By Professor Alvappillai Veluppillai, 2003


In my view a common thread running through the history of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict in the post-independence period is the Buddhist fear of the Tamil demand for sharing as one nation, two states, and with equal individual opportunity. There is fear on both sides now and there was probably some fear even at the time of independence. In the Tamil perspective, the majority Buddhists and the Sinhalese could have been magnanimous, accommodative, and reassuring. There can be a peaceful solution to the conflict only if this angle is understood.

The ethnic problem in Sri Lanka is curious in that it can be described as a conflict of the Buddhists versus the Tamils. Some foreigners, even some foreign scholars and journalists find it difficult to understand this equation and substitute the Buddhists versus the Hindus. The Sri Lanka Buddhist clergy and laymen target the Tamils and almost never the Hindus as such. The Buddhist monks also spearhead the Sinhala nationalist movements. There is no Hindu clergy counterpart in the Tamil national movement. The Pali chronicles also speak about the Tamil invaders of the Buddhist kingdom, and they refer to the Buddhist kings (even though they could be wicked), who defeated the Tamil kings (even though they might have been righteous), as heroes. Probably self-government is always preferable to good government. What the Buddhists find difficult to digest is that even the Tamils could hold on to this maxim.

Immediately before and after independence, the Buddhists appear to have talked about an inclusive nationalism, as it was directed mainly against foreign rule and the English. By 1956 it became exclusive as it was directed against a perceived domination by the Tamils and possible future domination by Tamils also. The 1972 Constitution went further and focused on Buddhism, obviously to please the Buddhist clergy. The Republic of Sri Lanka were to give Buddhism the foremost place and it became the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana. The 1978 Constitution tried to accommodate the claims of Tamil and English as official languages to some extent but the clause regarding Buddhism was retained in toto. The proposed Constitution of the P.A. government of 2000 tried to make the clause regarding Buddhism, an entrenched clause in the Constitution, requiring a 2/3 majority in parliament and the approval of the country at a referendum for amendment. This also spoke about the setting up of a Supreme Council in consultation with the Maha Sangha and consulting it in all matters pertaining to the protection and fostering of the Buddha Sasana. If this clause were to become an entrenched clause, this could be interpreted in different ways to harm non-Buddhists, especially the Tamils. The government probably calculated that its proposals regarding devolution would not face opposition from the Buddhist clergy, if they found that the clause regarding Buddhism was entrenched in the Constitution.

If this clause were to continue, then the provisions, elsewhere in the proposed constitution, that assure equality of all religions would be incompatible with this, and would therefore become meaningless. Conferring a superior status to the religion of one group of citizens over that of others is of much greater consequence than even the question of what powers would be delegated to the regional councils. Here again, there seems to be a fear to accept the situation that the state should treat all citizens alike. The P.A. government brought forward an Equal Opportunities Bill a couple of years ago in the parliament and then withdrew it because there was much opposition to accepting equal opportunity for all citizens.

The clause giving Buddhism the foremost place among religions in the country and stipulating a duty of the State to foster and protect the Sasana will make the Buddhists who form about 2/3 of the population of the country, practically a high caste ruling elite. The attempt to make it an entrenched clause signifies that a substantial section of the population are very unhappy about this position and they might try to overturn this position and this overturning has to be made very difficult. It is divisive clauses like this that lead to perpetual conflict in a multilingual and multireligious society. The Buddhists can have their organizations to protect and foster the Sasana and contribute to them. It is unfair to force non-Buddhists who form about 1/3 of the population of the country to pay for the pleasure of the other 2/3 of the population. The Buddhist clergy should agree to let the State treat all its citizens and ethnic groups alike.

The difference between the Buddhist and the Tamil perspective

The difference in perspective between the Buddhists and the Tamils about how far back we have to go to bring back peace is very significant. The Buddhists will be suggesting 1976 if not 1983, when the TULF opted for an independent state for the Tamils and when militant movements originated among the Tamils. The Tamils will be suggesting 1948 if not 1956 when tentative steps were taken for the restoration of a Sinhalese Buddhist state. In the Tamil perspective, the Tamils were pushed to the limits of desperation to demand separation and to take up arms in the 1970s. The Sinhalese started to fight against imaginary Tamil separatism in 1957 when the Provincial Council, which Bandaranayake agreed to set up in the North-East (which was much less than Federalism), was blown up as a separate Tamil State by its Sinhalese opponents of the UNP and others. The Sinhalese opponents of the SLFP and others campaigned against imaginary Tamil separatism again in 1968 when Dudley Senanayake agreed to set up District Councils in the North-East.

