William Clarance explores the origins and complexities of the Sri Lankan Civil War.
The Sinhalese-Tamil controversy over who arrived first in Sri Lanka and so has the better claim to be its ‘founding race’ has done much to contribute to the bitterness of intercommunal tensions which, in July 1983, erupted into the present civil war in the north-east of the island between the Sinhalese-dominated forces of the central government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The Sinhalese claim derives largely from the Mahavamsa – the most important of their early chronicles – which recounts the island’s history from the time of the North Indian colonisation in the fifth century bc, particularly as regards Vijaya, an Indo-Aryan prince, who together with 700 followers landed on the western coast of Sri Lanka to the north of present day Colombo. Traditionally, he was the founder of the Sinhalese race to whom Buddha entrusted the protection of his religion. But prehistorical archaeology has established that the island had been settled long before the North Indian migration, doubts have been expressed as to whether Vijaya was in fact a historical person, and the proximity of the northern Lankan coasts to South India makes it likely that the Dravidian forebears of the present-day Sri Lankan Tamils also arrived at a very early date.
Recently, it has been argued that this dispute is in fact a ‘non-issue’, largely on the basis that neither the classics of Tamil literature of two millennia, nor their folk tradition reflect a fundamental hostility between the two communities and that there was an almost uninterrupted friendly co-existence between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations over the centuries. This leads to the conclusion that the traditional hostility between the two races which was reflected in the Mahavamsa -- particularly in the story of how Elara, the Tamil king of Anuradhapura, was slain by the Sinhalese Dutugemunu in a duel in which each was mounted on an elephant -- was a political construct which was kept alive and used from time to time by the Sinhalese leadership for political purposes. Moreover, it is pointed out that the numerous wars throughout the millennia in which the rulers were respectively Sinhalese and Tamil were more often the product of local dynastic rivalry than of ethnic animosity. And in the British colonial period of the early twentieth century, the significant social and political divisions related to caste and class rather than the largely ethnically based issues of language and religion. This was still a time of relative harmony when the communities considered that they were both ‘founding races’ and the Western educated elite was united in pressing the colonial administration to introduce an elective element into the legislature.
Thus, when an ‘educated Ceylonese’ constituency was established in 1911, the seat was won by a Tamil, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, against his principal (Sinhalese) opponent who suffered from caste rivalry within his own community. Nonetheless, there were already signs of communal tension and this first timid move towards elected representative politics was soon to disrupt much of the traditional harmony. By 1926, the Governor Sir Hugh Clifford was reporting to the Colonial Office in London that the differences between the Sinhalese and the Tamils were accentuating with the latter suspecting the former of plans to dominate the political situation by their weight of numbers, while the Sinhalese resented the Tamils’ reluctance to accept their position as a minority in a Ceylonese nation.
When in the following year the Donoughmore Commission was appointed to review the constitution, its most pressing problem was how to reduce such intercommunal dissension and distrust over constitutional and particularly electoral development. On communal representation, the Tamil leadership was divided, with the idealistically all-island nationalist Jaffna Youth Congress strongly opposed to it and in favour of universal suffrage, while some of the old guard Tamil nationalists took the opposite position.
In the event, however, the commissioners rejected communal representation as standing in the way of the necessary realisation by the diverse population of their common kinship and obligations. They therefore proposed radical changes both in central government institutions and in the composition of the electorate. These included a State Council with executive as well as legislative competence operating on committee system lines, as in the League of Nations and London County Council at that time.
The Donoughmore constitution which came into effect in 1931 was widely condemned and deeply unpopular, especially among the Tamils. Yet it provided valuable experience of governance for community leaders and tended to encourage a spirit of compromise. But the bold step of introducing universal franchise in one go, although intended to move political life on healthily from caste, communal and class allegiances towards a broader national identity – was only partially successful. Although much good work was done to improve education and social conditions and services, the Sinhalese leadership was entrenched in a position of unassailable majority power and the island’s pattern of communal politics was not dissolved, rather stimulated and strengthened.
Was Ceylon put on the wrong road by the introduction of universal suffrage at a time when party political life was embryonic? Undoubtedly the decision was taken with the best of progressive intentions by the Labour Government of the day and its Fabian colonial secretary, Lord Passfield (a.k.a. Sydney Webb). But in Britain itself, which had benefited from widening the franchise gradually over most of the previous century, the final step to universal suffrage had only been taken a couple of years before. In Ceylon, however, the previous election had involved no more than 4 per cent of the population and universal suffrage had hardly featured in the evidence given to the Commission.
