Sri Lanka – Will Buddha’s Lions Make Peace with Tamil Tigers?

The countdown has begun. In less than 50 days, the Sri Lankan government has to put before its people, and Parliament, a devolution package which will hopefully end th 14-year-old ethnic war that has killed over 50,000 people and uprooted lakhs from their homes. With decades of a virulent Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism having given birth to the equally bloody-minded Tamil Tigers, the war-torn nation now seems to face a bitter option: Full regional autonomy along communal lines – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim – or continued civil war whose only end-result can be the country’s Partition.

Teesta Setalvad reports from Sri Lanka
Three years ago, when Chandrika Kumaratunga stepped into the Presidential Palace at Colombo and convincingly addressed the Sri Lankan nation in both Tamil and Sinhala, it genuinely seemed as if Sri Lanka had negotiated a critical turn. Eleven years of a full-scale war, raging between the Sri Lankan army and its own Tamil-speaking people (ordinary civilians have been targets as much as Tamil militants) had taken a bitter toll.
She appeared like a breath of clean, fresh air, a rare breed among politicians unafraid of speaking the language of peace and reconciliation. In that highly charged and deeply communalized pre-election campaign of October 1994, she and her People’s Alliance (PA) had stoicly, and alone, offered the promise of peace.
Today, the countdown for this government has, in a metaphorical sense, begun. Within 45 days, that is, by end-November at the latest, the ruling government is politically and morally bound to place before the Sri Lankan Parliament, and its people, a full-fledged devolution package that, it is hoped, will grant substantive autonomy to the Tamil-speaking peoples of the island. Interests of the other minority group, the Muslims (largely Tamil-speaking) will also have to be met considering the deeply fractured and communalised state of Sri Lankan society and state. (The LTTE inspired eviction of over 70,000 Muslims within 48 hours from the northern province of the island in 1990 has resulted in an uneasy relationship between the two Lankan minorities).
Will this government deliver? And will the Sri Lankan people accept the unit of devolution? Put crassly, how will the new borders be drawn, will they be more just and reflect new, sometimes bitter grass-root socio-economic and political realities? Or will it be just another imposition of a majoritarian, Sinhala-Buddhist vision that will not merely be unacceptable to over 26 per cent of the non-Sinhala speaking population, but will in all probability escalate violence and brutality to new heights?
Thirty-six months of harsh reality have washed away much of the 1994 pre-and post-election euphoria. The Promise of Peace came as a welcome breather then. It allowed a cross section of the Sri Lankan people to dream again. Enthusiastic groups of ordinary people who joined the symbolic peace train from Colombo to Jaffna in 1994 reflected this.
But the harsh reality of the months that followed has put the theory of justice and peace to bitter practical test. Between November 1994 and February 1995, when the island enjoyed a brief respite from shelling and gunfire, three rounds of talks took place between the government and the LTTE. Before any significant progress could be made, the LTTE, threatened by the success or progress made through these initial parleys unilaterally broke the ceasefire. What followed soon after was the bombing of foreign ships and ambushes on innocent civilians by militants, claiming to represent the interests of all the Tamil people.
At this critical juncture, the fledging PA government failed the litmus test. Unable to silence the war-mongers within the ruling cabinet and contain the deep-rooted communal prejudice of the Sinhala Buddhist majority (76 per cent of the island’s 18.2 million-strong population), it capitulated. Forgetting that the path to peace is lined with thorns, not roses, it reverted to a conservative and aggressive position.
After the brief lull the war in the North and the East against its own people, was resumed in June 1995 by the Sri Lankan army and it continues today with the blessings of the ministry of internal affairs and defence. A full one-fourth of the annual government revenue earnings are swallowed up in sustaining this war. The war was earlier accompanied by a cruel economic embargo that deprived ordinary Tamilians of basic goods. (Though the embargo was lifted, in theory, by the ruling PA government, control and corruption by the Sri Lankan army even today denies these goods to most Tamil-speaking people).
The army operation is cynically termed Operation Victory Assured. Unfortunately, even this government that had set itself an agenda for peace has been unable to cease hostilities against its own people, launched systematically by successive Lankan governments’ decades ago.
