Ethnic Conflicts

Sri Lanka: keeping the peace in a sharply divided society

By K M de Silva, BA (Ceylon), PhD, DLitt. (London)*

I. Introduction

There is nothing like the current renewal of negotiations between the government of Sri Lanka, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to concentrate our minds on where and when things went wrong in Sri Lanka.

In most colonial societies, once the struggle for self rule is over and independence is achieved, contests over who should rule at home follow. These are generally ethnic and religious rather than class conflicts. In Sri Lanka where the passage to independence was negotiated rather than fought for, the second struggle was successfully avoided for nearly 10 years after independence. The key figure in this was D S Senanayake, the island’s first Prime Minister (1947-52), and the principal negotiator for Sri Lanka’s independence (1942-47). His great achievement was in keeping the country together. A close examination of his successful balancing act reconciling the legitimate interests and concerns of the majority and the minorities would provide lessons for those concerned with bringing peace to Sri Lanka’s fractured polity.

The conflicts in Sri Lanka illustrate the operation of some of the most combustible factors in ethnic relations: language, religion, long historical memories of tensions and conflict, and a prolonged separatist agitation.

The current ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is a much more complex business than a simple straightforward confrontation between a once well-entrenched minority-the Sri Lanka Tamils-and a now powerful but still insecure majority-the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese majority and the Sri Lanka Tamil minority are not the only players in this intricate political drama even though, at present, they play the principal roles. Suffice it to say here that there are two conflicting perceptions of these conflicts. Most Sinhalese believe that the Tamil minority has enjoyed a privileged position under British rule and that the balance has of necessity to shift in favour of the Sinhalese majority. The Sri Lanka Tamil minority is an achievement-oriented, industrious group who still continue to enjoy high status in society, considerable influence in the economy, a significant if diminishing role in the bureaucracy and is well placed in all levels of the education system. The Tamils for their part would claim that they are now a harassed minority, the victims of frequent acts of communal violence and calculated acts and policies of discrimination directed at them. Most of the Tamils’ fears and their sense of insecurity stem from the belief that they have lost the advantageous position they enjoyed under British rule in many sectors of public life in the country; in brief, a classic case of a sense of relative deprivation.

II.The Seeds of the Conflict and Earlier Efforts at its Management and Resolution

Despite the tensions and violence that have been a feature of life in post-independence Sri Lanka, there has been an irrepressible strand of pragmatism, which eventually helped in moderating the outcome of many of the very contentious issues. For instance, religious strife in the form of tensions and conflict between Buddhists and Christians-in particular the Buddhists and Roman Catholics-one of the most divisive factors in Sri Lankan public life for about 80 years or so beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century, has ceased to be a contentious issue in politics since the early 1970s. The point needs to be made, and as emphatically as possible, not merely that these religious disputes were principally among the Sinhalese themselves, between the Christians and Buddhists, and not between the latter and the Tamils, but also that religious tensions are only of very limited significance in the current conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils.

1956 saw the passage of the Sinhala Only Act in parliament. The Act made Sinhala the sole official language and was the catalyst for heightened tensions between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities that eventually resulted in ethnic riots that year and more serious riots two years later. The accommodation reached in language policy after the violence associated with the introduction of language policy reform in 1956, is significant. Modifications initiated between 1956 and 1978, through political necessity (in 1958) and a realistic adjustment to life in a plural society (1978), all but conceded parity of status to the Tamil language with Sinhala. The clauses on language in the constitution of 1978 reflected a recognition of an existing reality. The explicit reversion to parity of status to the two languages, which came in 1987 and 1988 as a part of a political settlement brokered by the Indian government, was also a recognition of this.

The bitterness underlying the controversies on employment is explained in part by the conflict between Tamils’ traditional anxiety to maintain the levels of employment in the state services they had grown accustomed to under British rule and the attempts of Sinhalese to insist on what they regard as their legitimate share of it.

