Brian Senewiratne MA,MD,FRCP,FRACP

(Speech delivered at the Seminar organised by The International Tamil Foundation (ITF) on 24th June 2001 in London.)


Democracy is the practice of political, legal and social equality so that all citizens would have equal political rights and have these protected by free and fair elections and other guarantees. Like the freedom from slavery or the urge for freedom from foreign, it cannot be denied or suppressed. It was developed by the ancient Greeks even before the 5th century BC. It is such a powerful idea that even the most dictatorial regimes label themselves “Democratic”. Thus, in 1972, Sirima Bandaranaike and the Left dealt a severe blow to democracy, withdrawing the Constitutional safeguards that there for the protection of the minorities and changed Ceylon to “The Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka”. In 1977, J.R. Jayawardene dismantled democracy completely and thought it necessary to call his regime “The democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”.

What’s in a name? Everything. It is easier for a “democratic” country to get aid to “fight Terrorism” than to kill its own people – which is what has been happening in Sri Lanka for nearly two decades.

Democracy was devised for the governance of small city sates of homogeneous citizens e.g. Athens. When applied to the governance of larger nation-states with a heterogeneous population divided in ethnicity, religion, culture etc., there are problems. In these states it is usually the national minorities, which suffer discrimination at the hands of the majority.

Can democracy work in a heterogeneous population? Yes it can, provided that there is enlightened leadership or if the minorities agree to lose their identity and merge with the majority i.e. be “assimilated”.

Enlightened leaders we have not had even in British days, much less so after Independence. What we have had are leaders who have espoused ethno-religious chauvinism as a means of getting into or remaining in power i.e. populist politics. As for the “assimilation” of minorities, it depends on the background of the “minority”. If they are an ancient people with a proud heritage, an ancient culture and language, they will not agree to lose all this and be “assimilated”. There are many examples across the world. – the Karens of Burma fighting to prevent assimilation into the Burmese mainstream, Basque separatists in Spain fighting to retain their identity, the Turks in Cyprus fighting to prevent assimilation by Greeks etc. There are many more.

It is therefore not surprising that the Tamils, with an ancient culture and heritage are fiercely fighting to prevent assimilation into a country with a Sinhalese-Buddhist ideology. It is to destroy this ancient culture that Jayawardene had the Jaffna library with some 90,000 volumes and ancient manuscripts burnt.

Democracy is not an end in itself. It must lead to good governance. This we have not had since British times. The British, like all colonial powers, proclaimed the freedom of man at home but trampled upon it abroad. Perhaps a reversal of the mistakes made by the British government and later, the Sri Lankan governments, is needed if the current mess is to be sorted out.

A little bit of history
I need hardly explain to an audience such as this that there are two major ethnic and religious groups in Sri Lanka - the Sinhalese (Buddhists) who comprise the majority (70%) of the population and the Tamil (Hindu) “minority”. The Tamils comprise two completely separate groups – the Sri Lankan Tamils who have been in the country for as long as the Sinhalese (if not longer) – some 2,500 years, and the Plantation (Indian) Tamils, indentured labourers imported by the British post-1820 to work on the tea plantations.

Who came first – the Sinhalese or the Tamils? My answer is, “Who cares?” Here we are, in the UK, Canada, US and Australia. We arrive on Monday and expect, entirely justifiably, to live without discrimination on Tuesday. In Sri Lanka, we are arguing about something that happened 2,500 years ago! It is ridiculous.

More important is what happened after these people arrived (from India) some 2,500 years ago. There were wars, protracted wars between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. They finally decided to separate and exist (and develop) than to try to unite and end up fighting, destroying each other. So, they established 3 separate kingdoms, Jaffnapatam in the North (Tamil), the Kandyan kingdom in the Centre (Kandyan Sinhalese) and the Kotte kingdom in the South (Low-Country Sinhalese). This existed for hundreds of years and was the setup when the Portuguese arrived (1505), the Dutch took over (1638) and even when the British arrived (1796).

When the British finally took control of the massive Kandyan kingdom (1815), their governance was so poor that there was a major rebellion (the Kandyan Rebellion of 1817-18, which the British crushed.

