By Daya Gamage –
At the height of Tamil Nationalism in the 1980s paving the path for the emergence of an armed insurrection in the north, a national debate ensued to take control of Sinhala Nationalism which was rapidly taking root within the Sinhalese race. Far from being a peaceful discourse, it developed – between the two contenders, the State Actor and the southern Sinhalese rebel ANSA – a lethal battle which finally ended in a mass massacre of Sinhala youths. The ensued episode left the administration to deal with the northern Tamil insurrection but was seen driving the majority Sinhalese race to harden its attitude against Tamil Nationalism.
An administration vastly influenced by Sinhalese Nationalism, an administration which used its state power to physically harass minority Tamils – in the latter part of 1970s and early 1980s – on four occasions even going to the extent of setting fire and destroying a historic depository of Tamil culture and scholarly works in the heart of the northern Tamil land, faced with the emergence of Tamil Nationalism gradually owned by a northern rebel movement; simultaneously, the administration used its state machinery to brutally annihilate a wholly-Sinhalese insurgent movement which had its premier slogan and motivation – no different to that of the administration – deeply engulfed in Sinhala Nationalism to defeat Tamil Nationalism and confront Indian Expansionism. To the extent that the southern Sinhalese rebels were seen to be successful in mobilizing national support on the basis of anti-Tamil sentiments, its competitor – the Jayewardene administration – sought to mobilize on the same basis setting in motion a spiraling dynamic of intra-ethnic group competition which unleashed state terrorism that massacred – according to credible estimates – 60,000 Sinhalese youths in the Sinhalese-majority economically-backward rural parts of Sri Lankan nation while a lethal insurrection was taking place in the Tamil north.
This particular Sinhala Nationalism was seen at play during the 2002-2004 Norwegian-brokered Peace Talks when it frustrated a major attempt to address Tamil issues associated with Tamil Nationalism.
The trajectory of both nationalism thus spilled into the new millennium taking different turns with Tamil Nationalism having a serious setback – both in the (2009) battle field and (2019/20) electoral politics as a respected Tamil jurist-turned politician- Justice Vigneshwaran – declared as gone into hibernation . However, Sinhalese Nationalism was taking deep root in Sri Lanka’s body politic, never seen before, well mixed with national security culminating in the election of a ‘Sinhala Only President’ – admitted by the victor Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself – in 2019 never witnessed a polarization of that height in this South Asian nation’s vibrant democracy.
This was seen in the latter part of 1980s that the Sinhalese-educated-economically backward-rural youth rallying round the southern rebellion led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) successfully mobilizing support on the basis of anti-Tamil sentiments, while its competitor the Jayewardene-Premadasa administrations sought to mobilize on the same basis, setting in motion a spiraling dynamic of intra-ethnic competition – both factions facing their formidable foe, Tamil Nationalism.
Some leading ruling party UNP activists were noxious and malicious Tamil-baiters who were suspected of have inspired, if not to have actually organized, anti-Tamil violence. They were involved in the circumstances of the burning of the revered Jaffna library in June 1981, an incident that inflamed Tamil opinion which helped to propel it firmly in the direction of separatism.
The compulsion of the ruling UNP to seize control of the mantle of Sinhala nationalism was seen in state actions to deprive of that opportunity to the JVP during this period, and to starve the rebel movement of this potent source of political oxygen. The Jayewardene-Premadasa administrations were vigorously pursuing the war, leaving no avenues for the Tamils for any negotiations, became unassailable as the champion of Sinhalese interests under the umbrella of patriotism. The 1985 GSL-LTTE Talks in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu in which the GSL rejected all Tamil demands, including the foremost demand of Tamil nationalism: the recognition of a Tamil Homeland. The 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement was at the behest of India.
Any hint of granting concessions to the Tamil minority (12%) was sure to energize nationalist opinion – as was seen in the 2002-2004 Talks – and would also ignite the latent anti-reform, anti-market reform economy and anti-elite sentiment very well contained within Sinhala nationalism. It would have also revived the brewing opposition to the post-1977 economic reforms, which the Jayewardene government had hitherto successfully dispersed, beaten, and into submission. The result was the administration’s extreme reluctant to take even modest steps when Tamil issues were emerging in the early stage of the conflict. Taking the ownership of Sinhala nationalism was foremost for the Jayewardene-Premadasa administrations. The government headed by Jeyewardene himself (1977-1989) was positioning itself as Sinhala nationalist encouraging chauvinism among its ranks – led and spearheaded by his closest Cabinet confidante – to suppress the radicalization of Tamil opinion. This writer witnessed this entire trajectory from the U.S. diplomatic mission in Colombo.
