Ethnic Reconciliation and Nation Building in Sri Lanka
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Book Release and Panel Discussion

The Indian Centre for South Asian Studies and the Centre for Asian Studies in collaboration with the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), released a book entitled “Ethnic Reconciliation and Nation Building in Sri Lanka”, at the VIF Auditorium on 19 Oct 10.

An interesting Panel Discussion was thereafter conducted on this subject. The panelists were Lt Gen R K Sawhney, PVSM,AVSM (retd) [former DCOAS and DGMI]; Amb Satish Chandra (former Deputy National Security Advisor) and Prof V. Suryanarayan. Mr. Mukul Kanitkar (Secretary VIF India) introduced the subject and Mr. Sushil Pandit compeered the proceedings. The views of speakers are given below.

Gen Sawhney
The top priority of the present Rajapaksa regime seems to be “development” and not ethnic reconciliation. Reconstruction and development are important in any post-conflict society, but what is also imperative is dismantling of the security state and winning the peace. Citing regroup of LTTE remnants the state is maintaining high security zones enveloping huge tracts of agricultural and residential lands of the northeastern Sri Lanka, which is predominantly Tamil-dominated and once controlled by the LTTE. Permanent military cantonments are also coming up in these areas. What is also troubling is the increasing appearance of Buddha statues in the North East. It is this securitization, over-centralization and insensitivity towards pluralism that pose dangers for future nation-building and sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.

The sole aim of the present UPFA government under Mahinda Rajapaksa is to make Sri Lanka as “Singapore of South Asia”. What is, therefore, required in their belief is a stable government under a strong leader devoid of “external interference”. Using near-two-thirds majority obtained in the recently concluded parliamentary elections, various steps are being taken in this regard. To pre-empt United Nations’ move to appoint an experts panel on “war crimes” during the last stages of war, Sri Lankan President has appointed a eight-member Commission on ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation’ (LLRC). There are plans to amend the Constitution to remove two-term cap on President to enable Rajapaksa to continue beyond 2017 that too with more powers. Other amendments considered are instituting a second chamber at the national level and change in electoral system – from proportional representation to first-past-the-post system or a mix of both.

Ethnic reconciliation in the real sense is nowhere in the picture. LLRC is a good step, but its mandate is very limited. As per the notification, the Commission will be required to inquire and report on the facts and circumstances which led to the failure of the ceasefire agreement operationalised on 21 February 2002 and the sequence of events that followed thereafter up to 19 May 2009 when the war ended; whether any person, group or institutions directly or indirectly bear responsibility; lessons to learn from those events and their attendant concerns in order to ensure that there will be no recurrence; and methodology whereby restitution to any person affected by those events or their dependents or their heirs, can be effected. The assumption is that the Cease Fire Accord (CFA) was a failure, which it was not. It, in fact, brought the Tigers out of their closet and exposed them to the real life; it was also responsible for the vertical split as Karuna broke away in 2004 with about 6000 Tigers. Although, it is claimed that the LLRC is on the model of Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, there is no mechanism for reconciliation in the real sense. Yet another concern is that the report of this new Commission should not go futile as in the case of All Party Representative Committee (APRC), which was constituted in 2006 to “fashion creative options that satisfy minimum expectations as well as provide a comprehensive approach to the resolution of the national question”.

Time-and-again President Rajapaksa emphasize on “Four-Ds” – Demilitarization, Development, Democratization, and Devolution – in that order of priority. Obviously, there is no sign of devolution of powers to the minorities. The Rajapaksa government has been articulating of finding a “home grown solution” to the ethnic issue. However, at the maximum, what is on cards is the existing 13th amendment, an offshoot of Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. Through 13th Amendment, the island was divided into various provinces and granted some powers under Provincial List. However, the Provincial Councils always lacked sufficient powers – especially land, police and finance – to run their affairs in an efficient manner. In addition, the Centre wields immense powers of overruling any of Provincial decisions. Instead of strengthening the Provinces, the present government is planning to dilute the present arrangement further. Unless there is genuine power sharing, the Provincial Council arrangement will be a mere eyewash.

