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Sri Lanka’s Agony

Published by Current on 2009-05-20

I was there when it all began nearly three decades ago. I remember almost the precise moment when the horrendous civil war between minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese that claimed tens of thousands of lives in Sri Lanka was ignited, virtually destroying what was once considered a model state of Third World economic development and social progress.

The spark that ignited the conflict was set off by the man I was accompanying to Jaffna, a northern port heavily populated by Tamils, a man who had taken upon himself the mantle of a national reconciliator – then President Junius Richard Jayawardene. He was a tall man, and although already in his 70s, often characterized himself as tough as Sri Lanka’s national tree, the “Ironwood” – known as Sinhalese Na – tough enough to withstand any political assault, and wily enough to work his way around any political foe. During that trip to Jaffna in late 1982 – I was with Mr. Jayawardene in connection with a book that I was writing on sustainable development – he quietly told me in his gravely voice that his personal calculus took into account virtually every variable in the realm of politics.

But he did not count on two things. One was the depth of the festering resentment of Tamils, who’d been originally brought to the island-nation from neighboring India by the British to work as indentured laborers on tea, coffee, cinnamon, sugar, indigo and rubber plantations. In post-colonial Sri Lanka – then known as Ceylon – Tamils were typically subjected to demeaning quotas at institutions of higher learning; they were treated as second-class subjects in their own country; top – or even medium-level – jobs in the public and private sectors were usually denied to them.

The second thing that President Jayawardene did not reckon with that their cultural temperament of placidity was misleading. Unbeknownst to the Sinhalese-dominated government in Colombo, Tamils were being quietly organized by radicals such as Velupillai Prabhakaran, one of the founders of the rebel organization known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam, who was reported to have been killed Monday by government troops. In time, the Tamil Tigers would be responsible for the suicide killing of President Ranasinghe Premadasa – who was a friend of mine – six cabinet ministers, and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi of India, who, when in office, had dispatched troops to assist the Colombo government in its campaign against the Tamils.

But all those numerous tragedies, all those many deaths and bombings and disruptions in Sri Lanka’s civilian life – all those terrible things lay in the future on that day when I went with President Jayawardene in his helicopter to Jaffna. He was not received warmly. The crowds were modest. Mr. Jayawardene made a boilerplate speech, one in which he promised that the mostly Hindu Tamils were equal to largely Buddhist Sinhalese in the eyes of the law, that there would be no discrimination against them in education or employment. Scanning the crowds, and, later, talking to everyday people in Jaffna, it became clear to me that the president’s rhetoric was perceived as just that. The Tamils simply did not believe him.

They trusted him less. And that was the day Sri Lanka began to unravel because rhetoric can never be a substitute for cruel reality.

Years later, during my many reporting trips, I often thought to myself about the sorrow and the pity. What a pity it all was, all that needless conflict, all that needless societal discrimination, all that sorrow of shattered families and broken dreams. I thought about what a wonderfully flourishing nation Sri Lanka could have become had President Jayawardene stayed the course on strengthening economic development and not slyly undermined Tamils and undercut their aspirations. What a pity that his successor, my friend Ranasinghe Premadasa, did not reach out enough to Tamils but chose to wage war against them.

Wars do end, of course, and the one in Sri Lanka finally ended yesterday, at least formally. Few individuals get second chances to rehabilitate themselves in life; fewer nations get second chances to rebuild their societies – just look at the growing number of failed states in Sub-Saharan Africa. But Sri Lanka seems to have gotten a second chance, however, and, as both Tamil and Sinhalese astrologers would say, this is its good fortune.

It has gotten a second chance to engender social harmony. It has gotten a second chance to demonstrate that it is possible for a democracy to foster equal opportunities in education and employment for all its citizens. And even though this nation of 21 million has one of the highest per capita incomes in Asia despite a three-decades-long civil war – nearly $5,000 – Sri Lanka has gotten a second chance to jump-start development in a manner that ensures equitable distribution of national wealth to all its communities.

It has gotten a second chance to become a model of sustainable human development at a time when globalization and the current international crisis have generated huge cohorts of the hapless and homeless and hopeless elsewhere in the world. After all, Sri Lanka is a small state, but wealthy in natural resources and, even more importantly, in the pool of literate and ambitious human talent available to it. It has gotten a chance to show that, given the right leadership, it is possible for a war-torn country to stitch itself back into cohesive nationhood.

Peace and political stability have eluded Sri Lanka for nearly 30 years. I was there when the nation began to come apart. Now I like to think that I am here when the healing and rebuilding starts. What a long, strange journey it has been.

(Pranay Gupte is a veteran international journalist and author. He is co-editor of a new book, “Global Emirates: An Anthology of Tolerance and Enterprise,” which has just been released by Motivate Publishing.)

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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