May 20, 2009

Sri Lanka: What Next?

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers have been decisively defeated, and their leader, Prabhakaran, is almost certainly dead. Modern warfare is a cruel and ugly business and the cost in civilian death and suffering is always huge, and this conflict was no exception. And like in all modern wars, crimes were committed by both sides.

As a pacifist I cannot but deplore the method, and make no excuses for any crimes against humanity, like the shelling of hospitals, that may have been committed by the Sri Lankan military. Nevertheless, the end of the Tamil Tigers is a positive good.

The Tamil minority does have legitimate grievances, but this in no way justified the activities of the Tigers. These were probably the most cruel and bloody-handed terrorist group anywhere. The Tigers pioneered the use of the suicide bomb, using most often very young women. They had no compunction about hitting purely civilian targets, even the Temple of the Tooth. They forcibly recruited child soldiers on a large scale. And they terrorized and intimidated their own people more than anyone else. Prabhakaran was a figure who could only be compared to Pol Pot, a fanatic, probably a psychotic, who demanded absolute obedience. One of the biggest obstacles to finding a peaceful solution has been the systematic assassination of moderate and democratic Tamil leaders on Prabhakaran orders.

All this is true. But the Sinhalese side is not without blame. While the roots of this ethnic conflict run very deep (it is mentioned in the Vissudhimagga,) and the British bear some blame for playing their usual divide-and-conquer games, the modern on again off again civil war can be traced to the policies of the 1956 Bandaranaike government. A left-leaning nationalist and populist comparable to Nasser of Egypt, Bandaranaike promoted a unitary Sinhalese and Buddhist state. The linguistic rights of the Tamils were abolished; they were expected to conform to the majority culture.

This strain of aggressive cultural nationalism has persisted to the present day.Sometimes it wears the mantle of protecting Buddhism, but it is not in accord with the Buddha's teaching to oppress others. In no way is ethnic or religious chauvinism compatible with the Dhamma.

All this is past history. What is important is what happens now, and in the future. In the immediate term there is a humanitarian crisis pending in the north with up to a quarter million displaced persons living in make-shift camps who are in urgent need of food and medicine.

In the longer term, the only hope for peace and prosperity is for both sides to transcend ethnic tribal feelings and ancient grudges, to sit down to together and work out an equitable political solution. It may mean guaranteed minority rights within a unitary state, or a federal solution with a semi-autonomous Tamil province. The details are for the Sri Lankans to work out. It may actually be possible now that the Tigers are out of the way, provided that the Sinhalese side does not succumb to a triumphalist mood.


Arasu said...

Dear Ajahn,

I agree with your comments. Both sides have shown callous disregard to the lives of innocent civilians. The LTTE's acts (assassinations of Tamil/Singhalese leaders, innocent people killed in bombs) have been widely condemned - rightly so. The Government side violence (shelling, air raids killing innocents, 'white van' abductions/disappearances) has escaped similar scrutiny in the press thanks to the government barring reporters from the war zone and muzzling reporters in Colombo. Both sides have also damaged cultural institutions: ex. bombing of the Kandy temple by the LTTE and the earlier burning of the Jaffna Public library (with its invaluable historic documents) by the Army.

The nearest state to Sri Lanka in India is Tamil Nadu which is where the majority of Tamils in the world live. There has been no major war or violent unrest in Tamil Nadu for several centuries now and the majority of the generally meek (I say it as a complement) Indian Tamils have not been sympathetic to the LTTE as they could not relate to its violent methods. There is however sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamils. Due to the war there is also a negative view of the Singhalese people as racist. This incorrect view should be corrected. A good resolution to the Sri Lankan Tamils problem will increase understanding and contact between South India (especially TamilNadu) and Sri Lanka which will be to the betterment of both countries. People flying to South India already use Colombo as a hub. Once the ferry service between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka is reintroduced, tourism will increase and will benefit the war ravaged northern Sri Lanka.

Even though Buddhism disappeared from Tamil Nadu in the 14th century there have been great Tamil Buddhist scholars / writers. Buddhaghosa, the author of the vissudhimagga and Bodhidharma who introduced Buddhism to China are both believed to be Tamils. Perhaps the Buddha's teachings can be a bridge between the communities. Superstition, pseudo sciences (numerology/astrology) and casteism have corrupted modern Tamil spiritual life. If done properly (putting up Buddha statues overnight in Tamil/mixed areas as it happened in Trincomalee is not the proper way) the Tamil people will be open to the Buddha's teachings again.

Having won the war, President Rajapakshe is now being treated like a king. He now has the popular democratic support and the absolute military strength to bring about any solution. I hope he has the wisdom to make good choices and bring peace.

Victory begets enmity; the defeated dwell in pain. Happily the peaceful live, discarding both victory and defeat. Dhammapada 201

Ben Arasu

Unknown said...

I can see that the TTigers perpetrated many crimes against humanity, violence and destruction etc. So did the other side, however, and it was here that the venerated monks of Sri Lanka could have made a real and vital difference. I sincerely hope that the monks were advising for human rights to be respected, especially of the many Tamil women and young children caught up in all this. It saddened me ALOT that a population (the Singhalese) that prides itself on being Buddhist could generally support the heavy-handed and cruel way in which the Tamils were dealt with. This, in my opinion, did more harm to Sri Lankan Buddhism than if the Temple of the Tooth had been destroyed, because we are dealing with basic human decency here, compassion for the vulnerable regardless of which 'side' they are on.