3 December, 2020

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Rethinking The Ethnic Imbroglio

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

It is widely accepted that the election defeat of President Rajapaksa shows the maturing of our democracy. But it does not signify a final and definitive victory of democracy: the impressive pro-Rajapaksa rallies at Nugegoda and then at Kandy attest to the continuing wide appeal of racist neo-Fascism in Sri Lanka. We should not, however, jump to the facile conclusion that democracy therefore is not really congenial to the national ethos. We must bear in mind the travails that democracy had to face elsewhere before finally coming through, a process that in Britain took many centuries beginning with Magna Carta. The crucial point is that in recent times we have seen a new dynamism in the Sri Lankan civil society, the essential desideratum without which there can be no democracy worth speaking about in Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately an important aspect, the ethnic aspect, of the last Presidential elections has been very seriously, and perhaps even widely, misunderstood. It has been seen as a victory of the ethnic minorities over the Sinhalese majority. It was on that ground that the former President held that he was not defeated and that the correct position is that he was unseated through a conspiracy, A bizarre argument, surely, considering that the minorities who at the most constitute 30% of the electorate could not by themselves have out-voted the former President. For that, a substantial proportion of the Sinhalese – 45% – had to join the minorities in voting against him. Furthermore, it is a fact that the vote went heavily against him in several true-blue predominantly Sinhalese areas. A most telling point is that the minority ethnic parties – the TNA, the SLMC, and others – voted for the Sinhalese candidate Maithripala Sirisena in the hope that he would end the woes to which they have been subjected by the Sinhalese racist neo- Fascists. The vote transcended the ethnic divide. The correct interpretation of the vote therefore is that it was a victory for the forces working for democracy and solutions for our ethnic problems. In other words, it was a victory for the forces working for a true multi-ethnic nation, the gestation of which we are presently witnessing.

War Victory CelebrationBut the process can of course be aborted. There should be no great difficulty in working out a national consensus on constitutional changes aimed at entrenching democracy. But difficulties could arise over a political solution for the Tamil ethnic problem. It seemed to most of us that the recent elections inaugurated a new period of Sinhalese/Tamil ethnic accommodativeness, but the UNHRC decision to postpone the presentation of the war crimes report by six months has been taken by the Tamils as a defeat for them. The near- unanimous rejection of that decision by Tamils both in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora is quite understandable. What is not so easy to understand is why Chief Minister Wigneswaran chose this moment to demand an international inquiry into alleged Sinhalese genocide against the Tamils since 1948, a demand that has drawn wide Tamil support. I will not go into the rights and wrongs of the genocide charge. Instead I will limit myself to making just one point, a point that is essential to the argument of this article: international inquiry into the genocide charge will not conduce to the spirit of mutual Sinhalese-Tamil accommodativeness that is essential for the working out of a political solution.

After the recent elections it seemed to be halcyon weather on the ethnic front, so that Wigneswaran’s demand came like a thunderbolt out of a bright blue sky. It was deeply disappointing, all the more so as it was unexpected. But should we not have expected something of the sort? After all there have been so many initiatives towards a political solution that came to nothing. Is history going to repeat itself? Is it that when it comes to the ethnic problem the only thing that we Sri Lankans can learn from history is that people will not learn from history? My questions point to the need for a radical re-thinking of the ethnic imbroglio. I suspect that what is needed above all is that each side – the Sinhalese and the Tamils – recognize and acknowledge certain unwelcome truths about their own contributions to the ethnic problem.

It should not be necessary to go into the entire history of Sinhalese-Tamil relations. We can conveniently begin with the period 1970 to 1977 when Sinhalese supremacy over the minorities was established beyond dispute. The imbalance of Tamil over-representation in the State sector was corrected. All that remained to be done was to hold the promised All Party Conference and work out a political solution, which may have been difficult but not impossible. Instead President JR unleashed his State terrorism on the Tamils, which reached its apogee in 1983. There is no rational ground on which the neo-Nazi genocidal 1983 pogrom can be excused. It was an explosion of gratuitous racist hatred towards the Tamils.