After independence, competition for posts in the public service increased, especially with the rapid expansion of educational opportunities in the Sinhalese areas. This greatly reduced the prospects of the Tamils in their traditional search for positions in government service. Over the next twenty-five years they would be overtaken in almost every sector of state employment and in the professions by the Sinhalese, overtaken but far from being overwhelmed. For a while they retained their advantageous position in some of the professions-medicine, law and engineering-but lost it by the early 1980s. This represented the intellectual capital of the past, carefully gathered, and protected and augmented but, in their eyes, not expanding rapidly enough to overcome what they saw as the disadvantages of the new policy changes which would adversely affect the next generation of Tamils.

Changes in university admissions policy have contributed substantially and dramatically to the sharp deterioration of ethnic relations in Sri Lanka in the last three decades, and to radicalising the politics of the Tamil areas in the north and east of the island. The crux of the problem was that the Sri Lanka Tamils who constitute no more than an eighth of the island’s total population, had a dominant position in the science-based faculties of the then University of Ceylon at Peradeniya and Colombo. In 1970, for instance, the Tamils gained just over 35 percent of the admissions to the science-based faculties; in Engineering and Medicine it was as high as 40%. In 1970, the United Front coalition led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike introduced a fundamental change by instituting a system of standardisation of marks by language media at the university entrance examination. The effect of this was to place the Tamil students at a disadvantage in that they had to obtain a higher aggregate of marks to enter the university-in the medical, science and engineering faculties-than the Sinhalese. Thereafter, a district quota system was also introduced which gave weightage to students in rural areas and from backward communities. All this represented a departure from the traditional practice of selecting students on the basis of actual marks obtained at an open competitive examination. The Tamils, justifiably, saw this change in university entrance policy as patently and deliberately discriminatory.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the newly-elected UNP government changed this policy, and moved towards a more equitable university admissions system, a mixture of district quotas and merit, and affirmative action for rural areas-Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim. Nevertheless memories of the unilateral and discriminatory change in university policy made in the early 1970s still remain fresh in the minds of Tamils, although the policy has been changed, and despite the very substantial expansion of university places in medicine and engineering that has taken place after 1979 providing greater opportunities to students from all sections of the population. The Tamils’ share of places in the engineering and medical faculties has varied from 35% to 25% since 1978-79, to very recent times when it has fallen to around 15%.
Next, there is the accommodation reached on one of the long-standing grievances of the Tamils, the distribution of state-owned land among landless peasants. Tamil politicians have generally claimed that the Sri Lankan state has used state-owned land as a means of changing the demographic pattern in what they-i.e. the Tamil politicians-call the “Traditional Homelands of the Tamils,” primarily state-owned land in the Eastern Province. Researchers have shown how little validity there is in these criticisms, but advocates of the Tamil cause have persisted with them nevertheless and through sheer repetition these charges have gained widespread acceptance among Tamil politicians and Tamil scholars.

Finally, we turn to the most intractable problem of all-devolution of political power. Differences of opinion over devolution have proved to be altogether more difficult to resolve. And this was despite the great deal that has been achieved between 1980 and 1987 in establishing a second tier of government, a major political achievement given the failure of previous attempts made in 1957-58, and 1965-68. Politicians are caught between the Sinhalese electorate’s deep-rooted suspicions about the political consequences of devolving more power to the provinces and the Tamils’ insistence on transferring greater extents of power to the provinces or regions at the expense of the central government, their demands ranging from the creation of a large Tamil-dominated North-Eastern Province, to the establishment of a federal political structure with a weak centre and more powerful provinces or regions. This is quite apart from the LTTE’s insistence on a separate state as a non-negotiable demand.

