By Dr. G. K. Nathan
Looking at our immediate neighbor India and other countries like Canada, Belgium and Switzerland with multilingual, multiethnic and multireligious groups show that there are ways forward to find a constitutional structure to achieve equality and peace by recognizing the differences. All these countries have resolved the differences between communities internally, led by leaders who considered that the integrity of the country is paramount; the majority respected the minority wishes and granted equal rights to all citizens and settled the differences amicably.
Examples of good governance are demonstrated in India and Canada, where they have had as head of the government or as a head of the country people of different ethnic backgrounds which strengthened the integrity of the country. Another evolving and working example is in the United Kingdom, where three ethnic groups Irish, Scottish and Welsh people have their separate governments, soon Scotland will hold a referendum among their people whether they should be an Independent country or not, which demonstrates maturity of the country which is the birth place of modern parliamentary democracy. A similar referendum was held among French speakers of Canada, a couple of decades ago and it is continuing to be a single country. In contrast to earlier examples, Yugoslavia’s failure to find an internal resolution of conflict with different ethnic groups led to division into many countries based on ethnicity, with inevitable external intervention charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Reflection on the outcome in the countries above gives hope as well as raises question with respect to finding reconciliation between Sinhala and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka.
Mythology and Contrary Evidence of Sri Lanka History
Ongoing Sinhala-Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka, especially in the post independence period, is mainly due to the failure of the Colonial power Britain to recognize the importance of multilingual, multiethnic and multireligious groups in finding an equitable and representative constitutional structure for all communities at the time of Independence in 1948; since then Britain has rectified in their own country giving power to Irish, Scottish and Welsh people. Transferring of power to majority Sinhala community, without inviolable safeguard in the constitution to other communities sew the seed of conflict. “Mahavamsa mythology” is the belief that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country for Sinhala people and associated myths, which was lying dormant during the colonial era within the ruling class of Sinhala leaders, perhaps some of them were Christians who later reverted back to Buddhism in the post Independence era, to appeal to the Sinhala Buddhist masses. This mythology became widely accepted by the people, assisted by the first printed edition and English translation of the Mahavamsa in 1837 by George Turnour, an historian and officer of the Ceylon Civil Service. The political thinking of the British colonialists and the English educated Sinhala political leaders were influenced by this biased mythology.
The Mahavamsa or otherwise known as the “Great Chronicle”, was compiled in the 6th century CE by Mahavihara Buddhist Monk Ven. Mahanama, covering the period from presumptuously landing of Prince Vijaya and his 700 followers from the North West region of India on the coast of Sri Lanka in the year 543 BC to the 4th Century CE. The Mahavamsa and the Buddhist scriptures were both written in Pali language; a layperson listening to the teaching of Buddhist Monks will not be able to differentiate between Buddhists teaching and mythology of the Mahavamsa. Mahavamsa describes the life and time of the Buddhist people and also considered as a part of the Buddhist scriptures and it deals mostly with mythical or supernatural Buddhist history. The believe in the myth by the majority of Sinhala people and the resulting spread of Mahavamsa mentality was used by the Sinhala politicians to advance their political wishes in the post Independence period; which has been the main underlying reason for the start and continuation of conflict in Sri Lanka and their unwillingness to accommodate Tamils as equals. Two other parts of Mahavamsa under names Culavamsa I and II were compiled by Buddhists monks covering the period up to 1815, the year entire Island came under the British rule; the first part covers the period from the 4th Century to 12th Century CE and compiled in the 13th Century CE and the second part by a number of Monks and additional material was added after the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom.
To find reconciliation within a united Sri Lanka, it is important to pursue the truth about the composition of people of Sri Lanka and differentiate it from myths that influence the thinking of the majority of Sinhala people. The recent study by the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) in India points to the possibility that the people of South India and Sri Lanka were once a part of a large group of people who moved to high ground on either sides of “Kumari Kandan” at the time of inundation. This is substantiated by the discovery of ample evidence of drowned cities off Poompuhur in the South East coast of Tamil Nadu. New information emerged immediately preceding the 2004 Tsunami that showed constructions off Mahabalipuram coast, further supports the earlier conclusions. The evidence that there were cities and temples in what is now the sea between Sri Lanka and South India is overwhelming.
