Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Ethnic or Tamil Question in Sri Lanka

By Dhammike Amarasinghe

The Ethnic or Tamil Question in Sri Lanka

         My intention in writing this note is to share with others my thoughts on the  above question developed through, reading, varied experiences and quiet reflection over many years. I claim no expert knowledge on the issues involved but I consider that it would not be a waste of time for fellow citizens to give ear to someone who has tried to dispassionately examine the various aspects of the matter over a long period. Some of my ideas I know will not be palatable to many. However these ideas are what I honestly believe in, at the present state of my knowledge and conviction.       

I begin writing this, on a Sinhala and Tamil Aluth Avurudu day (2021). I have not yet heard of a Puththandu being celebrated around this time of the year in Tamil Nadu or anywhere in South India. Therefore, perhaps  Aluth Avurudda/Puththandu, in those names,is a unique Sinhala and Srilankan Tamil event. There seems to lie a tale in that. Prof. Karthigesu Indrapala, my old and respected senior Peradeniya friend, titled his book ‘The evolution of an ethnic identity’ ( my emphasis). There also lies a tale in that. It is necessary to reflect on these matters seriously.

          I am of the view that after seeing no light at the end of the tunnel after decades of strife and blood shed, we need to pause a little and engage in a sinhavalokanaya, a penetrating look-back as the lion is supposed to do, to see what went wrong in the first place. That we have to do, using our intellect, without letting irrational animal emotions over-ride our evolutionarily advanced part of the brain. In the history of a nation, a few or even many decades is not a very long period. We need to think in terms of our descendants at least twenty-five generations hence. Let them not CURSE us. There is still time to make a course correction if there is need of one. I have particularly my Sinhala compatriots in mind.

          Before proceeding further, I must state my personal background so that what I have to say will be received without prejudice. I come from a Sinhala Buddhist peasant background. Both my grandfathers, paternal and maternal, had retired from active work by the time I came into this world but some of my uncles were still tilling their fields clad in the amude ( and as a child I have helped them around the field in sundry chores) My parents were Sinhala school teachers serving in far flung remote areas of the country and my schooling up to the age of 11 was in those rural schools. I am a son of the soil, perhaps more so than some latter day ‘patriots’. I am a graduate in Economics and a former senior public officer.

My first sensitivity to ethnicity perhaps occurred when as a child I played the role of the young Prince Gemunu in a school play. Here I must hasten to say, to the credit of my parents, that they never showed any racist tendencies. My father, as I well remember, would refer to a Tamil doctor as a Yaapane Mahaththayek, without any reference to his ethnicity.

          However, the ‘Sinhala only’ agitation in the media in the 1956 period, worked deleteriously on us immature young students of the time and by the time the Official Language Act was passed in Parliament. I was a rabid racist. Perhaps, as sometimes said in relation to Marxism, a person who is not a bit of a racist by the age of 30 (in the context of the prevailing dominant ethos) has no heart  and the one who remains a racist thereafter, has no brain    .

I have just been reading some international news relating to Sri Lanka. Among them was a refence to one Yasmin Sooka of South Africa ( not unknown to many Sri Lankans) ‘reporting’ to a British orgnisation about the conduct of our Army Commander during the past civil conflict ( this, at a time when the British government itself is trying to pass legislation to protect its own military personnel against charges of war crimes in foreign theatres of war and has earned thereby the censure of the UN Human Rights Commission). Now, it is natural for any Sri Lankan to get annoyed with the activities of such busybodies. However what I would suggest is that instead of being distracted by such interference, we , patiently, once and for all, settle down to re-examine our problem in all its perspectives. While external people can pursue their own agendas in the comfort of their foreign domiciles, irrespective of whether we live or die, for us, this is a matter of our country’s future and that of our present and future generations.

Our Past

          In recent times, there has been some re-thinking among scholars about our, origins. The Vijaya legend no longer enjoys universal acceptance as marking the beginning of civilized life in this country. Felicitously this trend of thinking has now entered even school textbooks – vide Grade 10 History textbook.  Evidence of pre-historic Homo Sapien settlements has been unearthed in many places, ranging from Bundala in the South to the Jaffna peninsula. Such evidence shows that there has been gradual progression to an agricultural civilization, from a hunter-gatherer past, over many thousands of years, within this island itself. At a later stage, as excavations done by Dr. Srian Deraniyagala in the Anuradhapura citadel (incidentally, a place that most people are even not aware of) have shown that , an iron-using, somewhat advanced civilization, had existed as early as the 9th century BC, a couple of centuries before the legendary advent of Vijaya.

