into with India in 1950, particularly those with regard to security affairs. Bangladesh has problems with its Chakma ethnic group in the Chittagong hill areas and has been flowing a foregin policy favourable to the US. The problems between Pakistan and India are so familiar that it is not necessary to summarize them. The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement can be read by all these countries as a signal that their internal and foregin policies must be so adjusted as to not to affect significantly India's security concerns. In this connection it is interesting to note that, while most countries were not happy with India's violation of Sri Lankan air space in dropping food supplies, most countries have expressed their support for the Peace Agreement. The two countries to have voiced reservations have been Pakistan and China.

In effect, in signing the Peace Agreement, Sri Lanka has recognized the necessity of formulating its foreign relations so as not to affect its big and powerful neighbour, India. It is an acceptance of India's role as the regional power. The Agreement has been welcome by both USA and USSR. This also signifies the acceptance by all of India's role in the South Asian region and of the general desire to remove a focus of instability in the region.

The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement has implication for Regional Co-operation as well. The South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) excludes from consideration purely bilateral issues. Sri Lanka, however, has on many occasions attempted to override this and bring up the ethnic issue for discussion. These efforts have generally been supported by other members like Pakistan, who have also argued that the SAARC forum should be open to the consideration of bilateral issues. India has always opposed this view, maintaining that issues between any two countries of the region could best be settled on a bilateral basis and not be allowed to cloud issues of regional co-operation.

Another area of concern on which the Agreement may have some impact is the project to keep the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace. This idea was first advanced by Sirimavo Bandaranaike at the Non-aligned summits at Nairobi and Cairo, and later at the United Nations in 1971 where it was generally received with favour. India too supported the project, seeing it in a way of keeping the Indian Ocean free from naval deployments by both superpowers. The US has established a naval base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Although most countries still back the proposal in principle, it has been found difficult to get to the next stage of the project -- namely a meeting in Colombo to work out the details. India has shown herself deeply suspicious of Sri Lanka's stand and refused to attend meetings in Colombo of technical groups concerned with research into aspects of Indian Ocean activities. India still appears keen to pursue this project and Sri Lanka's re-structured relationship with India will possibly be of help.


The Peace agreement has roused varied reactions. Opinion in India, even on the Left, has been favourable. Some have also seen it as a foreign policy triumph for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, reaffirming India's role as the regional power, safeguarding India's security as well as manifesting humanitarian ideals. It has been criticized by a few of Gandhi's political opponents, but this has been limited to speculations that it embodies a hasty and simple solution to a very complex problem and that it might fail as, for example, the Punjab Accord has failed.

In Sri Lanka, a section of the Sinhala majority including Sirima Bandaranaike see it as a base surrender to Sri Lankan Tamils on the question of the Tamil region, and to India on the use of Trincomalee and other ports. The traditional Sinhala fears of domination by India, specifically South India, have been aroused by the Agreement. It has been argued that Sri Lanka's sovereignity and independence have been seriously eroded. However, other sections of Sinhalese welcome the Agreement as the only alternative to continuous warfare and misery for the people of Sri Lanka.

The reaction of the Sri Lankan Tamils to the Agreement has been mixed. Most Tamils - peasants, fishermen, workers, traders and the middle classes - welcomed the cessation of the conflict, the end of violence and the chance to engage once again in their normal pursuits. But among most of them there is the feeling, articulated at the moment only by the militant groups, that the aspirations of the Tamil people are not going to be fully met. Their dream of a separate state is over; the viable reality they were ready to accept - a federal political structure - will also not be achieved. There is also doubt about the extent to which India will now go to advocate Tamil needs and aspirations.

In spite of all objections the Agreement does lay down a framework within which the citizens of Sri Lanka may work out a political structure based on regional autonomy; it also allows this process to be worked in the course peaceful negotiations.

While fulfilling these needs, the Agreement has also restored Indo- Sri Lankan relations. Sri Lanka has had to acknowledge that her foreign relations have to be conducted in such a way as to pose no threat to her far more powerful neighbour. This is really faced by many small countries, but a reality that Sri Lanka had attempted to ignore over the past ten years.

