1 December, 2022


Keeping Ethnic Conflict From Getting Back To Centre Stage 

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

The ethnic fault line in society was exposed in the clash between two groups of students at Jaffna University last week. The immediate cause of the dispute was a late request by Sinhalese students at the university to perform the traditional Sinhalese Kandyan dance at a ceremony to welcome incoming new students. This request was turned down by the organizers of the event. However, the following day when the event took place a Kandyan dancing troupe made its appearance which was resisted by the larger student body. The end result was a violent confrontation between two groups of students who divided on ethnic lines. This resulted in the temporary closure of the university, and the university administration, in an abundance of caution busing the Sinhalese students out of Jaffna.

Both sides to the dispute had their cases to make. On the side of the organizers the previous practice had been to only have a traditional Tamil cultural procession as an opening item on the agenda. The request for a change had come only the day before the event when the programme for the event had already been finalized. On the other hand, the students who wanted the insertion of the Kandyan dance argued that a significant proportion of the incoming students were Sinhalese and in addition the Science Faculty which they were joining had a majority of Sinhalese students in it. This was a problem that might have had an outcome based on a win-win solution if the focus had been on meeting the needs of the two student groups rather than on the contrary positions they took, which alas had no meeting point.Jaffna students' clash picture via https-::twitter.com:uthayashalin

There is speculation that the conflict arose because some of the students wanted a conflict that could be politicized. Most universities in Sri Lanka are invariably hotbeds of extremist politics which are dominated by student unions which tend to be extremist in their orientation. Most of them are also affiliated to national political parties which their leaders might wish to be part of at the conclusion of the period of their university studies. However, the irony is that the majority of the larger student body tends to be moderate and focused on engaging in their studies without getting embroiled in political disputes. As might have been expected some of the political parties and their leaders seized upon the issue in a manner so as to highlight their continuing relevance.

Immediate Response 

On the positive side, and unlike in the past, immediate actions were taken by a number of actors and on a number of fronts to defuse the brewing crisis. The highest levels of government including the President and Prime Minister gave attention to the developments in order to ensure that there would be a resolution of the conflict. The decision of the Jaffna University authorities to close the university and to send back the Sinhalese students to their homes a safety measure was deemed by the government leaders as too extreme a step, which they countermanded. Instead increased attention was given to ensuring that adequate safety to the Sinhalese students, or any other student f or that matter, was available in Jaffna itself.

In addition, and unlike in the past, there were several statements that were immediately issued by Tamil political leaders and by university teachers from Jaffna that condemned the violence and urged calm. The power and influence of those who sought to calm the situation was much greater than those who might have wished to increase the tensions for their own purposes. As a result the clash between the two groups of students in Jaffna could not grow to communal proportions. The ability of all concerned to prevent the conflict from escalating is an indication of how inter-ethnic relations in the country are better than they have been in the past, and are on an improving trend. On the other hand, probing the roots of the conflict, the Northern Provincial Council issued a statement that identified the demographic pattern of the North and East after the war as being consciously changed and students from other provinces being admitted in large numbers into Jaffna University.

The statement issued by the Northern Provincial Council and signed by both its Chief Minister and Opposition Leader, and which cannot simply be dismissed as being the political maneuverings of extremists, contains feelings and facts that need to be taken seriously. The Northern Provincial Council represents the population of the Northern Province and not just a small fraction of the people. The views articulated by the Northern Provincial Council can sometimes be diametrically opposed to the views of those in other parts of the country including the government. But even when those views are unpalatable to the government, the truth in them needs to be discerned and responded to. In this instance the Northern Provincial Council has stated that the influx of Sinhalese students into Jaffna University is akin to cultural colonization.

Conflict Sensitive 

During the past Vesak festival I happened to be in Jaffna and travelled past the university. Its entrance and the park in front of the university buildings appeared to be a sea of lanterns and other Vesak decorations. I wondered whether other universities in other parts of the country, including those where Sinhalese were the dominant population, had Vesak celebrations on the scale that was being practiced in Jaffna University. It is unlikely that the students alone would have had either the economic resources or the physical capacity to put up those decorations on a large scale. In a context in which Tamil grievances have included the sense of their traditional areas of inhabitation being changed by state-sponsored colonization, it is necessary to adopt a more low key approach to highlighting Sinhalese cultural symbols in Tamil dominant areas.

