Negotiating Ethnic Diversity in Lanka: Neville & Jeevan deploy Comparative Perspectives

I. Neville Laduwahetty: “Managing Multi-Culturalism in Sri Lanka,” from Island, 23 June 2015

Very few countries can claim to be homogeneous. Most countries are made up of diverse communities often based on factors of birth, such as race, ethnicity, religion, language and caste or a combination of any of them. Consequently, state formations are made up of a multiplicity of cultural communities. The net result is that groups within states, whether majorities or minorities, see themselves as “us” and “them”, and “we” vs. the “other”. The inability to manage the demands and aspirations of cultural communities within states has become the primary cause for conflicts in the world. This has led most countries to explore strategies to ‘manage’ multiple cultural communities within their states in order to develop inclusive and stable societies.

Stable democracies, particularly in the West had managed to evolve inclusive and stable societal states until the arrival of immigrants from various parts of the world to meet labour shortages in these countries following the conclusion of World War II. Newly independent countries too that had been stable prior to and during colonization were affected by issues of multiculturalism and its problems. Faced with the common problem of dealing with cultural diversity, many countries began to label themselves as multicultural states, going to the extent of calling themselves multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious etc.

However, according to Kenan Malik (“The Failure of Multiculturalism”, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2015, p. 21), the appeal of multiculturalism is fast fading today because its “…policies accept as a given that societies are diverse, yet they implicitly assume that such diversity ends at the edges of minority communities. They seek to institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes – into singular, homogeneous Muslim community, for example – and defining their needs and rights accordingly. Such policies, in other words, have helped create the very divisions they were meant to manage”.

This has led “…mainstream politicians including Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor Angela Merkel, to publicly denounce multiculturalism and speak against its dangers. It has fueled success of far-right parties and populist politicians across Europe, from the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands to the National Front in France”. These three countries had attempted to manage diversity through different strategies with vastly different outcomes. For instance, “United Kingdom has sought to give various ethnic communities an equal stake in the political system. Germany has encouraged immigrants to pursue separate lives in lieu of granting them citizenship. And France has rejected multicultural policies in favour of assimilationist ones. The specific outcomes have also varied: in the United Kingdom, there has been communal violence; in Germany, Turkish communities have drifted further from mainstream society; and France, the relationship between authorities and North African communities has become highly charged” (Ibid).


UNITED KINGDOM: Strategies adopted by UK to manage multiculturalism “…came to (an) explosive climax in a series of riots that tore through the United Kingdom inner cities in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At this point, British authorities recognized that unless minority communities were given a political stake in the system, tensions would continue to threaten urban stability. It was in this context that multicultural policies emerged”. The City Council’s plan was to “…assign every member of a minority to a discrete community, defined each group’s needs as a whole, and set the various organizations in competition with one another for city resources…In October 2005, two decades after the original Handsworth riots, violence broke out…between blacks and Asians” (Ibid, p. 27).

GERMANY: As had happened with the UK, the start of German multiculturalism was due to a labour shortage following World War II. Immigrant labour was primarily from around the Mediterranean and later from Turkey. With time a temporary need became a permanent presence. “Beginning in the 1980s, the government encouraged Turkish immigrants to preserve their own culture, language, and life style. The policy did not represent a respect for diversity so much as a convenient means of avoiding the issue of how to create a common, inclusive culture. And its main consequence was the emergence of parallel communities” (Ibid, P. 27).

FRANCE: “France’s policy of assimilation is generally regarded as the polar opposite of multiculturalism, which French politicians have proudly rejected. Unlike the rest of Europe, they insist, France treats every individual as a citizen rather than as a member of a particular racial, ethnic, or cultural group. In reality, however, France is as socially divided as Germany or the United Kingdom and in a strikingly similar way…French politicians had long held multicultural policies responsible for nurturing homegrown jihadists in the United Kingdom. Now they had to answer for why such terrorists had been nurtured in assimilationist France, too…The riots that swept through French cities in the fall of 2005 exposed the fractures in French society as clearly as has those that engulfed British cities two decades earlier…” (Ibid, p. 29).

