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Opinion: Explaining the Sri Lankan Conflict – Part 2

March 23, 2009

By Gogol G.

This is a continuation of the first part of the questions and answers of the discussion of the TVO blog.  See Part 1 for details.

I’d like to shift the conversation into a different area: What’s struck me about what I’ve heard from Sinhalese and Tamils on the conflict is how little common ground there seems to be. Many of those who support the government in Colombo seem very reluctant to even consider the possibility that the Tamils might have legitimate grievances against the Sri Lankan government. And many of those who are sympathetic to the Tamil cause seem very reluctant to find any fault with the way certain Tamils have chosen to fight for their rights.

So I’m wondering: What do you think your side could/should have done differently?

These are good questions and well-appreciated. I’d like to answer, but before I do, I’d like to say that soul-searching and empathy are steps towards reconciliation, and I’ve definitely done quite a bit prior to now. But my emphasis on the structural aspects of this conflict is due to the fact that I’ve followed events from before the beginning of the last peace process — our most significant effort yet — and I realized that since 2002, the effects of debilitating war, a shattered economy, and a tragic tsunami were not enough to bring people together.

Something else was stronger than all of that. I also want to say that I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into a “side”. Yes, I’m Tamil. But I’m after a rectification of what’s unjust, that will forever be “my side”. I hedge my bets with the LTTE because it’s the most probable means to this, and I’m shamelessly candid enough to admit that I’ll switch to a better alternative at the drop of a hat.

For example, if you are pro-Colombo, do you agree that, yes, in some ways at least the Tamils were treated unfairly in the past or perhaps that the government could have prosecuted this war in a way that would have resulted in fewer Tamils being killed or hurt? If so, what should have been done differently in the past and what should be done differently in the future?

If you are Tamil, do you agree that some things Tamils have done in an effort to achieve their goals were wrong, or perhaps that Tamil leaders have at least at times been too insistent on achieving a separate Tamil state over compromise?  If so, what mistakes were made and what can be done going forward?

We, as Tamils, must remember not to sugar coat the abuses of the Tigers or other groups in this war, for after this war, we need to be able to transition to something non-authoritarian.

Of course, context is needed:

The LTTE kicked out tens of thousands of Muslims from Jaffna, stating that they were working with the government. They’ve killed thousands of Sinhalese and Tamils, intentionally and unintentionally, as well as the other early militias (who may have sided with India). The Sri Lankan government has killed most of the 100,000+ civilians who died in this war, and most of them are Tamil. The Sri Lankan government killed 60,000+ Sinhalese in 2 weeks during the JVP rebellion in 1971 and thousands more Sinhalese again in 1989. The Tigers tightly control media in their areas. The government has never prosecuted the death of any journalist in 25 years (TARAKI: Media Under Threat in Sri Lanka – Part 3 of 3). The Tiger administration is not very open, and it’s not always efficient. The Sri Lankan government has gone from a majoritarian state to police state to dictatorship. But you’d have tunnel vision if you didn’t notice that the Tigers do some things better than the government. Its courts are fairer and faster, they have their own law college, and they offer lawyers trained at their law colleges to the defendants by default. You can’t bribe police (you’ll get fined if you try); waiters at their restaurants will not accept tips. It’s safe for girls at night; this is unheard of in South Asia.

For people on both sides of the divide: can you see, without necessarily agreeing, with the way the other side sees things? The sense Tamils have that they were targeted by a newly-confident Sinhalese majority after independence? The sense that some Sinhalese have that they are a Buddhist minority in a primarily Hindu-Muslim subcontinent?

I can see how the Sinhalese Buddhist regional-minority complex could have formed. Ever since the first elections in 1956, the same formula of pro-Sinhalese rhetoric and fear-mongering against Tamils that works so well to get them elected has made Sinhalese fear Tamils in the island to the point where they hate. But with 70 million Tamils nearby in India, this earns them a lot of enemies. Plus, in nearby China, there’s Buddhist Tibet. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama fleeing, and he said, “Today, the religion, culture, language and identity — which successive generations of Tibetans have considered more precious than their lives — are nearing extinction; in short, the Tibetan people are regarded like criminals deserving to be put to death.” (UK Times, 3/9/09)

And are there any areas of common ground or hope that you see?  I’d really like to find out if, despite the understandably strong emotions this issue raises, if there is any basis for bridge-building between the different sides in the conflict.

We also must recognize that compromise is necessary, but a fair compromise does not necessarily mean “give up half”. It’s not a commodity that can be quantified — it’s equality and justice for an entire persecuted ethnic group. The LTTE had ISGA proposals in 2004 where important federal-regional power relationships were left out so as to be negotiated, but the Sri Lankan government rejected that as “too much”.  Until the structure is fundamentally changed, the different ethnic groups will remain polarized and hostile towards one another, with no bridge imaginably possible, and our worst-case scenarios may become reality soon enough.