It is easier to criticise than to see what else could have been done short of continuing with communal representation in some form, which the commissioners feared would have impeded progress towards responsible government. There was no politically feasible solution that could have effectively fixed the intercommunal faultline in 1931. For the British, committed to developing the country constitutionally towards responsible government, this was a dilemma with acutely sharp horns.
During the Second World War, Ceylon was promised full responsible internal government under the Crown with the exception of defence and external relations. D.S. Senanayake, the (Sinhalese) Leader of the State Council, had a draft constitution prepared with the technical assistance of the British constitutional expert, Ivor Jennings, which incorporated his ideas of cabinet government on the Westminster model, together with some safeguards for minorities. Consequently, a commission, headed by Lord Soulbury, was sent from London to review it.
Again, there were deep misgivings among the minorities, especially the Tamils, whose leader G.G. Ponnambalam had long been campaigning for the so-called ‘fifty-fifty’ formula for balanced representation in the legislature whereby no one community could on its own dominate the others. But the Soulbury commissioners rejected that plan on the grounds that it would be reintroducing communal representation by the backdoor. They did, however, recognise the need for minority safeguards and so recommended an enhanced package designed to facilitate the election of minority candidates, togeyther with a clause (Section 29(2)) to protect minorities from legislative discrimination.
The commissioners went through some soul-searching as to whether British parliamentary democracy was an appropriate framework within which the deep divisions of a new unitary state could be peacefully resolved. Noting that this was what most politically active Ceylonese wanted, however, they recommended a constitution in line with the British practice, which on the whole worked well, at least at that time.
But Section 29(2) proved to be largely ineffectual, in that discrimination against minorities in everyday life related mostly to public administration. Even so, with the extended period of self-government which had originally been intended, the Soulbury constitution might have provided substantial, although not total, protection within a framework headed by an impartial Governor. But from the end of the Second World War, the tide of history was running out fast in South Asia and taking the British with it.
India and Pakistan became independent in August 1947 and Burmese independence had been promised for January 1948. Ceylon’s case for accelerated progress towards independence was anyway strong, owing to its contribution to the war effort and its good relationship with Britain. It became an independent country on February 4th, 1948.
In Ceylon, the British were proud of their excellent relationship with the political elite and its impact on the process of nation-building. But the country was thereby deprived of the compulsive pressure of a mass movement for independence, which in the struggle to get the British out, might have helped forge a more robust national identity. Ceylon is not alone in having been a model colony that on independence found itself facing the consequences of unresolved internal tensions. But among the many political complexities that have contributed to the obduracy of its conflict, this is the most cruelly ironic.
Signals of the coming storm began to appear shortly after independence and recurred with increasing urgency until it finally broke with the events of July 1983. In 1948-49, the United National Party government led by D.S. Senanayake passed legislation which effectively deprived nearly one million Tamil plantation workers of Indian origin of their citizenship and voting rights. Apart from its manifestly discriminatory nature, it upset the balance provided by minority weighting in the legislature which had been a key element in the political compromise on which the Independence constitution had been accepted. Thereafter, it was much easier for a major Sinhalese party to ignore the wishes of the Tamil minority and yet win a majority in parliament.
Then the Tamil Federal Party was formed in 1949, under the leadership of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam with the objectives of achieving a federal union of the two Tamil-speaking provinces and the seven Sinhalese provinces, the termination of all state-aided colonisation by Sinhalese in the north-east, the unity of all Tamil-speaking peoples in Ceylon and for both Sinhala and Tamil to be recognised as state languages.
Meanwhile, within the Sinhalese community, populist pressures of language and religion had been gaining strength, particularly among the discontented but influential constituency of those educated in Sinhalese who felt themselves to be seriously disadvantaged by the use of English for official business and so opposed the agreement to grant Tamil equality with Sinhalese as an official language. In this way, the ‘Sinhala Only’ movement had developed and, under the influence of the Sangha (Buddhist clergy), had become linked to the issue of state support for Buddhism. The political opportunities afforded by such a movement did not pass unnoticed by the ambitious and frustrated S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who broke away from the ruling United National Party(UNP) and founded the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1951, which encompassed greater sympathy for Sinhalese cultural sensitivities while paying less attention to Tamil interests.
Religious pressures continued, particularly with the celebrations in 1956 of Buddha Jayanti, the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha’s attainment of nirvana. When The Betrayal of Buddhism, a report prepared by the unofficial Buddhist Committee of Inquiry, appeared in February 1956, it bitterly lampooned the elite and governing UNP politicians, saying that they neither knew Sinhala nor cared about religion.