News of the brutal bombings and killings by the Tamil Tigers make headline news, worldwide. Images of these and other atrocities by the LTTE on innocent civilians have dominated and clouded the south Asian and the world psyche. But brutal violations by the Sri Lankan state backed by its majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist ideology have remained buried and forgotten. Collective amnesia has successfully hidden repeated pogroms by the Sri Lankan – read Sinhala Buddhist – state against its own people.
This 14-year-old war – that is how all Sri Lankans term the ethnic conflict on the island – has altered significantly its demography. The population of the North-East has dropped from 1.7 million in 1987 to 9, 00,000 in 1992; that is, it dwindled by 47 per cent in barely five years. Of this drop in Tamil-speaking people by 8, 00,000, official figures reluctantly admit as many as 50,000 dead or missing. An estimated 5, 00,000 have left the country with a 4, 00,000 strong Tamil Diaspora in Western Europe alone.
Others live in camps outside the north and east of the country, refugees in their own land. More than 70,000 Tamil-speaking Muslims from the Northern provinces who became victims of the LTTE Vendetta in 1990 now live, reduced to penury, in southern parts of Sri Lanka. Another 1,00,000 displaced Muslim refugees are also victims of the war.
Even in the originally Tamil-dominant northern and eastern districts where the 14-year-old war rages, a systematic “colonisation” by Sinhala-speaking people (brought in by the army to occupy land owned by the Tamil minority there, even when other unoccupied land can be found in other provinces) has altered the ground situation gravely.
Two thousand five hundred years ago, a radical and non-violent challenge to tyrannical and oppressive Hindu-Brahmanical practices was posed by the Gautama Buddha who espoused a new spiritual and religious doctrine with a strong secular element – Buddhism. The stupas of Both Gaya and Sanchi within India are historical reminders of the location of the birthplace of Buddha, and Buddhism. But the sad historic reality is that Buddhism and Buddhists were driven away from the land of their birth – a testimony to the tenacity and the tyranny of Brahmanism.
Tragically, at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, this doctrine of the oppressed has metamorphosed itself and assumed a rigid and tyrannical form of its own. The Sinhalisation of Sri Lankan Buddhism – 7th century A.D. historical texts speak of many  Tamil-speaking, Buddhist scholars translating ancient works from Pali – was critical in linking a religion with the language of the majority of Sri Lankans.
 Today, no Buddhist in Sri Lanka speaks any language but Sinhala. Appropriating historical myths in constructing a superior Sinhala race with Aryan antecedents (due thanks to the European Orientalist tradition — see box) which has prior claim to the land and soil of Sri Lanka is matched by the project for the Thamil state of Eelam (home-land) that in no less measure advocates an exclusivist and communal construction of its citizenship.
History is the playing field for communalist ideologues, historians and ordinary citizens alike, from every community in Sri Lanka today. Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim (Moor or Malay) nationalism have successfully perpetuated a myth of its origin vital to any communalist ideology founded on notions of “purity of the race”. (see box).
Political patronage of Buddhism as the state religion with the Sangha (monastic order of Buddhist monks) being given special advisory status to the government after Sir Lanka attained independence in February 1948, followed by Sinhala (only) as the official language policy adopted through the Language Bill passed by Parliament in 1956 gave successful political expression to this deep-rooted exclusivism.
The modern Sri Lankan nation was constituted and continues to manifest itself as a Sinhala-Buddhist nation. Stark and imposing figures of the Buddha clutter the Sri Lankan landscape. A seemingly innocuous plaque at Colombo’s international airport greets visitors, “Reserved, for Clergy Only.” And Buddhism, already the state religion, is likely to retain this special status in a reserved category as a central subject, sitting there uneasily with categories like Defence and Irrigation under the revised draft of the “reformed” Constitution of Sri Lanka.
A popular Sinhala short story depicts the plight of a middle-aged woman, traumatised for days, her world shattered after she is accidentally told one day that Gautama Buddha was not Sri Lankan but Indian.
