Buddha’s Lions and Tamil Tigers

Just opposite the Bandarnaike Memorial Hall in Colombo stands a huge statue of Buddha behind which is a building that houses bhikkus (Buddhist monks). Published investigation reports following the July 1983 pogrom revealed that young Elle Gunawansa, a leader of Sinhala Peramuna, an organisation of Buddhist monks and others, were guilty of drawing up lists on non-Sinhala businesses prior to the state-sponsored pogrom.
It is this unholy alliance between the Sri Lankan state and the fanatical Buddhist-Sinhala clergy that is responsible for a deeply-entrenched communalism in Sri Lanka. Both religious and linguistic, it takes the form of violence and exclusion, politically and economically, while imposing Sinhala and Buddhist imagery culturally and linguistically on the minorities.
It is in this background of a deeply divided society and a severely communalised state apparatus that the present government has to outline and sell to its populace the much-debated devolution package by November. Today state-sponsored caravans (Thavalamas) are busy carrying the message of “One country, one people” to the people in the south in an attempt to convince the electorate of the devolution package.
“I don’t think that the situation is all that hopeless,” says Lucien Rajaka-runanayake, a senior journalist and part of the Free Media Movement. He is involved at the moment in trying to devise creative methods to take the devolution package to the people.
“There can be no question at all about the outline of the northern province which is and will have to be all-Tamil. The sensitive area is in the east where the aspirations of the Tamil-speaking people are that Batticaloa and Trincomalee be merged with the north. I don’t see that as impossible, yet.”
“The only solution in today’s Sri Lanka is that after devolution, an autonomous state for the Tamil-speaking people be carved out in the north merged with Trincomalee and Batticaloa in the east and a separate autonomous state for Muslims in the south. If there is a de-merger in the devolution package and the east is not part of the autonomous province of the north, the war will continue,” says Shanmugaratnam. “Unlike the militant leadership, the Tamil-speaking people will be quite happy with autonomy. They don’t want statehood,” he adds.
Is such a communalised demarcation inevitable? Does it not defy the multi-ethnic character of Sri Lankan society and reality?
“Regional autonomy along communal lines is a compromise, the only option that we have, the only step that can avert Partition. It is a culmination of the logic of the processes of communalization, first of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority and now of also the Tamil-Hindu and Muslim minorities,” replies Shanmugaratnam, adding, “Once such autonomy is granted concerted efforts towards a multi-ethnic society might, in the long term, overcome these divisions. In the short term, there is no alternative.”

“Regional autonomy along communal lines is a compromise, the only option that we have, the only step that can avert Partition. It is a culmination of the logic of the processes of communalisation”
The moot question is whether the government can with its devolution package win over the hearts and minds of both the Sinhala and the Tamil people? Will it display the skill and statesmanship to pose the issue in non-chauvinist and non-exclusivist terms even if the lines being demarcated follow communal patterns?
The Sinhala chauvinists, supported by the Buddhist Sangha have already begun vociferously opposing the devolution idea, trying to whip up chauvinist fears against it, arguing that if this is permitted, secession would be the next step. On September 17, 1997, the Sinhala Commission symbolically chose the birthday of Anaganika Dharmapala, a chauvinist Sinhala-Buddhist ideologue to present to the Sangha (a Constitutional Body) its detailed statement roundly denouncing the devolution package.
In the same week, the President made welcome noises reiterating, after a long gap, her government’s openness and readiness to talk to the LTTE unconditionally for a cessation of hostilities.
How will the Sri Lankan government respond to the counter pulls and pressures from Sinhala chauvinists on the one hand and the bloody-minded and corrupt LTTE leadership on the other? Will it have the courage to offer justice, equity and rights to its minorities, in the midst of a highly charged communal atmosphere?
The answer to these questions carries implications not merely for Sri Lanka but the entire South Asian region.





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