Ethnic Strife in Sri Lanka

-O.N. Mehrotra, Senior Fellow, IDSA


In the post-Cold War period, international relations theorists and strategic studies analysts have begun to pay attention to the impact of ethnic and communal crises on international security. In the past, the ethnic crisis was generally considered as an internal affair of a country. Therefore, the international community of foreign countries was not supposed to interfere in the conflict. However, many ethnic crises entangled a neighbouring country either because of the involvement of a common ethnic group inhabiting both the countries or the inflow of refugees into the other country. Consequently, international organisations or regional organisations made efforts to resolve such crises. At times international mediation measures or outside intervention in ethnic conflicts was also exercised. But the most serious threat to international security was considered the likelihood of a nuclear war as a result of the East-West confrontation during the Cold War period. With the end of the Cold War and the demise of Communism in Europe, ethnic crises erupted in the former Communist countries in Europe and it was found that the European security structure was incapable of resolving such crises. For almost four years, the bloody Bosnian ethnic crisis remained intractable. The fragile peace could be established with the deployment of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-led forces in Bosnia.

In South Asia, there have been many ethnic crises involving more than one country. The Sri Lankan ethnic crisis has involved Sinhalese and Tamils. The latter ethnic group also inhabits Tamil Nadu of India. The Sri Lankan ethnic strife began because the majority Sinhalese felt that their interests were being sacrified in an independent country by not adopting "Sinhala only" as an official national language in place of English. Though the national (Sinhala) leadership was aware of the impending inherent dangers in adopting Sinhala only as an official language, yet they succumbed to the demand of the majority because it was considered a political exigency in the face of the language movement with religious overtones. The immediate reaction of the main minority--Tamil--was non-violent, perhaps helplessness in the existing democratic polity. As the situation became more grim, the frustrated youth came to believe that they could not achieve any tangible solution to the problem without adopting violent means to achieve their cherished goal of independence. Presently the conflict is not only of language but also religio-ethno-nationalism.

This article does not dwell on the various details of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the reactions of many countries and at international forums. Nor does it chronicle the day-to-day twists and turns of the Sri Lanka ethnic crisis, before and since the outbreak of civil war. It seeks, instead, to highlight and explain the main features of the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis, the real problem and likely prospects of the complex, bloody ethnic problem that finally erupted violently in the late 1970s and remains intractable.

Nevertheless, to understand the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, the composition of different ethnic groups in the country and the major events that led to the ethnic crisis will be deliberated upon here. According to the 1981 census, the Sinhalese comprised 74 per cent, Tamils 18.2 per cent (Ceylon Tamils 12.6 per cent and Indian Tamils 5.2 per cent), Muslims 7.4 per cent and others 0.4 per cent of the Sri Lankan population. The total population of Tamils in Sri Lanka is 2.7 million of the total 14.85 million population of the country. The Sri Lankan Tamils can be divided into two groups: the indigenous "Ceylon" Tamils who number 1.9 million and the "Indian" Tamils who number 825,000. The "Indian" Tamils are plantation workers descended from labourers indentured by the British colonial government during the 19th and 20th centuries. They are mainly Hindus but a minority is Christian. The Sinhalese are mainly Buddhists (92 per cent), the rest being Christians. Apart from Tamils and Sinhalese, there are small minorities of the Moors (both Ceylon and Indian) and Malays who are all Muslims. Then there are also Burghers and Eurasians who are Christians.1

At this juncture it will not be out of place to write a brief history of the people of Sri Lanka. Notwithstanding the controversy about who were the first migrants from India to Ceylon--Sinhalese or Tamils--or whether Tamils were the original inhabitants of the island, it is a generally accepted fact that both migrated from India mostly in the 5th or 6th century B.C. The Sinhalese are traditionally believed to be the descendants of migratory Aryans from northern India. It is, however, controversial whether the founder of the Sinhala race came from Bengal or from Gujrat. Be that as it may, the Sinhalese traditionally trace their ethnic origin to Vijaya Singha who was an Indian by birth. The Sinhalese settled in the North-Central, North-Western, and Southern Provinces of Ceylon.

The Tamils also migrated from India to Ceylon. They belong to the Dravidian stock of India. They are divided into the two categories "Ceylon Tamils" (also called indigenous Tamils) and "Indian" Tamils. While the Ceylon Tamils arrived in Ceylon in the pre-Christian period, the Indian Tamils migrated into Ceylon in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the wake of the introduction of plantation economy into the island by the British Empire. The Ceylon Tamils settled in Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Batticaloa and Mullaitivu in the northern and eastern coast of the country. The Indian Tamils settled in the traditional tea garden areas of Colombo, Kalutara, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla Ratnapura and Kegella.

