Sri Lanka’s Crisis

Paul Seabright

Until the end of last month, the peace accord signed between India and Sri Lanka on 29 July appeared, precariously and against the odds, to be holding firm. As I write this article, several incidents of major violence are threatening to destroy an agreement which, for two astonishing months, seemed to promise the country reconstruction and renewal. When, in May, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces launched an assault on the northern Jaffna peninsula, which had for two years been almost entirely controlled by the main Tamil militant organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE), nobody could have foreseen imminent peace. So bleak and featureless was the political horizon that the BBC’s Colombo correspondent was on holiday when the accord was announced. The surprise, and the relief it brought to those sections of the community most devastated by the war, were remarkable. But Rajiv Gandhi has signed accords before. The Punjab accord was pulled like a rabbit out of a turban with much the same wizardry less than three years ago, and the Punjab is now virtually in civil war. Is the same happening to Sri Lanka?

One source of difficulty in answering the question lies in the fact that Sri Lanka is such an unlikely setting for an ethnically-based insurrectionist movement. Though one of the world’s poorest countries on a per capita basis, its remarkably equal distribution of income and historically high provision of education and welfare services have resulted in a low incidence of rural poverty and therefore one of the lowest rates of urbanisation in the world. Though its democracy has been manipulated in dubious ways, it has proved itself capable of regularly turning out incumbent governments. The Tamil minority community is socially conservative and inhospitable to both religious and political fundamentalism (many Tamils view the vaguely Marxist jargon of some of the guerrilla organisations as little more than a rhetorical badge, a claim to insurrectionist authenticity). Sri Lanka lacks the centuries-long history of ethnic tensions that continues to poison relations in Kampuchea or Northern Ireland: the first serious Sinhalese-Tamil violence took place in the late 1950s. And although the Sinhalese nationalism to which Tamil separatism is a response dates back to the 19th century, it was not until the election of a government determined to implement a ‘Sinhala-only’ language policy in 1956 that this nationalism took a specifically anti-Tamil form. Sociologists and historians continue to search for evidence of a deep social foundation for the ethnic crisis, but although hints and incidents can be found, they remain stubbornly sparse. If ever a country demonstrated the potential of myopic or cynical manipulation at the level of national politics to nurture the seed of ethnic conflict in an unpromising soil, it is Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has not one but two distinct communities of Tamils. One group, known as the Indian Tamils and comprising 5.6 per cent of the population, came from Southern India during the 19th century, to work the plantations (mainly of tea) established by the British. Though this group has suffered considerably at the hands of the majority Sinhalese, as a result both of violence and of the disenfranchisement inflicted upon it at Independence, there is little evidence of any militant activity in response. Most Indian Tamils live on the plantations in the hills at the centre of the island, separated physically and socially from the more numerous Sri Lankan Tamils concentrated in the north and east of the country.

The precise origins of this latter group, which comprises one-eighth of the population, are heatedly and irrelevantly discussed by both Sinhalese and Tamil historians, but it is clear that Tamils have been in the country for at least two millennia. The dominant myth of Sinhalese origin stresses inconsistently the importance both of the alleged priority of Sinhalese presence in the country and of the claim that the Sinhalese themselves are not aboriginal but descend from the superior Aryan races who conquered the island from Northern India sometime during prehistory. There is comedy as well as tragedy in these twistings of academic history, in which even the inoffensive discipline of archaeology is used and abused to buttress rival titles to territory. In a country in which significant portions of the population have been resettled on government land as a result of large-scale irrigation schemes, so that the ethnic composition of important areas has been changed, territory is a highly-charged issue.

Muslims comprise a third important ethnic minority, one with deep historic roots in the country. They speak Tamil, but are a quite distinct religious and social community from the Hindu Tamils. Although only 7 per cent of the population, they have considerable importance in the present crisis as a result of their disproportionate concentration in the crucial Eastern Province of the island, where Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims comprise about a third of the population each. Other ethnic minorities make up less than 1 per cent of the country’s population, but some groups, such as the so-called Burghers (of mixed Asian-European descent), wield significant economic and social influence. None of the country’s minorities was singled out for particular opprobrium by the growth of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in the last century, a movement spearheaded by the Buddhist revivalist Dharmapala. If there was hostility it was to the impure outsider as such, a category that took in the Muslim and the Briton as much as the Tamil. The emphasis was rather on the special role accorded to the Sinhalese race as guardians of the purity of Buddhism. Though many Sinhalese children were brought up on stories of battles with barbarian Tamils at the dawn of history, the role these stories played in the popular consciousness was hardly any more sinister than that played by the Wars of the Roses in the demonology of the Yorkshire Cricket Club.

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