12 June, 2024


The Core Problem Is the Elites, Not The People

By Sanka Chandima Abayawardena –

Sanka Chandima Abayawardena

This article is a response to Ms. Ambika Satkunanathan and Mr. Asanga Welikala, who both wrote detailed responses to my previous article ‘Reconciliation in Sri Lanka means the youth must lead the way’. Both responses are extremely logical and based on the assumption that the problem in Sri Lanka is between ethnic identities of Tamils and Sinhalese, not the political paradigm. This is where my argument differs in core content, as I do not recognise that Tamils and Sinhalese have a natural ethnic problem just because they belong to those identities. The issue is politically manufactured in the attempt to govern Sri Lanka in line with western norms and traditions.

The two writers have based their entire arguments on this unstable ground, which has been proven to be false in the eyes of the public of Sri Lanka numerous times. The argument that the Sinhalese public, not their dominant and authoritarian leadership nor the Tamil elite ruling class, have discriminated against the Tamil population and deprived them of their basic civil rights is completely wrong.

Both Satkunanathan and Welikala assume that the resolution to Sri Lanka’s issues is the devolution of powers on ethnic and religious boundaries, though not to ground level. They also assume that my writing reflects the ideals of the current government, and that the government is the one setting all aspects of the political agenda of the country including the wider public ideology.

As you may know, Sinhalese is not an ordinary ethnic identity like Tamil. Sinhalese is more a set of cultural groups, while Tamils are more of a tribal identity. Thus, treating Sinhalese as that of a national identity is a principle mistake made by all those in the Colombo school of politics in Sri Lanka.

There are two very important aspects in Sri Lankan reconciliation. One is to have justice delivered at the local level, and the other is to bridge divided communities by promoting social, economical, political, and religious links. In Sri Lanka the second matter has been implemented with tremendous speed, as can be clearly understood by anyone studying the programs of certain governmental ministries in the former conflict zones. This is true especially of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development, where free thinking young people are given considerable opportunities to dictate national policy to the central parliament. The first aspect of reconciliation has been rather slow, for many reasons but chiefly due to the complex groundlevel political and bureaucratic issues. This cannot be changed at all by foreign intervention with a liberal cloth on it.

Elites, not groundlevel communal violence, created the Tamil Tigers

It is a common mistake to assume that the Tamil-Tigers came in to existence as a result of violence in 1983, and it is a further mistkate to dub this violence ‘communal conflict’.  It is a proven fact that the people who robbed Jaffna elections, burned down Tamil businesses, killed Tamil people, even burned the world renowned Jaffna public Library were government sponsored thugs led by influential politicians. In my home town of Divulapitiya it was the local council chairman, a member of the governing party then, who robbed the Tamil jewellery shops while ordinary Sinhalese civilians helped out the victims. There is clear evidence to show that current main opposition party leaders actively took part in the right wing attacks against Tamil civilians that were triggered by the assassination by the LTTE of 13 soldiers in a bomb blast in Jaffna. The Tigers came in to existence long before the violence of 1983, which was not just a one-sided incident. There were numbers of Sinhalese civilians who were killed by Tamil militant groups at that time too.

Going further back, it must be noted that India’s political and military agenda against the government from 1977 to 1994 played a key role in how these numerous Tamil militant groups came in to being.

But the very seed of an armed fight to win the demands of militants came about because Tamil youth were frustrated in the political environment they were stuck in. This environment was largely a result of the work of the elite Tamil political system: to this day it can be clearly seen how traditional Tamil families rule the Tamil politic without leaving any room for new emerging youth agendas.

Going back to 1956, the way the postcolonial government’s language laws and university quota system were interpreted also contributed heavily to the issue. The undereducated and misinformed Tamil community never understood that they were being played on a chess board by the elite political class to save their privileged way of life. Instead of seeing the true intention of making Sinhala the State language in 1956 as being to prepare for the localisation of governance – a demand among the majority since 1815 – elite political schools interpreted it as an attempt to deprive Tamils of their right to work in their mother language. The simple political solution of giving Tamil recognition as a working language could not even be seen as a solution in 1956 and after, because of the undue pressure mounted by the Tamil elite as well as the definitions given to them by Sinhala Nationalists.

This is very clear in the demand that 50% of the legislative be for Tamils, who were around 10% of the population. It was clear that frustration was great amongst the Tamil elite, who were losing political and civil power after the establishment of free education to all and universal voting rights in the country.

Sinhala elites such as the Bandaranaike and Senanayake families also faced the same issue, but because they were from Sinhalese backgrounds they managed to establish their socialist or conservative stances and so secure their power by attracting votes.

