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War by other means

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Marking 15 years since the assassination of Tamil journalist Dharmeratnam Sivaram, we have reproduced a speech delivered by former Tamil Guardian editor Vino Kanapathipillai at a commemoration for the slain journalist in 2010.

This speech was delivered in London on Aril 29, 2010 at the fifth anniversary of the death of Sivaram. 


Most of us are here today not only because of a connection to Sivaram, but also because we are engaged, in one form or another, in Sri Lanka’s protracted and deepening ethnic crisis.

In the next few minutes, I’d like to make some observations on Sri Lanka today, drawing on an analytical approach favoured by Sivaram. In other words, always seeing events as inevitably situated in long running trends and processes.

The conventional understanding of Sri Lanka is that after the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers last May, the country is in a post-war or post-conflict scenario. In this understanding, the path to peace is one defined by reconstruction, development, reconciliation and so on.

However, this is based on a very narrow understanding of war, as merely the clash of arms. Wars end when armed clashes end. In fact, the clash of arms is a manifestation of vehemently contradictory politics that have already been underway.

To quote Carl von Clausewitz, one of the theorists Sivaram was most influenced by, “war is a continuation of politics by other means.”

In this logic, even the most casual observer of the Sri Lankan state’s conduct can see that the situation today is the continuation of war by other means.

By war, I am referring to the systematic and ideologically coherent practices of the state against the Tamils and other non-Sinhalese. What we see today is the intensification of structural violence against the Tamil people that began from independence.

By violence, I do not mean just disappearances, abductions, murders, rapes and torture, although these are continuing, as we know. I mean more the structural practices of the state, aimed at limiting and suppressing the thriving of non-Sinhala people. We are familiar with some of these: colonization, erasing of Tamil usage in state practices, and the efforts to limit and destroy the socio-economic possibilities for Tamils.

None of this is new. It is part of efforts of the Sri Lankan state, since independence, to break down all resistance to the Sinhala national project. What is this project? To turn Sri Lanka into a modern-day realization of an ancient myth that the island belongs to the Sinhalese and in which the minorities have a subordinate existence. As such, anyone who stands in the way of Sinhala majoritarianism – including principled Sinhalese who are not supportive of that project – are destroyed. This, as we know, is also why Sivaram was killed.

The recent parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka have once again brought to power the southern party that most aggressively espouses a Sinhala majoritarian view. It is a case of history repeating itself. It is a carbon copy of the 1956 elections. Then, as now, as the Tamils sought a political arrangement between Tamils and Sinhalese, the Sinhalese voted into power a party that vehemently rejected any compromise with the Tamils.

While constitutional changes are almost certainly in the near future, as the President’s party almost has the required two-thirds majority, only the blindest of optimists see these changes as possibly positive towards addressing even basic Tamil grievances. Those who suggest this do so with no regards to either the historic evolution of the Sri Lankan state or the contemporary realities of Sinhala power today. 

Let us be clear, change in Sri Lanka cannot come from within.

The last elections prove how overwhelmingly the structural bases of power serve Sinhala nationalism. The JVP, for example, lost several seats purely because its core platforms of Sinhala nationalism and anti-market economics were more convincingly taken up by the UPFA and President Rajapaksa.

In a contest between the UNP and the SLFP – both of which are essentially Sinhalese entities despite the token Tamils – the party that more aggressively pursued the Sinhala national project has won convincingly.

What we see now is another phase in the further entrenching of the Sinhala people’s dominance over the non-Sinhala.

It is not merely a question of human rights abuses, or lack of media freedom, or lack of governance. Rather, it is a specific kind of governance. This is why the Sinhala people – as in 1956 – are with Rajapaksa and his party.

To repeat, the core driver of Sri Lankan politics continues to be this Sinhala majoritatian nationalism.

This mass ideology predates independence and has now been entrenched in the mechanisms of the state. It is now carried forward in the state bureaucracy, the composition, practices and strategies of the military, the directing of international aid and state investment to some places and not others, and so on.

This Sinhala majoritarianism remains the central obstacle to the constitutional recognition of the Tamils, and other Tamil speaking peoples, as having a rightful place, equal to the Sinhalese, on the island.

And until it is confronted and checked, a truly democratic and peaceful Sri Lanka, one which treats all communities as equal, will remain an impossible dream.

 It is worth noting that the ascendancy of this Sinhala majoritarianism has taken place while the country has been in the close embrace of the international community. After several decades of ‘engagement’ by the liberal West there still isn’t a hairsbreadth of liberal space in Sri Lanka. Indeed, it can be argued that Sri Lanka has headed successfully in the opposite direction.

Thus the war continues in Sri Lanka through politics. And as long as the war continues, there will be resistance. Some of us focus on media freedom, others are more driven by human rights concerns, or the humanitarian or developmental needs of the oppressed. But unless all of us recognize that the problems we are opposing stem from a strategic logic embedded in the state, we cannot succeed in our objectives.

We do not believe the course of Sinhala majoritarianism will change from within. Every effort by the Tamils to negotiate or reason with this majoritarianism has resulted in further violence. Look at the history of constitutional change since independence, for example.

Sri Lanka today is in a state of flux. As the Sinhala-dominated and supported state continues to wage war on the Tamil speaking communities, various forms of resistance will emerge, not only from within, but also from without. Today, the Tamils problem is being assessed and reflected upon in far more spaces across the world than ever before in our history.

I have of course not forgotten that we are here today to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sri Lankan state’s murder of Sivaram. In closing, I would like to say a few words about him.

The Tamil Guardian has had a relation with Sivaram almost since it began. He was instructor and mentor to the longer-serving volunteers on the paper. He taught us not only how to write, but how to think through the complexities of politics; to go beyond a surface analysis of a problem and explore the underlying structural movements. For this we are grateful.

As long as the oppression of Tamils continues, so too must the struggle for Tamil rights. Most of us knew Sivaram through our engagement in this struggle. I think it behoves us all to continue to remain committed, in whatever field we are in, to continue his resistance.

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