The Rajapaksa government also has to go beyond the constitutional tinkering in reaching out to minorities by showing magnanimity. Resettlement of the displaced, reconstruction of the war-ravaged northeast and rehabilitation of the LTTE cadres should be done in a more serious and fair manner. Trust deficit that exists between various communities of the island must be bridged on a priority basis. These confidence building measures will go a long way in convincing even the Tamil diaspora that is presently keeping the hopes of Tamil Eelam alive. It is important for the Sri Lankan government to engage the diaspora to make them positively contribute to the development of the country.

In the same vein, the Sri Lankan government must count-in the Opposition’s contribution in the nation-building. Without bi-partisan consensus, any political settlement to the ethnic question would be unsustainable. Political history of Sri Lanka since independence is witness to this. Colombo should also reconcile diplomatically with the West that is upset with former’s stand on human rights issues. Western and UN concerns are genuine and there is no “Church conspiracy” in this. It is vital to have them as ‘partners in development’ rather than overly depending on countries like China.

It must be realized that this is the historic opportunity available to Rajapaksa regime not only to resolving the ethnic issue once and for all, but also to take the island state to new heights.

Amb Satish Chandra
He pointed out that in states marked by a diversity of ethnic, linguistic, religious etc groupings, a sine qua non for long term progress and prosperity is harmony amongst such variegated elements of the population. In India we have had a measure of success in achieving such harmony amongst our diverse religious, ethnic and linguistic groupings as pluralism is a part of our ethos. We have not only catered for it in our constitution but are also proud to celebrate it.

Regrettably, this has not been the case in Sri Lanka where, virtually since its independence in 1948, the Sinhalese majority has by and large been insensitive to the legitimate aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils. It is this which led to the thirty year civil war in the country which in turn gave a major set back to economic development and which brutalized the state.

Following the LTTE’s defeat in May 2009 by the Sri Lankan army while it is on the cards that Sri Lanka’s economic recovery will be fast tracked it will be much more difficult to reverse the consequences of the brutalization of the state and a revival of the LTTE in some other form cannot be ruled out.

In my presentation I will touch on the following:
1)Population breakdown;
2)The ground springs of the ethnic discord between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese
3)The civil war
4)Developments following the elimination of the LTTE

Population Breakdown:- As per the last complete census in Sri Lanka in 1981 the population breakdown in the country numbering at about 14.8 million was roughly as follows:

  • Sinhalese 74% - 10.979 million. The bulk being Buddhists.
  • Sri Lankan Tamils 12.7% - 1.886 million. The bulk being Hindus
  • Indian Tamils 5.52% - 0.818 million. The bulk being Hindus
  • Moors 7.05% 1.046 million. Most being Muslims with many being Tamil speakers.
  • Out of the roughly 1.1 million population in the north 86% were Sri Lankan Tamils and only 2.98% Sinhala; and out of the 0.976 million in the East 40.9% were Sri Lankan Tamils, 32.24% were Moors, 24.92% were Sinhala and 1.24% Indian Tamils.

    In short in the North and East together Sri Lankan Tamils constituted a clear majority.

    The Indian Tamils arrived in Sri Lanka from the 1830’s mainly as indentured labour and played no part in the ethnic strife that has plagued the country. They remained neutral in the struggle for Eelam.

    As per current estimates due to migration and attrition in the civil war the Sri Lankan Tamil population is no more that about 9% of the total population of about 20-21 million. While about half is in the North and the East where it constitutes the majority the rest is dispersed in other parts of Sri Lanka.

    Ground Springs of Ethnic Discord:- In the lead upto independence in 1948 Tamil elites considered themselves ethnic equals with Sinhalese elites; and were treated as such. This unity was however shattered by the SLFP’s Bandaranaike when he jettisoned the proposal to make Tamil and Sinhala official languages and instead embraced the Sinhala only platform in order to win the 1956 elections. Noting the success of the SLFP in playing the ethnic card the UNP followed suit and took to the culture of ethnic outbidding.

