Focus: Peace is the need of the hour

By: Professor Bertram Bastiampillai

Sri Lanka, called the Paradise of the East, unfortunately, has had to tolerate conflicts, riots, belligerences from time to time. Peace seems to be rare, and even unstable, so much so that paradise is not an appropriate description of the island. The last few weeks have been more than unusually disturbed by the explosion of claymore mines, use of grenades and other injurious weapons, and harmful incidents have caused fear and alarm among inhabitants.

Until those who follow different religions, speak different languages such as Sinhalese, Tamils and English, and adopt somewhat varying life styles decide firmly to live together in harmony there can be no dependable peace in Sri Lanka. Sadly, ever since the land became free from colonial subjugation in the late 1940s, division has separated not merely to live discretely but even as ‘warring’ tribes.

Education divided Sinhalese and Tamils in particular, and there is a tendency among those who form a majority of the population to create for themselves an image of primacy and dominance over other, smaller, groups like the Sri Lankan Tamils, the Muslims, Indian origin Tamils and Burghers. It divided the country rather than welded it together to forge and form a nation.

Imposition of Sinhalese as the sole official language to be used as the language of public administration by the then government estranged Tamil speakers from those to whom Sinhala was the mother tongue. Even Tamil-using Muslims got embittered and the Burghers to whom English was the language of the home felt excluded from their homeland in Sri Lanka and abandoned it to migrate to more hospitable lands where they could peacefully co-exist.

Attempts to bring greater understanding between the Tamils and Sinhalese however was stultified owing to insuperable discord between the communities stemming from chauvinist bhikkus and a few Sinhalese leaders who mustered a following built on communalism such as F. R. Jayasuriya or K. M. P. Rajaratne. They thwarted attempts to bridge over differences like Bandaranaike–Chelvanayakam, or the Dudley Senanayake–Chelvanayakam agreements.

There were further instances such as the All Parties Conference and the political parties discussions under President J. R. Jeyewardene, which ended in naught as well; to worsen discrimination and differences among the two communities, riots that hurt the Tamils recurred time and again in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and kept the two communities apart, suspicious and fearful of one another.

Now once again the two communities appear to be irrevocably separated with the Tamils on one side led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who clamour for a distinctive, separate ‘homeland’ with more or less autonomous rule. The state maintains that it cannot surrender to such a want and has an army, air force, navy and the majority of the Sinhalese people on its side resisting the bifurcation of the population and country.

At one time even India was invited to settle the hostility by Jayewardene when Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister of that country. Unfortunately, Ranasinghe Premadasa, successor to Jayewardene as president wanted Indian intervention to end and the attempt to work out a conciliatory arrangement for sharing authority collapsed. Once the Indian army left, the LTTE, soon drifted into disagreement with Premadasa and the dominant Sinhalese government and governance.

As Sri Lanka drifted into a state of intermittent hostility between the Tamils under the control of the LTTE and the Sinhalese armed forces and government, the real losers and victims owing to this state of militancy were the people, helplessly caught in the throes of armed conflict time and again studded with hit and run attacks. Deaths of civilians and soldiers, maiming and other similar injury, pain and loss were the lot of Tamils and Sinhalese.

Insecurity stalked the country. The day-to-day labour of the people, adversely affected, entailed economic losses to both communities. The Muslims were also drawn into the animosity and struggle that involved the two larger communities in the fray.

Apart from the loss of lives from both the Tigers and the state security services, the entire country has been losing forward momentum, and progress has been retarded. Investors are understandably reticent, nay reluctant, to spend their money on projects. Consequently, chances of employment are lost while the need for jobs is dire indeed. Unless peace and stability prevail, no new enterprises will be readily established. The economy will not advance when conflict looms imminent. Moreover, there will also be a flight of trained, experienced or talented and skilled manpower. This exodus is a grave blow to development and advances of industry, manufactures and import and export trade.

During the weeks before the Sinhalese and Tamil New year in mid-April, violent conflict was constant and continual, mostly in the north. Both the Tigers and the state must realise, immediately and vigorously, that peace is the need of the hour for the majority of the people in Sri Lanka. They should not lose time in reaching an understanding that fosters harmony and amity among the polarised belligerents – the Tigers and the state – so that peace could grow in an island plagued for decades by differences and disunity and quarrel.

At present the international powers have, along with Norway, urged a peaceful settlement in Sri Lanka and interceded in the protracted conflict. The best way is to use this opportunity sensibly and reasonably to conclude militant hostilities instead of dissipating energy, resources, and lives. The Tigers and the state should not miss this chance in the interest of ordinary peace loving citizens by getting their dispute, fairly and equitably, resolved: goodwill is needed from both parties. The chances appear bleak: but hope rises eternally among human beings.

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