The state of Sri Lanka – part 1, the background

June 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

And now for something completely different….

I’ve been working on Sri Lankan issues for the last few weeks and it’s been distracting enough to prevent me blogging. Then I went to Sri Lanka for two weeks, so no blogging. Now I’m back and I’ve found the solution – blog about Sri Lanka!

I should say right away that I am blogging in a personal capacity and nothing I say can or should be linked to my day job – which you’ve noticed I haven’t mentioned and won’t be mentioning. This is just my impressions on the way Sri Lanka works, based upon a bit of reading up, some fascinating conversations with very well informed people who will remain anonymous, and some half-arsed ethnography. It’s barely a vignette, more a thétte.

My idea was to describe the current politics and the nature of the public space, but it struck me that there was so much background to describe before it could even begin to make sense that it would just all get lost in the detail. So this post takes you through all that background – then the next one will talk about what is happening now without, hopefully, getting bogged down in the detail.

Anatomy of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s names are really nice. Sri Lanka itself means “beautiful island” in Sanskrit, which is the language used when it is first mentioned: in the Mahabarata and Ramayana. It is more prominent in the latter: Rama’s wife Sita is kidnapped by Ravana – King of Sri Lanka – and Rama conquers Sri Lanka to get her back. In the book the chain of islands, Adam’s (or Rama’s) bridge, linking India and Sri Lanka are built by Rama’s monkey army to aid his invasion.

Thus the island is referred to as Sri Lanka in both Sinhalese and Tamil. Celyon, meanwhile, is an Anglicisation of the Dutchification, of the Lusification of the Arabic name for the island, which is the Isle of Serendipity. So when in the 1001 Arabian Nights, Sinbad returns from his sixth voyage and says:

“The island of Serendipity being situated on the equinoctial line, the days and nights there are of equal length. The chief city is placed at the end of a beautiful valley, formed by the highest mountain in the world, which is in the middle of the island. I had the curiosity to ascend to its very summit, for this was the place to which Adam was banished out of Paradise. Here are found rubies and many precious things, and rare plants grow abundantly, with cedar trees and cocoa palms. On the seashore and at the mouths of the rivers the divers seek for pearls, and in some valleys diamonds are plentiful.”

 and so coined a new word, he is talking about an actual place – albeit exaggerating somewhat. Adam’s peak is sheer enough that it would be easy to imagine it the highest place in the world – even though, at only 2300m high, it is only the 4th highest mountain in Sri Lanka:

Anyway so that is Sri Lanka. It is the shape of a tear drop. Think of it as an avocado: the seed – the Hill country – is hilly and green with jungle but not that fertile, although these days it is covered in tea plantations, whilst the flesh – the coastal regions – is much more traditionally fertile: rice plantations, amazing fruit, and spectacular seafood. The avocado analogy breaks down somewhat however because of the Vanni. This thick band of jungle cuts the northern third of the island off from the southern two thirds – and did so almost entirely until historically very recently.Vanni

It all makes academic the question of who – the Sinhala or the Tamils – got to Sri Lanka first, since they got to different parts of the island and only had limited – and largely peaceful – contact for the first thousand years or so. In actual fact the original inhabitants of the island were neither but a group called the Vedda. History, and neighbours of all ethnicities, were not kind to the Vedda and there are now only 2,500 or so left in the deep jungle.

The next to arrive probably were the Sinhalese. Both their Hindi-based language, and their own historical record, suggest they came from North India – probably somewhere around Bengal – around the 6th or 5th century BC. At some later point, although possibly not that much later, the Sinhalese converted to Buddhism, making the area one of the earliest and longest-lasting strongholds of that religion. The form of Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka is Theravada which places a greater emphasis on historical texts and written teachings of the Buddha. As a result they only have very tenuous links with Tibetan Buddhism and do not recognise any lama. Indeed Sri Lanka regards itself as something of a leader in the world of Theravada Buddhism. This goes a long way towards explaining the attitude many have that Sri Lanka is the Buddhist “holy land”.

The next arrivals were the Tamils. One cannot quite see India from Sri Lanka but it is not far off and the intervening sea is very shallow and dotted with islands. Opinions differ over whether you can, or ever could, wade it but the fact that that is even a question should give you some idea as to how accessible the island is from southern India. As a result we don’t know when the first Tamils, the inhabitants of south India, visited the island but it was probably very very early. It was certainly before the 3rd century BC, from whence the earliest finds date. However there’s not much more news until Tamil expansion in the 13th century AD brings them through the Vanni and into contact with the Sinhalese kingdoms to the south.

