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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2784

Sri Lanka Conflict: How free are different ethnic groups in multi ethnic societies?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

In their heart of hearts, many Sri Lankan Tamils, mostly those living in Sri Lanka and having to face violence from two quarters, namely the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, must be wondering about the mess they have got into by allowing a group of armed thugs to take care of their destiny by force. Very few Tamils will admit this, but they must wonder whether their on going suffering has been worth it, especially when they see no end to it. The plight of the Sri Lankan Tamil living in Sri Lanka, specially those living in the North and the East, is very different to whatever the Tamil Diaspora feels about the ongoing conflict, and among other reasons, it is different on account of the fact that it is the Diaspora that is prolonging this conflict by continuing to support the LTTE and their violent campaign, and causing untold suffering on their own people.

While not denying some injustices done to Tamils in the past by successive Sri Lankan governments, and also concurring that some fundamental structural adjustments have to be done to the Sri Lankan constitution to ensure that no ethnic group is advantaged or disadvantaged over other ethnic groups, simply on account of a numerical strength, or for any other reason, one has to take stock at some stage where Tamils are heading with a strategy that is obviously hopeless for them and totally counter productive to them and to the rest of Sri Lankans. Tamils in the North and the East only have to look at the development strides the rest of the country has made in the last 20 years or so and lament at what they have missed by this endless war prosecuted by the Diaspora and the LTTE.

If only those unfortunate Tamils caught between the cross fire in various parts of the North and the East could see Colombo today, they will very likely think they are in some other country, as the Colombo they knew 20 years ago will at best be only be a figment of their imagination, considering how terribly under developed most areas of the North and East are on account of LTTE terrorism. The disservice done to them by the Diaspora and the LTTE has now gone beyond them to their next generations, as those born since the conflict escalated after 1983, and not fortunate enough to join the comforts enjoyed by their fellow Tamils in other parts of the country, and overseas by the Diaspora, have known nothing but war and hardship.

These young men and women and their parents and loved ones are suffering extreme hardships and will continue to do so, until the prosecutors of this war, the Diaspora and the LTTE, takes a reality check on where they are leading the entire Tamil community with their current strategy. The recent attacks on unarmed civilians in Nittambuwa and Hikkaduwa and the blowing up of an electricity transformer in Wattala, are indicators of the LTTE desire to further escalate an already fierce confrontation and their disdain for peace for their own people.

As argued by this author and many others in the Asian Tribune, it is time the Diaspora either compelled the LTTE to give up violence and become a political organisation or switch support to a more moderate, democratic Tamil leadership so that they could work out a political solution with the Southern polity. It is certain that they will be assured of international support from a variety of sources including the United Nations, if they choose to pursue a solution by peaceful means. Such support will be able to exert considerable pressure on the Southern polity to agree on the necessary constitutional changes, and maximum devolution, while maintaining the unitary state of the country. Unlike 20 years ago, the world is far too internationalized for any country, especially a small developing country like Sri Lanka, dependent on foreign aid and assistance, to ignore international pressure to work out a just and fair solution to the conflict. Many actors within the Southern polity will be far more amenable to political changes if the specter of violence is taken away from the equation, as violence only helps to harden positions and breed counter violence and create an endless spiral of violence making political compromising all the more difficult.

However, the responsibility for where the country is today and also the status of the conflict or working out a political solution for it, cannot be placed entirely at the door step of the Diaspora or other Tamils. The Southern polity led by the Sinhala majority has to shoulder a substantial part of responsibility for where we are today and the still ongoing inability to agree on a political solution. What they have to agree upon is a solution that is right by all communities, is just and fair and not one that must appeases the LTTE or the Diaspora. That is the solution that must be placed on the table and shown to all Sri Lankans and the international community. Knowing with certainty that the LTTE will oppose any political solution that is short of a separate State, it is well to remember that they cannot be appeased. However, their support base, the Diaspora, would be compelled to consider a just and fair solution, if they are subject to international pressure, and many countries which are appalled at the violence perpetrated by the LTTE, are very likely to move much stronger against the fund raising activities of the Diaspora unless they support a just and fair solution offered by the Southern polity.

As the saying goes, it takes two to tango, and in this instance, both the Southern polity and the moderate Tamil leadership must engage in discussions on a peaceful solution to this conflict. owever, the moderate Tamils must have something to discuss, and this is where it becomes imperative for the Southern polity to offer something to discuss. The structure put in place by President Mahinda Rajapaksha, the APRC, is the right vehicle to deliberate and produce that offer. Sadly, analysts are pointing out that this body is embroiled in political grandstanding and that it will not be able to produce a document that has the consensus of the major actors within the Southern polity.

While this author and several others, have pointed out the necessity of having a small group of non political technical experts to sysnthesise the different reports that the expert panel has produced and also submissions made by the public, there is no evidence that this suggestion has been considered by the authorities.
What appears to be happening is that each political party is formulating their own proposals, leaving a hapless chairman of the APRC, Professor Tissa Vitharane, himself a politician now, to do the impossible and produce a single consensus document. This process seems headed towards disaster and the country seems poised to lose another opportunity to work out a political solution to this conflict. It is not too late for the President to arrest this situation and de politicize this process as much as possible by appointing a non political technical committee of 3 or 4 persons of international repute to undertake the synthesis suggested.

