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Home > 2023 > Dark Clouds Mar Sri Lanka’s Independence Day | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 7, February 11, 2023

Dark Clouds Mar Sri Lanka’s Independence Day | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 10 February 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy


Natural disasters or economic collapse, nothing seems to induce most Sri Lankans into divorcing the dragging ethnic tremors that have contributed to making the once seemingly prosperous island nation virtually impoverished.

It is no wonder that the country celebrated the 75th year of its independence from colonial rule amid a crippling political divide and unending uncertainty on how to recover from the serious economic mess Sri Lankans find themselves in,

The situation is so grave that most ordinary Sri Lankans kept themselves away from the widely-criticized official celebrations at the Galle Face Green, a promenade in Colombo which was the epicenter for massive anti-government protests last year that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country.

In the country’s northern and eastern provinces, where a bitter and brutal Tamil separatist war raged for over a quarter century, Tamils took to the streets holding black flags. Many in the region observed Independence Day as a "black day".

When hundreds of thousands staged nationwide demonstrations for months last year, there was a glimmer of hope that the ethnic divisions which have kept most Sinhalese and Tamils away from each other will finally begin to melt.

Many members of the majority Sinhalese community publicly admitted that they had seriously erred in not protesting against the years of economic starvation the Tamil-populated north and east was subject to – now that they had realized the pain of food scarcities, fuel shortages and much more.

Many in Colombo even said – with a touch of religiosity – that the suffering of the country at large due to the economic crisis was a karmic blowback to the strangled life imposed on Tamil areas for decades.

But, now, a public resolve by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who succeeded Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that he will implement the 13th amendment to the Constitution has brought a howl of protests from Sinhalese hardliners who fear this will break up Sri Lanka.

Sinhalese nationalists known for their racist thinking and sections of the Buddhist clergy, whose narrow vision can put even Hindu nationalists to shame, have come out stridently against the President’s proposal, even asserting that he had no mandate to carry out what he has threatened to.

Some of the critics even suggested that the President was bowing to pressures from India, whose External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has told Sri Lanka that holding elections to provincial councils would be a right step towards devolving powers to the Tamil minority.

Tamil political parties and activists have also been demanding that Sri Lanka must give powers to the provincial councils to administer the police and regulate land issues to make autonomy meaningful. They also want the military to give up large tracts of land taken away over the decades from Tamils in the north.

While the Sinhalese themselves have enjoyed provincial councils in the areas they inhabit, they oppose these in the north and east because the feeling runs deep that the Tamils would then become masters of their traditional homeland – and, who knows, might break away one day.

It doesn’t strike the Sinhalese chauvinists that regional autonomy is the best way to defeat a separatist ideology. If the Tamils had enjoyed provincial autonomy, there would have been no LTTE and no insurgency.

Predictably, the President’s promise to devolve powers to provincial councils has become a major talking point ahead of next month’s local elections across the country which, ideally, should have been fought on economic issues and people’s suffering.

For once, the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), a leftist group popular in Sinhalese areas, has come out against the whipped-up chauvinism and said that provincial councils are here to stay. It hasn’t, however, said if it approves giving the councils powers over the police and land – a key issue on which the Tamils won’t budge.

President Wickremesinghe’s promise to come out with a meaningful package to satisfy the political aspirations of the Tamils by February 4 – the 75th anniversary of independence – has come and gone without the deadline being met. As of now, it is not clear when this will happen, if it does.

Years back, when the tsunami devastated Sri Lanka including areas effectively controlled by the Tamil Tigers, there was hope that the people of the country would put aside decades of animosity and come together amid an unprecedented natural calamity. That never happened.

Almost two decades later, the worst economic misery to envelop Sri Lanka since independence in 1948 is again belying expectations that the majority community will devolve meaningful powers to provincial councils and act against brutal human rights abuses that took place to win the trust of the Tamil minority.

Of course, Sri Lanka’s problem is not just a Sinhalese-Tamil divide. The basic issue is a majoritarian ideology that constantly paints the Sinhalese as beleaguered when it is in actually an overwhelming majority. If Tamils are not the "bad guys", then the Tamil-speaking Muslims are. Sections of the Sinhalese think that only they know how best to run the country.

If only this was true. When it attained independence, Sri Lanka was considered a Switzerland of Asia. Even Singapore once looked at the island nation as an ideal. Today, 75 years later, Sri Lanka has been pauperized – economically and ideologically – thanks to faulty fiscal policies and unbridled corruption. Even amid this gloom, the country is not maturing enough to embrace the minorities for a nationwide better tomorrow.

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