Ethnic outbidding and the origins of the ethnic conflict: A blast from the past and a lesson for the future

18 October 2019 12:54 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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On the 18th of May 2019, Sri Lanka celebrated victory commemorating ten years of ending the civil war and establishing peace. It is important to ask at this juncture, whether a military victory can guarantee lasting peace unless the grievances and the political aspirations that led to the conflict are addressed. Reconciliation, and future conflict prevention calls for a retrospective inspection of the socio political events that paved the way to the armed conflict, as the roots of the conflict spread back to the historical past.   


The tensions between the majority community Sinhalese and Tamils were emergent as far back as the 1920’s. Lord Manning had proposed a balancing of power by specially created communal seats so that “the majority could not dominate minorities by the sheer weight of numbers.”(Marasinghe, 2007) In the face of opposition from the Sinhala majority of the Ceylon National Congress, Sir Arunachalam led Tamil Mahajana Sabai was formed as a breakaway faction which ‘sealed the division of the island into conflicting communities.’(Wickramasinghe, 2007). Emergence of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, in the early 20th century, had a considerable impact in forming the national consciousness. Nationalists were critical not only of the British colonial rule, but also viewed other ethnic groups as outsiders and ‘aliens’ and perceived the minorities as potential threats to the welfare of the majority. When Donoughmore constitution introduced Universal suffrage, the Tamil community had concerns of universal suffrage enabling the majority Sinhala community, with a numerical advantage and a growing national consciousness, to single-handedly dominate the politics of the Island.  


In 1949, formation of the ilankai Thamizh Arasu Katchi (federal party) with the leadership of Chelvanayakam, marked a new phase of Tamil politics and Tamil nationalism. the Tamil nationalism espoused by the federal Party was “pre-emptive and strategic, and motivated by fears that later events proved to be well founded” (Wickremasingha, 2007) When the Sinhala only Act enacted in 1956, made Sinhala the official language of the country and failed to recognize Tamil as an official language, their worst fears were justified. This resulted in severe marginalization of non-Sinhala speakers in the fields of government service, as Tamil speakers had to pass a proficiency test in Sinhala in order to secure employment.

 

"Tensions between the majority community Sinhalese and Tamils were emergent as far back as the 1920’s"

 

The following decade witnessed a severe drop in Tamil representation in the public sector, and compulsory retirement of Tamil public servants due to their lack of proficiency in the official language. The official language act had contributed to further deteriorate the tensed relations between the two communities and to ‘make adversaries out of Sinhalese and Tamils.’(Tambiah, 1986) When the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakm Pact was formed, which proposed autonomy through regional councils, and official status for the Tamil language (in the north and East), these proposals were met with strong opposition by nationalistbhikkus, and the UNP. Consequent abrogation of the pact, and subsequent events, paved the way for anti-Tamil riots in 1958, which marked the beginning of a series of violent hostilities between the two communities.  


 A similar fate occurred to the Dudley Chelvanayakam pact (1965) when the SLFP paradoxically objected to ‘granting concessions to the Tamils’ and accused the UNP of betraying the nation. (Wickramasinghe, 2007). The autochthonous constitution enacted in 1972, did away with section 29 of the Soulbury constitution which provided some form of protection for minorities, made Sinhala the official language and conferred Buddhism the foremost place. These aforementioned post independent, political events are reflective of a mechanism, termed by scholars known as ethnic Outbidding. (Rothschild 1981; Horrowitz 1985; Kaufman 1996; De Votta 2004) This is a situation in which “competing elites try to position themselves as the best supporters of a group’s interests, each accusing the other of being too weak on ethnic nationalist issues.”(Saidmen, 1998) In other words this occurs in electoral politics, when two or more political parties identify with a particular ethnic group, (Usually the powerful majority) and having no incentive to obtain the support of other ethnic groups, try to show their respective electorates that each is more nationalistic than the other, with the aim of securing power. This describes perfectly the Sri Lankan post independent climate. Bandaranaike formed the SLFP with strong Sinhala Buddhist nationalistic leanings, arousing strong nationalist sentiments among the Sinhala rural middle classes. These sentiments paved the way to the enacting of the Sinhala only Act resulting in discrimination of Tamil speakers. To rectify matters when Bandaranaike signed an agreement with Chelvanayakam, the UNP posed as the saviours of the Sinhala Nation, and magnified perceived threats from the Tamil community to undermine the SLFP and as a strategy to come into power. Similar opposition was directed against the Dudley-Chelvanayakam pact, paradoxically this time by the SLFP, accusing the UNP of betraying the nation. Alternatively both SLFP and UNP engaged in such ethnic outbidding practices to weaken their opposition and to gain the support of their constituencies by posing as the saviours of the Sinhala nation.   


