Prof. Singer 1992: Sri Lanka’s Tamil-Sinhalese Ethnic Conflict

Alternative Solutions

by Marshall Singer, Asian Survey, Vol. XXXII, No.6, (University of California Press), August 1992

Marshall R. Singer is Professor in the Graduate School of Public
and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh. This article is a version of a paper
presented at the Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting, April 1992, Washington,

Warfare between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in Sri
Lanka has been going on, with varying degrees of intensity, since the late
1970s. Thousands of young fighters on both sides have been killed, as well
as tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children who happened
to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The ethnic conflict, while
centuries old, has not always been violent.
Depending on one’s political predilection, the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict
can be dated from the first South Indian invasions a thousand years ago, or
one can move into recent times and point to the situation at independence
from Britain in 1948. When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505,
they found separate Tamil kingdoms in the northern and eastern parts of
the island and separate Sinhalese kingdoms in the south and in the
Kandyan hills. Thus, it is difficult to argue that Sri Lanka is not now
home to the Tamils as well as to the majority Sinhalese. By the time of
independence, the Tamils held positions in the upper civil service and the
professions far in excess of their proportion in the population. Again, de-
pending on viewpoint, the Tamil position then could be explained as the
consequence of British colonial efforts to divide and rule, or it could be
because nothing much grows in the northern area and ambitious Tamils
took to education and the jobs in the colonial system that could be had by
those who were educated in English. So while it is true that the Tamils
were very much over-represented in the most sought-after jobs at the time
of independence, it is also true that Prime Minister S. W. R. D.

c. 1992 by The Regents of the University of California

Banaranaike’s “Sinhalese Only” language policy of 1956 was intended to
remove Tamils from those positions and open them up for Sinhalese.
Over the years, a number of agreements have been worked out between
the Tamil leaders and the Sinhalese-dominated governments of the day,
but in each case Sinhalese chauvinists immediately accused these inher-
ently weak governments of “selling out the Sinhalese people” and the lat-
ter reneged on the agreements within days of signing them. Eventually,
the Tamils-especially the young-became disillusioned with the political
process and decided that meaningful change for their people could only
come about in Tamil Eelam, that is, their own separate country, and that
the only way to get it was by the bullet. Peaceful Tamil protests in the
1950s and 1960s had accomplished nothing. There were “race riots” in
1956, 1958, 1978, and finally the worst in July 1983 in which 1,000 inno-
cent Tamils were killed and tens of thousands made homeless. These facts
account for the durability of the most militant and uncompromising of the
Tamil resistance groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
This article considers the obstacles to a resolution of the conflict from
both Sinhalese and Tamil perspectives, examines the factors pushing the
parties toward a settlement, and then looks at alternative solutions. At the
extreme right of a theoretical continuum, we have a completely unitary
state, which is what the Sinhalese extremists want Sri Lanka to be; at the
extreme left is a totally independent Tamil Eelam, which is what the
LTTE wants. In between there exists an almost endless variety of options.
The analysis concludes that the two extremes are irreconcilable and that
neither has the power to impose its desired solution on the other. It is
inevitable that eventually there must be some devolution of power to a
level of government below the center, and it is suggested that the parties
recognize reality and act accordingly.
The Provincial Council system is already in place, constitutionally, and
it is extremely unlikely that anyone in the near future would be able to
muster the two-thirds vote in Parliament necessary to change the Constitu-
tion. Therefore, it is argued that the combatants should recognize that
reality and use provincial councils as a starting point to negotiate the spe-
cifics of the power to be devolved to the local level. Once an agreement is
reached, the government must assume responsibility for implementing and
enforcing it. Only then can peace be achieved.

Obstacles to a Solution
The Sinhalese
First of all, the Sinhalese have simply never understood the concept of
“federalism.” They insist that Sri Lanka is one indivisible island and that
to introduce federalism would be to divide it. The more suspicious among
them, of course, believe that federalism is just the first step toward total
independence for the Tamils. Hence, they oppose it. In addition, the
Sinhalese see Sri Lanka as belonging to them-the Tamils can always go
back to India “where they came from,” the more chauvinistic among them
would argue, while the Sinhalese have nowhere else to go. Many of them
regard Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese Buddhist entity unique in the world and
the Tamils as interlopers who either have to assimilate to Sinhalese culture
or get out.
Second, there are two major Sinhalese political parties, the ruling
United National Party (UNP) and the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom
Party (SLFP). As Donald Horowitz has rightly observed, when two major
ethnic parties compete for the allegiance of the same ethnic group, any
concession by the party in power will be seized upon by the party out of
power as a sign of weakness, and again, of “selling out our people.”1I That
is exactly what has been continually happening in Sri Lanka. Indeed, the
SLFP itself was formed when Bandaranaike and some of his supporters
pulled out of the UNP, complaining that the party was not doing enough
for the Sinhalese Buddhists.
Third, the government apparently now believes that it can wipe out the
Tigers, the last remaining Tamil militant group fighting against it. Be-
cause of the isolated position in which the LTTE currently finds itself,
there is no doubt that the government can deal the organization a very-
heavy blow. Whether it can be wiped out, however, remains very much in
doubt. And fourth, virtually no Sinhalese group trusts the LTTE. They
believe that the Tigers might be willing to make deals but will break an
agreement when it suits their purposes to do so.