What all this leads up to is that even before waves of migration occurred from India in historic times (Vijaya’s arrival being one) a civilization had been taking shape in this country and we have inherited that genetic sub stratum going back to the ‘Balangoda Man’ and the Yakshas. Prof. Indrapala’s hypothesis is also this and he speculates that in historic times one section of that indigenous population came to adapt a North Indian dialect of speech- Sinhala Prakrit and another, a Dravidian one, under the impact of the many streams of migration from both North and South India, gradually abandoning their less advanced common native tongue. One should not be dogmatic in matters of historical and archeological knowledge. Both are still ‘work in progress’. As for myself, I cannot get away from the possibility that, subject to genetic changes that would have occurred through subsequent millennia, under the impact of regular incursions of immigrants (invaders or otherwise) from India and elsewhere, the majority of people of the two major ethnicities now inhabiting the country, perhaps share ancestors of a very distant past.

          We are on firmer ground, paradoxically enough, when we go back to an even more distant past. Scientists are agreed that all of the humans living at present, without exception trace their ancestry to a band of Homo-Sapiens which set out from East Africa some 70,000 years ago. (some scientists, on the basis of the analysis of mitochondrial DNA of populations are even of the view that we are all descendent from one common African great, great ………greatn  grand mother). The present vast differences in appearance among peoples must be understood as being the result of adaptation to varying environments over millennia, through the operation of Darwinian natural selection.  If all that is scientifically proven, can we ever justifiably feel as being by nature repulsively alien from one other. All this provides in my view the scientific basis for the assertion of the essential oneness of mankind by all great religious teachers – and most prominently, Gautama Buddha.

          Through the centuries, coming up to even relatively recent times, many groups of people mostly from India, have joined the mainstream of the Sri Lankan nation and got assimilated themselves within a few generations. The truth of this statement would dramatically strike one, when one considers the seamless assimilation of groups that migrated in, even after about the 14th or 15th centuries. Some early migrants came as invaders, but others were brought in, even as warriors, by our own royal princes, to fight their local rivals, after sojourns in South Indian courts, as refugees.The practice started with Mugalan, the estranged brother of Sigiri Kashyapa. Another was Manavamma. There were others. Did the mercenaries that they brought, go back to a dreary homeland in India, after tasting the comforts of a lush green island? King Gajaba is supposed to have brought in some twenty-four thousand prisoners of war from Soli Rata and settled them in different parts of his kingdom in groups. ( Matale Kadaim Pota gives the different areas in which they were settled) Today, the descendants of all those Solis must be true blue Sinhalas (some of them perhaps even breathing fire against Tamils!). This has been a natural phenomenon throughout the world. The present British nation is made up of the descendants of Celts, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Normans and many others, most of them coming as invaders, except perhaps the Celts. There are no ‘pure’ nations or ‘pure’ races in this world. That was only the delusion of a psychopath like Hitler. (No one in his senses should advise a leader of a country to become a psychopath).

It is true that when most present day Sinhalas think of Tamils, it is the image of invaders that first comes to mind. Atcertain times in the past too, particularly in the immediate aftermath of an invasion, it must have been so. But it was not so always. To begin with, we need to distinguish between invading Tamils from South India and Tamils who had always lived in this country. I have already suggested that, hypothetically, many of those who came to be identified later as Tamils may have been from our own original indigenous ‘Yaksha’ stock, but who had adapted the Tamil language from South Indian migrants, in replacement of the original common native language, while their ‘cousins’ elsewhere in the country adapted a Sinhala Prakrit from other migrants from North India. Anyway, even in subsequent times, there was much intercourse between the Sinhalas and Tamils, without there being necessarily any unfriendly feelings ( although admittedly there were many invasions from time to time). We have even inscriptional evidence of a Tamil presence in early Anuradhapura, as peaceful members of the community. How many of us have heard of an inscription written in early Brahmi script, using the Sinhala Prakrit language, existing in the neighborhood of Abhayagiriya, indicating some structure erected for the use of a group of Tamil persons – with their personal names also indicated (vide page 59, Sinhala Shilaa Lekhana Sangrahaya by Nandasena Mudiyanse, publisher S.Godage)

