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ETHNIC CRISIS IN SRI LANKA

By. Nimal Aryaratne - Sultanate of Oman

The currant ethnic in Sri Lanka can be traced back to the era of the British Raj, on their policy of local administration. The Christian missionaries mainly opened schools in the North & Eastern regions of Ceylon and not in the predominant Sinhalese populated areas.

The first signs of discontent amongst the Sinhalese was noticed when Sinhala Buddhist bourgeoisie challenged the Christian hegemony in the late 19th Century, with a strong Sinhala nationalism emerging against the Westernism & Christians. During this period the beginning of chauvinistic tendency in the majority community was quite visible.

The first ethnic crisis erupted in 1915, when trading and merchant elements of the petty bourgeoisie, resorted to violence against the Muslims. In the 1930's the Sinhala working class demonstrated its hostility towards Malayalis. Until 1930's, the language issue was not controversial in spite of the majority Sinhalese feeling discriminated against in their own country because of their lack of knowledge in English. In fact under the British rule, English was not only the Official Language of administration, but also the language of professions, commerce, higher education and politics. English was the "Language of the Sinhala Elite and a large number of Tamils". Tamils were more willing to learn English and join the government services than the Sinhalese, because the Ceylon Tamils were living in the dry zone which was not fertile as the low country areas which were predominantly populated with Sinhalese and was a fertile wet zone.

In 1935, the Lanka Samasamaja Party was formed with a fundamental objective to introduce the use of Sinhala and Tamil in the lower courts, police stations and government sector. Thus emerged the movement for adopting Swabasha (or Own Language) prior to independence, leading to the decision that English would be gradually be replaced as the official language by both the Sinhalese & Tamils. However in 1944, J.R. Jayawardena proposed that "Sinhala" be made the official language in a reasonable time. But his proposal was ammended and it was recommended that both Sihala & Tamil languages be made the official languages for medium of instruction in schools, public service exams and legislative proceedings. At this time , S.W.R.D Bandaranayaka reportedly remarked "I have no personal objection to both languages being made official languages of Ceylon, nor do I see any particular harm or danger or real difficulty from this"

The British legacy also determined the establishment of a unitary system instead of a federal system, considering the comparative small size of Ceylon.. The Sinhala Kings and Tamils of the Chola Kingdom faught many wars, but people of both communities lived as peacefully as possible. The fact remains that prior to Ceylon gaining independence in 1948, the Tamil minority had been reportedly assured by the Sinhala leadership that it would not be discriminated against with regard to representation and legislation.

Immediately after independence Sihalese nationalism began to grow, with the first victims being the Indian Tamils, who were brought by the British to work in the plantations. The Indian Tamils were disenfranchised under the Ceylon Citizenship Act No. 18 of November 15 1948, which was presented to the legislature by the United National Party. The Lanka Samasamaja Party vehemently opposed the passage of this legislature, but were bulldozed by Sinhala Chauvinist Politicians, such as D.S Senanayake, Sir John Ktalawela, S.W.R.D Bandaranayaka, J.R. Jayawardena.. The Indian Tamils became virtually stateless, unless they were able to prove they were citizens of Ceylon either by decent or registration. They could have claimed citizenship in Ceylon if they could also prove that they had family connections for two generations in Ceylon. Since in that period of time, there was hardly the practice of registering births, the Indian Tamils failed to produce birth certificates of their fathers, stating that their place of birth was Ceylon. Consequently a majority of the Indian Tamils who had been living in Ceylon for generations, became stateless. It should be remembered that the Majority of the Tamil Politicians by not opposing the Ceylon Citizenship Act, declared their own ethnic group as stateless. What a travesty of justice.

In many constituencies where Indian Tamils were predominant, they elected candidates from the Lanka Samasamaja Party to the legislature. This was not viewed favorably by the Sinhala Chauvinist Politicians and the Ceylon Tamil Politicians. This resulted in the Indian Tamils becoming stateless in a country where till then they enjoyed the status of citizenship and the right to vote at the time of elections. Thus they became the first victims of discrimination .

