Politics without Principle in Sri Lanka, 1948-1992

John Richardson. reproducing a chapter in Arun Gandhi, Ed., W orld Without Violence (1993) which is entitled “The Seventh Blunder: Politics without Principle. Lessons from Sri Lanka” ++

 FR Jayasuriya fasting unto death in support of SINHALA ONLY … 24 May 1956

The world began to experience a wave of political change in 1989.  Entrenched authoritarian regimes in many nations have crumbled in the face of popular dissatisfaction with repressive policies that failed to deliver on promises of economic opportunity.  Many nations are now experimenting with the forms of democracy: popular elections to choose leaders, accountability of leaders to elected parliaments, freedom of expression and freedom to compete for power within organized political parties.[i]

Democratic experiments have begun with high expectations and aspirations.  Czech dissident, Vaclav Havel, in his memorable New Year’s address of 1990,[ii] spoke of democracy as “innate within human beings” and “reflecting a capability always to be striving for something higher.”  Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, writing from confinement in 1991, spoke of democracy as expressing the highest aspirations of the human spirit. “It is,” Aung said, “man’s vision of a world fit for rational, civilized humanity which leads him to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear.”[iii]  Others have expressed the view that democratization would usher in a “new world order” in which human society would move toward Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of a world without violence.

Tragically, the fall of authoritarian regimes has often been accompanied by an intensification of violence rather than giving birth to societies “fit for rational civilized humanity.” The names Angola, Armenia, Benin, Boznia-Hercegovina, Georgia, Romania and Somalia must now be added to an already long list of nations where democratic regimes have succumbed to violence or where high levels of violence and the forms of democracy coexist. These include Guatemala, India, Lebanon, Haiti, Philippines, and Sri Lanka.  Even Western nations with long democratic traditions fall short of Gandhi’s ideal.  Northern Ireland’s decades long ethnic conflict shares many characteristics with those in India and Sri Lanka.  In the United States, a rising tide violence has not been political, but has been intense.[iv]

Why do democracies fall short of ahimsa (non-violence)?  Why does democratization sometimes intensify violent political conflict?  How can democratization and sustainable development be achieved non violently?  For more than five years, I have been trying to find answers to these and other questions about violent political conflict through an in-depth study of India’s neighbor, Sri Lanka.[v]  This beautiful island nation has suffered two civil wars, one ongoing, that have consumed vast resources, killed thousands and impoverished hundreds of thousands.

At the time of independence, achieved peacefully in 1948, Sri Lanka’s people viewed the future optimistically.  All Citizens (including women) were given the right to vote in 1935 and exercised their franchise vigorously.  Sri Lanka’s four major ethnic communities — Burgher, Muslim, Sinhalese and Tamil — had mostly lived at peace with one another. Non- violence was a major tenet of both dominant religions, Theravada Buddhism (practiced by most Sinhalese) and Hinduism (practiced by most Tamils).

Optimism seemed justified in Sri Lanka during the first decades of independence.  Enlightened social policies demonstrated that a developing nation could, with modest economic resources, become a world leader in meeting the basic needs of its people.[vi]  Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions coped successfully with economic problems, two military coup attempts, the assassination of a Prime Minister and a violent insurrection by youthful revolutionaries.  Political power was transferred peacefully following regularly scheduled free elections, with wide popular participation and with major offices contested by strong, well organized political parties.

JVP rally, Town Hall. Colombo, 1977

LTTE rally, /sudu ammaan Kovil, August 1987

By 1988,[vii] however, Sri Lanka had come to exemplify violent communal conflict in the eyes of the world rather than democracy or development.[viii] The northern part of the island was occupied by Indian “peace keeping” forces engaged in a bitter struggle with Tamil secessionist guerrillas. In the south, Sinhalese Marxist revolutionaries controlled many rural areas, assassinated political leaders almost at will and challenged  government authority in the capital city, Colombo. Five years later, Sri Lanka still has a viable democratic government and the Indian peacekeepers are gone, but there is no peace.  Secessionist guerilla warfare and political assassinations continue. Military spending, rather than meeting basic human needs, now receives top priority in the national budget.

What explains Sri Lanka’s transformation from a nation epitomizing peaceful development and democracy to one epitomizing violent communal conflict? What can be learned from Sri Lanka’s experience that might help to build non-violent societies?  No short paper could answer these questions fully.  However, decisions by influential political leaders that rejected two interrelated principles central to Gandhi’s political philosophy, provide part of the answer.  The principles are ahimsa defined as non-violence, or the avoidance of hurt by lying or evil thoughts, and satya defined as truthful or moral conduct.[ix]  Like politicians in many nations, top Sri Lankan leaders who were personally decent, principled and intelligent, chose imperfect means to pursue worthy goals that seemed to require political power as a prerequisite.  They fell prey to the seventh of Mahatma Gandhi’s seven blunders of the world: namely, politics without principles, and contributed to consequences that all of Sri Lanka’s people have endured.

