13 June, 2024


The Sri Lankan Dilemma

By Romesh Hettiarachchi

Romesh Hettiarachchi

Since the end of armed hostilities between the Government of Sri Lanka (”Government”) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, I have taken a keen interest in the various efforts to help the war-affected people in Sri Lanka rebuild their lives. Driven in part by my leadership creating inter-communal dialogues within the Sri Lankan Diaspora in Toronto, I have particularly searched for initiatives that address (or attempt to address) the needs of all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, in a non-partisan/non-political manner. Throughout this search, I have kept my faith in the leadership of the Sinhalese and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka and abroad, hoping they develop the political and social maturity to collaborate in the development of public policies to help their collective constituents.

The Challenge of Sinhalese and Tamil Nationalism

Suffice to say, keeping this faith has been trying over the past year.

Though the hyper-partisan political environments in Sri Lanka and in the Diaspora has always been exhausting, these barriers have grown more formidable as a result of increasingly virulent threads of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism. Inside Sri Lanka, Sinhalese nationalists marginalize the Muslim and Tamil communities, asserting that Sri Lanka ought to be recognized as the global home of authentic Buddhism and the Sinhala people. Outside Sri Lanka, a new generation of Tamil activists criticize attempts to forge alliances between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities, asserting that a creation of a separate state is the only solution for peace in Sri Lanka.

Interestingly, both nationalist discourses share similar characteristics, the most notable of which is their approach to dissent. Sinhalese nationalists in Sri Lanka marginalize dissent by characterizing their perspectives as supportive of the LTTE or Tamil Eelam. Conversely, Tamil nationalists outside Sri Lanka marginalize dissent by deeming dissenters as ignorant and ill informed about the ‘true wishes’ of the Tamil people. A few examples:

  1. If any action of the Government is criticized substantively, the Government through its various organs, maligns the critic as being part of the “pro-LTTE Diaspora”. Outside Sri Lanka, Meanwhile, leading Tamil nationalists outside Sri Lanka openly refer to Tamil critics of Tamil nationalism as traitors.
  2. Justice CV Wigneswaran is a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka who is currently the chief ministerial candidate of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the upcoming Northern Provincial Council elections in Sri Lanka. Fluent in Sinhalese, Tamil and English, Justice Wigneswaran was (to the best of my knowledge) a highly respected member of the judiciary at least until he sought to represent the people of the Northern Province. Since announcing his candidacy, Sinhalese nationalists threaten to not allow Justice Wigneswaran to return to Colombo, accusing him of being a supporter of separatism. Meanwhile, Tamil nationalists threaten to “unmask” the “out of touch” Justice Wigneswaran as he is focused on the short-term interests of his potential constituents.
  3. These contending positions are evident in the wake of the visit from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay. Even before she came to the country, key members of the Government denounced her visit as being biased and prejudiced against Sri Lankans. During her visit, Ms. Pillay was subject to mass protests from Sinhalese nationalists condemning the visitwanton marriage proposals from key Cabinet ministers in the Government to accusations that Ms. Pillay is a supporter of the brutal terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (”LTTE”), simply because Ms. Pillay is of Tamil ethnicity. On the flip side, Tamil nationalists in the Diaspora were disheartened with Ms. Pillay’s denouncing the LTTE as “a murderous organization that committed numerous crimes and destroyed many lives.” Asserting that her report “revealed her true character of serving the interests of the UN and the larger interests of the Anglo-Saxon world”, Penang State Deputy Chief Minister P. Ramasamy continued to suggest Ms. Pillay to keep her comments about the LTTE to her or to those “bleeding” heart liberals.

The Prisoners Dilemma

These examples are  a sample of incidences demonstrating that Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism, while antagonistic, depend on the existence on the other. Assisted by their respective propaganda outlets, these nationalisms derive oxygen from the other, painting the other nationalism as a cause in ascendancy to justify and support their own existence.

The consequences of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism to the Sri Lankan people may be illustrated in the thought-experiment that game theorists call the Prisoners Dilemma (For more information about the thought experiment and effective strategies to use in the Dilemma, check out this podcast.):

Two gang robbers, Lucky and Joe, are arrested and imprisoned just after they enter a bank but before they commit the crime. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. Admitting they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, the police offer the following bargain to each prisoner:

  • If Lucky and Joe both remain silent (cooperate with each other), both of them will only serve 1 year in prison
  • If Lucky and Joe both admit to the crime (betray each other), each of them serves 5 years in prison
  • If Lucky confesses that they both did the crime and Joe remains silent, Lucky would go free and the prosecutor would use Lucky’s testimony to ensure Joe serves 10 years in prison (and vice versa).

