Why blame others for our own faults?

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

Blaming others for the mistakes of our Sinhalese and Tamil leaders has become a feature of our post-independence political culture. This practice is keeping the conflict-ridden island-nation in a permanent state of turmoil. The gullibility of the masses was exploited by the elitist few for their own advantage and glory. Scaring them of invented dangers that would deprive their collective and individual rights and freedom was their modus operandi. The power seekers sought the support of the people masquerading as their saviours. Unwittingly, their political strategies led to the emergence of radical groups who are now claiming as the real guardians or liberators of the people on either side of the ethnic divide. The challenges facing the national leaders are now formidable. Without the courage and the will to lead from the front they cannot create the greatly needed climate conducive for ethnic harmony, national integration, peace and development.

The country is now in utter mess unable to recreate conditions helpful for securing not only peace but also decent way of living and international respect, which has reached a shameful low point. All facets of human development have suffered immensely because of the chaotic conditions created by myopic leadership. Contemptuously, these have been beneficial to the few selfish persons for furthering their interests. The December 2006 US Congressional report based on a recent mission by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to the Asian region has stated, the government of Sri Lanka did not take corruption seriously as an issue. Corruption or dishonesty in public service covers all sorts of loathsome behaviour exploiting the power in their possession for personal gain. Good governance has meant little to those wielding power, except for use as a slogan to win votes.
When leaders unite

The upsurge in killings, abductions, disappearances (Professor S. Raveendranath, the Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University is missing since 15th December), extortion, mass involuntary displacements, human rights violations and living costs has not instigated the Sri Lankan polity to take joint action. These like corruption are not burning issues, warranting urgent action! The recent decision of the representatives of the people illustrates the rare instances, when matters become important requiring consensual decision. Political differences are put aside when there is some direct benefit to them and no party stands to gain political mileage in the near term.

While the government is holding back the promised salary increases to public sector employees despite the agitation by their unions for speedy implementation, the salaries/allowances of the President, all members of the Parliament, including the Prime minister, Ministers and Deputy Ministers have been increased substantially. The House approved the increases unanimously. Paradoxically, even the opposition MPs who raised quite rightly warnings of imminent financial crisis in the wake of high spending and borrowings have not objected to the salary increases.

Specifically, as pointed out by the trade union leaders, the politico-religious party, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) whose members in the Parliament are all Buddhist monks and the vociferous Sinhala patriotic People’s Liberation Front (JVP), which always talks about the common man and the country, voted on November 23 for the salary increase with arrears from January 2006. The labour unions have charged that the political parties have jointly put the economy in peril by increasing the salaries of the elected representatives ‘lavishly’ in the face of high defence/war-related expenditures. The Public Sector Salary Review Trade Unions Committee (PSSRTUC) has said, while the government has only provided the 6% to 15% salary increase proposed in the 2005 budget for public sector employees, it has increased the President’s salary 300% to Rs. 97,000, Ministers’ 210% to Rs. 71,000 and MPs’ 165% to Rs. 545,000 in the 2007 budget. They are also to get arrears of salary in terms of the new scales from January 2006.

A fundamental case has been filed demanding the Supreme Court to make parliament’s decision to increase salaries of ministers and MPs null and void. Seven major trade unions in their petition have named 230 persons as defendants including the Prime Minister, all 225 MPs and Secretary to the Ministry of Finance. The petitioners have said the decision to increase salaries of ministers and MPs was irrational.


The transformation of the ethnic conflict to the present vicious form is the result of the failures to settle it peacefully because of the lack of bold leadership. Non-violent methods of protest and struggle for equal rights by the Tamils under the leadership of Tamil leaders committed to democracy, pluralism, peaceful co-existence in undivided country and democratic devolution for the Tamils to exercise certain specified powers for safeguarding their interests and fulfilling their aspirations were confronted by violence. This has been described by some analysts as state terror. Rivalry between political parties led by egoistic power-greedy leaders also prevented a political settlement.

