State’s Hegemony and Ethnic Conflict: The Case of Tamils in Sri Lanka

By Ashawti CK and Rajeesh CS     1/5/2018


Communal strife and civil war in Sri Lanka lasted more than sixty-four years. This paper analyzes the state’s direct support to the ethnic and religious antagonism that fuelled it, the political miscalculations that precipitated it and the mistrust which permeated both battling sides. In the first section, it examines the state’s open support to the concept of Sinhala nationalism through its policies and constitutional developments, particularly in the 1960s and 70s. Another section of this paper tries to examine the new political trends and the new nature of the state in post-war Sri Lanka. In conclusion, it discusses the future of ethnic harmony and the recognition of minority rights by having a political solution. Sri Lankan society is an intricate and contentious one regarding its ethno-religious diversity and its religious divisions within the ethnic groups as well. Ethnicity and religion also have a regional basis, which is a significant reason why the Tamil militancy has a strong geographical dimension, which extended to the demand of a separate independent state. According to the estimates of Sri Lankan government, in 1995 there were 18, 112, 000 people living in Sri Lanka. The population density was 289 per sq. Km. Average annual growth was 1. 37% and the average life expectancy were 67.5 years (males 66 years, females 69 years). But when it came in the year 2015, ethnically minorities have been reduced to a small fraction of the whole Sri Lankan society. About 23 years ago, the Sri Lankan population consisted of multi-ethnic groups: Sinhalese 74%, Tamils 18%, Moors 7%, others (Burghers, Malays, Eurasians, Vedha) 1%. The largest ethnic group divided into Low country Sinhalese (subjected in coastal areas to great colonial acculturation) and Kandyan Sinhalese (more traditional upland dwellers, named after the Kingdom of Kandy, which resisted European encroachments until 1815-18). The Tamils divided into Sri Lankan Tamils (on islands since early historic times) and Indian Tamils (brought in as plantation labor in the 19th century). The Sinhalese moved from north India and conquered the island, in the 6th century, but Tamils arrived in the 11th century settling in the northern and eastern sections of the island and Arabs came in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The British imported more Tamils from south India in the late 19th century to pick tea on their estates in the central highlands. Of the ethnic and religious groups, Tamil Hindus predominate in the Northern Province and maintain a significant presence in the Eastern Province. The Eastern Province is an ethnically mixed area where Tamils, Muslims, and Sinhalese are found in sizeable numbers even though Tamils have a slightly higher statistical edge. Indian Tamils—the descendants of laborers brought from Southern India by the British in the 19th century to work on tea and coffee estates—are concentrated in parts of the Central, Uwa and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. Sinhalese Buddhists predominate in all parts of the country except the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Muslims have a significant concentration in the Eastern Province but generally, are scattered throughout the country. Christians maintain a significant presence in the coastal areas as a result of over 500 years of constant European colonial presence and the consequent Christianization of significant numbers of the population in these areas. However, Christians are found in all parts of the country in small numbers. Malays are mostly concentrated in and around the city of Colombo and the Western Province. By the time Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948 from the UK, there were expectations that the country would become a model democracy. The universal adult franchise was introduced in 1931, democratic institutions and traditions had been in place, and political violence was not an issue. Moreover, by the 1950s literacy in Sri Lanka was on the rise and there were no serious indicators of economic or social catastrophes of the years to come. However, even before independence, there were clear indications of ethnic politics that were to emerge later.

State’s Hegemony since Independence

Sri Lanka is a classical example for influencing the state’s structure to expand its majoritarian will at the cost of its minorities. Since Independence, through its constitutional reforms and policies, the state has been hegemonizing all the areas of minority’s life in the name of its majoritarian expansionist view. The introduction of ethnic and political outbidding like policies and the indirect support of the state to such policies made the minority life more pathetic in the state. Political ideologies of major parties like United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) in support of Sinhala nationalism again added fuel into it. Even though the different structure of political institutions of the state works smoothly, the state itself is a failure in giving adequate representation to the minorities, mainly the Indian Tamils. One can say that the state in Sri Lanka would satisfy the different parameters of a democratic system in its functioning, but what were the aftermaths of those actions is still a debatable question. It’s a fact, during the British rule in Ceylon, agitations brought about by the Sinhala leaders against British forced the administrators to take pro-minority policies which resulted in the all-around development of minority’s life. The main agenda behind these public policies was to demoralize the majority. But after the transition of power, the majority led UNP took firm political measures to regain their lost status. The Citizenship Act, the Land Ceiling Act, Sinhala Only Act, and various constitutional reforms made the minorities into an alien in that country. Later, the establishment of LTTE and their aggressive attempts to challenge the state system dragged the country into a field of massive killings and bloodshed. The next section analyses the laws and constitutional changes made by the state to expand its Sinhala nationalism and to hegemonies the Indian Tamils in the early decades.

