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Sri Lanka 60 EPW Neil Devotta Ethnocentrism LTTE Eezham Tamil Tigers

Sri Lanka 60 EPW Neil Devotta Ethnocentrism LTTE Eezham Tamil Tigers



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Published by Bala Subra
Sri Lanka, Eezham, Eelam, LTTE
Sri Lanka, Eezham, Eelam, LTTE

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Published by: Bala Subra on Feb 12, 2009
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Special article
january 31, 2009
Economic & Political
S lnk  Sxy: a lgy of ehnonsmnd Dgnon
Neil DeVotta
hen Sri Lanka gained independence in February 1948many believed that the island had “the best chance o making a successul transition to modern statehood”(Wriggins 1961: 316). The bases or thinking so were sound:independence was granted amicably without the tumultuous andssiparous nationalist movements evidenced in British India, sothat many in the hinterlands hardly knew a major transition hadtaken place; Sinhalese elites had assuaged Tamil elites who haddemanded equal political representation between the majority Sinhalese and minorities that all Ceylonese would be treateddispassionately, and the latter too eagerly collaborated to attainindependence; universal ranchise had been in place since 1931and democracy and pluralism appeared to have taken hold; andthe country’s socio-economic indices were ahead o other statesin especially Asia and Arica. In short, polyethnic and multi-religious Sri Lanka was well set to create a liberal, progressive,and stable regime that would be an exemplar.Sixty years later nothing could be urther rom the truth, thestate is ruled by hypernationalists whose ideology is rooted inSinhalese Buddhist superordination and minority subordination;the country’s leaders are bent on eradicating a Tamil separatistterrorist movement nurtured by Sinhalese Buddhist ethnocen-trism and racism that is likely to have killed over 1,00,000 people;tens o thousands o Tamils, Muslims, and Sinhalese have beendisplaced due to 25 years o civil war; venal and predatory politi-cians run amuck resorting to sticus in parliament and unet-tered gangsterism in public against political opponents; a grossly overstaed bureaucracy enslaved to political avouritism andnepotism wallows in rampant corruption; the state’s security orces and paramilitary goons resort to murder, rape, extortion,kidnapping, torture, and depredation especially against belea-guered Tamils with such alacrity that the country has been vili-ed internationally or human rights violations; the island hasthe lowest press reedom rating among democratic states in theentire world, with Reporters Without Borders claiming journa-lists endure “murder, attacks, abductions, intimidation, andharassment” (
News 2008); all o which has led to democracy and the rule o law being undermined, with the resulting sham-bles creating a culture o violence, anomie, and impunity.Indeed, Sri Lanka celebrated its 60th year o independenceamidst ear that the Liberation Tigers o Tamil Eelam (
), which is ghting the government to create a separate Tamil state, would attack the proceedings. The political and social decay ac-ing the country on its diamond jubilee was perhaps best repre-sented by the “motley group o young, urbanised thugs sporting
When Sri Lanka celebrated independence in 1948many considered it the post-colonial country mostlikely to succeed economically and democratically.Sixty years later the island represents illiberalism,political decay, and ethnocentrism. Not only has thecountry retrogressed on nearly all important indicatorsrepresenting secularism, liberalism, pluralism, ethniccoexistence, and good governance, it is also poised todegenerate further towards dictatorship.
This essay reproduces on column 1 o p 51 o this issue three paragraphsrom an earlier article (EPW, April 2008).Neil DeVotta (
) is with the Departmento Political Science, Hartwick College, New York.
Special article
Economic & Political
january 31, 2009
shorts, rubber slippers, singlets and
shirts” that the MahindaRajapaksa government recruited to help bolster security check-points (Samarasinghe 2008).
Dgnd S
 According to the Fund or Peace and
 Foreign Policy
magazine, which together oversee the Failed State Index, Sri Lanka wasranked 20th
in 2008, in worse shape than perennially troubledstates like Liberia and Sierra Leone. Branding a country a ailedstate or one at risk o becoming a ailed state is problematicbecause a country must have ailed drastically on many ronts toqualiy or such an odious status. The Failed State Index thusutilises 12 indicators, taking the cumulated average to determinepropensity or ailure.Many reer to Max Weber’s classic
 Politics as a Vocation
anddene a state as an entity that enjoys a monopoly on the legiti-mate use o orce. From this territorial standpoint Sri Lanka couldbe branded a ailure given that the state has not controlled all o its territory or 25 years; but doing so is spurious because by sucha standard numerous countries considered stable would have tobe considered ailures merely because paramilitary or non-democratic orces hold sway in certain areas. For example, nearly 160 o India’s over 600 districts are controlled by so-called Naxaliteelements, some o whom have introduced their own tax laws andcourts; and Kashmir and states in the north-east have long beenrestive and unstable. Yet India does not get branded a ailed state.This is mainly because by various other standards (i e, consolida-tion o democracy, economic growth, vulnerability to outsidepressures, and relative power capability in the international statesystem) India remains quite robust.Thus a state may be considered a ailure or likely to ail notbecause it does not indisputably control every inch o its territory but because the institutions that guarantee law and order anddispassionate, honest, and ecient governance cease to unction. As ormer
secretary general Boutros Boutros Ghali noted, “thecollapse o state institutions, especially the police and the judici-ary, with resulting paralysis o governance, a breakdown o lawand order, and general banditry and chaos” typically contributetowards state ailure. “Not only are the unctions o governmentsuspended, but its assets are destroyed or looted and experiencedocials are killed or fee the country”.
