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
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.
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
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
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