Facing the Dungeon of Polarized Extremism in Sri Lanka and Beyond

Romesh Hettiarachchi, in his web site where the title reads:”The “Sri Lankan Dilemma”: The Confines of Nationalist Thinking”

Since the end of armed hostilities between the Government of Sri Lanka (”Government”) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, I have taken a keen interest in the various efforts to help the war-affected people in Sri Lanka rebuild their lives. Driven in part by my leadership creating inter-communal dialogues within the Sri Lankan Diaspora in Toronto, I have particularly searched for initiatives which address the needs of all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, in a non-partisan/non-political manner. Throughout this search, I have kept my faith in the leadership of the Sinhalese and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka and abroad, hoping they would develop the political and social maturity to collaborate in the development of public policies to help their collective constituents.

The Challenge of Sinhalese and Tamil Nationalism

Suffice to say, keeping this faith has been trying over the past year.

Though the hyper-partisan political environment in Sri Lanka and in the Diaspora have always been exhausting, these barriers have grown more formidable as a result of increasingly virulent threads of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism. Inside Sri Lanka, Sinhalese nationalists marginalize the Muslim and Tamil communities, asserting that Sri Lanka ought to be recognized as the global home of authentic Buddhism and the Sinhala people. Outside Sri Lanka, a new generation of Tamil activists criticize any attempts to forge alliances between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities, asserting that a creation of a separate state is the only solution for peace in Sri Lanka.


Interestingly, both nationalist discourses share many similar characteristics, the most notable of which is their approach to dissenters. Sinhalese nationalists in Sri Lanka marginalize dissent by characterizing their perspectives as supportive of the LTTE or Tamil Eelam. Conversely, Tamil nationalists outside Sri Lanka marginalize dissent by deeming them ignorant and ill informed about the ‘true wishes’ of the Tamil people. A few examples:

  1. If any      action of the Government is criticized substantively, the Government      through its various organs, maligns the critic as being part of the “pro-LTTE      Diaspora”. Outside Sri Lanka, Meanwhile, leading Tamil      nationalists outside Sri Lanka openly refer to Tamil critics of Tamil      nationalism as traitors.
  2. Justice      CV Wigneswaran is a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka who      is currently the chief ministerial candidate of the Tamil National      Alliance (TNA) in the upcoming Northern Provincial Council elections in      Sri Lanka. Fluent in Sinhalese, Tamil and English, Justice Wigneswaran was      (to the best of my knowledge) a highly respected member of the judiciary      at least until he sought to represent the people of the Northern Province.      This is a far different story since announcing his candidacy. Sinhalese      nationalists threaten to      not allow Justice Wigneswaran to return to Colombo, asserting that he too      is a supporter of separatism.      Meanwhile, Tamil nationalists threaten to “unmask” the “out      of touch” Justice Wigneswaran as he is focused on the short-term      interests of his potential constituents.
  3. These      positions can also be seen in developments subsequent to the United      Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay ended her      trip to Sri Lanka. Even before she came to the country, key members of the      Government maligned her visit as being biased and prejudiced against Sri      Lankans. While she was in the country, Ms. Pillay was subject to mass      protests from Sinhalese nationalists condemning      the visitwanton      marriage proposals from key Cabinet ministers in the Government      to accusations that      Ms. Pillay is a supporter of the brutal terrorist Liberation Tigers of      Tamil Eelam (”LTTE”), simply because Ms. Pillay is of Tamil ethnicity. On      the flip side, Tamil nationalists in the Diaspora were disheartened with      Ms. Pillay’s denouncing the LTTE as “a      murderous organization that committed numerous crimes and destroyed many      lives.” Asserting that her report “revealed her      true character of serving the interests of the UN and the larger interests      of the Anglo-Saxon world”, Penang State Deputy Chief Minister P.      Ramasamy continued to suggest Ms. Pillay to keep her comments about the      LTTE to her or to those “bleeding” heart liberals.

