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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2759

Sri Lanka: A solution lies in the ability of all parties to understand the Sinhala and Tamil minds - The Sri Lanka Forum, Sydney

Sri Lanka is at the cross roads, and not for the first time in its post independence history. The conflict between the Sinhala and Tamil identities, and all what is represents, and which dates back many hundred years, continues unabated in parallel dimensions. They give the impression of convergence from time to time, only to resume its divergent and sometimes widening paths. This conflict has probably not been as violent and traumatizing as it now, and there are no signs it will be any less in the near future.

Prior to the despicable events of 1983, convergences and opportunities for reconciliation occurred largely in non violent, democratic environments, while subsequently, such opportunities arose in the back drop of violence and trauma. The opportunity that has arisen now is once again in such an environment. The Geneva talks scheduled for the 28th of this month between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam is this opportunity to find some convergence or at least to work towards it.

The Sri Lanka Forum Sydney is a small expatriate group dedicated to assisting the ongoing discussions on a way forward for all communities in Sri Lanka. It has been having discussions with individuals, groups, both Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil, in and out of Sri Lanka, and it has also been researching the views expressed by many people in various media outlets, and the very popular medium of communication, the internet and the many web based newspapers, journals etc.

On the eve of these up coming talks, the Forum has attempted to synthesise shades of opinion expressed on the conflict, and suggestions made by various individuals and groups as to how it maybe resolved. From this synthesis, the Forum has arrived at some suggestions in conceptual form which it hopes will assist all parties to the conflict and others who have been entrusted the task of submitting proposals for a political solution like the expert committee appointed by the Sri Lankan President in their deliberations.

At the heart of the conflict, the Forum senses that the issue of discrimination is a manifestation of an underlying factor, the failure, perception and even anticipation of failure of the State by its Tamil people. The Sinhala only policy of 1956 without any reference at the time to the equality of the Tamil language, the mass exodus from Sri Lanka by its Burgher community in the 1960’s, the failure of the State to protect the Tamil community in 1983, and worse, its complicity in instigating and fanning ethnic disharmony, and a similar exodus of Tamils, most of them as refugees after 1983, may be viewed as manifestations of such failures.

From the early part of the 1900’s and progressively over the years, sections of the Tamil community anticipated that an independent unitary State dominated by the Sinhala community would fail them. They anticipated that they would be disadvantaged and dominated by a resurgent Sinhala majority, (mostly Buddhist), a very proud and at times a volatile community who on several occasions in the history of the country, had been conquered and persecuted by Tamils or Dravidian (and other South Indian) groups.

For the Sinhalese, King Dutugemunu who defeated the Tamil King Elara and gained control of all of Sri Lanka to reign from 161 BC to 137 BC, was the ultimate hero and the unifying icon held in high esteem. From such early periods in the history of the country, the issue of subjugation and domination had been a key psychological factor for both communities. The psyche and politics of both communities therefore has been influenced by a fear of domination and persecution.

A religious, a Buddhist perspective to be more precise, added to these fears, at least in the minds of the Sinhala Buddhist community on account of their belief that Theravada Buddhism, the school of Buddhism directly identified with Lord Buddha’s original teachings , would survive and thrive only in Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa, the ancient Buddhist Chronicle, makes references to this effect. Again, it is etched in the psyche of the Sinhala Buddhist mind that their ancient foes, the Tamils who are predominantly Hindu’s are a threat to safeguarding Buddhism. The proximity to Sri Lanka of the predominantly Hindu Indian State of Tamil Nadu with more than 50 million Hindus, and the possibility that Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka would join with the State of Tamil Nadu to form a larger Tamil Hindu State added to these fears.

While contemporary social scientists may recognize this historical factor of the “domination” fear psyche, and Tamil political leaders would chart their destinies according to it even without recognizing it, Sinhala politicians who promote a multi ethnic, multicultural Sri Lankan society probably have had less of an understanding of the Tamil fear psyche, and very likely still do as they have been and still are, in a numerically dominant position within the polity of the country. At best they may have a condescending attitude towards the Tamils, a feeling of generosity that Tamils could co exist with them because they chose to do so and say so. The question of Tamil rights, in equal measure to the Sinhalese, very likely does not enter the Sinhala mind because of their fear of domination and the threat to Buddhism being historically etched in their minds.

During the colonial period, especially the British colonial period, Tamils were viewed as being the dominant community holding middle and lower management jobs in the civil service (the British held the senior management jobs) on account of their ability to work in the English language as compared to the few who were able to do that amongst the Sinhala community, who were principally land owning and/or land working people. Education opportunities to learn in the English language were seen to advantage the Tamils on account of several Missionary schools set up in the North and to a lesser degree in the East and other parts of the country. With such education opportunities arose avenues to enter other sought after professions like being doctors of medicine, engineers and accountants. The Sinhala community at the time did not hold as many lucrative and prestigious positions in civil society, certainly not in relation to their numerical numbers.

