We acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we make this reflection, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects, to their Elders both past and present.
We, individuals who grew up in the south of Sri Lanka, are grateful to the Uniting Church for providing us with this opportunity to reflect upon the conflicts that have taken place in that island. Given time constraints we will not deal with the wider socio-economic factors, but these need to be kept in mind during this reflection.
I grew up in a Sinhala Buddhist lower middle class family in the south, in an environment where the political language used in the public discourse was emotional, and at times abusive. I vividly remember hearing on the government radio, K M P Rajaratna, who eloquently said that one could not rest until shoes are made from the skin of the last Tamil. In a similar vein, I had read in print that the wife of a Tamil leader in the north spoke of skinning Sinhalese for the same purpose. In time in language and in deeds the violence and hatred between communities got even worse.
We have been continuously arguing about who arrived first in the island. Instead we need to accept that the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and others who live there, have an inalienable birthright to the island, regardless of who arrived first.
Sri Lanka’s ruling elite has been hedonistic and self-serving. They did not create a single organisation that fought or even pretended to fight for independence. Some of them, in fact, were opposed to extending the franchise to the majority. The only group that opposed colonialism and agitated for independence came from the left, and initially, from the Jaffna Youth Congress.
Due to expanded social welfare reforms since the independence, Sri Lanka had very low infant mortality rates, high life expectancy and a high degree of adult literacy. We had a seemingly harmonious society, a relatively well developed infrastructure and a minimum of hunger. Why did all these unravel in less than ten years since gaining independence in 1948?
Since independence, people have witnessed the ripple effects of a stagnant economy, a highly stratified social system and the gradual erosion of human rights, rule of law, and the rise of bribery and corruption. This unpalatable stew brought forth, new forces of the left in the south and the north of the island. These young militants demanded their fair share of the political and economic sunshine. Younger generations of Sinhalese and Tamils, who came from very similar socio-economic backgrounds, revolted against the erosion of their rights.
The many conflicts we have had in Sri Lanka not only destroyed people and property, but also blunted peoples’ morality and sensitivities. Many who took part in these conflicts were educated youth, the cream of our society, and good hearted people. To make any finite conclusions on their struggles is beyond quantification. In an environment where inequality in society was growing, where injustice, selfishness and distrust were lighting the burning flames of discontent, we continuously failed to help unravel pathways to better equity and social justice.
Starting from the general strike in 1953, there have been conflicts in 1956, 1958, 1971, 1977, 1983, and 1987 to 1990 in the south. and from 1983 to 2009 in the north east and also in the south. Sri Lanka had become a valley of death. No proper investigation into any of these have ever been made, including the last phase of the civil war.
When conflicts and the resulting bloodshed, death and destruction condition our living environment, the value of humanity diminishes. In many instances the liberators themselves have become assassins due to this process of desensitisation. By arousing complex emotions propagandists of patriotism and nationalism play a major role in perpetuating conflicts. Such emotions are exploited by those who wish to acquire and maintain political and social power.
Most of the educated youth rebelled against injustice. Seeing the suffering of the other had deeply affected their sensitivities. Wanting a societal change, they interacted with people to achieve that change through an ideological struggle. Yet, they were aware that many such struggles had been suppressed with guns and chains. The more repressive the state apparatus became the more the youth rebelled. This was the environment in which young people joined the JVP in the south and the LTTE in the north.
Reflecting on the JVP uprising in 1971, for example, the fundamental social changes the Sinhala youth expected from the government they helped to elect in 1970, were not forthcoming. In fact, the government publicly stated that they could not implement their election pledges. So, the youth set about organizing to implement that program of radical social change, in the expectation of becoming the harbinger of social progress.
Why did this flare up into an uprising? There had been many limitations, shortcomings drawbacks and mistakes we committed during that uprising. We also need to reflect upon the roots, and the major flaws in the country’s democratic institutions, and the actions of the government and the state armed forces that led to that conflict?
The ruling elite of Sri Lanka in the 1940s and 1950s was (and still is) a closed and incestuous group. Almost all the leaders came from the same schools and suburbs, and like all good brown sahibs were, regardless of political differences, tolerant and convivial with each other. Crucially, most shared an unthinkingly condescending attitude towards the commoners.
Under colonialism, the language of administration was English. Those who spoke English belonging to any of the communities and willingly adhered to the mores of the colonial masters were given economic privileges and powerful positions and they became the trusted administrators. Ordinary people, whether they were Sinhala Buddhists, Tamil Hindus, or Sinhala or Tamil-speaking Muslims, did not have a place in their administration.
The fifties were like a dress rehearsal to the tragedy that replayed in Sri Lanka in the latter half of the 20th century and the early part the 21st. Sri Lankan nationalism in the 1950s was a phenomenon of the elite and did not blossom among the masses. The new element introduced in 1956 was populist nationalism.
SWRD Bandaranaike’s nationalism was based on identity and religion, was connected not only to class inequities but also to Sinhala Buddhism and anti-Tamil feelings. The thought of minority gaining basic rights in linguistic and political matters was enough to drive some sections of the majority into a murderous frenzy, with the police looking on in the 1958 riots.
If there are any lessons to be drawn, it is that we need to recognize our common suffering, the stresses and challenges that we face in light of unequal and unjust global economic issues and our own internal issues. In doing so, we need to recognize and address the injustices and grievances faced by all, be they Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers or others. Elected governments bear a heavy responsibility in this regard, as they have been elected to govern on behalf of all the people, regardless of their ethnicity or political affiliations.
The extent of self-destruction, our land of birth had inflicted on itself should be more than sufficient for us to realise that peace and reconciliation are not options, but necessities. That is why we need to build an environment that can break down barriers towards reconciliation. Creating conditions that allow for genuinely exercising democratic rights within an inclusive and tolerant framework is an essential and necessary condition for working towards peace and reconciliation.
As the UN Secretary General said while in Sri Lanka, a couple of weeks ago, rather than sending youngsters to fight wars, provide them with quality education, unite them despite their diverse backgrounds, empower them, and ensure them decent work. This could cool communal tensions and assist communities being engaged in peace building and reconciliation. Youth is Sri Lanka’s biggest asset and its future depends on genuinely investing in their hopes and aspirations, to create a political and economic system that is conducive to social justice, social harmony and social inclusiveness. That will be one of the guarantees that would ensure achieving reconciliation, peace and unity within the Sri Lankan society.
Let us hope that in the land of our heritage, the sounds of guns and bombs will never be heard again.
Lionel Bopage was the General Secretary of the JVP during the 1980s. These are comments made at an ecumenical service held in Melbourne on 17 September 2016. For other articles by Bopage, click here.