The landslide victory of the SLFP led United Front in 1970, Sirima Bandaranailke’s pro majoritarian approach and lack of concern for minority issues and aspirations, created enhanced opportunity for ethnic outbidding. The non-secular, pro majoritarian 1972 constitution, the discriminatory policy of standardization which placed Tamil students at a significant disadvantage, were clear cut examples of ethnic outbidding practised by the SLFP. The ethnocentric policies carried out alternately by the two major parties, post-independence, led to the disenchantment of the Tamil political leaders, and predictably Tamil aspirations had changed from demands for constitutional reform to the right to self-determination. These factors also contributed to the radicalization of aggrieved youth, out of which LTTE proved to be the most ruthless and powerful militants over the following decades. The 1977 anti-Tamil riots and the lack of concern of the J.R. Jayewardene government regarding the minority issue, enflamed the embittered youth and their demand for secessionism was strengthened. During The 1983 riots more than 3000 Tamils were murdered and many more Tamils sought refuge abroad, having lost a sense of trust in the government.The administrative slack and inefficiency in controlling violence, Jayewardene’s apparent lack of sympathy, and the rioters being in possession of official documents to establish the identity of Tamils, were forceful evidence of state complicity. In an interview for the London Telegraph (July, 1983) Jayewardene had said “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people... now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion... the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here... Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.” This statement is reflective of precise ethnic outbidding where Jayewardene like his predecessors, had little advantage in addressing the grievances and aspirations of the minority community, and the necessity of demonstrating his allegiance to the majority community in order to secure power took precedence. The 1983 riots marked the shift from ethnic riots to a full-fledged civil war,and as discussed above, ethnic outbidding coupled by ethnocentric policies post-independence, contributed significantly to the radicalization of sections of the minority group which consequently led to the brutal civil war.  

 

"The administrative slack and inefficiency in controlling violence,  Jayewardene’s apparent lack of sympathy, and the rioters being in  possession of official documents to establish the identity of Tamils,  were forceful evidence of state complicity"


Ten years post-eradication of the LTTE and ending of the civil war,(amidst allegations of war crimes and violations of international law)the legitimate concerns and aspirations of the Tamil community have been largely unaddressed. The quest of the minority Tamils for a reasonable degree of autonomy remains unheeded. The entry of majoritarian, nationalistjathika hela urumayainto electoral politics and rise of extremist Sinhala Buddhist organisations such as Bodu Bala sena has contributed strongly to the rise of nationalist and anti-minority sentiments among certain sections of the majority community. Among these regressive notions that are being propagated, majoritarian supremacy and the notion that ethnic minorities are aliens or outsiders that pose a threat to the survival of the majority community, are two recurrent themes. These ideas are further propagated by irresponsible and uninformed you tubersand pseudo activists on social media who promote nationalist ideas to gain popularity. At present there is strong propaganda by these nationalist sects against demands for sharing of power along federal lines as advocated by the Tamil community. These demands for a federal form of government with sharing of powers between the center and the periphery, has been construed as a form of government that, if created, will eventually pave the way for secession.This issue had been elucidated in a Supreme Court judgment (Supreme Court case number SC SPL 03/2014) delivered by former chief justice Priyasath Dep, with the two other judges consisting of the three bench, agreeing. It was held in the said judgment that, sharing of power along federal lines doesw not amount to the formation of a separate state and “advocating for a federal form of government within the existing state could not be considered as advocating separatism.” It is therefore the responsibility of nationalist sections and social media to refrain from spreading false information among the impressionable masses about devolution, decentralization and the federal solution. If anti-democratic sentiments of supremacy and ethnic hatred,continue to permeate society,and if false information is disseminated regarding legitimate demands for a reasonable degree of autonomy by the minority, opportunity for ethnic outbidding will be created, and the country might witness an ethnic conflict, all over again.

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