In this scenario, Lucky and Joe spends the least amount of time collectively if they both cooperate by denying the crime. At the same time, it is in both Lucky and Joes self interest to betray the other by confessing they both did the crime.

In the Sri Lankan context, the prison holding the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities are value structures created by the two nationalist discourses. Confined in this cell, leaders are forced to pander to nationalist activists by creating policies that do not accommodate the viewpoints of their counterparts in the other community. Consequently, policies generated in this environment ostensibly benefit one community to the detriment of the other and arouse the other communities ire.

If these conditions are maintained, it is quite possible that the communities on the island of Sri Lanka will remain in conflict in perpetuity. After all, it does not take much for either community to perceive the Other has or will betray them.

Solving the Dilemma

It is vital that our leaders find ways to change the conditions in the Dilemma if only to chart a more positive vision for the people of Sri Lanka. Informed by my conversations with young Canadians whose ancestral homelands remain in Sri Lanka, my career as a commercial litigator and my Sri Lankan education, my next series of posts shall use the Prisoners Dilemma as tool to highlight how these competing nationalisms restrict Sri Lankan leaders from developing a robust and inclusive policy and governance process while offering some suggestions on how these nationalisms can be undermined to benefit wider Sri Lankan society.

I shall begin by arguing that the international community and media has failed to act impartially when dealing with the Sri Lankan conflict; an argument based on my critical review of the Darusman Report. I shall then proceed to discuss the systemic shortcomings of rights based advocates working in Sri Lanka, particularly in the face of ethnic nationalism. I shall then lead into a discussion of the foundational tenets of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism, demonstrating why neither nationalism can sufficiently answers the immediate needs faced by the constituents each nationalism supposedly represents. I shall conclude by returning to the Prisoners Dilemma, using the preceding discussion to highlight the ways in which we can hope to change the conditions of what I uncreatively call the ‘Sri Lankan Dilemma.’

While these posts are written from the perspective of a Sri Lankan Canadian of Sinhalese background, I do not intend to suggest that these posts constitute the “right” approach. There is no “right” approach. However these posts do intend to encourage a re-evaluation of the narratives and truths told to us by our elders and leaders.

I expect both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalists to react negatively to this series, likely relying on a selective reading of these posts  to either denounce or support the imaginary position they believe I hold. It is in their self-interest to do so: I am attacking the foundation of their quasi-religious belief structures.

The fact activists of both nationalisms fail to grasp is that the future of the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities in Sri Lanka are inextricably tied together. Our fortunes are as sure to rise together as they are as sure to fall together. There is no conceivable means to untie the communal fates.

It was the failure to recognize this reality that resulted in three decades of recognized conflict. It will be the continued failure to recognize this reality that may result in even more tears, heartache and bloodshed. I for one am tired of these failures. Changing the conditions of the Dilemma may be our best hope to forge a new destiny for the Sri Lankan people, filled with the things our people truly desire: an absence of conflict, lives lived in dignity and the prosperity of our respective cultures.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Well, there definitely is a right approach to solve the problems this country has faced since independence…and that is for the majority to accept the fact that Sri Lanka is not a Sinhala Buddhist country, but a country that belongs to every mothers son and daughter who happened to be born here be they of the majority or minority races or religions. But sadly that will not happen as long as the Mahavamsa myths are believed by the majority. Just like hatred ceases not by hatred, majority extremism begets minority extremism and it seems like this country is destined to meander along as a violent, ‘can’t be developed’ third world dictatorship that is closing in on countries like Zimbabwe and North Korea.

  • 0

    Our country is going through turbulent times at this moment. The resolve and the solutions that will lead us to a better state are being worked out primarily by those living and working at the coal face IN Sri Lanka. A huge part of our problem is the interference that comes from the Diaspora – Tamil and Sinhalese too. This is akin to the old Sri Lankan custom of ‘angilli gahanawa’ and it would be better if those living overseas really wanted to play any part in the rebuilding of our nation, they return here and do so.
    You have written a nice but vacuous article. If you are temporarily out of the country, well and good, but I suspect that you have domiciled yourself in Canada and to all intents and purposes live a normal life there. If so, I advise you to stick to your local politics and carry on with the good work you do there. I hope you all go on to be good Canadians and appreciate the opportunities that you have in that great country; and that business improves in the field of commercial litigation to keep you fully occupied.

