“This is certainly not the case: most middle-class people, as well as ordinary villagers whom I know have a strong Sinhalese – Buddhist identity, But they did not engage in violence against Tamils and were for the most part shocked by the brutality and suddenness of these events. It is true that some connived in acts of violence, but others gave Tamil refugees shelter in their homes at great personal risk. They were not without a profound ambivalence, but this was not a mass movement of the Sinhalese people against the Tamils. If this were so, one would have to give up any hope for the future not just of the Tamils, who could flee to the north and east of the island or to South India, but for the Buddhists entrapped in their own violence. What a fate for a nation subscribing to a religion of non-violence!”
This essay by Gananath obeyesekere that appeared in Sri Lanka in Change and Crisis(Ed.James Manor, 1984) is a close investigation into post 1977 political realities, the implications of which have much to do with present impasse that Sri Lankan society seems to be in. The concluding part continues here.
Political Rhetoric and the Violence
The racial riots started on the night of 24th July. Many of us who were witnesses felt that the government would impose an immediate curfew. I know of several senior government officials and politicians who said that they telephoned the President on the seriousness of the situation, which he must surely have realized anyway, since mobs demonstrated near his private residence. Yet no curfew was imposed until 5.00 p.m. the next day, and by that time most of the damage to property and looting had already taken place. One thing must be clearly stated: President Jayewardene is not a racist. It is likely, therefore, that his inaction was due to bad advice from groups within his own party. Even more incredible is that neither the President nor any member of the government appeared on national television or radio to exhort people to calm down, or to condemn the violence. The President made his speech five days later with practically no sympathy extended to those who suffered most – the Tamils of Colombo. The tone of the speeches of other government leaders was the same: these speeches were designed to placate the Sinhalese community – not a word of compassion for the Tamils. Lalith Athulathmudali, the young Minister of Trade, opened his speech to the nation thus: ‘A few days ago, my friends, I saw a sight which neither you nor I thought that we should live to see again. We saw may people looking for food, standing in line, greatly inconvenienced, seriously inconvenienced.’ Here was the leading intellectual in the government speaking of the hardship faced by Sinhalese people queuing for food when 70,000 Tamils were in refugee camps. Equally astonishing is the fact that neither the President nor any minister of the government made an official visit to a single refugee camp to console the dispossessed.
The public utterances of government leaders seemed to be carefully orchestrated. It was as if they viewed the racial violence not as a product of urban mobs but as a mass movement of Sinhalese people in General. Hence, perhaps, the refusal to extend compassion to those who actual suffered. This came out clearly in the President’s own speech on 28 July where he promised to introduce legislation to ban separatism or even the talk of it. He said, furthermore, that because of the violence initiated by Tamil terrorists, ‘the Sinhalese people themselves have reacted’. Prime Minister Premadasa was even more explicit:
We have now taken a decision to include in the Constitution that even advocating a division of the country is illegal. No one would be able to even talk about it. Such a campaign will be made illegal. We would not only deprive those advocating any division of the country of their civic rights, we would even bring legislation to confiscate their properties. Those advocating any division of the country will not be able to talk about it even in a foreign land. Because we would punish them on their return to Sri Lanka. The President yesterday promised you that such actions would be ordered by the government. He said so to dispel any doubts that you may have had in your minds.
But see what was happened today. Today they have heard rumours that tigers (Tamil terrorists) have come to Colombo and invaded Colombo. Just imagine the great destruction and the crimes committed based on such wild rumours. Our people not only were aroused but also engaged themselves in violent acts. They have taken clubs and other weapons and engaged in violent acts. As a result even our Sinhala and Muslim brethren have been subjected to harassment.
It is true that the greatest destruction of property occurred in the areas represented by Prime Minister Premadasa (Colombo Central) yet the phrase ‘our people’ in his speech does not refer to those specific elements of the city population. According to the government scenario, those committing acts of violence were the generality of Sinhalese people. This is certainly not the case: most middle-class people, as well as ordinary villagers whom I know have a strong Sinhalese – Buddhist identity, But they did not engage in violence against Tamils and were for the most part shocked by the brutality and suddenness of these events. It is true that some connived in acts of violence, but others gave Tamil refugees shelter in their homes at great personal risk. They were not without a profound ambivalence, but this was not a mass movement of the Sinhalese people against the Tamils. If this were so, one would have to give up any hope for the future not just of the Tamils, who could flee to the north and east of the island or to South India, but for the Buddhists entrapped in their own violence. What a fate for a nation subscribing to a religion of non-violence!
The Tamils who suffered, many Sinhalese and the foreign press openly stated either that the violence was condoned by the government or that it was the work of factions within the government. The government responded with its own theory of an international and local Communist conspiracy. This time it was not a Naxalite plot as was claimed after the presidential election, but an internationally aided Communist plot to take over the country. The President even implied that the killing of the army personnel in the north on 23 July may also have been part of the plan. According to this scenario, the Muslims and Christians were to be massacred next. The parties who allegedly planned this were proscribed. Dark doings by foreign embassies were also hinted at by the local newspapers.
