Ilankai Tamil Sangam

23rd Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

ICG: Sinhala Nationalism and the Elusive Southern Consensus

by the International Crisis Group, November 7, 2007

Until the sources of Sinhalese nationalism are taken more seriously, it will continue to challenge attempts to produce a political settlement...

Sri Lanka’s international backers will need to persuade the president to compromise by dropping reference to the unitary state. Without strong international efforts to convince both the government and the UNP to find common ground, there is little chance the APRC can produce a political package attractive to both Tamil moderates and Sinhalese.

Colombo/Brussels: Lasting peace will not be found in Sri Lanka until Sinhala nationalism and the grievances that give it power are understood and addressed.

Sri Lanka: Sinhala Nationalism and the Elusive Southern Consensus,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the nationalism of the country’s largest ethnic community and its relationship to the almost 25-year conflict. Recent history shows the Sinhalese are not unalterably opposed to a fair deal for the minority Tamils but competition between their major parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), together with the violence and intransigence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), have led President Rajapaksa to adopt a hardline nationalist approach. Until the sources of Sinhalese nationalism are taken more seriously, it will continue to challenge attempts to produce a political settlement.

Although President Rajapaksa states his commitment to a political solution, his decision to rely on hardline Sinhala nationalist parties committed to a strictly unitary state structure instead of considering substantial devolution of powers to the regions has left him with little option other than to try to defeat the LTTE militarily. The All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) set up in 2006 is developing constitutional proposals intended to be endorsed by all parties but the limited progress it has made may unravel due to Rajapaksa’s insistence on the unitary state and the UNP decision to abandon the process.

“Moving away from the unitary state is the only viable basis for resolving the conflict politically. Nothing less has the chance of strengthening the non-LTTE Tamil parties and opening up a new, broader political agenda for constitutional reform endorsed by Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala parties”, says Alan Keenan, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst in Colombo.

A new approach is needed that addresses legitimate Sinhalese fears, so as to tackle supremacist nationalism and allow for the necessary southern consensus on devolution. Sri Lanka’s international backers will need to persuade the president to compromise by dropping reference to the unitary state. Without strong international efforts to convince both the government and the UNP to find common ground, there is little chance the APRC can produce a political package attractive to both Tamil moderates and Sinhalese.

“To be sustainable, the next attempt at peace needs to be part of a larger project of state reform and good governance from which all communities benefit, not merely a deal in which Sinhalese trade territory for an end of war and terror”, says Asia Program Director Robert Templer. “Domestic and international actors should begin to fashion long-term strategies that take into account the power of Sinhala nationalist ideology, while aiming to minimise the sources of its appeal and its ability to set the political agenda”.

Contacts: Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) +32 (0) 2 541 1635
Giulia Previti(Washington) +1 202 785 1601
To contact Crisis Group media please click here
*Read the full Crisis Group report on our website: http://www.crisisgroup.org

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Sri Lanka: Sinhala Nationalism and the Elusive Southern Consensus

Asia Report N°141
7 November 2007

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Sinhala nationalism, long an obstacle to the resolution of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, is again driving political developments on the island. Nationalist parties, opposed to any significant devolution of power to Tamil areas of the north and east and to negotiations with the Tamil Tigers, help set President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s agenda. The government takes a hardline stance, responding in part to opposition to the flawed 2002-2006 ceasefire and peace process. Would-be peacemakers need to better understand Sinhala nationalism, which is too often dismissed as merely irrational and racist. With little likelihood of a new formal peace process soon, the long-term challenges it poses to the conflict’s resolution need to be addressed.

The search for a political solution to nearly 25 years of war has repeatedly foundered as a result of competition between mostly Sinhala parties in the south as well as excessive Tamil demands. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) have never been able to agree on a proposal for power sharing with the Tamil community. Instead, they have engaged in recurring bouts of ethnic outbidding, with each undermining the other’s devolution policies. Opposition from more overtly nationalist parties, notably the left-wing People’s Liberation Front (JVP) and more recently the extreme Buddhist National Sinhala Heritage Party (JHU), has helped sustain this pattern. Both have flourished in opposition to the 2002 ceasefire and oppose any political settlement involving devolution to the predominantly Tamil regions.