    The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 created animus between the Sinhalese and the Tamils sparking the first ever anti-Tamil riots. These were followed by the 1958 riots and spawned policies that promoted Sinhalese Buddhist hegemony. Tamil efforts at reconciliation came to naught with the scrapping of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and of the Senanayake-Chelvanayake Pact of 1965 which addressed differences on the language issue and that of land alienation.

    The SLFP governments of 1960-1965 and 1970-77 in particular instituted policies promoting Sinhalese Buddhist superordination and Tamil subordination. Such policies manifested themselves in:

  • Tamil civil servants had to learn Sinhala to be promoted;
  • Stationing Sinhalese civil servants in Tamil areas and Tamils were forced to interact with them in Sinhala;
  • Institution of Sinhala only in the courts system including in Tamil majority areas;
  • Deprivation of Tamil areas of development assistance;
  • Ban on Indian publications promoting Tamil culture;
  • Discrimination against Tamil students;
  • 1972 constitution introduced without any inputs from Tamils eliminated minority guarantees and gave foremost status to Buddhists;
    Military stationed in North East from 1961 humiliated Tamils;
    By the early 1970s many Tamils were blocked entry into government service and the universities.

    With dispassionate governance having been discarded for a government of the Sinhalese Buddhists, by the Sinhalese Buddhists and for the Sinhalese Buddhists; it is no surprise that there began a quest for Eelam. One of the groups which espoused Eelam was the LTTE, which officially came into being in 1976.

    The Tamil quest for Eelam could have been quelled in the late 70’s but regrettably Jayawardene’s UNP government with a 5/6th majority in Parliament did not go in for meaningful devolution. While halting discrimination in some areas of education and accommodating the Tamil language it used ethnic tensions to perpetuate its rule. It introduced the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act and presided over the 1977 anti Tamil riots, the 1981 burning of the Jaffna library and the 1983 anti Tamil Colombo riots.

    The Civil War:- The 1983 Colombo riots not only further intensified ethnic bitterness but also prompted the Tamils to leave the country in thousands some to the West, some to India and some to the North. Most of these migrants became ardent supporters of Eelam and those that migrated to the West soon became major financial contributors to the cause of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka.

    Leadership for Eelam fell into the hands of the LTTE which under Prabhakaran became one of the most ruthless terrorist outfits determined to gain Eelam through military means, In the process it decimated all other competing Tamil entities, acquired total control on the areas under its control through brute force and terror and exacted a terrible toll on the Sri Lankan state through a spate of terrorist actions. It is no surprise therefore that Sri Lanka through the 80’s to date has been dragged into the vortex of one of the bloodiest and most debilitating civil wars of our time.

    It has been argued that the LTTE may well have succeeded in its quest for Eelam and failed because of its “immanent contradictions.” This line of thinking has been built upon the fact that for many years while the LTTE controlled enormous amounts of territory was well funded, had good logistical support, no dearth of cadres and excellent tactical military leadership the Sri Lankan state was in the international dog house. However, all these pluses over time were negated due to the LTTE’s paranoiac and megalomaniac leadership which could brook no dissent, its indiscriminate and ruthless use of terror which was counterproductive in the long run, and its total lack of statesmanship which made it difficult for it to seize opportunities to advance the Tamil agenda short of Eelam. For instance, there can be no doubt that the lot of the Tamils would have been far better today had the LTTE supported the 1987 India Sri Lanka peace agreement, agreed to go along with the 1994 offer made by Chandrika Kumaratunga allowing the LTTE to rule the North east for 10 years pending a permanent solution, or indeed participated in the peace talks with the Sri Lankan authorities sincerely seeking to bridge the gap between the positions of the two sides aimed at securing a better position for the Tamils. The necessity for adopting such a more moderate and constructive stance should have become apparent following 9/11 when the odium attached to terrorist outfits reached an all time high and added impetus to the ban on the LTTE by many countries and later Col Karuna’s breakaway from Prabhakaran.

