Sri Lanka’s Way Forward

by padraigcolman

Sri Lanka’s way forward

May 2010, by Padraig Colman

On 18 May 2009 the body of Vellupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), was found at Nandi Kadal lagoon in northern Sri Lanka. Rajavarothaya Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), called for 18 May to be a day of mourning. Instead, it will be commemorated as Victory Day.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) claims in its 17 May 2010 report that it has new evidence of war crimes (1) committed by the government and the LTTE. Those defending the government claim the evidence against the government was faked by the LTTE as part of their propaganda campaign (2).

When the government embarked on a military response to the LTTE’s violent struggle for a Tamil state within Sri Lanka many doubted the project’s feasibility. In the past year there have been no terrorist incidents whatever; and the mood of the country was reflected in a 60% vote for Mahinda Rajapaksa in the January 2010 presidential election and an almost two-thirds parliamentary majority for the government in April.

Rajapaksa, who only narrowly won the 2005 election, now seems to enjoy an unassailable position. His elder brother Chamal is speaker of parliament; younger brother Basil is economics minister; another brother Gotabhaya is defence minister; and his son Namal has been elected to parliament and is clearly being groomed for high office. Pessimists warned that too much power was accruing to the Rajapaksa family (it is rumoured that constitutional reforms will allow Rajapaksa to be president for life, voters permitting) and that a weakened opposition had no power to persuade the government to address Tamil grievances.

What were these grievances? Over many years ill-disciplined police or military had carried out savage reprisals on Tamil civilians, rather in the manner of the Black and Tans in Ireland. In July 1983 thirteen soldiers were killed by the LTTE. Ten days of rioting left 3,000 dead and 200,000 displaced. Atrocities were perpetrated on innocent Tamils all over the country. Many fled abroad and funded the LTTE; Sri Lanka achieved pariah status internationally.

The pressure for a separate Tamil state had been building from 1956. The British had allegedly favoured Tamils, and Sinhalese sought affirmative action to redress this. The historian Kingsley de Silva described the Tamils as a minority with a majority complex and the Sinhalese as a majority with a minority complex.

Prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike made Sinhala the sole national language and quotas increased the proportion of Sinhalese in the universities, civil service and professions. Sinhalisation of the entire administration and political machinery, even in the areas where Tamils predominated, led to a strengthening of Tamil identity politics.

Frustration with peaceful politics led to violence. Sinhalese-dominated governments contributed to worsening tensions. The first Republican constitution in 1972 consolidated the status of the Sinhala language and elevated Buddhism to the status of “foremost among religions”.

At the war’s end, government forces were accused of shelling hospitals and killing innocent civilians. The government in turn claimed the LTTE were using civilians as human shields. Around 300,000 civilians were held in what were called “welfare camps” by the government and “extermination camps” by the Tamil diaspora.

Today, Tamil is an official language, but this needs to implemented and Tamil-speaking officials need to be recruited quickly to the public service throughout the nation. Tamils have been queuing up in Jaffna to join the police force.

It is worrying that recent elections have left Tamils under-represented in mainstream politics and this could lead to frustration and a return to arms.

The government is now being criticised for releasing displaced people from the camps because they have no homes or jobs to go to. A former LTTE fighter, Karuna, who is now Deputy Minister for Resettlement, is seeking help from the international community to redress a shortage of building materials.

The de facto state operated by the LTTE did nothing to improve or even maintain the infrastructure. There are anxieties that rebuilding the north and east will make southern carpetbaggers rich and the “Tamil homeland” will be colonised, leaving the inhabitants in poverty.


The Tamil journalist DBS Jeyaraj wrote: “The future and well- being of the Tamil people are inextricably intertwined with that of Sri Lanka and its people. All future efforts to secure rights and share power have to be within the unity, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of Sri Lanka.”

A separate state is no longer on the agenda of Tamils actually living in Sri Lanka. Members of formerly separatist parties – EPDP, TULF and PLOTE – have condemned the setting up of a “transnational government” abroad.

The president has announced the establishment of a commission to investigate possible war crimes. Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch is not impressed, seeing it as a diversionary tactic to deflect efforts by the UN to conduct an independent investigation.

India continues to exert pressure to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and devolve power to the provinces. The government does not openly resist (although many see serious flaws in the devolution idea).

The All Party Representative Committee (APRC) drafted reforms to ensure stability and growth. Dr Colin Irwin of Liverpool University made an important contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process. He has been surveying reactions to the APRC proposals throughout Sri Lanka. Irwin’s latest survey (3) found the proposals are acceptable to Sinhalese, northern and eastern Tamils, Up-Country Tamils and Muslims. Even the “significant minority of Tamils from the Northern Province” who still want to keep the “right to secession” will give this up for the complete package of APRC reforms. There are still concerns about the special status of Buddhism.

Irwin comments: “The results for the test of the APRC proposals in Sri Lanka are certainly as good as if not better than the results for the Belfast Agreement poll, and in Northern Ireland the people were able to make peace on the strength of those results”

As Irwin puts it, now is the time for Sri Lankans of all races to be “taking their rightful place as a prosperous, vibrant island nation in a region of the world where economic success can only be held back by instability or despotism.”