The restructuring of political relations has been very quickly followed by actions in the economic sphere as well. A joint Economic Commission has been set up to facilitate trade between the two countries and to promote Indian investment in Sri Lanka; there is also talk of a joint marketing effort in tea and other primary products. These developments can be seen as desirable between two countries in close proximity but may also be construed as the economic fruits of the political involvement.

While left-wing parties in both India and Sri Lanka have supported the peace initiative, and with some reservations have welcomed the Agreement, opposition to the Agreement and specially to the presence of around 20,000 Indian troops in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka remains significant and includes several political parties including the leading opposition party, the SLFP led by Sirima Bandaranaike. Serious opposition has also come from the banned JVP (Peoples Liberation Front), a populist militant movement with its social base among the discontented Sinhala "petit-bourgeoisie", using the tactic of killing government supporters as a method of destabilizing the government. As in the north, several decades of democratic reforms, welfarism and access to secondary education have raised expectations among the youth which the economy has not been able to fulfil. Numbers of young persons in both the north and south, unable to enter the universities or get suitable employment. have thus been easily diverted to destructive armed actions based on chauvinist war cries, inspired by what has recently been called 'ethno-populism' [Siriwardena and Coomaraswamy 1987].

New ideologies of Sinhala chauvinism have also appeared among the Sinhala intelligentsia, using methods ominously reminiscent of Goebbels and Senator McCarthy; they have encouraged a witch-hunt and smears against liberals, Leftists, civil rights activists and religious groups who have spoken out and written against chauvinism and have supported efforts for peace. Anonymous threats of violence have also been made against those supporting the Agreement and against the members of the parliament who in November 1987, voted (with a 2:1 majority) for the Provincial Councils Bill which grants regional autonomy for the provinces of Sri Lanka, with one provincial council for the Northern and Eastern provinces, subject to a referendum at the end of a year.

Thirty years ago (in 1958) when measures of regional autonomy were agreed upon between the government of S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike and the Tamil political leaders, the proposal was scuttled by the Sinhala chauvinists. Attempts by the subsequent UNP government to solve the problem were in turn effectively sabotaged by the SLFP in opposition. Thus both the main parties have over the past years used the issue to try to come to power, by cynically playing on the fears of the Sinhalese.

History, thus, has kept on repeating itself with tragic consequences for the whole population; and successive Sri Lankan governments failed to perceive the danger that the ethnic issue, if aggravated, could not only undermine the whole democratic process but also result in intervention by India. Today the presence of Indian troops and the mere fact of Indian intervention are obviously bound to cease reaction among Sri Lankans of all ethnic groups. But, in the final analysis, one cannot deny that the present situation is a consequence of the failure of the Sri Lankans themselves to sort out their own problems. Herein lies the real lesson of Sri Lanka's recent history. For, as a statement welcoming the peace agreement, signed by 30 liberal and Left Sri Lankan scholars and human rights activists warned, "we should be conscious that a continued inability to be sensitive to and solve problems in our own society could become a weakness fatal to Sri Lanka's existence as a free and independent nation" [8].


{1} When the hydraulic economy and civilization that had flourished in the north-central plains came to an end, the Sinhala people migrated to the rain-fed areas in the central and south-western regions of the island. The north-central plains reverted to jungle with a few scattered villages. With little control from the Sinhala kingdom, the Tamil people became concentrated in the northern and eastern coastal regions that were closest to that part of the Indian mainland also populated by Tamil speaking people; eventually Tamils of northern region established the Jaffna Kingdom at the end of the 13th century.

{2} The Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505 and occupied the south-western littoral of the island and in due time, the northern and eastern coastal regions. The Dutch succeeded them in 1658 and, as did Portuguese, ruled the Sinhala and Tamil areas as separate regions. During this period, the Sinhala Kingdom continued to exist, first in the south-west and then in the hill country in Kandy. The British succeeded the Dutch in 1796 and eventually subdued the Kandiyan Kingdom in 1815. In 1833 they brought the whole island, i.e., the areas occupied by the Sinhala and Tamils, within one administrative unit.