During the late fifties and the late sixties, some Tamil politicians put forward the claim for a separate state for the Tamils.  C. Suntharalingam, the then popular MP for Vavuniya, was the first to campaign for a separate country in the late fifties. The Tamil FP campaigned against his demand, characterising it as extremism, and soon he lost even his seat. When the District Council bill was abandoned, V. Navaratnam, MP for Kayts, defected from the FP and started the Self-Rule Movement, to establish a separate country for the Tamils. In the 1970 elections, the FP put forward a loyal candidate against him and got him defeated in his electorate. These are instances to show that Tamil nationalism continued to be inclusive. The Tamils continued to have hopes of a fair settlement within a united country.

In the ethnic conflict of Sri Lanka, the issue of majority versus minority is very important. About a fourth of the people speak Tamil. Only about half of them are Tamils of indigenous origin. Regionally the Tamils are the majority in the North-East while the Sinhalese are the majority in the South-West. It is the North-East Tamil majority who have been fighting, trying to remain afloat, without getting lost and losing their identity. They have been putting forward various demands to be able to share power and to have equal opportunity. The history of the ethnic problem during the last six decades could be described as the Tamils trying to share power. Even the demand for separation is an attempt to share the island, if the Buddhists could not agree to share power and wanted to hold on to a virtual Sinhala Buddhist state. 

In the Tamil perspective, which has become hardened after half a century of oppression and two decades of civil war, the Tamils, who could have settled down for compromise solutions in the fifties and the sixties, have begun to feel that they are a people or a nation. They have their own language, culture and historical habitat within the island. They are loyal to their motherland and that is why they have been fighting for the last two decades. If Sinhalese nationalism continues to be exclusive, it is doubtful whether unity will ever return to the island. If Sinhalese nationalism can be inclusive, a genuine attempt must be made to make possible real power-sharing. As a people, the Tamils want to be treated as equals of the Sinhalese, another people. Independence implies equality before the law and equal opportunity in the country. The Tamils believe in the sovereignty of the people. State comes into being by the free will of the people. If the present state caters to one people exclusively, the other people should have a right to establish a state of their own and share the island. The unity of the country and the territorial integrity of the country can be preserved if constitutional arrangements are so made and governments are so carried on as to enable the Tamils to have equality and equal opportunity. In the Tamil perspective, the Buddhist talk about the unity and territorial integrity of the country appears hypocritical because the proper course for establishing the unity of the country is to win over all sections of the people of the country. If all sections of the people of the country can be made to feel they have a stake in the unity of the country, then there will be unity and territorial integrity. The Buddhists want to have the land of the North-East, but not its people. They dont care for the misery of the people there under the long civil war and the prolonged military occupation, if land can be brought under the control of the State and ultimately under their control. Some Buddhist monks perform bodhi pujas and bless the armed forces to bring unity by conquest and military occupation. The Tamils have been at the receiving end of all this; they have been treated as foreign enemies. Military atrocities against the Tamil civilians very rarely received any attention from the State or from the media controlled by the Sinhalese because it was considered unpatriotic to condemn them or to take action against them.

