by Chandi Sinnathurai
THERE are shared historical events in Sri LANKA between the predominant Sinhalese and the Tamil-speaking communities. However, these events of violence and violations circulate for the most part as oral history with diverse interpretations. Perceptions of the history of ‘origins and ownership’ of the predominant community seem to establish antagonistic and retaliatory contexts. Therefore, within such environment, communal cohesion and maintaining a semblance of order become possible, however tragically, by constant repetition of violence.
It is no surprise that both the pre- and post-colonial history of Ceylon/Sri Lanka is indeed fraught with betrayals, serial killings, tortures, lynching, ethnic cleansings, pillage and plunder. These criminal acts cannot be lumped together for political convenience and merely recorded as "violations of human rights." In most cases, these were politically motivated, heinous atrocities against Tamils. Very often, such acts of terror were nothing but "near miss" genocides! [Keeping Rwanda in mind; when is genocide actually recognised as genocide?]
Social scientists generally identify three categories as primary causes found within a socio-political conflict: a) identity b) territory c) ideology.
Let us briefly examine whether the above axes are applicable to the Lankan context.
It is believed that where we are from may have an impact on as to where we are now. Does the Sri Lankan national crisis hinge on origins? The Tamil-speaking Muslim community is never in doubt of their identity. Many among them are descendents of their Arab ancestors, while some may be converts to Islam. However, what connects them primarily as an identifiable community is their mother tongue, Tamil. Ceylon Moors intrinsically see themselves as Tamils. Secondly what unites them is Islam. The Tamils: both the up-country and the low-country Tamils have no hesitations about their origins. Some Ceylon Tamils may even think and articulate in English as their first or second language. This is owing to their Colonial baggage. Certain sections of Tamils may, of course, only converse in Sinhalese as their first language (owing to the fact that they have been born and bred in Sinhalese areas). None of these factors however, interfere with their essential Tamilness.
It is safe to conclude that the cause for a separate state for the Tamil-speaking people does not spring from an identity crisis. The struggle for Eelam began as a result of a repetitive suppression unleashed on Tamils by denying even their fundamental human rights!
The predominant Sinhalese however, constantly suffer from a misperception of themselves. It stems from a myopic and an inflated view of seeing themselves both as glorified guardians of Lanka and as sole protectors of the Theravada strand of Buddhism. Such interpretation places Sinhalese, sadly, under the gloomy clouds of an identity crisis. The Buddhist Pali mytho-historical chronicles, believed to be written around 600 CE by monks, present to its readers origin narratives of the Sinhalese. The question of whether these texts are written in allegorical language is carefully ignored because of fear that their status as "authentic text" of history with a divine mandate would be under critical scrutiny! These texts receive a preferential treatment as sacred "facts" and therefore are literally interpreted. The genesis narrative explains that the Sinhalese came into being through bestiality – hence Singaya: the Lion people. The story takes strange twists of violent expulsion of the demon (Yakkini) founding matriarch by the young Aryan prince – an absconding Patriarch. The narrative exposes incest (which has deep psychological implications); resulting naturally in inferiority and negativity. Such distorted history propels one in to a parodoxical vicious cycle; in order that they might "protect" by violent means a non-violent Philosophy! Once caught between these opposite poles of attracting gravitational pull, one finds that it provides the framework of an inescapable defence mechanism articulated via politico-Buddhism. This religious façade upholds the puffed up identity; which in fact, is a concealment strategy for a "distorted" identity! As a result, ethnic violence is spiritualised, legitimised and democratised. And ethnic hate is franchised.
Is the Tamil National Question a territorial conflict? Every inch of territory is Sinhala urumaya – broadly meaning that it, by divine right, belongs ONLY to the Sinhala people. This rationale will not permit other communities to co-exist within their ancestral homelands. That is why even recently there were media reports of Buddha statues being installed forcibly in Tamil-speaking towns. Planting a Bo-tree and consecrating the premises and installing a statue of Buddha have been the ritual by which territory is claimed! For years this has been the way in which secret colonisation has been conducted. So for the Tamil-speaking people re-claiming their homeland or - as the LTTE would call it - ‘liberating the ancient territory’ becomes an essential part of survival.
It is within these traditional homelands that one’s ancient tradition, culture, language, art, music, folklore etc; are preserved while evolving. The traditional homelands are not exclusion zones, as some would have us believe. It will be detrimental if fresh ideas were to be blocked out. In this global environment other cultural influences will be synthesised and absorbed. If one interprets the idea of traditional homelands solely in terms of raising imaginative defensive walls from hegemonic forces, then it can be viewed positively as protection against oppressive powers. It becomes of paramount importance that the territorial integrity of Tamils is recognised globally. By doing so, the Sinhala population could be satisfied to work within the territorial integrity of the pre-colonial Kotte and the Kandyan Kingdoms and could then effectively begin to sort out their own differences. This should no doubt help the Sinhalese to overcome their "minority complex of the majority".
The Sinhalese -Tamil conflict may be viewed as an ideological strife only if one views nationalism as an "ideology of identity." Some suggest that the conflict is a Marxist struggle. How many genuine Marxists are there in Sri Lanka is a good question to ask? In any event, the Sinhalese utilize the logic of the scapegoat to establish their ‘true’ origin and distinction from the "other." It is well to remember, that the "other" does include the Tamil-speaking Muslims. Hence the Muslims are more openly supporting the struggle for Eelam especially in the East and not falling for the ‘jihadi’ ideologies propagated by the State only to divide and rule.
Frederic Barth saw ethnicity as a dynamic relationship across borders describing an outside and an inside, "us" vs. "them," a dichotomy inherent in most discourses of identity, ethnicity and nationalism.
The nationalism of the Tamils as an ideology does not exclude the international implications of living and inter-relating within a global village. The Tamils here in Sri Lanka and in the Diaspora have given their energy into the celebration of difference while also learning from their ‘unique’ experience.
The Sinhalese ought to seriously review their politico-Buddhism and establish a fresh world view based on factual history rather than on mythical belief systems. Until this paradigm shift happens, the reality suggests that no amount of peace talking could bear sweet fruit. Identity, territory, ideology: it is mainly within these three cords of unity, among other realities, an amicable settlement could be attained.
The West, with its power and resources, however, will need to overcome the temptation to impose peace - taking into consideration only geopolitical interests. Such action would bring about only a cosmetic change that would benefit the political elites and the power brokers – not the down-trodden and the dispossessed.
The Sinhalese mindset nonetheless is engraved in this mythical enterprise of politico-Buddhism. Mythical fantasies of the Sinhalese, such as bening the "sole sons of the soil," should be dislodged by accommodating alternate views of shared history.
The Buddhist-administered State will have to be convinced, if at all possible, first by logical persuasion to agree to a two state solution. International pressure via economic instruments may need to be employed in order to convict the Sinhalese State to renounce its scapegoat mechanisms against the Tamils.
The Western peace interlocutor will need to engage actively as the referee – to use the soccer analogy. That is to say, the interlocutor will be required to have both a radical and dynamic engagement. Within such an exercise of conflict transformation, peace is not the absence of war. The goal of such an exercise is to be committed not only to have a preferential option for the dispossessed, but also to realise an explicit endorsement of the cause of the suffering people by the international community. Such an action would convince the world that the West does indeed genuinely care for human rights and democracy other than to intervene only when there is oil and other valuable resources. This would be a paradigm shift in international relations and peacemaking. Without fundamental departure from "talk shop" attempts in helping the dispossessed Tamils - all would just be a vitiated moderation.
Posted September 28, 2005