The first recorded South Indian invasion occurred when two Tamils Sena and Guttika wrested the kingdom from King Suratissa in the 2nd Century B.C. The Mahavansa ( Geiger translation – p 142/143) says “ Two Damilas Sena and Guttika….conquered the king Suratissa …..and reigned…. for twenty two years justly”  (my emphasis) There is no denouncing of the Tamil conquerors. The description of the reign of the next Tamil conqueror, Elara, was even more generous. The Mahavansa (Geiger -p 143-145) devotes no less than 20 Pali stanzas to extol his virtues (some, obviously exaggerated).Then, after Dutugemunu’s victory over him, the first act of the victor, to his eternal credit, was to perform the funeral rites of his fallen enemy with royal honours, erect a monument in his honour and decree that even royals passing that site must pay due honour – MV p. 175 ( a decree that even as late as 1818 Keppetipola Nilame fleeing the British after the failure of his rebellion is reported to have obeyed). Many Sinhala kings sought their consorts or consorts for their siblings in the Dravidian royal courts of South India – At the beginning, even Vijaya himself reportedly sought and obtained his queen from the royal court of Madura in South India. Vijayabahu I whose own queen was from Kalinga gave his sister Mitta in marriage to a Pandyan prince who became eventually the paternal grand father of Parakramabahu the Great (who therefore had Pandyan blood in his veins).  Parakramabahu had two generals named Rakkha and Aditya who are both referred to in the Mahavansa as Demala Adhikari ( Ch. 75 & 76) . In the Kotte royal court of later times, we see the presence of many Perumals in responsible positions. Even Sapumal Kumaraya was originally Sembahap Perumal, reportedly the orphaned son of an aristocratic Keralite warrior who died in combat in the service of Parakramabahu VI. Sapumal ascended the throne later as Buvanekabahu VI.  In the early Kotte period, it is also intriguing that the Chinese admiral Zhen He, who carried off Vira Alakeshvara to China as a prisoner, erected in Galle a trilingual stone inscription, using the Chinese, Persian and Tamil languages. In the  Kandyan kingdom, kings from Rajasinghe II appear to have sought consorts from Madura resulting in the mothers of Vimaladharmasurya II and Narendrasingha- the reputed last Sinhala king, being South Indian Tamil princess). I have already referred to the in-migration of large groups from South India in the 14th or 15th centuries, now indistinguishably part of the mainstream. It is known that certain Kandyan aristrocrats of the present day have acknowledged their South Indian (though Brahmanic) provenance.  Few knowledgeable people in the country today are not aware of the comparatively recent, documented and admitted, South Indian antecedents of some very prominent Sinhala leaders of the present day. Such information has even ceased to be of much interest.

          What I have been trying to point out is that historically the relations between the Sinhalas and Tamils have far from being hostile all the time. We are not congenital enemies. We have no tradition of enmity to pursue – as it was between the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet.

The emergence of a Tamil kingdom in the North       

       It is time to turn to another aspect of history – the establishment of a Tamil kingdom in the North. By about the 10th century, Sinhala kings appear to have lost control over the territory beyond Anuradhapura and by about the 14th century an independent Tamil kingdom appears to have been established in the Jaffna peninsula, with the intervening Vanni being under many semi-independent Vanniyars. Only once for a brief period under Parakramabahu VI the overlordship of Sinhala kings had been re-established thereafter in Jaffna (-Sapumal Kumaraya’s famous conquest of Yapapatuna). Once Sapumal left Jaffna to become King in Kotte, the Sinhala suzerainty over the Jaffna peninsula again lapsed. To make matters worse some Jaffna kings (like Arya Chakravarti) became so powerful even to challenge the Gampola period Sinhala kings and exact taxes in some areas of their kingdom, up to about Matale. Arya Chakravarti even overran the western seaboard up to at least Panadura at one time. He was only checked by Alakeshvara,  (who himself may have been an immigrant) who founded the capital at Kotte. This sequence of events is no doubt painful to any Sinhala brought up on the tradition of Tri Sinhala, but these are solid historical facts that we have to accept whether we like them or not.