The state in Sri Lanka is a mirror of the deep-rooted communal divisions that have sharply polarised civil society. Sinhala-Buddhist and Tamil-Hindu categorise the most distinct of these divisions. The many other distinctions – between Muslims and others, between upcountry and low country Sinhalese and Tamils (the Tamil elite from Jaffna that epitomise the Tamil Tigers have consistently excluded both the 80,000 Tamil tea plantation workers ‘of Indian origin’ that are even today without citizenship and the Tamil-speaking Muslims from its vision of separate statehood) –, add confusion and complexity to this communalisation.
Different versions of history are taught in Sinhalese and Tamil-speaking schools. The communalisation of text books in Sri Lanka is acute, and has been the subject matter of extensive studies by scholars like Reggie Siriwardena who have shown how Sri Lankan history and the traditions, situation and contributions of non-Sinhala Buddhist communities have been falsified for many years by those who control the Sinhala press and prescribe text books.

Recently, a cartoon published in a popular English daily, The Island, after an elephant had crushed two civilians to death in Kandy, caused an outcry among academic circles in Colombo. The caption below the cartoon read: “How was the elephant wise enough to know that these people were Tamils?!”

For the Sinhala elite, allegiance to Buddhism is paramount. Culturally, however, in modes of dressing and religious rituals, many bear a similarity to the southern Indian traditions of worship and ritual. A senior social scientist and one of the leading historians of Sri Lanka, Kumari Jayawardena, while talking to Communalism Combat observed: “Teaching daughters the Bharatanatyam is not only fashionable, but even holding the “Arangetram” (first public performance of a young artist traditionally only after she has attained genuine expertise) is the done thing. But it is not unusual for the members of the same Sinhala elite to make racist remarks like, ‘Every 25 years, these Tamils become uppity. Therefore we need to bash them up.”
Recently, a cartoon published in a popular English daily, The island, after an elephant had crushed two civilians to death in Kandy caused an outcry among academic circles in Colombo. The caption below the cartoon read: “How was the elephant wise enough to know that these people were Tamil?!”
Only last month, when a senior Tamil bureaucrat, the deputy secretary of the North-Eastern Provincial Council travelled from Colombo to the eastern provinces of Batticaloa and Trincomalee, he was stopped at every check point. He had to produce his identity card each time after which his car was searched.
“This only happened because he was Tamil, it can never happen to a Sinhala officer,” said N. Shanmugaratnam, a senior economist from the Norwegian Centre for International Agricultural Development who was travelling with him. Two years ago, Shanmugaratnam, now settled in Norway, himself had to face a potentially dangerous situation right in the heart of Colombo.
Dr. Arulpragasam is the vice-chairman of Sri Lanka’s National Education Commission (NEC), a body that is hoping to pioneer significant educational reforms under the current political dispensation. He was formerly vice-chancellor, Colombo University. Speaking at a seminar organised to discuss Khoj – a secular education programme run by the publishers of Communalism Combat, Sabrang Communications, Bombay – in Colombo in September, he spoke eloquently about what it means to be a Tamil-speaking person in Sri Lanka.
He said: “How many of us in the south are even aware that the northern and eastern parts of the country are living in the grip of a 14-year-old war? How many of us even remember that after the first communal riots in post-independence Sri Lanka (1958), Black Friday – July 23, 1983 – changed the history of a people and a nation? That the actions of that one day against a minority have resulted in a large Tamil Diaspora in the United Kingdom, USA, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore and that their relocation in their home-land is not a practical proposition? That there are thousands of children in our country who have known no peace but who can easily recognise a bomb or a chopper? That the patriotism of every Tamil has been suspect and even I can be stopped, today, by Sri Lankan security forces here in Colombo and sneeringly dubbed a Nakhikotya (toothless tiger)!”
This ignorance or indifference of the majority among Sir Lankans, to the gravity and tragedies of the 14-year-old war remains today the most serious obstacle to a lasting peace. For the ordinary Tamil-speaking person from the north or east of Sri Lanka, life is a continuous cycle of humiliation and deprivation, a condition that finds no empathy or even recognition in the south. In a country with a small population, such deep-rooted divisions cause greater alienation and more resentment.