Had there been courageous and determined leaders to do what is nationally and morally right, the Tamil rebels confronting the State, who are now considered a threat to national security would not have emerged. The past leaders were more concerned about their political future than the long-term well-being of the country and the people. This egoistic trait seems to be still lingering, despite the terrible happenings after independence. Those who find pretext for not addressing the grievances and concerns of the minority Tamils saying ‘terrorism’ is the main national problem obstructing peace and not the rights and status of the Tamils in the country must think about the reasons that led to its emergence and subsequent potency.

The 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom was the ultimate horrendous act that boosted the determination and might of the Tamil militants. They became convinced that the remedy lies in responding in a language the enemy understands! Incidentally, the Tamil Diaspora now blamed by many for being the main support base of the Tamil Tiger rebels itself is the outcome of the 1983 state-sponsored terror. They are involved on the demand and supply side of the armed conflict. The demand for separation seems to be strong among the settlers in the developed countries.

The belief that separation will eventually be achieved through coercion and chaos has been the weakness that has inflicted enormous damage to the Tamil community, besides forgoing some good opportunities to settle the conflict with international backing. The rebel outfit became a force to be reckoned with solely because of its competence in both guerrilla (suicide bomb attacks) and conventional warfare, raising ample funds for acquiring all kinds of sophisticated weapons and maintaining a sizeable standing militia and naval force, shipping arms purchased abroad and carrying out propaganda work worldwide.

The expertise in political science, constitutionalism and negotiation was considered unnecessary and an impediment to the aspired political goal. This is not surprising since the aim of the struggle was not a negotiated settlement within one state but the creation of two separate states with different political ideologies. The late Anton Balasingham misjudged his leader’s inflexible aim, when he took a pragmatic view and agreed to consider a suitable federal solution. Later, he had to wriggle out of the December 2002 Oslo agreement damaging his own integrity as the chief negotiator. As LTTE’s ideologue he was expected to rationalize the actions and the political aim of the movement and not give advice on alternatives to separation.

There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. According to Prof. Schmid, it is “a method of violence and propaganda which targets civilians with a view to forcing ‘the enemy’ to agree to a set of demands by instilling widespread fear and political friction in the population under attack”. (Ref. Ayesha Zuhair – ‘Terrorism is violence and propaganda’ in Daily Mirror 29 December 2006.) It is generally carried out in pursuit of political aims.

In the interview Prof. Schmid said: “Terrorism is violence and propaganda. If you only answer the violence and not the propaganda, you face problems. Every piece of terrorist propaganda must be countered with a well-articulated response and the language of violence must be confronted with the language of peace”. Where Sri Lanka has failed horribly is very clear from the above remark. The Sri Lankan governments lacked the capacity to challenge the propaganda campaign conducted skillfully with the help of intercontinental Tiger network. The emphasis given by the Tamil Tigers to propaganda was evident from the determined efforts made to control the Tamil print and electronic media. The success the Tiger agents achieved in this endeavour, in many Western countries is well known.

The language of peace used by Sri Lankan governments to confront violence has been vague and often seen as having some hidden political motive. The LTTE too had used the same language at critical times to deceive others. Deception used as a political tool by governments has been embraced and made effective by the LTTE for the moment.

Focus on recent history

The ongoing debates on Tamil homeland, North-East merger and the right of self-determination have focused on ancient history which lacks veracity in some critical areas. Sri Lanka’s internal strife intensified after independence, when Sinhalese majority rule contrary to the assurances given at the time of independence began to surface in a domineering way challenging the aspirations of the minority Tamils. The need for Tamil homeland and solidarity of Tamils in the North and East arose in the succeeding years when the unitary system strengthened Sinhala majority rule threatening the security, status and future well-being of Tamils. Although the Tamil leaders at the time of independence had some qualms about the unitary system, the assurances given by the Sinhalese leaders led them to accept it with the checks and balances stipulated in the Soulbury Constitution. Importantly, the ‘boys’ who took up arms were born after the introduction of ‘Sinhala Only’ policy and segregation of students for teaching exclusively in their mother tongue. Thoughtlessly, English education was also abolished. Fluency in English language was considered unnecessary. The educational system promoted mistrust and division between ethnic communities.