       The Jaffna kingdom so established surrendered finally only to the Portuguese. The Dutch took over from them and finally the British. The important legal/constitutional point to note here is the ground reality of  Jaffna coming under colonial rule not as part of a subsisting all-island Sinhala kingdom but as a separate sovereign entity. This is what makes it incumbent on us to refrain from summarily dismissing the claim of Northern Tamils to some kind of special consideration. We should be happy that they did not press a claim to separate status at the time we achieved independence from the last colonial ruler (although there were some rumblings, it did not go far). The British, to repeat, held the northern areas by right of conquest, a conquest that was separate from their subsequent conquest/annexation of the Sinhala areas. We should not be foolish to think that anybody will take us seriously in the modern world if we try to press the long obsolete all island Tri Sinhala claim. That is the bitter truth. (The situation in the Eastern province is different. Even later Kandyan kings continued to exercise suzerainty there, as is documented in treaties with colonial powers)

Sinhala-Tamil Co-operation during colonial times                   

        During the British period, up to about the twenties of the 20th century Sinhala and Tamil leaders have co-operated with each other in their interactions with the colonial government as well as in other public work. In order to avoid a long exposition on this point, the following extracts from the unpublished diaries of Anagarika Dharmapala may be cited as a testament to that fact:

1889 Nov 14th

……..Went to see Muhandiram. Talked about the proposed College for the Sinhalese and Buddhists to be founded by the Hon’ble Mr. Rama Nathan and the Muhandiram promised to help it as much as he can. ………….

1911 Dec 20

………Then I went see Ramanathan and he greeted me cordially and spent about 2 hours in discussing over spiritual and economic subjects. A wonderfully clever man he is but he is insufficiently informed about the Dharma. …..

1915 Oct 21st

October 14 Historic meeting of the Ceylon Legislative Council. Ramanathan on behalf of the suffering Sinhalese spoke for 2 hours denouncing the Govt. officials for the atrocities committed on the helpless villagers during the Court Martial trials. ……

The above references are to Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Member, Ceylon Legislative Council, the ‘grandfather legislature’ of Sri Lanka. His brother Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam took the lead in forming the Ceylon National Congress and was its first President. I have heard from my father that when Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan returned from England once, after a mission on behalf of Sri Lanka, Sinhala leaders unharnessed the horses of the carriage he was to ride home from the Colombo Jetty and pulled it themselves. Prof. K.M.de Silva has quoted in his book History of Sri Lanka, the fulsome praise given to Ramanathan by Sarasavi Sanderasa the leading Sinhala Buddhist journal of the day, ending up by saying  ‘Buddhists owe Mr. Ramanathan a deep debt of gratitude’, for Ramanathan’s espousal of the cause of Sinhala Buddhists in the legislature- vide p. 461)

These fraternal relations soured later for reasons I need not go into but suffice it to say that one reason was an act of breach of faith by two Sinhala leaders who went back on a promise to help secure a seat in the legislature for Tamils in the Western Province. (vide History of Sri Lanka – K.M.de Silva, p.480) In this connection we might note that at the present time Mr. Mano Ganesan has been an elected member of Parliament for the Colombo District for a long time, without there being any special reservation either, thus providing ample justification for the old aspiration of Western Province Tamils. May not the keeping of that old promise by Sinhala leaders have changed the whole course of subsequent events, even saving many lives?

