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Paper: Self-determination, coexistence and the conflict in Sri Lanka PDF Print E-mail
Written by Harsha Kumara Navaratne , Sewalanka Foundation , Sri Lanka   
Thursday, 14 April 2005 14:17
Colonial Roots of the Sri Lankan Conflict

Like so many conflicts in the Global South today, the roots of the war in Sri Lanka can be traced to the colonial period. Before the arrival of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, the island that is now known as Sri Lanka was not a single nation state. The land was divided into three coexisting kingdoms based on geographical boundaries. Sinhala and Tamil people shared religious practices, holidays, and holy sites, traded with one another, and often intermarried. Most Sinhalese and Tamils who lived in close proximity were bilingual. There was a common cultural heritage, and the line between the two ethnic groups was relatively blurred.

In 1818, the British became the first colonial power to politically unify the island. They conducted a census that for the first time divided the people according to three ethnicities based on language and religion: Sinhalese, Tamils, and Moors. Using a strategy of divide and rule, they offered educational and employment opportunities to a small proportion of the population, who then governed the masses. Over time, a wealthy, English-speaking, Christian elite emerged in the capital of Colombo.

According to the history books, Sri Lanka became an independent nation state on February 4 th, 1948, but this historical event brought very little social change. Unlike India, Sri Lanka never had a freedom struggle. The British simply handed over leadership to an Anglicized elite who shared the religion, language, and values of the colonizers. The British administrative and governance system remained. The country took on the symbols of democracy, like elections and political parties, but not its substance. Since 1948, the political leadership of the country has been kept within two extended Colombo-based families.

Because of the immense economic and cultural divide between this Anglicized elite and the mass of the rural population, their claims to national political leadership were highly vulnerable. In order to maintain their legitimacy in a " ‹Å“majority rules' representative democracy, they had to show responsibility for the masses, while avoiding class-based politics. Their solution was to appeal to ethnicity and religion. Political leaders converted to Buddhism, began wearing national dress and speaking Sinhalese, and established themselves as the protectors of the majority, the Sinhalese Buddhists.

In 1956, Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike made Sinhala the official language. Tamil professionals and bureaucrats lost their jobs, and Tamil students were unable to access coveted university spots. The democratic avenues for them to legally protect their minority rights were closed. These policies were continued and reinforced by subsequent governments. This situation drove the Sri Lankan Tamils to their struggle for self-determination. From 1983 until the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) signed a ceasefire agreement in 2002, more than 100,000 people have been killed by ethnic and political violence and nearly one million have been displaced.

Although the British handed over political leadership in 1948, the people of Sri Lanka have never experienced independence or self-determination, and although the country has had more than 10 elections in the past 10 years, Sri Lanka has never experienced democracy. The majority of the people in the country, Sinhala and Tamil alike, do not feel like they have a voice in the issues that affect their lives. Politicians and nationalistic groups have fed on this frustration and polarized the country in order to advance their own political agendas.

The Influence of International Aid

During the colonial period, the influence of the British on Sri Lanka was obvious and direct. Today, Sri Lanka is considered an independent nation state, but through the pressure of international aid, the influence of external actors on the country's internal relations remains just as strong. Although Sri Lanka is far from the hotspots of the Middle East, it too has been influenced by the war on terror. The United States, United Kingdom, and Canada all have included the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam on their lists of terrorist organizations. After September 11, 2001, it became clear that the conflict in Sri Lanka could be included in the international " ‹Å“war on terror' which would strengthen the position of the Sri Lankan government. This contributed to the LTTE's decision to sign a ceasefire Memorandum of Understanding in February of 2002.

Peace talks between the two largest stakeholders in the conflict, the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE were mediated by the Norwegians. However, some members of the donor community failed to recognize the LTTE as a legitimate stakeholder, insisting they were merely a terrorist organization. Although the LTTE currently holds administrative responsibility for a large part of the North and East of the country, they were not included in the first donor meeting in Washington where the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the region was discussed. This affront contributed to the LTTE's decision to withdraw from the peace talks in the fall of 2003.

In order to apply pressure on the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, members of the donor community agreed to withhold rehabilitation funds until the formal peace talks resumed. This has meant that the civilians in the border areas, who suffered the most during the conflict, have still not seen any benefits from the peace. Over the past two years, tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) have been trying to return to their homes and reestablish their livelihoods. They arrive to find their houses destroyed, their infrastructure demolished, and their agricultural lands filled with mines. When international support has been most needed, very little has been available. This situation of " ‹Å“no war, no peace' has generated enormous frustration at the grassroots level and put more pressure on the LTTE to show they can deliver results to the Tamil people.

At the same time, the delay in the peace process has given nationalistic political groups in the South time to organize and spread propaganda. In poster campaigns and rallies, they call the international donors " ‹Å“white tigers' and accuse these " ‹Å“foreign' agents of trying to divide the country. This situation has not been helped by the numerous international " ‹Å“peace experts' and " ‹Å“conflict resolution consultants' who have flooded into Sri Lanka. This nationalistic political group represents a small percentage of the Sinhala population, but they are extremely vocal and they have put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to continue protecting Sinhala interests in the face of outside invaders. Although the ceasefire agreement still officially stands, the situation in Sri Lanka is highly unstable.

The international community measures peace by the number of formal talks that are held in international venues by representatives of the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE. For those of us who work as practitioners in the country, it is the clear that a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka requires a much deeper process of social change. Coexistence cannot be imposed by external actors or by political groups, it must be built from within. There are currently a number of local organizations who are working to build linkages between people in the North and South of the country, strengthen civil society institutions, and develop participatory political structures that will protect the rights of minorities and provide a voice to all the people of Sri Lanka. It is our opinion, that these initiatives provide a stronger basis for coexistence and self-determination than any internationally approved peace agreement.

The only exception is President Premadasa, who was elected in 1989 and was assassinated in 1993.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 27 November 2008 15:26
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