Ultimately, if a durable solution is needed for this conflict, it has to be a political decision and not a military one. The LTTE could still be a major player in a decision making process provided they embrace the democratic political process. They cannot succeed if they persist with their violence and militarism. It is their choice to be relevant or irrelevant.

As some readers and analysts have pointed out, the Tamil lobby has found it extremely difficult to articulate what they regard as their contemporary problems are pertaining to discrimination by the Sinhala majority. Some are wont to say that a Federal arrangement incorporating the Northern and Eastern provinces will be a minimum that is needed as a political solution. This view is based on a historical position taken by the Tamil lobby on the premise that this region is the traditional homeland of Tamils. While the concept of a traditional homeland is at best debatable, a Federal solution incorporating the North and the East does not address contemporary reality that a majority of Tamils live outside the North and the East, and the fact that Tamils in the East, and the Muslims may not support a merger with the North to form a Federal state.

Some Tamils simply say they want freedom and do not offer any practical solutions as to how this freedom could be found in a multi ethnic society. Many Tamils probably do feel curtailed and dominated by the Sinhalese in a Sinhala majority country, and they would wish to be free and to be able to determine their own destiny without interference or domination by the Sinhalese. In Sri Lanka, besides Tamils being spread in many parts of the country, and a majority living outside the North and the East, this raises the question as to how such freedom could be achieved for all Tamils and how free one is in any country that is multi religious and multi ethnic, and how relative freedom is for any individual.

If we consider economic freedom, it is a fact that much of the business enterprise wealth of the country is not owned by the Sinhalese, although they are the majority. Tamils and Muslims control much of that wealth. In this economic context, it could be said that the Sinhalese are dominated by the Tamils and the Muslims. In the plantation industry, particularly the Tea industry, although they do not own the production base, Tamils of recent Indian origin have a significant say in that industry on which Sri Lanka depends on for their very existence. Rightly, leaders like late Mr S Thondaman strived hard to provide workers a better deal for their sweat and tears.

Sri Lankan Tamils of recent Indian origin are a very important component of the country’s society although they still may not have been regarded as such, and they have a sizeable influence on which party governs the country. Sinhala leaders cannot ignore their vote and infact successive governments have depended on their votes to form governments. In this context, it could be said that the Sinhala community is not “free” of Sri Lankan Tamils of recent Indian origin.

In terms of education, and subsequent job opportunities, even in 1983 when the despicable attack on the Tamils occurred, the number of students in universities undertaking courses in Engineering and Medicine showed that around 25 – 35% were Tamils contrary to claims that Tamils had been severely disadvantaged due to government policy. While there is no doubt that the standardization policy introduced during Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s tenure as Prime Minister from 1970 onwards, was patently discriminatory against the Tamils, even after many years, in 1983, the effects of that policy had not affected Tamils as much as has been claimed by the Tamil freedom lobby.

Besides arguments raised about discrimination by the Sinhalese, it is worthwhile posing the question whether the Tamil community is a homogenous one where there is no internal discrimination against Tamils due to caste, religious and/or social differences amongst them. Would a “free” Tamil community treat every other Tamil as an equal? Would Tamils of recent Indian origin be treated as equal to others in the North and the East and other parts of the country?

These points are not made to belittle the Tamil community in any way. In fact they are made to demonstrate the reality that freedom is relative and that the idea of any community being free of others is a myth that is being perpetrated by a few people to pursue an agenda that does not have co existence and peace as part of it. Perhaps such proponents should all move to the State of Tamil Nadu which infact is the cradle of Tamil civilization, historically and from a contemporary perspective, as Tamils numbering over 50 million dominate that State and are relatively “free” of other communities.

If all ethnic groups are to make Sri Lanka their home, they have to accept that freedom has to considered from the multi ethnic, multi religious nature of the country, and accept the relativity of freedom from that context. This goes to all communities including the Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims and other minor communities. Those who cannot accept this will have to find sanctuary elsewhere.

Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, two of the greatest freedom fighters encapsulated the notion of freedom. Mahatma Gandhi, referring to his non violent struggle against the British said, quote "I believe that in the history of the world, there has not been a more genuinely democratic struggle for freedom than ours. But it is my conviction that in as much as some struggles were fought with the weapon of violence they failed to realize the democratic ideal. In the democracy which I have envisaged, a democracy established by non-violence, there will be equal freedom for all. Everybody will be his own master." Unquote.

Nelson Mandela in his inaugural address said quote:

"We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world.
Let there be justice for all.
Let there be peace for all.
Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.

Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.

Let freedom reign.

The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement!" Unquote

While we have never had and probably will never have a Mahatma or a Nelson Mandela to guide us and lead us, we certainly could learn a few lessons from such great freedom fighters. We could learn to respect and treat every ethnic group as equals and make sure no group is advantaged or disadvantaged by another due to their ethnicity. We could accept the multi ethnic, multi religious nature of the country and accept that we must all live together and iron out our differences peacefully and if and when needed, through non violent campaigns. Those who are living in comfort in London, Sydney, Toronto and other major cities in the world, and prosecuting this war must think compassionately about their brothers and sisters back in Sri Lanka who are continuing to bear the brunt of violence, disruption and unrest. Above and beyond these, they must choose where their loyalties lie, as in the end, they cannot have the cake and eat it.

- Asian Tribune -

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