Political demands and pragmatism

The Tamils have put forward various demands during the last 60 years:- fifty- fifty, parity of status, federalism, separation and self-determination. It is too simplistic to say that the Sinhalese are always for unity and the Tamils are always for separation. The Tamils began to demand even federalism rather gradually. What they want is power-sharing and equal opportunity. At the time of the Soulbury Commission in the 1940s, the Tamils demanded fifty-fifty, - 50% representatives for the Sinhalese and 50% representatives for the non-Sinhalese, -a form of balanced representation in a unitary constitution so that the Sinhalese cannot dominate all the others combined. The Buddhist revival under Anagarika Dharmapala has given the Sinhalese the ideology of a Sinhala Buddhist state. The Tamils feared that the Sinhalese would use their political power to oppress other sections of the people of the country. They had a bad experience in 1936 when the Executive Committee system was manipulated to establish a Pan-Sinhalese Ministry. To form a government, the Sinhalese should be able to get the cooperation of at least one or two members from the other communities so that the government will not ride rough-sod over the other communities. The Tamils were thinking primarily of equal opportunity for all individuals and trying to secure that position within the unitary constitution. After independence, the Tamil demand became parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil languages under a unitary constitution. The Tamils felt that parity of status would ensure equality of the speakers of the two main languages of the country as well as equal opportunity for individuals. The Buddhists argued that parity of status would lead to the disappearance of Sinhalese language and as a consequence, of Buddhism itself from the island. This irrational argument swept through the Sinhalese electorate. The major parties opted for Sinhalese only and then the Marxist parties also followed suit later.The Tamils began to vote for the FP in large numbers from 1956 and continued to do so till 1970. Federalism can provide for "one country, two states, and equal opportunity". In the Tamil perspective, the demand for federalism was a Tamil realization that the Sinhalese wanted a restoration of the Sinhalese state and in that set-up there could not be equality of different nationalities and equality of opportunity for all individuals. The demand for a Tamil state was to provide for equality as a nationality. The word state can mean either a country or a unit in a federation. To avoid confusion, country is used for an independent country and state is used for a unit in a federation in this paper. Even after the establishment of a federation, where states will provide for some form of power-sharing, equality of opportunity for individuals in the central or federal government have to be worked out. The unity of a country can be preserved even under a federal constitution. Even though there are many countries with federal constitutions and they remain united, this demand was portrayed to the Sinhalese electorate as a demand for dismemberment of their country. The question of unitary constitution versus federal constitution is really a question of monopoly of power for the Buddhists or the Buddhists sharing power with the other groups. The Sinhalese leaders and the Buddhist clergy vehemently opposed the federal demand, equating it to separation. Any gain to the Tamils is portrayed as a loss to the Sinhalese. As the Tamils were demanding federalism, it was perceived as an evil to which the Sinhalese should never agree. The Buddhists have never made an attempt to understand federalism or to explain the concept of federalism to the Sinhalese electorate. But the Tamil leaders were not at all intransigent. They were ready to settle for much less, when the relationship between the two peoples had not yet been embittered by a long drawn out conflict. The Federal Party tried to be pragmatic and tried to make compromises. In 1957, it came to an agreement with Bandaranayake known as the Bandaranayake - Chelvanayagam Pact. A form of provincial autonomy for the North-East with Tamil as the administrative language was found to be agreeable for both leaders. Though it was far short of federalism, the Federal Party was willing to compromise in the interests of peace and asked the Tamil people to accept it as an interim measure. This provincial autonomy could have been established under a unitary constitution. The compromise solution was portrayed by the U.N.P. as a betrayal of the Sinhalese to the Tamils and as giving away of 1/3 of the country to the Tamils. The Buddhist monks marched to Bandaranayakes residence and demanded that Bandaranayake abrogate the Pact. Bandaranayake obliged them and an opportunity for peace was lost. The Tamil leadership climbed down to be pragmatic. But the result was nothing.

The Federal Party tried to be kingmaker twice in the 1960s to find justice for the Tamils. In the1960 March elections, neither of the two main parties obtained an absolute majority. The UNP, with the largest number of seats, formed the government. The SLFP obtained the support of the Federal Party to defeat the government, promising to redress the Tamil grievances. In the 1960 July elections, the SLFP came to power with an absolute majority and formed the government. There were talks between the government and the FP but the government was not prepared for any compromise solution. This effort of the Tamil leadership resulted in nothing again.

In the 1965 elections there was a stalemate in the parliament again and this time the UNP with the largest number of seats came to an agreement with the FP, known as the Dudley Senanayake Chelvanayagam Pact. In return for giving full support to the government, Dudley Senanayake agreed to District level autonomy with Tamil as the administrative language in the North-East. The FP agreed to have much less than even what Bandaranayake offered in 1957. Instead of a big provincial council in the North-East with administration in Tamil, the new scheme envisaged the already existing districts in the North-East to have local assemblies, with elected representatives, conducting their affairs in Tamil. This arrangement could have worked under a unitary set-up. Though there were serious misgivings among a section of the Federal Party that it was too little, the party leaders argued that the Tamils should accept it, and then try to build on it in the future. When the District Councils bill came up for debate in 1969, the then opposition and a section of the government opposed it strongly, using the arguments which the UNP used in 1957. The Buddhist clergy was at the fore-front, demanding the rejection of the bill. They were not willing to betray the Sinhalese to the Tamils and they should not hand over 1/3 of the country to the Tamils. Dudley Senanayake could not stand up to the pressure from the extremists and withdrew the bill. Again, the Tamils gained nothing.