At this point I must make a clarification. There is law and there is morality and the two may not coincide. There are many things that are against the law but which may be excused or even approved on moral grounds. We must also take into account the moral conceptions of the international community. I don’t think that there can be the slightest doubt that the international community would have approved of the Tamils taking to the gun after 1983. The Tamils were being reduced to subhuman dirt, there was not the slightest hope of redress from the Sinhalese side, and it would have seemed at that time that the Tamils had no alternative to recourse to the gun to affirm their human status. Thereafter India trained and armed Tamil rebel groups, obviously because in the alternative the fall-out in Tamil Nadu would have been far too inimical to India’s legitimate interests. Certainly what India did was illegal in terms of international law but we have to bear in mind the moral factor. It is a significant fact that there has been no international condemnation worth speaking about of India’s counteraction.

What I have written in the two preceding paragraphs may seem outrageous to some Sinhalese. I must clarify that I am not arraigning the Sinhalese as a whole as racist. My targets here are the racists among the 1977 power elite who allowed a free hand to Sinhalese racists to go on the rampage against the Tamils with total impunity. I want the Sinhalese to recognize and acknowledge that it was those racists, not the Tamils, who were responsible for starting the 30-year civil war. One point to be borne in mind by the Sinhalese is that a huge number of their fellow-Sinhalese – maybe twenty thousand, maybe forty thousand – died in the war and that the primary responsibility for those deaths lies with the Sinhalese racists. Unless these facts are recognized and acknowledged by the Sinhalese as Sinhalese contributions to the ethnic problem there will never be any ethnic reconciliation worth the name in Sri Lanka.

I am not writing this article from a partisan point of view. The Sinhalese racists started the war, but the Tamil racists were responsible for its prolongation after 1994. In the remainder of this article I will mention only the salient points in support of my argument. Hardly anyone doubts that President Kumaratunga was absolutely sincere about a peaceful solution for the ethnic problem, going even to the extent of offering Prabhakaran lordship over the North for a period of ten years. True, she could not push things to a conclusion but the outcome could have been different if during the period 1994 to 2000 there had been a positive response from the Tamil side. The Norwegian peace initiative was rendered farcical by the LTTE insistence that no matters of substance be considered at all until the so-called existential problems of the Tamils were disposed of. Why did the LTTE deliberately sabotage Ranil Wickremesinghe’s chances of victory over Rajapaksa? The former was a soft-liner and his victory would have meant very considerable Western pressure on the LTTE to agree to a peaceful solution. The truth is that the LTTE never wanted a peaceful solution because it was convinced of a military victory and behind that conviction was a notion of Sinhalese racial inferiority. The Tamil side should acknowledge its own contribution to the ethnic imbroglio.

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Latest comments

  • 3
    6

    Well said Sir well said. Tiger Tamils and their Diaspora said “the singala army can never beat us” over and over again and LTTE refused to surrender. They hid behind civilians and they used women and children as human shields in a cowardly unTamil manner. It is the LTTE that hit the last nail on their own coffin. Glad they were wiped out. Now as you said is the time for healing and reconciliation.

    • 4
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      You eulogised the author without properly reading his article! How pathetic. I think the article is extremely well written and pertinent. It urges both communities to introspect.

      It appears that you are still immersed in the everlasting triamphalisim over the demise of the LTTE. I think that it is about time that you wake up see reality.

      • 2
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        Allahu Akbar,

        At last a respected Muslim writer has admitted that the birth of the Tamil liberation movement, the LTTE and the ensuing civil war were caused by the Sinhala racist actions climaxing in 1983 pogrom.

        Sinhala racists in the mean time go on falsifying history by propagating the lie that the LTTE started the so-called terrorism:

        It is the other way about;

        historic Sinhala state terrorism against Tamils created the LTTE!