The Prisoners Dilemma: These examples are few of the many that can be used to show that Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism, while antagonistic, are dependent on existence on the other. Assisted by their respective propaganda outlets, each nationalism derives oxygen from the other, painting the other nationalism as a cause in ascendancy to justify its own existence.

This consequences of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism to the Sri Lankan people may be illustrated in the thought-experiment that game theorists call the Prisoners Dilemma (For more information about this thought experiment and effective strategies to use in the Dilemma, check out this podcast.):

Two gang robbers, Lucky and Joe, are arrested and imprisoned just after they enter a bank but before they commit the crime. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. Admitting they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, the police offer the following bargain to each prisoner:

  • If Lucky      and Joe both remain silent (cooperate with each other), both of them will      only serve 1 year in prison
  • If Lucky      and Joe both admit to the crime (betray each other), each of them serves 5      years in prison
  • If Lucky      confesses that they both did the crime and Joe remains silent, Lucky      would go free and the prosecutor would use Lucky’s testimony to ensure Joe      serves 10 years in prison (and vice versa).

In this scenario, Lucky and Joe spends the least amount of time collectively if they both cooperate by denying the crime. At the same time, it is in both Lucky and Joes self interest to betray the other by confessing they both did the crime.

In the Sri Lankan context, the prison holding the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities are the structures created by the two nationalist discourses. Confined in this cell, leaders are forced to pander to nationalist activists in order create policies that do not accommodate the viewpoints of their counterparts in the other community. Unsurprisingly policies generated in this environment benefit one community to the detriment and expense of the other.

If these conditions are maintained, it is quite possible that the communities on the island of Sri Lanka will remain in conflict in perpetuity. After all, it does not take much for either community to perceive the Other has or will betray them.  It is vital that our leaders find ways to change the conditions in the Dilemma if only to chart a more positive vision for the people of Sri Lanka.

Solving the Dilemma:
Informed by my conversations with young Canadians whose ancestral homelands remain in Sri Lanka, my career as a commercial litigator and my Sri Lankan education, my next series of posts shall use the Prisoners Dilemma analogy, focus on how these competing nationalisms restrict Sri Lankan leaders from developing a robust and inclusive policy and governance process while offering some suggestions on how these nationalisms can be undermined to benefit wider Sri Lankan society.

I shall begin by arguing that the international community and media has failed to act impartially when dealing with the Sri Lankan conflict; an argument based on my critical review of the Darusman Report. I shall then proceed to discuss the systemic shortcomings of rights based advocates working in Sri Lanka, particularly in the face of ethnic nationalism. I shall then lead into a discussion of the foundational tenets of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism, demonstrating why neither nationalism can sufficiently answers the immediate needs faced by the constituents each nationalism supposedly represents. I shall then return to the Prisoners Dilemma, using the preceding discussion to highlight ways to change the conditions of the Dilemma as it applies to Sri Lanka.

While these posts are written from the perspective of a Sri Lankan Canadian of Sinhalese background, I do not intend to suggest that these posts constitute the “right” approach. There is no “right” approach. However these posts do intend to encourage a re-evaluation of the narratives and truths told to us by our elders and leaders.

I expect both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalists react negatively to this series, likely relying on a selective reading of these posts  to either denounce or support the imaginary position they think I hold. It is in their self-interest to do so: I am attacking the foundation of their quasi-religious belief structures. The fact these activists have failed to grasp is that the future of the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities in Sri Lanka are inextricably tied together. Our fortunes are as sure to rise together as they are as sure to fall together. There is no conceivable means to untie the communal fates.

It was the failure to recognize this reality that resulted in three decades of recognized conflict. It will be the continued failure to recognize this reality that may result in even more tears, heartache and bloodshed. I for one am tired of these failures. Changing the conditions of the Dilemma may be the best hope to forge a new destiny for the Sri Lankan people, filled with the things our people truly desire: an absence of conflict, lives lived in dignity and the prosperity of our respective cultures.


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