Not again entering into the controversy of who came first in Sri Lanka, there are numerous accounts of wars between the Armies of Sinhalese and Tamils. The Chola rulers of south India, launched many invasions into the island. At one time the Chola invasions of Ceylon reached their peak as they conquered the whole or most of the island. Different Kingdoms were established in the country. When in 1505, Portuguese sailors landed on the coast of Sri Lanka, they found three Kingdoms in Sri Lanka--a Tamil one in Jaffna and two Sinhala, one in the Kotte (near present day Colombo) and the other in Senkadagalle (present day Kandy). The Tamilian and Sinhalese Kingdoms remained separated under both the Portuguese administration and that of the Dutch who succeeded them. It was only under British colonial rule that, after the administrative reforms of the 1930s, the island was brought under a single administrator. Thus, the current demand of the Ceylon Tamils to establish an independent state for Tamil—Eelam--has a historical basis.

In many quarters there is a misperception about the legitimacy of the Ceylon Tamil's agitation for an independent state for themselves in the island. According to this misperception, the Sinhalese are the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka and the Tamils migrated to Sri Lanka from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. After the independence of both countries from the British Empire, the Tamils of the two countries were separated but wanted to get together to establish a "greater" country for Tamils of both countries, it is felt. Incidentally in the 1960s, there was a massive agitation in Tamil Nadu for regional autonomy. The Ceylon Tamils' agitation for independence also evoked the emotional sympathy of Tamils of Tamil Nadu. There were also reports about material assistance given by Tamils of India to the Ceylon Tamils. But there is hardly any substance in the establishment of a "greater" country for Tamils of both countries on the lines of the alleged design of Slobdan Milosevic for the establishment of a "Greater Serbia". In reality, the "Ceylon" Tamils, who have been fighting for independence, would never want to join Tamil Nadu which has a greater area and larger population than their own in Sri Lanka.

The present ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka can be traced back to the policy of local administration adopted by the British Raj. The Christian missionaries mainly opened schools in the Tamil homeland and not in the Sinhalese dominated areas. Perhaps the British rulers found that the Tamils were more willing to learn English and join government jobs than the Sinhalese because the Ceylon Tamils were living in a dry zone which was not as fertile as the low country Sinhalese area which was a fertile wet zone. In other words, unemployed Tamils were in search of state employment unlike the Sinhalese who were engaged in trade and plantation. Subsequently, the Tamils gained entry into government jobs and also found opportunities to acquire higher education in the professional fields. Initially the Sinhalese were not attracted towards state employment but by the early 20th century, they also leaned towards state employment; thus, began the unhealthy competition between the two main ethnic groups in the country but it never converted into clashes between the two groups.

The first sign of discontent amongst the Sinhalese was noticed when the Sinhala Buddhists bourgeoisie challenged the Christian hegemony in the late 19th century. A strong Sinhala nationalism emerged against Westernism and Christians. This was the beginning of the chauvinistic tendency in the majority community. The first ethnic crisis erupted in 1915 when trading and merchant elements of the petty bourgeoisie resorted to violence against the Muslims. Later in the 1930s, the Sinhala working class demonstrated its hostility towards the Malayalis.2 Until the 1930s, the language issue had not become controversial in spite of the majority Sinhalese feeling discriminated against in their own country because of their lack of knowledge of English. In fact, under the British rule, English had not only been the official language or the language of administration but also the language of professions, commerce, higher education and politics. In fact, the English language was the language of Sinhalese elites and a large number of Tamils.

In 1935, the Lanka Samasamaja Party was formed whose fundamental objective was to introduce use of Sinhalese and Tamil in the lower courts, police stations and government departments. Thus, began the movement for adopting of Swabhasa (or own language) prior to independence, leading to the decision that English would gradually be replaced as the official language by both Sinhala and Tamil. However, in 1944, J.R. Jayewardene proposed that Sinhala be made the official language in a reasonable time. But his proposal was amended and it was recommended that both Sinhala and Tamil be made the official languages for medium of instruction in schools, public service examinations and legislative proceedings. At the same time, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who later introduced Sinhala as the only official language of Sri Lanka, reportedly remarked "I have no personal objection to both these languages, nor do I see any particular harm or danger or real difficulty from this."3

In the course of discussions for the independence of Ceylon the issue of various communities in the future set-up of the country was considered but in the interest of the political unity of the country it was avoided. It does not mean that the colonial government was not aware of the existence of a multi-ethnic society in the country and the danger of the emergence of an ethnic crisis in the future. As a matter of fact, as early as in 1931, when the Donoughmore Commission advised for suffrage in the country, it recognised the various communities in the country and guaranteed their interest in the legislative body. In 1944, the Soulbury Commission came to Ceylon to discuss its future political set-up. It was considered that in the democratic polity, it was unnecessary to recognise the interest of the various communities because the democratic system itself protects the interests of various ethnic groups. The Westminster model of the Parliamentary system was adopted for the country. Since the Tamils were concentrated in certain parts of the country, they could always vote a number of members into the Parliament. However, it was very soon realised that Tamil members of Parliament would constitute a minority in the Parliament and, therefore, their interests might be overlooked or sacrificed by the majority Sinhalese.