Thanks to everyone for their comments. In my post, I was essentially asking people if there was any possibility of common ground and understanding between Tamil and Sinhalese. Judging from most — not all — of the comments that have followed, the short answer seems to be: No. No there isn’t. If this is true then this, I think, is going to make it very difficult for the majority of Canadians (and Americans, and Europeans, etc) to sympathize with either side in the Sri Lanka conflict. The majority of people who live in these (admittedly privileged) countries tend to see compromise as an essential component of almost every conflict resolution. Canada itself was created and developed through a series of deals and compromises that seem to have satisfied nobody but which were probably essential to Canada existing in the first place. Look at some of the people cited in the above comments, such as Gandhi: Huge and painful compromise was required to achieve an independent Indian state. And Mandela: Black South Africans had to foreswear violence and accept that many whites would retain many of their privileges (wealth) and that some oppressors from the Apartheid state (through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) would go unpunished. That was the price of a peaceful majority black democracy. Now, I acknowledge that none of these examples can be direct comparisons to the situation in Sri Lanka, and that Sinhalese and Tamils find themselves in a particularly bitter conflict (unlike anything, say, Canada has ever experienced between its various ethnic groups). But even if, for example, Tamils are completely right to say “We did everything we could to achieve a peaceful solution through compromise and have been given no choice but to take up arms and use the tactics we have”, a lot of Canadians are going to be very skeptical: it just runs counter to the way most Canadians think (in my humble view). I will follow up with another comment that will, for the sake of continuing the discussion, ask some potentially offensive questions.

Hi Daniel, I see what you’re saying about compromise — in the process of settling a conflict, you have to be willing to accept that justice won’t be fully served to progress ahead. That’s a good point. We need it ultimately, because issues like river resources, border security, and perhaps sea patrol will need to be shared. So long as the ethnic groups are structurally shielded from discrimination, even federalism (e.g., Swiss / Belgian / Canadian) would work. The hard part is getting to a point where the rulers are willing to agree. Blacks had an international boycott of South African apartheid; Gandhi had post-WWII devastation in Europe and an uncontainable number of supporters. Occupation only ends when it is no longer economically profitable to maintain. Once we get there, with no choice but to stop war forever, compromise will be necessary and key, like you said.

As promised, in an effort to further understanding of the Sri Lanka situation, I have a few pointed, intentionally provocative and potentially offensive questions to ask. I do this only to further discussion and understanding. Since most of the comments on this blog seem to be from Tamils, these questions are directed at Tamils.

1. Some comments have made reference to a 50/50 power sharing proposal put forward around independence: “The 50/50 demand was that Sinhalese people would have 50% of the power and the rest of the minority groups combined will have 50% of the power (Tamil speaking people, Malay, Burgers, etc.)” Would this have been fair to the Sinhalese, since they were the clear majority of the population? I don’t know what the numbers were in 1948, but Sinhalese are currently approximately 3/4ths of the island’s people, and as far as I know they have always been the clear majority. How would a 50/50 split be fair?

1. I think 50/50 is somewhat fair. It’s fair and makes as much sense as the parity of French and English in Canada, or how Quebec receives a net income from the Canadian government. Even if all Sinhalese ganged up on Tamils (e.g., colonize NE lands), they could be opposed. As it is now, Sinhalese get more than 75% seats, and we know how the story went. (Minority rights laws technically exist, but they have never been implemented seriously.  The NE Tamils, in a coalition together, only get less than 10% of seats in the electoral system.)

2. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this, but I’ve read somewhere that Tamils had more than half the government jobs in 1948 even though they were less than 25% of the population. Was that fair to the Sinhalese?

2. No, I’ve heard that Tamils had 30-40% of the government jobs when the British left (Blowback, pp. 46-47). I see what you’re saying, it’s kind of unfair. (Tamils were preferred by the British, and their farmlands aren’t nearly as good.) But it’s no justification to say, “Anyone who can’t speak Sinhalese is fired” as promised in the 1956 election and delivered.

3. Several comments have said the LTTE is necessary. (“LTTE chose a violence campaign against the state as a last resort because all other options related to political negotiating with the Sri Lankan state failed.”). OK, but was suicide bombing, using child soldiers and killing Tamil opposition really necessary?* Really?

*”The LTTE has been banned in many countries because of its use of suicide bombers and child soldiers, widespread human rights abuses, and its intolerance of any dissent among Tamils.” —International Crisis Group

3. Yes and no to the Tamils opposing them. Yes — if we think the state needs to be challenged and only if challenging the state entails challenging Tamils who work with the state (e.g. paramilitaries).  But many in the early militias meant well and yet their groups were decimated, and not all Tamil politicians deemed moderate, although a part of the government, worked hand-and-glove with it — no. But the paramilitaries’ leaderships became controlled by India, which had its own agenda — yes.