Another important opportunity to redress the Tamil grievances had been missed. Disillusionment with the parliamentary method of redressing Tamil grievances grew among the Tamils.

Ethnic majoritarianism and corrupt rule

Sri Lanka is sometimes described as a democracy, and the Tamils have been advised to choose the democratic way to solve their problems. It is true that Sri Lanka has periodic elections and frequent changes of government between the two major parties. There is very little democracy, however, except for periodic elections. Election campaigns and elections are generally violent and corrupt, especially since the infamous referendum of 1982. Except for short periods, the country has been under emergency rule for the past three decades when all normal individual human rights are suspended. The draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979 which targets the Tamils in practice, overrides all individual freedoms. The principle of majority rule in a democratic society has been abused to justify ethnic majority rule. Ethnic majoritarianism has been so well entrenched among the major parties from 1956 that there is no scope for minorities to get justice through parliamentary methods. More than half a century of so-called democracy in Sri Lanka give the Tamils no hope. The Sri Lanka Muslim Muslim Congress has emerged recently as a very important political party. It is almost the king-maker in Sri Lanka politics during the last decade. There is some resentment about their influence and power, especially among some Buddhist nationalist elements of the affected parties. The solution they suggest is that the two major parties should form a coalition government to thwart the minorities wielding power. What they dont seem to visualize is that it will lead to perpetual conflict and may open a third front of war, in addition to the present Tamil front.

There is a point in the argument that a minority party should not be allowed to dictate terms and unfair demands when it becomes the king-maker. The problem arises from the fact that the major parties become in effect Sinhala Buddhist parties, looking after the interests of the majority community only. There are many countries with multi-party democracy. But there are very few multi-lingual multi-religious countries where compartmentalization of political forces on ethnic lines is so deep as in Sri Lanka. This situation indicates a serious malady in the political structure. The major political parties should so formulate their policies and programs that at least large sections of the other ethnic groups can feel satisfied.

The Demand for a federal constitution

When the country became independent, the UNP government took certain steps which made a section of the Tamils suspicious. D.S. started many colonization schemes in the Eastern Province, starting the process of settling a large number of Sinhalese, changing the demographic nature of the province. He also disenfrancised the entire Tamil community of Indian origin, who had voting rights before Sri Lanka became independent. It appeared a betrayal in a sense as the representatives of that community stood with D. S. Senanayake in voting in the State Council. But in the 1947 elections, they had Ceylon Indian Congress, a party of their own, and they also helped in the election of left-wing politicians. There was controversy over the question of the national flag for Sri Lanka. The minorities feared that the restoration of a flag with lion having a sword in its paw symbolised the restoration of the Sinhalese kingdom, ready to use force to subjugate the Tamils. A Parliamentary Committee went into this question and the present national flag was adopted by a majority vote, with one of the two Tamil representatives refusing to accept the flag. Why I mention this is to show that on matters like this, something could have been done to adopt a flag, other than a terrorizing lion with a raised sword, ready to attack.

Some members of the Tamil Congress defected from their party which was then supporting the government, saw dangerous signals in these trends and formed the Federal Party in 1949 to press for a Tamil State in the Tamil dominated North-East within a Federal set-up and to press for citizenship for the Indian origin Tamil community. It is interesting to see how the Tamil community voted in the 1952 elections. Even though sections of the Tamil community had misgivings, the Federal Party had only two members elected and the vast majority of the voters in the North-East voted for Tamil Congress, U.N.P., and independents. The election result was an indication that the Tamil people were willing to settle for "one country and equal opportunity" in a unitary constitution. The Tamil voters were willing to sacrifice on some important issues and hoped that they might be able to benefit in some other issues.

Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranayake, who was formerly the leader of the Sinhala Mahasabha, broke away from the U.N.P. in 1951 and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. The party had a nationalist agenda, but at the beginning his nationalism was inclusive. His declared aim was to replace English with Sinhalese and Tamil as official languages of the country. The title of his party is intriguing. The frequently used name of the country was Lanka or Lankava. Even though the name Sri Lanka was recorded in Medieval times, it was not a popular name. The epithet sri has many meanings; it could mean holy or sacred Lanka as well. The question arises as to whom it is sacred or holy. It is quite possible that he wanted to make the country holy or sacred to the Buddhists. New converts are always over-enthusiastic to establish their credentials. Bandaranayake, who was a convert from Anglican Christianity (his family enjoying all privileges by being close to the British rulers)to Buddhism, probably wanted to make this country sacred to the Buddhists. Even the significance of the word Freedom in the title of his party is not clear because Sri Lanka was already an independent country when he formed his party. The nationalist rhetoric of the party soon lapsed into exclusivism, excluding not only English but also Tamil. Sinhala as the only official language, with reasonable use of Tamil became the policy of his party. There was a popular wave of support for this party among the Sinhalese. The UNP which had already promised parity of status for Sinhalese and Tamil, was in jitters. It thought that it could come to power only by taking a stand even more extreme than the SLFP. The U.N.P. adopted the Sinhalese only slogan, omitting mention of any place for Tamil. Tamil ministers and members of parliament resigned en bloc from the U.N.P. From this time onward both major parties ceased to accommodate Tamil interests. In the1956 elections, the U.N.P. was routed because the Sinhalese electorate distrusted its last minute change of policy. D. S. Senanayakes disenfranchisement of Indian Tamil voters helped Bandaranayake in a big way because electorates with a majority or a substantial Indian Tamil stateless disenfranchised population, elected Bandaranayakes Sinhala only nationalists. In order to defeat the U.N.P., the Sinhalese electorate elected some L.S.S.P. and C.P. members who had some electoral understanding with Bandaranayake, even though these parties continued to stand for parity of status for both languages. All the 16 representatives from the North-East, who were either Tamil or Muslim, plus the representatives of the two left parties, making up 32, opposed the Sinhala only Bill. The U.N.P. was with the government and the Bill got 66 votes. Dr. N. M. Perera and Dr. Colvin R. De. Silva, the leftist leaders, made eloquent speeches that the adoption of this language policy would destroy national unity. The Sinhala-only Act divided the country into two distinct regions, the North-East and the South-West. This division of the country manifested itself dramatically in 1958 when there were massive anti-Tamil riots in the South-West. The Tamils in the North-East, except in the recent colonization scheme areas, were safe. Tamils from the South-West had to be transported to the North-East for their safety till the return of normalcy. The concept of the need for a Tamil state received much boost from this experience. B. H. Farmer, who was studying the developments in the island, wrote a book under the title, Ceylon- A Divided Nation. The de facto division of the country had taken place in 1956. A refusal to face realities has been going on for nearly half a century.

The Federal Party emerged as the Tamil nationalist party, winning ten seats out of sixteen from the North-East. Since they felt they were not strong enough to block the Sinhala only Bill in the parliament, they opted for some extra-parliamentary forms of passive resistance. They wanted to use Gandhis satyagraha method, a kind of sit-in and fasting in front of the parliament building. The peaceful protesting Tamil leaders were manhandled by thugs. The thugs were not identified, but they must have been Sinhala nationalists, and possibly Buddhists.

Having realized that passive resistance was not understood in the South-West, the Federal Party and some other Tamil leaders adopted passive resistance in 1961 in the North-East. Satyagraha was organized in front of government offices. They declared that these offices could work only if Tamil grievances were attended to. As thugs could not go all the way to disrupt the satyagraha, the Srimavo Bandaranayake government sent the armed forces to disperse the movement and to arrest the Tamil leaders. The government thus succeeded in crushing the passive resistance. What happened in 1956 and in 1961 indicated that passive resistance on the model of Gandhi could not work when Sri Lanka Buddhists were the opponents.