JVP – Sinhalese/Tamil Nationalism
The JVP leadership in the 1980s refashioned its policy planks on a number of important ideological matters, most significantly the emerging trend of Tamil nationalism. The debate within its ranks on the national question, whether to accept democratic rights of the Tamils to determine their political destiny with considerable devolution of administrative and economic power to their provinces in the north, had a natural death with the sudden rise of Tamil nationalism.
With the 1983 pogrom against the Tamils, the JVP – though had no involvement in the anti-Tamil riots – abandoned its consideration of accepting the Tamil right to self-determination. What was viewed at that period was JVP’s capitulation to the strong Sinhala nationalism taking root in the country. With India’s influence on Sri Lanka’s ethnic issues on the rise, in 1986, the JVP analysis of ‘Indian Imperialism’ and ‘Indian Expansionism’ took firm roots in the central component of its ideology. Those who were promoting Tamil nationalism in fact welcomed Indian intervention in Sri Lanka’s ethnic issues which led to JVP’s hardening of its mind-set against Tamil demands.
This ideological position allowed the JVP to have a close association with and garner support of Sinhalese sentiments already expressed against Indian intervention and opposition to the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement that facilitated the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution establishing provincial councils mostly aimed at devolving power to Tamil-majority north-east regions. This scenario became a catalyst for the JVP to project itself as a movement representing Sinhala nationalism and gain widespread support in Sinhalese rural areas in the south while the Jayewardene administration too was endeavoring to – despite the 1987 Agreement and the Thirteenth Amendment – champion the cause of Sinhala nationalism.
The JVP was never active among the Tamil community. It had no organizational cells in the Up Country Tamil plantation areas or in the North and East of the country. Its epicenter had been firmly located in the South and sections of the North-West, Sabaragamuwa and North-Central, having strong roots in low caste villages in the Central Province. Mass massacres were witnessed in several low caste villages in the District of Kandy. These Sinhalese rural enclaves in many districts were in fact approximately 40% of the Sri Lanka’s total 77% rural areas. These are the districts that had strong Sinhalese sentiments shown even during the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary elections. As much as Indian intervention in mid-1980s hardened the Sinhala sentiments, previously it was responsible in aborting the 2002-2004 Peace Talks, and strongly reflecting this ‘nationalism’ in the 2019/2020 nationwide elections. The armed military wing of the JVP, the Patriotic National Front (DJV), was seen – in the late 1980s – hunting and brutally killing those who supported the Thirteenth Amendment and devolution of power to the Tamil community in the North and East, mostly belonging to the governing party.
Central to Sinhala nationalism is the denial that Tamils are a distinct nation or people deserving political recognition that requires a restructured state. This Tamil concept – claim of Tamils as a separate nation associated with their claim to an exclusive territory or homeland – was totally rejected by the Jayewardene administration at the 1985 Thimphu Talks. So was it a central plank of the JVP ideology. The JVP’s 1985-1989 mobilization effort was amplified by the Peace Accord and the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) in June 1987. To the detriment of the administration which itself was flirting with Sinhala nationalism, the JVP was becoming a catchment basin for radical Sinhalese youth who were experiencing the adverse effects of GSL’s post 1977 ‘open economic policies’.
Although the JVP’s emphasis was nationalist rhetoric it attracted support from the economically-depressed youths in Sinhalese villages. A week following the extrajudicial killing of the JVP leader along with many Political Bureau members at a well known burial ground in the heart of Sri Lanka’s capital city Colombo on 13 November 1989 which ended the insurrection, this writer travelled to two villages in the Deep South District of Hambantota, hotbed of the insurrection and still under total control of the JVP fighting cadre, to have an interaction with the youths to discover that seventy-five percent of the entire district subsisted on food stamps confirmed by the GSL’s presiding official of the district, the Government Agent.