A similar conflict sensitive approach needs to be adopted to modify the system of admission to universities in different parts of the country. On the one hand, it is necessary to keep in mind that the universities are part of a national system in which merit is the primary criterion for selection for university admission. On the other hand, the universities in Jaffna, Batticaloa (Eastern University) and Oluvil (South Eastern University) have been seen by the ethnic and religious minorities as flagships of the cultural ethos of the communities that are a majority in those areas. When the ratio within the student body gets totally out of proportion to the prevailing ethnic ratio in those areas, it creates tensions that can spill over from the universities into the large society. The clash in Jaffna was preceded in March this year by a clash between Tamil and Sinhalese university students in the Trincomalee campus of Eastern University over an incident of ragging.

In Jaffna it was reported that Sinhalese students in the Science Faculty amounted to 60 percent while overall in the university it is about 25 percent. In Eastern University in Batticaloa the situation is broadly similar with the Science Faculty having 76 percent, Commerce 84 percent, medicine 52 percent and agriculture 78 percent in terms of the Sinhalese students for the 2013/14 batch in which the overall Sinhalese presence is about 50 percent. It may be necessary to restructure the university admissions which is currently based on a national merit-based policy or permit the provincial councils to set up regional universities that can give priority to local area students. There could also be an option of fee paying students who could come from the immediate geographical area which could increase the ethnic representation in the universities to approximate the area in which they are located. Most importantly, a relationship of trust and cooperation needs to permeate the student consciousness and the larger community level also. There is a need for a more concerted effort to be made for people-to-people engagement to develop greater understanding and sensitivity to the concerns of each ethnic and religious community.

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Latest comments

  • 6

    Of course there must be sharing of cultures. But
    1.The context of all-powerful militarisation must be taken into context in Jaffna
    2.Composition of intake of students has to be looked at seriously:

  • 8

    We are still a nation which love to wallow in ethnic lines. Disappointing to learn that our society is remiss not to learn a lesson from the atrocious past.

    Why do you always want to draw a connection between any issue and ethnic line? Does every issue emanate from ethnicity? Most Sri Lankans are still obsessed with racism. please shed your racist attire and be with humanness.

    • 6

      The author is pleading with the government for humaneness. Just read the article.
      Successive governments from 1948 till today have not been treating the ethnic minorities with humaneness. That is what they have been struggling for so long. No solution in sight.

  • 5

    All what Jehan boy has requested above will happen when the Federal Constitution is in place with Police and Land Powers. This guy has lost his onions. University placement in the country has nothing to do with ethnicity it is all to do with the Z score. This is Diaspora funded plan to create the tension. This is how it begins next it will be roads being blocked with burning tyres, Hartals, stoning busses. This is just the beginning.

    • 11

      Root cause of Srilanka problem is the racist supremacist mindset of Sinhalese, brainwashed by Mahavamsa. There is institutional racism in every aspect of life in Srilanka.
      Look at the remark made by President of Srilanka Cricket Thilanga Sumathipala on Muthiah Muralitharan as unpatriotic and betrayal, just because he had been appointed by Australian Cricket board as their spin bowling coach for their Srilanka tour.
      No one made such comment when Mahela Jayawardena was appointed by England Cricket board as their batting coach for the series against Srilanka in England. Is it because Mahela is a Sinhalese and Murali is a Tamil, for people to come out attacking.
      Also in the present Pakistan tour of England, Saqlain Mushtaq has been appointed as a spin bowling coach by England Cricket board and no Pakistani has said it is unpatriotic and betrayal.

  • 7

    We have been here before. Small groups of troublemakers looking for opportunities to stir up hatred from out of the most innocent of situations. It many case they hijack an event in order to manufacture trouble. All decent people in positions of authority need to be on the lookout for these miscreants. We must never let ourselves be led down the route of those who would sow the seeds of discord for their political or ‘nationalistic’ gain.

    There is future for ALL the good and decent people of our island nation. Like everything, we ALL need towards it. Peace and prosperity does not come easy, communities have to work towards it.

    • 1

      Spring Koha:-
      Do you think that these “Small groups of troublemakers looking for opportunities to stir up hatred” are funded by Weapons Manufacturers who are looking desperately for Agents to Market their Deadly Ware?

  • 0

    “There could also be an option of fee paying students who could come from the immediate geographical area which could increase the ethnic representation in the universities to approximate the area in which they are located.”