The 1970 elections brought the United Front government, led by SLFP to power with a two-third majority. The government took two big steps which led to a crisis situation. The government introduced media wise standardization of marks for the university entrance examination, with the clear aim of disadvantaging the Tamils. The government also convened a constituent assembly to draw up a suitable constitution. The FP was invited to participate and to present proposals for the new constitution. The FP proposed various measures to redress the Tamil grievances. Their proposals were rejected in toto and a constitution, acceptable only to the UF government, was promulgated in 1972. The Tamils felt that they were pushed beyond the margin. This constitution was short-lived because it was overhauled by the UNP government in 1978 when it had 5/6 majority in the parliament. The UNP, which promised to redress the Tamil grievances in its election manifesto of 1977, made no effort at all to accommodate the Tamil demands in the new constitution. The TULF proposed various amendments to accommodate Tamil grievances but they were summarily rejected, as in 1972. The government started talks with the TULF, which received a mandate for a separate state from the Tamil electorates, and introduced District Development Councils. This appeared too little to many Tamils and the LTTE. Even then the SLFP opposed it as giving too much to the Tamils. Elections were held in 1981 and in the North-East, the TULF won all the districts except Amparai. High expectations of the Tamils turned into huge disappointments as the government neither voted sufficient money for them nor allowed them the power to tax on their own. So the District Development Council as a solution to the ethnic problem turned out to be a practical joke.

The Demand for a seperate country

As there seems to be no way out for the Tamils to have power-sharing and equal opportunity in a united country, the Tamil demand has become leave us alone in our land. If the Tamils could not share power and if they could not have equality, they wanted to establish a country in the land where they were in a majority so that they could enjoy freedom. The Tamils have been influenced by modern political ideas. This is a step in desperation, from a people who felt profound alienation. The situation of the Tamils then and the demand for a separate country, can be understood in the following preamble of the American Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776:

We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are endowed with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The French Revolution of 1789 has emphasized the importance of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The Marxist thinkers also argue that nationalities cannot be subjugated permanently by force.

The demand was a way of giving notice that if the centralised unitary Sinhala Buddhist framework could not be dismantled, the Tamil people should use their sovereignty to establish a separate country. The Buddhists do not want to share the island with the Tamils in two independent countries also. In fact they started fighting against an imaginary Tamil country in 1957 even before any Tamil thought of demanding a separate country. They say that peace in the island is possible only if the Tamils give up the demand for a separate country. The Tamils, including the LTTE, have been proclaiming again and again that the demand for a separate country is negotiable if a proper alternative constitutional arrangement were proposed. The Buddhist groups which demand the Tamils to give up separation, are not at all willing to go half the way. No Buddhist leader of consequence has said till now that he is prepared to accept federalism, even though it is well-known that federalism preserves unity, integrity and sovereignty of many countries. There is a clear attempt among Sinhalese politicians to confuse and mislead what political structure they could accept. They tell the international community and the Tamils that anything short of a separate country could be discussed during negotiations. They tell the Sinhalese electorate that they would settle for any solution within a unitary constitution. It is a calculated attempt at deception which could lead to trouble soon. Devolution within a unitary constitution cannot provide real power-sharing. The equal opportunity for individuals is possible in a unitary set up but such a set up has been so abused for more than half a century that Tamils will not trust it again. When India intervened in the ethnic conflict in 1987, Indian lawyers came to Colombo and helped the Sri Lanka government to draft devolution proposals. When these proposals were submitted to parliament, the Supreme Court deleted some provisions because they were inconsistent with the unitary nature and the entrenched clauses of the constitution. The parliament passed the other provisions as the thirteenth amendment to the constitution. Sri Lanka now has many elected provincial councils and administrations, but they have very little power and authority, except concurrent powers with the central government. Some of the Buddhist liberals who stand for the solution of more devolution under a unitary constitution, want to continue a set up similar to this. It is an extended version of the 1981 District Development Council scheme. It is an irony that the provincial council scheme, which came into being to give some autonomy to the North-East, functions everywhere in the island except in the North-East.

In 1995, the PA government introduced devolution proposals which tried to bypass this shortcoming. The government omitted provisions referring to unitary nature; Prof. G. L. Pieris explained that it was done purposely so as to enable devolution to work. The LTTE rejected it as too little, while the TULF welcomed it and suggested that some improvements be made to meet Tamil aspirations. There was a hue and cry among the Buddhists and the Sinhalese, and the government started the process of strengthening the unitary character of the constitutional arrangements and continued to do so in its subsequent reformulations. The PA government introduced its latest proposals in parliament in 2000. The TULF and other Tamil political parties were thoroughly disillusioned with the new proposals while there was opposition from some Buddhists even a Buddhist monk threatening to fast and die that so much of devolution should not be given to the Tamils.