Sri Lanka does not ully t this description; it thereore cannot be branded a ailed stateusing these criteria. Yet it is a country that has ailed woeully in many areas,principally in how its most undamental state institutions (i e,legislature, judiciary, police, deence orces, bureaucracy, andpublic education) have undergone political decay.
Worse, thispolitical decay is mainly due to the calibrated illiberalism
suc-cessive governments engineered to marginalise, dominate, andsubjugate the island’s minority communities, so much so thatthe island is today better characterised as an “ethnocentricdemocracy” or “illiberal democracy”.
Indeed, the country may be best characterised as an “ethnocracy”.
When consideringthe baneul, even nearious, infuence Buddhist monks havehad on Sri Lanka’s politics and given how politicians o allstripes pander to these monks’ whims and ancies especially onethnic issues, it may just as well be branded a
(orgovernment by 
 What one can perhaps argue is that while Sri Lanka is not aailed state, it is a state that has degenerated because the islandhas retrogressed on nearly all important indicators representingsecularism, liberalism, pluralism, ethnic coexistence, and goodgovernance. The southern part o the country has seen a air de-gree o development, yet the act remains that rom especially the standpoints o governance and ethnic relations every suc-ceeding decade since independence has turned out worse thanthe previous decade. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh too haveailed to live up to their potential. However, these countriesgained independence amidst violent partition and civil war, werepredicted to disintegrate urther, and given little chance o suc-ceeding. From that standpoint, India and Bangladesh especially have done relatively well. Comparatively, Sri Lanka in the 1950s was placed in the same league as South Korea; and Lee Kwan Yew, in the early stages o Singapore’s independence, hoped hismarshy, mosquito-inested island could emulate Sri Lanka. Inthat sense, not only has Sri Lanka ailed as a potential exemplar,it is also poised to degenerate beyond the current majoritarianand ethnocentric dispensation towards dictatorship.
ehnon andns
The high expectations or the island at the time o independencenotwithstanding, one o the very rst decisions Sri Lanka’s newleaders made was rooted in racism; and this pertained to notconerring citizenship on hundreds o thousands o Indian Tamilsborn and raised in the country (with many being ourth and thgeneration denizens). The British brought the Indian Tamils romsouth India to work as indentured labourers beginning in the1830s and by the time the country gained independence they  were ully incorporated into the island’s tea estates. The letistand communist parties had campaigned on behal o these estatelabourers and consequently won most o their allegiance, whichthe conservative United National Party (
) ound problematic. Yet Indian Tamils were denied citizenship mainly becauseSinhalese Buddhist leaders eared that they threatened thedemographic advantage the upcountry Sinhalese had longenjoyed. The rhetoric and justications used make this amply clear.
Some Tamil politicians rom the north, infuenced by their retrograde casteist proclivities, supported the policy.
Theirony was that this, in turn, strengthened Sinhalese Buddhistrepresentation in the legislature and made it easier or Sinhaleseparliamentarians to eventually discriminate against Sri LankanTamils as well.Some like to argue that Sri Lanka would have avoided SinhaleseBuddhist ethnocentrism and the subsequent civil war hadD S Senanayake, the country’s rst prime minister, lived longer.They conveniently orget that it was D S Senanayake who oversawthe disenranchisement o Indian Tamils on demographic and ra-cial grounds even as he pursued Sinhalese colonisation o tradi-tionally Tamil areas in the north-east; and that there is no reasonto believe he would not have acted just as expeditiously as did hisson Dudley Senanayake and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (
) leaderS W R D Bandaranaike when trying to perpetuate political power.
Special article
january 31, 2009
Economic & Political
The single most important cause that sundered Sinhalese-Tamil comity and marked the island or civil war was the move-ment that made Sinhala the country’s only ocial language in1956 (DeVotta 2004).
The Sinhala only demand ensued whenmany Sinhalese began opposing the so-called
move-ment (which would have provided parity o status to both Sinhalaand Tamil) and instead clamoured or Sinhala alone to be madethe country’s ocial language. Their position was championedby opportunistic and unprincipled politicians like S W R DBandaranaike, who manipulated the burgeoning chauvinismin their community to capture power. Bandaranaike aspired tobecome prime minister as a member o the
. However, he letthe party to join the opposition and create the
upon reali-sing that D S Senanayake was grooming his son or the primeminister position.When the
discovered it was going to lose the 1956 elec-tions by championing linguistic parity, it too adopted a Sinhalaonly platorm. Thereater both the
resorted to eth-nic outbidding, with each trying to outdo the other on promotingSinhalese Buddhist preerences and maximising Sinhalese Bud-dhist gains (ibid). This led to racist rhetoric that undermined thepromise o a united Sri Lanka where all communities could coa-lesce peaceully.