At the time of independence, Ceylon Tamils who constituted 10% of the population held 31% of the posts in the Universities and acquired a higher percentage in the professional fields. Many Sinhalese resented the fact that the Tamils enjoyed disproportionate educational and employment opportunities because of their proficiency in the English Language. Reading the mind of the majority Sinhala Community on the language issue, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, in 1951, parted company with the United National Party and formed a new Political Party called the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. He accused the UNP in failing to take action on the language question and in his first manifesto, called for the immediate adoption of Sinhal & Tamil as official languages of the country, so that citizens of Ceylon will not feel alien in their own land Prior to 1956 Parliamentary Elections, the SLFP adopted the "Sinhala Only" Policy.

The ruling UNP followed suite adopting a resolution on "Sinhala Only". Philip Gunawardena of the VLLSP abandoned the policy of parity and opted for "Sinhala Only" policy. The only political parties that were opposed to the "Sinhala Only" policy were the LSSP, CP and the Tamil Parties. The coalition led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranayaka of the SLFP & Philip Gunawardena of the MEP, won an absolute majority in the elections. The minority Tamil representation in Parliament were not in a position to influence the proceedings in the newly constituted Parliament. In a democratic polity , if the majority community becomes autocratic and the promoter of its own interest at the cost of the minority, it is not only an infringement of basic democratic norms, but also creates a very fertile ground for ethnic violence which will lead to a civil war.

Apart from the members of the Tamil Parties, the LSSP & CP in Parliament, forewarned the Sinhala Nationalist about the imminent danger of growth of secessionist tendency in the country. Dr Colvin R De Silva of the LSSP asked the question, "Do you want two languages and a division of the country or one language and one country". The majority Sinhala members of Parliament did not realize that they were laying a strong foundation for racial, ethnic and religious gulf between the two major communities in the country. Immediately after the New Parliament was constituted, the ruling coalition introduced the Official Languages Bill of 1956, which made "Sinhala" the sole official language. Whilst the bill was being debated , ethnic violence erupted in Colombo and the Eastern Ceylon. The Bill was contested by both the Tamil Parties and the LSSP & CP members of Pariament, but their views were not taken into account by the "Chauvinist Sinhala members of Parliament". Even a silent "Satyagraha" outside the House of Parliament by Tamils, were stoned by the Sinhala Mobs with the connivance of the "Nationalist Sinhala Politicians"

S.J.V. Chelvanayakam threatened to launch a Satyagraha on August 20th 1957 in support of four demands, amongst them being the repel of the Official Languages Act and the grant of equal status to the Tamil language with Sinhala. On July 25, 1957 the Bandaranayaka - Chelvanayan compromise agreement to the language issue was signed. According to the settlement, Tamil was to be recognized as the language of a "National Minority" in the country and would be an "Official Language" for administrative purpose in the North & Eastern Provinces. However agitation by extremist Buddhist nationalists led to rioting in which several hundreds of people were killed. J.R Jayawardena led a march from Colombo to Kandy to protest against the agreement, but was stopped at Gampaha by S.D Bandaranayaka. Prime Minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranayaka was compelled to abrogate the compromise agreement with Chelvanayakan in 1958. Tamil language was reduced to the language of the North & East only whilst those living elsewhere and who were in the public service were discriminated against because they were required to gain proficiency in Sinhala within 3 years, failing which, they would be penalized or could even loose their employment. Proficiency in Sinhala for Public Servants affected not only Tamils, but Burghers, Muslims, Sinhalese who were educated in the English medium. Finally S.W.R.D. Bandaranayaka was assassinated by an Extremist Bhuddist Monk

The New United Front Government, headed by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranyaka, came into power in 1970 and adopted a New Constitution, enforcing the "Sinhala Only" rule and made Buddhism the State religion. The immediate Tamil reaction was to observe a day of mourning in protest of the New Constitution. A new phase of communal antagonism surfaced. The Tamil political parties clubbed together to form the Tamil United Liberation Front. The demand for self rule gained momentum in the North & the East. The Tamil Tiger movement started around 1972 and gradually Vellupillai Prabhakaran emerged the unchallenged leader, having eliminated other Tamil Liberation Organization leaders.

1977 Parliamentary Elections, the United National Party came into power with a massive 4/5ths majority. Junius Richard Jayawarden became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. The former premier, Mrs. Bandaranayka was charged with abuse of power and lost her civic rights for seven years. One month after the UNP were swept into power, communal violence erupted again. In 1978 a new constitution was adopted, with J.R Jayawardena becoming the First Executive President with unprecedented power. He tried to woo the Americans and distanced himself from India. This was the gravest error, which resulted in the Indian Government training & arming Tamil Militants of Sri Lanka. The UNP started on massive development projects of which the previous SLFP government had done all the feasibility studies.

