Initial observations on the Officer Corps’ perception of the root causes of ethnic violence
“There are no grievances specific to Tamils” - Udaya Gammanpila, Western Provincial Council Minister, 2014
“There are no minorities now” - Mahinda Rajapaksa, May 2009
Following the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 popular understanding of the root causes of ethnic violence congealed around a single dominant narrative. This narrative consists of three premises and a conclusion.
Premise I: The root cause of the ethnic conflict was the greed and power lust of Tamil elites, who led a misguided Tamil population.
Premise II: These elites were empowered by interventionist foreign States who were (i) primordially ‘anti-Sri Lanka’, (ii) manipulated by the ‘diaspora’ or (iii) concerned with geo-political intrigue.
Premise III: There were few, if any, unaddressed political or economic grievances specific to the Tamil community that led to violence.
Conclusion: There were no important political or economic causes for violence and therefore there was no need for reform to address grievances. Therefore, a solely military response is sufficient for preventing recurrence of violence.
The essay argues that, at the very least, there is no consensus within the military on this issue. In fact, analysis of officers’ writings finds views within the Officer Corps that often directly contradict the dominant narrative, or at least seek to qualify it substantially.
The dominant narrative’s line of reasoning is often extended to argue that recurrence of violence can be prevented by centralising power in the State, ensuring totalitarian control of the Tamil population, pursuing an isolationist foreign policy and homogenising the diverse Sri Lankan polity by establishing the ascendency of Sinhalese Buddhist civilization.
Preventing violence does not require a political response because there are no genuine political grievances.
Those who disagree with these claims are often labelled traitors who were ‘sacrificing our war heroes’.
The upshot of this narrative is the unarticulated assumption that the ‘war heroes’ themselves unequivocally endorse the dominant narrative.
This essay argues that, at the very least, there is no consensus within the military on this issue. In fact, analysis of officers’ writings finds views within the Officer Corps that often directly contradict the dominant narrative, or at least seek to qualify it substantially.
In the absence of any significant research on security in Sri Lanka, there is little scholarly evidence that can be easily marshalled and deployed to test this thesis.
Despite two Marxist insurgencies and a thirty-year civil war, bibliographies on Sri Lanka have no sections on defence and strategic studies. The very few books that have been written from a security perspective are largely on the security implications of relations with external powers.
Where studies on the military aspects of domestic conflict exist, their number pales in comparison to Sri Lanka’s voluminous literature on the conflict from the human rights, legal, historical, political science and anthropological perspectives. Meanwhile, the few biographies written by military officers with first-hand experience of the war have been largely narrative in nature rather than analytic.
Despite this paucity of research, one useful resource that can be used to examine the perceptions of the Officer Corps are the publicly available theses of Sri Lankan military officers following the end of the war. At the time of writing eleven theses, written by officers from the three services, were publicly accessible. Although there are a few methodological limitations that this sample presents,these limitations do not diminish the argument that the military’s strategic thought is often at odds with the dominant narrative.
One reason for this is that methodological limitations may ‘cancel each other out’. For example, there may be a propensity of thesis writers to ‘write for the examiner’ – in this case US military college instructors. But there is also a propensity to ‘write for the political masters’, who in this case endorsed the dominant narrative in the immediate post-war period.
Causes of War: Ethnic discrimination, failure to share power and human rights abuses
Five of the eleven theses discuss the root causes of violence and conflict. Of these five theses, all of them demonstrate understanding of the roles discrimination, failure to devolve power, human rights abuses and economic opportunities played as drivers of conflict, radicalisation, and ultimately violence.
First, discrimination and unequal citizenship were identified as pivotal drivers of conflict. Wing Commander Chaminda Wickremaratne argues that in contrast to the stabilising effect of D.S. Senanayake’s multicultural, non-discriminatory policies, “The stability achieved in 1948 in the democratization process had eroded by 1956 when SWRD Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister and introduced a “Sinhala Only” Official Language Act. It was seen as an abandonment of the multi-racial policy and agitated the Tamil minority….this laid the seed for a demand for autonomy for the Northern and Eastern Provinces where a majority of the Tamils lived.”
This view is echoed in Commander A.I.P de Silva’s comment that the 1978 Constitution “ensured that Tamils would continue to occupy a subservient position in their relations with all subsequent Sinhalese governments.”
Senior DIG Merril Gunaratne cites failure to devolve power in the 1990s, loss of economic opportunities for Tamil youth in the South as a result of the Sinhala Only Act and the 1983 riots as important drivers of the LTTE’s popularity within the Tamil population.
Second, failure to devolve power is also often cited as a cause for violent inter-ethnic conflict. For example, Lieutenant E.M. Chandradasa suggests: “if the Sri Lankan state was structured in a manner that addressed these grievances [Relating to devolution of power] and accommodated differences of opinion in its policy-making mechanisms, a thirty-year civil war might have been avoided.”
Lt. Col. I. Herath meanwhile tacitly supports this view by writing in approving terms of “elder, mature” Tamil political leaders who eschewed separatism in favour of devolution.