For once the public was skeptical of these ‘complots’, as Richard III would have said. All three of the proscribed parties were sympathetic with Tamil language aspirations. Two were supposedly in cahoots with the terrorists, while one openly sided with the Tamil demand for a separate state. It was difficult to believe that the very groups sympathetic to the Tamils would systematically plunder, loot and destroy Tamil homes and gruesomely murder men and women. It also seems unlikely that a government so promptly informed of a Naxalilte plot by the CID a day after the presidential election could have been ignorant of a more serous plot by Marxist groups to create race riots. We are asked to believe that the government was forewarned in late 1982 of a plot that did not occur, but not warned in mid-1983 of one that did! Finally if the racial riots were caused by Marxists, why did the government imply that it was a popular uprising by the Sinhalese and why in heaven’s name did no one offer sympathy for the dispossessed or visit refugee camps? The rhetoric of plots was obviously less for local consumption than for the Thatcher and Reagan governments whose co-operation was necessary to rebuild the economy. It is also obvious that the proscriptions would further eliminate political opposition to the ruling party.
Prospects for the Future: The Political Issue
The future for Sir Lanka is bleak. Behind the rioting is the specter of increasing authoritarian rule. The prestigious Indian newspaper, The Hindu, commenting on President Jayawardene’s ‘victory’ a the referendum, stated in an editorial of 25 December 1982: “Mr. Jayewardene will be leading the country towards one-party rule with all its menacing implications – and, in the end, may have won nothing but a Pyrrhic victory.’ In my view the riots would not have occurred – at least one the same scale – if general elections had been held, providing Parliament with a strong opposition. The very existence of an opposition creates criticism of the government and provides opportunity for public debate. The actions of the JSS would have been subject to parliamentary criticism, and so would the ultra-nationalism of government party leaders. The effect of such criticism would surely have brought about division and debate between the two major Sinhalese political parties. It is therefore sad to hear eminent Sri Lankan political scientists like A. Jeyaratnam Wilson attempting to establish that Westminster-type constitutions are of little use in Third World nations and that strong presidencies are required. Surely we are dealing here with the prison house of language, where a convenient label like ‘Third World is reified to designate a single social land political reality. It is also a mistake to assume that modern political institutions imported from the west have no parallel in tradition, since forms of voting and consensual government are not alien to traditional societies.
Introduced political processes can often thus be given traditional validation. Sri Lanka with its long history and tradition of Buddhist thought took readily to the concept of universal suffrage so that it had the largest voluntary voter turnout in the whole world. People understood the power of the vote and they used it to vote out practically every government in power since independence. There was also no attempt to tamper with the electoral process itself. Moreover, it was doubtful whether Sri Lanka ever had a Westminster-type government, except on paper. They had, through the long years of British rule and after, adapted the Westminster model to suit their own character and institutions. The one key institution they held in high regard was the free vote and free elections. The overthrow of this institution and the widespread violence and impersonation of voters that occurred during the referendum have led to serious public disillusionment and demoralization to be seen and felt everywhere. People both in villages and cities, have told me on several recent occasions, that they will not vote hereafter because it is ‘useless’. This to me heralds the impending death of the democratic process.
The pernicious myth that it needs a strong authoritarian ruler to govern ‘Third World’ countries is partly responsible for the present situation, providing intellectual justification for one-party rule, and not just in Sri Lanka. If Marcos uses his army to crush opposition, Sri Lanka (which has no army to speak to) has created a parallel institution in a government trade union that has a paramilitary function. In doing so she may well have created a model for other small nations to emulate. The impending development of ‘Home Guards’ I fear may also have a similar effect.
All of this means that one should not be deluded by words like ‘Westminster-type government’, ‘Gaullist-type regime’ or that charmingly innocent term ‘Home Guards’. One has to probe the reality that lies beneath. The implications of that reality are also clear: unless the government holds a general elections soon, under conditions which permit people to exercise their vote without fear an intimidation, one of the few democracies of the Third World will surely go the way of nations like the Philippines.
The erosion of political institutions has a paradoxical effect for it eventually creates a peculiar dilemma for the rulers themselves. The ruler who can no longer rely on supra-personal institutions to carry on the process of government is forced to personalize them. Increasing personalization inevitably pushes the authoritarian ruler to balance one power group or institution against another. In doing so he gets trapped in an internal conflict that takes on a momentum of its own and undermines the very basis of his authoritarian power. This seems likely to be the fate of Sri Lanka, as it has been the fate of other Third World countries.
President Jayewardene is a man of some stature; it is possible that he may have realized the monster that has been created (perhaps unwittingly) in recent years. The monster seems now to have taken on a life of its own and must be tamed or killed if democracy is to survive in Sri Lanka and the President himself is to gain a niche in history.
Prospects for the Future: The Ethnic Issue
What about the immediate issue, that of the secession movement in the north and the Sinhalese reaction to it? One thing is clear: if the intention of the mobs was to push the Tamils out of the Sinhalese areas, they have had much success. Not all Tamils have roots in the north and east, so some will have to come back and settle in Colombo and elsewhere, but professionals will probably leave the country and anyone with alternatives will resort to them. If the intention was to stifle the secessionist movement, then surely the strategy has backfired. The Tamil moderates have been virtually eliminated in this polarization of forces, and more people, particularly youths, who had seen or heard of the macabre nature of the riots are now likely to join the terrorist organizations.