Suicide bombing is a tactic. My argument about the label terrorism applies to ICG. Why were the suicide Air Tiger attacks “kamikazi”, but the 2001 Katunayake attack, where no civilians killed, “terrorist”?

Thankfully, the near-suicidal missions in Normandy aren’t called this. There’s no good logic. The LTTE uses child soldiers, which is gruesome. The government uses child soldiers too. The government also kills dissenters, and instead of suicide, it drops banned cluster and fire bombs on civilians. So if we’re fair, we apply the label to both or neither. As I said previously, I’m against using the label “terrorism” (even in “state terrorism”, because that lends validity to the label; unfortunately already, when Chandrika Kumaratunga was president of Sri Lanka, she described previous Sri Lankan governments as “state terror” ). But we also should understand why a few kids flee home to join the LTTE; we can’t fully ignore their ability to think and act for themselves.

Beate Arnestad made a good documentary about this in 2006, called “My Daughter The Terrorist” (glorifying neither side, deploring war, but showing the reasons why Tigers fight) — this is a quick 1-hr film, well worth watching:

4. “I dont see any fault in the way that the Tamils have choosen to fight for their rights. What fault do you want us to find?” Oh, I don’t know. Maybe suicide bombing and child soldiers? Maybe that? (This is the same question as #3 but I’m repeating it because it’s important. As for the argument that LTTE suicide bombers are only directed at military targets, I’ll have to take your word for it. But even so, the problem with suicide bombings is that they are so imprecise that they end up killing many innocent bystanders).

4. I agree with you, Daniel, I find fault in the way that the LTTE has fought. Again, not for entirely the same reasons (2/3 of LTTE suicide bombs are at sea, and a majority of the rest are purely military). Rather, civilians get killed, society is authoritarian (if orderly), and societal equality hasn’t permeated very much yet. I think it’s silly for Tamils to deny this, but I think some might be scared that the context may be lost — and it shouldn’t.

5. Even if the LTTE is, as some say, necessary, has it gotten to a point where the LTTE has been made so toxic in the eyes of the world through controversial tactics (again, suicide bombing, child soldiers, etc) that its image is now hurting the Tamil cause?

5. I think how the world views the LTTE is also partly up to the world. They labeled Nelson Mandela’s ANC terrorist in 1960, Mandela was only delisted in 2008.

It also depends on geopolitics, and whether it helps to demonize the LTTE for other reasons. The NE has no oil, but it has a nice harbour (google “String of Pearls”, or visit for full details of the implications). If Britain can designate Iceland a terrorist nation in October 2008 in order to seize its investments, how can the world trust that the terrorist label hasn’t been misused elsewhere?  Iceland cannot remain a terrorist state forever.

Final Thoughts:

I ended up where I began — I am still proud of TVO for the stand they took to have an intelligent discussion in plain view for all to see.  See my critique of TVO’s handling of the SL situation for more on that.

The producer of The Agenda, Daniel Kitts, posted a set of questions to the “Sinhalese / pro-Colombo” section of the commentators with questions like, “Don’t you think Tamils have been discriminated?  What about SLA abuses?  Why not federalism?”

As of yet, only one person has responded (username “i_hate_liars”), and those misguided comments speak for themselves.  They only reaffirm mine, so there’s not much worth saying there.  No one else has responded to Daniel’s last question with more credible answers.

Many people are unaware of the context and roots of the Sri Lankan conflict or have a few misunderstandings, but would like to know more.  They want to hear a fair and full honest explanation of everything.  This page is a starting resource for those who wish to gain more insight into the conflict.

In case you’re wondering, 90% of the information I presented above can be found in the following 2 books:
* Blowback by Neil DeVotta
* Learning Politics from Sivaram by Mark Whitaker

Since this page doesn’t pretend to be the final word or answer all questions, you can help by doing one of two things:
* Submit more questions in the comments of this page that you would like me to answer, to which I will reply with my answers
* Translate this entire page into Tamil (or Sinhalese, but I can’t personally verify Sinhalese, but I will try to find someone who can).

Correspondence can be sent to

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Siva permalink
    April 2, 2009 3:22 am

    Good job promoting the rights of Tamils in the TVO blog forum. One thing seemed clear — after reading your balanced responses, the show’s producer Daniel was left with a much better understanding of Tamil grievances.

    Let me ask you something slightly unrelated to the questions posed by Daniel.

    At this stage in the war, taking in to account the ground realities of life in the West and the realpolitik that pervades world action and inaction on Sri Lanka, what are 2-3 things you think the Tamil Diaspora should do to further the Tamil struggle for self-determination?

