Aug 28, 2006

Sri Lankan Civil War

While the world is focussed on the middle east, the on again off again civil war in Sri Lanka is very much on again. Like all of these wretched modern wars, most of the suffering is borne by innocent civilians.

It's painful for me to try and write about the Sri Lankan crisis; it's painful to see Buddhists acting badly, and even using Buddhism as an excuse.

The parallels to the Israel/Palestine dispute are uncanny. Like the Palestinians, the Tamils have legitimate grievances and have suffered historical injustice. Like the Palestinians, the Tamils have been burdened with fanatical and blood-thirsty leadership. Like the Israelis, the Sinhalese have a legitimate concern for their national survival, like the Israelis the Sinhalese have a sense of religiously sanctioned specialness, and a religiously based claim to the land. And like the Israeli leaders, the Sinhalese nationalists now in control, refuse to make the historic compromises demanded by simple human justice. Like the Israelis, they insist that the other party must first abandon violence and then we'll talk. Any discussion of legitimate Tamil grievances is cut short by reminding the listener of all the evil deeds done by the Tigers. Sound familiar?

Let's be clear, the Tamil Tigers are undoubtedly a terrorist organization of the worst sort. They have carried out more suicide bombings than any Arab group, maybe more than all of them put together. They target civilians. They even bombed the Temple of the Tooth. Their leader, Velupillal Prabharakan, is a charimatic fanatic in the mold of Pol Pot. They systematically brain-wash and use child soldiers. One of their most recent tricks was to close off and mine a canal, causing an artificial drought that left fifteen thousand farmers without a crop. They also systematically assassinate moderate Tamil politicians who work for peace.

But the Tigers (or Hamas) didn't spring up in a vaccuum, or just for fun. The roots of the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict go back a long, long way. Battles against the Tamils in ancient times make up the bulk of Sri Lanka's national epic, the Mahavamsa. British colonial perfidy helped to stir the pot and set the stage for the modern round. (Again, the resemblance to Palestine is inescapable.) The British liked to play divide and rule, and favoured the Tamil minority with a role in the administration, at the same time importing unskilled Tamils by the thousand from India to work their tea plantations, squeezing the Sinhalese majority from above and below.

The first decade after independence it looked like a sensible and fair arrangement was in the works; both Sinhalese and Tamil were recognized as national languages for purposes of law, education, record-keeping and the like. But then in 1956 a Sinhalese Nationalist party came to power and with laws like the Sinhala-Only Act tried to enforce an artificial national unity. The resulting Tamil riots are usually considered the prelude to the civil war.

The nationalist faction among the Sinhalese, currently in power, insist tenaciously on a unitary uni-lingual state, when it is obvious that only a federal arrangement and protected status for minority rights will work as a basis for a peaceful solution. This leads them to insist on a "military solution." This has not worked at all in twenty years of fighting. Conventional wars waged against guerillas only kill a lot of civilians and increase bitterness, breeding more terrorists, more fanatics. (Again, the obvious parallels not only to the West Bank and Lebanon, but to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan)

Consider this essay, posted on to get an idea of the mind-set of the Sinhalese nationalists; War and Buddhism. The author's thesis is quite outrageous; he is finding a Buddhist justification for war.

Therefore, it is wrong to bring in Buddha or his teachings, to draw parallels to the terrorism we are witnessing in Sri Lanka, in the world. When King Dutugamunu waged a war against King Elara, the Buddhist priests are said to have given their blessings and some of them is said to have accompanied the army.

King Elara was reigning in Anuradhapura. Anuradhapura was then a city, sacred to the Buddhists, as there were many monasteries, temples and shrines, precious to the Buddhists. No body wanted the place to be desecrated by building places of other religions, and conduct ceremonies and rituals not in keeping with the purity of Buddhism. Therefore the war conducted by the King Dutugamuna had the support and blessings of the Maha Sangha

There you have it; don't let anyone say there isn't a Buddhist fundamentalism. War waged to prevent the "desecration" of other faiths being practised.

Another reason why Buddhists would like to stop terrorism in the North at any cost is that Sri Lanka is where the true words of the Buddha, as recited by the monks exist. This land has been sanctified five times by the visit of the Buddha. He had been in the North, the South, East and the West of this Island. Therefore, they believe that this Island should continue to exist as a whole undivided, with the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malays and others, united as one Nation.

The unitary Buddhist state sanctioned by an ancient myth. Never mind that the Buddha almost certainly never left Northern India. Myths have power. Quick - can you think of some other polity that makes it's claims based on ancient religious claims? I thought you could. But ancient religious stories are not a sound basis for making policy in the face of modern realities. Insistence on a unitary state (as opposed to a federal one) is a recipe for endless warfare and the continued ruin of that lovely island.

Certainly not all Sri Lankans think like this; just this month a big peace rally was broken up by nationalist thugs, including some who disgraced the robe by joining in. There are many both Sinhalese and Tamil who are working for a real peace.

Consider this very sensible essay by a Tamil writer; The Unwise Intent to Keep Tamil Grievances Unresolved. The author makes the sound point that the ball is in the governments court as far as resolving a sensible solution. He says they should begin a process of devolution now, not waiting for an agreement that is not to be had with the Tigers.
If the government is going to wait for the LTTE to shun violence and join the democratic mainstream even to deal with the Tamil grievances let alone a political settlement, it will be a very long costly wait. Even one life lost in the conflict in Sri Lanka is too many to ignore.
The way to end terrorism is to end injustice; and that is for those in positions of power to do. This should not be seen as a counsel of weakness, but of real courage and strength. It also takes personal courage as many men of peace have met their end at an assassin's bullet, usually some fanatic who saw them as a traitor to their own people. (Gandhi killed by a Hindu fanatic, Anwar Sadat by a Muslim one, Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish one, and several Tamil leaders by the Tigers.)

The author of the above piece goes on to quote from another article, articulating a just settlement;

The author has said two principles are important for a political solution to the ethnic problem. These are: “(1) to allow autonomy as much as it is necessary; (2) to ensure safeguards against any type of disintegration, break away or secession. We also believe that given current international developments and the challenges that our country is facing we need to have a rather strong system at the centre as well. Therefore, we propose considerable power sharing at the centre in addition to devolution of power to the regions or the periphery.
What is really striking is that in so many of these seemingly intractable conflicts, there is a plain, simple, fair solution staring all reasonable people in the face. Only the hard-hearted extremists of both sides seem unable to accept. More's the pity when they find their way to power, and feed off each other's hatred.

(One more link - a good neutral overview translated from the German Der Spiegel; Old Animosity, New Pain. )

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this message. It's not pretty to see Buddhism used as a pretext for power.