    In short the all out brutal warfare waged by the LTTE was both counterproductive and detrimental to the Tamil cause. It exacerbated ethnic bitterness which was further fanned by Rajapaksa’s equally single minded no holds barred military response.

    Sri Lanka has had to pay a horrendous price for the civil war. It saw the military being increased in strength from 12000 to 190000. It stanched development, exacerbated the brain drain, contributed to political decay, militarized and brutalized society, displaced about a million people and killed over a 100000 people. Indeed the loss of life from 1975 to 2002 has been pegged much higher at 220000 people by a study undertaken by the Harvard medical school and the University of Washington.

    Post May 2009 Developments:- Post May 2009 developments don’t bode well for restoration of ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka as the Rajapaksa Government has, far from seeking to win hearts and minds of the Tamil population, not been magnanimous in victory and has not held out the prospects meeting their legitimate demands for autonomy. In this context, one may refer to the elimination of the LTTE leadership even after they had surrendered, the holding of hundreds of thousands in camps for months on end, preventing many of them from returning to their homes, ethnic flooding of Sinhalese in the North, and harassment of Tamils.

    Furthermore, Rajapaksa has enormously strengthened his position and today enjoys near dictatorial powers much of which are exercised through his family and has used these without compunction in order to silence dissent. It is being stated that the President, his three brothers and 130 relatives involved in state enterprises control nearly 70% of the national budget. Under the 18th amendment the two term restriction on the President has been done away with and the removal of the 17th amendment has done away with the Constitutional Council (CC) created under of the constitution. It was mandatory for the president to act on CC’s recommendations on appointments to high office. Though partisan politics of Sri Lanka had ensured the 17th amendment was never followed both in letter and spirit, the president was obliged to follow it. As per the new amendment, the CC has been replaced by a five-member council consisting of the prime minister, speaker, leader of the opposition and a member of parliament each to be nominated by the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. This makes it purely political in character unlike the CC which provided for participation of eminent persons outside the political spectrum.

    However, the catch is the president is only required only to seek the observations of the members of this parliamentary council while appointing the chairmen and members of election commission, public service commission, national police commission, human rights commission, permanent commission to investigate allegations of corruption and bribery, finance commission and delimitation commission. The president similarly consults the Council while appointing the chief justice and judges of the Supreme Court, the president and judges of the court of appeal, and members of judicial service commission other than chairman.

    The emergency in Sri Lanka still continues though there is no clear and present threat to the state from the LTTE or indeed from any other quarter.

    It is also obvious that the President has terrorized the media and splintered the opposition. The Tamils are today more divided than ever before. The once influential TULF is a near nonentity and the TNA, the LTTE’s proxy has been marginalized. It must now compete with the pro government TMVP (led by competing leaders like Karuna and Pillayan) in the East and the EPDP in the north under Douglas Devananda. However, the voting in the Presidential elections quite apparently demonstrates the alienation of the Tamils from Rajapaksa.

    It may further be noted that the LTTE though defeated in Sri Lanka is reemerging according to Rohan Gunaratna in the West. He makes out that
    “The LTTE is acting through three fronts – the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam led by Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran in New York, Global Tamil Forum led by Father S. J. Emmanuel in the U.K. and the criminal faction led by Perinbanayagam Sivaparan alias Nediyawan in Norway. The LTTE leaders, offices and assets overseas are largely intact. The LTTE-controlled diaspora campaign contributions and carefully orchestrated constituency pressure/electoral compulsions compel the U.S., U.K., Norway and a few countries to turn a blind eye to LTTE activities. Although the LTTE leadership in Sri Lanka has been decapitated, the LTTE’s global network poses an enduring and a long term threat to the stability and security of the country.”

    Prognosis:- Clearly the failure of Sri Lankan leaders to govern a multi-ethnic and a multi-religious society since independence precipitated Sri Lanka’s ethno-political conflict. Sri Lanka’s political masters compromised Sri Lanka’s long term national and strategic interests for short term political gain. Unless Sri Lankan politicians build the understanding to never again to play ethnic and religious based politics, poison the ground by radicalizing its youth, and reinforce ethnic and religious divisions, the country is likely to suffer a repetition of its unfortunate past.

