'The core problem is the elites, not the people': Sanka Abayawardena responds

Is Sanka Abayawardena a government stooge, Sinhala nationalist, or peace activist? He warns his critics against forgetting the class basis of this conflict.

See the debate: Is reconciliation possible in Sri Lanka?

Sanka Chandima Abayawardena
14 May 2012

This article is a response to Ms. Ambika Satkunanathan and Mr. Asanga Welikala, who both wrote detailed responses to my previous article ‘Reconciliation in Sri Lanka means the youth must lead the way’. Both responses are extremely logical and based on the assumption that the problem in Sri Lanka is between ethnic identities of Tamils and Sinhalese, not the political paradigm. This is where my argument differs in core content, as I do not recognise that Tamils and Sinhalese have a natural ethnic problem just because they belong to those identities. The issue is politically manufactured in the attempt to govern Sri Lanka in line with western norms and traditions.

The two writers have based their entire arguments on this unstable ground, which has been proven to be false in the eyes of the public of Sri Lanka numerous times. The argument that the Sinhalese public, not their dominant and authoritarian leadership nor the Tamil elite ruling class, have discriminated against the Tamil population and deprived them of their basic civil rights is completely wrong.

Both Satkunanathan and Welikala assume that the resolution to Sri Lanka’s issues is the devolution of powers on ethnic and religious boundaries, though not to ground level. They also assume that my writing reflects the ideals of the current government, and that the government is the one setting all aspects of the political agenda of the country including the wider public ideology.

As you may know, Sinhalese is not an ordinary ethnic identity like Tamil. Sinhalese is more a set of cultural groups, while Tamils are more of a tribal identity. Thus, treating Sinhalese as that of a national identity is a principle mistake made by all those in the Colombo school of politics in Sri Lanka.

There are two very important aspects in Sri Lankan reconciliation. One is to have justice delivered at the local level, and the other is to bridge divided communities by promoting social, economical, political, and religious links. In Sri Lanka the second matter has been implemented with tremendous speed, as can be clearly understood by anyone studying the programs of certain governmental ministries in the former conflict zones. This is true especially of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development, where free thinking young people are given considerable opportunities to dictate national policy to the central parliament. The first aspect of reconciliation has been rather slow, for many reasons but chiefly due to the complex groundlevel political and bureaucratic issues. This cannot be changed at all by foreign intervention with a liberal cloth on it.

Elites, not groundlevel communal violence, created the Tamil Tigers

It is a common mistake to assume that the Tamil-Tigers came in to existence as a result of violence in 1983, and it is a further mistkate to dub this violence ‘communal conflict’.  It is a proven fact that the people who robbed Jaffna elections, burned down Tamil businesses, killed Tamil people, even burned the world renowned Jaffna public Library were government sponsored thugs led by influential politicians. In my home town of Divulapitiya it was the local council chairman, a member of the governing party then, who robbed the Tamil jewellery shops while ordinary Sinhalese civilians helped out the victims. There is clear evidence to show that current main opposition party leaders actively took part in the right wing attacks against Tamil civilians that were triggered by the assassination by the LTTE of 13 soldiers in a bomb blast in Jaffna. The Tigers came in to existence long before the violence of 1983, which was not just a one-sided incident. There were numbers of Sinhalese civilians who were killed by Tamil militant groups at that time too.

Going further back, it must be noted that India’s political and military agenda against the government from 1977 to 1994 played a key role in how these numerous Tamil militant groups came in to being.

But the very seed of an armed fight to win the demands of militants came about because Tamil youth were frustrated in the political environment they were stuck in. This environment was largely a result of the work of the elite Tamil political system: to this day it can be clearly seen how traditional Tamil families rule the Tamil politic without leaving any room for new emerging youth agendas.

Going back to 1956, the way the postcolonial government’s language laws and university quota system were interpreted also contributed heavily to the issue. The undereducated and misinformed Tamil community never understood that they were being played on a chess board by the elite political class to save their privileged way of life. Instead of seeing the true intention of making Sinhala the State language in 1956 as being to prepare for the localisation of governance – a demand among the majority since 1815 – elite political schools interpreted it as an attempt to deprive Tamils of their right to work in their mother language. The simple political solution of giving Tamil recognition as a working language could not even be seen as a solution in 1956 and after, because of the undue pressure mounted by the Tamil elite as well as the definitions given to them by Sinhala Nationalists.