LESSONS for SRI LANKA: Critics of multiculturalism attribute racism as being the cause of its failure in the West. However, the article cited above attributes its failure to non-recognition of diversities that exist within communities, although they appear externally as monolithic uniform cultural entities. The consequence of this approach has been to develop policies and entitlements on the basis of cultural communities. In Sri Lanka’s case this has led to treatment of Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Plantation Tamil communities as homogeneous groups, not allowing for the unique diversities within each of them. For instance, at the ethnic level members of the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities are majorities in some parts of the country and are minorities in others. One could assume that such ethnic distinctions also mirror language distinctions as well. In addition, a variety of other distinctions exist within each of these three communities; a process that could be carried to an extreme. In such a setting, attempts to develop policies and entitlements based on distinct group identities (“cultural boxes”) such as Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim would marginalize large swaths within each community precipitating discontent and frustration. Furthermore, competition among cultural communities would be inevitable, and outcomes that lead to violence would be interpreted as racism. Therefore, the lesson for Sri Lanka from the failure of multiculturalism in the West is to not develop policies based on discrete group identities.

SRI LANKAN EXPERIENCE: Pre-colonial Sri Lanka was acknowledged and recognized by all who lived in Sri Lanka and by other nations, that as demographically and culturally Sinhala Buddhist and politically unitary, with a Sovereign as its Head. Those who were not Sinhala and Buddhist either accepted and assimilated with what was Sri Lanka, or retained their cultural distinctions but acknowledged, accepted and respected the cultural and political status quo that had prevailed.

Seeds of multiculturalism were planted in colonial Sri Lanka by the British. Following the brutal suppression of two Sinhala rebellions, the British adopted policies to suppress the majority Sinhala community by recognizing the concept of equality of all communities. The governance policies adopted during the British colonial period also encouraged other communities who were not Sinhala and Buddhist to enjoy positions of privilege and importance, and humiliated the Sinhala community that Sri Lanka had been identified and associated with prior to colonialism. With the Tamil community benefiting more than others from these policies, claimed that it was a distinct nation with the right to a homeland in which they could exercise the right of self-determination. This claim was articulated in the form of a resolution at Vaddukoddai in 1976. The aim of this audacious resolution was to divide the country between two communities; the reality of today’s context requires the need to nurture an inclusive and stable society where entitlements are shared collectively by all Sri Lankans, but with due acknowledgment to the Sinhala community as reflected in the special place given to Buddhism for their major and significant role in fashioning what the Sri Lankan nation had been in the past, and what it collectively hopes to aspire to become in the future.

THE WAY FORWARD: The way forward towards fostering an inclusive and stable society would be to free the individual to choose whether to assimilate and identify with the values of the larger nation, or to retain cultural identities to the extent that their manifestation would not disturb or disadvantage the identities of others, and commit to a single unitary state with a common political arrangement founded on the immutable principles of Republican Democracy. The strategy is not to institutionally recognize multiple cultures through formal recognition of cultural separateness of communities, whether Tamils,

Muslims or any other, because the inevitable consequences of such trends would be for the emergence of nationalist factions within communities similar to developments in UK, Germany, France and other parts of the world. Institutionalized communities would compete for entitlements and resources based on the strength of their separateness. Such competition could be interpreted as Racism. Separateness carried out to extreme extents traps individuals and confines them within defined communities leaving no room for freedom to express individual needs and perceptions of themselves in the larger context of a national identity as well as democracy.

For instance, Sri Lankan parents should be free to decide the kind of education they opt for their children as in Article 26 clause 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and not compel children to seek instruction based on mother tongue (i.e., Sinhala or Tamil), as currently practiced, because it institutionalizes separateness. Similarly, land should be allocated on the basis of individual need and not in order to protect ethnic concentrations in defined areas. Attempts to institutionalize separateness by seeking international support to organize a referendum for the Tamil community to exercise the right of self-determination should fail constitutionally since per Article 4 (e) of the 1978 Constitution, franchise is “exercisable … every Referendum by every citizen” and not by a select few.

CONCLUSION: Advocates of multiculturalism in Sri Lanka are unaware that its appeal in the West is fast fading and that mainstream politicians in the West denounce it and speak out against its dangers. Despite such warnings, the present Sri Lankan Government is engaged in attempts to institutionalize separateness in order to fulfill the aspirations of the Tamil community to be equal with the Sinhala community; a notion that emerged and matured during the British colonial period. Since the degree of equality sought by the Tamil community can only be realized with the creation of a separate state on the grounds of Tamils being a separate nation with a homeland with the right of self-determination, the international community led by USA is proposing federalism as a compromise solution to satisfy Tamil aspirations. However, both options are unrealistic because of vehement opposition by the Sinhala majority to any structural arrangement other than a unitary state, that would make the territorial integrity of their cherished homeland which their forefathers had forged over many centuries to be subjected to external and/or internal vulnerabilities; a prospect that threatens their very existence because of the inherited fusion between them and their beloved country.