The practice of politics without principles is not unique to Sri Lanka, it is pervasive in all nations.  Those who engage in this practice often do so with the best of intentions — Sri Lanka’s post-independence leaders were genuinely concerned with the well-being of their people and pursued that goal energetically, even courageously. That a pursuit of worthy goals by principled leaders contributed to the island nation’s slide into violent communal conflict makes the outcome all the more tragic and all the more deserving of careful study.

The Sri Lankan case points toward two generalizations that are both informed by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy and, I believe, widely applicable.  First is that practicing politics without principles, even in pursuit of principled goals, is likely to push a society toward violent conflict. Ethnically diverse societies are particularly susceptible to this pathology. A second generalization is that processes of democratic political campaigning and elections pose nearly irresistible temptations to practice politics without principles. The more worthy the aspirant, the stronger the belief that his or her leadership is needed to deal with crises or achieve worthy goals, the more irresistible will be the temptation to compromise the principle of satya and commit the seventh blunder. Decisions of three respected Sri Lankan leaders — S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene — during a pivotal juncture in their nation’s history illustrate these generalizations.[x]

Our story begins in 1955. General elections to choose a new Parliament and Prime Minister were scheduled for the following year.  Since before independence, Sri Lanka had been governed by the conservative United National Party and guided by the Party’s vision of a secular, multi-ethnic society. Members of the majority Sinhalese community dominated the government, but the rights of the minority Tamils to use their language, practice their Hindu religion and hold coveted positions in the government civil service were protected.

Although their nation had been independent for more than seven years, poor members of the Sinhalese majority community had experienced little change in their daily lives.  For many, the post independence years had been embittering and disillusioning. Most galling, was the fact that English remained not only the nation’s official language but the gateway to economic opportunity. A Sinhala speaker could not seek higher level employment in government or business, plead a case in court, understand Parliamentary debates or even use a telephone directory in his nation’s capital. The elite schools that provided instruction in English rarely enrolled rural Sinhalese and were often controlled by Roman Catholics who combined education with religious instruction that was offensive to Buddhist beliefs. Only in Tamil areas was English language instruction, provided by Roman Catholic missionary schools, widespread. This was seen to give the Tamil minority, who had also been favored by the British colonial rulers, advantages over the Sinhalese.  By 1955, many Sinhalese saw the need for greater political power to achieve the interrelated goals of economic opportunity, cultural revival and a special place for their Buddhist religion in Sri Lanka. However, they and lacked strong leadership and were not effectively mobilized.

Among Sri Lanka’s political leaders, the charismatic S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike had greatest empathy for the Sinhalese rural poor.[xi]  In 1936, he had founded the Great Sinhalese League (Sinhala Maha Sabha) to promote a Sinhalese political agenda. Although Oxford educated, he wore Sri Lankan “national dress,” gave speeches in Sinhala, practiced Buddhism and publically opposed British customs.[xii]  As Local Government Minister and then Health Minister, he had traveled extensively in rural areas and managed a successful malaria eradication campaign. In 1951, he resigned from the government, founded a new opposition political party[xiii] and began an aggressive campaign to become Prime Minister. The party grew in strength, but did not gain the public support necessary for victory until Bandaranaike chose to ally himself, in 1955, with strong advocates of Sinhalese-Buddhist cultural revival.

In this new alliance, Bandaranaike discovered an issue that could be extraordinarily effective in arousing hitherto politically apathetic rural Sinhalese, the issue of language.  “I am amazed at how this language issue gets people worked up,” he is reported to have said. In spellbinding speeches, Bandaranaike promised followers that he would make Sinhalese the official language throughout Sri Lanka “within twenty four hours” following his elevation to the office of Prime Minister. However, as a former government minister with years of experience, he knew that keeping his promise would be impossible. Bandaranaike soon discovered that using the minority Tamils as a scapegoat for the failure of Sinhalese to achieve a better life was also effective in arousing his followers. Personally, Bandaranaike respected the Tamils and he knew that many of his charges were exaggerated or false, but this did not deter him. As election day approached, Bandaranaike’s speeches became increasingly strident and more focused on Sinhalese resentments and fears, which were directed against the Tamils. Bandaranaike’s campaign succeeded. The election results gave him a parliamentary majority and the Prime Minister’s office, but his campaign tactics had violated the principles of satya and ahimsa. To gain power he had practiced politics without principle.

