Why Sri Lanka Burns, Part II

TamilNet photo: JVP protest draws hundreds of Buddhist monks.
TamilNet photo: JVP protest draws hundreds of Buddhist monks.

The most troubling aspect of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Tamil conflict is that it’s a secondary conflict, and there is no possibility of peace until the primary conflict is identified and understood.

The primary conflict actually has nothing to do with the Tamils– it’s internal to the Sinhalese, and it’s a struggle for power between different sets of leaderships.  In the beginning, there were two: the traditional pre-colonial Buddhist monk/village headmen structure, and the colonial trading class that arose (and was supported by the British) that stands in opposition.  From the time of independence in 1948, these two jockeyed for position– to the exclusion of anyone’s interest but their own.  Not only the Tamil people, but also the poverty-stricken Sinhalese suffered as a result.

On the Sinhalese side, militancy arose among the poor.  The self-described “Marxist-Buddhist” JVP staged an aborted revolution in 1972.  The leaders were imprisoned or eliminated.  But in 1987 they arose again, this time triggering a 3-year bloodbath in which tens of thousands of Sinhalese were killed.  The government eventually vanquished the JVP, but only by using tactics even more heinous than the rebels.  When the JVP emerged again in 1994, it appeared as a political party that had ostensibly renounced violence.  Today, that party represents a “third front” in the intra-Sinhalese struggle.

Here lies the problem for the Tamils: from a pragmatic political standpoint– the view of the Sinhalese elites– there are not enough of them to be important.  None of the Sinhalese parties needs them in order to win the struggle for control of the Sinhalese.  But all three Sinhalese leaderships use the war as a tool for manipulating the Sinhalese public.

Since the fighting resumed in 2007, the Rajapakse administration appears to have gained nearly complete control over the Sinhalese.  That is its goal: elimination of the democratic process and consolidation of control over a diverse and fragmented populace.  (The notion of a unified Sinhala nation is erroneous– the Sinhalese are divided by class, caste, and regional variations in language, culture, and economics.)  The administration will use any means for success.  What happens to the LTTE or the Tamil people in the process is purely a secondary consideration.  Simple math explains why: 2/3 of the island is Sinhalese, and 100% of 2/3 is better than 50% or less of the whole.

Sadly, it is not only the Tamil people who suffer as a result of this conflict.  The vast majority of Sinhalese who are not members of the elite or the tiny urban middle class live in poverty. Â Tens of thousands were forcibly resettled in “Tamil” areas where they became targets for the LTTE.  Hundreds of thousands of others, having no job prospects, joined the military in exchange for the government’s promise to support their family should they be killed in action.

Though the suffering of both the Sinhala and Tamil people as a result of this intra-Sinhala conflict has been great, few outside the Sinhala community recognize it– and few within acknowledge it.  Yet no peace can be made until this intra-Sinhala conflict is understood and resolved, since that is the real cause of the inter-ethnic conflict on the island.

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