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Conflict and Confusion in Sri Lanka

Throughout most of this decade, Sri Lanka has suffered from escalating violence. Once the envy of many developing countries for its educational and health care systems, the current crisis has reversed these achievements and damaged much of the social fabric of this small Indian Ocean country. The conflict centers around years of pent-up frustrations between two ethnic groups - the largely Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking majority, which composes some 75 percent of the population, and the mostly Hindu, Tamil-speaking minority; which makes up about 17 percent of the country.

Until last summer, even though more than 100,000 Tamils had fled to nearby southern India, the civil war was largely internal in its dimensions. But in July 1987, Indian peace-keeping forces, under an arrangement between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments, moved onto the island to enforce a political settlement that would theoretically grant Tamils greater rights as a minority and demilitarize the conflict areas. The forces have encountered stiff resistance by Tamil armed groups, which were initially pressured into favoring the agreement but are now fighting everyone - including themselves.

India is attempting to repatriate the Tamil refugees back to Sri Lanka; other governments, mostly European, which see influxes of thousands of Tamils seeking political asylum, wish to do the same. With little confidence that the war is over, many Tamils are reluctant to return to their homeland. Thus, a resettlement dilemma is taking shape which requires some historical background to fully comprehend.

The Great Destabilizer Enflames Sri Lanka

Last year in New York City, Sri Lanka's National Security Minister Athulathmudali casually referred to how the US is partly responsible for problems in Sri Lanka today. In the early 1800s, he correctly noted, US missionaries started in educational institutions in northern areas of the island inhabited by Tamils. This quality education led to Tamils having better access to universities and employment in government. This situation bred resentment by many Sinhalese and began to be reversed after independence in 1948 by successive Sinhalese-dominated governments.

The minister was right in suggesting that many Tamils became frustrated with limited access to schools and government work. But far more revealing is his perception, as a Sinhalese, that the crisis stems from "problems with Tamils." Tamils, who have been systematically discriminated against since independence, are no more a cause to conflict in Sri Lanka than are persons of color in South Africa for the abuses of apartheid. The fundamental cause to the civil war in Sri Lanka is the nation's inability to forge a just political system that accommodates diverse ethnic groupings.

Of course, this is not just a problem in Sri Lanka, but a global problem. As the respected editor of the Lanka Guardian in Colombo notes in a New York Times article:

Ethnic allegiance is no respecter of state borders, which have been arbitrarily drawn. The struggle for cultural identity is now the world's most potent anti-systemic force, the great destabilizer. The violence it generates defies the neat categories of "class war" of Marxism-Leninism just as it makes nonsense of the Soviet-sponsored global terrorism theories of Reaganism-Thatcherism.

Pick a country and political system on any continent, from riots in Alma Ata in the USSR to civil war in Nigeria to conflict in the Middle East, and you will find that deep-seated ethnic considerations surrounding race, religion, language and culture have proven at least as significant as issues of ideology and economics in emerging nation-states. The resulting consequences of political systems neglecting the issues of ethnic diversity have been wars, state and guerrilla-sponsored terrorism, officially sanctioned human rights violations and incredible polarization among people who have far more in common in their daily quest for a decent life than they do in their ethnic differences. Sri Lanka is an unfortunate example of this neglect.

Elements to the Destabilizer

Quite unlike its giant polyethnic neighbor to the north, the legitimacy of political leaders in the newly independent Ceylon (later renamed Sri Lanka) did not rest on an anticolonialist struggle that effectively united diverse ethnic groups. Some historians claim these leaders simply rode on the coattails of their Indian counterparts. The legitimacy of the government, which has always been dominated by Sinhalese politicians, became increasingly staked on the identity of the Sinhalese and their language and sacred Buddhist religion.

Of course, Sri Lankan history did not begin with independence. Resistance to colonial rule took the form of a religious and cultural revival in the nineteenth century, which protested the fact that most Buddhists were at the low end of the socio-economic and political scales. From 1833 to 1912, in all but one case, Protestant Christians of both language groups "represented the interests" of the largely Buddhist, coastal Sinhalese in the Legislative Council. Although poverty was widespread in all the island's ethnic communities, some Muslims, Christians and Hindu Tamils had visible, highly placed economic and political positions in society. Periodic clashes between Buddhists and these other religious groups did occur.