This is very clear in the demand that 50% of the legislative be for Tamils, who were around 10% of the population. It was clear that frustration was great amongst the Tamil elite, who were losing political and civil power after the establishment of free education to all and universal voting rights in the country.

Sinhala elites such as the Bandaranaike and Senanayake families also faced the same issue, but because they were from Sinhalese backgrounds they managed to establish their socialist or conservative stances and so secure their power by attracting votes.

Stating that Sinhala Buddhists sought to establish a nation state is wrong as it was the need of the Sinhala elite, not the polity, to dominate the nation state to secure their power base, just as with the Tamil elite to have a Tamil nation state. This is why there was a long standing political conflict between Tamil and Sinhala elites. Also the issue is not with the governments of Sri Lanka not being willing to share power with ethnic minorities: all governments after 1948 have had considerably large Tamil and Muslim representation in them.  Rather it lies with their unwillingness to devolve power through grassroots level mechanisms, independent of ethnic or religious identities.

Resistance to the elite agenda

In Sri Lanka people frequently forget about the role of the Tamil elite political class and do not hesitate to put the blame on civilian populations to prove their view point and understandings and versions of the story, as if they were acting independently of political leadership. It is true that the Mahavamsa [the Sri Lankan epic upon which Sinhala Buddhism is founded – ed.] had and still has an unimaginable influence on how the Sinhalese define their rootedness to the land. It is true that Sinhalese as a community is very patriotic. But they themselves too are discriminated against by an English-speaking elite, like their fellow Tamil citizens. Both communities had the same issues. Young People of both communities went restless due to more or less same reasons. Both communities were discriminated for who they are and what they stand for and their resistance to adopt western political norms as their own. Unfortunately both communities are the victim of elite definitions of what their problems are. The Tamils suffer more from this than Sinhalese, as they lacked the communal cultural and ideological structures with which to resist, which became very helpful to the Sinhalese in 1956 and 1970.

The issue of language

The Sinhalese population took 60 years to migrate from supporting a weak multi-lingual policy to an actively multilingual policy, which came into action in 2012. The irony is that the same political group who introduced the new national policy, in 1956 made Sinhala the State language replacing English while overlooking Tamil needs of having there administrative needs addressed in their own language.

These developments are too big to be misread or skipped: in 1956 Sinhala was replacing English and not Tamil. So technically the policy didn’t mean to discriminate against Tamil speakers as before 1956 Tamil, along with its sister language Sinhala, didn’t have any rights as a language. But in implementing the language policy of 1956, Tamil citizens had to face issues in administration services that were using Sinhala. This battered their day to day life. This situation lead to the point where it was catering for the elite Tamil political need of asking for more autonomy, a demand which was designed to keep the power to themselves which was speedily slipping from their hands.

A new Hind Kovil being built in the north of Sri Lanka, countering claims that all non-Buddhist relgious buildings had been destroyed.

Terrorist maniacs like the Tamil Tigers, and their international support networks active in the UK, Norway, France, Australia and Germany to this day, campaign to satisfy this elite political need of creating a mono-ethnic fascist national state for the Tamil people.

Left: New Hindu Kovil close to Jaffna peninsula, contradicting claims by 'Tamil Tiger activists' that all non-Buddhist religious structures are destroyed. Photo: S. Abayawardena

I totally agree with Mr. Walikala in saying that it is important to stratify the legitimate political aspirations of Tamil people, but must state that Tamils are not the only group of people who are deprived of the same rights in the country. All those who don’t enslave themselves to the ruling elite political classes are deprived of their very basic civil rights just like in many other countries.  It is also important to know that the demand for a separate country, and the false and misleading arguments made in trying to prove its necessity, is not what the people are asking for. What they want is the right to work in their own mother tongue in their dominated areas and island wide, the right to have unrestricted access to public health and education, the right to take part in decision making processes at the national level and proper recognition in those processes. These are the same rights which Sinhala majority took arms for against the government in 1971 and more or less in 1989. On neither of those occasions did they take arms against their fellow Tamil or Muslim Sri Lankans. 

