Ethnic emotions, violence, and instability: some remarks on Sri Lanka

By Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz
[Department of Political Science, Temple University , USA]

Two explosions on bus in the Sinhalese dominated southern Sri Lanka killed an estimated 25 Sinhalese and injured more than 50. Sri Lanka state and institutions blamed the Tamil Tigers for the bloodshed. However, recent aerial bombardment and shelling, before the explosions in the South, by the Sinhalese dominated security forces indiscriminately killed more than 50 Tamils and seriously injured more than 75 in the Tamil dominated North East. Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese controlled mass media, in their regular language, justified the attacks, pointing them as legitimate targets of Tamil Tigers, and ethnic parties such as the JVP and JHU exhorted the security forces to continue their job against, what they call the Tamil terrorists.

One may simply point the finger at brutal ethnic civil war for such a horrific human sufferings. Fair enough, that is right speculation. But one needs to understand the dynamic of ethnic violence to have a true picture of the conflict. Ethnic violence is not a magic of God nor do they occur without human willingness. Violence between the different ethnic groups in divided societies occurs, when political actors employ emotional channel to win and hold the political power, in other words, when there is a willingness and need among the political actors to use ethnic emotions, violence is likely, because emotions are very symbolic and powerful. Thus, they can produce blood very easily than bread. Such a pathetic situation can take place both in democratic and non-democratic societies when political elites use ethnic emotions in their quest for a political power.

In Sri Lanka , ethnic violence often becomes regular strategy of political actors to win the sympathies of their respective constituencies. History records the duplicity of Sri Lankan political actors. On 5 June 1956 , disturbances occurred at Colombo when about 200 Tamils led by 12 members of Parliament staged a silent protest demonstration against the introduction of the Sinhala-Only policy, outside the Parliament building. They were assaulted, even stoned, by the Sinhalese mobs led by the Sinhalese politicians. Rioting then spread through the city, many Tamils were assaulted; the shops of the Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils were looted. State and its institutions neither officially condemn nor brought the perpetrators to justice. Tamils, once had huge influence in the island’s administrations, have begun to lost the trust in state and its institutions.

The similar incidents repeated in 1958 against the Tamils when the Tamils protested the decision of S.W.R.D. Bandaranayke, an architect of Sinhala-Only language to abrogate first post-independence pact between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, known as the Banderanaike-Chelvanayakam Pact (B-C Pact): The Tamils reacted to the surprise abrogation with a series of non-violent anti-government campaigns in the north and east. FP’s campaign generated the Sinhalese junta’s violent reactions against the Tamils. In May-June 1958, there were major anti-Tamil riots throughout the island, particularly in the Sinhalese dominated south areas. In this violence, hundreds of Tamils died and over 12,000 were made homeless.
Ethnic violence against the Tamils continued unabated even after ethnic violence in 1958, because the Sinhalese leaders found that violence against the Tamils was a useful strategy to divert the attention of the poor Sinhalese from the worsening economic situation. Whenever the ordinary and poor Southern Sinhalese filled with the ethnic emotions, in other words, anti-Tamil policies, the Sinhalese, who taste racism from Mahavamsa, 5th century mythical Sinhala history records, found sense of honor in it. In fact, symbolic appeals, as I said above, strong because they have ability to give a kind of space for the disadvantaged in which they can enjoy sense of relief and pride. This understanding can be well understood in Arab countries, where Arab political leaders and movements often employ Islamic revivalism to win the sympathy of ordinary Arabs and Muslims.

In Sri Lanka, whenever the Sinhalese elites confront difficulties to convince their constituencies, they employ ethnic emotions, a basic recipe for ethnic violence, to enjoy the fruits of power. 1983 violence was particularly important to understand the Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis. Some Tamil opinions say it was genocide and killed thousands of Tamils in the island. However, Human Right Watch (March 2006) put the figure as much as two thousands. Then President Mr. Jayawardene blessed the perpetrators of violence against the Tamils, and said “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna (Tamil) people now. Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us. The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… really, if I starve the Sinhala people will be happy.”

Sri Lanka State’s inability to condemn the violence or state willingness to apply violence against the Tamils eventually not only weakened the Tamil moderates, but also led the Tamils to lose the trust in the state and its institutions. In politics, trust is the key and it often gives hope to the political stability. In a democracy, when a particular community loses its trust in the fair delivery of the system, it is highly likely political movements/parties can win the sympathies of a particular group, if their appeals constitute similar emotional slogans. One can understand the birth of Tamil Tigers in this theoretical background.

In my understanding, as I recently maintained (Sri Lanka’s nightmare the Tamil Tigers are the by product of the policies and politics that were employed by the Sinhalese leaders since independence to win the Sinhalese votes. Such policies, while weakening the island’s democracy, produced deadly Tamil Tigers. What this pathetic reality hypothetically proves is that when the polity denies justice and peace to the geographically dominated group in favor of a particular community, rebellion is very likely, and struggle for the political independence can deepen if that geographically cornered community thinks that dominant polity never treat them impartially. Such an assumptions and conclusions definitely would not produce political angels but often they would give birth to the elements like the Tamil Tigers who, particularly after 1985, applied violence both on the Sinhala and Muslim polity to consolidate their clutch within the Tamil society.