        Insha Akbar, an independent UN investigation on war crimes and crimes against humanity (Tamils in this instance) must be conducted to establish the facts, and appropriate remedy taken to teach the Sinhala racists what the bitter truths are.

    • 7
      2

      You have failed to mention the role of the Muslim racists in this conflict. Muslims supported the Sinhalese in disenfranchising Indian Tamils and passage of Sinhala only act. Muslims benefitted in the racial discriminatory policies in education and employment at the expense of Tamils. Muslims joined hands with Sinhalese in looting properties of Tamils in 1983. Muslims gave trouble to Tamils in Colombo and acquired the properties of Tamils for a song. Muslims joined hands with Sinhalese to commit murder and ethnic cleansing of Tamils in Eastern province, where Tamils who were the majority have now become a minority.

      • 2
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        Sadly, there’s some truth to your views. Historically, the Tamils have a greater or equal right of abode in Sri Lanka but the Muslims have obtained much more freedom in Sri Lanka than non-Muslims or even Muslims have in Muslim countries. I am not begrudging it but I believe all the different communities, whatever their rights of abode, must have the freedom to live harmoniously without fear or prejudice. We all belong to one race, that is the Human Race.

    • 0
      1

      Pakis,

      As Iszeth Husssian pointed out above the Tamils were forced to take arms in 1983 after your lot (Sinhala Chauvinists) decided to perpetrate another pogrom.

      It was the barbaric and cowardly Sinhala chauvinists like you who were responsible for this massacre then and the genocidal project now underway.
      The LTTE was beaten because of its own stupidity in killing Rajiv Gandhi.The Sri Lankan army alone could not have done anything-they needed China and India.

      Left alone the Sri Lankan army would have run like they did in 2002-taken to their heels-a bunch of poor men lead for years by unscrupulous leaders.

      There is no ‘final’solution that you envisage by ridding the Tamils of the island. Neither the Sinhalese nor the Tamils can have peace until a just solution is found, your lot can’t get away with murder and mayhem forever!

  • 5
    3

    I want the Sinhalese to recognize and acknowledge that it was those racists, not the Tamils, who were responsible for starting the 30-year civil war. One point to be borne in mind by the Sinhalese is that a huge number of their fellow-Sinhalese – maybe twenty thousand, maybe forty thousand – died in the war and that the primary responsibility for those deaths lies with the Sinhalese racists. Unless these facts are recognized and acknowledged by the Sinhalese as Sinhalese contributions to the ethnic problem there will never be any ethnic reconciliation worth the name in Sri Lanka.

  • 5
    1

    If the government takes steps in full measure towards reconciliation by way of quickly releasing the lands grabbed from Tamil civilians and resettling the rightful owners there, releases all those who are held for years on frivolous charges or mostly even no charges, reduces the intimidatory presence of the military to a reasonable level in proportion to the population of the province as in the case of any other province in peace time, allocates sufficient funds for the uplift of the war affected people, then this cry of ‘genocide’ will die a natural death. The initiative should come mostly from the government side which seems to be extremely slow as yet.