In an attempt to prevent further rebellions, they decided to unify the country and centralize power in Colombo (the Colebrooke–Cameron “reforms” of 1833. A single nation, “Ceylon”, was a British construct to keep the natives (in particular, the Kandyans) “under control”. In fact, the first people to ask for separation (as a federal State) were not the Tamils but the Kandyan Sinhalese in their submission to the Donoughmore Commission in the early 1930s.

The abuse of democracy under the British

The land grab and the Plantation Tamils
The British appropriated i.e. stole, thousands of acres of land from the Kandyan peasants and others for their plantations, enacting laws to legitimise robbery.

The crime would have been less heinous if the local population had been given employment in the plantations that arose. Instead, the British imported half a million South Indian Tamils from (British) India, as they did in Fiji and many other countries. To ensure that this work force would remain captive and pliable, they prevented integration (or even communication) with the local people.

Cutting off the blood supply – irrigation and rice production
Major irrigation works developed by the ancient Sinhalese, and already damaged by Chola invasions, were damaged even more by the British under the guise of suppressing the Kandyan rebellion. The restoration of this damage was minimal. The production of rice, the staple food of the people, fell dramatically and a rice exporting country became a major rice importer, with massive government subsidies to enable people to buy the imported rice. The democratic right of the people to exist was being violated.

Language, Religion, Education and Employment
The language of the people (Sinhalese and Tamil) was replaced by English which even after 150 years of British occupation, was spoken by less than 7% of the population! The majority of the people (both Sinhalese and Tamil) were seriously disadvantaged.

The religions of the people (Buddhism and Hinduism) lost State support and Christianity was enthroned. The Christian missionaries were entrusted not only with converting the people but of educating them, in English, of course – so that the British could employ them in their administration.

In education, the vast majority of the population who had no access to the Christian mission schools were seriously disadvantaged in both education and in (government) employment.

The American missionaries had set up some outstanding schools in the Tamil North, which churned out English-educated people. It was they who got employment in the British administration. It was not a question of favouring the Tamils. It was a direct result of misadministration by the British (the inability to set up an adequate number of good schools in the South, as the American missionaries had done in the North.)

It is in this setting that the anti-Tamil, anti-Christian, pro-Sinhalese Buddhist, movement arose in the mid-1950s, which has been exploited by every Sinhalese leader since to get into and remain in power.

Constitutional problem
The Donoughmore Reforms (1833) which instituted universal adult franchise and replaced communal representation by regional representation was the death knell for the Tamils. On a one-man-one-vote basis, the Sinhalese majority was always going to dominate the scene and the Tamil (minority) was going to be excluded from the decision making process. The Commissioners failed to recognize that Ceylon was a country with two nations – the Sinhalese nation and the Tamil nation, living in one country. They effectively handed over the country to the Sinhalese majority and the seeds of communal chaos were sown. For these seeds to germinate, all that was needed were unscrupulous politicians prepared to use ethno-religious chauvinism to achieve their political ends. This is what happened in 1956, in 1972 and in 1977. It is this that has prevented nation building. Not surprisingly, the nation is now falling apart. It was never built.

 The Tamil minority has been discriminated against even before 1956 when more than a million Plantation Tamils were disenfranchised and de-citizenised right under the democratic nose of the British by the newly independent government of Ceylon.

 The abuse of democracy under the Sri Lankans
The British simply handed over a ‘united country’ – British construct – to Ceylonese capitalists (both Sinhalese and Tamil) and quit. It was more important for them, to leave the country in friendly capitalist hands than to worry about what would happen later. They essentially left behind a British construct of 3 Separate States glued together and held as such by the colonial masters. The glue has now got unstuck and the country is falling apart – not exactly a surprise.

1. Attempts to decrease Tamil representation in Parliament

a) The disenfranchisement of the Plantation Tamils
In what can only be described as political barbarism, the first Prime Minister of Ceylon (a Sinhalese, of course) disenfranchised and de-citizenised a million Plantation Tamils in 1948 because they did not vote for him. Tamil representation was halved. This was a blatant violation of the Constitution under which Ceylon got its independence.

 b) Colonisation schemes
 Under the guise of opening up agricultural schemes in the Dry Zone (the Tamil area) thousands of Sinhalese were moved into the Tamil areas. The clear intention was to make the Tamils a minority even in the areas in which they were a majority. The state was changing the demography of the area in favour of the majority Sinhalese.