 Special position of Tamils under colonial rule

However, it must be recognized that Tamils appeared to enjoy a privileged position under the colonial regime. This may have been due to two reasons – (a) compared with the magnitude of the population and the extent of territory occupied, Tamils seemed to enjoy more facilities for an English education than the Sinhalas. As English education was provided mostly by Christian missions and not by government I am unable to say whether this was due to deliberate colonial policy or otherwise. However the fact that the Sinhala elite of the last decades of the 19th century did not wish the ordinary people to have an advanced education is proved by the following reference made by Prof. K.M.de Silva, to a speech made  by J.P.Obeyesekere, Sinhala representative in the Legislative Council, sometime in the 1880s: ..And he argued forcefully for the imposition of the severest restrictions for entry to all schools, so that the children of the rural poor would be forced ‘to follow such avocations as they are fitted for by nature’ A History of Sri Lanka’ p.419. Tamils at that time apparently had no such ‘far sighted’ representatives of theirs to bother about!  Anyway, the undisputable fact is that in the matter of placement in the professions and in government employment, Tamils due to greater numbers of them being English literate, in addition to any other reasons, came to enjoy a position in excess of their ratio in the population. (b) The colonial government, as all colonial governments do, undoubtedly followed a policy of divide and rule and in this matter discriminating in favour of a minority would have been a very attractive tool. I must say I am only hypothesizing but there may be those who have researched the subject. However, I must qualify the above statements by saying that any such privilege was enjoyed by only English educated middle-class Tamils and not the ordinary Tamil peasant, artisan and the fisherman. Their lot was the same as that of their counterparts among the Sinhalas. Anyway another point that needs emphasis is that hardly any Tamil living today had enjoyed such privilege in colonial times. ‘Sins’ of fathers should not visit innocent progeny. Resentment on that score is completely unwarranted.

Reversal after Independence

Whatever privilege English educated Tamils may have enjoyed in colonial times, they lost it after Independence. We made the plight of Tamils worse since then, by going in the reverse direction and denying them even what they were entitled to.Such was the imposition of the Official Language Act (‘Sinhala Only’ Act) in 1958. One example will illustrate this in practical terms. In colonial times, Sinhala and Tamil villagers, whenever they received an official letter or a telegram, had to go in search of an English educated mahattaya to get it translated. After the full implementation of the Sinhala Only Act, a Tamil villager had still to go in search of a Sinhala knowing dorai. That was a needless harassment and humiliation. Now (after 1978) both Sinhala and Tamil have been made official languages, after many lives have been sacrificed over the issue in the subsequent decades (However stillthe legal position has not been made practical reality universally, as was forcefully impressed on me when I had to shamefacedly send a Treasury circular in Sinhala, on an important subject, to a Tamil University Chancellor friend, who sought my assistance to get a copy of that circular. I had to do so because a Tamil or even an English version had apparently never been issued.I also failed in my attempts to get at least an English translation of the Minutes of the monthly Government Agents conference issued to the 8 participating Tamil speaking GA s, because the senior officer responsible stubbornly avoided doing so despite the repeated instructions of her official superior.

It is worth mentioning here that at the time the Sinhala Only Act was passed, most schools in Jaffna taught Sinhala as a subject. Prof. Karthigesu Indrapala has said that Sagara Palansuriya, poet and one time MP, was his Sinhala teacher. A senior Tamil clerk of mine once taunted his Sinhala colleagues saying that he unlike them learnt Kumaratunga Sinhala in school. However, immediately after the humiliation of Sinhala being forced down their throats by the Sinhala Only Act, all that changed. Jaffna schools stopped teaching Sinhala. (At a recent gathering a Tamil engineer told me that when that happened, his father being a practical man took him to the Jaffna Buddhist temple and requested the monk to teach him Sinhala). This whole sorry episode could have been handled differently if statesmanship had prevailed. The majority of ordinary Tamils, just like the majority of ordinary Sinhalas, are practical men, minding their own business and not playing politics. But as a self-respecting people they resented being humiliated. It was this humiliation, coupled with intransigence and stupidity on both sides that finally led to the war and the loss of so many lives on both sides. At the 1952 General Election, at a time when there was yet no language problem, the Federal Party which first raised the devolution of power issue, fared very poorly. The Northern Tamils were not so much bothered about the state power structure. However once humiliated they lost confidence in the majority dominated state structure.

The present generation, which has not lived through the gradual evolutionof the so-called ethnic problem, like many of us elders have done, must not let themselves be deluded to think that everything started with a maniac called Prabhakaran. ‘Prabhakaran’ was long in the making and our Sinhala ‘leaders’ (including many Buddhist monks) have made a ‘generous’ contribution to that outcome.  