It would be good if substantial numbers of the Tamil diaspora could bring their many talents back to Sri Lanka and help rebuild the nation rather than picking over the scabs of grievances, however real and however recent, and persisting in the futile and fatal encouragement of separatist militancy.

The president has not been proactive in the past about the APRC proposals. It would be a better use of the public relations skills of the Tamil diaspora and the international community to exert pressure to implement them rather than continuing a possibly bloody quest for the chimera of Tamil Eelam.

4 comments on « Sri Lanka’s way forward »

  • # Ram :
    18 May 2010 @20h34  
    Sri Lanka’s way forward

    For once, I agree with DBS Jeyaraj, who is a Tamil. The Tamils must seek their future as equals and not seek privileges at the expense of the rest.

    If Sri Lanka had listened to the likes of the ICG, Sri Lankans would still be unable move about freely and carry out their normal everyday functions without fear. Jaffna is now a city free of terror and the bazaars and markets function as they would in a free city. The Tamils who inhabited some parts of Colombo while the LTTE ran Jaffna, are now moving back to reclaim their lands and houses in the peninsula. My only hope is that no monoethnic ghettos are allowed to spring up anywhere in the country.

  • # kumudini :
    19 May 2010 @06h12  
    Sri Lanka’s way forward
    SL cannot afford Ghettos for Tamils Muslims and Sinhalese . Any person in SL hould be able to live freely where they want., be it Colombo . Or Jaffna . I dsagree with the author that Buddhism should not be the state religion refer to Norwegian Constitution where it gives Christianity the status it enjoys . So does Britain . Countrieslike Malaysia. Iran , Bangala desh , Pakistan similiarly are Muslim counties.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    19 May 2010 @08h04  
    Sri Lanka’s way forward

    Thank you for your comments.


    I share your hope that people can live in peace and harmony and that monoethnic ghettoes do not arise.


    I don’t believe that I said that Buddhism should not be Sri Lanka’s state religion. I certainly did not intend to say that. What I intended to convey was that non-Buddhists were concerned that the 1972 constitution gave Buddhism special prominence in a nation with so many minorities. I also quoted Colin Irwin’s survey which indicated that the special place of Buddhism was still matter of concern for many Tamils. I was not expressing a personal opinion. I am a citizen of Ireland which has always given a very prominent status to the Catholic church. I quite agree with you that there should be no ghettos. I have made the point before that outsiders may have the mistaken impression that all Tamils live in the north. Most are scattered throughout the country – estimates vary between 35% and 70% (no reliable censuses have been carried out because of the war) of Tamils living out side the “Tamil Homeland”. Sri Lanka is not Palestine and is less segregated than Louisiana.

    There is a special edition of the blog Groundviews which collates material received following an invitation from the editors for “contributors to contest and complement our understanding that peace is not just the absence of war, or the defeat of the LTTE.”

    The prologue states: “We have few narratives that, with the same vigour as the criticism of government, interrogate the manic violence of the LTTE throughout its sordid history and, in particular, towards the end of war… a terrible record of a liberation movement gone very wrong, and ultimately, that orchestrated its own, tragic demise. However, our bias, evident since the inception of this site, is that elected governments – our representatives, our servants – must and can be held to higher standards of accountability. It is the government that now has to win back the hearts and minds of those once under the jackboot of the LTTE. It is here, as many of the contributions record, that on a number of fronts – from the political to the symbolic– it has failed post-war and disturbingly, shows little signs of improving … We do not believe we know all the answers to achieve and sustain a just peace. However, we strongly believe that it is only through vibrant and civil debate, without fear of violent physical or verbal reprisals, that we can engender a just peace and a timbre of democracy we so richly deserve after war’s end.”

    There is some interesting reading at:…

  • # Alexis Nissanka :
    14 June 2010 @06h24  
    Sri Lanka’s way forward

    According to ancient history Sinhalese and Tamils are a mixture of indigenous people who migrated to Sri Lanka from various parts of India. On that note they are brothers and sisters. With the arrival of Buddhism, Sri Lanka became a Buddhist country. The origin of Sinhalese and Tamil conflict started when South Indian Kings invaded Sri Lanka more than 2000 years ago and not during modern times. Modern politics have made this conflict to develop from bad to worse. Hence overnight legislation alone will not be enough to achieve long lasting true peace in the island.

    During my school days I studied, and enjoyed life to full with Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, & others. We behaved all like brothers, never discriminated for any reason what so ever. The reason behind this brotherly behaviour was weeds or poison of discrimation was never introduced in to our little minds by our parents, teachers, religious leaders and others. We came across some adults with discriminatory behaviour patterns. We regarded them as wrong and kept away from them. Those old buddies of my school days are still my best friends and will be till I die.

    This concept of non discriminative behaviour will be very difficult to introduce to wounded adult minds at once, but if Sinhalese and Tamil, Adults, Parents, Teachers, Religious leaders makes an honest attempt and if the Politicians create the background with various favorable encouraging mixed communal activities, the weeds of discrimination and racism will slowly get eradicated and true peace could be propagated in this beautiful island Sri Lanka.