Citizenship Laws and Status

Given the problems the Indian estate workers presented of an economic, cultural and political nature, it is not surprising that the Ceylonese leadership promptly set out about limiting the political rights of the Indian population. According to the 1931 Donoughmore Constitution, they developed three strategies for dealing with the problem. Firstly, Ceylon was so defined as to limit it those who could prove that their ancestors have been in Ceylon for several generations. Secondly, special legislation was provided to define how Indians who were residents on the Island should apply for and be registered as citizens. Thirdly by a series of regulations and enactments directed against the European as well as the Indian community, economic activities were progressively colonized. The Citizenship Act No. 8 of 1948 provided two ways by which a person may acquire Ceylonese citizenship by descent or by registration. To acquire it by descent, which is automatically without going through specially provided procedures, a person on the Island before September 21, 1948, had to be able to prove that his father before him was also born in Ceylon or both his paternal grandfather and great paternal grandfather were born in Ceylon.

If born outside Ceylon before the appointed day, he had to prove that his father and paternal grandfather were born in Ceylon. It also provided for Citizenship by registration available to a person who intends to be ordinarily resident in Ceylon. But all these effectively barred the Indian community, particularly the working class in Ceylon. The citizenship law of the country passed within six months of the transfer of political power to the Sinhalese in 1948. As a result of this legislation, the Tamil laborers of the tea and plantations in the central hills of the Ceylon whose blood and sweat alone have built up and sustained the prosperity of the country were rendered stateless. Out of the eight representatives selected for the parliament with their votes in 1947, not a single one could return in the general election of 1952 or even after that. Constituencies, for the demarcation of which their voteless numerical strength was taken into the computation, returned Sinhalese representatives whose members inequitably swelled in Parliament. The Sinhalese people, who form about 70 percent of the population, secured for themselves 80 per cent seats in the Parliament.

The concept of Safeguard to minorities was distorted in to safeguard to the majority community that ensured a position of disproportionate representation to the majority community. The disfranchisement of the plantation labor was the first step that paved the way for a series of denial of the political rights of the minorities to enthroning Sinhalese imperialism. Tamils and Muslims of Ceylon were made doubtful citizens by the citizenship laws. In consequence, they had to face a lot of miseries in their day to day life. To register a document of purchase of land made with his own saving a Tamil or Muslim outside the Northern and Eastern provinces finds himself in the plight of having to pay a discriminatory tax of 100 percent. Tamils and Muslims who are unable to establish that for two generations before 1948 they were born here being out of business, travel, employment opportunities, etc. The first fruits of freedom to the Tamil people were disfranchisement statelessness, the status of illicit immigrant and a position of ambiguous citizenship. The mass erosion of South Indian Tamils into the lands legally owned by the Kandyan peasantry naturally brought suspect and concern not only to the hill country but also to the people in the rest of the island. The question of the exodus was taken up seriously by the government of India time and again from 1931 by the government of Ceylon. In 1938 by an Act passed by the State Council for the elections to the rural councils the resident laborers in any plantation were debarred from voting. By doing so, the only aim of the pro-Sinhalese leaders was to weaken the electoral powers of the plantation workers, mainly the Tamil laborers. We can say that Sri Lanka was the first country in South Asia which passed universal adult suffrage to its people. But the real intention of the highly educated Sinhalese leaders was to weaken the political power of the Tamil working class in the then coming elections. So the political participation of the migrant labors has been restricted since 1931. Consequently, the protests for their demands lost the support of political strength.