The effect on the Kotelawala UNP government was devastating. Shortly afterwards, the SLFP formed an anti-UNP coalition which Bandaranaike led to a sweeping victory at the polls, whereupon he immediately introduced proposals for an official language (the so-called ‘Sinhala Only’) act which declared that Sinhala was ‘the one official language’ and made no reference to Tamil. When the parliamentary debate began and the Tamil Federal Party under Chelvanayakam’s leadership staged a non-violent demonstration opposite the parliament building, they were attacked by hoodlums, while the police stood by. Mob attacks on Tamils followed in Colombo and in various Tamil settlements in which more than 150 people, mostly Tamils, died. These were the first of a series of increasingly deadly intercommunal riots that were to recur in 1958, 1961, 1974, 1977, 1979 and 1981, culminating in the devastating events of July 1983.
In reaction, the Federal Party organised marches throughout the north-east to converge on Trincomalee where it held a convention which adopted resolutions requesting parity of status for Tamil and Sinhalese, the cessation of state aid for Sinhalese colonisation in traditional Tamil homelands, regional autonomy within a federal framework for the Tamil-speaking provinces and the restoration of citizenship and franchise rights of the hill country Tamils.
The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 reflected an effort on both sides to reduce intercommunal tension and partially met Tamil concerns on language, colonisation, autonomy and the status of the Indian Tamils in the hill country. But the Tamils were frustrated at the slowness of its implementation and there was mounting Sinhalese hostility.
The UNP – now in opposition – exploited the situation, claiming that the Pact was undermining the unity of the country and the status of Sinhala as its only official language. Its leader, J.R. Jayewardene, the future president, led a Buddhist march to Kandy, which inflamed matters. But the most serious increase in intercommunal tension came when the Ministry of Transport sent nationalised buses to Tamil areas with ‘Sri’ in Sinhalese lettering on their number plates and the Federal Party responded by launching ‘Anti-Sri’ campaigns to tar over and replace the lettering with Tamil script.
Bandaranaike soon ceded to strong pressure from a group of Buddhist monks who, together with a minister in his cabinet, gathered on the lawn of his residence and refused to move until they had obtained abrogation of the Pact in writing. Tension mounted, as the Federal Party resolved to launch a non-violent campaign of direct action and Sinhalese extremists organised anti-Tamil rioting on a much larger scale than in 1956 in which over a thousand people were killed and a lot more made homeless. From this moment the Tamils realised that they could no longer rely on the state to protect them.
However, Bandaranaike made a further attempt at reconciliation passing the Tamil Language Act, which provided for regulations to enable Tamil to be used for administrative purposes in the north-east. Then, in September 1959, he was assassinated by an extremist Buddhist monk.
By putting the Tamil Language Act on the statute book, Bandaranaike had plotted a possible route out of the minefield of confrontational language politics into which he had led the country. But when his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, led the SLFP to victory at the polls in July 1960, she not only ignored this Act, but pressed on with implementation of the Sinhala Only Act to the full.
In response, the Federal Party launched yet another campaign of non-violent action in 1961 which included the organisation of a parallel postal service, the persuasion of Tamils to conduct their business and correspondence with the mostly Sinhalese government officials in Tamil and the massing of crowds to block entrances to the government offices in Jaffna and Trincomalee. These were dispersed by the security services with brute force, resulting in many injuries.
After the second government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike swept to power in 1970, Sinhala-Tamil relations deteriorated still further. One of the new government’s first steps was to turn the lower house of parliament into a constituent assembly in order to adopt a new constitution strongly orientated in favour of Buddhism and the Sinhala language. The legislature was supreme, the courts lost their power to review legislation and even the puny minority safeguard of Section 29(2) in the Independence constitution was dropped.
Tamil views of the state and their relation to it changed radically during the years 1970-74. Initially, the Federal Party had been at pains to emphasise that its objectives did not go beyond the achievement of a federal constitution within a one-island entity. But the impact of the 1972 constitution was powerfully conducive to the closing of ranks among moderate Tamil groupings. In a meeting in Trincomalee in May 1972, the Tamil United Front (TUF) was formed to embrace the Federal Party, the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress and, although it was later to withdraw, the hill country Tamil Ceylon Workers’ Congress of S. Thondaman. The TUF made six demands for the parity of Tamil with Sinhala, guarantees of full citizenship for all Tamil-speaking peoples who had made Sri Lanka their home, a secular state with equal protection for all religions, guarantees of fundamental rights, provision for the abolition of caste and untouchability and the acceptance of a decentralised structure of government as the basis for a participatory democracy.