The key point here is use of ethnic emotion in democratic politics more likely produce violence and blood. Bloody violence in Iraq after what the US administration called successful elections January 2006 further destabilized the Iraq polity and thus strengthened ethnic Shia and Sunni political parties and movements. Also, when the leaders of the majority/dominant group, for example, the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka systematically exercise ethnic emotions to win the Sinhalese votes at the expenses of minorities trust and support, the section of those marginalized groups could adopt either full or some forms of violence.

The state and its institutions may gazette them as terrorists; even global community can slap them as deadly terrorists. And they may lose so-called legendary military heroes such as Karuna and give final goodbye to those who equip rational face to those non-democratic politico-military movements in the global dome such as Mr. Balasingham, but those forces still would well survive and continually challenge the state military machines not because of they have deadly suicide bombers under their belt, but simply because of leaders inability to reconstruct the polity beyond the current (unitary) form and/or functionalize the system to give political accommodation and citizenship to those minorities, in Sri Lanka context, the Tamils and Muslims.

Ordinary masses may share some optimism toward the year of 2007; however, reality contradicts their confidence. Hatred and willingness for violence against the minorities, particularity the Tamils, in the name of defeating Tamil terrorists, are still dominating the agendas of the Sinhalese political parties. And, Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese controlled military establishment fixes its tight hopes with the military gains and received advanced blessings from the anti-power-sharing forces such as the JVP and JHU. Needless to say, there are no genuine discussions for the power-sharing with the minorities. For that reason, it is highly likely the year of 2007 generate chaos and more violence, and those non-democratic political movements may harvest more legitimacy among their own people both at home and abroad (Diaspora).

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  1. Dr Imtiyaz,
    Thank you for this enlightening article. Only people like you can enlighten the rest of the world to recognize the root causes for the bloodshed in “Paradise on earth”.

    Please also tell the world the loosers in this struggle will not be Tamils alone.

  2. It is people like Dr Imtyyaz who understand the real reasons for the rise of militancy. The emergence of Tamil Tigers as a fighting force, with considerable suppor tfrom the Tamil diaspora is a logical outcome of the racist policies of the Sri Lankan Government since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. This is what the people who call the Tigers ‘terrroists’ should understand. The Tamil leaders tried various non violent methods and failed due to the intransigence of the racist Government.
    Thank you Dr.

  3. Thank you Dr I for your objective analysis of the current situatioin in SL. The only way for SL to prevent descending into perdition is for a radical change of policy. It is time the majority community showed love, compassion and understanding that Lord Buddha preached and practised. The Sinhala nation will never be destroyed and it is not the desire of the Tamil nation to destroy the Sinhala Nation. Both nations can live in peaceful coexistence and develop the island economically and other ways. The solution is in the hands of the Sinhala people by rejecting racism, violence getting out of the “Mahavamsa” mind set. Let the Tamil People look after their affairs so that both nations can develop together. We need statemen to lead the Sinhalese and not racists and religious extremist.

  4. I am a Sinhalese and would be the first to say we need to find a viable machinisam of power sharing to address the aspirations of ALL tamils ( not only those represented by LTTE )and all other moniotiry groups.

    However, I miss in your analysis, the fact that LTTE has been unwilling to give up the homeland demand which the whole world reject as a non starter. In addition its tactics continue to be destrictive even during the peace process, during which time we really had chance to make progress towards a lasting solution.

    As long as Prabakanran remains in charge there is NO SOULITION to this mess. I sincerely hope everybody who is remotely interested in this conflict will have no illusions about this truth.

  5. Dear Dr.Imtiyaz

    I have been living in Europe for 33 years and have moved to Kilinochchi now to spend the rest of my life here. I have read many articles on the ethnic problem in SL. But I am yet to come across one like that of yours wich is very truthful and unbiased.

    If ther were only a few more like you in SL the ethnic problem would have been solved long ago.

    I will be much obliged if you could send me your articles to follow.

    Thank you Doctor and thank you very much for your contribution.


  6. Dr. I. Provides a deep insight into the ethnic issues in Sri Lanka with arguments arranged logically, but Joy from Melbourne has totally made the story “distasteful” for declaring own personal bias. Joy, both hands are neccessary to produce the sound when we applause, not only majority of Singhalese, but also the minority of Tamils!!

  7. Excellent article.
    Any unbiased person reading the article would appreciate what the minorities have been undergoing since 1956.
    The sad fact is there has never been any statesman who putthe country first,to bring prosperity to all.
    Even now it is not too late for the conflict to be resolved.
    Will any one rise up to meet the challenge ?

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