The Tamils
First, most Tamils do not trust Sinhalese promises, a fact that caused the
rise of Tamil militancy in the first place. Too many agreements have been
broken, too many promises of “devolution of power” or “autonomy” have
been made but not honored.
Second, the Tamils are even more divided, politically, than the
Sinhalese. At the height of the Tamil militancy there were at least five
major militant groups and at least 32 factions among them. Moderate
Tamils, for a time, banded into one umbrella organization called the Tamil
United Liberation Front (TULF), but that really represented a number of
different, competing factions. The LTTE is the oldest, largest, and most
1. Donald L. Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1985).
radical of the militant groups, and its members have killed many people
belonging to other militant groups whom they accuse of not being sincere
about their adherence to the concept of Tamil Eelam. Moderates who
have expressed a willingness to compromise with the Sinhalese have also
been killed by the LTTE, accused of being traitors to the Tamil cause.
Young Tamil militants who have survived LTTE attacks on their groups
accuse the Tigers of being power-hungry fanatics who, in their efforts to
aggrandize their own group, have turned on their brothers in the Tamil
movement. It should also be noted that caste is still an important consid-
eration, at least among older-generation Tamils, and many of the young
men who have joined the various militant groups are of lower caste than
are the traditional Tamil elites. The EPRLF (Eelam People’s Revolution-
ary Liberation Front) is one of the major Tamil militant groups now fight-
ing the LTTE. It had its origins in the Eastern rather than in the
Northern Province, the home of the LTTE, and while the Indian Peace
Keeping Force was in Sri Lanka (from July 1987 to March 1990) it made
every effort to build up the EPRLF as a viable alternative to the Tigers.
Third, up to now, the LTTE has demanded (a) nothing short of com-
plete Tamil independence, and (b) that it be the only voice of the Tamil
people. Moderates and other militant Tamils who have survived LTTE
attacks believe the Tigers will kill them at the first opportunity. Simila
the LTTE sincerely believes that if it disarms its members, a host of angry
Tamils (as well as revengeful Indians and Sinhalese) will come after them
and kill them. Thus, one of the government’s major problems throughout
the fighting has been to find Tamils who can legitimately claim to talk for
other Tamils. The moderates tried and were killed. Other militant groups
tried and were killed. The LTTE has sometimes tried, but the other
groups refuse to let the LTTE represent them on its own. Until the Tamils
can get together enough to field a joint negotiating team, it will be virtually
impossible to reach a settlement. There also can be no settlement until the
LTTE recognizes that it does not have either the political or military
strength to unilaterally impose Tamil Eelam on Sri Lanka.
Fourth, virtually no Tamils, aside from LTTE supporters, trust the
LTTE to adhere to any deal it makes. And fifth, all Tamil militant groups
believe that the “Tamil homeland” must be treated as one political unit.
This means a permanent merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces, as
the boundaries are now defined. They have been temporarily merged
under the terms of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accords of July 1989, but the
proposed referendum to confirm that merger has never been held. Inter-
estingly, it would appear that the more moderate Tamils really do not care
whether the two provinces are merged, but many Sinhalese are prepared to
fight to the death to keep them separate. Sinhalese constitute one-third of
the Eastern Province population, and needless to say, they are not happy
about the prospect of being included in a Tamil-dominated North-East
Province. In addition, although they speak the Tamil language, the Mus-
lims of the East also are anxious about becoming a permanent minority in
a province in which the overwhelming majority would be Tamil.

