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Deserving victims, just violence

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THE 1983 anti Tamil pogrom marked a critical turning point in the political history of the post independence Sri Lankan state. The violence consolidated the sense amongst the Tamil people that their security and future well-being could never be guaranteed in a unitary state dominated by a Sinhala Buddhist ideology. By August 1983 there had been a massive increase in recruitment for the Tamil independence movement as many began to feel that separation was the only viable option that remained open to the Tamils on the island.

While the previous governments of the United National Party (UNP) sought to explain the violence in terms of a master conspiracy by leftists and the provocation of Tamil separatists, its rival, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), simply blamed the failings of the then UNP administration. The UNP government promised firm action against the leftists and militants while the SLFP-led People’s Alliance government pointed its fingers at the UNP while echoing the latter’s rhetoric of fighting terrorism.

The objective of both methods is to reassure the Tamils that the conditions and motivations that made the 1983 violence possible have long since disappeared. The explanations also seek a cause somewhere outside the Sinhala polity and thereby remove any form of collective responsibility.

Whatever the precise anatomy of events that led up the unrestrained violence against the Tamils, it is clear that even a momentary unleashing of collective madness requires the prior existence of certain conditions. An examination of the conditions and assumptions underlying Sinhala attitudes to the violence, as expressed by both rural villagers and politicians, uncovers certain common themes. These themes and the supporting worldview provide the context with which the Sinhalese perceive violence against the Tamils.

As Jonathan Spencer, writing on popular Sinhalese perceptions of the violence suggests, it is not possible to explain the 1983 events by referring exclusively to events outside the Sinhala populace and worldview.

“While no one has disagreed with the government’s claim that there was a large element of organisation in the rioting, this does not mean that events can be explained solely in terms of manipulation by a few ring-leaders,” he says. “It may be possible to argue that the violence could have been perpetrated without widespread popular support but it is just as valid to point out that it would have been impossible had there been any measured show of opposition from the Sinhala population.”

During the July 83 violence Spencer was working in a village on the southern edge of the central highlands where he was able to ascertain the “popular mood.” He suggests that the violence was made possible by the existence of “very wide-spread anti Tamil resentment.” This led most Sinhalese people to either deny that the Tamils had been the victims or suggest that their suffering had been deserved: “Thus as I was again and again reminded throughout my stay, in Sinhalese eyes the Tamil is an inherently violent and dangerous creature whose excesses from time to time try even the saintly patience of the majority Buddhists.”

“Why were people doing this,” I asked. “It’s like this,” explained a young man who was staying with my friend. “This country is a good, straight Buddhist country. Yet these Tamils are always making trouble, killing people.”

The observations of Elizabeth Nissan from her experience in Anuradhapura confirm that most Sinhalese people blamed the Tamils for the 83 violence. A Sinhalese man whom she spoke to on the evening of July 26, when a curfew had finally been imposed, blamed the Tamils for the inconvenience. “Yes there’s curfew. If those Tamils want to come and live in our country they should help us. But they cause us all this trouble. How are we to work and buy food? It’s those Tamils cause us problems.”

Even when it was accepted that the Tamils had been the targets of the violence, this was justified as a natural reaction by the Sinhalese to the extreme provocations to which they had been subjected. Nissan collected some of the more commonly heard statements: “… but they killed thirteen of our soldiers, so what do they expect,” “they came here and now they are trying to divide the country; that’s why it happened,” “…we have given them a lot but they always want more.”

According to Nissan the logic of the arguments given above are supported by an ideology that outlines a specific type of relationship between the Sinhalese, the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil speaking people.

“Implicit in all such statements is the fundamental premise that Sri Lanka is inherently and rightfully Sinhalese state; and that this is, and must be accepted as, a fact and not a matter of opinion to be debated. For attempting to change this premise, Tamils have brought the wrath of the Sinhalese on their own heads; they have themselves to blame.”

This view was echoed and reinforced by the Sinhalese leaders through their official speeches broadcast to the nation throughout the period of the violence. The popular consensus was reiterated: the Tamils had started the violence by demanding too much; the Sinhalese position in the island needed to be reassured; responsibility for the violence lay with out-side forces and the Sinhalese people had been the righteous victims.

For five days as the violence raged, the President, J. R. Jayawardene, said nothing. When he finally made an appearance, there were no words of sympathy for the Tamils. Instead, he said that because of attacks by Tamil separatists against the military, the Sinhalese people as a whole had reacted. He would ensure that the Sinhala people would not be so affronted again by passing legislation that made the pro-motion of Tamil independence a crime. In justifying the legislation, Jayawardene said that his government, “‘cannot see any other way by which we can appease the natural desire of the Sinhala people to prevent the country being divided.”

In similar vein, the Minister of Trade and Shipping, Lalith Athulathmudali, bemoaned the suffering the violence had caused the Sinhalese while seeking blame it on some malevolent cause outside the Sinhala populace. “A few days ago, my friends, I saw a sight which neither you nor I thought we should live to see again. We saw many people looking for food, standing in line, greatly inconvenienced, seriously inconvenienced … We now know there is a hidden hand behind these incidents … It may be terrorists of the North, extremists and terrorists in the South.”

