1980s >> 1986 >> no-984-august-1986

Sri Lanka divided

Until quite recently the island of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) was known in Britain, if at all, only for its tea and, perhaps, for its natural beauty. That was all until about two years ago when Sri Lanka began to claim the attention of the media because of a series of brutal killings and bombings by Tamil separatists and an equally barbaric response by government security forces.

Sri Lanka has a total population of 16 million people. The majority are Sinhalese (predominantly Buddhist), but there is a significant minority of Hindu Tamils who make up 12.7 per cent of the population living mostly in the north and east of the island. The Tamils were brought to Ceylon (as it was called before independence from British colonial rule) from Tamil Nadu, in the southern part of India, as immigrant labour to work the tea plantations.

In 1956 the first Prime Minister of the newly independent state, Bandaranaike, responded to pressure from the pro-Sinhalese Buddhist clergy, who had supported his political campaign, and made Sinhala the official language at the expense of Tamil. This move, symbolic of the exclusion of the Tamils from mainstream Sinhalese society, sowed the seeds of contemporary Tamil separatism. A year later, in an attempt to defuse Tamil anger, Bandaranaike signed a pact with Tamil leaders granting a number of concessions. This aroused opposition from the majority Sinhalese community who, provoked by Jayewardene (now President), protested that Bandaranaike was being too soft on the Tamils.

Even at that point it was beginning to be clear that the “Tamil problem” was an issue that could be exploited by political leaders for their own opportunistic ends. Now, because of the increasing levels of violence being used by the Tamil separatists, Jayewardene is having to offer greater concessions than those offered by Bandaranaike. And now it is the opposition led by Bandaranaike’s widow that is stirring up nationalist Sinhalese opinion against him for not being tough enough towards the Tamils.

Jayewardene, leader of the right-wing United Party, came to power in 1977; he altered the constitution, elevating himself from Prime Minister to President and remained in office by calling a referendum not an election. So until 1989 when a general election is due, Jayewardene will not have to put his career on the line.

Within the government itself there are some, notably Finance Minister de Mel, who favour a more conciliatory approach to the Tamils. But again political opportunism is the motive rather than any genuine belief in the Tamil cause. The Sri Lankan economy is in a state of collapse; a quarter of the total budget is being spent on the war (about $1 million a day); tourism, an important industry for the island, has been badly affected by the violence. None of this is likely to do much to enhance the Finance Minister’s career prospects. On the other hand the National Security minister. Athulathmudali, advocates a much harder line against Tamil violence. But then he would, since he derives most of his political support from the expanding security forces who, like de Mel, also favour the “military solution” to the Tamil problem.

Meanwhile, as politicians of both main political parties adopt the pose that they think will win them the most support at the polls, people from both groups are being brutally murdered and maimed. Over the last two years the Tamils have increased the level of violence which is often directed at Sinhalese workers and peasants. In retaliation there have been allegations of brutal reprisals against the Tamil community by the security forces. Most of the violence has taken place in the north and east of the island. The Jaffna peninsula in the north, where the Tamils constitute a majority of the population, is effectively controlled by Tamil guerillas and the army is engaged in an attempt to regain control of the area. In the eastern province there is an almost equal ethnic mix of Sinhalese and Tamil. Because it is the Tamils’ aim to have a separate state in the northern and eastern provinces, they are trying to drive the Sinhalese out of the area through violence and threats. Meanwhile, they claim that the government has been forcibly resettling Sinhalese peasants in Tamil areas. Neither side wants to forfeit this area of Trincomalee since it contains a harbour, a vital strategic asset. The government could not, therefore, consider giving it up in any future autonomous Tamil province and the Tamils say that their state could not be viable without it.

If the leaders of the main political parties are trying to make political capital out of the ethnic divide, then so too are the Tamil separatist leaders. Part of the aim of the violence has been to persuade the international capitalist class that the war in Sri Lanka is getting worse so that they will cut back aid and investment. Jayewardene, in the meantime, is trying to persuade the same financial interests that there are good prospects for peace as a result of negotiations with Tamil leaders in Delhi and the offer of some devolution of power. However, he treads a thin line. If he appears to be conceding too much then he will be accused of selling out the Sinhalese community. If he doesn’t concede enough, the violence will continue with the risk of further economic disruption.

That the Tamils have been treated as second class citizens and denied equal political and economic rights seems undeniable. But what is equally true is that unscrupulous politicians from all sides have used the potential for conflict that was always latent among the island’s population for their own political ends. Competition between the two ethnic groups has been encouraged; cultural and linguistic difference has been exaggerated; and religion too has been used to fan the embers of hatred between the two communities. To advance the careers of a handful of members of the ruling class, workers and peasants have been set against each other, fighting over an island that does not belong to either the Tamil people or the Sinhalese, spilling each other’s blood and killing each other’s children in a conflict in which they have no interest.

Janie Percy-Smith