The common source for the descendants of people of Sri Lanka is further reinforced by the fact that there is a common gene pool of more than 50% between Sinhala and Tamil people with a small percentage of contribution from Bengalis in the case of Sinhala people; alternatively intermarriage between Sinhala and Tamil people could not have contributed to a high percentage as believed by some, but the common roots look more plausible explanation. For example, the Sinhalese and Tamils have similar cultures in terms of kinship classification, cousin marriage, dress and housing; in some surnames the last letter whether it is a consonant or a vowel determines to which ethnic group the name belongs to. Recognition of common roots could help to put aside the Mahavamsa mentality that has been a stumbling block to the national spirit for so long.
The ancient chronicles of Sri Lanka such as the Dipavamsa compiled in 4th Century CE and Mahavamsa compiled in the 6th Century CE are silent on the subject that Buddhism flourished in South India in ancient times, but an inscription dated 258 BC says that Buddhism was introduced to South India by King Asoka and his son, the Venerable Mahinda, about the same time as the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Since then, Buddhism flourished among Tamils and began to decline gradually from about the 7th century CE for many reasons. Buddhism played an enormous role in shaping the mindset of the ancient Tamil people, affecting their aesthetics, politics, literature and philosophy. This explains why a number of Buddhists monuments are found in Tamil Nadu and in North East Sri Lanka too and the Tamil Buddhists literatures talk of interactions between the monks of both countries and it is also said that a Buddhist monk from South India is the author of Culavamsa I.
Mahavamsa mythology is an emotive and controversial subject among Sinhala people; it can only be looked at objectively, when additional archaeological evidence proves otherwise. Contrary to the view held by Sinhala chauvinists that Sri Lanka is the land of Sinhala people, the ancient archaeological evidence in Sri Lanka proves otherwise; Brahmi stone inscriptions, cave writings, Pali chronicles, etc show terms like ‘Dameda’, ‘Damela’, ‘Damila’, ‘Demel’, all referring to Tamils, are mentioned as a group of people living in the island. This proves Tamils lived in Sri Lanka as long as in South India. If the wish of the author of Mahavamsa that it is “compiled for the serene joy and emotion of the pious”, which appears end of every chapter except the last one, is accepted for what it is, peace can usher in the Island of Sri Lanka between Sinhala and Tamil people sooner than later.
Unification of Administration in the Island and Consequences
History, in last five hundred years is based on independent sources compared to the earlier period mostly the interpretation of Buddhist monks. At the time of arrival of Portuguese, there were three Kingdoms: Sinhala in the South, Tamil in the North and the third one in the central highlands with surrounding regions including Tamil areas called the Kandyan Kingdom; last few rulers of the Kandyan Kingdom were Nayakkars of South India. The Portuguese captured Southern Kingdom in 1505 and the Northern kingdom in 1619, then both fell to the Dutch in 1656 and later ceded to Britain in 1802 that captured the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815; the surrender document was signed in Tamil. Before the fall of Kandyan Kingdom, the Northern and the Southern kingdoms maintained their separate identity and were ruled as separate units, for more than three centuries. Subsequently the Island came under a unified administration in 1833 and it was called Ceylon; prior to unification the first survey map of Sri Lanka was prepared by L.H. Brohier showing five provinces, the first two North and East were called the land of Tamils, the other three South, West and Central were called as land of Sinhala people, surprisingly the names of places on the north central part of the Island were given in Tamil version; also a census was taken on the distribution of population showing overwhelming Tamil population in the North and the East. Later the five provinces were divided into nine; North and East provinces are the Tamil homeland which was referred to by the ancient name Tamil Eelam and the people as Eelam Tamils, generally in the ancient Tamil literatures.
The unification of the Island and establishment of Island wide network of roads and railways promoted mobility of the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people and resulted in voluntary migration and settlement of people throughout the Island; mostly Tamils for the purpose of employment and Muslims for trade related activities moved Island wide wherever there was opportunity. Tamil people perseverance and hard work accompanied with educational success made British showed preference to employ Tamils in Sri Lanka and as well as in Malaysia and Singapore. Tamils and Muslims successes in their respective chosen paths, sowed the seed of dissent in the minds of the majority Sinhala people, but remained dormant during colonial era.
