Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Required: Paradigm Shifts

by Ana Pararajasingham


There is no denying that Rajapakse received the majority of the Sinhala votes in his bid to become Sri Lanka's President. There is also no denying that it was his blatant appeal to Sinhala nationalism that helped him in his quest. According to Kumari Jayawardene, the Sri Lankan social scientist, the salient feature of this nationalism is the chauvinistic notion of the "primacy and superiority of the Sinhalese 'race'" [1] Bruce Kapferer, the Australian author of Legends of People, Myths of States, a book on nationalism in Australia and Sri Lanka says that "in the fires of its passions, Sinhalese and especially Tamils are being consumed"[2]

Conscious of the need for the support of the international community, Wickramasinghe was reticent in making blatant appeals to this well entrenched chauvinism. Instead, he portrayed himself as the pragmatist, who could, with the support of the international community, contain the situation. At the same time he avoided elaborating on political power-sharing with the Tamils, which was anathema to the vast majority of the Sinhalese.  In order to convey to the Sinhalese that Wickramasinghe was no push-over when it came to dealing with the Tamils, senior members of his party boasted that it was they who had cultivated the LTTE renegade Karuna and sank the LTTE's vessels during the cease-fire. Then there were the unsaid matters about how Wickramasinghe’s Government contrived to sabotage the arrangement reached with the LTTE to deliver humanitarian aid and the measures it took to undermine the LTTE's negotiating capacity by weaving a so-called 'safety net.' During the latter part of the Presidential campaign, a senior member of the UNP was emboldened enough to claim that arrangements were in place for US and Indian troops to intervene should the LTTE defy Colombo.

Whereas Rajapakse presented himself as an ultra nationalist Sinhalese, Wickramasinghe believed that he could be all things to all men. To the international community he was the dove ready to share power with the Tamils, to the Tamils he was the moderate and to the Sinhalese   (who were expected to read the subtext hidden within his ostensibly moderate posturing) the only man who could keep the Tamils in check with international assistance.

Wickramasinghe failed because the Tamils saw through the message and the majority of the Sinhalese preferred the direct approach of Rajapakse.

As Ms Teresita Schafer observes in her recent paper, "Posturing for international support is no substitute for getting on with that extremely difficult job" [3]

The extremely difficult job of forging an enduring peace calls for paradigm shifts by all of the players involved in this conflict. And this includes the international community, India, the regional power, the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

The International Community

The international community operates on the premise that there is a moderate and hard line divide within the Sinhala polity. This has led to regarding Wickramasinghe as the dove and Rajapakse as the hawk. This is a flawed perception. While Wickramasinghe’s support base is primarily the urbanized and westernized segment of Sinhala society, it is wrong to conclude that this segment is moderate in its outlook when it comes to conceding political power to the Tamils.

The UNP, the party of the urbanized and westernized Sinhalese, has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities against the Tamils. These include:

  • The state condoned pogrom of August 1977 directed against the Tamils in response to their overwhelming support for independence at the General Elections held that year.
  • The state sponsored pogrom of July 1983 that claimed within a space of two weeks 3,000 Tamil lives.
  • The burning of the Public Library in Jaffna with over 95,000 books and several rare manuscripts by hoodlums in August 1981 under the direct orders of Gamini Dissanayake and Cyril Mathew, both senior members of the cabinet in which Ranil Wickramasinghe was a junior minister at that time.
  • The disappearances, torture and massacre of Tamils (well documented by Amnesty International) between 1984 and 1987 in the course of unbridled terror unleashed by the army operating under the direct command of the Minister of National Security, Lalith Athulathmidali, another cabinet colleague of Ranil Wickramasinghe.

Then there was J R Jayawardene, a founder member of the UNP and Sri Lanka’s President between 1977 and 1990, whose single-minded opposition to political power-sharing with the Tamil people was a major factor in escalating the conflict into a full-fledged war.

It ought to be noted that Wickramasinghe was not only a kinsmen of Jayawardne, but also someone thought of as his protégé.

During his tenure as Prime Minister, Wickramasinghe was reluctant to communicate to the Sinhala people the case for political power-sharing, and during the Presidential Elections he was decidedly ambiguous in articulating his commitment to power-sharing. This behavior, together with what they had experienced of the Sinhala political leadership over the last five decades, convinced the Tamil people that there was little to distinguish between the Presidential contenders. As far as the Tamils were concerned, Wickramasinghe and Rajapakse were simply two different sides of the same Sinhala chauvinistic coin.

The Tamil people’s collective decision to refrain from voting was based on this assessment.

It is vital that the international community, which seeks to help forge an enduring peace, not continue to delude itself by regarding those with a veneer of western sophistication or liberal pretensions to be less chauvinistic than those who are openly so.

In times of crisis the façade always cracks and the chauvinism stands exposed. The most recent example was the outburst by Dr Dhanapala, a seasoned diplomat and Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat in Colombo, who launched vituperative attacks on the LTTE and the Tamil people in the course of his addresses to audiences in Washington. As this writer put it "Dhanapala’s unbecoming conduct ought to be an eye-opener to those who subscribe to the notion that Sinhala chauvinism is simply confined to the JVP and the ‘patriotic’ parties.  The extent to which this chauvinism has permeated the Sinhala polity comes to the fore at times of crisis. This is when the likes of Dhanapala, despite their veneer of sophistication become undone" [4]

India, the Regional Power

It is only natural that India, the regional power, should have an abiding interest in the manner in which the conflict in the Island of Sri Lanka is resolved. It is unfortunate, however, that Indian policy makers have persisted with the policy that was set in motion almost two decades ago when, in a misguided  attempt to reverse its earlier policy of arming Tamils, India intervened to protect the 'unity and integrity of Sri Lanka.'