Dr. Ranjan Fernando in his letter to the President (excerpts appeared in the Daily News 9 January 2007) has candidly pointed out the colossal mistake made by not teaching children both Sinhala and Tamil languages. He has said: “… if the main ethnic communities in the country were provided with proper facilities to enhance their knowledge of each others language the problems facing them would have been reduced thereby enabling them to achieve mutual understanding of their problems and promote feelings of coexistence in a strong march for prosperity. If our educational system provided proper facilities in this direction during the last 20 years the ethnic coexistence would have been greatly achieved but there were various evil forces purposefully working against this process”. His letter contains other illuminating points to understand the basic cause of the national problem.

The comments of a learned (law and history) British visitor in his article titled, “Stifling the aspirations of the Tamils” published in ‘The Morning Leader’ 27 December 2006 not only blame the Sinhalese leaders for sidelining the Tamils but also observes that “Pirapaharan has spoken the truth with regard to the successive governments of Sri Lanka. Pirapaharan is quite right in his conviction that the Sinhala leaders will never put forward a just solution to the Tamil national question. Therefore we are not prepared to place our trust in the impossible and walk along the same old futile path.” The Sinhalese polity by inaction has been giving credence to this view, which has been his ‘trump card’.

Although the blame is not directed realistically on both sides, particularly after the ethnic conflict transformed into an armed conflict about land rights, the article contains some facts relevant to the just and fair settlement of the conflict. After hailing Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan for fighting the cause of the Sinhalese before Queen Victoria in 1915, the Pan Sinhalese cabinet was formed in 1934. The colonisation schemes to settle Sinhalese in the predominant habitat of Tamils and Muslims, enactment of the Sinhala only Act despite Article 29 of the 1948 constitution, several anti-Tamil riots between 1958 and 1983, the burning of the Jaffna Library, arbitrary arrest of Tamils and imprisonment without trial under the PTA, the continuous occupation of the north and east by the Sri Lankan military forces and their atrocities have been cited as proof of the real intention of nationalistic leaders anxious to consolidate the supremacy of the Sinhalese. On the charge of Tiger terrorism, he has said: “……… it was the Sinhala polity that started terrorising the Tamils and others”.

Many “Sinhalese are unaware of what had been taking place in the north and east, the perpetration of tragic incidents the responsibility for which can be placed at the doorstep of successive Sri Lankan governments. Only when something takes place in Colombo the Sinhalese shout loudly about terrorist activities. The carpet bombings including on St. James Church and other religious places of worship, the killing of Tamil politicians which are hardly investigated into, the Bindunuwewa calamity for which none had been found guilty, the killing of so many youths in the past as well as in the present mainly by the military and many a time by para military forces employed by the military or the governmental authorities are also terrorist activities. There cannot be different standards for violence. Violence is violence. The reason why the state uses violence in Sri Lanka is because it does not want to give up the power it had somehow grabbed for the Sinhala community under the British. The Tamils could have asked for separation like Mohamed Ali Jinnah if they wished to in 1948. But they were lulled into believing the Sinhala polity would be reasonable”.

Other deeds the Sinhalese polity did to weaken politically the minority Tamils and consolidate its supreme authority are mentioned as – the refusal to accommodate an Article similar to Article 29 in the new Republican Constitution of 1972 to prevent the passage of discriminatory laws that harm the ethnic minorities, the refusal to accommodate a federal form of government when enacting two new constitutions, making out deliberately that federalism was separation when in fact federalism was an effective alternative to separation, media-wise standardisation which prevented very capable Tamil students from the north as well as from Colombo entering university, non recruitment of Tamils into the military services giving the impression Tamils were unwanted in the administration of the country, foisting of favours on the Muslims and others when they were prepared to play ball with the powers that be, the evolution of a judiciary insensitive to the aspirations of the Tamils, continuous mouthing of words like maximum devolution of powers but in effect not granting any powers whatsoever to the Tamils and the failure to implement fully Acts approved by the Parliament as well as declared official policies that would have been helpful to minority Tamils. For example, Tamils are compelled to sign statements written in Sinhalese at Police Stations despite Tamil is also now an official language! Although some of the charges are no longer valid, the past experience is a forewarning of the possible harm in the future if the unitary system in its present form continues. Some Sinhalese are suggesting concessions belatedly, ignoring all the adverse effects of 50 years of lopsided rule that neglected the rights and aspirations of Tamils.