Sinhala nationalism goes back to the British period, when it was part of a broader anti-colonial, anti-foreign movement, accentuated by Buddhist revivalism. It grew stronger with independence and electoral democracy. With society divided along caste, class and political lines, it has been a powerful unifying force, giving radical parties a platform for populist agitation and established politicians a diversion from their failure to address economic weakness, social concerns and pervasive corruption.

As the ethnic conflict grew more violent, the UNP and SLFP came to accept the existence of legitimate Tamil grievances and the need for devolution and other constitutional reforms, but LTTE brutality and intransigence have kept strong currents of Sinhala nationalism alive. Together the two competing ethnic nationalisms have sapped the ability of governments to develop a consensus for a negotiated settlement and power sharing.

The election of President Rajapaksa in November 2005 halted the slow movement towards reforms. While many had hoped he would abandon the hardline approach that won him office and move to the centre to govern, the opposite has been the case. His government has increasingly adopted a hardline nationalist vision, leaving little room to be outflanked in the name of Sinhalese interests. The JHU has joined the government, and Sinhala ideologues are influential advisers. Since mid-2006 the government has been fighting the LTTE with the aim of defeating or at least severely weakening it militarily.

At the same time, Rajapaksa has repeatedly stated his commitment to a political solution. With international prodding, several efforts have been made to form a united front to promote a settlement. An October 2006 SLFP-UNP memorandum of understanding (MOU) expressed a superficially common position on the conflict but quickly collapsed, undermined by mistrust, a lack of commitment and ultimately the defection of opposition deputies to the government.

The All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) set up in 2006 is developing constitutional proposals intended to be endorsed by all parties. The progress made so far – against stiff resistance from the JHU and JVP and the president’s delaying tactics – threatens to unravel due to Rajapaksa’s insistence on maintaining the unitary definition of the state and the UNP’s decision to abandon the process. Unless domestic and international pressure can shift both Rajapaksa and the UNP, it seems unlikely the APRC will produce a proposal that can achieve the necessary two-thirds support in parliament and acceptance by Muslim and moderate Tamil parties.

The failure of the MOU and the president’s lack of enthusiasm for the APRC suggest the government is not serious about a political solution. Instead of working for a compromise the UNP could endorse, it has coerced most of the political establishment to support its military strategy, which has been accompanied by serious human rights abuses. Yet that strategy, especially if it remains unattached to serious political proposals, is unlikely to succeed.

The international community has struggled to come to terms with Sinhala nationalism, frequently misunderstanding its nature and legitimacy. Interventions, even including the Norwegian-sponsored 2002 ceasefire, which most Sinhalese ultimately judged as too favourable to the LTTE, have tended to stimulate xenophobic elements in the Sinhala community and help the extreme nationalist parties gain ground. With the present administration one of the most nationalist in the country’s history, however, there is a need to review approaches to peacemaking. Domestic and international actors should begin to fashion new, long-term strategies that take into account the power of Sinhala nationalist ideology, while aiming to minimise the sources of its appeal and its ability to set the political agenda.

While this report, with its recommendations summarised below, deals wholly with the issue of Sinhala nationalism, Crisis Group of course accepts that this is not the only factor contributing to the present conflict. Subsequent reporting will address, with appropriate recommendations, the challenges posed to peacemaking by Tamil nationalist ideas and organisations.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the Government of Sri Lanka:

1. Actively pursue a concerted policy of state reform designed to ensure equal treatment and opportunities for all citizens, irrespective of ethnicity or religion and in particular:

(a) expedite the conclusion of negotiations by the All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) and agree to endorse constitutional proposals for devolution of power that go beyond the constraints of the present unitary definition of the state;

(b) develop with a sense of urgency a program of “language rights for all”, featuring:

i) expanded incentives and training opportunities for government servants to learn Tamil and full provision wherever needed of Tamil translators, government signs, and forms in Tamil;

ii) expanded and improved instruction in Tamil for Sinhala-speaking students and in Sinhala for Tamil-speaking students; and

iii) expanded access to quality English instruction for all students throughout the country;

(c) ensure that reconstruction and economic development work in the Eastern Province is directed by the civil administration, not the military, is carried out with the active participation of local political leaders and civil society groups from all ethnic communities and makes no changes in the ethnic balance or administrative organisation of the province; and

(d) reconstitute immediately the Constitutional Council and expedite the appointment of new members to the full array of independent commissions established under the Seventeenth Amendment, most crucially the Human Rights, Police and Judicial Services Commissions.