Third, violation of human rights is often cited as a catalyst for violence. De Silva notes that President Jayewardene’s policies of controlling Tamils further escalated the militant struggle in Sri Lanka...he introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1979. With that act security forces could arrest and detain Tamil youths up to eight months.” Chandradasa also disparages Sinhalese extremist attempts to prevent the securing of minority rights and the resolution of the conflict: “The government’s ability to implement...minority rights was met with large opposition by the extremist elements of the Sinhalese community.”
Some officers go so far as to argue that human rights violations or complicity in them constituted a tipping point for abandoning political agitation and embracing violence. For example, Lt. Nishantha Manage notes: “Above all the Sri Lankan government agents had, over time, become more involved in the riots. This solidified the perception among more and more Tamils that the Sri Lankan State was not only disingenuous, but also overtly violent toward Tamils. The largest and most damaging riot came in 1983, which signalled not only the apex of anti-Tamil ethnic violence to date, but radicalised many Tamils against the Sri Lankan State.”
Finally, authors noted that the economic effects of discrimination played a catalytic role in mobilising violence, especially in contrast to the newly opened opportunities for Sinhala-speakers.
Wickremaratne notes that the “The lack of opportunities stemming from irregularities and lack of opportunities in bureaucratic, commercial, and educational spheres, mobilisation of the Tamil youth slowly took place, transforming into a freedom struggle by the latter part of the 1970s.”
Chandradasa too identifies State structured economic inequalities as an important enabler of conflict, arguing that “The Sri Lankan State was inadequately structured to deal with social, economic, and political inequalities in an equitable manner, thus resulting in ethnic tension between the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils”.
The views of the above officers demonstrate continuity in thinking over time among the Sri Lankan Officer Corps.
There is no substantial contrast between the theses written following the defeat of the LTTE and the theses of Sri Lankan officers prior to the end of the war. The following extracts provide some insight into understanding of national security thinking during the war.
Major-General Kulatunga, writing in 2003, is forceful in concluding that “Sinhala Only policy of the government was the reason for the Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict.” Writing in 1997, Major Ruwan Wanigasooriya pre-echoes the thesis highlighting the central role of ethnic riots in mobilising for violence, “Countrywide attacks on Tamils (in July 1983)...induced Tamil youth to join the militant groups, which vastly expanded.” His view is supported in Major Kularatne’s thesis written in 2006 in which he says, “The inability or unwillingness to protect Tamils in 1983 encouraged new recruits to join the Tamil militants and violent attacks by guerilla groups accelerated.”
Lt. Col. Raj Vijayasiri provides a more comprehensive analysis arguing that Sinhala Only Legislation “Alienated the Tamils” as many “Tamil government Servants were discriminated against due to this policy”.
He noted that “students were admitted to the universities according to ethnic ratios rather than merit. This barred many Tamil youths that got high marks from entering universities, and many of them were attracted to the militant groups.” Vijayasiri also noted that chauvinists in the Sinhala majority became a threat to national security.
If the causes of violence were primarily political, then preventing recurrence of violence and ensuring long-term national security requires a fundamentally political response
He observes that when “the subject of devolution of powers to Tamil areas was taken up, chauvinistic elements in the Sinhalese majority blocked it” and that “several communal clashes took place from 1956 to 1983, during which Tamil houses and businesses were burned and looted, and Tamil people killed.” In addition to violence against the Tamil population, discussions on standardisation, the Sinhala Only Act and failure to devolve power feature extensively in the officers’ theses.
General Cyril Ranatunga, also supports this view arguing that “the heavy handedness of the government drove many Tamil youth into the hands of the terrorist groups. This resulted in the drying up of support for the security forces.”
Senior DIG Merril Gunaratne, former Director of the National Intelligence Bureau, in Cop in the Crossfire, cites failure to devolve power in the 1990s, loss of economic opportunities for Tamil youth in the South as a result of the Sinhala Only Act and the 1983 riots as important drivers of the LTTE’s popularity within the Tamil population. In fact, he notes that the LTTE could not have transformed from rag-tag insurgent group to a conventional army without the popular support arising from these grievances.
His view is that, “terrorism, in effect guerrilla groups operating in extremely small numbers with concealed weapons and using the element of surprise so as to avoid confrontation, could not possibly have progressed sans popular support.”
Conclusion: A Political Problem Requires a Political Response
Based on the theses of military officers and corroborating evidence, it is clear that many serving officers within the Sri Lankan security forces have views that differ from the dominant narrative. In fact, their analysis of the causes of conflict bear significant resemblance to the grievance based analysis of most political scientists, historians and activists.
In conclusion, the dominant narrative is not as widely endorsed as is often believed. More importantly, there is substantial evidence to suggest that it is an inaccurate account of the past. This is crucial because our analysis of the past shapes our strategy for the future.
If the causes of violence were indeed primarily political, as many in the military think they were, then preventing recurrence of violence and ensuring long-term national security requires a fundamentally political response.
In other words, addressing political grievances – especially those relating to equal rights and devolution of power - appears to be a national security imperative.
[All sources are cited in the online version of this article.]
Daniel Alphonsus is studying public policy and security at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His last publication on this theme was an article on the state’s response to the root causes of the JVP insurgency titled “Preventing Post-LTTE Violence”.