{3} This system was replaced in 1978 by a system of `standardization' that was designed to give equal opportunities to students from educationally disadvantaged areas. However, since Jaffna was classified as an educationally-advanced area, the net effect was very much the same.

{4} These include, among others, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), PLOTE ( Peoples Libration Organization of Tamil Eelam), EPRLF (Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Libration Front), and EROS (Eelam revolutionary Organization of Students).

{5} The exodus from Sri Lanka of ordinary Tamil civilians was preceded by that of Tamil political and military leaders. In July 1985, the Sri Lankan constitution had been amended, by what is popularly known as the Sixth Amendment, to require all legislators and public officials to take an oath of allegiance to the unitary Sri Lankan state and to disavow all the notions of secessions and separatism. The TULF members of Parliament refused to take this oath and were deemed to have vacated their seats. They then fled to India and began to express their grievances to the Tamilnadu and Indian governments. The militant groups had been using South India as a base even earlier, but this situation became somewhat formalized after July 1983. Then all the militant organizations established their offices, information centres, and military camps in Madras and other parts of Tamilnadu from which their military operations commenced.

{6} Known as `Annexure C' of the All Party Conference of January 1984, this document proposed a union on regions within the unitary constitutional framework of Sri Lanka, the devolution of substantial legislative and executive power to the regions and measures that would ensure to the Tamil people an adequate representation at the central government level. The government was originally opposed to any concept of regions; they thought that the district, (the present administrative unites, of which there are 23 in Sri Lanka) should form the units of devolution. In the course of negotiations, however, it was agreed that the nine provinces - each composed of a number of districts - should be the units of devolution.

{7} In November 1886 Gandhi and Jayewardena met in Bangalore where further discussions resulted in the December 1986 proposals, These provided for the exclusion of Amparai, a mainly Sinhala district, form the eastern province so that the province would demographically have a Tamil majority; in addition, there was to be a strengthening of the institutional linkages between the northern and eastern provinces and a second stage of constitutional development when the two provinces could come together, provided the people so decided. These proposals were finalized by 19 December but proved inadequate in the eyes of the Tamil militant groups, particularly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which had by then become dominant among them.

{8} This article was written in October-November 1987.


Abeysekera, C. & Gunasinghe. N. (eds) - "Facets of Ethnicity in Sri Lanka", Social Scientist Association, Colombo, 1987.

Abeysekera, C. - `Ethnic Representation in Higher State Services' in "Ethnicity and Social Change", Colombo, 1985.

Bandaranayake, Senake - `The Peopling if Sri Lanka' in "Ethnicity and Social Change", Colombo, 1985.

Bastian, Sunil - `University Admission & the National Question', in "Ethnicity and Social Change", Colombo, 1985.

Coomaraswamy, Radhika - `Myths without conscience: Tamil and Sinhalese Nationalistic Writings of 1980's', in "Facets of Ethnicity in Sri Lanka", Colombo, 1987.

Gunawardena, R.A.L.H. - `The People of the Lion' Sinhala Consciousness in History and Histography in "Ethnicity and Social Change", Colombo, 1985.

Jayawardena, Kumari - "The Rise of the Labour Movement in Ceylon", Durham, N.C., 1972. - "Ethnic and Class Conflicts in Sri Lanka", Colombo, 1986.

Kodikara, Shelton - `Internationalisation of Sri Lanka's Ethnic Conflict', Paper presented at a Social Scientists Association Seminar, 1983.

Social Scientists Association (SSA) - "Ethnicity and Social Change in Sri Lanka", Colombo, 1st printing 1984, 2nd printing 1985.

Siriwardena, Reggie and Coomaraswamy, Radhika - `Ethno-Populism', paper presented at the International Center for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, 1987.




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