State-Sponsored Colonization Process

Making the majority into a minority through constitutional measures was one of the strategies of the Sri Lankan government to suppress and eradicate the demands of real minorities. Coercive apparatus of the state and majority communal feeling of the bhikkhus enhanced the pace of state-sponsored colonialism in Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka where Tamils are living together. Dominating the Tamil people by planned colonialization by the Sinhalese governments has been drastic and grave. Beginning with the government of the United National Party and those of the Mahajan Eksath Peramuna (MEP) and Sri Lankan Freedom Party that followed, in turn, put into operation planned and state-aided colonialisation schemes by which thousands and thousands of Sinhalese were planted in the homeland of the Tamil nation that was once ruled by the Tamil kings from whom foreign imperialism wrested the Tamil homeland through force of arms. Sinhalese people put into occupation of extensive tracts of the Eastern Province at Pattipalai Aru, Allai, Kantalai, Padavikulam, etc. illegal occupation of state-owned lands by Sinhalese people with covert government support was legalize and their ownership regularized by the government. Lands and coconut ownership taken over from the Tamils and Muslims in the Amparai district by the state under the Ceiling on Lands Act are being distributed to the Sinhalese people. Lands owned by the Tamil and Muslims peasants and also lands which these people themselves developed and cultivated at the places like Kondaivettuwan and Akklaveli have been forcibly taken over and handed over, with government help to the Sinhalese people. Puttalam is another district where state conspired, Sinhalese colonization has deprived the local people of the territory.

While the government has been providing these facilities to the Sinhalese aggressors of Tamil people, it loses the army, under special Emergency Regulations against the hill-country Tamil laborers, who sought to make a living by opening and developing forest lands that, lay unexploited and uncared in the Eastern Province. A cashew plantation scheme started at Kindaichi, in the Mannar district, is now a Sinhalese colony of two thousand families. Very near to the Tamil heartland of Jaffna, a Sinhalese colony like AMRASEKARAPURA has opened up. The Eastern Province when the British left in 1948, there were hardly 10,000 Sinhalese is now populated with them. The extent of this damage to the political power and the influence of the Tamils is reflected in the then newly created parliamentary constituencies of Amparai and Seruwila which occupies some 1,500 squares miles of Tamil territory. This constitutes 2/5th of the land area of the Eastern Province whose further developments lies within these fertile lands, thus usurped. The Tamil nation is confronted with the danger of being rendered a minority and being thus destroyed in its homeland all over the Tamil Eelam.

Language Policy of the State

Language is of profound significance to an individual. It is the person’s mode of contact with his social world. A challenge to an individual’s language is a threat to this personal net that saves him from the abyss of loneliness. Before independence, there was an interplay of three languages in Sri Lanka- English, Sinhala, and Tamil. After Independence, the new government had to face the question of what should be the language of instruction in schools and what should be the official language of the state. In the early years of Independence, by constitutional measures, it was decided that the medium of instruction should be in the mother tongue or swabasha. Later the government of Sri Lanka passed the Sinhala Only Act in the Island, and it culminated in the ongoing communal and ethnical strife. By 1954, there were some indications of growing pressure for Sinhala as the only official language. Meetings of Swabasha teachers, Ayurvedic physicians, and bhikkhus urged the adoption of Sinhala only. Official Language Act, No. 33 of 1956 clause 2 says that the Sinhala Language shall be the one official language of Ceylon.

Before the attainment of Independence, a resolution was passed in the State Council, the legislature, in 1944 that Sinhalese and Tamils shall be the official languages. Every Sinhalese political party at that time accepted this policy. But Mr. Bandaranaike’s government, in 1956 passed the Sinhala Act. The United National Party supported it too. Then all the Sinhala political parties accepted the policy of Sinhala Only. This Act has in the republican constitution of 1972 been elevated to constitutional status. Regulations on the use of Tamil language, which the Tamil secured for themselves as a result of several struggles with the government, have been deliberately dethroned in the constitution. For, section 8(2) of the constitution unequivocally stipulates that these regulations will not be treated as being of part of the constitution. In consequence has developed a situation where the Tamil speaking public servants have grow under the loss of equal opportunities with the Sinhalese officers in matters of employment, promotions, extension of service, increments etc. the real intention of the Sinhala Only Act was to create a situation that would keep out the Tamil officers and ensure the appointment of Sinhalese officers only, in government services. The rulers were greatly successful in the endeavor. In the 1978 constitution, the Sinhala language has got much preference than the Tamil language. In a country that was being overwhelmed by nationalization, this is life and death issue that affects the economic life of the Tamil people.