    Sengodan. M

  • 0
    0

    It is my genuine opinion, we cannot revert what was already happened howevermuch painful or with whom is the default lies. Ultimately we should realize we all are human and we all should mutually understand our sensitive feelings, greievances genuinely before trying to put the blame on some one.I am a Sinhalese, really I was opted to deliver my best service to the society. I lost almostall my valuable assests for no fault of mine. Whole society rejected me. The government has been temporarily changed, people’s attitudes were not changed. system was not changed, People do not have satisfactory access to information evev today. At present people say money is the priority. Higher ups challenge if you could do it, prosecute the major culprits.We do not know the basis of important decisions for the country. We have no idea of what is true or correct since we cannot rely on the words of even higherups in any field. I could not find a way of living peacefully, since the good is not accepted in general by the whole society. Neverthless power, money are acceptable to the society in a much better sense. This is my real first hand experience.There should a genuine concern to solve people’s problems in a complex critical situation.Being attentive to people’s grievances would do a lot far more than providing physical assets.People voted recently, since they had a sense there would be a concern to their long standing grievances and genuine problems. People’s grieved hearts speak out to the society loudly. When they are never heard that echo could really damage the society may be through different means. Because aching hearts are really painful but not heard by many who are preoccupied.The most severe disease is starvation, those who do not have money money may not have a solution at all. A person never experienced that feeling would be very ligh headed in response to starved people.The suspicion should be blown away through mutual understanding. The soothed community could extend a good helping hand to develop the country through variety of skills and capacities.For that we all should take effort to cross the barrier we are facing by developing faith among all of us.

  • 0
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    What is not so easy to understand is why Chief Minister Wigneswaran chose this moment to demand an international inquiry into alleged Sinhalese genocide against the Tamils since 1948, a demand that has drawn wide Tamil support.

    I think pretty much anything of that nature draws wide Tamil support. As was “Tamilkam” or the existential Tamil separatist project. You’d be a total dimwit to deny that does not exist.

    The downsizing of Tamil representation between 70-77 should be seen in this light. Although I understand how even that did not prevent the Tamil separatist war. The choices are limited but there is no other way as you must see.

  • 0
    0

    While not denying the Writer does have some merit as a commentator on public issues we must remind him, once again, to be careful in his choice of adjectives when he refers to the Tamil race. Here, once again, Hussain uses the unwelcome and provocative expression “sub-human dirt” Surely, Hussain’s vocabulary in English is such he could have chosen more acceptable and elegant language to convey his point. Or does he, in this instance as well, betray his unmistakeable anti-Tamil prejudice – of which, we have had quite a bit in the past. Understandably, Tamil readers in these pages have, inter alia, trashed him for that. Justifiably so.

    Kettikaran

  • 1
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    SM – Agree. These are some of the very issues I have suggested in recent responses to other articles in CT. In fact shortly after May 2009, I wrote an article sent to most of the papers, where I urged that MR should declare Jaffna a BOI zone and attract funds, expertise and commitment from the many diaspora Sri Lankans worldwide. That letter was not published, perhaps the timing was not right, for most Sinhalese were busy feeding each other kiribath on the streets in celebration of the recent termination of the 30 year war and were not in a mood to remotely consider devolution of power to the ‘enemy’.

    In his article IH has also rightly made quite clear the responsibility that must be borne by the Sinhala Buddhist state in creating and nurturing the essential conditions for the LTTE and similar groups. Meaningful devolution must also take place for it is painfully clear that no government from the south can help realize the aspirations of the Tamils in the north. It has done its best to alienate them as citizens of one country. Unfortunately, the new government has not demonstrated any better and is dragging its feet in taking meaningful steps towards reconciliation, since they are focusing on the elections. Mark my words, MS and the UNP will surely come to rue this tardy approach.

  • 0
    2

    There is no view called non partiasan. Normally some say a third party takes a non partisan view. That is wrong. A third party takes a view that is advantageous to the third party. That view can be partisan.

    I think we need to get into the root cause of the conflict. Without addressing the root cause we cannot solve this.

  • 3
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    Mr. Hussain,

    In a single breath you manage to mention Sinhala racists and Tamil racists, NOT mention Muslim racists, AND claim that you are non-partisan, all the while being a Muslim yourself. How did you manage that trick? Amazing.

    As somebody else pointed out here, Muslims in SL have more than their fair share of racists and fundamentalists, who in particular caused huge misery to Tamil civilians. That is not to deny the crimes of LTTE, which were many indeed against Muslims. If all of us correct ourselves the world will be a better place.