    • voicesinexile permalink*
      April 7, 2009 2:55 am

      Hi Sivakolunthu,
      Good question. I’ll do my best…

      1. Tamils should realize that the scope of possibilities for a resolution depends a lot on geopolitics and the ground military situation. (Read Inner City Press for the full details; basically, rhetoric from international superpowers changes in sync with military and economic reversals.) Sri Lanka is adept at playing China, Iran, Pakistan, India, US, UK, et al. against each other. Between India, the West, and the East, Sri Lanka can play any one against the other two to get whatever it wants.

      That being said, Sri Lanka is close to the edge. It has squandered much money due to the war, and no end is in sight. The international community has “invested” money in Sri Lanka but now doesn’t know if”it was worth it”. Until they realize that the unchanged structure will ensure permanent misery, we have to play along with euphemisms like “costs” = human casualties, “payoff” = peace, and “gamble” = warfare.

      Thus, advocacy of Tamil issues is important not because it solves things in itself. But it is important in laying the groundwork for the international community to realize why changing the structure is necessary for any solution to be permanent. At some point, the they will be ready to hear and accept that truth, and that time is coming soon

      I think that, most importantly, since the current calculations of international efforts are based on whether supporting the Sri Lankan government is “worth it”, I think that in the short-term, we need to stress a few things:

      * Sri Lanka accepts lots of money from China secretly for infrastructure and military. China is also supporting Sri Lanka at the UN. In return, SL will be expected to give China a significant shipping and naval presence.
      * Sri Lanka is accepting a lot of money from Iran for subsidizing oil and building oil refineries. At the same time, it is giving a lot of money to Iran through purchases, propping up that economy.
      * Russia is also supporting Sri Lanka very strongly, and like China, is vetoing Western requests for just a UN briefing.
      * Sri Lanka has also promised India that it wouldn’t allow any other country to use Trinco harbor and other thingswithout India’s consent

      So for now, the point is: Sri Lanka is dealing with all sorts of people whose interests and values don’t match the West’s. Also, Sri Lanka is promising much more than it can give. It takes all the money given to it and wastes it on an ethnic conflict that won’t go away until the structure of the country is changed and Tamils get enough autonomy. This makes the country poorer and a bad place to do business — useless.

      2. For Tamils, we should understand that in terms of advocacy, “shows of strength” are necessary for us to stay cohesive and connected as a community, but not good for advocacy to the outside. People who haven’t been killed for being who they are, who haven’t felt marginalized everywhere they’ve lived, who haven’t been persecuted and labeled, they don’t necessarily understand. And most will not sympathize if we claim complete innocence as a community. We have to have courage to admit mistakes that were made, but confident enough to know that admitting mistakes does not invalidate the justness of our demands. The logic, if presented well, cannot be refuted. The facts are out there.

      The best approach when explaining our predicament to the outside world is to be able to admit the faults in the Tamil struggle (and never defend faults), and put it in the context of fighting a government that kills the citizens it claims to be saving . At the same time, we must be able to understand the theory of the relationship between a state and violence well before we can explain why the Tamil struggle eventually resorted to taking up arms. And we must explain it in a way that does not get hung up on any militant group, exact desired solution, or any other detail. Instead, we must always remember that the end goal of the struggle is to change the structure so that Sinhalese political math does not show incentives for anti-Tamil racism. It’s easier to explain what won’t work, the answer will be “been there, done that”.

      3. In my optimism, I think that a lot of people out there aren’t so cold and calculative as I’ve made government policy strategists seem. I think that we Tamils should keep working hard to educate ourselves and others in the community about the finer points of these issues. We have lots of youth who don’t know much about this struggle — which is of deep importance in the history of their family, at least. There are many more people who aren’t Tamil out there, and we need to start having regular conversations with them, too. And most importantly, it is important to craft fair and intelligent responses in the places where smart people make important decisions with a large impact.

      I think there’s more to say for # 2, and hopefully others out there will step up and contribute their thoughts in their own ways. In line with # 3, I would like to open this page for more questions and I will try my best at good answers. Hopefully we can make this into a Q & A/conversation forum of sorts to brainstorm how to present our arguments more effectively. I hope this helps, and if so, spread the word.

      Gogol G.

  2. Leah Lakshmi permalink
    April 14, 2009 6:13 pm

    I just wanted to thank you so much for this blog. It’s crucially important, and what many, many Sri Lankans of all cultures have been waiting for for a long time- a space to break out of the binary of either hella pro government or hella pro LTTE arguments to be critical of both sides and explore what third alternatives might be. Thank you so much for putting in your time and energy to thoughtful explore the complexities. Our ancestors and those who hopefully will know a land that has both peace and social justice (hey, we can dream, right?) thank you.

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