Once elected, Bandaranaike, as he had always intended, attempted to deal sensitively with the anxieties among Tamils that his campaign rhetoric and proposed language policies had aroused. His true vision was of a more responsive and egalitarian government for Sri Lanka, within the context of British liberal traditions and including protection for minority rights. Once elected to office, he saw himself as leader of all the nation’s citizens. His goal was to respond to Sinhalese aspirations, but arbitrate contentious issues according to principles of “fair play” that would benefit everyone. In keeping with this philosophy, his government initiated legislation to establish Sinhala as the official language proposed an implementation process of several years, rather than twenty four hours, along with an end result that included “reasonable use of Tamil.” Bandaranaike also sought common ground with Tamil political leaders on other issues and successfully negotiated a “pact” for limited regional autonomy and power sharing that would provide some protection for minority rights.[xiv]

Tragically, Bandaranaike could not, despite good intentions, free himself from the tactics that had brought him to power. In the face of threats and demonstrations from his radical followers, the Prime Minister was forced to back down on both his more moderate language policy and proposals for limited power sharing. In response, the disillusioned Tamils began a civil disobedience campaign that would, much later, escalate into a full-scale armed guerilla movement advocating secession.

Like Mahatma Gandhi, Bandaranaike died at the hands of extremist supporters of his own religion. In contrast to Gandhi he was the victim of forces that he had played a pivotal role in unleashing. On September 29, 1959, the Prime Minister walked out of his house to greet a group of well-wishers. A Buddhist priest stepped forward and as Bandaranaike bowed in the traditional gesture of greeting and respect, drew a pistol from beneath his saffron robes and fired.  “The people’s Prime Minister” died twenty-four hours later after appealing to Sri Lankans to treat his murderer with compassion.

Bandaranaike’s task of following a moderate path would have been easier were it not for the decision of the principal United National Party leaders, now in opposition, to oppose his proposals in the hope of weakening the Prime Minister. Both Dudley Senanayake and his principal deputy, J.R. Jayewardene, were sympathetic to Sinhalese aspirations but had favored moderate language policies and protection of minority rights. When Bandaranaike proposed moderate language policies and power sharing to protect minority rights, however, Senanayake and Jayewardene formed an improbable alliance with Sinhalese nationalists, political Buddhist priests and other radical groups that had played key roles in the United National Party’s 1956 election defeat. Opposition focused on the beleaguered Prime Minister’s power sharing pact with the Tamil leadership.  The normally sensitive, temperate Senanayake denounced the pact as “act of treachery” that would mean the partition of Ceylon and avowed that he was willing to “sacrifice his life” to stop it. The sophisticated, politically astute Jayewardene labeled the pact a “betrayal of the Sinhalese” and organized an abortive protest march, billed as a religious pilgrimage, to stop it. At a critical juncture, both men had chosen politics without principle in the hope of regaining political power.

The UNP leaders’ decisions, which contributed to the failure of the pact, marked the beginning of what Bandaranaike biographer James Manor has called a “poisonous” cycle of Sri Lankan politics that has polarized the society along communal lines. When in power, leaders of both parties have advocated reasonable concessions to the Tamil minority in order to maintain national unity. But when in opposition, these same leaders have used uncompromising advocacy of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism as a tactic to gain political support. Opposition to proposed concessions, often taking the form of disruptive, violent demonstrations, has pushed successive Sri Lankan governments toward more extreme positions on communal issues, with tragic consequences. Moderate Tamil leaders have felt betrayed and either radicalized their own positions or been supplanted by proponents of more aggressive, violent responses.  Today, Tamil majority areas are controlled by the most radical, aggressive and violent faction, the “Tamil Tigers.”[xv]

One of the three has personally experienced the long-term consequences of policies that, after 1956, began dividing the Sinhalese and Tamils. Twenty years after the power sharing pact failed, J.R. Jayewardene, then Sri Lanka’s President, reluctantly invited Indian forces to take control of Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern Provinces in the hope that the world’s fourth largest army could pacify the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. To gain India’s support, he was forced to concede to the Tamils much more than Bandaranaike had proposed in 1957, but Jayewardene’s concessions failed to end the conflict. Simultaneously attacks of the radical Sinhalese People’s Liberation Front[xvi] in the South made even the Colombo suburbs unsafe.

