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Draft national policy on reconciliation

The conflict in Sri Lanka can be traced back to the perception of its Tamil population of discrimination and unequal treatment by the state. Many Tamils believed the state and its structures favoured the interests of the majority community, and several changes in state practices were seen as discriminatory and unjust.

The Tamil community's campaign was against State structures and policies considered discriminatory of the Tamils rather than against the Sinhalese. The failure of the dominant sections of the Sinhala polity to address these grievances, the failure to rigorously examine changes in policy and practice by successive governments, so as to take into account possible adverse impacts on minorities and avoid these, the subsequent creation of the Tamil political leadership in asking for reform of unrealistic expectations among the Tamil youths, all contributed to the birth of Tamil militancy. Finally the democratic Tamil political leadership lost control and the LTTE hijacked the Tamil struggle, with disastrous consequences for Tamils as well as the country as a whole.


S J V Chelvanayakam

Dudley Senanayake

SWRD Bandaranaike

In its assessment of relations between the different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka the Soulbury Commission referred to a permanent Sinhalese majority of more than two thirds of the total population, with the next largest segment (Tamils exclusive of up-country Tamils) being around ten percent. The Commission argued that the character of majority-minority relations was shaped by these demographic realities and governed by deep seated predispositions entrenched in the consciousness of both majority and minority which led to apprehension and distrust.

Though some Tamil grievances were expressed early on, it was only after 1956, following the Official Languages Act, that the political agenda of the Tamil parties underwent a fundamental change. For the first time after independence the statement of Tamil grievances is clearly presented in the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact and explicitly linked to the need for political power at the regional level.

Terrorist problem

The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact was unilaterally abrogated by Prime Minister Bandaranaike. Thereafter, broken pledges on the part of successive governments became a recurrent feature of the Sinhala-Tamil relationship and an overriding Tamil grievance. The Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact on District Councils had to be laid aside. Then the 1972 Constitution consolidated the unitary nature of the constitution and failed to provide any form of devolution. But the decisive rift in the inter-ethnic relationship came with the anti-Tamil riots of 1981 that were accompanied by a government motion of No-Confidence in the leader of the democratic Tamil opposition.

When this was followed by the Black July of 1983, and the failure of the then government to provide adequate protection to Tamil citizens, while driving the main Tamil political party out of government, militancy took over as the preferred option for many Tamil youngsters.

With the emergence of armed groups in support of Tamil demands the conflict took a different complexion with attacks and counter attacks resulting in the deaths of large numbers of civilians. This allowed the government to refer only to a terrorist problem and ignore the cause, thus contributing to the continuing political problem receiving less attention. Attitudes began to harden amongst many on both sides of the communal divide, making it difficult for moderates to push for a just solution through negotiations.


One of the LLRC sittings. File photo

Successive governments of Sri Lanka attempted negotiations with representatives of the Tamil people which broke down for multiple reasons. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took advantage of such negotiations at times in its campaign to establish dominance and decimate all other Tamil groups and persons advancing a Tamil voice in national politics.

All this led to what is inevitable in armed conflict, the loss of civilian life on both sides. With the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 the armed conflict came to an end. However, the root causes of the conflict remain and have to be addressed in order to prevent the recurrence of the past in whatever form.

Further, the war caused additional negative fallouts such as physical destruction to infrastructure and an amplification of socio-economic deprivation in the war-torn areas of the country. It also led to increased suspicion and resentment amongst the three main ethnic communities in the country and widened the gap in trust and understanding.

Sinhala community

In trying to bridge this gap, the Sri Lankan state must not lose sight of the need to allay the fears and anxieties of the Sinhalese who, though a majority, have their own share of concerns, both real and imagined. Many actions that discriminated against minorities sprang initially from a widespread perception amongst the Sinhalese that they had been discriminated against by the British.

Assertion of the need for government to function in the language of the majority, positive discrimination to compensate for perceived educational inequalities, land redistribution to make up for the expropriation of peasant lands for plantations with the concomitant importation of labour from India, all sprang from the need to make up for deprivations imposed by government. In the process however, they led to deprivation of the minorities because of failure to explore comprehensively the implications of any actions.

Similarly, any solution meant to resolve the problems of Tamils and Muslims now must not be at the expense of the Sinhalese. That is not only unfair and unjust, but it would make such a solution unsustainable in the long run.

To be continued

 

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