At the time of Independence of the unified Island two safeguards were incorporated: representation in the parliament of Sinhala majority and other minorities was divided in the ratio of sixty to forty and as a constitutional safe guard an unalterable Section 29(2) was included in the Soulbury constitution. Unfortunately, the safeguard in the constitution did not protect the minorities rights, as intended. Contrary to the expectation of amity, outbreak of Sinhala and Tamil conflict is threatening the unity of the country and a brief summary of what had happened to Upcountry Tamils, Eelam Tamils, Muslims and Burghers (Euro-Asians) are listed below:
- Immediately after independence, in 1948, the disenfranchisement of Upcountry Tamils, who were brought from Tamil Nadu in the 19th century, reduced the minority representation in the parliament.
- State aided colonization of Tamil Homeland started in 1949 further reduced the minority representation.
- Against the consensus prior to Independence that Sinhala and Tamil languages will enjoy equal status, Sinhala Only bill was passed in the parliament in 1956, which brought about the beginning of the fissure between Sinhala and Tamil communities, which has been widening since then.
- Peaceful Satyagraha by Tamils against imposition of Sinhala Only bill and demanding equal recognition met with the first Island wide pogrom against the Tamils in 1958, later occurred in 1977 and 1983.
- Repeated pogroms and denial of rights led to large scale migration of Tamils to Western countries and to India; some are victims and others who did not see any future for themselves and their children; a large number of Burghers too left the country. In all more than a million Tamils left the country.
- Large scale migration, colonization etc had a very adverse impact on the representation of the minorities in the Sri Lanka parliament and the only safeguard Soulbury constitution had denying the two-third majority was breached. The 1972 Republican constitution was proclaimed without the cooperation and consent of Tamils and deleted the unalterable Sections 29(2) safeguarding the rights of minorities. Buddhism, Sinhala language and consequently the majority were given preeminent positions in the constitution, ignoring that Sri Lanka is a multiethnic, multilingual and multireligious country.
- In 1976 all the Tamil political parties joined together and at the National Convention passed a resolution based on the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; calling for the establishment of Tamil Eelam State based on the right to self-determination inherent to every nation, referred to as “Vaddukkoddai Resolution”. In 1977 Parliamentary Election 82%of the people of Tamil Eelam endorsed the call and aggravated the relationship between Sinhala and Tamil people of the Island.
- In 1978 another constitution was introduced with presidential system of government further marginalizing Tamil rights and denying equality in the country.
- The failure of peace efforts by Tamil political parties and continued brutal repression of Tamils’ demands led to the formation of Tamil militant groups with tacit support from India, perhaps due to arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sri Lanka following the July 1983 pogrom. Many militant groups were formed; Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged as the strongest and fought a vicious war with Sri Lanka army referred to as Eelam war I, II, III and IV for 26 years and hundreds of thousands were killed, without accountability and justice for the victims.
- The first independent report made on the Sinhala-Tamil conflict of over six decades was that from the Experts Panel appointed by the United Nation Secretary General to report on the last stages of the conflict which ended on 18 May 2009, following the Government declaring victory over the Tamil militants. Experts Panel findings are very disturbing and recommended an Independent International Inquiry to determine the truth on war crimes, crimes against humanity and killing of 40,000 people.
- In recent time, presence of Mosques in the so called “Buddhist sacred land” has come under attack by the Sinhala chauvinists led by Buddhist monks, while in Tamil Eelam Buddhists places of worship are springing up like mushroom, in some cases replacing Hindu places of worship.
Over the last six decades Sinhala and Tamil people have made a few attempts to resolve the long standing conflict and also once with international participation, all efforts came to nothing; the worst military conflict between the armed forces and LTTE ended on 19 May 2009 with the defeat of LTTE. Since the end of the conflict, to date no progress has been made by the current regime contrary to many promises made to the International leaders. Failure of internal resolution can be attributed to prevailing “Mahavamsa mentality” of majority of Sinhala people. Also Sinhala politicians when in opposition and the minor parties pursuing Sinhala chauvinism exploit the Sinhala masses belief in the mythology learnt from Buddhist monks, to force the political party in power not to deviate from entrenched political views of denying equality and recognition. The challenge for International community is becoming clearer; to achieve reconciliation in Sri Lanka external intervention is urgently needed, first initiative is the UNHRC resolution passed at the 19th session in March 2012.