Pragmatism requires the Tamil community to recalibrate their aspirations and forsake misguided notions crafted by their leaders that the Tamil community is a separate nation entitled to claim a part of the island as a separate homeland, and the freedom to exercise the right of self-determination. Having failed to realize their objectives through three decades of war, their current approach is to achieve their misguided objectives using grounds of genocide, with a view to de-legitimize Sri Lanka in the eyes of the international community; another misbegotten notion that will fail.

As with France, UK, and other countries beset with the problem of having to manage multiple cultures, Sri Lanka too, since independence has been struggling to define a common identity that encapsulates clearly the ideas and values that characterize the Sri Lankan nation. The way forward is NOT to put them into “ethnic and cultural boxes” that create competition for resources that invariably are described as racial clashes between communities, but to free the individual to make the choice whether to assimilate by identifying with the values of the larger nation or to be culturally separate to an extent that does not deny or disturb the cultural separateness of ‘others’. The collective commitment should be to a common political formation and a common self-determination based on the will of the Peoples. By basing such a political formation on the District as the devolved unit, not only would the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka be guaranteed but it would also ensure the freedom of the People to exercise choices that would serve their interests, thereby creating an inclusive and stable society. This is the approach that a future administration should encourage and pursue.

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II. Jeevan Thiagarajah: “Sri Lanka and the Emerging Order in South Asia,” courtesy of Daily News, 24 June 2015,

The Daily News carried a story on a number of discussions on Sri Lanka this week in Washington. The text of a commentary at the event organized by Atlantic Council- South Asia Center focused on Reconciliation seen from a South Asian perspective is featured today.

The Sri Lankan conflict has been a tragic story of exclusivist identity politics, deep- rooted party rivalries, grave imbalances in the sharing of political power and repeated failures of efforts at resolution and mediation. Sri Lanka’s post-independence English -speaking elites sought to respond and contain the electoral pressures with political ideologies which were ethno- centric, promoting the interests of their own ethnic constituency. A decade after independence the island erupted in the first outbreak of ethnic violence in 1958. The conditions were set for a long spiral of violence and counter-violence.

Phases of war and peace: Sri Lanka’s civil war went through several phases, interspersed by failed peace efforts is commonly divided into Eelam wars I (1983-1987), II (1990-1994), III (1995-2002) and IV (2006-2009), although the divide between ‘war’ and ‘peace’ was never as clear as this timeline suggests – war was preceded by other forms of violence including assassinations, riots suicide attacks and killings of civilians , whilst periods of ‘peace’ were frequently characterized by high levels of violence and efforts at negotiated settlements.i.e. The 1985 Thimpu talks, 1987 13th Amendment to Constitution, Select Committee-in Parliament of August 1991, 1995 Initiatives of the Peoples Alliance Government, 2006 All Party Representative Committee majority report . Conflict displaced persons, with numbers fluctuating annually. At times up to two million have been displaced. Eradicating the original causes is a prerequisite to bring an end to displacement.

International dimensions: Recent pronouncements by our Foreign Minister shows intent to prevent isolation of country and people from the global community, prevention of recurrence of conflict and violence, to be recognised among the democracies of the world and the people to benefit from the best the world has to offer to achieve sustainable progress and development.

Secretary Kerry has outlined support of US Government in areas as– returning land and trying to provide the answers on disappeared people, cooperation on justice and accountability, advancement of human rights within the country and around the world.

High Commissioner Zeid’s statement to the HRC 29th Session has recommended the Government consult broadly with all political parties, civil society, victims and their families, to ensure full national support and ownership of processes.

A South Asian Statement of Principles: At the Fifty-fifth session of the Working Group on Minorities at the COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS-Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, academics from the South Asian region tabled a STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLES ON MINORITY AND GROUP RIGHTS IN SOUTH ASIA. Elements of which became the basis of the commentary.