The British legacy also determined the establishment of a unitary system instead of a federal system. Perhaps it was considered that a small country of the size of Sri Lanka did not require a federal system like that of India. Great Britain also has a unitary form of government. Till then, the current Northern Ireland crisis had not erupted. However, since then not only has the violent Northern Ireland crisis been eluding a solution for about three decades but the demand for autonomy of Scotland and Wales also surfaced. Lack of understanding of the existing ethnic differences could be considered as the major reason for not recognising the independent identity of the minority Tamils in the overwhelming majority of Sinhalese. In fact, the leaders of newly independent countries generally do not want devolution of state power. The recognition of the identity of a minority is considered as a step toward weakening of state sovereignty and encouraging the tendency of secession amongst the ethnic minorities. Until then, by and large, the Tamils also did not feel that their interests would not be preserved in the Sinhala dominated democratic polity in the country. No doubt, the Sinhalese Kings and the Tamils of the Chola Kingdom fought each other in many wars but the people of both communities lived as peacefully possible. In fact, before independence in 1948, the Tamil minority had been reportedly assured by the Sinhala leadership that it would not be discriminated against with regard to representation and legislation.4

Immediately after gaining independence, the Sinhalese nationalism began to grow. The first victims of that development were the Indian Tamils who were disenfranchised under the Ceylon Citizenship Act No 18 of November 15, 1948. The Indian Tamils were virtually declared stateless because they were required to establish citizenship of the country by proving that they were citizens of Ceylon either by descent or by registration. They could claim citizenship of the country by proving that they had family connections with the country for at least two generations. Since in those days there was hardly any practice of registering births, the Indian Tamils failed to produce the birth certificates of their fathers stating that their place of birth was in Ceylon. Consequently, a majority of Indian Tamils became stateless in a country where they had been living for generations. Incidentally, the majority of Ceylon Tamil politicians reportedly did not oppose the Act, thus, declaring people of their own ethnic groups as stateless.

In many constituencies "Indian" Tamils formed the majority and elected members of the leftist Trostskyist Lanka Sama Samaya Party to the Parliament. Their sympathy for the leftist party was not favourably viewed by the Sinhalese as well as the Ceylon Tamils and, therefore, they lost their right to vote. In other words, the "Indian" Tamils became stateless in a country where till then they enjoyed the status of citizenship and the right to vote at the time of elections. It was a clear case of discrimination against a minority ethnic group in a multi-ethnic country. No doubt the "Indian" Tamils became the first victims of independent Sri Lanka and they were also persecuted at times but there was no ethnic "cleansing" like in the erstwhile Yugoslavia where Muslims suffered the maximum in the course of carrying out of ethnic "cleansing" in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As noted, the official national language issue was the major bone of contention between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. At the time of independence of the country in 1948, the "Ceylon" Tamils who constituted 10 per cent of the population but held 31 per cent of the posts in universities and acquired a higher percentage in professional fields like medical and engineering. Therefore, many Sinhalese resented the fact that the Tamils enjoyed disproportionate educational and employment advantages because of their proficiency in the English language in the majority Sinhala country. After independence, the Ceylon government adopted a policy of denying Tamils admission into higher and professional education. Their percentage in the government services also began to decline. In the meantime, an official language commission was appointed to decide on procedures for making both Sinhala and Tamil the official languages. Reading the mind of the majority Sinhala community on the issue of language, in 1951, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike parted company with the United National Party (UNP) and formed a new political party called the Sri Lanka Federal Party (SLFP). He alleged that the UNP had failed to take action on the language question. His party's first manifesto called for immediate adoption of Sinhala and Tamil as official languages of the country so that people would cease to feel alien in their own land.

No doubt, language was not the main issue in the 1952 elections but during the period of Premiership of Sir John Kotelawala, the language question became the dominant political issue in the country. In fact, emotions were raised amongst the Sinhalese that their emancipation could be achieved by the adoption of "Sinhala only" as the official language and the revival of the Buddhist religion. Preparations had already begun for celebrating the 2,500th death anniversary of Buddha in 1956. The trends of Buddhist resurgence began in the early 1950s. They were articulated in a provocative book entitled The Revolt of the Temple written by D.C. Vijayvardhane in 1953.5 He highlighted legend and superstition as historical facts as well as romanticised the unhistorical view of the past based on mythology, fantasy and social destiny. Surprisingly, the Sinhala intelligentsia did not question the authenticity of Vijayvarardhane's version of the Sinhala history and destiny.6 However, such passiveness of the intellectuals in the face of strong chauvinistic ethno-religio-nationalism is not surprising. In fact, at times they have also been influenced by such emotionalism and articulate their own views, thus, legitimising jingoism and feel secure in avoiding the wrath of the fanatics. Such anomaly in the behaviour of the intellectuals was recently noticed in the Balkans where ethno-religious-nationalism has violently emerged.