Prominence to Sinhala Religion and Culture

Buddhism has been given pre-eminence in the constitution and declared to be the only religion that would enjoy State protection. It becomes the most acclaimed religion of the country and has given a special place in the Kandyan Convention, Donoughmore constitution, and Soulboury constitution and all the constitutional amendments. Other faiths have no right to any protection except the right of being practiced, in private. Tamil people comprise Hindus, Christians, and Muslims. Sri Lankan society regarded the migrants as intruders and misinterpreted that these intruders were trying to harm the religious feelings of the Sinhalese. Before independence, British administration has given much importance to Hinduism, and the number of Tamil people in government services was good in number. The scene becomes reversed after Independence and parity and secular outlook of the government regarding beliefs was replaced by majoritarian communal feelings. Culture, beliefs, and religion of the Tamils got hurt, and the constitution has placed on them the stamp of second-class citizens. The national cultural revival and the repudiation of Western cultural patterns inescapably lead back into a Sinhalese past, a Tamil past or a Muslim past, each distinct from the other. The three major communities in Ceylon are today living in three watertight compartments; the Muslim does not know the Buddhist point of view, the Tamils do not know the Muslim point of view, the people of each community want to imbibe their own culture and move within the confines of their closed communal compartment. There is an unconscious and not always unexpressed pride and self-confidence in the Tamil’s approach to his tradition. He looks down the culture of his Sinhalese neighbors in much the same way that certain European intellectuals have a quiet disdain for American cultural creations. As the Sinhalese view their culture they are keenly aware of being only 7,000,000 people in the entire world and solely on the Island of Ceylon. Their culture is unique and differentiated. Many centuries with little evidence of creative endeavor separate them today from the flowering past when ancient monarchs concentrated the resources of their Kingdoms to create grand monuments and public works and to encourage the labour and piety of the scholars and bhikkhus at Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.

Though the Tamils and Sinhalese have lived in this country for over two thousand years, yet the Tamils have continued to preserve their culture based on their language. This culture and traditions were nurtured even under Portuguese, Dutch and British imperialistic rule. The vital reason behind this survival was that though the Tamils were not strong in numbers, yet they never they lost the opportunities of maintaining close bonds with the powerful fountain of Tamil culture across the Palk straight in Tamil Nadu. No doubt, there were prominent figures like Arumuga Navalar, Swami Vipulananthar, etc. who rendered great services to the growth of international Tamil culture. If the bonds and arts of South India are snapped, it is certain that the culture of Tamil people would weaken and turn in to one that is Sinhalese based. The Sri Lankan government in the early times imposed several restrictions on the import of the culture works, literature, quality films, etc. from Tamil Nadu and put obstacles to the visits of Tamil scholars and artists from Tamil Nadu. But the government policy of imposition of Sinhala language, several Sinhala words like POYA, POLA, LAKSALA, SALUSALA is injecting into the Tamil language. With the curtailment of links with Tamil Nadu and the increasing tempo of Sinhala imposition, the Tamil language will undergo strange transformation and the identity of the Tamil culture will be destroyed and finally, the Tamil people would disappear from the Island that was the goal that government has set for itself.

Standardization of Education System

As we know that education is the best means to promote the values of an integrated and intrinsic society which ultimately leads to unity in diversity. So the classrooms have to provide a space for every student or child, who are coming from different backgrounds, to express and share their values and ideas. Such kind of education accommodates the different elements of the society and ultimately leads to a society which is always standing for unity in diversity. In Sri Lanka, particularly during the British rule, through the help of Christian religious institutions under foreign rule and later through great educational institutions the Tamil people established by themselves, for themselves, the Tamil students of the country were in the forefront of education. Sinhalese students in districts like Colombo, Kandy, and Galle also enjoyed similar opportunities. It is imperative that the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim students of the backward areas, deficient in such facilities, should be provided with those facilities and enabled to go forward. It is an obligation of the state. But several obstacles were put in the way of Tamil students outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces in obtaining an even elementary education. Several Tamil elementary schools are being closed down to provide accommodation for Sinhalese schools. Tamil sections in several Sinhalese schools are being destroyed. Some are not functioning because of non-appointment of a sufficient number of teachers. As a result, Tamil students in several areas compelled to study through the Sinhalese medium. In the Northern Province, a few people have been enticed with teaching jobs, and Sinhala Buddhist schools have been opened and approved, and Sinhala has been made the medium of instruction there. If the government could display so much of audacity here, then one could easily fathom the depth and fanaticism of Sinhala imperialism in the annihilation of the Tamil people.

