Ethnonationalism and the Sri Lanka Crisis

By Rajan Philips

An editorial in a recent issue of Peace Magazine attempted to dispel the view that "peace work is absurd, futile, and a waste of time since there will never be peace on earth." This "absurd" peace work can be fascinating, challenging, and even fun, the writer countered; it can also manifest itself in different forms such as social justice, a healthy culture, work against militarism, and democratic politics. I am inclined to add one more area of peace work: containment of ethnonationalism. The Sri Lanka crisis gives a clear illustration of the importance of this issue.

Ethnonationalism has become the new enemy of peace; it is the principal cause of violent political conflicts between human groups in the post-Cold War period. Ethnonationalism is the post-modernist answer to modernist nationalism, which presupposed a multi-ethnic society centered on the territorial state; it is also the post-Cold War successor to the more universal left-right ideological conflict that underlay the superpower bipolarism of the Cold War years.

It can be argued that the war industry, while taking on a non-nuclear character, has also become ethnocentric rather than ideological; more intra-state than inter-state; more centrifugal than centripetal; and more remote from superpower policing than ever before. As well, in keeping with the times, the new war industry benefits from a highly deregulated arms market with links among state agencies, belligerent non-state organizations, drug cartels, shadowy shipping lines, and the world of profiteering middlemen and shady criminals everywhere.

The decade-long internal war in Sri Lanka, notorious for its ferocity and intractability, betrays the three main ingredients of current ethnonational conflicts: first, the continuing hegemony of divisive ethnonationalisms (Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim) over a more inclusive Sri Lankan nationalism.

Second, it demonstrates the utter inability of any one of the parties to the conflict to overpower the others completely, and the futility of ethnic separatism as a solution to ethnic conflicts within established states. The example of Sri Lanka shows that political hegemony and segmentation based on ethnicity can never be conclusive, for the logic of ethnicity leads to ever-newer challenges and endless divisions within divisions. The Sinhalese hegemony over the Sri Lankan state created the Tamil antithesis, and now both the Sinhalese hegemonists and the Tamil separatists have to deal with the Muslim demand for autonomy in the island's eastern province. This reproductive dynamic has its parallels in other situations - Bosnia, Kashmir, Northern Ireland, and Quebec - although in the last case the level of political and institutional civility has so far prevented a slide into violence.

The third factor to consider is that there is very little "ethnic" about the Sri Lankan war. The dynamic of political violence is such that, regardless of the mythology surrounding the war's origins, the violence becomes an end in itself and the struggle becomes identified with the personal priorities of the various factions' leaderships. The history of the war has demonstrated how both government and separatist leaders have made large personal and political investments based on the war's continuation, even when this has brought increased hardship to their own ethnic followers.

While the war has had its share of outside meddlers, who have both used and been used by the local actors, there has also been spillover, in the form of crime, drugs, and arms traffic, to neighboring countries and even as far as Europe and Canada. The virtual deregulation of the market in small arms has ensured an unlimited supply of arms to the combatants, but at enormous social, cultural, and economic cost for the island's people.

Sri Lanka is an island, small as islands go, but with a dense population of more than 18 million people. The country became independent in 1948 after 150 years of British rule, preceded by 250 years of Dutch and Portuguese colonial rule. The Sinhalese, a majority of whom are Buddhist, make up close to 80 percent of the population; the predominantly Hindu Tamils constitute close to 20 percent. The latter group is divided into two groups: the indigenous Tamils in the island's northeast and in the capital of Colombo, and the "plantation Tamils" brought from southern India by the British to work the plantations in the central provinces. The remainder of the population are Muslims who live among the Sinhalese and Tamil communities and speak either Sinhalese or Tamil or both. There is a small but influential minority of Christians, mostly Catholic, within both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, who for a time shared a common identity as Christians. This ended when the liturgy was vernacularized in 1965, after the Second Vatican Council.

The secular linguistic schism between the two groups came a decade earlier in 1956, when Sinhalese was made the sole official language and students were separated into Sinhalese and Tamil streams for education in their mother tongue, with no opportunity for bilingual training or for the mass use of English as a link language.

Most commentators tend to explain ethnic conflicts in traditional societies in atavistic terms, although such reasoning would be backward in Sri Lanka's case. As Commonwealth scholar Sir Ivor Jennings once remarked, even as late as the beginning of the 20th century Sinhalese and Tamils were politically amorphous, but culturally similar collections of caste groups. Political polarization around Sinhala and Tamil ethnic identities, supervening the more traditional caste ethnic identities, came about with the introduction of print and the growth in mass literacy. The synthetically-created language loyalties based on the Aryan (Sinhalese) myth and the Dravidian (Tamil) fable, and the material advantage that the policy of unilingualism gave the Sinhalese, followed.

Even so, at the time of independence in 1948 the country had more than a fair chance of avoiding a split along language lines. The well-established colonial state machinery could have been modified and used to nurture and augment a secular political system and culture in which all Sri Lankans would identify themselves as citizens of a common nation, while remaining Sinhalese and Tamils, Buddhists and Hindus, Muslims and Christians in private.

Instead, the state and its institutions were swept off their secular, liberal democratic presuppositions and subordinated to the social relations of the pre-existing religious, kinship, and caste society. The concept of majority rule in a parliamentary democracy - which presupposes an electorate of free citizens having equal political rights regardless of difference in property, education, gender, religion, and language - was turned on its head when the Sinhalese consolidated themselves into a permanent majority based on their numbers and their new ethnic identity. The ultimate response of the Tamils, no less short-sighted and ethnically-minded, was to demand a state of their own where they could be a permanent majority.

Almost 50 years of ethnic haggling and 15 years of continuous ethnic violence has resolved nothing. The hegemonic schemes of the Sinhalese and the separatist ambitions of the Tamils have both backfired. To come back to my earlier point, there is no ethnic solution to ethnic problems within multi-ethnic states, nor does the answer lie in the abolition of "ethnicity" or the assimilation of minorities. The only solution is for the state to become truly secular, and enable the people of Sri Lanka to rediscover themselves as politically-secular citizens belonging to a common nation, relegating their asecular differences to the realm of their private lives.

As political prescriptions go, this is easier said than done, but not impossible. What is impossible, however, is to achieve a breakthrough in the ethnic stalemate through dramatic actions alone, whether in the constitutional sphere or on the battlefield. It will require a thousand cuts - a normative consensus among political parties and continuing commitment by succeeding governments; actions at all levels of government and civil society; educational programs and major attitudinal changes among students, workers, professionals, civil servants, and judges - to finally kill Sri Lanka's ethnic dragons. Peace work can be of help, and will not be in vain!

Rajan Philips is an urban planner and engineer based in Ottawa.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1997

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1997, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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