War and Peace in Post-Colonial Ceylon 1948-1991
by Adrian Wijemanne
Orient Longman Limited, New Delhi, 1996
INR 180 ISBN 81 250 0364 9
As expected, the 10th anniversary of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in July did not invite public celebration in Colombo. It is not difficult to see why. The agreement pledged peace. Instead, after broken promises from everyone involved, all it led to was fighting on a scale more bitter than anything ever before experienced on the island.
While the anniversary is not an occasion for the popping of champagne corks, it does, however, provide an opportunity to look back on the events of a decade ago and reflect on what went wrong. It is also an occasion to look to the future and try to see a way out of South Asia´s most intractable civil war. Adrian Wijemanne´s book is an interesting contribution to the debate on a solution to Sri Lanka´s ethnic conflict.
Mr Wijemanne was a civil servant in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) during the 1950s before he moved to Europe where he now lives. He has a solution to the ethnic conflict that has the advantage of being clear, concise and rational: split the island into two, give the Tamils the state of Elam they want, give the Sinhalese the Sinhala state they want, and let the two live happily ever after. The proposal´s disadvantage is that it is difficult to imagine any Colombo government having the courage to propose to the Sinhalese that the country be divided. It is equally difficult to see the Sinhalese people agreeing to this freely.
The Indo-Sri Lanka agreement, which was a relatively modest proposal to devolve power to a Tamil majority provincial council in the island´s north and east was enough to trigger an insurgency by the JVP which took nearly four years and tens of thousands of deaths to quell. The bloodbath that would follow an announcement that the country was about to be split is unimaginable.
But this does not detract from several penetrating observations that Mr Wijemanne makes on the nature of modern nationalism. He asks a question that every political leader on the Subcontinent faced with separatism needs to answer: Is it worth risking precious human lives in the interest of preserving political structures and national boundaries inherited from the British empire?
Mr Wijemanne writes that those who want to see resolution of secessionist conflicts must recognise that “human life is more important than political or geographical structures”. He adds, “States and state structures are the handiwork of man and there is nothing irrevocable about them. There is nothing sacrosanct about the state, be it unitary or otherwise.” This is a principle that ought to be emblazoned in letters of gold across the facades of every government building and parliament house across South Asia.
Mr Wijemanne also reminds us that the founding principle of a democratic nation state is the consent of the people. It is this consent which holds the state together. Once it is withdrawn, no force of arms can hold the state together for long. “The elementary fact is that the glue which binds a society together and supports the state is the freely given consent of the governed. Consent by its very nature is voluntary and cannot be secured by coercion or legislation. Such efforts may produce a temporary acquiescence but not the permanent bond of freely given consent.”
Mr Wijemanne, like many who are in favour of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka, argues that the Sinhalese and Tamils are two separate nations yoked together artificially by the British into a single state. “The unitary state bequeathed by the departing imperial power was regarded as the most essential part of society. But it contained a fatal flaw – it was not a state based upon a nation; it was a state superimposed upon two nations by an imperial power.” He writes that there was no “Ceylonese” national identity to back the new nation state. “For the vast majority of the population, of both races, the concept of a ´Ceylonese´ nationality was simply non-existent and unknown.”
Besides the fact that there was no common identity to underpin the Ceylonese (later Sri Lankan) nation state, asserts the author, the Tamils clearly deprived the Sri Lankan state of its legitimacy by indicating that they had no wish to remain within it. This was unambiguously expressed during the 1979 general election, when the Tamils voted massively in favour of the TULF, which had in its election manifesto pledged to “secure, if possible by constitutional and peaceful means, a separate, independent sovereign state for the Tamil people in their homeland which comprises the northern and eastern provinces.”
The TULF received nearly 70 percent of the vote in the Tamil-majority northern and eastern provinces, and Mr Wijemanne writes that “the true significance of this enormous electoral victory of the TULF was played down then and continues to be played down to this day.”
Given that the Tamils have spoken in favour of separation, Mr Wijemanne asks whether it is “right for the Sinhala people to insist on maintaining the entity created by an imperial fiat and thus inexorably reject the claim of the Tamil people?” The answer, to him, is “self-evidently, unambiguously clear… The Sinhala people have no imperial standing or right to enforce a former imperial master´s fiat…
The Tamil people are fully justified in desiring a state of their own and likewise the Sinhala people are entitled to a state of their own.”
The solution proposed is to agree to create a state of Elam comprising the northern and eastern provinces of the island, and a rump Sri Lanka with the island´s remaining Sinhala- majority provinces. This is a theoretically elegant and morally justifiable position, but it is more or less impossible to put into practice. In the same way that a nation state cannot exist without the consent of all the people who comprise it, it cannot be broken up either without the freely given consent of all the different people within it, unless one is willing to pay the price of terrible bloodshed.
From the bloodbath that accompanied the partition of India and Pakistan, to the horrible human suffering that has followed the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, history demonstrates that, in the words of an old pop song, breaking up is hard to do. The only successful, non-violent example of break-up of a nation state in recent times has been the velvet divorce between the Czech and Slovak republics. This split succeeded because people on both sides desired it.
Mr Wijemanne puts forward many arguments demonstrating that agreement for divorce will be good for the Sinhalese people. They will benefit economically from the resources released by the termination of the war; the end of the conflict will bring an enormous psychological and moral relief, not to mention an end to the death of countless young Sinhalese soldiers; and so on. The author is also candid about the difficulty of persuading the Sinhalese to give up their claim to the whole island of Sri Lanka, and the blow this will be to their psyche.
Having said all that, Mr Wijemanne concludes that there is no choice but to go ahead with the divorce, as it is the only way left to end the conflict. He holds out the hope that the states of Sri Lanka and Elam will develop political and economic links. One day, like parts of the European Union, they will choose to enter into a new alliance, in a state whose name the author proposes might be “Srilam”.
Division of the country is not an option for the practical-minded Sinhalese politicians, however. In a democracy, they will require the consent of the people before taking such a bold step, and it is impossible to conceive of the Sinhalese giving this consent. The truth of the matter is that, for better or worse, the Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka have been joined together by history, geography, and a common political system. Like two Siamese twins who cannot be separated.
Despite the erudition with which Mr Wijemanne presents his case, his plan cannot work, for the Sinhalese and Tamils cannot wish each other away. What they can, and must, do if they are to dwell in peace, is to sit down and talk about ways in which they can live more comfortably with each other within their common island home. Ten years ago, one such attempt was made and it failed. One can only hope that after a decade of war, both sides are weary enough to give it another try.