When Chelvanayakam resigned his seat in parliament in protest at the imposition of the new constitution, he said that the Tamils had the right to determine their own future, whether as a subject race or as a free people. The government had exacerbated the situation by introducing measures of a discriminatory nature, notably in regard to standards for admission to the universities and employment in the public service -- two areas of great sensitivity for Tamil youth.
Separatist sentiment continued to harden among the Tamils and in 1975 the Tamil United Front changed its name to the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). At its first national convention the following year, it adopted the Vaddukoddai resolution, which accused Sirimavo Bandaranaike of having ignored its last attempt to win constitutional recognition of the Tamil nation without jeopardising the unity of the country, and called on the Tamils in general and in particular their youth to come forward and ‘throw themselves fully in the sacred fight for freedom and to flinch not till the goal of a sovereign socialist state of Tamil Eelam is reached’.
From its foundation in 1949 until the mid-1970s, the Federal Party had tried to defend the Tamils against the ravages of resurgent Sinhalese nationalism by a combination of parliamentary tactics whenever it was possible and by non-violent protests and civil disobedience whenever it was not. Admirable though this policy was by universal liberal standards, it had manifestly failed to meet the needs of the Tamil community, particulaly its youth.
Although the Vaddukodai resolution had implied that parliamentary tactics would be superseded by youth militancy, it was some years before this came about. Following the death of Chelvanayakam in 1977, the mantle of the TULF leadership fell on A. Amirthalingam, who also functioned as the leader of the opposition and was trying to negotiate with the government for a measure of autonomy while at the same time maintaining a relationship with the militant youth. The Tamil Students Movement – formed in 1970 to protest against the introduction of standardisation for university admissions – provided a focus for bright young Tamils who could take their education no further and thus acted as a nursery for leaders of the future groups. It was later renamed Tamil New Tigers and, in 1975, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Thirty-six militant groups emerged. Overlapping of membership, temporary alliances and internecine warfare characterised the groups in the early days, out of which, through exceptional ruthlessness as well as superior levels of discipline and leadership, the LTTE was already distinguishing itself as the most deadly. During the 1976-83 period, operations included the assassination of police informers and perceived quislings, bank robberies and attacks on the security forces and police stations. On July 23rd, 1983, the LTTE ambushed an army patrol, killing thirteen soldiers.
The high human cost of the anti-Tamil violence which followed in Colombo and spread through the south and east was without precedent. The official death count was some 400. But a reputable Tamil source quotes an estimate of between 2,000 and 3,000 deaths. Within Colombo almost 100,000 Tamils were displaced from their homes and an estimated 175,000 fled abroad as refugees.
It was widely believed that the LTTE ambush was the pretext for, rather than the cause of, what followed. There was evidence that some of the violence was organised and systematic and what the government said – and indeed did not say – at that time tended to bear out the view that it was in some measure complicit. Militancy was now decisively strengthened at the expense of constitutional and non-violent action – a development unwittingly assisted by the government when it passed the Sixth Amendment to the constitution requiring Tamil MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the unitary state. The TULF leadership refused and decamped to Madras, leaving the constitutional Tamil constituency unrepresented in parliament. Meanwhile young Tamils were flocking to join the militant groups which were soon to benefit from military training in India on a massive scale.
Large numbers of well-educated and articulate refugees fled abroad and formed influential lobbies supporting the militant struggle, particularly through the LTTE. Moreover, the events of July 1983 helped to forge the complex ambivalence of the Tamils towards the LTTE, with many deploring the cruelty of its methods yet implicitly accepting the need for a formidable movement.
The war continued for most of the past nineteen years despite the unsuccessful Indian attempt at peacemaking under the 1987 Peace Accord, the 1989-90 ceasefire and talks under President Premadasa and the corresponding process in 1994-95 under President Kumaratunga, daughter of S.W.R.D. and Sirimavo Bandaranaikes. But on February 22nd, 2002, both sides signed a Norwegian-facilitated ceasefire.
What chance of success is there this time around? First, there is the function of the Norwegians as impartial facilitators. Second, there is the ceasefire agreement, setting up an international monitoring mission to defuse volatile incidents on the ground. There is increasing international focus on making life more difficult for organisations which indulge in terrorist activities, while a greater readiness to acknowledge shortcomings at the heart of Lankan democratic governance has improved the climate for negotiating a form of federalism.
There may be difficulties on the LTTE side: there will certainly be opposition from hardline elements in the South and probably also constitutional problems. But with a pro-peace mood among the majority, this unprecedentedly shrewd and statesmanlike government holds several trump cards, including its ability to speak openly about the suffering and problems the war has caused on both sides.