Book explores roots of Sri Lanka conflict

Sri Lanka: 60 Years of "Independence" and Beyond
Edited by Ana Pararajasingham,
Published by the Centre for Just Peace and Democracy, Switzerland 2009

Review by Chris Slee

May 30, 2010 -- This is a very useful book for those wishing to gain a thorough understanding of the history of Sri Lanka since its independence from Britain in 1948. The 27 authors in the collection are diverse in their ethnic backgrounds, including Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims from Sri Lanka, as well as outsiders. They are also diverse in their political outlook, including liberals, Marxists and Tamil nationalists.

The book was published in December 2009, but most of the contributions were written before the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009. Hence they are in some ways out of date. However the historical information in the book remains very useful in understanding the ongoing oppression of the Tamils.

The authors all recognise that the racist policies of successive Sri Lankan governments, dominated by members of the island's Sinhalese majority, have alienated the Tamils, and thereby created the conditions in which Tamils began demanding an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the repression of peaceful forms of struggle caused some Tamil youth to take up arms to fight for this goal.

Racist government policies have included:

  • In 1948 Tamil plantation workers who were born in Sri Lanka but whose ancestors had come from India were denied Sri Lankan citizenship.
  • In 1956 Sinhala was made the sole official language. This put Tamils at a disadvantage in getting government jobs and accessing government services.
  • In 1971 a process called "standardisation" meant that Tamils had to get higher examination marks than Sinhalese to get into university.
  • In 1972 a new constitution made Buddhism (the religion of most Sinhalese) the state religion.
  • Another issue of concern to Tamils was the establishment of government-sponsored Sinhalese "colonies" in traditionally Tamil areas, in an attempt to change the demographic balance in these areas.

Peaceful protests were met with violent repression, not only by the army and police, but also by mobs of Sinhalese racists stirred up by politicians and Buddhist monks. There was a series of pogroms against the Tamils, beginning in 1956 and culminating in the massacre of an estimated 3000 Tamils in 1983.

A number of contributors to the book give historical perspectives on the rise of Sinhala chauvinism, and the motives of the Sri Lankan government in adopting racist policies. The roots of Sinhala chauvinist ideology go back at least a century. Vickramabahu Karunaratne, the general secretary of the revolutionary Marxist Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP, New Socialist Party), argues that this ideology was developed by the Sinhala bourgeoisie, with British encouragement, to counter the rise of the working-class movement.

After independence, the government stepped up the use of Sinhala chauvinism as a weapon against the left. Karunaratne says that "D.S. Senanayake and other Sinhala bourgeois leaders knew that Sinhala nationalism was the only basis on which they could compete with the proletarian movement led by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and other radicals" (p. 178).


However the main left parties later abandoned their anti-racist stand and joined coalition governments with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, one of the two main capitalist parties. This caused Tamil youth to be disillusioned with the left and to form militant nationalist groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Meanwhile Sinhalese youth were also dissatisfied, because of problems such as high unemployment, giving rise to a new radical group called the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP). Unfortunately the JVP also succumbed to Sinhalese chauvinism.

According to Karunaratne, "The betrayal of the old left parties created a vacuum that was filled by new radical parties representing the educated youth of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalities. In that sense JVP and LTTE are like twins. But one is representing the Sinhala nationalist aspirations while the other that of the Tamil nationality ... one represents the oppressor while the other the oppressed. Instead of uniting with the Tamil brethren who are doubly oppressed by the system, the JVP led the Sinhala youth along the chauvinist path to support the war against the Tamil people" (p. 180).

Racist government policies, state repression and the betrayal of the left parties all led to a growth of Tamil nationalist sentiment. The growing support of Tamils for an independent state was demonstrated in the 1977 Sri Lankan parliamentary elections, when the Tamil United Liberation Front, running on a platform of Tamil self-determination, won 18 of the 22 seats it contested.

Meanwhile small numbers of Tamil youth were forming groups committed to armed struggle. They began carrying out small-scale attacks on the army and police in the 1970s. Following the 1983 massacre, support for armed struggle grew and it developed into a full scale war.

Tamil Tigers

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam became the main Tamil armed group, crushing its rivals. Apart from brief periods of ceasefire, the LTTE waged war against the Sri Lankan government (and, during the 1987-90 period, the Indian army) until it was defeated in May 2009.

Contributors to the book vary in their attitudes to the LTTE. Sasanka Perera accuses the LTTE of "glorifying violence and death", and says it was "one of the three main entities that have played a role in institutionalising violence" (p. 362; the other two such "entities" are the Sri Lankan government and the JVP).

By contrast, Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam says that the LTTE "is ... a secular organisation that merely fights for the right to life of a small community" (p. 418). Referring to the LTTE leader Pirapakaran, she says: "he makes it very clear that what is demanded is a just and acceptable solution for the Tamils, only in the absence of which the Tamils are prepared to take up arms for militant struggle" (p. 406).

