Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Will Sri Lanka Defeat Hostile Symbolic Politics?

by Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz, Department of Political Science, Temple University, USA

If the Sinhalese elites desire to preserve the one country system (not a unitary one), then they need to adopt moderation in the form of political compromise that paves the way to rewriting the constitution of the Sri Lanka. If they still refuse to accommodate the reasonable aspirations of the minorities, the island of Sri Lanka will likely end up in creating more than one state.


Whether one agrees or not, in the conflict resolution process, a win-win scenario is better than a no-win one. I read the statements from the recently concluded Geneva talks on the implementation of the no-war treaty with this in mind.

As a student of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict, I could not stop raising the following key questions: Will conflict-ridden Sri Lanka clinch a political solution to arrest the current political instability? Can Sri Lanka's polity demonstrate sufficient political modernity to accommodate the aspirations of the minorities?

This article attempts to answer these basic questions to understand the obstacles to the peace process, based on the symbolic politics Sri Lanka's political elites have employed for political benefits.

Symbolic Politics and Its Consequences

The central argument of symbolic politics is that emotional symbols, such as flag, national anthem, history of the group, myths of motherland and fatherland, can become tools in politics to influence the masses' decisions in the elite's quest for power.[1] Symbolic politics can win votes in divided societies.

Symbolic politics can also disrupt social progress and ethnic harmony, and thus trigger ethnic conflict. Such a hostile politics could damage the 'modernity' of the polity. When political elites or party leaders employ hostile emotional symbolic politics, society would likely face social instability because symbolic politics would divide the polity.[2] When the polity systematically denies justice to a particular community, it is highly likely the marginalized will lose the trust in the state and its institutions.  

The elites or politicians may think they can retract their symbolic promises once they win power. However, recent political studies on Sri Lanka's political outbidding suggest that, when politicians employ symbolism such as religion and/or ethnicity to maximize votes, those politicians or their successors find it difficult to withdraw their promises.[3]For example, in Sri Lanka, S.W.R.D. Bandaranayke, a man who introduced Sinhala chauvinism into Sri Lankan politics, found himself unable to control the emotions he had unleashed. In 1959, Bandaranayke was assassinated by a radical monk who thought Bandaranayke had made the first step to compromise with the country's Tamil minority.

When political elites employ symbols to win the votes, once they gain power, they will have to hold to their pre-elections promises and pledges. The political elites meet opposition from their constituencies when they take step to walk beyond their symbolic pledges. If the political actors stick to their pre-election pledges, their actions run the risk of marginalized group mobilization in both forms - peaceful and non-peaceful - if the state supports these symbolic policies.  The net result is social and political instability.

Rajapakshe and His Symbolic Chintanaya (Thoughts)

President Mahinda Rajpakse won the election on November 17, 2005 on a symbolic Sinhala-Buddhist political agenda.  To win the Presidential elections, he vigorously attempted to prove that he was the voice of the oppressed Sinhalese and that Sinhala-Buddhists could not win their legitimate place in Sri Lanka without his leadership and guidance. To pass this message, he employed some effective symbolic strategies such as praising history, declaring tough policies on the LTTE, promising to abrogate then President Kumaratunga's Supreme Court-banned Tsunami pact with the LTTE [5] and to radically amend the Norwegian-sponsored no-war treaty of 2002, blaming the West, particularly Norway, for the country's current peace crisis, waving lion flags, and kissing babies and school students.[6] Most importantly, Premier Rajapakse struck a symbolic hostile deal with the Sinhala nationalists, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) [7] and Jathika Hela Hurumaya (JHU), [8] both of which are strongly opposed to the LTTE and want the unitary character of the Sri Lankan state to be preserved.