In the sphere of education, it was in the university admissions of 1970 that the gravest injustice was perpetrated against the Tamil-speaking students. A large number of Tamil students qualified to gain university admission to the medical, engineering and science facilities that year were shut out through an inequitable device, designated standardization. While Sinhalese students who obtained 229 marks were admitted to the medical faculty, the Tamil students who were admitted were required to obtain 250 marks. In the same manner, for admission to the engineering faculty of the Peradeniya Campus, a Sinhalese student had to obtain 227 marks whereas a Tamil student had to score 250 marks. It is intolerable that while a Tamil student with even 249 marks could not gain admission, a Sinhalese student with 227 marks could do so, with ease. This standardization has been in operation in various guises and every faculty of the University, the number of admissions of Tamil students has been going down. Here is an illustration, of the total number of students admitted to the University in 1969; the percentage of Tamil students was 40.8. This figure has been steadily going down, and it was 16.3 in 1974. It dropped still further in 1975 and 1976. One could see that the sections that were most affected by the injustice were the most backward one in the Tamil community. Thus, parents who lacked to employ private tutors to get their children pushed through this drastic ordeal had to forget about higher education to their children. As a result, the student community was driven to the brink of frustration and engulfed by anxiety about the future. Such kind educational policies of the state alienated the Tamil community from the national development process.

Employment Opportunities

Tamil peoples were enjoyed a lot of benefits from the British administration regarding education, employment, and religious beliefs. Foreign rule and their offices accommodated the Tamil cause for existence in Sri Lanka. Educational provisions were not restricted to Tamil migrants, and it culminated in increasing the number of Tamils in administrative jobs. It also provided associational freedom to the migrants. But all these frustrated the Sinhalese, and they tried to justify the British actions after Independence through constitutional measures. The very same discriminatory policies pursued in the field of education are being pursued in the field of employment in a worse manner. Out of a 22 percent population of Tamil speaking people, not even a 2 per cent are selected for jobs in the armed forces. In the police force, at the level of the lowest rung, the constable, the 5 percent of the places and in higher rungs an in even small places only, are offered. In the clerical and technical grades also, the percentage is the same. Because equal opportunities in education were available earlier times, Tamil students were able to gain enough seats in the engineering and medical profession. But after that, even in these spheres, as a result of the impact of standardization, a percent that is far less than the one warranted by the percentage of the Tamil population is taken in. Vacancies in the secondary grades in the Tamil areas are filled with people selected in divisional offices like Anuradhapura and Badulla in the Sinhalese areas. As an example could be cited the selection of the Ceylon Electricity Board for vacancies in the Tamil districts of Jaffna. Out of the people selected at the Anuradhapura office, 66 were Sinhalese, and 2 were Tamils. In a country where, as a result of the nationalization, the private sector is shrinking, should not ponder what tragedy would overtake the economic life of the Tamil nation if the government should adopt such a form of discriminatory policies. Discriminatory employment policies of the government also alienated the poor Tamils, and this later led to the demand of Tamil Elam.

Economic Development Programmes and the Marginalization of Tamil people

The state-owned factories in the area where the Tamil people lived were set up before Independence. Every single factory that was set up in the country, with foreign aid, was set up only in the Sinhalese areas and districts. Schemes like the Kachachi salterns, the Kankeshanturai harbour development, Fishery Harbour at Myliddi, all of which started between 1965-1970 by a government in which the Tamil representatives too were members, have all been abandoned in that time. No major irrigation schemes of the government were not helped the Tamil people. Save for the schemes like Gal Oya, Allai, Kantalai, etc. whose deliberate motive was the planting of the Sinhalese population in the areas where Tamils are living together? No irrigation scheme of any consequence that had as its objective the welfare of either the Tamil or Muslim population has ever been implemented in that time. There were, of course, some minor schemes like whitewashing. When oil prospecting with Soviet Union aid was started in Mannar, the local Tamil and Muslim populations were ignored, and 90 percent of the laborers were imported from the Sinhalese areas. In the private sector, obtaining licenses to start industrial ventures in the Tamil areas was a Herculean task. Even some minor factories started in the Tamil areas, the majority of the employers were Sinhalese. Not only Tamil people are ignored in the matter of employment opportunities, but also they are highly ignored in the economic development of the country.

Communal strife in the Island

The Republic of Sri Lanka is notoriously known for its ethnical and communal strife. To the Sri Lankan, Tamil are indentured laborers who came to work in the plantation, so they should go back to India. But the 200 years of Sri Lankan life made the Tamilians to settle on the island. This led to the beginning of a very bad chapter in the history of Sri Lanka. Since the Independence, racial terrorism has been let loose in the country, against the Tamil and Muslim population in a manner that reminded them that they were slaves who were not entitled to any rights or protection. Tamil and Muslim have been the quite often objects of violence of the Sinhalese hooligans instigated by government supported Sinhalese communal organizations and of the police and armed forces in whose hands they suffered untold misery by way of looting and arson in homes, shops and places of business, by grievous injuries, the loss of life and property and violation against women. In 1956 it as reported that Tamils were attacked in Colombo and also in the areas where Tamils lived. Amparai, where Tamils lived was converted into a Sinhalese enclave. The age-old villages like Thuraineelvanai had to resort to firearms in defense of their hearths and homes from attack by Sinhalese hoodlums.