Several factors fueled this revival. The Sinhalese glorified their roots, claiming distinct descendance from a superior Aryan race. They also emphasized their belief of Buddhism's special place on this supposedly sacred island, and exaggerated images of invading Tamil kingdoms from India many centuries in the past. (In reality both the Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese came from India.) With tens of millions of Indian Tamils just across the narrow straits separating the island from India, this last image has been particularly troublesome to the regionally small Sinhalese population.

From independence on, with political power resting solidly with the majority Sinhalese, nationalism for the newly politically powerful majority became defined by "a return to Sinhala." To see how this became manifest, it is instructive to look at the process through Tamil eyes.

Two rather distinct Tamil communities, which together make up around 20 percent, of the total population, exist in Sri Lanka today. The smaller grouping of "plantation" Tamils were brought over the Palk Straits from India by the British in the last century to work on estates. An initial act of the independent Ceylonese government was to disfranchise these Tamils and then deny them citizenship rights. This boosted the voting power of Sinhalese in rural districts.(1)

Language became another initial indicator to Sri Lankan Tamils that their rights as a minority were in jeopardy after independence. In 1956, after pledges that both the Tamil and Sinhala languages would have equal status, Sinhala was declared the only official language. Then the Sinhalese-dominated government whittled down one of the very pillars of Tamil self-worth by beginning to hold Tamils back on university admissions and government jobs.

Although many Tamils had successfully integrated into regions outside of their traditional "homelands" in the north and east, government programs to settle Sinhalese into Tamil areas were also perceived by many Tamils as a deliberate effort to weaken them. Up until 1977, predominant Tamil political parties pressed for a federal political system to solve these problems, which would grant much greater powers to regional governments. But as the violence against Tamils escalated, their leaders began calling for a separate Tamil nation, or Eelam. On the island that would encompass northern and eastern coastal areas.

Nonviolent Tamil protests against discrimination and consistently broken promises by Sinhalese politicians met with increasingly violent reactions from certain Sinhalese sectors. From 1956 to 1983, Sinhalese mobs instigated at least five major outbursts of communal violence directed at innocent Tamils. The 1983 attacks proved to be a crucial turning point for many Tamils. Government officials were implicated in riots that took hundreds of lives, rendered thousands more homeless and destroyed millions of dollars' worth of property. In addition to this mob violence, organizations like Amnesty International began documenting widespread human rights violations against Tamils by official Sri Lankan security forces supported by particularly harsh emergency regulations.

The current president of Sri Lanka, Junius Jayewardene, was elected in 1977 with the support of many Tamils. Like previous Sinhalese politicians, however, he has found it difficult to implement changes that he promised would address basic Tamil concerns. In fact, he barred from Parliament the main Tamil political party, then the country's largest opposition party, due to their stand on Eelam.

That the party's pursuit of Eelam was to be nonviolent was of little consequence to most Sinhalese. Tamil youth, growing increasingly disenchanted with their political elders, began an armed struggle for Tamil Eelam. Out of their ranks materialized a half dozen different militant organizations, all professing to follow some form of Marxism. The emergence of these groups reinforced the worst fears of the Sinhalese majority - that Tamils would try to destroy Sri Lanka and bring millions of their Tamil cousins from India along with them in this struggle.

If the 1983 riots jolted the conscience of Tamils, then the comparable event for the Sinhalese was the militant Tamil raid on the sacred Buddhist city of Anuradapura in May 1985. Up until then, Tamil raids were usually directed at the Sri Lankan security forces, which were composed nearly entirely of Sinhalese. In Anuradapura, 150 Sinhalese civilians were left dead in the raid's wake.

After this massacre, a hit-and-run war between Tamil and Sinhalese forces erupted in Sri Lanka's eastern provinces. Unfortunately, the Tamil-speaking Muslim community there has been drawn into the conflict. Up until India's intervention in the summer of 1987, the militant Tamil and official Sinhalese forces were battling for supremacy in the east, with the militants apparently controlling the northern, Tamil-populated Jaffna peninsula.

In this decade as many as 15,000 Tamils, mostly civilians, may have died in the conflict; many Sinhalese lives have been lost as well. By the end of 1987, there were reportedly 686,000 displaced people inside Sri Lanka, more than 150,000 Tamil refugees in south India and as many as 50,000 other displaced Tamils, reluctant to return home, living in other parts of the world. In this polarized environment, opponents of the militarists on either side have been labeled traitors and have suffered tremendously, leaving little middle ground within the country for reconciliation. Neither of the shooting sides seemed capable of gaining the upper hand.