Stating that Sinhala Buddhists sought to establish a nation state is wrong as it was the need of the Sinhala elite, not the polity, to dominate the nation state to secure their power base, just as with the Tamil elite to have a Tamil nation state. This is why there was a long standing political conflict between Tamil and Sinhala elites. Also the issue is not with the governments of Sri Lanka not being willing to share power with ethnic minorities: all governments after 1948 have had considerably large Tamil and Muslim representation in them.  Rather it lies with their unwillingness to devolve power through grassroots level mechanisms, independent of ethnic or religious identities.

Resistance to the elite agenda

In Sri Lanka people frequently forget about the role of the Tamil elite political class and do not hesitate to put the blame on civilian populations to prove their view point and understandings and versions of the story, as if they were acting independently of political leadership. It is true that the Mahavamsa [the Sri Lankan epic upon which Sinhala Buddhism is founded – ed.] had and still has an unimaginable influence on how the Sinhalese define their rootedness to the land. It is true that Sinhalese as a community is very patriotic. But they themselves too are discriminated against by an English-speaking elite, like their fellow Tamil citizens. Both communities had the same issues. Young People of both communities went restless due to more or less same reasons. Both communities were discriminated for who they are and what they stand for and their resistance to adopt western political norms as their own. Unfortunately both communities are the victim of elite definitions of what their problems are. The Tamils suffer more from this than Sinhalese, as they lacked the communal cultural and ideological structures with which to resist, which became very helpful to the Sinhalese in 1956 and 1970.

The issue of language

The Sinhalese population took 60 years to migrate from supporting a weak multi-lingual policy to an actively multilingual policy, which came into action in 2012. The irony is that the same political group who introduced the new national policy, in 1956 made Sinhala the State language replacing English while overlooking Tamil needs of having there administrative needs addressed in their own language.

These developments are too big to be misread or skipped: in 1956 Sinhala was replacing English and not Tamil. So technically the policy didn’t mean to discriminate against Tamil speakers as before 1956 Tamil, along with its sister language Sinhala, didn’t have any rights as a language. But in implementing the language policy of 1956, Tamil citizens had to face issues in administration services that were using Sinhala. This battered their day to day life. This situation lead to the point where it was catering for the elite Tamil political need of asking for more autonomy, a demand which was designed to keep the power to themselves which was speedily slipping from their hands.

Terrorist maniacs like the Tamil Tigers, and their international support networks active in the UK, Norway, France, Australia and Germany to this day, campaign to satisfy this elite political need of creating a mono-ethnic fascist national state for the Tamil people.

I totally agree with Mr. Walikala in saying that it is important to stratify the legitimate political aspirations of Tamil people, but must state that Tamils are not the only group of people who are deprived of the same rights in the country. All those who don’t enslave themselves to the ruling elite political classes are deprived of their very basic civil rights just like in many other countries.  It is also important to know that the demand for a separate country, and the false and misleading arguments made in trying to prove its necessity, is not what the people are asking for. What they want is the right to work in their own mother tongue in their dominated areas and island wide, the right to have unrestricted access to public health and education, the right to take part in decision making processes at the national level and proper recognition in those processes. These are the same rights which Sinhala majority took arms for against the government in 1971 and more or less in 1989. On neither of those occasions did they take arms against their fellow Tamil or Muslim Sri Lankans.

The question is not just about the Rajapakse regime, but rather about the community wiliness to make the governments they have elected do what they want them to do, and the government’s capacity to implement them.

Commemoration and accountability

It is an accepted fact that all communities need some sort of commendations for the fallen. But calling the new post-conflict version of the Tamil Tigers’ maha-vir day outcry for a public ceremony to commemorate those who have died is an example of pro-Tiger activism. Maha-vir day originally commemorated and glorified suicide bombers and ethnically motivated attacks tigers did in July every year. It is dangerous to call Black July Tiger commemoration day a public need of the Tamil people when Tiger fronts world wide are using the post-conflict version of black July day as a rallying point for another attempt to re start what they lost in May 2009.

However I must say that I am not ‘incapable of contemplating the possibility that Sri Lankans who call for accountability, or at least for an appropriate acknowledgement of the fact that massive human rights violations did occur in the final phase of the conflict, might be motivated by their own ideas of reconciliation, pluralist citizenship and constitutional patriotism, albeit a rights-based conception of ‘Sri Lankan-ness’ that differs from [my] own’. [Quoted fromAsanga Welikala, Ed.]

The current government has a problem in this regard with some of its ruling political opinions. But in falsely assuming that I myself am a representation of the current ruling politic and accusing me falsely of incapability shows that the writer is not capable of understanding the dynamics outside his political school [the ‘Colombo political school’. Ed.].