2. Discrimination against the Tamil speaking people

In language
There is no question that English, spoken by less than 7% of the population had to be changed but this had to be done without antagonizing and disadvantaging an important minority, the Tamil-speaking people. In 1956, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike replaced English with Sinhala Only, to the exclusion of the Tamil language. The Tamils were seriously disadvantaged. It violated Section 29 (2) of the Constitution. It was opportunistic politics at its worst, a flagrant abuse of democracy.

When he realized the injustice he had done, and tried to reverse at least some of it, he was assassinated by that group of racist bigots, sections of the Buddhist clergy. Bandaranaike was not killed by a Tamil Tiger terrorist (nor was Vijaya Kumaratunge, his son-in-law – a visionary Sinhalese, the husband of the current President).

In Education
The Sinhala Only Act had already discriminated against the Tamils. However, the industrious Tamil was learning Sinhalese and getting jobs. He was also getting into the universities and the professions. Bandaranaike’s wife Sirima, decided to stop this. In another act of discrimination, she introduced her “Standardisation of University Entrance Marks” i.e. the ability to “fiddle” the marks in favour of the Sinhalese. Further, with her “area quota” system, Tamils from the North had to obtain a higher mark to enter the science-based faculties in the universities. If that was not blatant racism I do not know what is. It was also a violation of the UN policy (article 26.1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

In Employment
The effect of all this on employment was devastating. Between 1956 and 1976, of some 189,000 people recruited by the public sector, 95% were Sinhalese.

The destruction of the Tamil economic base

The Tamil economic base in Colombo was seriously damaged by Jayawardene in the 1983 government-sponsored hoodlum violence and massacre of Tamils in Colombo and the South.

Its destruction in the Tamil areas has been going on after Sirima Bandaranaike introduced the Armed Forces, an Army of Occupation, into Jaffna in 1972, and is continuing apace under her daughter (Chandrika Kumaratunga). A major destruction of a part pf the country where the Tamils live is in full swing, as a Government bombs its own people and reduces large areas to rubble.

 3. The setting up of a Presidential dictatorship

 In 1977 we saw the destruction of democracy under J.R. Jayawardene. Having created an Executive Presidency with dictatorial powers, he promoted himself to it. He was able to boast that he was above Parliament and the Judiciary. Armed hoodlums, their leaders in Jayawardene’s Cabinet, ran the country for seven horrendous years. Law and order were sent on holiday! It is interesting that Sirima Bandaranaike, who was rightly critical of the dictatorial power of the President, did little to reverse this when she became Prime Minister. Her daughter who replaced Jayawardene as Head of State, has done nothing either. Today we have a “democracy” – essentially a country run by a single individual (as we did from 1977 onwards) with Parliament reduced to a rubber stamp and the Prime Minister a glorified clerk. The democratic rights of the people who elected a parliament are being seriously violated. The situation will not change even if the people vote out the government in power because the power still rests with the President. The responsibility for setting this up is Jayawardene’s, for continuing it, Chandrika Kumaratunga’s.

4. Interference with the electoral process

Pre and post election violence and vote rigging on a massive scale , the denial of the Tamil people’s right to vote with an ongoing war, has made elections a farce. In effect, a de facto Eelam, a separate Tamil State has already been created. This is so serious that the election result is questionable.

The ability to extend the life of Parliament and replace elections with a rigged Referendum (which Jayawardene democratically did in 1984), is of obvious concern.

 5. The Media

An unbiased media (press, radio and TV) is not a luxury that Ceylon (or Sri Lanka) has had. A free press is essential for democracy to survive so that people can be informed of what is going on so they can make informed judgments, especially when it comes to evaluating what the government has/has not done and in enabling people to express their opinions before they erupt in explosive violence.

Press censorship conceals what is going on and this extends to foreign media.

6. Interference with the judiciary

Jayawardene replaced a proudly independent judiciary with handpicked people with a supple spine. The ability of the president to do this remains intact since the country is still under Jayawardene’s constitution.

7. State violence and State-sponsored hoodlum violence

This has been a means of governance and has been unleashed on legitimate non-violent protests and on innocent civilians who have not even been protesting. It has now been exported to other countries.

Criminals in the armed forces who have a case to answer on serious human rights abuses, some bordering on ethnic cleansing, are being decorated and promoted, even exported as diplomats. One arrived in Australia on 11 June 2001. This will have to be dealt with.