Biting the Bullet Too Late?

Most observers began to realize that India held the most potential leverage for easing the conflict. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made it clear to Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups, largely based in south India, that he did not support Eelam. However, with a significant Tamil population in his own country, he was sympathetic to the Sri Lankan Tamils' struggle for greater justice and rights. Although his government brought the two conflicting sides to the negotiating table on numerous occasions, still the fighting continued.

From December 1986 through May 1987, the Sri Lankan government dramatically escalated its attacks against militant Tamil strongholds and blockaded supplies into their areas. Tamil communities in the north grew desperate for food and other basic commodities. Then, in early June 1987, a dramatic turn of events took place: the Indian government began to air-drop food into the northern Tamil areas. This blatant intervention presented the Jayewardene government with basically two risky options: (1) chance Indian military involvement on the side of the Tamils by escalating the military strategy against Tamils in the north or (2) agree to let India enforce an agreement that would dismantle the Tamil militants but yield significant political concessions to them. Widespread international criticism of Jayewardene's previous policies perhaps contributed to his decision to co-opt India with the latter course.

India was able to pressure most of the militant groups to agree to lay down their arms in exchange for nearly all of the political rights for which Tamils had pressed over the previous 30 years, except the creation of an independent Eelam. Jayewardene had essentially bitten the bullet in a dramatic bid for peace as the country lay crumbling around him. Many observers felt he was the only Sinhalese capable of making such dramatic concessions and surviving politically in the process. Candidates in December 1988's presidential election, in which Jayewardene is not running, have greatly differing views on the agreement. This time, however, Indian peacekeeping forces stayed on Sri Lankan soil to ensure the promises would not rescinded.

The response from the deeply chauvinistic Sinhalese opposition to any significant concessions was predictable. Jayewardene was accused not only of bowing to Tamil demands, but he was also held responsible for the nightmare of Indian troops on Sri Lankan soil. Moderates longing for peace soon had their hopes dashed as various Sinhalese groups, especially a banned leftist party, began to violently undermine the government's position with assassinations and bombings.

In the north and east, militant Tamil groups escalated the fight for supremacy among themselves, reluctant to lay down their arms. As a result, India's forces, numbering 50,000 or more, began sweep-and-destroy missions against the militants, leaving utter destruction in their path. Widespread violations of human rights have been reported in these operations.

As the Tamil militant groups grow increasingly isolated, the Indian government is currently seeking a limited withdrawal of its troops. Few observers, however, expect that they can be totally removed. As the dust settles around the severely fractured north and east, many questions still loom over how the political provisions of the peace agreement can be effectively carried out and safeguarded. It is into this environment that resettlement schemes for Tamil refugees are being devised.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is now working with the Indian and Sri Lankan governments on the voluntary repatriation of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees from India. The close to 10,000 refugees who have returned have reportedly found it difficult to reintegrate in the war-torn north, with its nearly total lack of jobs, housing stock and government services. Several non-governmental relief organizations have expressed concern over the relatively hasty and unmonitored nature of this repatriation process. Up until now, the Red Cross has been denied access to the areas in question.

The thousands of Tamils seeking political asylum outside of Sri Lanka can only be disheartened by a recent UNHCR recommendation that host governments now decide for themselves the risk for asylum seekers. Previously, the UNHCR asked that rejected asylum seekers not be sent back to Sri Lanka due to inadequate security conditions. This request has been largely honored, but official pressure now grows in countries such as Switzerland, Denmark, West Germany and the Netherlands to force their return.

Citizens in these countries must insist that their governments have compassion for these victims of ethnic conflict. Sri Lanka's recent history has been so turbulent that no credible guarantees can yet exist that widespread human rights violations and fighting will not soon erupt again. Caution should be on the side of life. It is unfortunate that only now can some of the native daughters and sons of Sri Lanka even consider the idea of cautiously returning.


(1). Political rights are being returned to those plantation Tamils, who are not being sent to India through current bilateral resettlement agreements. It is interesting to note that the plantation Tamil leadership does not necessarily espouse the same politics of the much larger grouping of "Sri Lanka" Tamils, who, like the Sinhalese, have lived on the island for millenia. This is due in part to the fact that most Sri Lankan Tamils voiced concerns for plantation Tamils, a most impoverished and exploited people in Ceylon, only after it was evident that their disenfranchisement would enhance Sinhalese voting power.

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