The ethnic crisis became more serious when Jayawardena imposed an economic blockade on the Jaffna Peninsula. In January 1987 as the LTTE threatened to take control of the Civil Administration in Jaffna. As the situation got serious, the Indian Government decided to send relief supplies to Jaffna, but were stopped by the Sri Lanka Navy. Consequently Indian Air Force Para drooped essential commodities. The July 1983 Communal Violence which erupted in Colombo, saw hundreds of innocent Tamils being brutally murdered, property destroyed, Tamil women raped. The Sinhala nationalists had big smiles on their faces. The Executive President allowed the violence to go on unabated for two days before he ordered the security forces to move in. It was too late, the damage was done, The ruthless Tamil Tiger Terrorists Movement came into being.

Peace accord between Ragiv Gandhi & JRJ, the deployment of the IPKF, failed to arrest the armed conflict. Bloody Civil War raged with innocent civilians of all communities loosing their lives. After JRJ ended his tenure of Prsidency, Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected the President. His first priority was to get rid of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. Towards this end he armed the LTTE. In one instance he instructed a certain Police Station in the North to hand over its Arms & Ammunition to the LTTE which resulted in a Bloody Carnage of the entire Police Force in that Station. Over three hundred Police Personal were shot to death by the LTTE.

The LTTE grew in strength, acquiring new arms, through various methods of Fund Raising. Suicide attacks in Colombo & other areas had a devastating effect on the country. The emergence of the Southern Rebellion and the Civil War in the North was taking the country to very low economic levels. The Human Rights violations between 1977 & 1994 was astronomical. Sri Lanka witnessed a 17 Year rule by the United National Party, which caused untold hardships to the majority of the population. The Sri Lankan Armed Forces suffered many humiliating defeats at the hands of the LTTE

When Chandrika Kumaratunga came into power in 1994, her first priority was to come into a peaceful negotiation with the LTTE. This bore little success as the LTTE never wanted to give up its call for a separate state. The UNP at every given opportunity plotted to de rail any peace efforts. Though the UNP lost several elections, it never stopped from trying to overthrow the Peoples Alliance (PA) Government. They were not interested in finding a peaceful solution to the on going ethnic conflict.

A brief analysis of The Political Scenarios played by Major Political Parties will give a better insight on their strategy towards the ongoing conflict.

Peoples Alliance

The promises given to end the war within one year was repeatedly mentioned during the 1999 Presidential Election. The Sinhala people were shown that the aim of the political package or proposals for Constitutional Reforms, was to separate the Tamil People from the LTTE. The strategy was that a political settlement could not be achieved unless the LTTE and Prabhakaran were militarily defeated as a organization. PA's argument was , it was useless to put forward political solution without a military victory. This was the justification for the "War for Peace" The PA considered the political package as a strategy or tool to be used to isolate and defeat the LTTE rather than as a part of the process to achieve peace. A resolution by the LSSP, partner of the PA, wanted the Government to bring forward constitutional reforms before Parliament, in August 1999, failing which they threatened to resign. The Constitutional Reforms were never put forward upto March 2000, neither did the LSSP resign.

An Equal Opportunities Bill was proposed by the PA with the aim of resolving the rights of women and members of the minority communities. How ever due to dissention even within the ranks of the PA, the Bill was withdrawn. The Norwegian Peace efforts bore no fruits. Due to growing tension and polarization between the PA and the UNP and increase in political violence, prevented any bi- partisan approach to resolve the issue. Corruption , nepotism , political intimidation by the PA regime went unabated.

United National Party

The main opposition, United National Party, continuously avoided expressing any concrete ideas in resolving the ethnic crisis. Their position was based on two main views that seemed to contradict each other. The first was that they would only accept a constitution that was premised on the existence of unitary state, a position taken by the then Prime Minister, R. Premadasa, when the Peace Accord was signed by JRJ & Rajiv Ghandhi. The second view was that since the LTTE enjoys support from the Tamil People, any solution that ignored the LTTE would be useful. This refuted the consideration of the LTTE and the Tamil People as two separate groups. The UNP approach was to negotiate a long term temporary cease-fire with the LTTE without waiting until a process of negotiations had been concluded to end the fighting. What the UNP deliberately overlooked was the track record of the LTTE, who derailed every given opportunity for peace negotiations by systematically building up their cadres and armory and attacking the armed forces.

