Broken dreams overshadow Sri Lanka jubilee

Place: England | Courtesy: The Times - UK
| Date: 19980204

SRI LANKA coasted to independence 50 years ago today on the back of India's freedom struggle. The island state is straining to mark the event with a sense of celebration, when the underlying mood is one of self-inflicted failure. The wreckage of Colombo city centre, smashed by two bomb blasts last year, is a reminder of broken dreams.

In 1948 the ancient island of Serendip, which gave the world the word serendipity, boasted the most powerful economy in Asia after Japan. Now it squanders 20 per cent of its meagre income on war and most people struggle against poverty.

The Prince of Wales is the principal guest, to the anger of hardline Buddhist clergy who have been trying to convince people of the butchery of the British in the 1815 overthrow of the last Kandyan Buddhist kingdom. They are also trying to prove that Tamils were all brought into an overwhelmingly Sinhalese island by the colonial power to work the tea plantations. It is historical humbug: the Tamils and Sinhalese were fighting long before the British, Portuguese or Dutch controlled the island and the Tamils brought in from India were relatively small in number.

The departure of the British was amicable and uneventful, unlike the horror of Indian independence. Sri Lanka did not suffer the military dictatorships of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. It could have been an Asian tiger, but for self-imposed calamities. It blames itself for messing up, unlike India and Pakistan, which look to their colonial past to justify half a century of self-inflicted political and economic blunders.

Tamils and Sinhalese once called themselves communities. Now they describe themselves as nations, emphasising their rival claims to nationhood. The Sinhalese, of Indo-Aryan stock from northern India, regard themselves as the true people of Sri Lanka - a belief that feeds a disastrous attitude towards the Tamil minority and lies at the heart of the conflict. Sinhalese equate Sinhala nationalism with Sri Lankan nationalism. The one calamitous decision that led to the ethnic war was the Sinhala-only legislation of 1956, which lifted recognition of Tamil as an official language. After that blow, the uncertain desire for a separate Tamil homeland became a passionate one.

After 15 years and 52,000 dead, there is no foreseeable hope of peace. The independence celebrations had to be moved at the last moment from the Sinhalese heartland town of Kandy to the ethnically mixed capital for security reasons.

Tamils, 18 per cent of the population, mostly feel uninvolved in this week's events. The art of nation-building, like the art of displaying sensitivity towards an aggrieved and alienated people, has yet to be perfected.