Other societal factor that favored the JVP in the 1986-1989 insurrection as much as the 1971 uprising was the caste factor. The insurrection had a considerable amount of support from underprivileged castes such as Batgama and Wahumpura – numerically (25%) second to the Goigama (farmer) caste as they were significantly under-represented in education, business and general economic prosperity.
It is pertinent to mention here the U.S. reaction to the southern insurrection of the Sinhalese youths: Washington’s more emphasis was the issues associated with minority Tamil community. This frustrated Teresita S. Schaffer, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (1989-1992) for South Asia when she made the following remarks in September 1998 to Thomas Stern who interviewed her for the Foreign Affairs Oral History Project of The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.
“The US in the 1989-92 period had human rights high on its foreign policy agenda. In Sri Lanka’s case, it was an awkward situation because that country’s record was deplorable. I am not just referring to the actions against the LTTE or the JVP; in Sri Lanka almost everybody’s human rights were being violated. At one time, Sri Lanka held the world’s record for disappearances. There were also wide-spread reports of torture of accused members of either the LTTE or the JVP. The U.S. was critical of the government’s human rights record; at the same time, we understood the challenges that the government was facing. When it came time for the annual human rights report, the Assistant Secretary for Human Rights was so revolted by the JVP that he wanted to take a much softer public line than the post or the bureau — a very unusual situation. We had to point out to him that the U.S. government had to mention certain specific Sri Lankan violations because they would be raised in Geneva and we would look foolish if we overlooked them”.
Ernestine S. Heck who was Political Counselor at the American diplomatic mission in Sri Lanka (1986-1990) saw firsthand the brutal suppression of the JVP insurrection, its leaders summarily executed.
In an interview on 24 August 1998 for the Foreign Affairs Oral History Project of The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Ms. Heck told the interviewer Charles Stuart Kennedy how everyone was relieved that the Sinhalese insurrection was over:
“One of our big things, as I said, was human rights and we did an awful lot of talking to human rights organizations – there were a few, a couple – and to various NGO groups, Sri Lankan or foreign, who worked in the countryside trying to get a handle on what was happening on the ground as well as the human rights issues. All of this was so patently false.
“Nobody stood up and said anything about it. Everybody was so relieved it was over. The human rights people never publicly, as far as I know, ever under any circumstances made any noises about this obviously fake everybody-dying-while-trying-to-escape routine. They were executed. But everybody was just so relieved that it was over.
So, people tried to just forget it, you know, and start to move on with their lives. It took a little while for the JVP to die out entirely. The army then started in with a vengeance trying to round them up, and they probably killed or caused to disappear a number of totally innocent or mostly innocent people. To be in the south at that point as a young country boy was to be suspected in many cases of being one”.
The indifference of Washington was seen from these pronouncements. Approximately 60,000 village youths were brutally massacred, and the leadership of the JVP summarily put to death were never human rights violations to Washington. The American officials, after all those concluded, “was relieved” and Geneva was another city in this planet.
The rise of Tamil nationalism in the 1980s along with visible reaction associated with Sinhala nationalism had many turns along the way. The battle between the Jayewardene-Premadasa administrations in the late 1970s and 1980s and the Sinhalese youth insurrection led by the JVP to gain ownership of Sinhala nationalism was seen having an effect when administrations attempted to address issues associated with Tamil nationalism leading to the polarization of the Sinhalese race. The peace negotiators at the turn of the century failed to recognize the rise of Sinhala nationalism which resulted in the failure of the endeavor. The battle between the GSL and JVP in the 1980s in fact had serious consequences: the Tamil nationalist voice in the north had a serious setback during the August 2020 parliamentary elections described by a prominent jurist-turned politician in the north as “going into hibernation”. The 2019 presidential election set the tone for this.
Ethno-nationalism, the strong desire to protect Sinhala nationalism, the opposition to issues associated with Tamil nationalism and the desire to have strong national security under a unitary state can be identify as strong factors that brought Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory in November 2019 presidential election with total Sinhalese vote.
It is my belief that Washington, under the Biden administration, is bent on formulating its foreign policy agenda on Sri Lanka taking note of all the developments described above. The Liberals are back in the saddle in Washington to stress democracy and human rights as U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka reminded this week to Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena when both of them met at the foreign ministry.