The state of Sri Lanka – Part two: taking sides against the family

June 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

The last post finished with the horror that was the last two weeks of the civil war in 2009. If you haven’t seen Channel 4’s excellent and harrowing documentary “The Killing Fields” then I thoroughly recommend it. If you are more of a left brain person then the UN have written a 214 page report which covers much of the same ground. The point is that both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE did some pretty terrible things. This post will explore both how they were allowed to happen and why they aren’t been investigated by explaining a little about how Sri Lanka works now.

The three brothers

The Joe Kennedy of Sri Lanka was a man named Don Alwin Rajapaksa. He was a founding member of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party and an MP from 1947 to 1965. He served as a junior cabinet minister twice but his greatest achievement was building a political dynasty who now run Sri Lanka. His brother served a state governor, one of his nephews is the current Sri Lankan Ambassador to the USA, another is the current Ambassador to Russia, his eldest son is the current speaker of parliament, his son-in-law is the Chief Executive of Sri Lankan Airways, and all in all something like 70 members of his extended family have senior roles in the government. But when talking about the Rajapaksa’s hold on the Sri Lankan Government, all these relatives are merely hangers on, the real power is held by Don Alwin’s three middle sons:


Mahinda RajapaksaMahinda has been the President of Sri Lanka since 2005. He is avuncular, very good at bread and circuses, and superb at winning elections. Allegedly, and in all probability to maintain plausible denyability, he is not personally as involved in some of the murkier aspects of the Sri Lankan state as his brothers, but this should not be taken as meaning he is in any way the most ethical brother. The Rajapaksa project: authoritarianism, nationalism, and militariation – particularly the latter – is very much a Mahinda project. Moreover, it is not at all clear how much the distance between Mahinda and the crueller elements of the state is real, and to what extent it is a product of the Sri Lankan media’s observance of the long-standing taboo about directly criticising the President; thus one invariably hears “an underling severely let down the President”, or “the President is clearly receiving some bad advice” as opposed to “Mahinda is a psycho”

Surprisingly, he used to be a human rights lawyer. Indeed he made a name for himself defending JVP activists against the government and taking on Habeas Corpus cases when no-one else would. An interesting effect of this is that he had, and to a certain extent still has, many personal friends in the world of human rights lawyers and Sri Lankan civil society. This hasn’t done them much good as -as you will see – being a friend of Mahinda offers you no protection, and arguably puts you at greater risk. Whilst opinions differ on the subject it appears Mahinda was only ever really interested in human rights work for the political leverage it could generate for him against the UNP.

Brothers notwithstanding, his control over the Sri Lankan state is considerable. He has personally taken responsibility for four ministerial departments: defence, finance and planning, ports and aviation (more important than it seems given the possibility for bribery), and highways (also more important than it seems for reasons that will become clear if you ever need to get anywhere in Sri Lanka in a hurry). These departments collectively control 70% of the Government of Sri Lanka’s budget, as well as giving him direct control over his brother’s departments. In addition as Commander in Chief of the Armed forces of an increasingly militarised country (the Army control much that isn’t the traditional role of the military – most recently taking direct control of Colombo’s municipal services) and as a man who has devoted his entire presidency to increasing the power of the executive (see this report on the effect of the President appointing everyone that matters in the judiciary) it is very clear that he is the only power that matters in Sri Lanka.

He is notoriously corrupt and nepotistic and, since his father’s death, he has been the primary driver behind the insertion of a Rajapaksa into every conceivable role. The classic example is the development of his home town of Hambantota – which has been showered with largesse despite its lack of economic or strategic need , including an international port and a test match cricket stadium – the Mahinda Rajapaksa stadium. His son, Namal, is the local MP, and it was largely to help his electoral prospects that the stadium was built.

Mahinda has eliminated term limits and so could be in charge for a while to come. However the  constraints of being the president – particularly when it comes to overt corruption – may tempt Mahinda into a life as an éminence grise / Prescott style soap-box-occupier, provided he can manage his succession. He clearly is trying to nurture Namal as an heir apparent, and this is causing tension with the other brothers who would rather another brother – probably Basil – should come next. Meanwhile the SLFP old timers strongly resent the way a 25 year old who only passed the bar exam by cheating has been parachuted to the front of the queue and are chuntering threateningly.