From that point onwards Sinhalese and Tamils were in fairly frequent contact, and started to mix far more than nationalists on both sides would have you believe – particularly during the periods of united rule. However they retained their distinct identity through their very different languages: Hindic Sinhala vs Dravidian Tamil – even the alphabets are different: both having developed their own scripts in an attempt to avoid the straight lines of Sanskrit, which tended to break the palm leaves that were the main medium for writing at the time. Some of the letters look really cute. In addition the latter’s closer links with India, a fairly strong mapping to religious identity (Sinhala Buddhist and Hindu Tamil) and long periods of distinct rule marked the two cultures out as different.

From the 7th century onwards a third force started to colonise the island: Arabic traders, to this day referred to as Moors. They largely settled on the east side of the island where the large number of natural deep water harbours made for the perfect home for a seafaring nation. The degree of influence that Arab settlers, and locals who converted to Islam, had waxed and waned. At some points the caliphate claimed the island as a suzerain, at others the Muslim influence spread little further than a few fishing villages. These days they are around 8% of the population.

One of their greatest contributions was in linking the island together through its waterways – and so contributing to the ethnic mixing of the island. Given the proximity and size of Tamil South India (to this day the 60 million Indian Tamils dwarf both the 3 million Sri Lankan Tamils and the 18 million Sri Lankan Sinhalese) most Moors ended up speaking Tamil (their earlier language – an Arabic/Dravidian mix called Arwi – had been struggling for some time and finally died out about 100 years ago).

Kandy, Monkey


So when the Portuguese arrived in the 14th century they found three kingdoms. The seed of the avocado was the Sinhalese Kingdom of Kandy, above the Vanni in the north and east was the Tamil kingdom of Jaffna, the rest of the avocado flesh was the Sinhalese Kingdom of Kotte, and at various points on the skin of the Avocado – particularly in the east – were Muslim colonies. The Portuguese set about conquering the island and converting it to Catholicism. They were very unsuccessful. They managed to convert about 10% of the population to Catholicism – and as these were evenly split between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities the Catholic Church has played an important bridging role ever since. They also established a capital at Colombo, removed the Kings of Jaffna, drove the Moors further inland in the east, and developed  a stronghold in the Tamil north-western district of Mannar where, to this day, about a third of the population are Catholic and the Bishop’s word carries considerable weight. But that was all they managed – and despite significant military effort Portuguese influence never spread far from the west coast.

In the 17th century the Dutch arrived to further confuse the picture. For a while there was a multi-faceted conflict, but the Dutch soon developed an alliance that carried all before them. Whilst the Portuguese brutally oppressed those who practiced any religion apart from their own, the Dutch were happy to only persecute Catholics – this allowed them to draw up an alliance with the Kingdom of Kandy whereby they would get the flesh of the avocado and Kandy the seed. Between them they conquered the whole island, drove out the Portuguese, and brought the Moors under their control.

During the Napoleonic War it was suggested to the Dutch, in a forceful manner, that they might like to give the island to the British for safe keeping so that it would not fall into French hands. Of course it goes without saying the British never gave it back. Then in 1815 the British conquered the Kingdom of Kandy and so brought the whole of the country under their rule.

Under the British the ethnicities moved around quite freely: the Tamils and Moors left their northern and eastern strongholds and came to work in the big cities – indeed some say that during the 20th century Colombo was a Tamil majority city. Tamils certainly benefited economically from British rule, partly as a deliberate policy of the British (who were looking to divide and rule) and partly from the use of English as a bridge language meaning that one could thrive economically in the south without having to learn Sinhala.

Hill country

Hill country

The final demographic change took place in the mid 19th century when the coffee harvest failed and so the British plantation owners went into tea in a big way. To work the tea plantations (tea is far more human resource intensive that coffee) they brought over around a million “Plantation Tamils”, “Indian Tamils” or “Hill Tamils” from southern India, and settled them around Kandy. These were mostly very low caste people and, to this day, their social and economic conditions are the worst of anyone in Sri Lanka. Many Sinhalese regard them as Tamils and so discriminate against them, and many Tamils regard them as too low caste and likewise discriminate against them. Moreover, whilst there are many linkages and solidarity networks between Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils in India, for caste reasons Indian Tamils in India give very little thought to these Tamils – even though their Indian ancestry is stronger.

They truly are a forgotten people: they were only given the vote in 2002, their working and living conditions haven’t really changed since 1860, they have no real health or education system, they mostly work on less than a dollar a day, and they are the most frequent victims of torture, arbitrary detention, and police brutality. If you are born a Hill Tamil, the chances of you making something of your life are realistically very low indeed: if you were born a Hill Tamil and contract polio then the chances of you becoming one of the greatest sportsmen of all time are infinitesimally small:

I love Murali.