The communal fury against the Tamils in 1958 in the entire Sinhalese land is a chapter of the dreadful blot in the history of the country. Thousands of Tamils were taken to Northern and Eastern provinces in commandeered ships, and army protected convoys. Property worth several million were lost, several hundred lost their lives and thousands their homes. While Sinhalese terrorism raged against the Tamils all over the country, the Sinhalese government arrested the Tamil leaders and put them behind bars. That was an insult added to injury. Military terror was let loose in the Tamil provinces against the Tamils who were engaged in a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience in 1961 to demand their language rights. On the 2 February 1976, seven of the Muslims at prayer inside a mosque at Puttalam were ruthlessly massacred by the Sinhalese police, inside that holy spot. It was reported that 271 houses, 44 shops, two fibre factories belonging to the Muslims of Puttalam were set on fire, two mosques were burnt down, 2 Muslim youths were burnt by the Sinhalese hooligans. But the government was not willing to hold a public inquiry into the horrible murders. These incidents only reiterate the fact that the lives and property of Tamils and Muslims who are living as slaves in the country during those periods and still do not enjoy any protection from the Sinhalese government.

Imposition of Constitution on the Tamil people

Drafting a new a constitution and its imposition on the Tamil nation is the climax of the dictatorial actions, samples of which were shown here. The Ceylon Parliament, which became a symbol of perverted democracy when its citizenship laws helped grab 80 percent of the parliamentary representation by the 70 percent Sinhalese population, after the general election of 1970, was formed into a Constituent Assembly. The deliberations of the Assembly were conducted under a state of emergency proclaimed in 1971, where the freedom of writing were all taken away from the people and while strict press censorship was in force. The two third majority of the government and the Sinhala communal majority were fully exploited. All the amendments to the basic resolutions introduced on behalf of the Tamil speaking people were rejected in toto, by the Sinhalese majority in the Assembly. A federal scheme with an autonomous Tamil state and an autonomous Muslim state with here Sinhalese states put forward by the Federal party, a constituent of the present Tamil United Liberation Front, as a solution to the racial problems of the country was turned by Assembly even before being examined. Neither any Sinhalese party nor any member of the majority community came forward to discuss or offer any alternative scheme that could meet with the aspirations of the Tamil nation.

Attempts made by the Tamil members to secure a place in the constitution at least for the regulations for the use of the Tamil language proved abortive. The only outcome of these efforts was the introduction, in the constitution, of section 8(2) that categorically stated that these regulations on the use of Tamil language should not form a part of the constitution. Realizing the futility of any continued participation the Tamil representatives in the Constituency Assembly walked out. The Assembly meeting of 22nd May 1972, which was summoned to pass the constitution boycotted by 15 out of the 19 elected representatives. Out of the four that voted in favors of the constitution, two lost their representative character after having been expelled from their party, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress; one was elected as a candidate of the Federal Party and was expelled from that Party and thus lost his right of representation. The fourth was a member who contested on an anti-government platform and won as an Independent. Hence it was obvious that the constitution was rejected by the 100 % Tamil people. The manner in which the unanimous opposition of the Tamil people was ignored and how the new constitution was imposed on them has only confirmed the psychology of the Sinhalese Imperialist masters that they are ruling over a slave nation according to their whims and fancies. They have done away with the meager safeguards provided for the minorities in the constitution left behind the British, placed their language and religion at such high a pedestal that no one could ever tamper with them and through this imposed constitution made the Tamils their slaves without any share in the political power of the state. Sinhala leaders continued the same marginalization policy in the next constitutional amendment in the year 1978.

