Sri Lanka

4 April 2004

Wrong Answer in Sri Lanka

By Gwynne Dyer

“I have a strong belief that our nation will have peace but I am under no illusion that it will be easy,” said Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe two years ago, as his government signed a ceasefire in the civil war that had ravaged the island nation for eighteen years. Now he is out of power, and the ceasefire itself is at risk.

The election that has driven his United National Party from power came three years early. It wasn’t his choice; President Chandrika Kumaratunga dismissed parliament last November because she feared that Wickremesinghe was making too many concessions to the rebels. She was within her legal rights, but her intent was to force an early election and abort the deal for a federal Sri Lanka that Wickremeshinghe was discussing with the rebels.

She has succeeded. The results of the election on 2 April didn’t quite produce a majority for her Freedom Party and its new ally, the former Marxist terrorists of the People’s Liberation Front (JVP – Janata Vimukthi Peramuna). But since they can easily make an alliance with the new Buddhist party founded by extremist monks only months ago, which flatly rejects the idea of a federal Sri Lanka, they will form the next government. That means that the peace talks are off, and after a while maybe the ceasefire too.

Of course, nobody ever says they are against peace talks; President Kumaratunga says she wants peace too. She does, without a doubt, but it has to be a peace that makes few concessions to the Tamil minority — and since the Tamils already have military control over most of the territory they claim, that kind of deal is not going to happen.

Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heritage should make it a gentle and civilised country, and in some ways it is. “It’s not like Palestine,” said Prof. P. Balasundarampillai, vice-chancellor of Jaffna University. “Tamils and Sinhalese are on friendly terms.” But Sri Lankans do kill one another over politics rather a lot.

Even within the Sinhalese majority, the killing has been impressive. The JVP, now a legal political party, killed between seventy and eighty thousand of its fellow Sinhalese in its days as a Marxist revolutionary movement in the 70s and 80s. Then came the rebellion of the Tamil minority in 1983 under the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and another 65,000 violent deaths in a war marked by suicide bombings in the cities and big battles in the jungle.

The latter tragedy, at least, is the old story of the dual minority, and it does have echoes of Israel and Palestine. Sinhalese are the overwhelming majority in Sri Lanka (fifteen out of nineteen million), just as Jews are the overwhelming majority in Israel (five out of six million). The Tamil minority, a mainly Hindu community that migrated from India about a thousand years ago, is only three million strong and no threat to the majority, any more than the Arabs of Israel are.

Just across the water in southern India, however, are another 80 million Tamil-speakers — or if you want to do it on religion rather than language and count all of India, another 900 million Hindus. So just as the Arabs within Israel are treated as the advance guard of the 300 million Arabs beyond Israel/Palestine, the Tamils of Sri Lanka are seen a dangerous fifth column by many among the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. The paranoia is strengthened by the fact that Buddhism was once the dominant religion in India, only to be pushed out by a revived Hinduism until only Sri Lanka still had a Buddhist majority.

The Tamil people of Sri Lanka never posed a threat to the majority, but the first thing the Sinhalese Buddhist majority did after getting independence from Britain was to pass laws restricting Tamil civil rights. There was no ‘Tamil problem’ but that created one, as Tamils protested against their limited access to higher education and government jobs.

Gradually the situation slid downhill from there, via terrorist attacks and anti-Tamil pogroms, to full-scale civil war in 1983. Soon the Tamil Tigers controlled most of the Tamil-majority territory in the north and east, functioning as a de facto government that collects taxes, provides services and runs courts. In two decades of war the Sri Lankan army has never managed to regain control over the territory, so the best that the government in Colombo can hope for is a deal that creates a loose federal union.

That is the reality that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was trying to persuade Sinhalese voters to accept, and he seemed to be making progress. But President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who still carries shrapnel in her brain and is blind in one eye as a result of a Tamil Tiger assassination attempt in 1999 — and whose husband was killed by them in 1989 — simply cannot accept the concessions that are necessary for peace. She forced an election, and she has won it. It appears that the majority of Sinhalese are not ready for those concessions either.

So there will probably be a slide back to war, which will last until everybody is ready to try again for peace. The “salmon-eating busybodies”, as Mrs Kumaratunga’s party called the Norwegian mediators early this year, will have to go practice elsewhere.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“The latter…majority”)