Apparently caste issues in Southern India are not as strong as in Northern India and are even less strong in Sri Lanka. Yet for all that there are significant problems with caste discrimination – and they go beyond a mere pan-ethnic disdain for Hill Tamils. As with the Dalit followers of Ambedkar who converted to Buddhism, caste was one of the key reasons why many low caste Sri Lankans left Hinduism for Islam, Christianity, and (in the case of the Sinhalese) Buddhism. Yet as with the Dalit followers of Ambedkar, it turns out that people don’t need a religious reason to dislike the poor and caste discrimination is rife amongst Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus.

Recently ethnic cleansing has yet again reshaped Sri Lanka’s population. The LTTE forced the Moors from their homes in the north – and most as a result settled in the east. The war in general hardened ethnic divisions with the north and east becoming much more Tamil and the rest becoming much more Sinhalese. This was most notable in Colombo, which still has a sizeable Tamil population, but a mere fraction of the one it had before the Tamil areas of Borella were raised in 1983.

Act one

So that is what Sri Lanka is, now for what happened to it:

Sri Lanka had an independence movement but not even they would claim they drove the British out. Sri Lanka got independence in 1948 because with an independent India British rule was no longer viable. The first leaders were nevertheless part of that independence movement and thus had that classic mix of left wing economic policy and nationalism (at times the phrase national socialism was unfortunately apt). In Sri Lanka this took an unpleasant ethnic turn as the Sinhalese majority sought to overturn what they saw as Tamil favouritism by the British.

A Sri Lankan Policeman salutes in front of the President

A Sri Lankan Policeman salutes in front of the President

The dominant force in those early years were the Bandaranaike family, after one of which – I have never been clear which – Colombo airport is named. The patriarch, Solomon (owner of some really cool middle names: West Ridgeway Dias – yes apparently Sri Lanka’s founding father was named after a service station in Virginia), was assassinated at the end of his first term, which meant that in 1959 his wife, Sirimavo, became the planet’s first female head of government. She served for 18 of the next 40 years, and by the time she died – in office – her daughter was starting her second term as President.

There is a lot of sentimentalism about the early Bandaranaikes, especially Solomon, amongst liberal Sinhalese. Certainly they took  economic reform seriously and it is for that reason that their political party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, has received the lion’s share of the votes of the Sinhalese working class ever since – even if the latter day SLFP is better at bread and circuses than it is at actual development. However, much as history has tried to recast Solomon as an ethnic moderate, the fact remains that it was his initiative that set Sri Lanka on the road to civil war.

The 1956 Sinhala Only Act mandated that Sinhalese be the sole official language of Government. English, which had been used as a bridge language between the Tamil and Sinhalese community, was abolished entirely as – intitally – was Tamil, although it was later brought back as a purely regional language. This is in marked contrast to India where, following protest in the south, English was kept as a bridge language and as a result ethnic tensions, whilst considerable, have never been quite as bad as in Sri Lanka.

The Sinhala Only act made it very hard for Tamils to get Government jobs, and when the inevitable resentment was aggravated by now rules limiting Tamil places at universities and controlling Tamil media, an explosive mix began to develop. Making matters worse, the political leadership of the Tamil areas, the Federal Party, found themselves repeatedly excluded from government and so adopted an increasingly abstentionist policy (they pulled out of the Sri Lankan parliament in 1969).

This was largely a question of mathematics. Sri Lanka has regional list PR for its parliamentary elections. Therefore Tamil political parties are virtually guaranteed the 10% or so of seats in Tamil majority areas but no more. Meanwhile, despite having PR, Sri Lanka actually pretty much has a 2-party system (this doesn’t really refute Duverger’s law which only talks about FPTP; in set theory terms just because some of the compliment of A  also belongs to B doesn’t mean A cannot be contained by B). There are a few reasons for the two party dominance. Largely it is because of the mighty executive – which is only ever in one person’s hands – and so power is polarised around that person and their main rival. The President is elected by the hugely polarising Contingent Vote system – which is only otherwise used in London Mayoral elections (it was also used in Alabama in the ’20s and Victorian Queensland – and if that doesn’t fill you with confidence…)

Thus the mathematics of the situation dictate that one hardly ever needs the Tamil parties to form a coalition government, and that there are sadly often far more votes to be gained by pandering to Sinhala nationalism than by trying to accommodate Tamils – especially as the vast majority of Tamil votes are locked up in one or two districts where Sinhala parties don’t get a look in … and of course Hill Tamils didn’t get the vote till 2002.