In any case, when a war was forced on the country through political stupidity and lack of statesmanship, it had to be fought. In the Bhagavat Gita. Krishna explains to Arjuna that, once war has come about with his kinsmen, the Kurus, it was his duty to fight it, regardless. So, it was for our soldiers and they fought bravely. They fought suffering much hardship. We owe them much. Their victory was the basis on which we should have built a peaceful and prosperous New Sri Lanka. That was primarily what we owed the Ranavirus. We should have ensured that their children also would not be fated to get into flooded trenches and there to die. So far, we have failed them.

The Future

Let us at least now be realistic. The Tamils have lived in this land for long, as the other new target, the Muslims, have also done. Muslims have been here at least since the 13th century. Some Muslims have even acted as emissaries to Sinhala kings. The Tamils and Muslims have a right to live in this country as honourable first-class citizens. It is their motherland as well as ours. They have nowhere else to go except as refugees (Those fanatical racists who sometimes ask them to go to Tamilnadu are talking rubbish and do not know their history. Can any of these fanatics be absolutely certain that during the long centuries of our history, their own first ancestor in this country, at some time or other, did not come from South India? Eelam was only a battle cry in desperation and in the face of many betrayals (the broken Bandaranaile-Chelvanayagam pact, the broken Dudley-Chelvanayagam pact, the shameful betrayal of the Left parties in the late ‘60s etc.)

Tamils are a practical people. They know that separation simply will not work in this ‘tiny’ bit of land. And they want to share in the benefits of our entire island’s many natural advantages. They are not foolish to get themselves boxed-in to a dreary corner of the country.


At this point I must say something about Devolution. At one time I was quite enamoured of the concept (as implemented by the 13th Amendment of the Constitution) – but no longer. What is essential in a rational constitutional arrangement is that people at different territorial levels of the country, meaning the village/town and progressively larger areas, up to the national level, should be able to manage their affairs as is their wish, subject to the over-all general interest of the country. To my knowledge there has not been a proper academic study of the performance of the Provincial Council system. Therefore, what we can have at present are only impressionistic individual observations. My personal impression is that we have created a white elephant, less efficient than the old district administration system that was coupled with the local government system of the day. That system one must remember included co-ordinating mechanisms in which people’s representatives participated – the District Co-ordinating Committee and the District Agricultural Committee, mainly.   I think that system performed reasonably well and at much less expense (and probably at a much lower level of corruption). The Provincial Council (PC) system has created a rent-seeking additional level of political potentates throwing their weight about (hence the great interest in having PC elections soon). Under this system policy formulation stands fractured on one hand between the Centre and the PCs and on the other, among the 9 PCs themselves. This of course is an inevitable feature of a devolved polity and I have nothing against devolution per se, in appropriate circumstances (I do not call it something leading to separation, as some ignoramuses do). However the question is whether it makes sense, given the comparative smallness of the territory and the population, as well as the absence of the very high degree of multiplicity in all relevant factors – language, social groupings, customs etc etc that characterize a vast country like India, to devolve policy making, to the degree that it has been done by the 13th Amendment. To make matters worse the Centre has jealously maintained its administrative structure even in respect of devolved subjects, thus duplicating structures and adding to the already irrational burden of establishments cost of governance, pre-empting funds from development work.  


What appears to me preferable is a system of extensive decentralization where governmental decisions are taken at levels determined by the principle of subsidiarity – the “principle of social organization that holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution” – Wikipedia. On this basis I would advocate an elected Jana Sabha (JS), at the Grama Niladhari level as the first level of government. It would be vested with responsibilities of a purely local nature that are of immediate concern to day to day living and which can be handled without resort to sophisticated bureaucracies. The Grama Niladhari would probably be the CEO of this organization, acting under the directions of the JS and assisted by other village level officers. The next higher level would be the Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) that would handle matters appropriate to a territory covering a number of JS areas. However, there will not be any direct elections to this body. The Chairpersons of the several JSs constituting the PS area would be its members. At the next higher level, the District, an appropriately named district organization ( ? Rata Sabha) constituted by the  Chairpersons of PSs, would be in charge of responsibilities appropriate to that level. Again, no direct elections.

The District bodies and PSs in addition to their own responsibilities would play a coordinating and supervisory role over the functioning of the local government organization below them. The JSs will also exercise a monitoring role in respect of projects (particularly construction projects) of the central government and the higher level local authorities, executed in their areas.