The question that needs to be asked is: how realistic is it for the Indian Government to persist with such a policy when ground realities have changed significantly during the intervening period?

Indian policy-makers now need to pay heed not only to the spectre of Tamil nationalism, but with the reality that Tamils now exercise physical control over substantial proportions of their land, have acquired military parity in respect to the Sri Lankan State and have established an effective mechanism to administer the land under their control. The net result is that, today, in the island of Sri Lanka there are two-power centres – Colombo in the South and Kilinochchi in the North.

India’s foreign policy must reflect this reality to ensure that both power centres, while accommodating each other, do not undermine India’s interests in any way.

The Sinhala Polity:

Back in 1988, Professor Wilson, author of Sri Lanka, The Break-Up of Sri Lanka wrote "My considered view is that Ceylon has already split into two entities. At present this is a state of mind; for it to become a territorial reality is a matter of time" [5]

Seventeen years later, this prediction has come to pass. Today, on the Island of Sri Lanka there exist two states – a de facto Tamil state in the NorthEast partly occupied by the Sri Lankan army and largely controlled and administered by the LTTE, and a Sinhala State in the South with a Government elected by the Sinhalese.

If there is to be an enduring peace, the Sinhala polity also needs to come to terms with this truth. Instead, imprisoned by its chauvinistic mindset, the Sinhala polity has taken to denying the reality by believing the propaganda dished out by its own  media.

This is nothing new. Throughout the last five decades, the Sinhala polity's behavior has been one of dismissing the political stand of the overwhelming majority of the Tamils and insisting  that the 'authentic  view'  of the Tamils to be those voiced by  Tamil collaborators and sycophants. We see this today in the prominence given to the utterances of Ananda Sangari, a discredited, unelected Tamil politician. We also saw that in  unelected Tamils (Kadirgamar 1995 to 2005;  Kumarasuriyar: 1970 to 1977) being  nominated to high  political offices and their collaborative posturing deemed to be the Tamil position. Employing the same perverse logic, the elected Tamil representatives have been dismissed as being elected  either through coercion (TNA)  or ignorance (Federal Party,TULF). The proclamations made by Sinhala political commentators of 'liberating the Tamils from the clutches of the LTTE,' etc. is the product of this thinking.

The difficulty in convincing the Sinhala people of this situation cannot be understated. It is indeed a mammoth task. The extent of the difficulty was well encapsulated by the Sinhalese writer Adrian Wijemanne in his dedication of his book War and Peace in  Post Colonial Sri Lanka to his wife Chitra. The book is an objective analysis of the post-colonial history of the Island, tracing how Sinhala nationalism masquerading as Sri Lankan nationalism has driven the Tamil people into asserting their own identity as a distinct nation. Wijemanne, in his dedication, says: "to Chitra my wife, whose relentless opposition to the entire project and uncompromising rejection of every salient point herein has dispelled any lingering doubt as to the need, the urgent need, for the book." [6]

If the Sinhala political establishment is serious about peaceful co-existence, it will not be unhelpful for them to reflect on the axiom that   'A nation which oppresses another cannot itself be free.'

The Tamil Polity

 While there is little doubt that, in the way in which the Mahavamsa (an ancient chronicle of Sinhala history believed to have been written in the late 6th century AD by an unknown Buddhist monk) has been misinterpreted to assert the 'primacy and supremacy' of the Sinhala people, there is more to Sinhala 'intransigence.'

It is vital that the Tamils seek a deeper understanding of the factors which drive this intransigence. A clue to this is to be found in a speech by S W R D Bandaranaike, the founder of the Sinhala Maha Saba and the architect of the Sinhala Only policy of 1956 which marked the beginning of the Tamil struggle for self-rule.

According to the Daily News of 8, November 1955, Bandaranaike made the case for the Sinhala Only bill by arguing that "With their  books and culture and the will and strength characteristic of their race, the Tamils (if parity were granted) would  soon rise to exert their dominant power over us”

It was not just the Mahavamsa-inspired notions of 'primacy' that have been the impetus for Sinhala intransigence, but also something else – the fear of domination. Kumari Jayawardne's reference to the self-perception of the Sinhalese of being a 'beleaguered' people resonates with this fear identified by Bandaranaike.

As Nadesan Satyendra put it "We cannot go forward by dismissing the fears of the Sinhala people as ‘irrational’ or by suggesting that they are simply the handiwork of corrupt Sinhala politicians or ‘evil’ Buddhist priests. Nor should these fears be dismissed simply as a consequence of the ‘Mahavamsa’ mind set" [7]


A political solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka requires re-examination of previously held views so that all parties involved in this conflict can realise their goals by agreeing on political structures to enable the two nations in the Island of Sri Lanka to coexist as equals and free of the fear of domination by the other. 

1. Jayawardena K, Ethnic and Class Conflicts in Sri Lanka, Colombo Centre for Social  Analysis,1985

2. Kapferer B, Legends of People Myths of State, Smithsonian Institution Press Washington and London,1988

3. Schaffer T, "Sri Lanka: Peace Process on the Ropes," Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 2005

4. Pararajasingham A,                                September 2005

5. Wilson A J, The Break-Up of Sri Lanka, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1988

6. Wijemanne A,  War and Peace in Post Colonial Ceylon, sangam Books Ltd, London,1996

7. Satyendra N, "Sri Lanka - Tamil Eelam: Getting to Yes,"    May, 2000