Those in the forefront of the Tamils’ agitation for devolution of power have always been vague, deliberately or unconsciously, in the terminology used in their arguments, and the distinction between provincial autonomy, states’ rights in a federal union, and a separate state have been blurred by a fog of verbiage, and obfuscation. The close links that were established in more recent times between Tamil political groups ranging from the TULF to various separatist groups, with the government and opposition in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, have naturally aggravated the situation, and more so the establishment of training camps in Tamil Nadu for separatist activists who made forays into the northern and eastern coastal regions of Sri Lanka from these. The result is that decentralisation, which was and should be, a purely Sri Lankan matter has taken on a cross-national dimension of which India’s role as mediator in the political negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and representatives of Tamil opinion in the 1980s was the most conspicuous feature.

Pressure for decentralisation of administration is limited to the Tamils, and largely to the Tamils living in the north and east of the island, where they are either a majority or form a substantial minority. There is no pressure-on the contrary strong opposition to it-from other ethnic groups. Quite apart from the opposition of the Sinhalese majority to most schemes of devolution of power, the Muslim minority, especially those living outside the Eastern Province, have been deeply concerned about the dangers of their political marginalisation in a decentralised political and administrative structure.

One of the unfortunate consequences of concentrating attention on district and provincial units, and on supra-provincial units has been a neglect of one of the less controversial and more viable forms of decentralisation-local government institutions at the municipal and urban council levels and village council levels.

III . Towards Reconciliation and Reconstruction

As the analysis of earlier parts of this essay would show, one of the answers to the question of how it all went wrong in Sri Lanka, lies in the adoption of majoritarian policies to quicken the pace of changes that had already begun, in a short-sighted attempt to secure immediate gains-e.g. the language policy of 1956, and the university admission policies of 1970-71. Once opposition to these policies emerged, and it came soon enough in the first case (language reforms) in the form of ethnic tensions and riots, the attempts at modifications of these policies, or even a reversal of them, have proved to be much less effective in repairing the damage than they could have been. The attempts at removing grievances on a piecemeal basis, resorted to in the case of language policy from 1958 and thereafter in the 1970s and 1980s and in the case of university admission policies in the late 1970s and 1980s, have had less of a positive impact than was anticipated.

The first policy option then is to emphasize the inappropriateness of purely “majoritarian” decision-making in sharply divided societies. On the basis of the empirical evidence from Sri Lanka it would be true to say that the ethnic tensions have generally occurred whenever governments have either totally disregarded, or paid less attention than they should have, to the legitimate interests and concerns of minorities. After 1977 tensions have persisted or have erupted in violence despite the efforts of governments to take into consideration the legitimate interest of minorities, in devising new policies, or seeking a reversal of policies which have contributed to the current conflict. What this demonstrates is that in periods of prolonged ethnic conflict, it is extremely difficult to reverse a trend

Second, where sharp cleavages exist in societies, political stability is ensured, if not guaranteed, by devising institutional arrangements giving minorities easy access to the highest decision-making processes. By doing so minorities would have sense that their opinions have been considered in devising policies, and in their implementation. Sri Lanka’ record in this regard has been more constructive and imaginative than its recent history of the persistence of ethnic tensions and frequent eruptions of violence would lead us to believe.
Thirdly, where religious or linguistic divisions have deep historical roots, political stability could be ensured by a deliberate lowering of expectations on both sides of the divide. Just as a majority group who believe that they have been the principal victims of the imposition of colonial rule should resist the temptation to adopt policies that would hasten the redress of historical grievances, so too a minority group should desist from making exaggerated claims and demands. What is needed is a process of mutual lowering of expectations. Although the processes of government are then often reduced to a prosaic and humdrum search for areas of agreement between contending groups or factions within those groups, it has had the great benefit of keeping the peace in a sharply divided society.

* K M de Silva is Executive Director, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy, Sri Lanka and Emeritus Professor of Sri Lanka History, University of Peradeniya, Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.

The conflicts in Sri Lanka illustrate the operation of some of the most combustible factors in ethnic relations: language, religion, long historical memories of tensions and conflict, and a prolonged separatist agitation.

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