In the 1950s, the social and political atmosphere was surcharged with the emotional issues of language, religion and Sinhala nationalism in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist religious upsurge gained momentum because of the preparations for the celebration of the 2,500th death anniversary of Buddha in 1956. The Buddhist monks, who are supposed to renounce all worldly affairs and devote themselves to spiritualism, became the most articulate spokesmen for the adoption of "Sinhala only" as the official language.

Interestingly, Buddhism advocates non-violent means to achieve objectives in all walks of life and a middle path of moderation in the society. The Buddhist monks not only relinquished the middle path of moderation but also did not hesitate in resorting to violent means for achieving worldly objectives. They were in the forefront in advocating Sinhala nationalism in a multi-ethnic state. In fact, following the middle path of moderation, in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural state like Sri Lanka, they should have worked for state or territorial nationalism and not Sinhala ethno-nationalism alone.7

The Buddhist monks' agitation for the acceptance of "Sinhala only" as the official language of the country received support from teachers, students, youth and Ayurvedic physicians of the Sinhala community because they felt that they were being denied their due in the country on account of lack of their knowledge of English and the Western medical system. The Swabhashi (own language) movement in the 1940s, resulted in an increasing number of schools imparting education through the medium of instruction of Sinhala and Tamil. With the expansion of education, the demand for employment in state administration and other services increased but employment opportunities did not step up proportionately. In the 1950s, the problem of unemployment of the youth became a political issue which was suitably exploited by Sinhala parochialism though the Tamil youths also faced the unemployment problem. It was felt that English educated students were in a better position to gain employment than Sinhala educated students.

As the language movement intensified in the country, the political parties caved in and gave up their earlier stand of two official languages and adopted the policy of "Sinhala only." Bandaranaike, who earlier left the ruling political party--the UNP--on its failure to take action on the language question and formed a new political party--the SLFP--persuaded his party to change its two-language policy to the "Sinhala only" line in 1955. The ruling UNP also adopted the resolution on "Sinhala only" in January 1956, a few months before the elections. The Sinhala chauvinism determined the language policy of the major political parties, except the leftist and Tamil parties. However, the leftist party of Philip Gunewardem, the Viplavakari Samasamaja Party (VLSSP) abandoned its policy of parity of both the major languages in the country and opted for the "Sinhala only" line. Thus, the devide between two ethnic groups--the Sinhala and the Tamil--began to widen.

The stage was set to contest elections on the issue of official language policy. Since the ruling UNP failed to adopt the act on "Sinhala only," even after it adopted the policy in favour of one official language, the party lost the elections in 1956. The coalition led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the Majahana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) won the absolute majority in the elections. The Tamil minority was not in a position to influence the proceedings of the newly constituted Parliament. In a democratic polity, if the majority community becomes autocratic and the promoter of its own interest at the cost of the minority, it is not only an infringement of democratic norms but may also create fertile ground for ethnic violence, which may convert into a civil war.

Immediately after the new Parliament was constituted, the ruling coalition introduced the Official Language Bill of 1956 which made Sinhala the sole official language. While the Bill was being debated in the Parliament, ethnic violence erupted in Colombo and Eastern Sri Lanka. The Bill was contested by both the Tamil Congress and the left members of Parliament but their views were not taken into account by the chauvinist Sinhala members of Parliament.

Apart from the members of the Tamil Congress, the left members of Parliament forewarned the Sinhala chauvinists about the imminent danger of growth of secessionist tendency in the country. The majority Sinhala members of Parliament did not realise that they were laying a strong foundation of racial, ethnic and religious gulf between the two major communities in the country. For the first time, no Tamil was included in the Cabinet. Even a silent Satyagraha demonstration of protest by Tamils outside the Parliament building was stoned by Sinhalese mobs during the course of debate on the language Bill.

The language issue led to not only ethnic divide but also social and religious discord. No doubt, the majority of Sinhalese and Tamils were inhabitants of different parts of country but in modern times they came to live in the same places. There were also inter-marriages amongst them. The religious divide was not the cause of violence though the majority of Tamils are Hindus and the Sinhalese are Buddhists. In fact, according to Hindu mythology, Lord Buddha is one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the other important incarnations of his being Lord Rama and Lord Krishna. However, the Buddhists generally do not subscribe to the Hindu belief because Lord Buddha himself reportedly considered the theory of incarnation as an anachronism.