The concept of minorities apply to all groups within South Asian society, who are disadvantaged, excluded, marginalized or stateless, or have been disenfranchised. Their identity and characteristics as groups and communities, in their linguistic, religious, ethnic and cultural diversity, the diversity of their opinion and the shared value systems, which cut across states in the South Asian region should be celebrated. This composition is not sufficiently reflected in constitutional and legislative provisions, nor is the identity of minorities actively promoted. It requires enhanced regional responses to some of the current weaknesses in constitutional and legislative protection and promotion of minority and group rights in the region to complement and enhance the effective implementation of international human rights, with full respect of individual dignity, tolerance and peaceful coexistence between individuals and groups. With the rise of nationalism, and the expanding role of non-State actors who become perpetrators of human rights violations, the respect and promotion of human rights have come to concern all sectors of society. These recommendations extend beyond the traditional responsibility of States to promote and protect human rights within their territory, in fulfilment of their obligations under international law.

The protection of minority rights is granted in terms of provisions of certain rights as rights of individual citizens, but not specifically as group rights of members of minorities, whilst affirmative action exists mainly as positive discrimination, and rights of minorities are assured only in form of non-discrimination and equality before the law, which has proved insufficient to guarantee that minorities, who are often disadvantaged by society, may exercise all their human rights without discrimination and on a basis of equality. The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has stated that reverse discrimination on the basis of ethnicity is valid, to remedy the present effects of past discrimination and not to perpetuate fixed quotas.

In South Asia, devolution of power, autonomy and federalism may be necessary to ensure effective participation of minorities in decision-making processes both at the State and sub-State level allow for the accommodation of minorities and a degree of independence of minority communities in managing a substantial share of public affairs under their own responsibility and in their own interests, in accordance to their circumstances at the local level.

Pluralistic Vision: Twenty years back in an address to the nation the Sri Lankan President declared: ‘The aspiration of the entire Sri Lankan populace is that the current national crisis centered around the north and east be brought to a peaceful, just and honourable settlement an approach predicated on unqualified acceptance of the fact that the Tamil people have genuine grievances for which solutions must be found…… rebuild the constitutional foundation of a plural society within a united and sovereign Republic of Sri Lanka based on the principles of effective constitutional framework for devolution of power to regions based on an internally consistent and coherent value system, just resolution of centre-region disputes; encourage regions and communities to become constructive partners of a stable and pluralistic democracy; ensure that all persons may fully and effectively exercise all their human rights and fundamental freedoms without any discrimination before the law; accord equality of status to their languages, protect the identity of distinct communities and create conditions for the promotion of that identity, and to transact business with the state in the national language of their choice.

It’s fair to say the vision resonates with most of the recommendations made thus far.

Ideology of Reconciliation:

The current Ideology of Reconciliation and the Framework of Values in Sri Lanka captured by colleagues at a Think Tank, Marga Institute on our Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Process (LLRC) has several elements: “Truth is the first prerequisite uncovering of all that happened in the past and acknowledgement of the past. Second, uncovering the truth requires searching self- appraisal on the part of all communities and the acceptance of the share of responsibility that each community must bear for the conflict and the suffering that it caused. Third, genuine contrition on the part of all participants in the conflict for their share of responsibility. Fourth, concrete expression of that contrition. Finally, accountability and justice. The LLRC approach to accountability and justice is principally one of restorative justice in which forgiveness and rehabilitation, punitive action, full reparation and restitution for the victims, all have their appropriate roles to play in the given context, with all the elements contributing to reconciliation and peaceful co-existence of all communities.

On each of the issues the LLRC sets out the actions that need to be taken to address the existing problems and grievances arising out of the conflict a necessary condition for a full process of reconciliation. The LLRC emphasizes in its approach to reconciliation that the actions by themselves are not a sufficient condition for reconciliation. The attitudes values and goals that guide the actions are equally important. The focus not only on what needs to be done; it has to be equally on how it is done.

All communities who have been responsible for this past must participate in the process. This would be the process of restorative justice applied to individual accountability. Uncovering the truth in term of political responsibility would imply all parties acknowledging their share of the responsibility for what happened, learning from the lessons of the past and moving forward to a durable process of peace and reconciliation.

“There is need to revive and further strengthen the domestic processes of truth seeking and accountability to address allegations of war crimes that could not be addressed by the LLRC, as certain parties refused or were unable to participate in its proceedings, to look at what needs to be added further including investments on youth, link with social integration, inclusive growth and development to reduce group disparities, afford representation and encourage development of social talent.

Leadership: I would like to conclude by borrowing words from former Anglican Bishop Rev Chickera in speaking about Economic, Political and Environmental Justice where leaders bring about an arrangement which is fair and just amongst us, where there is an abundance of peace and goodwill, where we have a presence amongst the poor and the oppressed and leadership is one of service.



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