    I do agree with the overall message of your article though, which correctly points out the many mistakes made by both Sinhalese and Tamils, but do not forget the crimes of the Muslims next time, will you? And please don’t come up with the excuse that it is ‘only a tiny minority’ among Muslims who are extremists. That may be true but it is no different among Sinhalese or Tamils: the tiny minority commits the crimes, while majority either supports, remains indifferent, or is just too fearful to speak out. The end result is the same.

    • 2
      1

      Please do not forget the fact that over 65000 Muslims were chased out withing 24 hour notice without their belongings in 1990 by the LTTE and yet their settlement back in the areas is an issue. They are ignored by the international community as in 2009, UN only recognised those who were displaced after 2007 leaving the Muslims are out. Some of the houses and property were taken over by Mahaveeran’s family and the army.
      They are a forgotten people, At the elections times they are promised that and this as usual
      Sinhalese were supported by Muslims- yes they did- but MR for whatever reason encouraged the BBS and the Alutgama folks also had to suffer a similar fate as the Tamils in 1983. MR paid heavily for his foolishness. They lived in fear till MS took over.

  • 1
    0

    An excellent analysis. The Sinhalese who wanted Sirisena leaned towards democracy while rejecting corruption and misrule on an unprecedented scale. If the Rajapaksas are to come back with the backing of the overwhelming support of the Sinhala neo fascists that will spell the permanent and bitter end of any semblance of democracy in Sri Lanka.Bensen

  • 1
    0

    Izeth Hussein,
    To understand why LTTE rejected Ranil. W. One has to ask, “Why did Ranil’s peace-talk team, engineered a successful break up of the LTTE? The answer naturally appears to weaken the LTTE. Sivaram knew the details and lost his life trying to bring back the break-away group back together.

    At a time when all the liberal NGOs in Sri Lanka and their international supporters were pushing both sides through the Second Track Diplomacy (They sing a different song now.) and when LTTE peace talk team offered in Oslo to Explore federalism, Why did Rani’s W’s Peace talk team and their co-Chairs decided to hold the meeting to “Draw up the Agenda for the Tokyo meeting?
    They knew very well that LTTE was proscribed and would not be let into the US. LTTE peace-talk team assumed that they were going to Washington DC. When they were told subsequently, they were not, Pirapaharan refused to send his team to Tokyo.

    LTTE did not have anyone to support for the candidacy in the 2005 elections. They unwisely accepted Basil Rajapaksa’s overture little realising the consequences.

    Like you said, neither the Sinhalese nor the Tamils have learnt much from history enough to seek the Middle Path. Ranil. W, Srisena, Chandrika nor Rajapaksa, like all their predecessors did not have a say on a political solution. I am not sure whether the majority of the Sinhala voters who voted for Srisena and his coalition or Rjapaksa can independently propose and support a Middle Path. A Middle Path political solution rests with the leading Buddhist Prelates. Such is “democracy in Sri Lanka”.

  • 4
    0

    Mr.Hussain,

    “The truth is that the LTTE never wanted a peaceful solution because it was convinced of a military victory and behind that conviction was a notion of Sinhalese racial inferiority.”

    Nonsense. The LTTE and its supporters in general were not convinced of a military victory; it was VP himself, in his delusion and based on bad advice from a small number of hardcore diaspora supporters, who did not realize that a number of things, including the Karuna split, the tsunami and the international revulsion against non-state actors following 9/11 Al Qaeda attack on the US, had fundamentally changed the game for the LTTE.

    It was a delusion common to dictators–the same delusion that made Mahinda Rajapaksa think he could easily win a third term, but it had nothing to do with any notion of ‘racial superiority’ among Tamils.

    Because the LTTE was a top down organization where the leader’s word was gospel and there was no transparency, everyone below VP simply believed VP himself must have had enough tricks in his arsenal before deciding on the final war. They found out the hard way that the emperor had no clothes, and were in denial even for a considerable time after the war ended. The same way Dayan Jayatilleka found out that his emperor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had no clothes, but is still in denial.

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