In certain quarters it is rightly believed that Ceylonese or Sri Lankan nationalism had never developed in the country in the past because before the colonial rulers brought the country into a unitary administrative body, it was governed independently by Sinhala and Tamil Kingdoms in their respective jurisdiction. There was hardly a national movement for independence from the colonial rule. Such a movement would have given an opportunity to the growth of nationalism. In the absence of such a development, the country remained divided on ethnic lines which was aggravated with the adoption of "Sinhala only" as the official language. Unfortunately, the language issue gave birth to religio-ethno-nationalism and the beginning of communal riots.

While the bloody ethnic clashes ceased for some time, the political opposition to the language Act continued. In December 1956, the Federal Party leader, S.I.V. Chelvanayakan, threatened to launch Satyagraha on August 20, 1957, in support of four demands, amongst them being the repeal of the Official Language Act and the grant of equal status to the Tamil language with the Sinhala. It may be recalled that the Federal Party was founded by him in 1949. He was critical of the Sri Lanka government's Citizenship Act of 1948 which made it difficult for "Indian" Tamils to establish their credentials of Ceylonese citizenship. About two months before the beginning of the proposed peaceful movement, Prime Minister Bandaranaike offered four concessions regarding the language issue but they were rejected by the Federal Party. On July 25, 1957, the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakan compromise agreement on the language issue was signed. According to the settlement, Tamil was to be recognised as the language of "a national minority" in the country and it would be an official language for administrative purposes in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Though the Federal Party approved the compromise settlement and cancelled the proposed peaceful agitation, it reaffirmed its decision to work for the establishment of an autonomous Tamil linguistic state or states within the federal structure of the country, equal status for Tamil and Sinhalese languages and recognition of the right to full citizenship of all Tamil speaking persons who had made Sri Lanka their permanent residence. Immediately after the compromise settlement, extremists of the ruling party registered their protest against the agreement. At the same time, an agitation by the extremists Buddhist nationalists led to rioting in which several hundred people were killed. Consequently, Prime Minister Bandaranaike was compelled to abrogate the agreement in April 1958. All later efforts to assuage the feelings of the Tamils failed to achieve desirable results because the Tamil language was reduced to the language of the Northern and Eastern Provinces only. Tamils, who were residing elsewhere, were discriminated against because Sinhala was made the sole official language. All public servants were required to acquire requisite proficiency in the Sinhala language within three years, failing which they would be penalised or lose their jobs. The Tamils were discriminated against in all walks of life, including government jobs, university and professional education where they used to have a higher percentage because of their proficiency in the English language which was as alien to them as to the Sinhalese.

The seasoned and matured Sinhalese politicians could not counter the Sinhala chauvinism which became too strong in the 1950s. It could have been neutralised by adopting the middle path which was first renounced by none other than S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who himself became victim of Sinhalese extremism as he was assassinated by a monk of the extremist Buddhist group called the Eksath Bikku Peramuna. Since then, any effort to work out some agreement to ameliorate the suffering of Tamils has been rejected by the extremist Sinhalese Buddhists. The Tamils were reduced to second-class citizens in their own country where they had not only been residing for centuries but also claimed to have their roots there only.

The birth of the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka was discussed in detail above in order to understand the ethnic problem in the country. Since 1956, the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka has never waned. Instead, it continued to intensify because no government took a measure which could have redressed the grievances of the Tamil and redeemed their position in the country. Like the late 1950s, the 1960s was not a period of ethnic harmony. The ethnic clashes continued to vitiate the political, economic, social and communal atmosphere in the country. The "Sinhala only" policy was implemented during the period. The leftists also abandoned their support for the parity of the Tamils language. The Federal Party decided to sever its relations with the ruling party. Demonstrations and bandhs became a regular feature in the country. The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, popularly known as the Srimavo-Shastri Pact of 1964 provided for the repatriation to India over a period of 15 years of some 975,000 stateless Tamils of Indian origin. Their problem has still not been resolved. In the meantime, they also joined the movement for granting Tamil the status of official language.

The new United Front government headed by Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, which came to power in 1970, wrote a new Constitution, enforcing the "Sinhala only" rule and made Buddhism the state religion. A new phase of communal antagonism began. The immediate Tamil reaction was to observe a day of mourning in protest against the new Constitution. The Federal Party, the Tamil Congress and three other parties jointly formed the Tamil United Front (TUF) which was renamed as the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976.