Suffering people

Why are the Tamil people continuing to suffer, without the prospect of establishing a separate Tamil state? This question is critical for examining the future of the people in the war-torn North and East. At present their aspirations remain overshadowed by those committed to violent methods of capturing control over the land. The self-created disasters have destroyed tens of thousands of lives, displaced many more from their habitats with some dying on the way to safer places across forests, marshes, rivers and even the Palk Strait, deprived many poor citizens their livelihood and in general the abject conditions where the people are uncertain of their safety, security and future. A detailed analysis is provided in a separate paper – Horrors of the ‘undeclared war’.

The fact that considerable pain and suffering of Tamils have been caused by members of the same community through extrajudicial killings, abduction of children, obstruction of official humanitarian assistance and freedom of movement, endangering the lives of civilians by using them as human shields, disrupting the education of Tamil students in the North and East and in general discarding democratic principles and conciliatory approach to conflict resolution. After experiencing many self-inflicted losses and sufferings are we now better placed to negotiate a political settlement?

In the venture to create chaos and despondency, the Tamil separatists have a strong ally in the South. There is the feeling that the JVP is trying to create an anarchic situation in the country by opposing all progressive moves to solve the ethnic problem. It continues to insist that the government should not consider the recommended proposals of the majority expert panel (comprising 11 of the 17 members) in any reform of the present constitution.

Peace aim lacks determination

The actions of both sides ignore completely the pains and sufferings of the civilians as well as the future well-being of the country. The latter depends crucially on the realization of real peace and obtaining foreign assistance for development. Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka on January 2 vowed to totally liberate the North soon after his force rescued the eastern region from the LTTE. This approach to peace is not different from the failed ‘war for peace’ tried by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. It only helped the separatists to win more support, enhance the supply of funds and strengthen the fighting capabilities. The APC approach also failed in the past (when the JVP was not as powerful it is now in obstructing democratic devolution) to arrive at a credible solution and weaken the case for separation.

The editorial of ‘The Nation’ Sunday 7 January 2007) raised a voice for the voiceless. It said: “Not only are we a nation on the brink of full-scale war that will threaten security and the economy in an unprecedented fashion, but we are also teetering on the edge of being internationally snubbed as a pariah state thanks to an abysmal human rights record that has accompanied the escalation of tensions in the north east over the past year. Truth be told, the longer the state continues to treat human rights and conventions of war as things that may be swept under the carpet for the time being, the closer Sri Lanka comes to inviting two dangerous phenomena: (a) the imposition of UN sanctions; and (b) suspension either in part or whole of international funding”.

“Can we, as a nation, afford blanket immunity to the defence establishment and security forces personnel as the blatant disregard for the civilian ‘collateral’ continues? Can we weep copious tears and shake our fists LTTE-ward when civilian targets are attacked in the ‘south’ with a clear conscience, if we fail to speak on behalf of the innocents killed in those air struck fields of the north east? We cannot. It is only if we, the people, look on every single life as sacred and worthy of securing, shall each of us be safe”.

Fr. Vimal Tirimanna, CSsR in his exposition of Pope’s Peace Day message and its relevance to Sri Lanka has said, “If justice is the way that leads to peace, then, truth is the essence of that justice which would lead us to peace. In our Sri Lankan context, this is precisely something that has been lacking for ages! Be it the successive Sri Lankan governments or be it the Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam (LTTE), there seems to be a lack of respect for truth, not only with regard to the diffusion of information in the context of violence and war in Sri Lanka, but also with regard to the lived ground reality itself. Thus, on the one hand, no Sri Lankan government so far has had the courage and the political will to dismiss the fanatic extremists who oppose all governmental efforts to ensure the right of basic human dignity to the Tamils and all other minorities, and then, to go ahead in implementing a constitutional framework that guarantees every Sri Lankan citizen irrespective of race, religion and caste, that very dignity. Even the timid, wavering (and rather imperfect) attempts made in this respect by our leaders like Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and of late, by Mahinda Rajapaksa, have been allowed to be swept away either by fanatic extremists or by political opportunism. This is a clear denial of the lived ground reality in Sri Lanka, and it is a clear denial of truth”.