Susson nd rssn n 1950s
The 1956 election saw a landslide victory or the
, which soonthereater introduced the Sinhala Only Act. Peaceul Tamilprotests outside parliament led to attacks that started the rstever anti-Tamil riots killing over 150 Tamils. The government’sattempt to impose vehicle number plates with Sinhala letteringin the north-east led to urther Tamil protests and culminated inthe 1958 anti-Tamil riots. Bandaranaike sought to appease Tamilsby making Tamil a regional language (among other things) butthe chauvinists he had manipulated would have none o it. Theethnic outbidding culture that soon became consolidated sawboth the
oppose a compromise whenever one party sought to molliy Tamils. A Buddhist monk assassinated Bandaranaike in September1959 and the
recruited Bandaranaike’s widow, Sirimavo, tohead the party. A woman with no political experience who hadbeen relegated to the kitchen during her husband’s lietime thusbecame the world’s rst emale leader in 1960. While respectedor being incorruptible, Sirimavo Bandaranaike did more tomarginalise the island’s Tamils than anyone beore her. Be it dueto nescience, arrogance, or ethnocentrism, her two governments(1960-65 and 1970-77) pursued policy upon policy geared tomake Tamils second class citizens: or instance, they avoideddeveloping Tamil areas in the north-east and instead developedSinhalese areas; barred Tamils being hired into the governmentservice; orced the remaining Tamil civil servants to learn Sinhalain order to be promoted; stationed Sinhalese civil servants inTamil areas, disregarding the diculties this posed to Tamils when interacting with these transplants who knew no Tamil; in-stituted Sinhala only into the courts system in the predominantly Tamil north-east; instituted policies that required Tamil studentsto score higher to enter the university system; created a quotasystem so that Sinhalese students rom especially rural areascould enter the university at the expense o hitherto overrepre-sented Tamils; banned Tamil publications promoting Tamil cul-ture rom nearly Tamil Nadu; pursued Sinhalese colonisation by fooding traditionally Tamil areas with Sinhalese rom the south;and disregarded Tamil input when crating an ethnocentric con-stitution that codied Sinhala as the only national language andBuddhism as the oremost religion. The
government during1965-70 rolled back the policy o Sinhala only in the court systemand sought to be more sensitive toward Tamils’ legitimate griev-ances, but it was unable to deenestrate the majoritarian politicalculture that demanded Sinhalese Buddhist superordination andminority subordination. As Nigel Harris (1990: 222) aptly noted,“I the god’s had wished to destroy, the madness o Sri Lanka’srulers gave them every opportunity”.
th Bm Gm
Sinhalese Buddhist politicians and their apologists avoid discuss-ing such ethnocentric antecedents and instead harp conveniently on the
’s terrorist practices. They also blame India or train-ing Tamil militants in the 1980s
and imposing the Indian PeaceKeeping Force and Provincial Council system as part o the July 1987 Indo-Lanka Agreement. As the
Sunday Times
noted as lateas in 2006, “We must keep reminding ourselves that Sri Lanka’s‘ethnic problem’ was conceived, incubated and hatched in NewDelhi”.
terrorism and Indian intererence masksthe act that it was the racist policies successive Sri Lankangovernments institutionalised that caused Tamil separatism(Wilson 2000, Sivarajah 1996 and Tambiah 1986). For thesepolicies marginalised and humiliated especially young Tamils, who gradually dislodged moderate Tamil politicians and adoptedmilitant ideologies to counter the state. As Tamil youth turnedradical, the military, which had begun operating in the NorthernProvince like an occupation orce beginning in the early 1960s,turned oppressive. The cycle o violence has brutalised bothcommunities, with the island’s Muslims in the north-east alsopaying a heavy price.The principal Tamil demand ollowing the Sinhala Only Actbeing instituted centred on devolution or the Northern andEastern Provinces where Tamils were the dominant community.S W R D Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake had both consid-ered providing the Tamils devolution within a unitary state struc-ture but had to abrogate their agreements with Tamil leaders dueto pressure rom Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists. By the time theJ R Jayewardene-led
government assumed oce in July 1977it was clear that some sort o compromise was in urgent need tostem the burgeoning violence in especially the Northern Prov-ince. Having attained power with a ve-sixths parliamentary majority, the Jayewardene government was well equipped tomake whatever constitutional changes necessary to paciy theTamils. While it did introduce a new constitution in August 1978that recognised Tamil as a national language (and also created apowerul presidential system o governance), and while Jaye- wardene cavalierly and whimsically passed numerous constitu-tional amendments in the subsequent 10 years, he did nothing topromote devolution. He instead sought to gain political mileage

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