The demand for self-rule in the Northern and Eastern Provinces gained momentum. The Tamil Tigers movement began around 1972 as an extremist wing of the TUF. They reportedly formed a strong and cohesive guerilla organisation. Vellupillai Prabhakaran emerged as an unchallenged charismatic leader of the Tamil National Tigers (TNT). He renamed it as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976. There were some other extremist organisations but they were eliminated by the LTTE. Gradually, the moderate Tamil political organisations lost their relevance in the unending bloody ethnic war.

In the Parliamentary elections of July 1977, the UNP came to power with an overwhelming majority and Junius Jayewardene became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. The communal violence erupted again the next month. Since then, violence against the Tamils has become a regular feature of communal politics in the country. The Presidential form of government was adopted in the new Constitution of 1978. The Tamils were agitating for autonomy in their region and a federal form of government. Instead, the unitary form of government was reaffirmed and the Parliamentary form of government was abolished. In other words, the majority community leader would not only be all powerful but also not a member of Parliament where he would have to personally listen to the grievances of the minority community. Though the new Constitution recognised both Sinhala and Tamil as the national languages, Sinhala remained the sole official language in the country. Moreover, Buddhism was given the foremost place in the country, though the rights of all other religions were assured.

The Tamil youths began to feel that their political leaders had miserably failed to protect their rights, and give them an appropriate place in the country. In the existing desperate conditions, frustrated youths can easily be motivated by a charismatic leader who may mobilise them towards a cherished goal like their own independent, sovereign country (Eelam for Tamils) for a persecuted ethnic minority community. Consequently, the Tamil Tigers launched a terrorist movement to achieve their objective. The extremist activities assumed intensity in the 1970s. But in the eleven days of violence in July-August 1983, the Tamil community suffered enormous destruction and loss of life. Horrible atrocities were committed on the Tamils and efforts were made for completely destroying the economic base of the Tamils.

The Jayewardene government adopted a plan to eliminate Tamil extremists through ruthless military action. Some 40,000 Sri Lankan refugees were reportedly moved into Tamil Nadu by August 1984. The ethnic crisis took a new turn as the Hindu Tamils and Muslims also clashed in the Eastern Province in 1985. The Indian government expressed its concern about the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis. The crisis assumed more seriousness as a result of the massacre at Anuradhapura. Consequently, the Indian Prime, Minister Rajiv Gandhi, met President Jayewardene in Sri Lanka. It was agreed that India would stop supply of arms and men to Sri Lanka and the latter would impose strict control over military operations against the Tamils. Subsequently, representatives of the Sri Lanka government and the leading Tamil groups met in Thimpu (capital of Bhutan) to work out a solution to the bloody ethnic crisis. But no progress could be made towards resolving the ethnic imbroglio.

The ethnic crisis became more serious as President Jayewardene imposed an economic blockade on the Jaffna peninsula in January 1987 in view of the LTTE's threat to take control of the civil administration of Jaffna. As the situation in Jaffna became serious, the Indian government decided to send relief supplies to the suffering Tamils in the area. However, an Indian flotilla carrying the supplies could not reach its destination because the Sri Lanka naval authorities did not permit it to proceed to Jaffna. Consequently, India paradropped the packages of some essential commodities in the Jaffna peninsula. Though the Sri Lanka government criticised the Indian action, it agreed on the modalities for the supply of relief materials.

Finally, the Indian direct action in resolving the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka was enshrined in an agreement signed by Rajiv Gandhi and Jayewardene on July 29, 1987. The agreement evoked criticism and sparked off riots in Colombo. An attempt was made on Rajiv Gandhi's life on the eve of his departure from Colombo. In the terms of the agreement, India sent its Army, better known as the Indian Peace - Keeping Force (IPKF), to Sri Lanka for the cessation of the civil war and the surrender of arms by extremists in the Jaffna peninsula and the Eastern Province. Initially the IPKF did not receive a hostile reception but later it clashed with the Tamil Tigers and the estranged local civilian population. Incidentally, the Tamil Tigers were reportedly assisted by the Sri Lankan forces to launch attacks on the IPKF. The Indian armed forces suffered heavy casualties and pulled out from Sri Lanka under an agreement reached in 1989. The IPKF's stay in Sri Lanka became a contentious issue that spoiled bilateral relations between the two countries. Perhaps Indian leaders believed that Indian armed forces could successfully resolve the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka as they did in the former East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh). But all outside interventions in ethnic conflicts cannot be the same, thus, outside intervention is not always crowned with success,8 as many Indians had believed before the IPKF debacle in Sri Lanka.