International Intervention and what is the future for Tamils?
International interest during the last stages of the conflict increased because of the news report about the ferocity of the war resulting in numerous deaths of men, women and children who were caught in the cross fire; many world political leaders and humanitarian organizations raised this issue through public statements and direct contact with the President of Sri Lanka. United Nation Secretary General at the conclusion of his visit to Sri Lanka on 23 March 2009 issued a Joint Statement with President Rajapaksa which “underlined the importance of an accountability process” and the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) agreed that it “will take measures to address those grievances”. Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner, arrived in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo on 29 April 2009 appealed to Sri Lanka to “win the peace” by putting the needs of civilians above its desire to continue its military advance. During the vicious conflict, the US, UK and the EU have issued statements calling for an immediate ceasefire. The Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Conference on Reconstruction and Development on Sri Lanka, Japan, the EU, USA and Norway have gone further, asking the Sri Lankan government to offer amnesty to the LTTE leaders.
The appeal from the world leaders fell on deaf ears; the President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa succeeded in winning the war, with the full backing of Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and tactical support from India. Since end of the war between the Sri Lanka armed forces and the LTTE, Experts panel appointed by the United Nation Secretary General has said that alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity had occurred and provided some evidence and called for an Independent International Inquiry. There are number of reports published by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group and War without Witness substantiating these allegations. Also Chanel 4 video presentations “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” and “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields – War Crimes Unpunished” provide sufficient evidence on war crimes and crimes against humanity, now it is up to the International community to device methods to determine the truth so that justice is done to hapless victims of the conflict, knowing that the President Rajapaksa’s strategy is procrastination and do nothing in the hope the world will forget with time, like in many other cases in the past.
Following the declaration by President of Sri Lanka and UN Secretary General, after a long delay, two bodies were set up by the signatories to the agreement. Though both reports have been published one by the Panel of Experts set up by UNSG on 31 March 2011 and Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) set up by President Rajapaksa on 14 December 2011, reports have not been implemented. This would have resulted in acknowledgement, accountability and promoted reconciliation. President Rajapaksa and key personnel in his administration have rejected the above three steps to meet the international standards and practices, instead showing contempt for the accepted process. Failure to implement the recommendations of President Rajapaksa’s Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission casts doubts on their genuine commitment. If the Government of Sri Lanka fails to implement the International calls and direction given by passing of the UNHRC resolution, the other options need to be considered as a matter of importance is the “Vaddukkoddai Resolution” approved by all Tamil political parties and endorsed by 82% of electorate of Tamil Eelam, which falls within the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Implementation of UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka passed at the 19th session is hopefully the beginning of the process to bring about true reconciliation; in the words of Prof. R. Cheran of University of Windsor, there is a need to address three key points; which are paraphrased and expanded by the author of this article as follows:
- The regime or the state that committed the crimes should not be a party to advance reconciliation: one of the two parties in the conflict is no longer in existence; shouldn’t the other party stand aside?
- The state or the society need to acknowledge as to what happened, this emphasizes the need for an Independent International Inquiry to know the truth; this approach would be a starting point, similar to the way it was done in South Africa, prior to reconciliation between Black and White South Africa.
- Two or more communities in the conflict should be willing to engage in genuine reconciliation process with open mind, a recent example is Myanmar making progress with International Intervention.
Achieving the above, depends on the international community driving the process of reconciliation to the logical end, the recent collaboration with the USA, India and Western and South American Nations at the UNHRC 19th session is a hopeful beginning. Also, it is important that leaders of both Sinhala and Tamil communities to come forward; especially from Sinhala Buddhists who can emulate Ms Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, a Buddhist and a Noble Laureate for Peace. She has become a trend setter after more than two decades of incarceration and on her release taking initiative to unite and bring amity among ethnic groups in Myanmar and gaining widespread International recognition. On the contrary, since the military conflict ended on 18 May 2009, Sinhala leaders are being marginalized; differences between the communities are widening to the extent that even a speech about right to self determination met with outburst of opposition from Sinhala Polity.
Inaction of President Rajapaksa’s regime with respect to acknowledgement, accountability, reconciliation and lack of freedom to express views, peacefully, is not reassuring and weakening the case for a United Sri Lanka?
(The views expressed are author’s own)