Liberal ideas and foreign intervention

In terms of the ideological base for a foreign intervention, I’m sure that there are very few instances where foreign interventions were done with the view of establishing liberal values. It is a known fact that an intervention mostly does not carry any liberal value but a liberal cloth to hide the true political and military agenda of those intervening.

Not only Sinhalese would fight against any such international intervention, but also Tamils too. This is the lesson we can learn from the deployment of Indian forces in Sri Lanka in the  early 1990s. My opposition to an international intervention to ensure accountability for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity is because such an intervention cannot ensure accountability and justice to the victims. The argument is not all about whether the accusations are against the government or the LTTE; it is entirely about the hidden agendas behind the selectiveness of foreign interventions, uninvited by the mass public. Like in many other countries this mass public is quite different from the English speaking public who write and speak to the mainstream international media.

Ms. Ambika Satkunanathan claims that the voices of those youth who were sent to rehabilitation centres for alleged affiliation with the LTTE have effectively been silenced. But on the contrary, most of these youth as well as other young people in the former conflict zones are given the opportunity to follow vocational training and skills development programs, community building programs, capacity building initiatives for participation in democratic and national policy making initiatives. The best example to answer this false basis is the example of young people who got elected in to TNA local councils in the north, who were originally elected members of Sri Lanka Youth Parliament. While acknowdging the social implications for former women fighters of LTTE it must be stated that the security status of the North is not yet stable. For a country that went through a 30 year long conflict, it is very much a national interest to monitor former LTTE combatants. The methods of implementing such security agendas should be discussed separately of the goal they are trying to achieve as the problem is not in the need but in the process.

Why is youth the key?

I agree with Asanga Welikala that reconciliation is lasting when it is revisited by later generations. This is why Sri Lankan youth has to lead reconciliation, and they will, as that’s the generational need of their time. They are the generation who will look back on the conflict and related issues one day and put the foundations for ONE Sri Lanka. Young people in any country are the only constituency able to invest energy and out-of-the-box thinking in changing the system. This is why almost all leftist revolutions around the world have been youth centred. When there are no creative political movements to match generational needs young people try to engage the closest thing to change the system. This is why JVP and its outdated political thinking to this day in Sri Lanka is enjoying considerable youth support in Sri Lanka. This is also why they supported a huge military campaign of their elected government to wipe out LTTE as they want to see the balance of power in Sri Lanka change in favour of Sri Lankan interests instead of western and Elamist agendas. This is exactly why young people are in the centre of reconciliation processes in Sri Lanka.

This article originally appeared on openSecurity in the debate ‘Is reconciliation possible in Sri Lanka’. Calls for localism have been countered by calls to uphold global standards of human dignity and social justice in post-war Sri Lanka. The debate examines what reconciliation can mean for Sri Lankans in the aftermath of 2009, ending with a strong call to move beyond the local/international dichotomy.

Previous posts related to this debate;

Nation-Building In Sri Lanka: The Potential And The Promise

Reconciliation Is Not Happening In Sri Lanka, And The Problem Isn’t A Question Of Time

Reconciliation In Sri Lanka Means The youth Must Lead The way

‘Reconciliation In Sri Lanka Means The Youth Must Lead The Way’: A Sceptical Response

‘What Sri Lanka Is…’: Acknowledging The Ethnic Conflict In Post-War Reconciliation

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Latest comments

  • 0

    On the whole, an interesting reflection though I may not agree with its idealistic tone that Sinhala nationalism was at all times, blandly benign and that the problem was with the elites.

    True, Sinhala and Tamil elites were both to blame but perhaps it is worth asking ourselves why when Premadasa murdered Sinhalese youth in large numbers, he was looked upon as a murderer by the ordinary Sinhalese while at the same time, Mahinda R. who murdered Tamil civlians in equally large numbers, was hailed as a hero?

    Some critical self thinking is required on this point, eh?

    • 0

      That’s a bizzare view point!
      To put things into prespective, Premadasa wasn’t labled a murderer by all the ‘ordinary people’ (:)), only some of them who didn’t agree with him. For example, even some of the state run paramilitary squads were led by some ‘ordinary people’.Ask Chandraprema :) for proof!

      The same goes with Mahinda. While you (as your suggestion implies!) or some others would like him to be labled a murderer, many others who voted for him see him as the one who rescued the country from terrorism.

      The exact parallels can be drawn between Udugampola and Fonseka or even Wijeweera and Prabhakaran.

      • 0

        My dear ‘Vanderkoon’,

        Your regular comments bear a high resemblance to Chandraprema’s writings and hence your defence of both Premadasa and Rajapaksa as well as the paramailitaries come as no surprise. After all, do we not remember that Chandraprema was closely associated with Premadasa’s paramilitaries? Premadasa’s paramiliatis were not headed by ‘ordinary people’ They were headed by politically rogue individuals. To equate them to ordinary people is exquisitely funny.