In the meantime, elections were held for constituting Provincial Councils in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in 1988, though the elections were boycotted by the SLFP and threats were issued by the LTTE and the militant Sinhalese outfit—the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JPV) or People' Liberation Front—against casting of votes by electors. The IPKF could conduct elections peacefully but the civilian administration could not be established against the wishes of the LTTE. The ethnic crisis continued unabated. During the rule of the UNP, the divide between the Sinhalese and Tamils was further widened. In the meantime the UNP also lost its popularity and its opponents blamed it for widespread corruption and political power abuse. The UNP was also weakened because of a series of assassinations of its leaders—President Ranasinghe Premadasa in May 1993 and the party's Presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake during the November 1994 election campaign. In the meantime, the People's Alliance led by Chan- drika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won the Parliamentary elections in August 1994. She defeated Dissanayake's wife, Srima, in the Presidential election three months later. She had made three main campaign pledges: to end the ethnic conflict; to replace the existing Presidential system by a Parliamentary system of government; and to eliminate the abuse of political power by the government.

The Kumaratunga government began the peace process with a bang as she could work out an agreement on cessation of hostilities with the LTTE supremo Prabhakaran on January 5, 1995, but it lasted little more than a hundred days as the LTTE resumed its attacks on April 29, 1995. In fact, the LTTE insisted on plans for economic reconstruction in the areas of their control, but the government wanted to do so only after some progress was made towards resolving of the political issues.9

The armed clashes between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Tamil Tigers intensified. First the Tamil Tigers inflicted heavy losses on Sri Lankan military hardware and personnel. In retaliation, the Sri Lankan armed forces launched a massive operation against the Tamil Tigers. The military operation was disastrous because it resulted in the capture of only a small area of territory but killed more than 200 Tamil civilians. In December 1995, the Sri Lankan armed forces launched the largest military operation and could re-establish government control over the northern city of Jaffna. It was a great achievement for the armed forces and a setback for the Tamil Tigers. However, the Tamil Tigers retaliated by setting off a massive explosion in Colombo, killing more than 80 people and destroying a commercial establishment. Since then, the armed forces' operations and the Tamil Tigers' hit-and-run attacks have been continuing unabated.

After many years of bloody ethnic war in Sri Lanka, the election of Kumaratunga as the President of the country appeared as the new window of opportunity. But her initiatives to resolve the ethnic crisis could not produce positive results because she delayed the release of her detailed peace proposals until August 1995, though they were ready as early as December 1994. Had these been released at the beginning of cessation of hostilities, the war-weary Tamil civilians would have been able to bring some pressure on the LTTE to negotiate seriously on those proposals.

Be that as it may, the Kumaratunga government announced the legal text of the proposals on devolution of power in January 1996. According to them, Sri Lanka would become an "indissoluble" union of regions. It was a modified version of the earlier proposals. It authorised the central government to remove any regional government that would try to secede from the republic and assumed direct rule over the region. In the original proposals, the central government was not empowered to remove any regional government regardless of the circumstances. While the Sinhalese appreciated the change, the Tamils expressed apprehension on the misuse of power by the centre. The government apparently modified the text of the proposals to accommodate the views of the nationalist Sinhalese. In the process, the government alienated the moderate Tamils. Thus, the other devolution proposals--like the council's considerable jurisdiction over economic development, education, and the use of land as well as its right to negotiate directly with foreign governments for aid and investment; and some control over maintenance of law and order--could not make much impact on the moderate Tamils.

The devolution proposals were referred to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Reform. After many months of deliberations on the issue, despite protests from UNP members and a few others, the Sri Lankan Constitutional Affairs Minister, Prof. G.L. Perris, on October 24, 1997, presented proposals to the Parliament containing the government's draft of a new Constitution and "riders" on it by various parties. The main feature of the government draft is the proposed conversion of the unitary state into "an indissoluble union of regions."10 It was also proposed that a new Muslim majority South-Eastern Region would be constituted without a referendum in that pocket of territory, in the event of a new and permanent North-Eastern Region being formed as a result of a mini-plebiscite in Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts of the eastern part. In view of this reorganisation of the administrative set-up, the mainly Sinhala Ampara electoral district would be given an option to either convert itself into a full-fledged region or join the adjoining Sinhala-dominant Uva region.11 It was also reported that a major proposal was to confer citizenship on all those permanently resident in Sri Lanka as on October 30, 1964, and their descendants, on the condition that they and their descendants should not be citizens of any other country. The details of the draft new Constitution were not available at the time of writing this piece.

Though the Tamils of the North and East are war-weary, they would not easily be convinced about the feasibility of a separate region for Muslims and Sinhalese in their "homeland." They sincerely believe that the region belongs to them and they have become a minority, especially in the Sinhala-dominated area, because of the government policy of colonisation of the Eastern region. The proposed division of the Eastern part is likely to create problems. In fact, there has been a lack of compromise and accommodation amongst both Sinhalese and Tamils. Moderates in both ethnic groups are generally called traitors and thus condemned by extremists who do not hesitate to use violent means to derail any practical solution to the ethnic crisis. In this respect, the Buddhist monks and the main Opposition political parties, whether the UNP or PA, have also played a negative role. As far as the Tamils are concerned, they have been denied a political party during the ethnic war because the LTTE has made its leaders irrelevant in the current bloody ethnic war.