The minority parties considered agreements reached by Mr. Rajapakse with the radical Sinhalese parties to protect the unitary state as a totally objectionable position harmful to minority interests.[9] As a result, major minority ethnic group parties, except the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), endorsed the United National Party (UNP) candidate Mr. Wickramasinghe, who promised an honorable political solution based on the Oslo Communique of 2002.[10]

The LTTE and the TNA boycotted the elections, citing that the Tamils would not obtain any justice from the Sinhala polity.[11] They pointed to the experience the Tamils have had over five decades, which has taught them neither to trust the leading Sinhala political parties, nor to have faith in their leadership. [12]

The elections provided a slight victory to Premier Mahinda Rajapakse: Mr. Rajapakse secured a little over 50% of the popular vote against his main opposition rival, Ranil Wickramasinghe, who secured 48.43% of the votes.[13] The voting statistics proved that Mr. Rajapakse secured the most votes of the majority Sinhalese who predominantly live in the Southern, Western and Northwestern Provinces, while Mr. Wickramasinghe won the majority of the minorities ,who concentrate in the NorthEast, Central and parts of the Western province.[14] Soon after the elections, Mr. Rajapakshe, who won on an 'anti-federal' platform, appointed Ratnasiri Wickramanayke as Premier of the island.  Mr. Wickramanayake is well known for his pro-war and Sinhala nationalistic stand. Mr. Rajapakshe's appointment delighted the Sinhalese hard-liners and his allies. However, the Tamil nationalists and their media viewed it as a first step towards war against the Tamils. Further, the appointment of H.M.B.G. Kotakadeniya as a Defense Ministry's public safety adviser also raised Tamil discontent concerning Rajapaksa's administration.

On January 3, 2006 five young Tamils Advance Level students were killed in Trincomalee at a popular family beach. The forensic reports clearly claimed that the deaths of students had been caused due to shooting.[15] A retaliation took place on January 7, 2006 in the form of a suicide attack on a Sri Lanka Navy Israeli-built Dvora patrol craft in Trincomalee. The attack killed at least 13 Navy sailors. The government pointed its finger at the LTTE for the attack.[16] The LTTE denied the allegation in its usual form, but the media believed it was clearly connected to the earlier incident which is now being widely blamed on the Defense Ministry's public safety adviser H.M.B.G. Kotakadeniya.[17]

What President Rajapakshe's a moves prove is that, though he has decided to resume negotiation with the LTTE, it is unlikely he will meet key demands of the LTTE, such as disbanding what the LTTE describe as paramilitary groups, particularly the renegade Karuna and establishing political institutions that support political autonomy. These demands would be considered a hard-line Tamil demands by the government controlled by the majority Sinhalese, who think any concession to the Tamil Tigers infringes on the island's territory integrity. Concessions would pose a dangerous challenge to the President, who won the elections on what Tamils call an anti-Tamil platform.  If Rajapakse decides to compromise his pre-election pledges, it is very likely that he would face harsh challenges both from his constituencies and his own party leadership. This is a dilemma of symbolic politics-dominated democracy.

When politicians win the elections on particular symbolic agendas, they will have to demonstrate commitments to those promises to consolidate power and to meet future elections.  Needless to say, elections are around the corner in Sri Lanka, so political elites, instead of softening their symbolic slogans, will likely they strengthen those strategies to please the voters.

In this background, it is hard for Mr. Rajapakshe to deliver any peace miracle.  He, in the run-up to the Geneva talks, categorically stated that he will not seek a political solution beyond the limit of the unitary structure of the state, and urged the Tamils not to expect a federal solution.[18] The bottom-line is that the pre-election symbolic politics are still out there.

Further, the Sinhala extremist allies who supported Mr. Rajapakshe's candidacy have already warned that they would withdraw their support to the government if the government walks an extra mile beyond the symbolic elections promises to meet the Tamils demands for the self-autonomy.[19] In fact, this is a real consequence of the hostile symbolic politics. When you employ hostile symbolic police, as noted above, politicos find it difficult to retreat from those symbolic promises.

What should be done?

What five decades of democracy based on symbolic politics produced was a brutal ethnic civil war which dismantled both the ethnic relations between the different ethnic groups and the country's economic stability. Is there any way out to discourage symbolic politics and to seek moderation in the society?

The polity can deliver modernity provided that political elites demonstrate maturity to offer justice to the marginalized people. Some form of political autonomy at the regional level and power sharing in the central could win the trust of the minorities. If this happens in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka can arrest the current political instability. If the state and ruling elites act otherwise, that choice will weaken both the democracy and the trust of the marginalized minorities, including the Muslims.[20] Furthermore, to win peace, the relevant parties will have to freeze their hostile symbolic programs and prepare to offer concessions that could swing the trust of marginalized.