        RRegardless of your adjectivising of my response as bizarre, this is a point of view that I stick to. It is precisely the point that you made – that ‘many others who voted for him see him as the one who rescued the country from terrorism’ which worries me.’Obvosuly it does not worry you.

        Your references to other paralels do not interest me.

        • 0

          My word pal, Whether my writings resemble Chandraprema’s or anybody else’s doesn’t concern me, I am not authority to other people’s thinking, but is that a useful comment from a retired high officer? Do you want me to list the resemblances to your comments? Let’s leave that for others imagination, shall we? When do you ever learn? You didn’t understand my connotation of Chandraprema there either. But you refer to my same point anyway. Pal, Chandraprema was an ‘ordinary man’ in many people’s eyes when he was with Premadasa’s squads. Do you see me defending Preamdasa and Mahinda there? You need a rest. Other parallels don’t interest you? Is it pick and choose democracy? They are exactly the same. Whether something worries me or not is not the point. If somebody sees him as the one who rescued the country, it is their view not mine.

  • 0

    Will the Sinhala youth come forward and accept the brutalities orchestrated by their forces in Mullivaikal as true and not a conspiracy?

    OR…will they accept Tamils’ cultural and language identities and recognize these identities by law, will they?

    • 0

      This article is quite right on one thing – the Tamil political elites have taken the Tamil people for one big ride – just as the LTTE did. The likes of Sambandan, Sumanthiran and Kumar Ponnambalam Jr are mere “absentee landlords” in the northeast and are into grand standing nationalist rhetoric aimed at foreign capitals, rather than working seriously on the ground to better the condition of the people in the northeast and improve governance structures and development coordination. Rather they prefer to blame the MR Govt which is no doubt corrupt to the hilt and murderous but actually has done more development for the people of the northeast that the LTTE or TNA ever did. The Tamil politicians like TNA are full of caste prejudices, and like their Sinhala counterparts are a disgrace and have actually done very little development of the people of the north. Recall that TNA turned up their nose contesting election at the provincial council in East to indulge in their favourite blame game laced with Tamil nationalist rhetoric. TNA has been totally disinterested in working on the ground to help the people who cannot live on Tamil nationalist theology put out by these jokers.

  • 0

    Why is the caste issue never mentioned,other than code words like elites and Colombo crowd?. Does any civilization reside in Bintenna or Medamukalana? The vellalas held on to power depriving the so called lower caste from religious worship, education and even the drawing of water from their wells and it was the long suppression of fundamental rights and the lack of opportunities that led to the earlier revolts in Jaffna which were later exploited by India and the Tamil politicians.The Mahavamsa mindset Buddhists too have the idea that SL is their sole devinely ordained homeland further exacerbating the ethnic devide.Fundamentalists of any stripe are dangerous to the peaceful coexistence of humanity and unfortunately SL lacks the collection of ample material for interlectual development of the mind. by way of libraries and good educational radio and TV programes..What you get is political propaganda and and trashy teledramas.

  • 0

    A very good analysis of the Ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka by Sanka Chandima. Till 1956 it was the English speaking elite, the Colombians who were ruling Sri Lanka. Then we had the Tamil extremists who demanded Fifty – fifty. The Tamil group who controlled were the Vellahlas from Jaffna . So no wonder the ordinary people supported a new regime in 1956. English gave a distinct advantage to the Tamils from every angle. And this was why the Medical and the Engineering Faculty had nearly or more than 50 percent Tamils.


    • 0

      “English gave a distinct advantage to the Tamils from every angle”
      And what are those advantages, you cannot utter B.S in public forum, what is your source?

      “And this was why the Medical and the Engineering Faculty had nearly or more than 50 percent Tamils”

      No, it had 50% tamils because they had the talent to excel in education.

      And 50/50 which has equality written all over it is extreme but “sinhala only” which calls for hatred is moderate and welcoming?

  • 0

    Hey Vanderkoon, pray do not get your shorts in a twist. My comment on the resempblance to Chandraaprema certainoy seems to have touched a raw nerve!

    I see you for what you are – a sordid supporter of this murderous President and the other murderous President Premadasa. Perhaps you thrive on murder. Beyond making that short observation, I have no interest engaging with you since.

  • 0

    part of modernization is westernization
    even the village farmer wants the tractor
    while the elites have mislead
    the ordinary obliged
    disregarded the wrongs & repeatedly backed them

    Premadasa, Prabakaran, Rajapaksa are heroes and villans
    Like Mao or Castro winners are heroes, losers are villans, both are rebels

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