    Ha…Ha…I knew it would come to this. This wonderful idea is to set aside a portion of the university places freely available to the children of this country for fee paying students, who are also found ethnically suitable in the name of preserving cultural sensitivity, peace and reconciliation. Who would have thought.

    I have a better idea. Move SAITM to Kilinothchchi. Award fee paying degrees to Tamils only. For those who can’t afford the diaspora can sponsor a scholarship here and there. Most of all if any of those annoying GMOA backed protestors ever turn up in Kilinotchchi ( I know they would never) a good beating is guaranteed without a cent of tax payer money being spent on police or teargas. What do you think? Two birds, one stone.

  • 5

    The “Kandyan dancing troupe” mentioned was from the army.
    Professional ‘kandyan dancers’ are not available in the north.

    The military celebrated seven day long Vesak festivities in the north though such festivities had been cancelled in the south due to many hundreds of deaths due to landslides.

    Selection of students for entry to universities is according to the Z score, but the appointments to the many universities is by the UGC.

    It is reported that most of the Sinhalese students have not returned for studies, though all Tamil students had returned.

  • 5

    Hasn’t Sri Lanka seen enough violence since independence due to political trickery and opportunism for centuries? Why must Cultural pageants be part of Freshmen admissions instead of seminars on how to use Information Technology, how to use the library, how to communicate with each other? If there is a need for cultural pageants, why can’t UGC have a set of guidelines and protocols covering all universities to do away with “us vs. them”?

    Please no more carnage based on rumour mongering. As a privileged Sinhalese we all witnessed in horror in 1983 when carnage was unleashed. Then came the rumour mongering of the “koti enawa duwapung duwapung” day which was July 27th if I recall. Everyone was driving and running away from Colombo. I was trapped on the Kohuwela Road coming back to Colombo after getting the Paddy milled at the Rice millers on the Kohuwela Road and had to turn around and go to a friend’s house. Then finally after days of carnage, bloodletting and burning the Machiavellian regime declared Curfew. I was lucky to have a friend who lived off of Wijemangalarama Road to go stay there until my family got a curfew pass. It was tense. Now imagine if we were Tamil. ENOUGH divisions. Legislation cannot bridge cultural gaps and racial gaps that exist; having lived for so long in the US, everyday I see the massive gap between black and white in perceptions. I see that in my students. I see that not just in the history of repression and laws that dehumanized black people but also forced them to be second class citizens even after the civil war ended. But there is hope as we see more and more interracial interactions now in the younger generation of Millenials who are idealistic. It is still a small step but a small step in the right direction where people do not see the color of their skin as a barrier to interaction, socializing and even marriage.

    Enough violence. If people are informed of the similarity in the problems facing the poor be they Sinhala/Tamil/Muslim then perhaps people will realize that the deprivation of resources, and inequitable access to resources has no racial bias? Why did the South and the deprived provinces of the Highlands give rise to two very violent Sinhala uprisings? Isn’t it because of poverty and same conditions as in the North where Prabakaran was able to mask that in racial terms?

    Why not improve travel and get the State and local governments to encourage people to go live with the other community for a while? For example people from Jaffna go to Hambantota and vice versa to experience first hand their problems or just even cross over to border villages where the LTTE struck terror all the time? Just some random thoughts.

    If Royalist JRJ acted immediately when the riots broke out, and clamped curfew that carnage could have been avoided. But no, they refused to act for 4 days because they wanted Black July to happen.

  • 1

    When I taught at USJ, almost weekly we had some disruptions because student groups with too much free time(inevitably they were from Arts and Commerce Streams and not the Science stream) would clash. You come to the gate and the security says “mahathathaya ada strike; gedera yanna” with a smirk. You turn around and go back. People assault each other and fight; most of these are testosterone loaded males who posture and become macho and want to fight. Then they would disrupt lectures. UNP was very powerful those days so their unions countered the JVP thugs; they all demand and expect entitlements and want free free free education without delivering on their expectations and responsibilities. We lost so many days due to strikes and clashes that it was not even funny. I suspect the clash in Jaffna also was based on this “we are better” bullshit and my dick is bigger than your dick mentality of some young boys who wanted to play for tribal dominance and establish who the Alpha males were.