  • 0

    The Sri Lankan Dilemma Sri Lanka has no dilemma – it’s in death throes. Sinhala leaders since independence have brought it to the intensive care unit.

    I have my doubts if it will survive, because it has no leader with the people as a whole in mind.

    • 0

      Any country that marginalises 25% of its population is indeed condemning itself to the wilderness. But don’t give up hope Thiru, there is still the possibility that the day will dawn when this madness will end and dignity will walk hand-in-hand with common sense in this bautiful island of ours.

  • 0

    No parties, The Politicians, The leaders, Academics and intellectuals, Religious leaders, of the all ethnicities do not want to giveaway and escape from this complex situation,
    “The dilemma of ethnic nationalism”.
    So, all are going to the depth of the SEA with the Sinking ship.
    But some Cunning Rats who looted the shiphold with accumulated ill-gotten wealth,
    will definitely Jump from the sinking ship

  • 0

    Good intentions. Thanks for writing them here to churn the thinking of the others.

    Please note ”three decades of recognised conflict” is three decades of armed conflict. The actual conflict started within months of gaining independence. We have been having violence since 50s/60s/70s.

  • 0

    1.Sinhala nationalism will evaporate when Sinhala masses know the truth about how Tamils have been treated from 1948.
    Tamil nationalism will automatically evaporate when Sinhala nationalism evaporates.

    Sinhala masses are shielded from the truth daily and on ”special events”:

    2.Sri Lanka needs to follow Canada and other countries giving political devolution to their own minorities.

    3.i.Militarisation of the North + military governors for the North and the East = escalation of conflict
    ii.Any ”non-recurrence” intended with a monstrous monument built over corpses (with ICRC kept out from retrieving those who were unable to get up and walk) with A9 closed to the public:
    President unveiled monument on 9 December 2009, http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20091209_06

    When the returnees were denied NGO access for water and food:

    Defence Secretary unveiled monument on 30 April 2010, http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20100430_09

    Defence Secretary unveiled war memorial on 9 May 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEes9C-TB00

    • 0

      Punitham re your Statement:-
      “Sinhala nationalism will evaporate when Sinhala masses know the truth about how Tamils have been treated from 1948.”

      You are probably too young to remember that Sinhala Nationalism started when the Tamil members of the Government demanded 50/50 participation in the affairs of the State.

      There was no way that a 25% Minority would be given 50% of Government Seats!

      This, and the call for ‘We Tamils’ to unite, was the start of Sinhala Nationalism.

      So Punitham, you see the fault lies with both Ethnic groups. It is now up to leaders like Vigneswaran to create an Environment to resolve the present status quo, created by both sides of the Equation.

  • 0

    The real dilemma is that outsiders trying to decide what should happen here.
    Wether it is the US,Canada,UK,UN,or the diaspora.
    This election for the northern PC is for the people of the north to decide whom they want to choose but the diaspora interfere with that using their influence of providing financial support to those in the nothern electorate.
    The Darusman report,UNHR reports,and many other reports writeen by NGO’s such as HRW,AI on the behest of the US State dept.are all unnecessary interference to achive an agenda that is not in the best interest of the Sinhalese,Tamils or Muslims or for that matter Sri Lanka as a country.
    The Tamil hardliners are cock a hoop with the support and assistance they get from the west.It was just like that before the 87 India sponsered peace accord.
    Untill then they were under the impression that India is going to get them everything under the sun and only when the dawn came they realised there was nothing for them except for a useless 13A.
    It is going to be the same this time around too and those who deceive themseves thinking that they are being supported to get what they aspire will one day, sooner or later, find out that they are only being used and there is nothing for them.

    • 0

      1.Please get to know what is expected of members in organisations and what has been happening in the UN and the Commonwealth or any intergovernmental organisation. Many around the world have said that they can’t do anything with Rajapaksas and that he doesn’t listen to anybody, eg former US ambassador Teresita Schaffer, former Australian High Commissioner Howard Debenham and former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew

      2.If ”interference” from intergovernmental organisations is resented, Sri Lanka can opt to withdraw its membership. There is no compulsion to be a member of an organisation.