    As I see it there are three possible futures for Sri Lanka. First and the optimal would be for the political leaders of the country to work together across the party divide to build a new Sri Lanka. This would require a reaching out to the Sri Lankan Tamils and providing meaningful devolution. It is within the government’s means to do so, given Rajapaksa’s strong position. Such an approach would provide for long lasting peace and prosperity in Sri Lanka.
    A second would be a business as usual approach which would entail doing little or nothing to assuage the resentment of the Sri Lankan Tamils along with measures to keep them down. This would lead to the revival of the LTTE under another name and guise.

    The third would be to consciously make the Tamil community irrelevant by a series of measures including colonization by Sinhalese of the areas where they are presently in a minority, inducing them to leave the country, creating divisions amongst them so that they cannot ever again pose a threat to the Sinhala community, and breaking their morale so that they never again entertain hope of ever securing a separate homeland. Such moves would be accompanied by a massive developmental effort particularly in Sri Lankan Tamil areas much as China has done in Tibet and Xinjiang.

    While it is still early days I fear that we are seeing the Rajapaksa regime heading down the third option. It is ironical that in adopting such an approach the regime is perhaps making the same mistake as the LTTE did in going for broke. Its immanent contradictions carry within it the seeds of its own failure. The dictatorial nature of the Rajapaksa regime and the flagrant nepotism which already taints it will inevitably over time damage the state. The first stone against the regime is likely to be cast by the Sinhalese but over time the Sri Lankan Tamils could take advantage of it.

    Prof Suryanarayan

    He remarked that he was seriously concerned about the well-being of the Sri Lankan state. He pointed out that more Tamils were killed by the LTTE than by the Sinhalese, and equally more Sinhalese were butchered by the Sri Lankan state. He outlined the history of Indo-Sri Lankan relations and the various volte-faces by the Sri Lankan leadership. He reminded people of the irony that Mahinda Rajapaksa had gone to Geneva in the 1970s to campaign for UN intervention in Sri Lanka, to stop the killing of Sinhalese (in the anti-JVP pogrom). India, he asserted, had a political system, which domesticates the terrorists and has led insurgents from the path of separatism to conformism; from conflictual to cooperative and conformist relations. In Sri Lanka, brutalization has led to ethnic conflagration. The greatness of a state is judged by how it treats its minorities. We in India have remained silent spectators. We need to chalk out a plan of action to help and ameliorate the Tamils and ensure massive rehabilitation takes place. The war is over, but peace has not returned. The Sri Lankans plan to construct cantonments, colonize Tamil areas and make them a minority. A brute majority in parliament does not lead to stability. The next rebellion, he predicted, may well come from the Sinhalese people first. The LTTE, currently in disarray, could reunite. He felt it was a sad state of affairs and the Tamil struggle for dignity has been pushed back. India, he felt, needs to define its Red Lines in Sri Lanka.


    Post-LTTE India-Sri Lanka relations have reached an unprecedented level of depth and quality. The violent phase of the ethnic conflict in the island that stood as a constant source of irritation in the bilateral relations has come to an end with the military defeat of the LTTE. The ethnic issue, however, lingers on. India has time and again conveyed its willingness to do whatever is required for the satisfactory resolution of the ethnic question that meets sentiments of all the communities of Sri Lanka. Not limiting itself in voicing concerns, New Delhi should make sure that Colombo seriously moves forward in resolving the ethnic issue at the earliest. Simultaneously, India should constantly provide resources required for the resettlement of the conflict IDPs in short-term and invest in the economic development of the war ravaged northeast of Sri Lanka. This will not only make sure that another armed conflict does not occur, but also open up immense economic opportunities for India. A durable peace in Sri Lanka will also take care of supplementary issues in the bilateral relations like security of Indian fishermen, maritime issue and presence of foreign powers like China and Pakistan in the island. Further, devolution of powers to Sri Lankan is mandatory if a long lasting solution to the Tamil issue is to be found.

    Event Date 
    October 19, 2010
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