It has to be said here that these opportunities were not universally available to all members of the Tamil community, as that community was a very class conscious, caste ridden one where serfdom was part of that society. Analysts suspect that it is partly this aspect of the Tamil society, where sections felt they could never wield power through democratic means and gain opportunities for the less privileged that gave rise to the militarization of the conflict and the emergence of armed groups like the LTTE.

Tamils leaders with some visionary thinking knew that the privileged position they enjoyed during the British Raj would not last and that an independent Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) dominated by their historical foe, the Sinhalese, would reverse their situation. History records several esteemed Tamil leaders arguing for some form of self determination well before independence in 1948, and Sinhala leaders consistently opposing such demands, a trend that continues to this date.

An important factor from a Tamil psyche, which most Sinhalese probably failed to understand, is the fact that they, (the Tamils) saw it as a natural right for them to enjoy whatever privileges they did under the British. They did not view that the Sinhalese, just on account of a numerical majority, had a greater right than them to enjoy them. If the British discriminated positively in their favour, they naturally had no issue with it, as they did not believe that the Sinhalese had any special rights over them and it was not viewed as positive discrimination by the Tamils.

Events since independence in 1948 have been written ad nausiam, and the Forum does not intend to dwell on them. Suffice to say, the Sinhala mind thought it necessary that they should correct the imbalance created by the British and make sure the majority community’s due place should be re instated. In the Sinhala mind, this meant disadvantaging the Tamils to the extent of correcting the imbalance in respect of the privileged position they enjoyed under the British.

The Forum is of the view that there is a huge gap between perspectives on rights and equality arising from the Sinhala mind and the Tamil mind and that only a long term approach could even attempt to narrow this gap and achieve some degree of convergence between the two communities on the question of equal rights. The Forum therefore wishes to contribute to discussions on a peaceful resolution of the conflict by stating that it has to be done on a strategic (long term) basis with some short to medium term goals.

Being conscious of the disparities in thinking and attitudes amongst the Sinhala and Tamil people, and the interests of the Muslim community, the Forum is mindful that both communities have to make compromises in their positions and demands. On the one hand, the left of the centre amongst the Sinhala community needs to move closer to the centre by recognizing that the Sri Lankan political and administrative structure cannot function as it is if a sustainable peaceful resolution is to be found to this conflict.

It also needs to recognize that Tamil ethnicity is very different and distinct to the Sinhalese and they must have a right to chart their destiny as equals, within a political structure that is fair and practical. Equally, the Tamil left, represented mostly by the LTTE today, needs to recognize that Tamils have to live amongst the Sinhalese in many parts of the country, for the most part amicably, and that they live in large numbers outside the areas occupied by the North and Eastern provinces. They need to understand that any solution has to take into consideration the views of the Sinhalese as well as those of the Muslim community and that there can never be a separate State outside the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan State in the island of Sri Lanka. They also need to accept that the entirety of the current North and Eastern provinces cannot be held as a Tamil dominated area, or belonging to a traditional homeland, historically or contemporarily. The LTTE also should accept, in the interest of peace and reconciliation that they need to operate through the democratic mechanism if the hearts and minds of the Tamil people, as well as those of Sinhala and Muslim communities are to be won, and if the political solution is to realistic and sustainable.

Having considered these issues, and assuming that both communities and their leaders will make the required compromises to their positions, a ten point political plan is suggested by the Form as a way out of the impasse the country is faced with. The Forum wishes to leave the question of whether the political structure resulting from the changes suggested is a unitary one or a Federal one as it feels it is more an exercise in semantics than a sovereignty issue.

1. The Tamil ethnic group is a distinct community with a right to determine their own destiny within the island of Sri Lanka, as much as similar rights exist for other communities like the Sinhalese and the Muslims. All communities should achieve their destinies cooperatively, democratically and without resorting to violent means.

2. All three major communities must have equal rights and this right should not be prejudiced on account of any one community having a numerical majority either within the country or in any administratively demarcated part of the country.

3. Considering that the ethnic conflict has been centered on Tamil self determination within a land area with a greater concentration of the Tamil community, and being conscious of a need to end the violent aspect of this conflict, an autonomous regional territory is proposed within the sovereignty of the State of Sri Lanka, subject to principle number 2 stated above.

4. The land area of this regional territory is suggested to be the districts of Jaffna, Killinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar, Vavunia, Trincomalee and Batticaloa, with the Trincomalee port environment and surrounding areas being excised from the district of Trincomalee, to be designated as central government territory and to be governed as a Municipal council. The entire sea around the island of Sri Lanka will be under the jurisdiction of the central government, while all people of Sri Lanka will be free to use maritime resources within its territorial waters. For an interim period of five years, the autonomous territory should be governed by a council with the Sri Lankan government nominating fifty percent of its membership and the Tamil and Muslim Parliamentary parties represented in the current national Parliament nominating the balance fifty percent in the proportion of their membership in Parliament. It is expected that the interests of the LTTE will be represented through this mechanism by the Tamil political parties. The head of this council will be selected by a two thirds majority of the council, and will become the Chief Minister of the territory with executive powers restricted to the territory.

