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International

Sri Lanka: anatomy of a tragedy

22 April 2010

The belief that conditions in Sri Lanka have fundamentally changed is wishful thinking, write Stephen Keim and Roshan de Silva Wijeyeratne in this account of the country’s ongoing conflict

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Above: A woman and her son in front of their temporary home, surrounded by marked minefields, near Mallavi in northern Sri Lanka.
Photo: Russell Watkins/ Department for International Development

Above: A woman and her son in front of their temporary home, surrounded by marked minefields, near Mallavi in northern Sri Lanka.
Photo: Russell Watkins/ Department for International Development



THE RESULT of the Sri Lankan general election on 8 April came as no surprise. The ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance won a strong majority of votes cast and is likely to hold 138 seats in a 225-member parliament. While this tally falls twelve seats short of the two-thirds needed to amend the constitution, it seems likely that President Mahinda Rajapakse and the leaders of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the dominant element in the governing Alliance, will be able to secure the necessary numbers by persuading parliamentarians from the opposition United National Party to defect to the government. Concomitant with the Alliance’s triumph has been the near annihilation of the Sinhalese-dominated People’s Liberation Front, a socialist-nationalist party with nearly thirty seats in the previous parliament, whose core agenda, the defence of the centralised state, has been appropriated by the Alliance.

Those Tamils who actually went to the polling stations voted either for the federalist Tamil National Alliance or for President Rajapakse’s Tamil client party, the Eelam People’s Democratic Party. The vote for the latter was purely strategic: under the island’s proportional representation system these Tamils gave their second-preference votes to a party that – as part of the governing Alliance – could claim to be in a position to secure national resources for the devastated northeast of the island. If the party fails to secure such resources then its collaboration with the Sri Lankan/Sinhalese state is likely to be rejected by Tamils at the next election.

The Tamil National Alliance secured fifteen seats in the north and east of the island – areas where the majority of the Tamils live – on a platform that resembled its manifesto in 1970 when (as the Federal Party) it last advocated a federal constitutional arrangement as a means of managing ethno-nationalist tensions. For its part, Gajan Ponnambalam’s breakaway party, the Tamil National People’s Front, campaigned on an explicitly nationalist platform. It secured no seats at all, with Ponnambalam losing his Jaffna seat. Clearly, he had misread the mood in the Tamil-dominated northeast; war-weary Tamils, at this stage at least, refused to support a party that offered a lukewarm version of the separatism promoted by the Tamil Tigers.

The most striking feature of the election was not the fact that over 30,000 internally displaced people in the districts of Vavuniya and Mullaitivu in the Northern Province were denied their right to vote, but that 45 per cent of the overall electorate chose to stay at home. It was not just the Tamils who showed little faith in the electoral process; a substantial part of the Sinhalese electorate abstained as well.

Given the electoral arithmetic, the Rajapakse clan (one of the president’s brothers is his personal adviser and another is defence secretary), which controls the governing Alliance, is unlikely to offer the Tamil minority a constitutional package that includes meaningful devolution of power to the northeast of the island. It shows little sign of even allowing the existing units of devolution, the provincial councils, to exercise their full powers. The councils are still denied control of the distribution and alienation of land, as well as of policing.

As the most avowedly Sinhalese-nationalist government since 1956, there is little chance that the current government will attempt to settle the Tamil national question. Rather, it will intensify the centralisation that has defined the Sri Lankan state since 1948. Independent journalists will continue to be routinely harassed; newspapers and electronic media (such as Lankaenews) will be subject to further politically motivated raids. J.C. Weliamuna, the executive director of Transparency International in Sri Lanka, has survived one attempt on his life but faces a constant threat of similar attacks. Prageeth Eknaligoda, a political cartoonist who supported General Sarath Fonseka in the presidential election, was abducted on 24 January; he is yet to resurface dead or alive.

Under the Alliance’s enhanced majority the most likely developments are an increase in authoritarianism, a relatively servile judiciary and a continued assault on independent news media and political actors – whether they be Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim or Burgher. Against this background the west, including strategically placed Australia, is likely to face a continued outflow of asylum seekers, particularly from the Tamil community.


HOW HAS Sri Lanka come to this sorry impasse? Most of us who live in Australia were only vaguely aware of the thirty-year Sri Lankan civil war. But occasionally an opportunity arose to gain some insight into the tragedy that was unfolding across the Indian Ocean. Those of us who loved the 1996 movie The English Patient, or the novel on which it was based, may have looked for other books by the Canadian with a Sri Lankan heritage, Michael Ondaatje. And some may have found Ondaatje’s 2000 novel, Anil’s Ghost, which charts how the horror, fear and violence used by both sides in the conflict affected the lives of Sri Lankans, even in the capital of Colombo.