The UNP policy was aimed at winning the support of the Sinhala Extremist forces by assuming a position that a solution to the ethnic crisis should be within the frame work of a unitary state and at winning support of the minority communities by stating that a non-military approach should be adopted towards the LTTE. This position was adopted by Ranil Wickramasinghe, throughout the 1999 Election campaign. "I will begin discussions with the LTTE, even if I have to bring in a third party for a negotiated settlement" was Ranils message to the voters. I will take steps to de escalate the war, will not bring in Constitutional Reforms until practical solutions are reached that could be agreed upon by all sections of society. I will appoint an Interim Council for the North & Eastern Provinces, was the message he gave the Sri Lankan Voters.

The UNP went further, stating that it will grant leadership of this Interim Council to the LTTE, though it avoided giving details on how this would be put into force. As in the past, during the 2001 Parliamentary Elections, the UNP adopted a tolerant approach towards the LTTE. Although the UNP promised to minimize the hardships suffered by the Tamil People living in the LTTE controlled areas, they opposed the Bill of Equal Opportunities introduced by the PA Government . Here we could see the "Blatant Duplicity" of the UNP. The UNP purposely went on to delay its responses regarding the PA's proposals for Constitutional Reforms. The UNP's sole aim was to de stabilize the Government and come into power, which they were able to do so in 2001, as the PA was reeking with corruption.

If Ranil Wickramasinghe and the UNP thinks that they can end the war with the LTTE and bring about a peaceful solution, it will be just another pipe dream. The LTTE demand for a separate homeland will not be given up as easily as we think. Under the guise of accepting a diluted settlement, once they come into the seat of administrative power, they will slowly but surely, spread their tentacles to decimate the Areas in the Eastern Province, where Sinhalese & Muslims are domicled.

The LTTE showed how ruthless they can be when they attacked the forces recently in which they lost as many as fourteen of their cadre. The UNP should heed these warning signals, the writing is on the wall.

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

The JVP of today has a brand new image and has emerged as a very strong force on its own identity. They named the war with the LTTE as genocide and demanded an immediate stop to the war. However it did not present a practical solution on how this could be achieved. The embargo on sending food and medicine to the Vanni area was rejected by the JVP on the basis that it will not bring about a solution to the war. The JVP in fact demonstrated an attitude of indifferance regarding the protection of human rights of the Tamil people living outside the North & the East.. JVP General Secretary, Tilvin Silva went on record saying "What we have in the country is not an ethnic conflict, but a national crisis created as a result of the failure to build a Sri Lankan nation. They remain committed to the belief that whatever form of devolution of power is carried out under the capitalist system, it will not be a solution to the problem, but will lead to the division of the country. According to the JVP, the Tamil people should be given the opportunity of self governance in certain areas based on the acceptance of their right to self determination only under a socialist regime within which democracy has been established

Tamil Political Parties

Majority of the Tamil Political parties felt that the Political Package offered by the Peoples Alliance was insufficient. Their common agreement was on a Federal system of Government. Former Chief Minister Vartharaja Perumal & Douglas Devananda, leader of the WEDP were in favour of the Provincial Council system as the first step towards devolution of power. However the TULF repeatedly showed its unwillingness to the Provincial Council system at the beset of the LTTE. Subsequently a common Tamil Front was formed, at the beset of the LTTE to enter into the Election Fray of the 2001 December General Elections.

How far will LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabahkaran will stretch himself to accepting a negotiated settlement, through unconditional peace talks as offered by the newly elected United National Front Government in a very subtle and tense environment, is the question uppermost in the minds of not only the Srilankans, but of neighboring India and other nations.

Conclusion

The scourge of the "Divide & Rule" policy left behind by the British Raj has not only had a drastic impact on Sri Lanka, but other countries like India, Canada, The Middle East, South Asian countries too. Peace and stability in Sri Lanka can only be achieved if all Political Parties join forces in a common cause to eradicate terrorism, bribery & corruption, nepotism. It could be achieved if self centered ideologies are discarded. Is this too much to ask or is this possible in only Utopia?


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