In the east and the north, people are made to stop at every check point; they have to obtain passes even to get to Vavuniya, a large town in the east that has better banking and health facilities. Outrageous cases of crass human rights violations by the Sri Lankan army (that is entirely Sinhalese), including refusal of passes to the aged and the ill, brutal gang rapes of Tamil girls and women (In June 1997, President Kumaratunga ordered immediate enquiry into a ghastly case of militaristic rape when Sinhala soldiers exploded a grenade in the vagina of a Tamil widow; there are, however, no public records of convictions of army personnel), only help legitimise the violence of the militants.
A young Tamil student last year passed the university entrance examination (itself a hellish task in Sri Lanka) for the engineering degree and had to report immediately to the university concerned to communicate his acceptance of the offer of admission.
On the way he was picked up the Sinhala security forces and illegally detained for six months. When, at last, he was fortuitously released and went to the university concerned he was refused admission on the ground that he had not turned up on time. No amount of appeals to the University Grants Commission helped. Today, he serves as a prominent ideologue for the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Whether based on fact or fiction, numerous accounts like this one do the rounds in the north and the east, reinforcing people’s feeling of being abused and outraged. These, coupled by the state and Sinhala majority’s amnesia over the atrocities committed against the Tamil minority, make a bad situation worse.
Several instances of racist acts by the Sinhala state and its security forces have been recorded by commentators from the mid-seventies onwards (1977, 1981). But the worst, undoubtedly, was the holocaust of July 1983 that took the shape of an unmitigated pogrom against the non-Sinhala, Tamil population. The perpetrators have gone scot-free and there has been no public condemnation of the inhuman outrage.
Predictably, sustained and aggressive communal politics by the Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lankan state has resulted in matching, exclusivist and communal Tamil minoritarianism. The chronicle of ethnic pogroms committed by Tamil militants, from the Anuradhapura massacre of 1985 to the Medirigiriya killings in late 1992, coupled with the expulsion of Muslims from their traditional homelands in the north, are among the most shocking manifestations of militant Thamil Eelam chauvinism.
Unfortunately, the ideology that dominates the Tamil people’s struggle today is also a powerful mix of narrow Tamil nationalism and militarism.
“Justice must be an intrinsic part of the peace and reconciliation process if the peace is to be long-lasting,” stresses Faizun Zackariya, a feminist-activist from Colombo who is a regular visitor to the northern and eastern provinces. “Not only is there no public acknowledgement of the wrongs done but none of the guilty of communal crimes have been punished.”
On the other hand, the Sri Lankan state continues to notch up “victories” against the militants. Hundreds of Sinhala soldiers sent to war are missing, the real issues that dog a multi-ethnic society, that of an equitable share in representation and resources, remain unaddressed.
The July 1983 pogrom against Tamils bears special recall. It all began around July 20, 1983 with the killing of Tamil guerrillas and the gang-rape of a Jaffna Tamil girl by Sinhala soldiers in the north. Two days later, there was retaliation by the militants with soldiers being killed. The next morning, the Sri Lankan government under the then Prime Minister, J.R. Jayawardene, issued an official communiqué that dubbed the act by militants in the north as a “racist killing of Sinhalese by the Tamils”. The government then stage-managed the soldier’s funeral and with it launched a state-sponsored pogrom against Tamils that lasted the whole week in Colombo and outside.
The pogrom launched from opposite the Prime Minister’s official residence in Colombo meant brutal killings, murder by burning and the deliberate destruction of property worth millions of rupees. (Two million kilograms of tea waiting to be exported was also destroyed, simply because it represented Tamil economic interests).
The services of the general secretary of the government sponsored union, Jathika Seveka Sangamaya (JSS), a young Buddhist bhikhu (monk) was used to wreck destruction. The ideological backing for this state sponsored pogrom was provided by none less than C. Cyril Mathew, union minister of industry and scientific affairs whose gospel of Sinhala – Buddhist racism had in the years that preceded and followed, gained wide political currency.
In 1978, the year he was sworn into the ministry, he authored a book, “Diabolical Conspiracy” in which he presented Sri Lanka as “the Holy Land of Sinhala-Buddhism.” Sri Lanka, according to him, was under threat from a joint conspiracy of the white skins and the descendants of the “Dravidian Chola and Pandya rulers” who were outsiders. Even after the brutal 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the Ceylon Daily News had expounded Mathew’s thesis in a series of vitriolic anti-Tamil of articles published in September 1983.



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