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Ethnic conflict: Restructuring the Sri Lankan State
to link political citizenship to individuals
Northeastern Monthly - January 2006
When a journalist queried the former president, J. R. Jayewardene, in 1995, about the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s promise to abolish the executive presidency by the 15 July of that year, he famously quipped that Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) politicians “speak foolishly but act wisely; she’ll keep the executive presidency.” She did.
Current president, Mahinda Rajapakse of the SLFP, an avowed Sinhala nationalist, took a hard line against the Tamil National Movement during the run up to the presidential election held on 17 November 2005. But the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Leader Veluppillai Pirabaharan assured Tamils in his 27 November Heroes Day address that Rajapakse is “a realist, committed to pragmatic politics.”
The initial indications seem to confirm the LTTE leader’s assessment. Rajapakse abandoned his campaign pledge to jettison the Government of Norway as facilitator of ‘talks’ between the LTTE and the Sinhala government; he invited Norwegians on 8 December to continue their facilitation. On 11 December Rajapakse reversed the previous government’s refusal to hold future ‘talks’ with the LTTE in a venue outside Sri Lanka. He declared his government’s willingness to do so in a foreign country – perhaps Japan.
Of course, it is too early to conclude that Rajapakse is undergoing a radical change of heart. Tamils remember very well how Kumaratunga bought time with the 1995/96 ‘talks’ to make changes in the bureaucratic and military hierarchy, to procure weapons and to plan war. Tamils remember also how Jayewardene kicked off the Political Parties’ Conference in 1986 as a smokescreen to mask preparations already underway for war.
Rajapakse reportedly told his coalition partners last week that he is “trying to play for time because it will take at least three months to acquire the necessary firepower to begin the onslaught against the LTTE.” His explanation is ominous for two reasons. First, he has set aside three months to reach a consensus among Sinhala parties and organisations. Is consensus-building Rajapakse’s smokescreen for the same purpose? Second, he still stands by his rejection of Tamils’ inalienable right to national self-determination and of a federalist power sharing between Tamil and Sinhala nations. So he is set on a collision course with the LTTE.
Nevertheless, the new president is entitled to the benefit of doubt for now. In his 26 November policy statement he loftily hoped “to ensure for all communities, including Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher and Malay the freedom to exercise all the rights enshrined in the constitution - including the right to live in any part of Sri Lanka on the grounds that the entire territory is the homeland of all communities.” He wishes that individuals belonging to every community in the country should be equal citizens under the constitution.
Does this mean Rajapakse proposes to re-establish the political link between citizenship and the individual? If so, he and his Sinhala State have to shed daunting Sinhala chauvinist baggage.
In the British model, the political concept – the idea of ‘sons of the soil’ – of citizenship is linked to the individual irrespective of ethnicity. That is the foundation of a plural, inclusive polity. Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) under British rule inherited the seeds of this practice. Rather than groom those seeds, as the prospect of independence grew brighter Sinhala nationalists set about re-conceptualising citizenship: they sought to politically link citizenship to ethnicity as in the German model before the Second World War. In the latter case, citizenship was politically linked to German ethnicity, defined by race (Aryan), language (German) and religion (Catholicism). This combination of racial and cultural markers underpinned German aggression.
The shift from the British to the German model (though not articulated in these terms) in Sri Lanka had begun in the late 19th century. The Sinhala nationalists dredged up the racial marker by re-inventing the Sinhala people as a superior Aryan race. The second, linguistic facet of the shift was evident first in 1944 when Jayewardene tabled a motion in the State Council that Sinhala shall be the official language of Ceylon. His ploy failed. But growing Sinhala chauvinism reinforced the shift, which culminated in the 1956 Official Language Act that enacted Sinhala as the sole official language and so excluded the Tamil and Muslim peoples and restricted political citizenship to the Sinhala people. The third, religious facet of the shift from the British to the German model crystallised when Buddhism was granted “the foremost place” in the 1972 constitution and effectively made the de facto State religion. This excluded Sinhala-Christians and further narrowed the political concept of citizenship to Sinhala-Buddhist ethnicity.
The first victims of this reactionary trend were the Up-Country (or Kandyan) Tamils who were disenfranchised under the draconian 1948 Ceylon Citizenship Act.
The design of the national flag adopted in 1952 symbolically expressed again the warped Sinhala-chauvinist worldview. The Sinhala lion emblem was given pride of place while demoting Tamil and Muslim peoples to saffron and green stripes at the less important pole end of the flag. Dr N. M. Perera, a progressive Sinhala politician (nowadays rarely any of them can be found outside the Colombo Museum), condemned the new flag as a “fraud... perpetrated on the minorities. They [Sinhalese] are going to have the Lion Flag and these stripes are for the outcasts” (Hansard, vol. 9, col. 1565-1684).
By the time the 1978 constitution was adopted, Sinhala nationalists gave the Sinhala lion emblem a distinctly Buddhist touch. They inserted the motif resembling the leaf of the Bo tree – a symbol of Buddhist worship – into the four corners of the emblem. That completed the shift from the British to the German model of political citizenship. Sri Lanka today has a Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-religious State steeped in the Aryan supremacist ideology that glorifies Sinhala-Buddhists as the bhoomi putra (‘sons of the soil’) while denigrating Tamils, Muslims and Sinhala-Christians as politically second-class.