5. The President of Sri Lanka will be the Executive Head of the State and Head of the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka and will be elected by all the people living in the entire island of Sri Lanka. However, his executive powers in respect of subjects not assigned to the central government will be exercised in the special territory on the advice of the Chief Minister of the territory. The current President will continue in office till the expiry of his current term. While a territorial government exists, the territory will also elect representatives to the Sri Lankan Parliament at national general elections, and will also ensure people living in the territory are guaranteed the right and access to vote at Sri Lankan Presidential and general elections.

6. The President and Prime Minister of the country and Cabinet ministers of the central government will be deemed such office holders in the entire country including the territory, by virtue of the Sri Lankan sovereignty over the entire State. The executive powers of the office holders in the territory however will be limited to the subjects assigned to the central government, while they will work in cooperation with the territory office holders in respect of all other subjects.

7. The central government of Sri Lanka will be responsible for all matters concerning subjects like Foreign affairs, Defense, Justice, Central bank, National Finance (including income tax), water resources, Immigration & Emigration, Customs and Ports (land and sea) and others to be determined. The territory government should not have any power to enact legislation in respect of central government subjects or impede legislation enacted by the central government in these areas. It should have powers to enact legislation in all other areas including authority to raising revenue by way of various goods and services taxes.

8. After the first five years of interim administration, a free and fair democratic general election will be held in the territory for its people to elect a new council.

9. Subjects that are not specifically assigned to the central government will be cooperatively managed nationally, with a council system comprising of the central government cabinet minister in charge chairing a committee consisting of the territory and provincial council ministers in charge of the subjects. An office of National Policy Standardisation should be created to function under the President of Sri Lanka to ensure persons living in different parts of the State are not disadvantaged due to policy variations and legislation enacted by different legislatures. A national commission which will determine disbursement of national revenue to the territory and provinces should also be set up to function independently.

10. All territories of the State of Sri Lanka will have the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka as the highest court of the State, while the territory will have the power to have a court system up to a Territory High Court.

The Forum wishes to state that this ten point plan is a conceptual one and that it has been suggested to advance the serious deliberations amongst different stake holders, the first of such discussions scheduled to commence on the 28th of October. The Forum wishes to make it clear that it is not suggesting that discussions be limited to the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. On the contrary, it is strongly urging all other Tamil political parties and groups as well as other political parties and groups to discuss these and other proposals through the All Party Conference mechanism that the Sri Lankan President has initiated. However, being mindful of the urgent necessity for the plight of people living in the North and East, who probably have suffered more than any other citizens of the country, to be addressed, the Forum hopes that urgent action is taken to initiate assistance and development in those areas, and it urges a quick resolution of the fundamental planks of a political solution so that violence can cease and some normalcy could return to these areas.

The Forum recognizes that there are several other key issues to be resolved before a degree of trust could develop between the LTTE, the people in the North and the East, and with the Sri Lankan government and the Armed Forces. This communiqué however is being limited to the ten point political plan which hopefully will pave the way for civil administration and reconstruction to commence in the conflict areas and also in other areas of the North and the East. In relation to the LTTE army and other armed elements, it is suggested that they be confined to their camps or barracks, and this policy be applied equally to the Sri Lankan Army unless the security of the State and its people is under threat by any persons or groups. It is also suggested that the decommissioning of the LTTE forces be achieved gradually, and its cadres be absorbed into a territory police force in due course as it considers it impractical to do so just yet. However, the Forum recognizes that the Sri Lanka Armed Forces are the legitimate forces of the country and that they and only they have the right to train and equip themselves to defend the territorial integrity of the country and the security of all people.

Longer term bridge building issues involve finding ways and means of ending the current degree of segregation one sees between Tamils and Sinhalese people starting from their early school going ages.

However unpalatable it might seem, the Forum is of the view that the only way to bridge this gap from early childhood would be to avoid segregation by introducing linking mechanisms such as teaching all students English and grouping students irrespective of their ethnicity for at least some subjects they can learn together in English. Ethnic differences become irrelevant in such an environment. The other mechanism is to teach every student Sinhala and Tamil in addition to English, as well as Sinhala and Tamil literature. The LTTE and all other parties to this conflict should consider the fact that Sri Lanka is geographically a small country, and that it is has a secular, multi ethnic, multi cultural setting that has made it an admired society throughout the world despite many the threats to that very environment. It must be recognized that people have lived in harmony with each other at most times and have been happy to live that way, and should be allowed to live that way. The Forum recognizes with much regret the human tendency to spend vast amounts of time and money to separate each other with boundaries, prejudices and fears and also destroy each other in the name of defense, while exercising great restraint in making an effort to do the opposite. It wishes that Sri Lankan political, religious and civil society leaders on both sides of the divide rise above such a mind set and prejudices, and lead the way to providing a better future for the children of the country.

Submitted on behalf of the Sri Lanka Forum, Sydney, by Raj Gonsalkorale, the convener of the Forum. The Sri Lanka Forum, Sydney is a non profit voluntary group dedicated to undertaking conflict management research and development work relating to Sri Lanka.

- Asian Tribune -

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