Basil RajapaskeBasil is apparently the most intelligent, the most sensitive and the most moderate of the brothers. He does not have much competition when it comes to the second and third of these qualities and he is hardly what you would call a soft touch – as his iron rule of northern Sri Lanka will testify.

He is the minister for economic development which makes him the number two in the Sri Lankan Treasury, and since the number one is Mahinda this gives him a considerable say on economic policy. He was Mahinda’s election campaign manager in 2010 and is his currently the official Presidential advisor. One of the obsessions of Sri Lankan politics geeks is the extent to which Basil is the Sri Lankan Karl Rove: is he Mahinda’s brain, or merely his envoy, patsy, and – at some future point – fall guy? The linked question of course is whether he will eventually replace Mahinda, and what damage his attempts to do so will do to his fraternal relations.

But whilst the extent of Basil’s role in the south is entirely unclear, what is clear is that Basil rules the former LTTE held areas – the Vanni – almost single-handedly. He does this as chair of the PTF: the President’s Task Force for Resettlement, Development and Security in the Northern Province. Although ostensibly not much more than a parliamentary sub-committee Mahinda has given it such wide ranging powers, and Basil has further encroached on others’ authority, that we are now at a stage where not a finger can be lifted in former Tiger-held areas without Basil personally authorising how high it can be lifted, and for what length of time it can remain raised. As a result much needed development work is drowning in micro-management and significant sums are simply being turned down if they don’t fit in with Basil’s plans. It is not yet clear what Basil’s plans are: some claim ethnic dilution with the best plots of land being parcelled off to Sinhalese newcomers. That isn’t proven and might be wide of the mark, but the creation of a heavily militarised north where all the most lucrative aspects of the tourist trade are run by the Army and Tamil political aspirations are strangled in red tape is clearly continuing apace.


Gota RajapaksaGota, as he is known to all, is a psychopath. In fact, one suicidally brave – if shrill  – journalist went even further saying it is his stupidity which leads to his insecurity which in turn leads to his brutality. Their article appears to have disappeared which is not surprising. In fact there is even less criticism of Gota than there is of Mahinda – for the very simple reason that if you criticize Gota you often end up dead or worse. Later, I am going to attempt to describe the rational equation that governs political violence and the attempt to control public space in Sri Lanka. What is clear is that that is only half the story, the other half is that Gota kills anyone who pisses him off. As a result there is a fair cannon of journalism at the moment criticising but not naming an individual close to the president – the reason is that that individual is Gota.

This is a classic example and is clearly about Gota. Whilst the tone is somewhat hysterical, this was not written by a ranting member of the diaspora but by a former SLFP minister and political fixer. The idea that Mahinda himself is scared of Gota and might one day come to the same end as Abel is actually quite common. Personally I find it quite unlikely given how tightly bound a unit the Rajapaksa family is and the fact that I’m pretty sure on some level Gota realises he needs his more acceptable and presentable brothers as a shield for his actions.

The other great Gota conspiracy theory is the extent to which Sri Lanka contains a “deep state” or a hidden parallel state run by Gota and his secret military hit squads. There is enough that is sinister and unsettling about Sri Lankan politics without engaging in conspiracy theory but what does seem to be the case is that the disappearances, torture and assassinations of dissidents and journalists do seem to be centrally co-ordinated in some way – and the finger of suspicion always seems to hover over Gota. And then there’s the small matter of everyone who criticizes him ending up dead. And the fact that he was in charge of the key brigades during the end of the civil war. Interestingly this may prove his undoing as Gota, like Basil, studied in America and, like Basil, took advantage of the opportunity to claim US citizenship while he was over there. So he may yet end his days in an American dock.

Gota’s actual role is often misunderstood. He is not actually the Defence Minister (that is Mahinda), nor is he the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces (Mahinda again – constitutionally it has to be). Often referred to as the Defence Secretary, he is actually the Permanent Under-Secretary of State in the Defence Ministry – in other words (in theory) a politically neutral civil servant, albeit the most senior one in the department, with no direct executive or political power. And if you believe that then you’ll believe anything.

How it works

I may have painted the brothers as monsters and that is because they are. But that is not the full story of how they rule.  They are very very popular, particularly Mahinda, and this is not just because they buy votes with development funding (though they do) or because they are benefiting from a post conflict boost (though they are).  There are many populist demagogues of whom the same can be said. What has become known as “the Sri Lanka model” is slightly more interesting than that – and whilst none of it is entirely new it is at least unusual.