The implications of this train of thought are obvious. The guarantee of the Tamil people’s safety and well-being in a unitary Sri Lankan state can only come about when the Sinhala people come to see that their political culture is undermined by this logic and then start systematically to reject it. The central tenet of this worldview, that the Sinhala people have a natural right to the island and that Tamil existence on it can only be tolerated as far as it does not threaten Sinhala Buddhist hegemony, will inevitably lead to a sense of righteous collective violence against any group that is perceived as threatening this.

Although the SLFP President Chandrika Kumaratunga started her term in power in 1995 by declaring her intent to depart from this logic in both act and deed, the events of subsequent years suggest that nothing had changed. The years since 1995 are rich with incidents and missed opportunities that suggest that the ideology of Sinhala Buddhist dominance set the limits to her expressed commitment to multi cultural pluralism.

This is most clearly seen in the manner in which the President conducted the ‘war for peace’ and the approach she took to the peace process. Her approach to both suggests that she firmly believes that the life of the Tamil speaking people must be consistent with the Sinhala Buddhist claim to culturally and politically dominate the whole geographical space of the island.

The undisguised triumphalism and Sinhala martial celebration with which the PA government marked the capture of the Jaffna in 1995 gave a clear indication to the Tamils that nothing had changed. Whilst half a million Tamils were homeless in the most appalling conditions, an archaic victory celebration was held in Colombo. The deputy defence minister, General A. Ratwatte, gave the President a scroll that symbolised her sovereignty over a territory called ‘Yapa Pattuna,’ as the now conquered Tamil region of Jaffna is known in the south.

The general mood in Colombo was that of jubilation and the message of the celebrations was clear: the independent Tamil character of the Jaffna peninsula, that had long been an affront to the dominant people of the island, had now been assimilated into the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. There were no words of sympathy for the suffering and humiliation endured by the Tamils. This - as in 1983 - was entirely deserved, the feeling went.

The dissonance between the political rhetoric from the south and the experience of the Tamils was a repeat of the events that took place after the July 1983 riots. The President often congratulated herself publicly on how reasonable she was being to the Tamils compared to previous (UNP) political leaders. In one satellite broadcast to Jaffna, she directly reminded the Tamils of how good she had been to them and how much she had tried to do for them.

However, a closer examination of her speech revealed that she has in no way departed from the assumptions and attitudes that were used by the Sinhala populace, both people and politicians, to explain the July 83 riots. According to the President she entered into negotiations with the LTTE in 1994 because of her own commitment to democracy, which made her go further than the expectations of simple duty alone.

“We are a democratic government … We deeply believe in democracy and human rights ... That is why as soon as we came into power, I wrote to (LTTE leader) Mr. Prabhakaran inviting him to come to discuss seriously to stop the war. Normally, ahead of a legally elected sovereign does not write or talk to any terrorists who belong to illegal organisation. But I decided to write to the terrorist leader because I wanted very much to bring peace to Jaffna and to North and East of this country. We have offered permanent peace.”

The President took the position of someone whose tolerance and commitment to peace is the expression of ‘a saintly Buddhist patience.’ In this, as in 1983, there is absolutely no recognition of the conditions endured by the Tamils in post independence Sri Lanka and the sequence of events that brought the conflict about: the war has simply appeared without reason and “the LTTE is solely responsible” for the Government’s destructive military operations in the Tamil areas.

Furthermore, the Government condescends to talk to the LTTE because of its own commitments to peace. Again peace is not the resolution of conflict through negotiation between two conflicting sides – rather, it is a gift, bestowed by the President on the Tamil people.

“I have now spoken to you about … the strategy employed by my government in order to solve the Tamil people’s problems and to end the war … That has to be achieved through a new constitution legally and politically. The sincere and honest will of the government is to implement what is contained in the new constitution. We have done an immense amount of work to persuade the Sinhala majority people that this has to be done,” she lectured Jaffna’s people.

The Tamils must therefore understand that the constitutional solution to the conflict is simply presented to them as the “only” means to guarantee their rights. The Sinhala people, however, have to be persuaded that this has to be done. The Tamils have no rights except the ones the President chooses to give them, but the Sinhala people have pre existing rights that clearly have to be accommodated within any solution. The Tamils are simply informed as to the settlement they may have while the Sinhalese have a right to veto, and hence must be persuaded.

The President’s assertion that the Tamils could not have the right to determine the political conditions of their life because they “were not the original people of the island” resonates with the common sense that was used to justify the July 83 pogrom. As Lalith Athulathmudali, Sri Lanka’s notorious security minister, said in the aftermath of the July 83 violence, “the Sinhala people feel that they have an important place in this country.” By extension, all other ethnic groups are secondary to Sinhala priorities.

As history has demonstrated, this perception will inevitably lead to the justification of collective violence against the Tamils, whether in the form of popular military offensives or mob violence. The dominant consensus in the South remains that the Tamil right to exist on the island is dependant entirely on the goodwill of the Sinhalese. Little wonder then that when the Tamils ever overstep the mark by suggesting that their existence is independent of Sinhala generosity, that they suffer punitive and self-righteous violence.

Edited, originally published July 25, 2001.

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