The divide between what the governments have been offering till now and what the Tamils demand seems to be so big that it is necessary to agree on some basics before any meaningful negotiations can take place. In the India sponsored peace talks in Thimpu in 1986, the Tamil party including all important militant groups like the LTTE, came out with the Thimpu principles, specifying the acceptance of the concepts of Tamil homeland, Tamil nationality, and self-determination for the Tamils as basics on which a political solution acceptable to the Tamils could be worked out. In the Tamil perception, these are all essentials if the Tamils were to feel free and secure in Sri Lanka.

Why do the Tamils ask for self-determination when the government is prepared to give devolution is a question frequently asked. One of the arguments advanced against self-determination is that it could lead to separation or something unacceptable to the other peoples of the island. It is correct that the ethnic problem could be solved only if there is consensus among major sections of the other peoples. There is no point in going for a solution if that solution could be overturned in the foreseeable future. Many attempts have already been made to evolve a solution acceptable to all the parties. To forestall Indian attempts to impose a settlement, J. R. Jayawardane convened an all-party conference in 1985. In addition to political parties, the Buddhist clergy was also invited. The Buddhist clergy adopted a totally uncooperative attitude about devolving power to the Tamils, and nothing came out of this effort. R. Premadasa appointed a Select Committee of Parliament. This committee made some proposals but they were not at all satisfying to the Tamils. Again, nothing came out of this effort also. As already noted, the PA governments proposals for reform of the constitution to accommodate Tamil aspirations floundered between 1995 and 2000 in the same way. It should be now clear that no solution acceptable to the Tamils could be found in this way. The only sensible approach seems to be for the Tamils to decide what they want and then for the other parties to put in place some safeguards to preserve the unity of the country. Another reason why the Tamils ask for self-determination is what one Sri Lanka government offers could be taken away by another Sri Lanka government. The Tamils want to feel that they are equal partners to the constitution and that they form part of the country on their free will and not because they could not throw off the military occupation. The Tamils look forward for the recognition of their rights; they dont beg for gifts or grants.

What worries the Tamils most is that up till now no Buddhist leader of consequence has come out with the statement that Tamil aspirations are just. Some Buddhists appear to be believing that modern independent Sri Lanka is the restoration of medieval Sinhalese kingdom which should be governed as it was then. At the time of independence in 1948, about 90% of the people of the North-East were Tamil speakers. At every election from 1956, it is clear that Sri Lanka is divided, Tamils in the North-East expressing aspirations different from the rest of the island. As the number of Tamil representatives is small, their aspirations are ignored consistently. The Sinhalese are settled in large numbers to change the demographic pattern and to elect representatives who will help to keep the Tamils in check. The Tamils are not simply a minority but a people or a nationality having a historical habitat. The Tamils, having a territory of their own, make a big difference. There are many independent countries in the world today, with a territory smaller than the North-East and with a population smaller than the North-East. The Tamils have been able to carry on the war so long because they have a territory and the militants have mass support in that territory. The Buddhist leaders do not care for the misery of the Tamil people when their territory became the war zone. They wax eloquently on the unity of the country but not on the unity of the peoples of the country. The Tamil representatives, through their long experience in parliament, realize that they cannot deliver anything to the Tamils. Extra-parliamentary passive resistance can be crushed by brute force, as seen in 1956 and 1961.

The peace process

The peace process is on and the government is trying to negotiate a peaceful settlement. There is some sort of military stalemate in the war front and the country is in serious financial difficulties. The international community appears to be pushing both sides to negotiate a peaceful solution. Some Buddhist leaders want the government to use proscription of the LTTE and normalization of life in the North-East as bargaining points so that Tamil aspirations will not become the focus of negotiations. The question is frequently asked how could you trust the LTTE. Those who question dont care that for the Tamils, it is a question of how could any Sinhalese leader of consequence be trusted. Speaking on the Sinhala Only Bill in parliament in 1956, Dr. N. M. Perera asked how the Tamils could trust any Sinhalese leader as they had betrayed their trust many times. Even he betrayed the trust of the Tamils after a decade. Periodically, many Buddhist leaders have raised the hopes of the Tamils; everybody has backed out in the face of extremist threats or the lure of cabinet portfolios. Perceptive Tamils are still skeptical of the future because so many hindrances are still possible in the three stages of the process. The 2001 elections as well as what is happening among the Tamils recently clearly indicate that a vast majority of Tamils pin their hopes on the LTTE to negotiate on their behalf. Normalcy to the North-East must return, and the LTTE must be deproscribed if some trust were to be built up between the two sides. A radical political solution has to be worked out. It has to be incorporated into the constitution. The constitution has to be implemented. The second and the third stages of the process cannot be accomplished if the two major parties do not adopt a bipartisan attitude. There could be a big gap between incorporation in the constitution and implementation at the ground level. Though the present constitution provides for the use of Tamil language, complaints continue that the provision relating to Tamil is not properly implemented. Tamils who dont know Sinhalese are forced to transact business in Sinhalese and even forced to sign Sinhalese legal documents. What has been accomplished so far in the peace process is the preliminary step of signing a memorandum of understanding for a permanent ceasefire. So much noise is made against it by the JVP and a section of the Buddhist clergy that it is clear that extraordinary statesmanship and courage among political leaders will be needed at every stage of the long peace process.