The implementation of national policies, programmes and projects at district level (except for very large construction projects) will be in the hands of the bureaucracy of the District level body referred to above, under the supervision of that body. The Central departments will not have separate district organisations.

There will be no provincial level governmental body akin to the present PCs. The Province is a sub-national administrative division abandoned sometime in the 20th century by the British themselves who originally created it. It was artificially resurrected in 1983 only to create a unit which was thought to be parallel to the Indian State. However, a province does not mean much to the ordinary citizen unlike the district, to which level he has been accustomed to for a long time.

Instead of the abandoned PCs there should be an appropriately named Second Chamber at the Center. The District bodies will elect two representatives (possibly its Chairman and another) to the Second Chamber. Representation will also be given in the Second Chamber to recognized professional associations. The rationale of the Second Chamber will be: (a) to give more visibility to the regions in the governance process, hopefully partly satisfying the desire of minorities to a system of more significant representation of their interests, and a feeling  of sharing of power, and; (b) to obtain the direct participation of professionals who have expert knowledge in various fields, in the governing process. Many crucial decisions are being taken today disregarding expert advice which the general public never become aware of, except when such an expert sometimes daresto publish his views.

The President of the Republic will be elected by an electoral college consisting of Members of Parliament and members of the Second Chamber. In the entire governmental system, there will be direct elections only at the level of Jana Sabhas and Parliament. Thereby things ought to become more peaceful and vastly less expensive, affordable by a still poor country. The President will symbolize national unity, attend to all traditional functions of a Head of State and will handle all ceremonial functions that the political executive now wastes its time on. He will have no ministerial responsibilities. It is hoped that political parties will be sensible enough to agree on a convention of electing non-political eminent persons to this office.

A most important feature of a new Constitutional arrangement should be appropriate provision to ensure a reasonable number of Cabinet Ministers from the minorities. Normally such matters are left to conventions but at the present stage of our political maturity some kind of constitutional provision -difficult though it may be to devise, seems to be necessary. This arrangement would be on recognition of the principle that minorities must share power in real national level decision making at the Centre, instead of just aspiring to exercise devolved power in provinces, in peripheral areas of activity.  As mentioned previously, in a small country, devolving important powers of the state that are best handled at the Centre, to regional bodies, and thus fracturing the process of policy making, appears to be unrealistic and unreasonably expensive. Instead, in such a country the best arrangement is likely to be where minorities share real power at the Centre itself. Instead of the present practice of giving some minor subjects to one or two compliant minority ministers, just as a sop, a number of ministers decided roughly in line with the population ratio should be assigned important subjects. ( In Mr D.,S Senanayake’s first Cabinet, 3 Tamil Ministers – quite solid personalities, 2 ex- Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) men and a Cambridge-educated King’s Counsel – handled Trade, Post/Telecommunications and Industries ).

There is also a need for strong independent and impartial mechanisms like an independent Judiciary, a Human Rights Commission and an Ombudsman to provide insurance to minorities against any individual ethnic discrimination. The essential requirement is that they be manned by men of character and not men of straw, manipulable by the powers that be. Such mechanisms would operationalise anti-discriminatory constitutional provision like a powerful Fundamental Rights chapter. The latter without the former is meaningless.

The foregoing in my view are the arrangements necessary to replace the wasteful mechanism – the PC system, that we have instituted under foreign compulsion, as a sop to the minorities, without any sincerity of intention and without really solving the problem.  One would also hope that all this would happen, in an increasingly enlightened, world-wise and broad-minded society, progressively freed from onslaughts of obscurantist forces.

War crime allegations

It is necessary to say something about the vexed question of war crimes and human rights violation allegations that now stand internationalized. There are several aspects to this matter.

To begin with, some people are inclined to sneer at the whole concept of Human Rights, calling it a western concept and all that rubbish. Actually, the notion of human rights is not at all new, as it always stood at the core of the worldly ethic of all great religions, though it did not bear that fancy label (actually Gautama Budhdha went even beyond the humans and spoke in terms of ‘Sabbe Satta’ –all sentient beings – vide the Karaniya Metta Sutta. However, this notion entered secular thought through advances in political philosophy in the writings of Renaissance thinkers like Rousseau and through being forged on the anvil of social and political revolution, such as the French revolution. All that is the common heritage of mankinddeveloped in the onward march of Homo Sapiens in their relentless progress -physical and spiritual, through Darwinian evolution. Only small minds ignorant of that history can repudiate that heritage.  