Sri Lanka controls the media very tightly, but one could make a case for saying that other countries – such as Syria or pre-Tahrir Egypt – control their media far more tightly. Yet Sri Lanka has a far more favourable domestic press than Syria or pre-Tahrir Egypt. Fear and intimidation is part of it, nationalist populism another part, and apathy and conditioning born of the effectiveness of the program a considerable part. But for me the key is that they have a very successful narrative: that they and everyone else who agrees with them represents the people and everyone else represents the elite. They have been helped by the fact that there is a kernel of truth to this. With some far-sighted exceptions most who have raised the issue of free speech have not made much of an effort to engage with grassroots Sri Lankans; and most Sri Lankans have similarly not been far sighted enough to draw the line between civic human rights and economic human rights (although interestingly the new pension bill might be bridging that gap).

Managing the balance necessary to preserve this narrative is a matter of some skill: one must be brutal enough to cower your critics into silence but not so brutal as to make them feel they have nothing to lose or alienate the public. No one does this as well as Sri Lanka and that is why whilst there are regimes far more brutal than the Rajapaksas I’m not sure there are any so insidious. Brutal regimes who smash opponents are two a penny – what makes Sri Lanka unusual is the artistry and subtlety of its brutality. I fear this makes them worse rather than better: absolutist regimes leave people nowhere to go except into open revolt, and so rarely stand the test of time. The Sri Lankan model could prove more durable.

It also means that Sri Lanka is a country beset by shades of grey. In the same way that Sri Lanka is not a dictatorship because the Rajapaksas don’t need it to be, so it is not a country that prohibits free speech because it doesn’t have to. But while one can speak out, one needs to exercise great care when doing so and consider a delicate equation. To look at that equation, it is worth looking at the time someone – arguably the state – got it wrong, and at arguably the most extraordinary editorial any newspaper has ever published:

Lasantha Wickrematunge

In the mid 1980s two of the most fearsome human rights lawyers in Sri Lanka were Mahinda Rajapaksa and Lasantha Wickrematunge. They took the UNP government to court countless times over their treatment of JVP activists and they became firm friends as they did so. As Mahinda’s political career took off Lasantha – also an SLFP activist in his youth – went into journalism and often found himself criticising his former friend.

Lasantha ended up editing the Sunday Leader with his brother Lal. Refusing to compromise on the truth, the Sunday Leader became a constant thorn in the government’s side – laying bare corruption and nepotism and, most damagingly of all, doing what no other newspaper would dare and telling the truth about the war with the LTTE. Anti-tank shells were fired into Lasantha’s house, it was sprayed with machine gun fire, he was assaulted twice, but still he did not stop. Yet throughout Lasantha and Mahinda remained firm friends, in the word’s of the former:

“Hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President’s House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics and joke about the good old days”

According to Lasantha himself this friendship took a break in January of 2006 when Mahinda rang him saying, “F**k your mother, you son of a bloody whore! I will finish you! I treated you well all this while. Now I will destroy you. You don’t know who Mahinda Rajapaksa is. You watch what I will do to you!” It turned out Mahinda was angry about an article in the Morning Leader about the first lady which simply didn’t exist. Lasantha’s response was to say “Mahinda, just because you are President, do not talk in that threatening way. We don’t get intimidated by threats. Tell us what it is we are supposed to have written.” This did not calm the irate President who continued, “You are not scared! I will show you what it is to be scared. I will rest only once I have destroyed you. You wait and see. You don’t know who Mahinda Rajapakse is.” Lasantha’s response was the same as always: to publish the entire exchange in the newspaper, and their relationship hit rock bottom.

Yet they made up again within the year and continued tearing chunks out of each other in public and drinking together in private. Then in January of 2009 four motorbikes surrounded Lasantha’s car as he was on his way to work and four hitmen shot him dead. The next day the Leader published this editorial that Lasantha had written for publication in the event of his assasination, seemingly only days before. The first few paragraphs will give you goosebumps:

“No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

I have been in the business of journalism a good long time. Indeed, 2009 will be The Sunday Leader’s 15th year. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka during that time, and it does not need me to tell you that the greater part of that change has been for the worse. We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood. Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.”

And the rest is just as good.