8. Abuses of democracy in the context of the civil war

There have been serious abuses of democracy under the guise of “fighting terrorism”. What is going on in the Tamil areas is not terrorism but a war of National Liberation in the defense of the principle of self-determination. It became an armed uprising since every attempt at peaceful protests failed because of state-sponsored hoodlum violence.

The factors responsible are

 1) The inability to recognize the Tamils as citizens of the country. 2) The inability to recognize the underlying problem 3) Repressive government 4) Justification for legislation “to control terrorism” 5) Criminal acts done with impunity 6) Denial of access to parts of the country 7) Censorship 8) The power of extremists and racists to obstruct the peace process 9) The fear of election defeat 10) Bluffing the Sinhalese majority that ‘victory’ is around the corner 11) Arms dealers and those who benefit by the continuation of the war.

The result has been

1)     Disappearances (Sri Lanka is the country with the second highest number of disappearances in the world)

2)     Torture

3)     Arbitrary arrest and detention without trial (often at undisclosed sites)

4)     Killings in detention centers and jails

5)     Rape

6)     Blocking food, drugs and essentials for living to the North

7)     Denial of the rights of the child

8)     Denial of freedom of movement.

I had considerable difficulty in convincing my (Tamil) wife that this section should be included on the grounds that the violation of human rights is not part of the abuse of democracy. She claimed that I was on my old hobbyhorse again! She is wrong. I refer to my opening line, which defines democracy as “the practice of political, legal and social equality…” If Tamil men are tortured and “disappear” because they are Tamils and Tamil women are raped because they happen to be where they have a right to be i.e. their homes in the North and East, it is a gross violation of the democratic right to exist. I therefore make no apology for including this. Indeed, I would have expanded it tenfold if there was the space, because what is going on in the Tamil areas is what happens in any dictatorship and you cannot have a “democratic dictatorship”.

The restoration of democracy

Democracy has to be restored, and even more important, good governance has to be introduced. I doubt whether the democratic form of governance can be applied to a country as a whole, especially after the savage treatment that the Tamil people in the North and East have had at the hands of an Army, behaving like an Army of Occupation. The Tamil Tigers are not the cause of the problem, they are the result. The cause is the ethno-religious chauvinism of the Sinhalese – the “tyranny of the majority”. To me, a Sinhalese, it makes more sense for the Sinhalese and Tamil areas to be separated and for development of each area to proceed. This is better than trying to keep a British construct together and for the two communities to destroy each other and the country in the process.

What we can do

The problem in Sri Lanka has to be handled by Sri Lankans. We can neither re-introduce democracy or end the war. This does not mean that we can sit on our hands and watch what is going on from a safe distance. We cannot, like Nero, fiddle while Rome (the North and the East) burns. It may well be impossible for the devastated people in the North and the East to do anything under the heel of an increasingly brutal army and a government bent on crushing them. They will almost certainly need our help.

I am well aware that the Sinhalese majority are being bluffed by the government and the armed forces that this is a winnable war. It is not. No country in the world has succeeded in doing what the Sri Lankan government is trying to do i.e. to crush the nationalism of an important national minority. I doubt if Sri Lanka will be the exception.

As for your role, Martin Luther King said, “All that is needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. I am asking you, good men (and women) to join us in not allowing the triumph of evil (ethno-religious chauvinism) and help us to stop the suffering and the destruction of the North and East (physically, human-wise and economically) and also the South (economically). The country which once had a bright future is becoming a country with no future. Before we have a devastated country such as East Timor, I urge you to act.

An expansion of this address will be published in London (hopefully) in the next few weeks. A detailed account of “The Past, Present and Future of Sri Lanka” which will be presented in Canada and the United States next week, update of one of my earlier publication), “Sri Lanka’s British Colonial legacy” and “Sri Lanka. Where I stand and why” will be published by the end of the year. I also hope to publish the much-expanded 2nd Edition of my book “Human Rights Violations in Sri Lanka” in the next couple of months. Any help with information will be appreciated.

I also hope to establish a Sri Lankan Peace Foundation in Brisbane, if I can get some support from Norway, Canada and other countries that have been concerned with the destruction of Sri Lanka. To rely on the notoriously unreliable regime in Colombo, be it the SLFP or the UNP (there is not much difference between them), is being totally unrealistic.

Brian Senewiratne