Facets of Terrorism in Sri Lanka

Facets of Terrorism in Sri Lanka


In the context of a militarily strong secessionist guerilla movement actively seeking a negotiated settlement to their goal of a separate state, an examination of the dynamics of terrorism in Sri Lanka is pertinent – a country ravaged by terrorism, racial tension and bad governance.

In a global context, while successive regimes have tried to address and then root out the evil of terrorism, the latest efforts spearheaded by America, show that many who engage with the problematics of terrorism do not really know what they are dealing with, or the implications of what they are doing to address it. Fighting against terrorism has become the facetious couture of a seemingly bi-polar world which is either with terrorists or against them. However, rhetoric and action that claim to root out terrorism often disguises the vacuity of anti-terrorism’s greatest exponents, who, like weathervanes in a storm, like to self-importantly spin and rattle largely in a world of their own imagination, where the causes of terrorism are ignored in the battle against its manifestations, where arrogant self-interests define the borderlines of conflict, and where the difference between an ally or an enemy is judged by the degree of subservience to a soi-disant coalition against terror.

Towards a definition of terrorism

The reality is somewhat different. Although legislation in many countries purportedly addresses terrorism, very few have dared define the word. So what exactly is terrorism?

In its broadest sense terrorism can be thought of as the use or threatened use of force against civilians designed to bring about political or social change. Moreover, while we think of terrorism as being both a political and irrational act (especially suicide terrorism), terrorism can also be thought of as a rational act conducted specifically because of the impact it will have – fear, confusion, submission etc.

Today, terrorism must be viewed within the context of the modern nation-state. Indeed, it was the rise of a bureaucratic state, which could not be destroyed by the death of one leader that forced terrorists to widen their scope of targets in order to create a public atmosphere of anxiety and undermine confidence in government. This reality is at the heart of the ever more violent terrorism of the last 100 years.

The overwhelming salience of a coherent definition of terrorism must also address the wider socio-economic issues that give rise to terrorism. All we have to do is look at both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide to understand that violence, including terrorism by the state, rarely stops further violence as long as underlying societal grievances are not addressed.

Furthermore, definitions of terrorism must tread warily between restricting the freedoms of the individual with legal provisions required to guard against the contingencies and imperatives confronting the state and the primary necessity to protect democratic processes without excessive intrusion in to the private domain of the individuals. Maintaining the democratic process, which is the ultimate guarantor of individual liberties and human rights, must be uppermost in any definition of terrorism.

A single definition of terrorism then, cannot account for all possible uses of the term. In the context of Sri Lanka, a useful description of terrorism was given by the President Chandrika Kumaratunga at the first Madhavrao Scindia Memorial Lecture held in Delhi recently. The President made the insightful observation that terrorism cannot be tackled without addressing its causes. “The tactics of terror and murder cannot… and should certainly not be tolerated by any state or government. The strictest action should be taken efficiently and expeditiously, against all movements and individuals participating in or condoning terrorism as a political strategy. But the causes that have generated such movements must be addressed” and went on to say that “the rational political, social and economic aspirations of peoples which, when frustrated continuously, give rise to full blown terrorism of modern day must be sifted out of the process of terrorist actions and looked at separately.” This is a definition that has not thus far been lucidly articulated by Chandrika herself in Sri Lanka. While one could argue that the President’s ‘War for Peace’ strategy was also one that tied to isolate terrorists whilst promoting constitutional reform, the failure of the strategy highlights an important facet of the Sri Lankan state – that dominant power structures rarely address the conflict with a commitment to find the underlying causes for terrorism.

Post-independence politics and roots of terrorism

It is easy to say that the roots of the present conflict lie with British colonialism. As they did throughout their empire, the British ruled Ceylon by creating an English-speaking elite from amongst the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Their favouritism engendered an opposition which took racial and religious overtones. The majority of those who had been left out of the elite spoke Sinhalese and were Buddhists, and they began to promote a racist notion of Sinhalese superiority as an ‘Aryan race’. After independence it was this Sinhalese-speaking group that gained control of the new state of Sri Lanka, and began to exclude Tamils from higher education, jobs and land mainly by making Sinhala the only official language. Not surprisingly, Tamils resented this discrimination. As the anthropologist Stanley Tambiah has argued, the island’s violence is a late-twentieth-century response to colonial and postcolonial policies that relied on a hardened and artificial notion of ethnic boundaries.