In my view the LTTE was fighting a just war for national liberation. But that does not mean that every action taken in the course of that war was justifed. In fighting against the brutal Sri Lankan regime, the LTTE was often brutal itself. An example was the Anuradhapura massacre, where 147 Buddhist pilgrims were murdered in May 1985, in retaliation for a massacre of Tamils carried out by the Sri Lankan army.

This does not mean that the LTTE was equally to blame with the Sri Lankan government. The main blame for the violence lies with the government, whose racist and repressive policies caused the war, and whose refusal to permit self-determination for the Tamil people caused it to continue for nearly 30 years.

The LTTE, fighting a war against the Sri Lankan army, naturally placed great emphasis on the military side of the national liberation struggle. It paid insufficient attention to the political aspects, including the need to win allies amongst the Sinhalese population and amongst the Muslims.

Muslims in Sri Lanka

Two articles in the book deal with the position of Muslims in Sri Lanka. Most Muslims speak the Tamil language, but do not identify as Tamils, instead seeing themselves as a group distinct from both Tamils and Sinhalese.

At times the Muslims and Tamils have united to fight against discriminatory government policies. But at other times the government has been able to make use of divisions between Tamils and Muslims.

When the Sinhala-only bill was introduced in 1956, some Muslim politicians voted for it, even though it adversely affected ordinary Muslims, in return for ministerial positions and other inducements.

In the 1980s the Sri Lankan army, with assistance from Israel’s Shin Beth operatives and British ex-SAS mercenaries, carried out covert operations to instigate violence between Tamils and Muslims in eastern Sri Lanka. (See the article by Kasinather Sivapalan, especially p. 291-3) The government was successful in driving a wedge between the two communities. It was able to set up Muslim Home Guard units to fight the LTTE. The LTTE responded by expelling Muslims from some of the areas it controlled. It later made efforts to rebuild its relations with the Muslim population, with partial success.

LTTE defeat

Two of the articles in the book focus on attempts at a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict, both before and after the onset of full-scale war.

During the 1950s and 1960s, negotiations between the Tamil leadership and the Sri Lankan government led to promises of concessions to the Tamils. But these promises were never implemented.

During the war there were a number of ceasefires and attempts at a negotiated settlement. These attempts came to nothing.

Kumar Rupesinghe blames "mistakes committed by all sides" (p. 477). He says that the LTTE should "give up their claims for secession", while "the Sinhalese rulers will have to accept that a unitary Sinhalese hegemonic state will have to give way to a multiethnic plural society" (p. 478).

Satchithanandam Sathananthan rejects this kind of approach, which calls on both the oppressor and the oppressed to make concessions. He highlights the dishonesty of the government side in these negotiations, and their unwillingness to concede real equality or self-determination for the Tamils. He argues that: "The LTTE's countervailing power remains the only force that can counter Sinhalisation and compel a resolution of the Tamil Question" (p. 508).

With the defeat of the LTTE, this countervailing power disappeared and the oppression of the Tamils intensified. Three-hundred thousand Tamils were put in concentration camps. While most are now theoretically free to leave, many have no homes to return to. Large areas of land have been seized by the Sri Lankan army for military bases and for use by Sinhalese settlers.

In a brief epilogue, Ana Pararajasingham notes that "the defeat of the LTTE was preceded by a large scale massacre of the Tamil civilian population" (p. 609), as government forces bombarded areas where tens of thousands of displaced people had gathered. The Tamil diaspora took to the streets in Western cities to publicise the massacre, yet Western governments did nothing to stop it.

Pararajasingham says that: "The West's impotence has been widely attributed to the role played by China" (p. 609). It is certainly true that China supplied a lot of military aid to the Sri Lankan government, particularly in the final stages of the war. But the Western powers and India also continued to aid the Sri Lankan government. They did not take any action to prevent the massacre because they supported the Sri Lankan government's goal of crushing the LTTE, and were not concerned about the civilians who got in the way.

Pararajasingham notes that the Western media became more critical of the Sri Lankan goverment "after the demise of the LTTE" (p. 611). It was only after the defeat of the LTTE that the Western governments and media made much of an effort to appear concerned about human rights.

The book was published too soon to say much about developments since the defeat of the LTTE. Ana Pararajasingham merely says: "Whilst the demise of the Tamil armed movement as a conventional force appears to be complete, it is inevitable that unless Tamil aspirations for self-determination are met, it is likely that Sri Lanka will continue to be beset by a different, and perhaps more intractable, type of conflict" (p. 450).

[Chris Slee is a solidarity activist in Melbourne, Australia, and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]