Factors Pushing the Parties Toward Settlement
The vast majority of the ordinary Tamil people are tired of the fighting.
Their lives and livelihoods have been completely disrupted, and there is
hardly a family that has been spared the loss of a loved one or a home that
has not been damaged or destroyed. More of the same seems to be on the
horizon, and the general Tamil population clearly wants it to end. The
Sinhalese are also tiring of civil war, less so than the Tamils perhaps, be-
cause it doesn’t touch them as directly. But Sinhalese soldiers are still
being killed, civilians pushed out of their villages by Tamil militants are
still living in camps, afraid to return to their homes, and money that
should be used to develop the country is going instead to the war effort.
The donor nations who give Sri Lanka millions for development each year
(US$455 million in 1991 alone) are running out of patience. With many
other countries begging for development money, donors do not have to
provide funds to a country that spends enormous sums of its own money
(US$1 million per day, at one point) fighting a war against part of its own
Even the LTTE may now be willing to discuss a settlement short of total
Eelam (if true, this would be a complete reversal of its stance) because it
now finds itself almost completely isolated. The Tigers have entered into
talks with the Sinhalese before but have turned on them in the middle of
the discussions for reasons that seem inexplicable to the Sinhalese. The
Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) came to Sri Lanka in 1987 thinking
to disarm all of the militants and, by its presence on the island, force the
Sinhalese to implement the Indo-Sri Lankan Accords calling for a consid-
erable degree of devolution of power to provincial councils, in particular
the now merged North-East Provincial Council. From India’s perspective,
it was doing the Tamils a favor and giving them, if not Eelam, at least a
form of federalism that many of them were very willing to accept. But the
LTTE was not willing to accept that solution and it turned on the IPKF.
By March 1990, when the Indian force withdrew from Sri Lanka, at
least a thousand Indian soldiers had been killed and thousands more in-
jured. No one who is not a part of the LTTE knows for sure how many of
its “boys” were killed in the fighting, but it had to have been a large
number. If all of that did not alienate the Indians enough, Delhi now
seems to have fairly conclusive evidence that the LTTE was responsible for
the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, and it seems to be prepared to go to
court to prove it. This, in effect, completes the LTTE’s isolation. (It is
ironical that almost all of the militant groups, including the Tigers, were
armed and trained in India in the early days of the movement and used it
as a safe sanctuary until 1989.) Not only are the Sri Lankan armed forces
now coming after the Tigers, but so are remnants of the other militant
groups whom the LTTE had previously tried to eliminate. What is likely
to happen is that the Tigers will simply make themselves scarce in the
jungle while the government troops play cat and mouse looking for them.
Their leaders, including Prabakaran, may already be out of the country.
The LTTE may not want to settle for anything short of Eelam, but it sim-
ply does not have the military or political power to get it. Whether it now
recognizes that reality remains to be seen.
It would appear that President Premadasa desperately wants a settle-
ment well in advance of the next presidential elections, scheduled for 1994.
First, it would be a major achievement if he could go down in history as
the president who brought peace after all the years of fighting. However,
he would not be willing to be known as the one who agreed to the dismem-
berment of Sri Lanka, and thus any devolution acceptable to him must be
one in which he is perceived by the Sinhalese to have preserved the integ-
rity of Sri Lanka as a unitary state. Second, he wants Sri Lanka to get on
with its economic development. Premadasa seems convinced that he can
turn Sri Lanka, if not into the Singapore, then certainly into the Malaysia
of the Indian Ocean. Even now, with the war still going on, economic
growth is continuing, tourists have been coming back, and Chinese inves-
tors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore all are looking at Sri
Lanka’s potential for investment-provided that stability can be ensured.
Hence, a peaceful settlement is very important.
India wants a settlement, short of Eelam to be sure, but a settlement
nevertheless. There are those in Sri Lanka who believe that the Indians do
not want to see the ethnic crisis ended, that India perceives it to be in its
own interest to have Sri Lanka destabilized so that its government will
eventually have to come to Delhi and ask for help. But this is conspiracy
theory, and there is better reason to believe that the Indians see their best
interests served by having a peaceful Sri Lanka as their southern neighbor.
It is also in India’s interest to see that the Tamil population in Sri Lanka is
relatively happy with whatever arrangement is ultimately worked out, due
to the concerns of the people of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Alternative Solutions
Whatever alternative is finally agreed upon to end the fighting in Sri
Lanka, there is no question but that it will include devolution of some
political power to some Tamil region or regions. The questions are: How
much political power, and to which region or regions? Most of the talk
about devolution of power has been in terms of “giving the Tamils some-
thing.” Very few people refer to it in terms of all the people who live in Sri
Lanka sharing in that devolution. Sri Thillaiamplam, head of the Boston-
based Tamil Eelam Association of America (one of the most moderate of
Tamil expatriate organizations), has been saying for years that federalism,
in order to work, has to be for everyone-not just for Tamils. He sup-
ported President Jayewardene’s Provincial Council scheme as a first step
toward federalism precisely because it proposed a devolution of political
power to all provinces. But he is relatively isolated in that approach, and
most people who think about the problem think only about devolution to
Tamil areas. That may eventually change.
One can envision devolution as points along a continuum, depending on
how much power is actually transferred to a governmental unit at a level
lower than the center. At one end would be a unitary state with virtually
no local autonomy, except perhaps for garbage collection and similar ac-
tivities. At the other extreme would be a completely independent Tamil
Eelam, with no ties whatever between it and what was left of Sri Lanka.
An almost endless variety of options range between the two, and the key
factors are (1) how much power is actually devolved, and (2) the size of
the unit being given power.
With regard to the degree of power devolved, the questions that have to
be resolved include, for example:

Is the unit going to have its own police force and/or army? If yes, who
will control the hiring and firing of these people? In what language is
the business of government and the courts to be conducted? Will the
unit be allowed to have its own court system? If yes, who will appoint
the judges? Who will decide questions of land and land settlement?
How much power will the central government have over the operation
of the government in the unit? If the center doesn’t like the government
of the unit, can it remove that government? Under what conditions?
Will there be conditions under which the center will be allowed to rule
the unit directly? What will be the language of instruction in the
schools? Will the unit be allowed to have commercial representation
abroad? Will it be allowed to have diplomatic representation? Will it
have a separate currency? Will it be tied economically in some way to
the central government? These and thousands of questions like them
will have to be agreed upon before any settlement is reached. How they
are decided will determine just how much devolution of power actually
will have taken place.

There is a strong body of opinion which argues that had the Regional
Development Council scheme ever been properly implemented, Tamil dis-
content would have been nipped in the bud, most Tamils would have sup-
ported it, and the young militant groups would have dissipated. It never
was fully implemented, however, because it gave too much power to the
regions for the Sinhalese extremists and not enough for the Tamil extrem-
ists. Now after a decade of civil war, death, and hatred, it will be harder
than ever to reach agreement on where to draw the line. It is doubtful that
the militant Tamils, even if the Tigers are completely crushed, would now
settle for the amount of real power envisioned for the RDCs.
The modest devolution of power envisioned in the Provincial Council
scheme was acceptable enough to the Sinhalese to pass Parliament (just
barely) in the form of a constitutional amendment, but it was unacceptable
enough to Sinhalese extremists to spark the JVP (Janatha Vimukti Pera-
muna) uprising in 1989. Even though the JVP was finally crushed, there
are still a great many Sinhalese who believe that the Provincial Council
system goes too far and gives away too much. It must be noted here that it
passed a Parliament where the ruling United National Party had more
than the necessary two-thirds majority to pass constitutional amendments.
The UNP does not now enjoy such a majority, nor is it likely that any
party will again for some time. Thus, in real political terms, and constitu-
tionally, the Provincial Council system may be as far as any Sinhalese gov-
ernment will be able to go for the foreseeable future. That need not be all
that bad, however, since the amendment that enabled provincial councils
to come into existence did not spell out in exact detail just how much
power actually was to be devolved. It did establish lists of which powers
were to be reserved to the center, which were to be shared concurrently,
and which were to be granted to the provincial councils, but the actual
implementation of the sharing of powers inherent in those lists was never
completely spelled out in writing.
Thus, some creative interpretation on the part of negotiators could, in
fact, grant considerably more power to the provincial councils than they
now possess. That kind of devolution would probably be acceptable to
many of the Tamil moderates, and indeed, might even be accepted by some
of the militant groups like the EPRLF that were willing to work within the
framework of the provincial councils before but said there would have to
be real devolution of power if they were to work. That devolution still has
not occurred, to the best of my knowledge. If increased power to the pro-
councils were to be forthcoming that would mean a de facto feder-
alism, which Sinhalese extremists wouldn’t like but which would not need
another constitutional amendment and could therefore conceivably be im-
plemented fairly easily. What’s more, it is a federalism contained in the
guise of a unitary state. Given a chance to work-if, over time, it does
actually work-the Sinhalese “right” might come to recognize that Sri
Lanka hadn’t been torn apart after all, and that “federalism” was less
painful in practice than they had thought it would be. All of this, of
course, is based on the premises that (a) the government would be willing
to make real concessions and then be willing and able to implement them
and (b) significant segments of the Tamil community would go along with
the settlement reached.
Another alternative is various forms of de jure federalism. One of the
more limited forms is that which prevails in India. There the individual
states have significant power, but the central government does have the
right to suspend a state government and rule from the center. In the event
of a conflict between the center and the states, it is the center that prevails.
This is the most devolution of power that the Indian government wants to
see the Tamils get in Sri Lanka. It fears that if Sri Lanka gives its Tamils
too much more power than India gives its states, the Indian states are
going to demand of India what the Sri Lankan Tamils got from their gov-
ernment. In the American model, the center also has considerable power,
but, according to the 10th amendment to the Constitution, “powers not
delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to
the States, are reserved to the States respectively.” It is unthinkable, in the
American model, that the center would rule in a dispute with any of the
states, yet that is exactly what did happen for a time immediately after the
Civil War. Still, that is an extreme example. It is not the same kind of
“rule from the center” that India regularly resorts to.
In their effort to keep Quebec in the union, the Canadians are experi-
menting with proposals (not yet implemented) for a looser federation than
exists now, and one that is even looser than the American version.
Whether that can succeed remains to be seen. Switzerland, of course, is
not a federation, but rather a confederation. It has four separate official
languages and very autonomous canton governments that have considera-
ble power; yet for reasons which may be peculiar to the history of that
country, it has survived. Indeed, it is the only successful multilingual state
which political scientists would describe as a nation: a place with a com-
mon identity and a common sense of “we-ness.” Political scientists used to
describe Belgium and Canada that way also, but they no longer do.
Whether Canada can become a Switzerland and transform itself into a
functioning confederation remains to be seen.
the extreme left of the continuum is “total independence.” One state
can be totally independent of another, but cannot be totally independent of
all other states. That is, Bulgaria and Burma may be totally independent
of each other, but the only way that Bulgaria could become independent of
Eastern Europe, and particularly of the former Soviet Union, was to be-
come increasingly dependent upon Germany and Western Europe. The
weaker a country, the more dependent upon some other country it has to
be. If Tamil Eelam ever came into existence, the question is not whether it
could be completely independent (economically, educationally, militarily,
and in many other ways), but whether it would become more dependent
upon Sri Lanka or upon India.
At any rate, this is the range of the theoretically possible. The LTTE
and other Tamil extremists want the Tamils to achieve a settlement as
close to independence as they can. The problem for the Tamils is that they
are not in any position, either militarily or politically, to impose a solution
to their liking, and given the fact that they are so splintered, both politi-
cally and militarily, they would be lucky to get the Sinhalese to agree to
some very meaningful devolution of power within the framework of the
Provincial Council system. The Sinhalese extremists, on the other hand,
want the government to maintain a position as far to the right as possible.
Their preference, of course, would be to give the Tamils no devolution of
power whatever. While the government may be in a position to badly
damage the LTTE, I do not believe that it will be able to totally destroy
the organization. Even if it could, however, it still would have the other
militant groups to contend with. Having no devolution at all to some local
unit for the Tamils, and still have peace, just is not within the realm of the