    If Universities are controlled by the Provincial governments will they lose their national rankings and national funding? That is not a good idea. In the US where fees are required and charged even in non-profit State Universities(most of their funding comes from the states, some from Federal and their revenue and fees and NOT just the Federal government as in the Central govt of SL; that is in direct contrast to Sri Lanka) and becoming exorbitantly high by the year, “out of state” tuition is two to three times that of a local student. In addition, if a foreign student is admitted he/she is required to have health insurance too.

    Here is a real example of a current MidWest State (non private) University. An Undergraduate coming in this Fall 2016 to do 12 to 18 credit hours will pay $8546.00 if he/she is local or has reciprocity with some neighboring state. Now if a person from California attends that same Uni, they will pay $18,876.00 per year. An international student has other fees too. Yet, Rich Indians and Chinese are now becoming Undergraduates at top Unis in the USA like never before. It is amazing. Some of the rich Chinese kids are clearly from spoilt backgrounds and drive around even in Maseratis, BMWs and Porsches because of their overindulgent parents I guess! I am sure there are some Sri lankans who won the war lottery and have daddys and mommys in politics also fall into that category(As Dr. Sheldon Cooper says “is that sarcasm?”)

    Budgets for State Unis is mostly from State appropriations and some Federal funding. Federal and state funds have different missions. The majority of state funding is used to fund specific public institutions, whereas federal funding is generally awarded through student aid and research grants. State funding goes primarily to public institutions, while federal funding goes to students at public, private and for-profit colleges, and to researchers at public and private universities.In 2013 the federal government spent nearly $76 billion on higher education, while states spent about $3 billion less, according to the “Federal and State Funding of Higher Education” study. Federal support include nearly $25 billion in research funding obligations, which are paid over a series of years depending on the length of a research project.

    So I am not sure if that system will work in small poor nation where admission to free public universities is restrictive by virtue of the limit to resources and limit to. Will Northern Province Government have enough money to fund Universities? No. It comes and has to come from the same central government. So in that case, you cannot favor a certain race over another in admissions because all tax payers and revenue from the entire Island pay for all universities.

    You are proposing a dangerous thing; what you are saying is to achieve diversity, to ignore merit and give way to political correctness? So does it mean the best Medical Universities in SL (Colombo and Kandy) whose degrees are recognized in the West, must now “represent” the local make up and have more Sinhalese? That is racist and discriminatory because that means the smart Tamil students will not get access to free education in the best place. What about all the brilliant Tamil students?

    What you are suggesting is a “quota” system which is now becoming hugely unpopular in the US. It means Kandy will have to be almost 80% Sinhalese ? Then what happens to all the top brains in Engineering etc who are Tamil?

    Here in the US, the charges are people with lesser qualifications are being admitted to maintain diversity. Even in Tier 2 State universities some fear quotas now. That is not a good thing for education. Giving financial help to enable poor students to succeed is good but once you start having quotas you start putting the same barriers you say you are against.

    Asians feel they are discriminated against in admissions to top Unis like Harvard. Didn’t you do a fellowship at Harvard or get your JD there? Asian Americans are required to have an SAT score 140 HIGHER than their White cohorts. In 2008, over half of all applicants to Harvard with exceptionally high SAT scores were Asian, yet they made up only 17 percent of the entering class (now 20 percent). Asians are the fastest-growing racial group in America, but their proportion of Harvard undergraduates has been flat for two decades.(NYTIMES, 2014/11/15). he total 2015-2016 cost of attending Harvard College without financial aid is $45,278 for tuition and $60,659 for tuition, room, board and fees combined. Damn only the rich Arms dealers and politicians from the third world can afford to send their kids there unless you get a full scholarship or a partial scholarship.. Do you want that to happen in Sri Lanka?

    Even in Tier 2 State universities some fear quotas now. That is not a good thing for education. Giving financial help to enable poor students to succeed is good but once you start having quotas you start putting the same barriers you say you are against.

    So if you propose fees, then does it mean someone going to Medical School in Colombo but is from Amparai or Jaffna should pay 3 times more?

  • 2

    Also a follow up.

    You said this; not sure if you learnt this at Harvard.
    In this instance the Northern Provincial Council has stated that the influx of Sinhalese students into Jaffna University is akin to cultural colonization.

    Does it mean that students at Colombo, and Kandy Universities can argue the same? Aren’t you deliberately trying to put more barriers? I am not for “in your face” cultural or piety pageants of any sort to show “hey i am holier than thou”.So I understand if people are doing “in your face” insensitive celebrations to show the uber dominance of one over another in Jaffna now.