Jayewardene’s retirement from public office in 1988 did not bring violent conflict to an end in Sri Lanka. He was succeeded by Ranasinghe Premadasa a man of humble origins who, like Bandaranaike, characterized himself as the “people’s Prime Minister.” Premadasa made further concessions to the Tamils and successfully negotiated the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s withdrawal. Then, Tamil Tiger leaders betrayed the agreement they had made with the new President and fighting began anew. In the South, Premadasa’s Defense Minister, Ranjan Wijeratne was given the task of restoring order. His successful strategy was to create government sanctioned death squads. With considerable public support, the death squads were given a free hand to crush the People’s Liberation Front and their supporters.  For several months Sri Lankans found bodies or only the severed heads of death squad victims alongside public roadways, where they had been placed as a warning. Wijeratne argued that it was impossible to fully protect innocent people and realize the greater good of destroying a threat that had totally disrupted the Sri Lankan Society and economy. Eventually, the top People’s Liberation Front leaders were betrayed, arrested and killed.

In August, 1990, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, reflecting on conditions in his troubled nation, shared the following fable with a group of supporters:

A lion and a tiger lived in a certain forest. One day, both those animals got together and hunted another animal for their food. Unable to have the prey divided among themselves in a fair manner, they fought with each other.  They fought so hard that they ultimately injured each other and lay beside their prey helplessly. A fox who had been observing this fight came out and took away the animal hunted by the lion and the tiger.  Thus both the lion and the tiger lost the animal they had killed.

“It is because I have learned the moral of this story, “the President concluded, “that I have always been sounding a warning about this sort of fighting.”[xvii]

In the Spring of 1992, Defense Minister Ranjan Wijeratne was killed by a car bomb.  Tamil Tiger guerrillas were implicated in the killing.

On May Day, 1993, Ranasinghe Premadasa was leading a parade of his followers through the streets of Colombo when he was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber who had evaded the President’s security guards on a bicycle.

A chain of events that began with the practice of politics without principles had claimed two more victims.

The guerilla war in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern Provinces continues.

***   ***

JOHN M. RICHARDSON  was attached to the School of International Service, The American University, Washington, D.C. when he researched the work that contributed to this essay. For more bio-data, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_M._Richardson_(professor) … and has authored Paradise Poisoned: Learning About Conflict, Development and Terrorism from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars (2005)


The research assistance of Christina Melhorn Landi in the preparation of this paper is gratefully acknowedlged.

            [i].  This “wave” of democratization is described in Huntington (1990) and McColm (1992).

            [ii].  The address was given shortly before Havel was released from prison and became Czechoslovakia’s President.

            [iii].  Quoted from “Freedom from Fear.”  Far Eastern Economic Review (18 July), pp. 15-16.

            [iv].  In the State of Florida (as in Egypt) foreign tourists are targeted for violent death.  Multiple shootings in a single evening are commonplace on the Streets of Washington, D.C. and nationwide, shooting is the principal cause of death among young men of African American descent.

            [v].  Results from this work have been published in a number of papers and will be presented fully in a book,  Poisoning of Paradise: Violent Political Conflict in Sri Lanka, that is nearing completion.

            [vi].  Sri Lanka came to the attention of development specialists when it scored higher than many economically advanced nations on the newly developed Physical Quality of Life Index.  For a description, see Morris (1979) and subsequent Annual Reports of the Overseas Development Council.

            [vii].  I chose this year as a marker in part because it was a year that I lived in Sri Lanka.

            [viii].  Sri Lanka’s democratic and economic institutions still exhibited surprising resiliency, however.

            [ix].  This characterization of Gandhi’s philosophy is primarily based on three works, Copley (1987), Parekh (1989) and Watson (1967).  The assistance of Christina Melhorn Landi in reviewing these works is gratefully acknowledged.

            [x].  The discussion is taken from Poisoning of Paradise, Chapters 7 and 8.

            [xi].  My view of Bandaranaike draws heavily on a recent Biography, Manor (1989) but also draws on other sources and on a number of interviews with men and women who knew and worked with Bandaranaike.

            [xii].  In his private life, Bandaranaike remained more of an Anglophile.

            [xiii].  The Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

            [xiv].  This was the ill fated “Bandaranaike Chelvanayakam Pact” (named after the principal negotiators) the became a contentious issue in Sri Lankan politics for many years.

            [xv].  The full name of the organization is the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

            [xvi].  This movement is often referred to by the initials, “JVP” which are the first letters of people’s liberation front – Janata Vimukti Peramuna – in Sinhala.

            [xvii].  Address by President Premadasa on the occasion of the inauguration of the 12th anniversary Gam Udawa (village revitalization) at Pallekele, Sri Lanka, June 23, 1990.

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