However, the beginnings of terrorism in Sri Lanka are also inextricably entwined with the activities of the State. In the 30 years from the mid-1940s, successive governments took measures to reduce the number of Tamils in the professions and the public sector. These measures interacted in diverse and complex ways with a potent Sinhala Buddhist exclusivism which gradually became the animating ideology of the Sri Lankan state. Particularly among the arriviste, lower caste Sinhalese, the spread of anti-Tamil chauvinism was soon perceived as a promising means of increasing economic opportunity. As time passed, the electoral promise of pandering to this chauvinism tempted even the most cosmopolitan of Sinhalese politicians.

Arguably, the most adverse legislation for Tamils came from the language policy of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike’s government. The introduction of the 1956 ‘Sinhala Only’ Act, which replaced English with Sinhala as the language of official government business, clearly disadvantaged large numbers of Tamils. Its effect was compounded by widespread protests in Tamil areas in which school principals would not allow the teaching of Sinhala while school children refused to study the language.

The final straw for Tamils, however, was the introduction in the early 1970s of communal quotas for university entrance. This led to the exclusion of merit-worthy Tamil students and it was this that set the ethnic powder keg alight. With ‘standardisation’, it became clear that the Tamils had lost the education and employment opportunities which had conditioned their commitment to a unitary Ceylon in the first place. Large numbers of young Tamils came to the conclusion that their socio-economic aspirations could only be fulfilled within a separate Tamil state.

The bloody terrorism that has ravaged Sri Lanka since 1983 is fuelled by the refusal of many Tamils to operate within a state system which denies them political power, employment and educational opportunities whilst engendering socio-economic disparity.

Distinction, however, has to be made between the LTTE’s terrorism and the aspirations of the Tamil peoples. The desire of the majority of Tamil peoples is to live with dignity and equality within a united Sri Lanka. The LTTE on the other hand believe a state of Eelam will best guarantee the equality and dignity of Tamils in the North-East. While the terrorism of the LTTE against the state is symptomatic of the chutzpah of the Sri Lankan state, which for decades ignored or undermined the aspirations of the Tamil people, it cannot be equated with the aspirations of the Tamil peoples, who whilst recognising the primacy of the LTTE in the North-East, do not support its modus operandi by rote.

State Religion and Conflict

Entwined with the political ideology and communitarian hagiography in Sri Lanka, is the problematic of Buddhism and its relations with the State. While Buddhist orthodoxy tends to promote the renunciation of all worldly concerns, there remains significant theological latitude for individual monks to engage in political activity which aims to reform society ‘for the good’. Since independence, Sri Lankan Buddhist leaders have been active in the political arena whenever they felt it appropriate, particularly on issues relating to the pre-eminence of the Buddhist faith and the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

On these issues, and others such as language, the Buddhist clergy have exerted a particularly powerful influence in Sri Lankan political life. In 1951, resolutions of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress to the Prime Minister included a statement that ‘the … government is legally and morally bound to protect and maintain Buddhism and Buddhist institutions’. It also demanded the restoration of Buddhism to ‘the paramount position of prestige which rightfully belongs to it’. Since independence, all governments have jockeyed for the favour of Sinhala Buddhists.

It must be remembered, however, that Sri Lankan Buddhists strongly believe that they have a duty to protect and uphold their faith in Sri Lanka. From the tinnitus of political leaders who, in the name of preserving the hegemony of Buddhism in Sri Lanka have deferred to the Sangha and much as they have manipulated them, to the attitude of the Buddhist clergy, the primacy given to Buddhism has proved inimical to the interests and aspirations of Tamils in Sri Lanka. This Sinhala-Buddhist mentality, which has informed and shaped post-independence politics in Sri Lanka, has engendered intolerance in polity and society and carries a large burden of responsibility for the current ethno-politic conflict.

Governance, Democracy and Terrorism

There are few exceptions to the general assumption that democratic governance is the single most appropriate cornerstone upon which to build a system of conflict prevention or resolution. This is based upon the assumption that democracy is a system by which conflicts in a society are allowed to formulate, find expression and be managed in a sustainable way, via institutional outlets such as political parties and representative parliaments, rather than being suppressed or ignored.

