Sri Lanka: Why It's a Mess Again

Roundup: Media's Take

Dave Kopel, Paul Gallant & Joanne D. Eisen, in National Review (March 3, 2004):

Sri Lanka is technically in a state of civil war. It is just barely held together by a tenuous ceasefire that is splintering day by day, threatening to dash the hopes of a country that yearns for peace. Last month, President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved parliament and called for new elections to be held on April 2 — almost four years earlier than expected. Kumaratunga thereby sabotaged what had once been promising negotiations between the government of Sri Lanka (controlled by the island's majority Buddhist population) and the Tamil Tigers (a Hindu minority). A canny politician, Kumaratunga would not have taken such as bold step unless she expected to win. This is, apparently, a move toward intensifying the civil war.

Sri Lanka's constitution provides for both a prime minister and a president; when the two belong to philosophically opposed political parties, the condition is termed" cohabitation." It seems it was just cohabitation that halted the peace process that might have ended 20 years of civil war.

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe and his party have been willing to make compromises in order to achieve a lasting peace. On the other hand, President Kumaratunga and her party, the People's Alliance, have resisted concessions to the Tamil Tiger insurgency. If the new elections give decisive power to Kumaratunga, the scene will be set for nullification of the 2002 ceasefire. Kumaratunga is officially committed to the original ceasefire, but her allies are now complaining that"the ceasefire with Tamil Tiger rebels threatens national security."

But that depends on who defines"security."

Located 22 miles off the southern tip of India, the island nation of Sri Lanka (population 19 million) is approximately the size of West Virginia. Its capital, Colombo, lies on the southwest coast. The nation was called Ceylon when it gained independence from Great Britain in 1948; the name was changed to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (which means"resplendent island") when it adopted a new constitution in 1972. It remains an independent member of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Ceylon became a British colony in 1796. But long before the British arrived, the country consisted of two separate cultures, each with its own language, religion, and customs. The majority is composed of Sinhalese, who live in the west, south, and center of the island. Their name means"of the lions," and they are primarily Buddhist.

Tamils (primarily Hindu) make up a smaller portion of the population, and have traditionally lived in the east and north. Many Tamils from India were relocated into Sinhalese areas by the British during the early 19th century, nearly doubling the number of Tamils on the island. They were employed as cheap laborers on the tea plantations. At the time of independence, there were about 4.6 million Sinhalese and 1.5 million Tamils.

When the British withdrew from Ceylon, they left democratic institutions and a British-style parliamentary form of government. What transpired soon afterward is a perfect example of how democracy does not always produce stability or equity.

Almost from the moment of independence, Sri Lanka's democratically elected government discriminated against the Tamil minority. For example, the Citizenship Act of 1948 disenfranchised the descendants of Indian Tamil laborers brought in by the British, people who had been living in Ceylon for more than a century. A million Tamils were given a choice: accept citizenship in a foreign country, India, or live as strangers in their own land. For decades afterward, these people lived in limbo .

Finally, in 2003 the Sri Lankan government relented , and allowed them to apply for citizenship.

The 1948 Citizenship Act increased Sinhalese control of government relative to the Tamils. In 1947, the Sinhalese controlled parliament by 67 percent; by 1952 they had 73 percent. The Sinhalese gains paved the way for additional discriminatory legislation against the Tamils. ...

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