In this regard, the state has more responsibility.  The ruling elites should not underestimate the Tamil Tigers, who run a de-facto state in chunks of Sri Lanka's northeast with their own flag, police, banks, courts and defense units, including a naval wing - the Sea Tigers - and four light aircraft.[21] It does not mean that the state has to agree to meet all the Tigers' key demands, but it needs to realize that the Tamil Tigers are the revolutionary product of the kind of politics Sri Lanka elites employed to win the Sinhalese votes.

The collapse of the talks would strengthen the hands of the LTTE: In November 2005, rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran warned that, unless the government - which has already ruled out a separate homeland for minority Tamils - gives them wide autonomy, the Tamil Tigers would "intensify their struggle" in 2006. The LTTE reaffirmed its stand recently: "If the Mahinda regime adopts a political stand ruling out the Tamil homeland concept and insists on a resolution of the racial conflict within the unitary constitution, the LTTE would be left with no alternative other than to endeavor hard to respond effectively to the Tamil call for self rule."

If the Sinhalese elites desire to preserve the one country system (not a unitary one), then they need to adopt moderation in the form of political compromise that paves the way to rewriting the constitution of the Sri Lanka. If they still refuse to accommodate the reasonable aspirations of the minorities, the island of Sri Lanka will likely end up in creating more than one state. When the state denies the political alternative in the form of internal self-determination, those ethnic mobilizers will win more sympathies to achieve their separate state agendas. This is a consequence of symbolic politics.

[1] S.J. Kaufman, Modern Hatreds: the Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001)
[2] S.J. Kaufman, Modern Hatreds: the Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001)
[3] A.R.M. Imtiyaz, 2004. "Conflict and Constitutional Solution,"Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, Vol.17, No.2, December, pp. 23-42. Neil DeVotta, Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, 2004.
[4] Prime Minister launches his Presidential manifesto <>
[5] On December 26, 2004 violent tidal wave hit the shore of Sri Lanka's beautiful beaches, particularly cruelly affecting the war-torn NorthEast. The global community promised attractive financial compensation to rebuild affected regions and urged President Kumaratunga to negotiate with the LTTE to disburse the international aid to the LTTE controlled NorthEast region. To meet international pressure, the government of Sri Lanka sealed a pact with the LTTE in July 2005. The JVP and JHU went to court to ban the pact. Mrs. Kumaratunga's attempts ended in vain when the Supreme Court crippled the Agreement on Joint Mechanism accepted by the President of Sri Lanka.
[6] Mahina Rajapakse: A man of the masses <>
[7] JVP- PM policy agreement <
[8] Mahinda-JHU deal sealed <>
[9] Frontline, Vol 22 (22), Oct.22-Nov.04, 2005. Article can accessible at <>
[10] SLFP: No support from Tamil parties <
[11] LTTE-TNA conference concludes: "Tamil people have no interest in SL Presidential elections"<>
[12] Ibid.
[13] Presidential Election 2005 - Final Result <>
[14] District Level Results<>
[15] Sinhalese Media Misleading South<>
[16] Navy fast attack craft blown up with 15 sailors<>
[17] Go for peace before going to pieces<>
[18] No homeland for Tigers - S.Lanka President<>
[19] No 'unitary', no support-Hela Urumaya <>
[20] The Muslims constitute roughly seven percent of the population and speak Tamil; however, they prefer to be recognized by their religion and cultural identity and claim they should be identified as separate ethnic group. Muslims identity struggle gained momentum when they met the continuous harassment and oppression both from LTTE[20]and the successive Sri Lankan governments, particularly from the former. Thus, Muslims think their must be meaningful power-sharing unit in any political solution to the ethnic conflict. And the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) the key Muslim party insists that any future agreement on the political solution between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government should address the Muslim concerns and seeks formal participation in the negotiation. The SLMC would also likely to demand the separation of the temporally merged NorthEast provinces and will argue for the devolution of certain powers to the community level. It would be an evocative move if both the LTTE and Sri Lanka government agreed to offer Muslim political administration in the merged NorthEast. It seems Muslims are not interested in the merger of the NorthEast provinces.
[21] Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers <

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