The war could drag on for many years, very inconclusively, but no one
wants that. It is clear that some devolution of power is going to have to
take place eventually. Given current political realities, it will probably
come out somewhere between “Modest Devolution” and “Significant Dev-
olution.” If this analysis is correct, it seems that all parties would benefit
by starting from the possible and negotiating as specific an agreement as
they can get, using the Provincial Council format that is already in place.
If both sides can come to accept that reality, then maybe some meaningful
negotiations could get underway, leading to a specific agreement.
Whatever is finally agreed to, however, must be implemented or the fight-
ing will continue indefinitely.
As to the size of the unit to which power should be devolved, there is no
question that the Sinhalese missed a golden opportunity in not implement-
ing the Regional Development Councils scheme. But they did miss it.
The provincial level devolution could work everywhere but in the East. I
suspect the longer the Tamils demand that all of the Eastern Province be
merged with the Northern, the longer a solution will be delayed. It seems
not impossible to come up with a solution that simply redraws some bor-
ders, and unites the Tamil areas of the East with the Northern Province
and creates a Muslim province in the East. It may not be possible for them
all to be contiguous, and the Sinhalese areas would probably best be joined
with the provinces they adjoin. The city of Trincomalee is, of course, one
of the problems. Both sides want it. It may be that one of the only solu-
tions would be to declare it a separate unit, with the same powers devolved
to it as to the other provinces. But these are details best left to the parties
to work out. The point of this analysis has been to review all of the theo-
retical alternatives and then to dismiss those that will remain only in the
realm of theory. If the combatants want a solution they will have to aban-
don theory and deal with reality, and the sooner they do that the sooner
there will be a solution.

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