To the United National Party:

2. Publicly express the party’s commitment to cooperate with the government in devising a political consensus for maximum devolution within a united Sri Lanka and agree to rejoin the APRC and to be a full and constructive member of the All-Party Conference when it considers the APRC recommendations.

To Tamil, Muslim, and Left Parties in the Government:

3. Endorse the importance of the APRC proposals for devolution of power moving beyond the limitations of the unitary state.

To the European Union (EU) and the Governments of India, Japan, the UK and the U.S.:

4. Publicly encourage the government to bring the APRC process to a rapid conclusion and to state its willingness to accept devolution proposals that avoid both unitary and federal definitions of the state.

5. Urge the government publicly to reestablish the Constitutional Council and appoint new members to the full array of independent commissions established under the Seventeenth Amendment.

6. Make it a priority of aid policies to support government initiatives for state reform, good governance, human rights and inclusive language policies designed to ensure equal opportunities and treatment for all citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion.

7. Appoint a joint donor task force to investigate allegations of ethnic bias in land use and settlement policy in the Eastern Province and agree to provide development assistance only after the government establishes procedures for meaningful consultation with representatives of all ethnic communities, ensures the full participation of elected leaders and local civil administration and agrees not to change the ethnic balance or administrative organisation of the province.

8. Begin planning support for a future, more principled peace process that emphasises human rights, good governance and state reform and that aims to respond seriously to Sinhalese fears and sense of insecurity.

Colombo/Brussels, 7 November 2007

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Response to ICG report by Nimal, posted on Sangam November 9, 2007

This report that highlights the problem of "Sinhala Nationalism" = 'Sinhala-Buddhist' extremism, is a good start. So far the international media has only repeatedly referred to 'Tamil nationalists' who are trying to "carve out a separate state" etc. as if that was the cause of the conflict: that is, they have been getting the cause and effect reversed. This report is useful to get the cause and effect put back in the right order, but is still in need of some correction.

According to the ICG: "Recent history shows the Sinhalese are not unalterably opposed to a fair deal for the minority Tamils but competition between their major parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), together with the violence and intransigence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), have led President Rajapaksa to adopt a hardline nationalist approach. Until the sources of Sinhalese nationalism are taken more seriously, it will continue to challenge attempts to produce a political settlement."

That is the ICG is saying that the SOURCES of Sinhala Nationalism are to be found in the political competitiveness among the Sinhala political parties + "the violence and intransigence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam".

That is incorrect: rather the Sinhala politicians exploited the already existing (post colonial) 'Sinhala-Buddhist' extremism in order to compete with each other. Rajapakse is merely continuing in the well tested tradition of Sinhala politicians. (The LTTE is only the effect/response).

The SOURCES of "Sinhala Nationalism" (= 'Sinhala-Buddhist' extremism), are then not as the ICG says. The sources are the Sinhala Nationalists (= 'Sinhala-Buddhist' extremists), themselves; their growth however is due to the methods of political competition familiar to the Sinhala politicians (among whom there are many extremists too).

The ICG report also says "Recent history shows...". But how recent is "recent"? Certainly not "recent" as in after independence in 1948. Almost immediately after independence the Sinhala politicians were keen to show the Sinhala masses that they were opposed to equality for Tamils. Hence the present situation.

But yes, there can be no peace without addressing the problem of Sinhala Nationalism = 'Sinhala-Buddhist' extremism. IF it were to be destroyed there would be no reason to be in conflict: but that is a very very very BIG IF!

But there is also a part for the Tamils/LTTE to play, merely blaming the 'Sinhala-Buddhist' extremists is not the future; in other words looking to the 'Sinhala-Buddhist' extremists and the Sinhala politicians to reform is a waste of time and energy and hope.