Along with the international community more generally, Australians could hardly ignore the daily reports, in the first half of 2009, of repeated breaches of international humanitarian norms being committed as the remaining members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were corralled with large numbers of Tamil civilians in a small strip of land in the north east of the island. The culpability of the Tigers lay in the fact that they forced fleeing Tamils into this strip of land, in effect using them as human shields, but it was the government that chose to bomb its own citizens.

The fighting finally finished with the defeat of the Tigers in May 2009. Along with the rest of the world, Australia hoped for an era of reconciliation and a peace based on openness and transparency. These hopes existed despite the fact that President Rajapakse had used the war as an excuse to subvert the institutions on which the rule of law is based and to terrorise the media and those who might disagree with his government. Rajapakse was concerned not merely about those who disagreed with the war; he was just as concerned about those who might criticise the manner in which it was conducted – namely, with an abject disregard for Tamil civilians.

It was hoped that the more moderate elements within the Sinhalese elites would limit the excesses of President Rajapakse’s government. With the Sinhalese Anglicised elites effectively marginalised by the regime, though, this has not happened. Rajapakse’s task has been made easier by the fact that the elite is split between liberal cosmopolites (a minority) and the conservative majority who remain tethered to a Sinhalese (albeit more reformist) nationalist outlook. The institutions through which more liberal Sinhalese influences might operate have been weakened during the period of the civil war, a process that has accelerated under the present leadership. In bypassing the Sinhalese elites, both Rajapakse and the Alliance government have relied on a collection of less secure social groupings that are more likely to place their faith in the “strong leadership” of an authoritarian and militaristic regime.

This strategy is fraught with danger. Rajapakse’s support lies in the more marginalised groups and is based on an expectation of a period of postwar opportunity. If these expectations are not met, support for Rajapakse could rapidly turn to disillusion, depriving the president of the one source of legitimacy to which he can still lay claim. Although Rajapakse and his government appear, at times, strong and immovable, instability and fluidity lurk not far below the surface. There is potential for a political space to open up in Sinhalese politics – and perhaps even in Sri Lankan politics more broadly – for a more progressive third force. For the international community, and for the Tamils and other minorities, the opportunity may yet arise to deal with actors who offer something different from a ruling faction obsessed with its own survival and backed by a Sinhalese nationalist world view that it promoted and cultivated.

For the moment, however, the hopes of reconciliation have not been satisfied. The president and Sarath Fonseka, the general who led the army to victory against the Tigers, have quarrelled. In the wake of Rajapakse’s election victory Fonseka was arrested, and he is currently undergoing a court-martial on what appear to be politically motivated charges. Ironically, Fonseka’s arrest and prosecution has earned the ire of a significant section of Sinhalese society, including the Sangha, the collective body of Buddhist monks, which views Fonseka with a significant degree of adulation. Fonseka’s trial has the potential to expose the fissures in Sinhalese society despite the president’s superficially convincing electoral endorsement.

Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heritage has a long history, to which the events since May 2009, and the dashing of hopes of reconciliation, owe much. Well before Britain and Europe divided the world into spheres of influence, much of Southeast Asia had been ruled for many centuries by Buddhist monarchs. A body of classical literature is associated with the history of these classical regimes. Sri Lanka shares this heritage, which stretches back to the Asokan period in Indian history in the third century BCE.

It was also a heritage that included a large variety of flexible governing arrangements under a cosmological order that was not so much Buddhist as Buddhist–Hindu in its orientation. Although this unifying worldview shared characteristics with Christianity’s role in unifying medieval European states, it was not a centralising force. Unlike the absolutist claims of medieval European Catholic theology, which led to the Reformation, the hybrid nature of the Buddhist–Hindu cosmic order facilitated a degree of pluralism.

Under Portuguese, Dutch and then British rule, the needs of the colonial bureaucracy caused traditional society to lose much of its flexibility, especially around the interrelationships of ethnicity, religion and territory. These changes contributed to the emergence of a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist movement in which Sinhalese people, in particular, began to see themselves as the custodians of a Buddhist land in an increasingly exclusive manner. The much less rich and less flexible Victorian ideas of race and religion encouraged the Sinhalese nationalist movement to treat various others (including Tamils, Burghers, Sinhalese Christians and Muslims) as falling outside the Sinhalese Buddhist cultural milieu. The new outsiders were perceived as potentially threatening to the interests of the insider majority.

The concepts of race and religion were, generally, missing from Indian and Sri Lankan religious and cultural forms. They were injected into this cultural–nationalist awakening by a body of European scholarship that was being brought to bear on British India and Ceylon (as the island was known until 1972). The Buddhist reform movement, in late nineteenth century Ceylon, took up these themes. Sinhalese nationalists perceived themselves as Aryan in origin and perceived Tamils to be of Dravidian origin and therefore inferior. It is somewhat ironic that modern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism draws on the distortions introduced by European scholarship.

