Colombo Telegraph

‘Only A Pawn In Their Game?’

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“There are not two Germanies, a good one and a bad one, but only one whose best turned into evil through devilish cunning.” – Thomas Mann (Germany and the Germans)

Commenting on the wave of popular unrests which began in 2011 and swept across countries from orient to occident, Joseph Stiglitz opined that “there was a common understanding that in many ways the economic and political system had failed and that both were fundamentally unfair”.[i]

2011 was, in general, a quiet year in Sri Lanka. The majority Sinhala community still dreamed of the peace dividend and believed that the regime would deliver developmental success just as it did martial victory. As the CPA Survey on post-war Sri Lanka reveals, in 2011, a colossal 70% of Sinhalese thought that the general economic situation will get better in the next two years. This delusive confidence in an economically better future stemmed from two interrelated beliefs: in 2011, a majority of Sinhalese thought that both their own financial situation and the general economic situation got better, post-war.[ii]

This sense of wellbeing, confidence and hope would begin to evaporate in the next two years. But by then the Rajapaksa had built enough dams to divert public discontent along ethno-religious channels. The BBS and other extremist organisations, with the full backing of the Ruling Siblings, had started creating a new politico-economic-social commonsense which would, in the next two years, inform public discourse and divert public attention to a sufficient degree. The Sinhala public was told that the unfairness of the political and economic system was sourced in its ‘minority-bias’ and that the peace dividend could not materialise so long as the ‘minority threats’ to ‘Sinhala security’ remained.

In short that the main problem was not Rajapaksa-misrule but minority privileges/depredations.

In Sri Lanka, youth unemployment is as high as 25%-30%; educated unemployment stands at 10.2%[iii]. Since Rajapaksa economic policies are deficient in employment and income generation nationally, the Siblings will need to invest more and more time and effort in dividing divide discontented Lankan youths (along ethno-religious lines) and pitting them against each other. What better way of preventing them from uniting against the real authors of their common misfortunes?

If Sri Lanka shared a land-border with another country, a border-conflict would have been the obvious diversionary method. Fears of Indian/Western intervention are of limited use-value, as the comic-failure of Wimal Weerawansa’s fast demonstrated. Minority phobia has far greater diversionary and divisive potential. It can harness human propensity to fear what is different and incomprehensible.

And it has worked before.

Swabhasha, Hartal and Sinhala Only  

There is nothing  spontaneous or inevitable about the wavelets of minority-phobia which erupt in the Sinhala-South with worrying frequency, any more than there was anything spontaneous or inevitable about the ‘Sinhala Only’ madness.

How did the socio-economic discontent manifested by the Hartal of 1953 become transformed into a racial-religious discontent just two years later? Understanding that transformation is important, given Rajapaksa determination to hurl Lanka down a similar abyss.

The Hartal of 1953 united ordinary Lankans of all ethnicities and religions against their rulers. It was a genuinely popular agitation unmarred by racism in any form. Had that momentum and direction continued, the disaster of 1956 and the tragedies it led to, including the 30-year-war, could have been avoided.

In the run up to and after Independence, there was a genuine demand (predominantly from middle classes) for the gradual replacement of English by indigenous languages. A majority of the elite concurred with this demand. ‘Swabhasha Movement’ rather than ‘Sinhala Only’ was the predominant expression of this demand until 1955. Before ‘Sinhala Only’ was imposed on Tamils, most Tamils willingly accepted the need to learn Sinhalese. For instance, “….between 1938 and 1940 the Hindu Board of Education introduced Sinhala as a compulsory subject in Northern schools and the Jaffna Youth Congress called for Sinhala and Tamil to be made compulsory subjects throughout the country.”[iv]

When JR Jayewardene introduced the first ‘Sinhala Only’ bill in parliament in 1943, three national leaders belonging to the three main ethno-religious communities, CWW Kannangara, V Nalliah and TB Jayah, brought-in three amendments, transforming the act into one of linguistic parity. The SLFP accepted language-parity in its early years and contested the 1952 election on that basis. Even the unexpected defeat he suffered did not make SWRD Bandaranaike dump Swabhasha and embrace ‘Sinhala Only’ until 1955.

SWRD Bandaranaike kept his SLFP out of the Hartal officially. The Hartal’s spectacular success was thus a victory for the left parties. In the 1952 election, the LSSP polled only marginally less than the SLFP and the combined left-vote far exceeded that of the SLFP. With the success of the Hartal behind them, the left parties had a real chance of defeating the UNP and forming the next (coalition) government. That would have incinerated the SLFP’s claim of being the alternative to the UNP and to SWRD Bandaranaike’s dream of becoming the next PM. He latched onto ‘Sinhala Only’ because recasting the increasing socio-economic discontent in a racial mould was the only way he could gain dominance in the oppositional space.

The UNP, instead of fighting this deadly diversion, succumbed to the lure of opportunism a few months later. The Left, while supporting language-parity, entered into an unholy electoral alliance with the openly and virulently Sinhala racist SLFP/MEP (SWRD Bandaranaike won thanks to that unprincipled alliance).

So there was nothing inevitable, nothing fated about 1956. ‘Sinhala Only’ was a fringe slogan which, until 1955, was ignored by the masses and the elite alike. The genuine public demand for Swabhasha was deliberately distorted into ‘Sinhala Only’ by a vocal and power-hungry minority, who regarded it as a vehicle for their own political and economic ascendance. It worked because no major Southern/national party opposed it consistently and continuously.

Thanks to this deadly diversion, Sinhala nationalism and Tamil nationalism, instead of moving towards amalgamation in a common Lankan identity, became opposed to each other and drew strength from this antagonistic relationship. If 1956 ushered in Swabhasha rather than ‘Sinhala Only’, the subsequent fate of the country and of its different communities would have been less tragic and less bloody.

As economic woes multiply and the spectre of popular unrest raises its head (as in Weliweriya and Wanathamulla), the Rajapaksa need to maintain the myth of the enemy among us, who either speaks in an alien tongue or worships alien gods, will grow. The abhorrent attempt by the External Affairs Minister to justify attacks on churches and mosques, in his rebuttal remarks to the US Assistant Secretary of State on South and Central Asian Affairs, is indicative of the core-role accorded to minority phobia by the Rajapaksas: “With respect to incidents that have raised concerns the minister observed that in many instances the facilities concerned were not mosques or churches but makeshift prayer centres whose operations had irked relevant communities.”[v]

Bob Dylan, in his song on the killer of Medgar Evans, says history will judge the murderer (and poor white racists) as ‘Only a pawn in their game’, (of White elites and their paid officials).

That hopefully will not be the fate of Sinhalese and Sri Lanka, again.

[i] The Price of Inequality – Joseph Stiglitz



[iv] Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay and Ethnic Conflict – Neil de Votta

[v] Quoted in the Colombo Telegraph – 3.4.2014

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