The other party in the two party system is the UNP, they have tended to be the party of the elite, and the economic centre-right (although as nothing is ever straightforward they have been the party that has had the first, and so far only, political leader not to come from the families of the political elite: Ranasinghe Premadasa). Possibly because of their elite background (putting it bluntly they used their position in society to develop patronage networks and so don’t need to campaign) they have traditionally been less tub-thumpingly nationalistic than the SLFP – but even so some of the worst abuses of the last few decades took place on their watch.

Indeed the first major insurrection, and its absolutely brutal suppression, took place in 1971 under a UNP government. But it came not from the Tamils but from the ultra-Sinhalese, ultra-left wing (in theory, although rarely have left and right seemed so interchangeable as here) JVP. The JVP were, and are to this day, a Marxist student’s movement whose demands are based around the need for a socialist development programme and the rejection of “foreign” (which includes Tamil, as they see Tamils as Indians) influence. Their heartlands to this day are in the Sinhalese Universities in which they started up, and in the Hill Country to which they fled. They led two brutal insurrections which were even more brutally put down, and these days they are a minor but influential political party. Whilst it may seem odd today, many of the current SLFP battleaxes – including the President – started their lives as human rights’ lawyers defending JVP members against UNP attacks.

Then in 1983 the civil war started. Tamil extremists killed a patrol of police officers near Jaffna. In response to their funerals there were widespread anti-Tamil riots which amounted to the ethnic cleansing of some areas of Colombo. The LTTE – the Tamil Tigers – seized the north and embarked upon one of the most vicious insurgencies of all time: whether they invented suicide bombing is moot – they certainly perfected it, they drove all the Muslims out of the north, they had a navy and an air force, and they were ruthless in eliminating political rivals with the result that only the most extreme and uncompromising of Tamil politicians survived.For their part the Sri Lankan Army were brutal in times of war, and half-hearted in times of peace. There was significant resentment of Norwegian attempts at peace talks, and outright hostility to Indian attempts.

The Indians never really worked out what they wanted to do in Sri Lanka: on the one hand they could not allow an independent Tamil homeland on their doorstep or the Indian’s own Tamils would want one: so they were about as supportive of the LTTE as the Turkish Government are of Iraqi kurds. But on the other hand, with 60 million voting Tamils in India, and a considerable sense of Dravidian solidarity across the entire south of India – electioneering require they not take the Sri Lankan government’s side either.

So the Indians started off fighting the LTTE, then they violated Sri Lankan airspace to drop support to the LTTE, then they  effectively invaded and demanded peace talks, then they set up a peace-keeping force which both the Government of Sri Lanka (covertly) and the LTTE (overtly) fought against. Indeed at one point in the late ’80s the Indians even managed to get the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to fight on the same side: the former – embroiled in brutally suppressing the second JVP insurgency – allegedly covertly supporting the latter to drive the Indians out.

The Indian peace plan was built around devolution – the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution – but the Sri Lankan Government dragged their toes until the plan fell apart. Meanwhile the LTTE did everything in their power to derail the peace and destroy the moderates – and really managed to sabotage themselves when they assassinated Rajiv Gandhi.

And so the war went on for nearly 30 years: war crimes being committed on both sides in both war and peace whilst the LTTE controlled much of the north: a land they called Eelam, and everyone else called the Vanni after the thick jungle that enveloped much of it, or – informally – Tigerland. To me it always seemed apt that Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa and LTTE leader Prabhakaran looked so alike:

rajapakse and Prabhakaran

Then in 2008 the Sri Lankan Government decided they could solve the problem by force alone. They succeeded in conquering the whole island and militarily defeating the LTTE. Prabhakaran died on May 18th 2009, the day the war was declared over. But the cost of victory in civilian terms was huge: in the last few weeks of the war as the civilian population of the Vanni – forceably brought with them by the LTTE – were squashed into a smaller and smaller space under heavy bombardment terrible terrible things started to happen.

We know about some of this through the UN report and some through the Channel 4 documentary, to be aired on Tuesday. But to explain why we don’t know more about what went on, I have to explain what Sri Lankan politics is like now – and that will have to wait for another post.



§ 2 Responses to The state of Sri Lanka – part 1, the background

  • CommieCowboy says:

    Some of the Sinhalese nationalist parties claim a Trotskyist pedigree, which is odd. Most Trots would hang themselves before engaging in the repression of ethnic minorities.

  • Very true, although I believe the JVP is actually Maoist. Marxist nationalism is a strange beast philosophically but Sri Lanka has a few of them.

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