In British Ceylon, Tamils, Christians and Burghers all had significant influence in public life. But the colonial administration also actively cultivated the island’s Buddhist cultural heritage, and by the early 1920s it was this dynamic that enabled the Sinhalese nationalist movement to play a role in anti-colonial activity on the island. As independence drew closer, it was common to hear Sinhalese politicians articulate their demands through a demonisation of Tamil political actors.

Tamil parties responded to the pressures created by Sinhalese nationalism. The Tamils could also draw upon a rich literary tradition in both Sri Lanka and south India. The Jaffna peninsula in the north of the island and the Vanni, the land mass just south of the peninsula, has a rich history of Tamil rulers: the Jaffna Kingdom was recognised as an autonomous polity by the Portuguese in the Nallur Convention of 1616, for example. The Kingdom existed as part of a complex set of competing chieftaincies that acknowledged tributary relationships with Sinhalese polities to the south, with “Buddhist kings” at the apex of the structure. The apex was more virtual than real, however, because the Buddhist polities of the south (particularly those centred round the Kandyan kingdom) had a limited capacity of command over their Tamil counterparts in the north. The historical ironies are reinforced by the fact that ideas of Sinhalese “manifest destiny” have their origins in a form of Buddhist kingship that provided the autonomy that the Tamil community has sought, without success, since independence.

Having taken over the island from the Dutch and Portuguese, the British unified Ceylon into a single administrative structure in the 1830s. Initially, there were five provinces, each answerable to the centre through a government agent. Despite the eventual existence of nine provinces, independent Ceylon was left with a centralised model that was very different from what had existed prior to British rule.


POST-INDEPENDENCE politics in Sri Lanka has been shaped by how the cultural claims of Sinhalese nationalism have come to dominate politics and frustrate the modest aspirations of minority groups for a degree of recognition. In the process, pluralist and transcommunal politics have been made more difficult. As Sinhalese nationalism came to dominate state practices, the Tamil response also hardened, moving from calls for a federal structure to claims of independence for the north and east in the form of Eelam.

The state’s discriminatory practices started with the passage of the Ceylon Citizenship Act 1948 and the Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act 1949. These two acts combined to disenfranchise the bulk of Sri Lanka’s Indian Tamil population, the descendants of workers who had been introduced to the island to provide a labour force for the tea plantations in the highlands around Kandy. The right to vote was made dependant on citizenship, and the Citizenship Act provided that even persons born in Sri Lanka were not capable of being citizens unless their father or both their grandfathers were born in Sri Lanka. Thus people who had voted in elections since the introduction of universal franchise in 1931 became permanently disenfranchised.

Colonial planners were alert to the dangers of communalism, however, and the Ceylon (Constitution and Independence) Order in Council 1946 placed a restriction on the usual “peace, order and good government” phraseology familiar from constitutions of the Australian states. Article 29(2) of the Order in Council provided that “no such law… shall make persons of any community or religion liable to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of other communities or religions are not made liable.” Yet when the Privy Council in London, in a judgement in 1953, had an opportunity to pave the way for those who would outlaw indirect discrimination in the future, it decided, in effect, that the parliament in Colombo was permitted to use citizenship to discriminate against the poor and illiterate.

It was only a matter of time before the Sri Lankan Tamils, too, would feel the discriminatory impact of a legislature that eschewed the fundamental principles of liberal constitutionalism. In 1956, parliament passed the Official Language Act, which made Sinhala the sole official language of Sri Lanka. The discriminatory impact of the act was most clearly felt in 1961 when an administrative order required that all employees in the public service had to be able to work in Sinhala and would need basic proficiency in order to be considered for promotion. Suddenly, huge numbers – clerks, post masters, station masters, doctors, engineers, police, excise officers and many others – were institutionally disadvantaged. They included educated Tamil youth, particularly, from the north, Muslims who were Tamil speakers from the east coast, and Burghers for whom English was their first language.

As for the upper echelons of the public service, the elite Ceylon Civil Service was abolished in 1963 and replaced by the Ceylon Administrative Service. The requirement that Sinhalese recruits should be proficient in Tamil was done away with but Tamil recruits were required to pass an exam in Sinhala. The legislation was devastating for Sri Lanka. A very large proportion of the Burgher and Tamil professional classes migrated, immediately, to Australia, Britain and Anglophone Africa.

By the time parliament retreated from the hard line and passed regulations to formalise the use of Tamil in 1966 (eleven years after the Official Language Act was passed), a whole generation of disaffected Tamil youth, particularly in the north and east, was coming of age and filling leadership roles in their communities previously filled by those who had migrated. By the 1970s, this new generation would form the basis of the Tamil separatist movement, and in 1983 many of the same leaders would launch a fully fledged campaign for a separate State of Eelam.