The Tamils Tigers have enormous confidence in achieving their goal of total independence--Tamil Eelam (Tamil Homeland)--in the North and East combined. They reportedly use Ethiopia and Israel as their models.12 After years of fighting, Eritrians could achieve their goal of an independent sovereign country, carved out of Ethiopia. For years, the Palestine Liberation Organisation had been considered as a terrorist organisation but in the recent past it could secure its recognition as the true representative of Palestinians and negotiated with the leaders of the United States of America and Israel on the future status of their place of residence.

In the post-Cold War era, various ethnic groups have achieved independence, sovereign status or recognition of the regional autonomy. In this respect, there was a setback for secessionists of Quebec because they lost the Quebec sovereignty referendum by a narrow margin in 1995. But there have been more successes than losses for advocates of ethnic identity and regional autonomy for an ethnic group living in a region. In September 1997, the Labour government headed by Tony Blair successfully conducted referendums in Scotland and Wales to constitute new legislatures for them with the objective of bringing "government closer to the people." In fact, Prime Minister Blair of Great Britain himself canvassed for establishing home rule in the two regions. Incidentally, earlier in 1979, the Labour government had held the referendum on the same issue in Scotland and Wales but then both rejected it.

The ethnic crises cannot be resolved by military means only. The Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland of Britain and Hamas in Israel cannot be controlled by efficient Armies and police forces. The LTTE may have received a setback because it was declared a terrorist organisation by the United States as well as the latter's assistance in special training for controlling terrorist activities in Sri Lanka. The LTTE has also suffered a defeat in Jaffna as it was lost to the Sri Lankan Army. But such developments have not weakened the spirit of extremist Tamils. In certain quarters it is believed that no solution can be found to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka until Prabhakaran is physically eliminated. Such crises cannot be resolved by removing of a person. They may be weakened for some time but are likely to revitalise soon.

There is no universal solution to ethnic crises. Each crisis may be resolved differently. At times it may be resolved by outside intervention like the Indian intervention in the Bangladesh war. A peaceful solution to the ethnic crisis may be worked out if the conflicting parties make efforts to accommodate each other's grievances. It is very difficult to find a solution to a protracted bloody ethnic crisis. Tamil and Sinhala extremists are likely to frustrate any sincere effort in resolving the ethnic crisis. The recent efforts of Kumaratunga may produce some positive results if the Sinhala Opposition political parties and Buddhist monks do not violently oppose her proposals and she can win the confidence of the Tamil masses. She has to contain her opponents by civilians means and not resorting to military means for achieving her objectives because that would be counter-productive. Apparently, she has been making slow but sincere efforts in resolving the bloody ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka. She has moved in the right direction. But the crisis is a complex one and the path to its solution is tortuous. It may be defused with patiently handling and delicately involving of the Tamil extremists.



1. These figures are taken from H.P. Chattopadhya, Ethnic Unrest in Modern Sri Lanka, (New Delhi: M.D. Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1994), p. 13, and World Directory of Minorities (Longman) p. 322.

2. Kumari Jayawardena, "From Sinhala Only to Ethnic Violence" in A.A. Engineer ed., Ethnic Conflict in South Asia, (Delhi: Ajanta, 1987), p. 173, and see also pp. 2-3.

3. Ibid., p. 175.

4. World Directory of Minorities, n. 1, p. 324.

5. D.C. Vijayvardhane, The Revolt in the Temple (1953) pp. 25-27 as quoted in Jayawardena, n. 2, pp. 176-77.

6. Ibid., n. 2, p. 177.

7. Not only Sri Lanka but also two other Buddhist societies--Burma and Thailand--have also experienced ethnic violence. See on this issue, K.M. de Silva, Pensri Duke, Ellen S. Goldberg and Nathan Katz eds., Ethnic Conflict in Buddhist Societies: Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, (London: Printer Publisher, 1980).

8. See Robert Cooper and Mats Berdal, "Outside Intervention in Ethnic Conflicts," Survival, vol. 35, no. 1, Spring 1993, pp. 118-142.

9. See Kalpana Isaac, "Sri Lanka's Ethnic Divide," Current History, vol. 95, no. 600, April 1996, p. 180.

10. The Hindu, October 25, 1997.

11. Ibid., October 27, 1997.

12. Marshall R. Singer, "Sri Lanka's Ethnic Conflict: Have Bombs Shattered Hopes for Peace?" Asian Survey, vol. XXXVI, no. 11, November 1996, p. 1153.