The Tamils remain skeptical even now because of the retention of the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979. This draconian act which suspends all individual rights for anybody suspected of being a terrorist or aiding a terrorist has been used by the government for indefinite detention of suspects in prisons, where some of them are beaten up, tortured and killed. Cases have not been instituted against many of them because there are no cases, but only suspicions. After suffering so long, they sometimes start hunger strikes, demanding that they should either be released or tried in courts. This Act brings untold sufferings to the Tamil civilians but very ineffective in preventing Tamil militancy which it characterises as terrorism. When this Act was passed, there were only two militant movements- the LTTE and the PLOTE- with their membership, not even reaching a hundred. Militant movements mushroomed after 1983. The LTTE continues to prosper till today. So it is clear that it is worthless in controlling militancy. It has only served to inflict inhuman and degrading punishments on Tamil civilians who are suspects. The Tamils find it difficult to understand the merits in having an excellent constitution with a wonderful chapter on fundamental rights, if the PTA can override all the rights. The LTTE has released many times, its prisoners who had been fighting against it. The government still cannot make up its mind on releasing long suffering prisoner suspects, against whom it has no cases, because they are detained under the PTA. It is amazing that the Buddhists, who claim that ahimsa/ non-violence is the prime virtue of their religion, do not care for the misery of Tamil civilians.

One of the arguments used by some persons from the ethnic majority for opposing regional autonomy for the Tamils is that in that case the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils could also ask for it and the majority Sinhalese could not give away so much of the country to the minorities. In addition to many other factors, in the Tamil perception, some persons from the ethnic majority have encouraged the other two communities to raise their demands so that they could be used as a counter-weight to weaken the demands of the Tamils. The Tamil speaking Muslims of the East, who form about a third of the population there, want to secure their position. The Muslims in the East are not concentrated in a contiguous territory; their villages and towns intermingle with Tamil villages and towns. So it will not be possible to have separate territorial units for the Tamils and the Tamil speaking Muslims. Some safeguards for them should be worked out during negotiations on substantive issues when their representatives should also take part.


The principle guiding the future constitution of the country should be equality for all groups and individuals. This should try to establish equal opportunity for all individuals. This aim could have been achieved easily under a unitary constitution. But the opportunity was sadly missed. The distrust that has grown among the Tamils for almost half a century by the oppressive use of the unitary constitution will not allow them to accept empty verbose promises and platitudes. There should be checks and balances to see that an ethnic majority does not take over everything into its hands once more and try to consolidate its power by military conquest and occupation in the name of unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of the country.

The process of negotiation with the LTTE could be difficult. The sweeping victory of the TNA in the 2001 elections in the Tamil electorates of the North-East is an endorsement of their election manifesto that the LTTE should be the sole representative of the Tamils during the peace process. Half a century of political experience has convinced many Tamil political parties - most of whom suffered at the hands of the LTTE at one time or another- that there was no other way to come to a just settlement of the ethnic problem. The LTTE reason for the failure of previous negotiations is that the previous governments treated them as just another group or party and evaded discussion of important issues as equals. But the government, the Buddhists, and the Sinhalese have one big advantage in negotiating with the LTTE. If an agreeable political solution could be worked out and implemented and the LTTE made to have a stake in the administration of the country, one can be sure that the settlement will hold, at least as far as the Tamils are concerned.

The Journal of Buddhist Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 10 2003








Posted October 12, 2004