    But your statement is incendiary. WHAT IF the people in Colombo and Kandy Unis now feel the same? What about all the brilliant Tamil Students at Moratuwa Campus? Pera? Colombo?Why not a link language instead of trying this regionalization you advocate? That is dangerous no? Tolerance is a multi-way street; and so is reconciliation. You need to inculcate that not only amongst Sinhala Uni students but Tamil students in Jaffna Uni too. That does not mean one subjugates another.

    • 3

      Could I pose a question, Mano,
      Will the students association in the Universities in the South allow Thavil and Naathaswarm which are from the Tamil culture be played in Uni functions? There cannot be one rule for one and another for the other. The majority minority complex prevails.

  • 2

    Mano you are talking to Jehan he get paid Diaspora Dollars to write what he has exactly written. Change the Authors name to Sumanthiran, Sambanthan Vigreshwaran will not sound different.

  • 1

    I do not care about piety and religiosity but there is another angle you make comments about. Too much “in your face” religiosity is repugnant to many.

    But one of the most beautiful things about coming back to SL after being an economic emigre’ aka “diaspora”, is to see how beautifully the Colombo Airport is decorated for Christmas. So what if some Buddhist Chauvinist BBS type objects to this as being “colonization by Christians?”.No that would be wrong and mean spirited. State funds are spent to respect and celebrate Xmas the religion of a minority. That is beautiful. I love those decorations and so does my family.

    It would be absurd to object to some simple gestures right? Even Dubai Airport has Xmas trees but they do not call it Xmas. So it one of the most heartening sites to see because even in the US, this political correct crap has taken out Christmas from state institutions. One of the Secretaries in the management department in the Business school I worked had some Christmas ornaments and a Wreath on the door; guess who objected to it and complained to the Dean and that simple little lady had to take it off? THE JEWISH head of the Mgmt Department. I guess he is a liberal who believes in the separation of church and state. But these were not Crosses, or Nativity scenes; just some wreaths and bells. You know what I did to react? I Put a BIG Merry Christmas sign on my door with a Poinsettia wreath. Why? because most of my students are Christians. I also held with our personal money a Xmas party for my students. They loved coming to those; they sang Xmas carols and I joined in. Does it matter I am not a Christian? hell no. I did not burst into flames; we did not engage in religiosity but had a good time with my student association students some of whom were battle hardened veterans!

    Similarly, for Vesak because it is the tradition, the Airport in Colombo has pretty Lanterns. Why not? It is pretty in an otherwise dull and now soon becoming rundown airport due to bad management of toilets etc. Sri Lanka observes Ramadan and Thai Pongal and Deepavali. “IS that colonization and too much of culture”?. NOPE

    Live and let live. Are you deliberately trying to create more divisions between Hindus and Buddhists whose cultures intertwine greatly in the Sri Lankan cultural context?

  • 4

    The Kandiyan dance, normally staged inside the hall every year for such occasions but not outside. This time, the Sinhalese students, at the last moment demanded the inclusion of the Kandiyan dance outside the hall, starting from the entrance. It seems the organisers told the Sinhala Students that their request would be met the following year. But the Sinhala students insisted on their demand. This brought about the clash between the two groups. There was also an outside force involved in this episode.
    There is only one way to solve the majority minority division and peace in the country. The Northern and Eastern provinces to secede from the mainland.

    • 1

      I agree with you Sellam. I don’t think any of it is relevant to welcoming freshmen. Afterall they will be abused and ragged. I think if they’re doing it, do it all but give first place to the local culture. But I prefer if they don’t have any of it. That’s why I thought it was absurd to get non Buddhist cricketers to wear pitith nool at religious observations before cricket teams go abroad? If they want blessings let them do all or better none. AUSSIEs don’t do suxy. There is no rational logic to do that except to feel good. So in that case let all cricketers go privately to their places of worship.

      But IF they’re doing it, then let UGC have protocols to say Tamil students in Pera, colombo or moratuwa should have second place for naagasalaam.etc.

      I say none of it. Instead orientation on safe sex, stopping bullying, stopping verbal harassment and sexual harassment via multi lingual training dramas and lectures.

  • 0

    Or the university and education system could be privatized.

    Government should not be in the business of educating people.

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