      3. Education for war must be changed into education for peace:

      Future generations have been getting the wrong message from their previous generations:
      ” …In each, the party previously in opposition gained decisive power on a platform that promised fundamental change. After each election, there were missed opportunities for initiatives that could have addressed many concerns of Tamil community members, while simultaneously respecting the concerns of all but the most radical Sinhalese nationalists. In each instance, however, Sri Lanka’s political leaders chose not to expend their political capital in this way but instead, to accede to demands of the radicals. … it will be useful to seek lessons from periods when Sri Lankan political leaders, like President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had such overwhelming political support that they were in a position, if they chose, to expend political capital by taking concrete steps toward communal reconciliation. …” – Prospects For Post Conflict Reconciliation And Development In Sri Lanka: Can Singapore Be Used As A Model? Prof John Richardson, Text of a presentation at Global Asia Institute Speaker Series (2010), National University of Singapore, http://groundviews.org/2010/11/05/prospects-for-post-conflict-reconciliation-and-development-in-sri-lanka-can-singapore-be-used-as-a-model/

      • 0

        That is exactly what I said. I can not comment on what Mr.Lee said because I haven’t seen it but as for the US, UK, Australia,UN the western block,they are all in the same agenda,change the regime.They now know that they can’t do it with Ranil wickremasinghe,they now want to abolish the Presidency so that they can buy the Parliament and change the regime.It was done in 2001 and won’t happen again.
        So you and the west can shout all you want but the caravan goes.

        By the way who behaves decently? Obama…Camaron!

      • 0

        Why should Sri Lanka resign from the UN just because US and a few others are targetting Sri Lanka unjustly. No..no..no..Sri Lanka will fight for its rightful place.
        What is this education for war? Sri Lanka never adopted war education. May be The tigers did that in their areas.
        And, reconciliation has to happen on the ground with people facing each other,not on the internet with people who have vested interests.
        Actually it is happening on the ground but it can not be seen or monitered via the interent.
        One other thing. When these people talk about the rights and that and this of the Tamil people do they have the consent of all the Tamil people in this country to do so.
        I don’t think so.
        Simply because,I don’t see any benefit for the Tamils living in the south or the hill country benefitting from this. Only their numbers are being used as,if only the Tamils in the north are concidered the whole thing becomes a joke!

    • 0

      Everybody will shut up if the government behaves decently.

      Why did the President say in his election manifesto that he would remove the Executive Presidency but went on to maximise it by introducing 18A?

    • 0

      What many Sinhalese need to know is what the UN and various international organisations are telling many other human rights violators like Sri Lanka.
      Why do many Sinhalese think that it’s only Sri Lanka that is being criticised by the international community? The media choose to keep them in the dark:
      Dismissing claims made mostly by state media journalists at her press conference yesterday that the UN was biased towards poor Third World countries the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights yesterday urged Sri Lankan scribes to read more material published by her office and the UN to find out how vocal her office and the organisation was being on other major human rights issues around the world” –

      • 0

        sorry didn’t complete:

        ”Dismissing claims made mostly by state media journalists at her press conference yesterday that the UN was biased towards poor Third World countries the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights yesterday urged Sri Lankan scribes to read more material published by her office and the UN to find out how vocal her office and the organisation was being on other major human rights issues around the world” – Pillay Advises State Media Rajpal: “Read More To Dispel Myth About UN Bias”, 1 September 2013, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/pillay-advises-state-media-rajpal-read-more-to-dispel-myth-about-un-bias/

  • 0

    Good idea.

    WE need a lot of ”vitamins” to cure a lot of deficiencies.

    Suggestion: Please translate the two A4 pages into Sinhala and Tamil and post on SriLankan media:

    Press release by Transparency International:
    Two-thirds of parliaments fail to be watchdogs of defence corruption

    (with thanks to https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/secret-budgets-and-massive-contracts-sri-lanka-falls-into-critical-risk-band-transparency-international/ )

  • 0

    In any political situation when “moderates” fail to deliver the “extremists” will move in to fill the void.
    Srilanka is no exception. 65 years since independence moderates on both sides failed miserably. The international community never moved in to strengthen the moderates. We faced thirty years in the hand of extremists. Now again there is a window of opportunity. The moderates on both sides are crying out for help. Will the international community especially India in the lead grab the hand that is extending?

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