The question is not just about the Rajapakse regime, but rather about the community wiliness to make the governments they have elected do what they want them to do, and the government’s capacity to implement them.

Commemoration and accountability

It is an accepted fact that all communities need some sort of commendations for the fallen. But calling the new post-conflict version of the Tamil Tigers’ maha-vir day outcry for a public ceremony to commemorate those who have died is an example of pro-Tiger activism. Maha-vir day originally commemorated and glorified suicide bombers and ethnically motivated attacks tigers did in July every year. It is dangerous to call Black July Tiger commemoration day a public need of the Tamil people when Tiger fronts world wide are using the post-conflict version of black July day as a rallying point for another attempt to re start what they lost in May 2009.

However I must say that I am not ‘incapable of contemplating the possibility that Sri Lankans who call for accountability, or at least for an appropriate acknowledgement of the fact that massive human rights violations did occur in the final phase of the conflict, might be motivated by their own ideas of reconciliation, pluralist citizenship and constitutional patriotism, albeit a rights-based conception of ‘Sri Lankan-ness’ that differs from [my] own’. [Quoted from Asanga Welikala, Ed.]

The current government has a problem in this regard with some of its ruling political opinions. But in falsely assuming that I myself am a representation of the current ruling politic and accusing me falsely of incapability shows that the writer is not capable of understanding the dynamics outside his political school [the 'Colombo political school'. Ed.].

Liberal ideas and foreign intervention

In terms of the ideological base for a foreign intervention, I’m sure that there are very few instances where foreign interventions were done with the view of establishing liberal values. It is a known fact that an intervention mostly does not carry any liberal value but a liberal cloth to hide the true political and military agenda of those intervening.

Not only Sinhalese would fight against any such international intervention, but also Tamils too. This is the lesson we can learn from the deployment of Indian forces in Sri Lanka in the  early 1990s. My opposition to an international intervention to ensure accountability for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity is because such an intervention cannot ensure accountability and justice to the victims. The argument is not all about whether the accusations are against the government or the LTTE; it is entirely about the hidden agendas behind the selectiveness of foreign interventions, uninvited by the mass public. Like in many other countries this mass public is quite different from the English speaking public who write and speak to the mainstream international media.

Ms. Ambika Satkunanathan claims that the voices of those youth who were sent to rehabilitation centres for alleged affiliation with the LTTE have effectively been silenced. But on the contrary, most of these youth as well as other young people in the former conflict zones are given the opportunity to follow vocational training and skills development programs, community building programs, capacity building initiatives for participation in democratic and national policy making initiatives. The best example to answer this false basis is the example of young people who got elected in to TNA local councils in the north, who were originally elected members of Sri Lanka Youth Parliament. While acknowdging the social implications for former women fighters of LTTE it must be stated that the security status of the North is not yet stable. For a country that went through a 30 year long conflict, it is very much a national interest to monitor former LTTE combatants. The methods of implementing such security agendas should be discussed separately of the goal they are trying to achieve as the problem is not in the need but in the process.

 Sanka Abayawardena

Infrastructure development in former forward defence lines. Photo: Sanka Abayawardena

Why is youth the key?

I agree with Asanga Welikala that reconciliation is lasting when it is revisited by later generations. This is why Sri Lankan youth has to lead reconciliation, and they will, as that’s the generational need of their time. They are the generation who will look back on the conflict and related issues one day and put the foundations for ONE Sri Lanka. Young people in any country are the only constituency able to invest energy and out-of-the-box thinking in changing the system. This is why almost all leftist revolutions around the world have been youth centred. When there are no creative political movements to match generational needs young people try to engage the closest thing to change the system. This is why JVP and its outdated political thinking to this day in Sri Lanka is enjoying considerable youth support in Sri Lanka. This is also why they supported a huge military campaign of their elected government to wipe out LTTE as they want to see the balance of power in Sri Lanka change in favour of Sri Lankan interests instead of western and Elamist agendas. This is exactly why young people are in the centre of reconciliation processes in Sri Lanka.

See the debate: Is reconciliation possible in Sri Lanka?

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