New Political Trends and the Future of Ethnic Harmony in Sri Lanka

The end of the twenty-six year long ethnic war in Sri Lanka connotes the dawn of a new political life and qualitatively different challenges facing the state and the nation. It would be needed to analyze the new nature of the state and its coming trends while we are discussing the future of ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka. Neil Devotta, in the article, “From civil war to soft authoritarianism: Sri Lanka in comparative perspective” said that now the island has been branded a ‘control democracy,’ ‘illiberal democracy, ‘ethnocentric democracy,’ and ‘ethnocracy.’ During the Mahinda Rajapaksa era, it is authoritarianism and nepotism that have ruled the day. While authoritarianism can be ‘hard’ in that it represents a dictatorship in certain spheres or moments in time (e.g., China), it can also be ‘soft’ (e.g., Singapore) in that a regime may allow its citizens ample freedoms provided they do not challenge certain institutions representing the state or become hypercritical of the ruling elite. So it’s a fact that under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, no criticism of the military and its leaders have been tolerated and those who have reported on crimes perpetrated by military figures or corruption within the military have been abducted, assaulted, imprisoned, murdered, and disappeared. Similarly, the press is also free to report on almost all issues provided it is not overly critical of the president and his vast family. Most troubling, the rule of law, which was gradually vitiated due to favoritism, corruption, and the war against the LTTE, has now ceased to apply to the ruling cabal, their immediate families and relatives, and ardent supporters. In short, rewards and punishments are increasingly administered by presidential fiat (or through the dictates of those close to the president), not through the constitutional process. From this standpoint, the term ‘soft authoritarianism’ is most appropriate when discussing Sri Lanka under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.

The military and electoral victories have tremendously increased Rajapaksa regimes centralization tendencies. Centralization of state power under the unitary political system established along the lines of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has been an inherent desire of every leader at least since 1971. In tune with its centralization policy, the Rajapaksa government has shown deep interest in rejecting demands for devolution. It displays total antipathy to the minority’s aspiration for autonomy. In the process, like federalism, devolution and autonomy are beginning to emerge as dirty concepts, thereby revising the trends that existed during 1995-2005. In fact, both concepts gained much popularity, formed core issues in public and intellectual debate and remained etched in the consciousness of a large section of liberal-minded people, thanks to both the Chandrika Kumaratunga and Wickramasinghe governments, which had shown willingness to find a political solution based on devolution and sought to engage the LTTE for the same purpose. Importantly, in those years the civil society too had enjoyed political space to articulate its views and popularize the idea of autonomy solution. Now, the Rajapaksa regime does not believe in such a framework of the solution nor does it want to strengthen the existing provincial council system. The President has shown deep interest in political reform, aimed at further strengthening his powers and position and also other state institutions. He is placed in an unchallenged position not only to violate some of the constitutional provisions and but also to take new political steps to concentrate more powers in the presidency. He has no qualms about doing them even though both the opposition and the civil society reject his greater centralization policy and authoritarian style of functioning.

A serious development in this context has been a violation, rather willfully by the President, of the Seventeenth Amendment to the constitution, passed unanimously in 2001, which has taken away the President’s power to appoint high state officials and entrusted them with the Constitutional Council. Now the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission, and the Judicial Service Commission have all become dysfunctional. International Crisis Group has observed that “the absence of these commissions has deepened the impunity with which state officials and security forces can violate the law.” Furthermore, the President seeks to amend the constitution to remove the current two-term limit on the presidency and allow himself to contest the next presidential election when his second ends in 2016.The President’s agenda of centralization has not even spared the parliament. It is reported that he wishes to be a part of the parliament and take part in its proceedings. He made his intention clear during the 2010 presidential elections. His party propaganda said that the president would participate in parliamentary sessions to establish co-existence between the two institutions. A constitutional amendment, which is reportedly underway, to this effect will translate his political desire into a reality. Consequently, it will make the executive dominance over the legislature total and Prime Minister’s original position as a nominal executive head in the parliament will be further reduced to an insignificant level. The concentration of power could also be seen in the exercise of ministerial control. In addition to allocating to him some of the key ministries such as defence, finance and planning, ports and aviation and highways, Rajapaksa seeks to closely monitor control other ministries, particularly the one that generates incomes to the government.