There was outrage in response to his death, and further outrage in response to the 34 inconclusive attempts to open an investigation into it. There was talk that the eccentric SLFP MP Mervyn Silva (a man largely famous for tying civil servants to mango trees to “discipline them” and appearing on reality tv to swear at the judges) had admitted to his murder. Even today the controversy has not gone away. In a country where a BBC journalist was murdered with scarcely an eyelid batted, Lasantha’s killing still casts a long shadow.

The formula

Assassinations are of course just the tip of an iceberg of intimidation which starts with the sort of low level stuff I imagine will start appearing in the comments section of this piece, and goes through threatening phone calls, to midnight home visits, to abduction and torture. But the principle is that the state has to weigh up on the one hand how famous and/or protected the target is and thus how much of a stink they will cause dead. They then have to weigh up how vocal and – even more importantly – effective they are in their criticism and thus how much of a stink they are causing alive. If your killing causes more fuss than the things you say do then you live.

With Lasantha Wickrematunge it appears that they may have got the calculation wrong. It may be that his brilliant posthumous editorial severely increased the international news value of his death. It may be that an important extra factor to consider was Lasantha’s uniqueness: whilst there were other vocal critics of the Government no-one was really doing what the Leader was doing in highlighting the government’s conduct of the Civil War and, much as his brother Lal claimed that Lasantha’s death would only make them bolder, it has (understandably) resulted in the Leader moderating its tone. So the government may have considered the heat worth it to silence an irreplaceable critic.

And it may be of course that this was not a rational decision. Personal feelings of betrayal may have caused the President to have his Thomas à Becket moment. Or he may have angered Gota more than usual (Gota was suing him for libel over his coverage of the war at the time). Either way it could have caused a serious problem for the government – had there been any opposition.

The (non) opposition

The UNP are falling apart. Two times PM and former Presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe is still leader despite being widely seen as unelectable. He has survived repeated leadership challenges and has changed his party’s rules to make himself more secure – as a result the party is widely seen as marching determinedly into the political wilderness. Meanwhile his party under Sajith Premadasa, the son of the former President, are in open revolt – a revolt no doubt in part stoked up from behind the scenes by the SLFP’s agents.

But the UNP do at least have a coherent identity – even if it is about to split into two. That puts them head and shoulders above most other opposition parties. The choice at the last Presidential election was not scintillating: on the one hand there was the war criminal/hero, autocrat, and architect of the civil war Mahinda Rajapaksa and on the other was err… the war criminal/hero, autocrat, and architect of the civil war Chief of Defence Staff Sarath Fonseka. Yet virtually every party fell into the trap of supporting one or t’other.

Those that backed Fonseka found themselves stranded when the coalition imploded after his defeat and arrest on war crimes charges just before the Parliamentary election (whilst clearly politically motivated this move could yet prove the Rajapaksa’s undoing – containing as it does the admission war crimes took place, that they should and can be prosecuted, and that the higher echelons of the command structure were involved). Those that backed Rajapaksa found themselves even more compromised – with the result that some of the strongest critics of the government: the JVP and the socialist SSP are now ensconced in ministerial posts and so silenced.

In the north there is a mixed picture. The TNA was the Sinn Fein to the LTTE’s IRA; with the LTTE gone it initially seemed leaderless and pointless and on its way towards oblivion. Yet despite the best efforts of the government the TNA managed a remarkable recovery and has now emerged as the genuine and independent voice of the majority of the Tamil north. That said what they haven’t yet done is worked out what they now stand for.

Meanwhile all executive power is exercised through Basil and the PTF or Gota and the military – but as they are loathed they are unable to put down political roots. The government’s solution is to turn to its Tamil allies: those members of the LTTE who rebelled and joined to the governmental side towards the latter stages of the war. There is the TVMP of Karuna (Colonel Karuna Amman – real name Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) whose split from the LTTE delivered the east to the Government, and the EPDP of Douglas Devananda. The problem with their groups is that they are viewed as war criminals and traitors by both sides – a composite of all the sins of the LTTE and all the sins of the Sri Lankan Government. That the Sri Lankan government chooses for the moment to defend them, and thus by extension the LTTE, may eventually come back to bite them; in the meantime it does nothing for their popularity. And so the TVMP and EPDP attempt to control the population the way the LTTE did – through fear. But with the LTTE and all associated with them so reviled and discredited in Tamil eyes (if not yet all of the diaspora, who haven’t quite caught up) that doesn’t really fly either.

Depressed? You should be. Here’s Kumar Sangakkara singing the backstreet boys. Really:


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.

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