Significantly, progressive Sinhala politicians made repeated references to the German experience. They displayed an instinctive grasp of the tragic consequences of linking political citizenship to ethnicity. In 1956 one progressive Sinhala member of parliament (MP) drew chilling parallels with the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany during the parliamentary debate over the Official Language Bill. He also predicted that it would become necessary to send an “army of occupation” to the Northern and Eastern provinces if Tamils are to be compelled to “swallow” the Sinhala language. He warned that such actions will result in “rioting, bloodshed and civil war” and will force Tamils to demand a separate State (Hansard, vol. 23, col. 572-623). Another progressive Sinhala MP condemned the proposed language policy as “Hitlerism.”
But the voices of the sane few were drowned by Sinhala-chauvinist cackle. An MP arrogantly defended cultural genocide: he declared, “We [Sinhalese] want to absorb you [Tamils] into our community” (Hansard, vol. 22, col. 1754-55). Another Sinhala MP bluntly told Tamil MPs (reported in translation), “We want to absorb you. Why do you resent that?” And he helpfully explained, “because there are 40 million people speaking the Tamil language across the Palk Strait, you people give up the Tamil language and get absorbed, get assimilated” (Hansard, vol. 24, col. 942-1917).
The myopic Sinhala chauvinists burst into uncontrolled merriment in parliament when a Tamil MP, Professor C. Suntharalingam, issued a simple but a stunningly prophetic warning in June 1956: “We will learn to use fire-arms before we learn Sinhalese. Make no mistake on that score” (Hansard, vol. 24, col. 1805).
Over the next five decades, this anti-Tamil bigotry spread wider and seeped deeper within the Sinhala polity. Sabre rattling against Tamils during and after the July 1983 holocaust, baying for Tamil blood in successive, largely futile, military campaigns through the 1980s and 1990s, celebrating the Sinhala ‘conquest’ of the Tamil cultural heartland, Jaffna, in December 1995, are the more outrageous benchmarks. The present generation of Sinhala people has been weaned on this potent anti-Tamils brew; they elected Rajapakse, who is of that generation.
If he wishes to resolve the Tamil National Question short of an independent State of Tamil Eelam, then Rajapakse must de-fang Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism by re-establishing the link between the political concept citizenship and the individual, as the first step to dismantle the ethno-religious State and retrieve a secular-democratic State. That Sinhala cultural revolution requires some concrete actions.
Rajapakse may find it edifying to reflect on the German experience. Liberal institutions established in the Federal Republic of Germany after the Second World War have popularised the association between political citizenship and the individual as an indispensable requirement to resist fascism and re-establish and sustain liberal democracy. So far they have made good progress (despite the vocal neo-Nazi movement’s preference for the pre-War linkage between citizenship and German ethnicity).
Rajapakse would be well advised to redesign the national flag to the satisfaction of the Tamil and Sinhala nations and other ethnic groups.
The president would find it to his advantage to honestly acknowledge that the position regarding the official language has remained the same from the mid-1950s to the present. Under Article 18 of the constitution, as amended by the 1987 13th Amendment, “the official language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala (Art 18.1) while “Tamil shall also be an official language” (Art 18.2). That is, Sinhala is the sole official language of the whole country while Tamil an official language for specified purposes only. The Article essentially combines and restates the 1956 Official Language Act (in Art 18.1) and the 1958 Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act (in Art 18.2). This odious fact is skilfully obscured by the Sinhala chauvinists’ propaganda that both are official languages of the whole country; and collaborating Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) politicians colluded with them to deceive Tamils by not exposing Article 18 as a cruel deception and by mouthing vacuous assertions about “proper implementation” of the provision. Can Rajapakse amend Article 18 to make Sinhala and Tamil the official languages of the whole country in the face of opposition from his Sinhala-extremist coalition partner, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)?
Tamils have long emphasised the need to return to a secular constitution to ensure equality for all religious groups under the constitution. The next requirement, then, would be to repeal Article 9 of the constitution that makes Sri Lanka a de facto Buddhist State. What would be the reaction of Rajapakse’s coalition partner, the Buddhist-fundamentalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU)?
These fundamental changes would help to re-link political citizenship with the individual and so transform the current Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-religious State into a secular, plural democracy. That transformation is the necessary pre-condition for a negotiated settlement. Rajapakse, being a realist, must surely know that the LTTE-led Tamil National Movement has no democratic space within the suffocating confines of the ethno-religious unitary State to negotiate a political solution. Does Rajapakse hope to reach a consensus with his coalition partners, Sinhala political parties and other southern organisations to mobilise the Sinhala polity’s support to secure this pre-condition?
If the president proposes to hold direct ‘talks’ with the LTTE without at the very least preparing the Sinhala people to accept the transformation, then he will have great difficulty convincing the LTTE, the Tamil people and the international community that he is negotiating in good faith on behalf of the Sinhala people. The unavoidable conclusion would be that, like previous Sinhala presidents, he too is buying time to attempt a military solution to the Tamil National Question.