Sinhalese Nationalism and Unitarianism in Post-war Sri Lanka

In the post-war period, the ruling political class is not only deeply interested in consolidating majoritarian nationalism but also further weakening minoritarian nationalisms. This is evident from the government’s lack of forwarding momentum on the issue of devolution and power-sharing and the opposition’s refusal to push the regime for a meaningful political solution to the ethnic conflict. President Mahinda Rajapaksa equates Sri Lankan nationalism exclusively with Sinhalese (language) Buddhism, instead of considering it an inclusive and multi-ethnic ideology that reflects in the many characters of the state and its policies. The regime’s deep interest in promotion and propagation of the notion of the “Motherland” is central to its post-war policy of consolidating Sinhalese nationalist Buddhism. It is a move to achieve national unity, but under the majoritarian ethnic, ideological fold, where the minorities are persuaded to shed their separate identities and accept the common Sri Lankan identity. There is an intimate link between Sinhalese nationalism and the principle of Unitarianism; each reinforces and advances the other. If Sinhalese nationalism defines and shapes the states unitary character, its success in promoting Unitarianism as an unbreakable ideology and a policy of the state has contributed towards hardening and consolidating the former. The majority community’s strong penchant for an uncompromising commitment to maintaining the unitary political system is linked to and influenced by historicity and perception of the Sinhalese and the political construction of their ethnic nationalism. Unlike other Sinhalese leaders, Mahinda Rajapaksa has been consistent in articulating his views and commitment to uphold the unitary state structure. So here the most important question arises that how the state is going to handle the ethnic problems…? How it achieves its ethnic harmony through political solution…?

Future of Ethnic Harmony through Political Solution….?

During the C. Kumaratunga reign, Sri Lankan government has initiated both ‘dove’ and ‘hawk’ peace strategy to maintain peace in the country. Later, the government invited Norwegian Peace facilitators to the country. But all attempts turned futile, and the result was the open war between Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. The debate and the political process produced exceptional work on devolution as evident from the 1995 and 1997 Proposals, the Draft Constitution of 2000, the Majority Report of the Experts Committee of 2006 and the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) Report of 2009. The viable solutions towards restructuring the state and power-sharing with all communities have already been conceived by Sri Lankan intellectuals. The issue is not the absence of solutions, rather the short-sightedness of the political leadership. The centre stage given to Sinhala nationalism by the Rajapaksa government led to the de-merger of the North-East through a Supreme Court ruling in 2006, as opposed to resolving the issue through negotiations. Though the APRC process was initiated by the President himself, he has now buried the painfully dialogued and crafted APRC Report and its recommendations. After the war, the Rajapaksa government’s solution has singularly focussed on large-scale infrastructure development assisted by regional powers, including China and India, and by attracting global finance capital. This approach has addressed neither the political problems nor the broader economic concerns seen in the protests and strikes now shaking the South. If anything, such centralised development both undermines devolution and is symptomatic of authoritarianism, and it serves the consolidation of an oligarchy consisting of the President, his family and the elite allied to them.

The increasing international pressure on alleged war crimes during the last phase of the war and the absence of a political settlement led to the appointment of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) with a limited mandate. The catastrophic end to the war, with devastating consequences for the Tamil community in the North, in particular, required a far-reaching process of reconciliation. While not addressing accountability for alleged war crimes, the LLRC Report submitted three months ago includes many important recommendations. Specifically, the Commission recommends that the “lessons learnt from the shortcomings in the functioning of the Provincial Councils system be taken into account, in devising an appropriate system of devolution,” and urges the government to have a “structured dialogue with all political parties, and those representing the minorities in particular, based on a proposal containing the Government’s own thinking on the form and content of the dialogue process envisaged.” But the government has done little to ensure progress on those recommendations and a timeline of implementation has not been put forward.


It all depends on the real executives handling of political power in maintaining the communal harmony between the two majorities and minorities. Meaningful devolution must include the following: land powers as the historical grievance included alienation of state lands; local police powers to address the security and fears of minorities; and financial powers, necessary to independently develop the local region. Such powers to the war-affected Provinces will give confidence to the Tamil and Muslim minorities that the government intends to empower them and engage them politically. In the days ahead, if the President is serious, he should propose his vision and timeline for constitutional change. Calling on the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to work with a new Parliamentary Select Committee, while the President is wavering, will only drag the process indefinitely. If inclusivity is the issue, there are already the APRC recommendations agreed to by most of the political parties. The TNA is not bereft of problems. It needs to go through a process of self-criticism for its past relationship with the LTTE and rethink its Tamil nationalism. It should chart a realistic strategy, given the political weakness of the Tamil community, and neutralize the pro-LTTE sections of the Tamil Diaspora, shifting the political terrain to a viable settlement within a united Sri Lanka. It must work towards a minorities’ consensus and engage progressive forces in the Sinhalese community. A recent welcome move is the TNA’s dialogue with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), with the latter also insisting on land and police powers. Now, LTTE is over, and it is the time for the President to withdraw his army from war-stricken areas and make the peaceful atmosphere for discussions. So, the fact of the matter is if the President is not showing any sincerity to the issue, the future of ethnic harmony in the island will only be a distant dream.

Posts Carousel

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *

Cancel reply

SAJ on Facebook

SAJ Socials


Top Authors