That is about the concept of Human Rights in general. The same goes for the notion of War Crimes that emerged in the process of human conflict through the ages and accelerated as a result of two devastating world wars.

Now comes our specific case. Later, I want to consider separately certain alleged incidents that occurred outside the ambit of the war. During the war and as part of it, both sides may have committed acts which would come under the definition of war crimes. Leave aside for the moment what the Sri Lankan government forces may or may not have done (one such act came to the lime-light recently when a non-commissioned officer convicted of an atrocious act of killing civilians including children, an act roundly condemned in Parliament by his former Commander himself, was set free). On the other side, we are also aware of many acts of war crimes committed against non-combatants by the LTTE– the massacre at Sri Maha Bodhi, the massacres at Arantalawa and Kebithigollawa, the Dalada Maligawa incident, the Central Bank bomb, CTO bomb, the massacre of 500 police personnel at Batticaloa etc etc. In an inquiry into war crimes, domestic or international, who is going to stand trial in respect of these LTTE atrocities? In the event, it is likely to become a one-sided affair i.e. only against the Sri Lankan forces that continue in existence today, as against an LTTE that no longer exists. Our Tamil brethren must realise this. In all wars throughout history many crimes may have been committed in the heat of the battle. Those for which there is clear evidence like the incident of the pardoned ‘butcher’, must of course be pursued. However, is there any purpose in undertaking ‘voyages of discovery’, as would gladden the hearts of the Yasmin Sookas of this world. In any case what would be the result at the end of it all. We will still remain divided but with renewed hatred against each other. Is it not more sensible to recognize that both sides are not without fault and on the basis of that honest admission declare closure, for the sake of the unending future generations? Nahi verena verani sammanthidha kudachanam. Why not we close a bitter chapter and just move on – not as sentimentalists but as hard-headed realists.However, that requires the essential admission from the side of the Sri Lankan authorities that we also may have erred – at least by refraining from making silly declarations of ‘zero casualties’. As that possibility is extremely remote, one can only hope that there would be a peoples’ movement from both sides, led by young intelligent people.  ( Here it is also necessary to underline the need to compensate all those who have been personally affected by any criminal acts in the course of the war although we may desist from pursuing action against perpetrators, in the interests of national harmony) 

Earlier I hinted at another category of war time incidents. These are the alleged incidents of ransom seeking and murder of hostages, alleged disappearance of some of those who surrendered at the end of the war and the like.  These incidents had nothing to do with an on-going war. They are crimes against the law of the land. Those who have committed them are not Ranaviruwas. They are ordinary criminals and murderers moved by the basest of motives. They should be prosecuted and dealt with, if for no other reason than to protect the good name and the international prestige of our armed forces. Let not a few scoundrels who were pursuing their private agendas blacken forever the high renown won by our brave soldiers.

          We always talk of our great heritage. We do have our hydraulic engineering achievements to be proud of -such as the gigantic reservoirs, cascade irrigation and biso kotuwa. We do have the architectural greatness of Sigiriya, in addition to the mirror wall graffiti and the murals that bespeak a high literacy rate and high artistic sensitivity. These are only random examples. However, unfortunately we have also inherited a welter of backward looking and irrational superstition and pernicious social institutions like the caste system (fortunately not as vicious as in India), holding us back. While being inspired by the former (the achievements) we must determinedly get rid of the latter if we are to progress. Science and other valid knowledge, not excluding tested traditional knowledge only should guide us and not just whims of ill-informed leaders and attractive but empty impractical slogans.

           Before everything else, we must become a harmonious Nation without internal conflict. What have we done for the last 73 years? We have been quarrelling and killing each other, while other nations who were behind us have moved on. The poor are still with us. China has lifted 99 million people out of poverty.

We elders will bid our good byes within the next few years. It is for an intelligent younger generation to reflect on these matters and come to wise decisions, having the interests of the yet unborn in mind. We can still become a great nation if we choose to.

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