Attempts were made in the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s to devolve administrative power in areas with Tamil majorities. All faced Sinhalese resistance and failed. In July 1983 an anti-Tamil pogrom in Colombo resulted in between 1000 and 2000 deaths. Among the vivid images associated with these riots were scenes of the wanton destruction of Tamil-owned businesses. The violence was highly organised, particularly in Colombo.

The majority of the Tamil community concluded that constitutional Tamil politics had failed to deliver their modest demands. This was when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam emerged as the principal vehicle of the Tamil separatist movement. Armed struggle carries with it many implications from which its proponents cannot retreat; for that reason, it is seldom embarked upon lightly. For the Tamil Tigers, that decision eventually led to nearly three decades of war and, ultimately, humiliating defeat.

The Tigers proved to be a very effective military organisation. By 2000, they had brought the Sri Lankan state to the brink. When the last and final peace process was launched in December of that year, both the Tigers and the Wickremesinghe government in Colombo committed themselves to exploring a federal model. Although both parties were culpable in the failure of the peace process to find a compromise solution, the failure of the Tigers to seize the opportunity appears now as a major error of strategy. In April 2006, the actions of the Tigers helped precipitate Eelam War IV, and further strategic mistakes ultimately led to their defeat in 2009. These included a failure to grasp that New Delhi would never countenance the existence of a separate state on its southern flank and a failure to recognise that the post-9/11 environment assisted the Sri Lankan government to rearm massively, initially under the supervision of the Wickremesinghe government. Subsequently, the man now on trial, General Fonseka, oversaw a complete reorganisation of the army.

When President Rajapakse was elected in November 2005, the peace process effectively died. The Tigers were just as happy to eschew the hard work of building solutions. They were happy to trade on the new president’s Sinhalese nationalist reputation and recommence what looked like the easy task of renewing their military campaign. But courtesy of Chinese military assistance to Colombo, there was to be no second chance for the Tigers.

Having won the war in May 2009, President Rajapakse accelerated his war upon civil society. The elections of January and April, with their intimidation, attacks on independent media, arrests and disappearances, reflect that war. Not surprisingly, the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, whether still in detention camps or trying to return to their militarised home districts in the north and east, were inhibited from fully participating in both elections.


THE DEMISE of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam creates the possibility of a pluralisation of Tamil politics. As a senior Tamil parliamentarian commented, “The absence of the LTTE opens up more space for other political players on the Tamil side.” But Tamil and other minority political groupings remain weak and fragmented, and President Rajapakse has no intention of guiding the state in a pluralist direction. Rajapakse looks to Malaysia and a system where the minorities are controlled by handpicked leaders who toe the line and get to hand out what few resources are allowed their communities. The Tamil client party, the Eelam People’s Democratic Party, is prepared to play that game.

This approach is unlikely to work in the long term. It lacks democratic accountability and is likely to become the foundation for further instability in the north and east. It is imperative that Australia and the wider international community (particularly India, the European Union and the United States) continue to place pressure on President Rajapakse to address the undiminished moral claims of the Tamil people to a dignified existence in Sri Lanka. Faced with an intensified assault on civil society and, in particular, on independent Tamil political actors, and with devolution of power unlikely, the international community will have to use a series of calibrated responses.

In the short to medium term, western donor countries must, despite the difficulty, do their best to strengthen the capacity of civil society organisations in Sri Lanka to ameliorate the worst excesses of the current regime. That said, pressure from the west, in the light of events since May 2009, possesses an air of futility. This is especially so given the unconditional development aid flowing from China, Russia and Iran. China’s willingness, in particular, to pay the bills in return for the strategic toeholds in the south Indian Ocean it has already secured from Colombo, much to India’s chagrin, renders western economic development aid surplus to needs at present.

The longer term might offer more leverage to the international community. Peace is proving more complicated than some anticipated when the war ended. As the presence of Buddhist monks among the demonstrators in support of the imprisoned general indicates, the possibility of a crisis of legitimacy will continue to hang over the Rajapakse presidency. Any prolonged failure to provide increased resources to the marginalised constituency, which has supported Rajapakse and the governing Alliance, has the potential to fragment the regime.

Meanwhile, a shortsighted Australian government, in fear of shock jocks and tabloids, refuses to process visa applications from Tamil asylum seekers. The government claims that there is nothing to flee from in the new Sri Lanka, but Kevin Rudd, who has made much of his Christian ethos, should know better. Against all odds it may even be time for the Catholic Tony Abbott to step up to the mark in defence of those seeking refuge from a regime that has elevated intolerance into a principle of political practice and state policy. •

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