This is a real pity for, in my view, political sovereignty on the basis of language cannot work in South Asia, especially in Sri Lanka. Underlying the language uniformity which one sees in large areas of South Asia are serous and persisting divisions on the basis of culture and social structure. In the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka these differences are especially conspicuous. We noted that there are two major sets of Tamil speakers, Hindu and Muslim. Sri Lanka Muslims do not consider themselves Tamils (in the ethnic sense) but Muslims. Prior to the language conflicts between Sinhalese and Tamils, there were endemic conflicts between Muslims and Tamil Hindus, some extremely violent, particularly on the east coast. This was to be expected, given the Hindu – Muslim Conflicts on the mainland. IN an independent Tamil state, one set of minority problems would be replaced by another, except that the Tamils would be in the majority vis-à-vis the Muslims.
There are also deep subdivisions among the Tamils living in different areas of the island. The Jaffna peninsula, where most of the political agitation takes place, is self-consciously identified with high Hinduism and a patriarchal ideology and the great tradition of Dravidian culture. By contrast the east coast Tamils are mostly matrilineal, practice Dravidian folk religion and claim origins in Kerala. Even today there is considerable suspicion and hostility between these groups, especially the resentment by each most Tamils of the economic domination of northern merchants. The Tamil imported into the Central highlands by the British are generally of low caste and remain divided, socially and spatially, from the two previous groups. These divisions between the various groups of Tamil speakers are reflected today even in the political system where the ruling party has three ministers in its Cabinet representing the Tamil of the highland regions, while Tamils of the north are represented by the TULF which is an opposition party. What the recent riots may have done is to push people from the east and highland areas into a larger Tamil movement. If so, Sinhalese extremists will have fulfilled a prophecy – not theirs but that of their opponents.
One must also mention that great divider in Hindu society – caste. The aristocratic caste of landowners or Vellalas dominate the politics and economy of the north and east and constitute about 40 per cent of the population. In recent years their hegemony has been challenged by the Karaiyar (traditionally fishermen) who have moved into professional and entrepreneurial positions. There are also other large and powerful minority castes (e.g. Koviar, Mukkuvar) who are opposed to both these groups and are not likely to welcome the perpetuation of Vellala hegemony. Finally there are untouchables and near-untouchables who are barely considered human by the rest of Hindu society and who consequently were some of the first Buddhist converts in this region. Caste is compounded by another division, that of Tamil-speaking Christians in the north, who are politically and economically powerful. As R.L. Stirrat shows elsewhere in this volume, a striking feature of recent politics in both Sinhalese and Tamil areas is the extreme linguistic chauvinism of the Christians. It is as if their marginal position in Buddhist and Hindu society has forced them to overemphasize their ethnic identity. But it is equally likely that in the event of an exclusive Tamil – Hindu domination in the north the Christians would be in an even more vulnerable position than the Muslims.
Thus in the eventuality of the Tamils achieving political independence (or even a form of federalism), there will arise a series of ‘minority problems’ which will be as serious (I think even more serious) as that which prevails now between Sinhalese and Tamils. Language unity is a illusory one in Tamil Sri Lanka (as elsewhere in South Asia); the reality is international division based on religion, caste, ethnic origins, etc. It should also be remembered that even the northern terrorist groups who are fighting to establish a separate Tamil state are not a single entity. They are also divided into at least two groups based on caste affiliations and vying for political dominance. One such group, currently very powerful, has a Karaiyar caste leadership and power base, while the other (now operating from South India) is Vellala caste based. Indeed the later has publicly upbraided the Karaiyar organization for killing the 13 Sinhalese servicemen in ambush on 23 July, thereby triggering the massive Sinhalese reprisal and violence.
Sri Lanka’s current problems seem to defy immediate political resolution. Yet it is virtually certain that only political compromise by both Sinhalese and Tamils can bring about any lasting solution. It is to President Jayewardene’s credit that he attempted to start this process well before 1983 by introducing legislation to give greater autonomy to the Tamil regions or the country. But much of this remained on paper since reactionaries in his own party would not permit the implementation of government policy. On the Tamil side terrorist organizations brooked no compromise, and moderate Tamils did not speak up for fear of reprisals from terrorists. It is likely that when the riots broke out, the President was advised not to impose an immediate curfew, since some strong-arm tactics by Sinhalese toughs against the Tamil business community would facilitate negotiations. But it is unlikely that the President or the Prime Minister would have condoned the use of UNP unions for mass reprisals against Tamils. An analysis of events make it equally clear that elements within their own party forced the issue, and once urban mobs were roused, all sorts of pathological elements in the city population went on the rampage. Contrary to Tamil opinion, I do not believe that the government actually organized the riots; rather it was organized for the government by forces which the government itself had created, albeit for other purposes. Perhaps the government is still unaware that this many-headed monster which it created may destroy not only its creator but the entire democratic fabric of Sri Lankan society as well.