This assumption is particularly relevant when addressing the forces of deep-rooted conflict. There needs to be a system in which the accumulated resentments that arise from real or perceived misallocation of resources – be it land rights or rights to mineral resources, discrimination on the basis of gender, religion or ethnicity or the other myriad sources of deeply felt grievances – can be aired. In the context of deep-rooted ethno-political conflict, as in Sri Lanka, democratic institutions are more relevant for their potential ability to initiate a process for conflict prevention or transformation than for actually resolving conflicts, per se.

However, democracy can have many meanings. Arther Lewis, writing in 1965, said the word ‘democracy’ has two meanings:

Its primary meaning is that all who are affected by a decision should have the chance to participate in marking that decision, either directly or through chosen representatives. Its secondary meaning is that the will of the majority shall prevail.

However, in multi-ethnic, pluralist societies with the state playing a dominant role, majoritarian democracy may not be democratic at all. In pluralist societies like Sri Lanka, democracy cannot be established through developing a system ensuring majoritarian rule. What is necessary is to create political institutions and to re-structure the state ensuring that those who are affected by a decision get a fair chance to participate in the decision-making process. The lack of such an approach in post-independence Sri Lankan politics, and the continuing alienation of public participation in the formulation of public policy only serve to exacerbate ethnic tension and notions of inequality and estrangement between ethnic communities.

Furthermore, there is no substance in the argument that unitary, centralised forms of governments are necessary for national unity or efficient government. The ethnic majority will almost always assume full power at the centre and in the absence of any power sharing at other levels such as the regional level the aspirations and rights of minorities will tend to be neglected even in the best of unitary systems. These conditions can generate serious ethnic conflict as it has in Sri Lanka and undermine national unity. In such circumstances, minorities will not identify with the concept of a united Sri Lanka, which becomes exclusively identified with the dominant Sinhala majority.

Devolution on the other hand enables minorities to share power with the central government in regions in which they are in a majority and become a willing and responsible partner in the national system. Systems of government which share or devolve power have greater capacity to promote and preserve national unity than unitary systems.

Independent of the ethnic issue, the systems of devolution or federal systems can be more efficient as systems of government than unitary systems. This is for the simple reason that systems of devolution incorporate the basic principles of good management – that is the delegation of responsibility and decision-making power to the appropriate level where the activity takes place. By shedding itself of responsibility for regional-level affairs the central government can operate more efficiently on national policy and the national responsibilities. Devolution also ensures greater transparency and accountability of government. Regional government is closer to the people. Government transactions and the conduct of elected representatives can come under closer scrutiny. Civil society has also greater opportunity for action and for close interaction with government agencies.

By tuning in to the needs of communities, economic disparities, societal grievances and fears and perceived inequalities can be addressed to a greater degree by a decentralised system of government. If the roots of terrorism lie in a sense of alienation from the State, then local self-government and maximum autonomy to decentralised regions can not engender a civic identity that transcends ethnic identity, but also curb secessionist and terrorist movements of the future.

Final Thoughts

The ramifying evil of terrorism, according to Michael Walzer, is not just the killing of innocent people but also the intrusion of fear into everyday life, the violation of private purposes, the insecurity of public spaces and the endless coerciveness of precaution. He also argues against a fundamental principle of terrorism – that it is the last resort of an underprivileged and discriminated peoples to over-turn and change dominant political structures. Walzer says that it is not easy to reach the last resort. Politics, he states, is the art of repetition, and terrorists often conveniently forget that it sometimes takes much more than one attempt to democratically change the prevailing structures of governance.

In the Sri Lanka, it is now passé to say that the repetitive and continued discrimination against Tamils fostered the terrorist movement. What has to be recognised now is the limitation of terrorism. Terrorists can never engender values of a liberal democracy, pluralism or human rights. Such values are the realm of democratic mainstream politics. Terrorists, both in Sri Lanka and in the world, have to realise that in the final analysis, true peace, justice and equality are not achieved through the barrel of a gun, but through the power of the ballot. Furthermore, legislation inimical to conflict transformation processes and reconciliation between communities, like the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) should be repealed or at the very least, amended.

In the present context, both the State and the LTTE have much to lose if the present peace process breaks down. Both have to recognise that indifference to historical antecedents, the international context and the aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka, could irrevocably plunge Sri Lanka into a vortex of bitterness, mistrust, mutual acrimony and violence from which there could very well be no return.

Sanjana Hattotuwa
Research Associate
Conflict and Peace Analysis Unit
Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The views in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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