The call of Victor Ivan, Editor of Ravaya for ‘radically rethinking the ethnic conflict’ is praiseworthy. In his candid replies to the interviewer C. A. Chandraprema of ‘The Island’ he said: “We have, indeed, reached a stage where we cannot continue like this. Prabhakaran also cannot continue as he is doing at present. Prabhakaran will not be able to sell the concept of a separate state even among his own people in the future, because the Tamil people are beginning to realise that this is nothing but a Utopian dream. When I speak to the Tamil people I know, they accept that a separate state is not a realistic goal. We are caught up in a vicious cycle. They have been wronged by us. They, too, have wronged us in turn”. The crucial step towards sincere peace is to admit the past mistakes and take confidence-building measures. In hindsight, the Vaddukkoddai Resolution was the result of myopic thinking or rather a desperate move without considering all the risks involved.

According to Ivan: “Those Tamil youth (who spoke emotionally) were not mature people like Amirthalingam; they were dazzled by the Utopian ideal posited. At that time, they were just a bunch of young men agitating against issues like standardisation. When the separatist demand was announced at the Vaddukkoddai conference, Tiruchelvam Senior asked Amirthalingam whether that separatist statement was not dangerous. Amirthalingam told him that it was simply meant to keep the ‘boys’ happy. Those leaders made a big mistake. In the end, they too were killed. This was all due to shortcomings in their thinking. They did not know where they were going. If they really wanted, there was an alternative way. Bertrand Russell has said that the characteristics of the great men who contribute to creating a nation automatically become the characteristics of that nation. I believe that to this date. India is running on the fuel pumped in by Mahatma Gandhi”. Despite the ethnically diverse populations, Singapore and Malaysia are prospering because of their far-sighted leaders who laid the grounds for unity, peace and rapid development.

H. L. D. Mahindapala, the veteran journalist and former editor of Observer (Colombo) now settled in Australia recently made a very unfair comment on the role of India and the international community (the Co-chairs) in Sri Lanka’s peace process. He said: “The hidden side of the so-called peace process, not aired very much in public discourses, is the role of the key international players that rock the cradle and pinch the baby. India and the Co-chairs (representing the international community) have been two dominant actors who pretend to be the caring nannies to the Sri Lankan baby crying for help. But a close examination reveals their manipulative, self-serving, double-dealing hands have not stopped at merely pinching the baby. They have, in fact, injected into the body politic of the baby the deadly virus of terrorism, cultured and exported from the homelands of these two international interventionists”!

The internal conflict in Sri Lanka was simple for amicable settlement without foreign mediation some years ago but the ‘patriotic’ forces obstructed the attempts. The country has paid a hefty price for allowing the extremists to obstruct remedial actions. The defining moment will soon come when the APC considers the recommendation of the APRC whose chairman Prof. Tissa Vitharana has come out with a draft set of proposals for constitutional change based on the conflicting reports of Expert Panels A and B. His version appeared in the ‘Morning Leader’ of January 10. According to Hindustan Times Colombo correspondent PK Balachandran, political observers think Prof. Vitharana’s formulation is “radical enough for powerful and influential sections of the Sri Lankan polity to denounce and scuttle” his proposals which are close to those of the (majority) Panel A rejected by the JVP and other Sinhalese extremists. Prof. Vitharana hopes to finish the consultations with the political parties and present a final document in two months’ time. It will be a miracle if this approach succeeds. Knowing the political setting in Sri Lanka, India encouraged a joint effort by the two main political parties towards a political/constitutional settlement and welcomed the SLFP-UNP MoU. Even this shows no sign of forward movement needed to put the country on the right path to peace and prosperity. We, as Sri Lankans have to blame only our leaders and this means ourselves for the gloom that lingers right across the country.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]

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