Everything else.. Curbing Ethnic Tension in Sri Lanka

Curbing Ethnic Tension in Sri Lanka

2020 Aug 20

Terror is nothing new to Sri Lanka. Although the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war came as a beacon of newfound peace, ethnic tension and violence of many sorts are swept under the rug dexterously and daily. Living in a country with a sundry of ethnicities, diverse schools of thought and contrasting qualities makes it a volatile ground for conflict. Overcoming this is a challenge we are yet to surmount.

If we take terrorism specifically,

It doesn’t have one universal definition. It varies from country to country for several reasons. And scholars assume this might mainly be because the acts included under the definition are always expanding and morphing. When smaller acts of terror take place that isn’t globally recognised, the legal definition would have to change in that country to criminalise the act. Failure to do so can result in disastrous consequences, like the Easter attack.

Even the United Nations has three different descriptions of terrorism. Sri Lanka has its own definition for who a terrorist is in The Prevention of Terrorism Act. This document states that there is a right to arrest and detain in police custody anyone who has killed a person intentionally, destroyed public property, obtained firearms and/or has commended acts of violence.

An important thing to remember is that the terrorist often thinks that breaching the law and bringing harm to hundreds or even thousands of people is the price to pay to have justice for the cause they support, whether it be a religious motive or to serve “justice” to a country. And on that note…

The ethnic conflicts of Sri Lanka

As hard of a pill to swallow, a lesser-known fact amongst the youth of Sri Lanka is that openly trying to educate Sinhalese youth over other youth was one of the fueling factors in the ethnic conflict. However, some could say that this was also an action to even out how many people of each race attended local universities. And here’s why.

While Sri Lanka was under the rule of the British, a lot of schools were built in Tamil speaking regions. They taught English and other subjects, which were considered important by the colonial British. This caused the majority of university students in Sri Lanka to be Tamil. The government then tried to provide the same privileges to Sinhalese youth in the Sri Lankan countryside.

Several other misunderstood actions such as these which were taken by the government painted a picture of favouritism towards Sinhalese people, which Sinhalese nationalists, and frankly racists, took as a green light from the government to abuse Tamil nationals. Infuriated, some Tamils decided that the only way to live peacefully is to remove themselves from the existence of the Sinhalese and to dedicate a separate part of the country for their tranquil living.

At first, that was in the form of just a joint province of all Tamil-speaking areas where the first language would be Tamil and the primary religion would be Hinduism. This idea was proposed to the government and legal documents were signed to instate it as an official province, but protests from some Sinhalese ethnocentric groups forced the government to take back the action. Offended by this, Tamils thought that the only way to achieve peace was to take stronger actions. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the group headlining the war, changed their fighting cause from a dedicated province to a separate state later on.

Both prior and subsequent to that, there were the havoc-wreaking failed revolutions led by Rohana Wijeweera, who saw communism as the solution to all his problems. Wijeweera’s personal studies in communism took place a few decades after Vladimir Lenin’s death (while he was a student on scholarship in Russia). He learned about Lenin’s motives and what he achieved for the Russian peasantry. What he disregarded was that he was learning all this under a censorship rule that had been in place even before the rule of the Tsars. Foreign commentary and criticism of the Bolshevik’s decrees weren’t available to Wijeweera and by the time they were, he had closed his mind to the influence of anti-communism.

He thought the methods other communist parties in Sri Lanka were taking, trying to win votes in the parliament, were meaningless; because a lot of Sri Lankans didn’t approve of his Marxism-Leninism values. Driven by the determination to bring his “justice” to the country, a brutal calamity was seen as his solution.

More recently, there were the bombings on Easter Sunday. The National Thowheed Jama’ath was the locally based militant organisation held guilty of causing one of the most devastating attacks in Sri Lankan history. That was until ISIS took responsibility. Both groups run on extremist Muslim values that are taken out of context from the Qur’an. The suicide bombers who targeted the main hotels were not only willing to end their lives just to end many others but to let their family come along with them. The bombers that attacked two of the main hotels that were caught in the attack and the residences near Dehiwala were related, by blood and marriage. A spouse even killed her children and unborn child. The tragedy that followed were boycotting of Muslim-owned businesses, the hate speech that spread far and wide and community-based conflicts.

These are only recent examples of conflict we – the youth – are familiar with. But are they not prime examples of the volatility between Sinhalese against Sinhalese, Tamils against Sinhalese, Sinhalese against Tamils, or even against Muslims? 

The Government

So far the government has published approximately 35 dedicated judicial writs on terrorism and suppressing it. One in particular states that a person who has committed any acts that may identify them as a terrorist is triable without a preliminary inquiry without a jury and grants the government the right to strip them of their freedom and rights. Many other bills have similar provisions that repeal any other congressional acts. But of course, the obvious objection still stands; terrorists don’t follow the law.

This is where the government fails to protect its citizens. Most legal documents only state actions to be taken once a person responsible for a crime or coordinators a crime of terror such as financing, for example, are taken into juridical custody. None of all 35 (or so) documents order any actions to take place t0 prevent acts of terror before they take place.

More legal actions that would only be instated after unearthing terrorists can also prevent traumatising catastrophes from happening. A direct example? The Easter Sunday attacks. Sri Lanka’s prime minister at the time got word that some Sri Lankan nationals had joined a terrorist organisation overseas, but let it go because there was absolutely nothing he could do to stop it.

There were, and still aren’t, any laws in place that forbid anyone from joining foreign rebel groups. Of course, fixing this problem isn’t as easy as simply inaugurating a new declaration that criminalises joining terrorist organisations anywhere in the world. Sri Lankan authorities won’t have the right they do here in other countries to arrest a person. They would need to go through hefty documentation to simply be allowed into a country on the purpose of arresting a criminal. Much larger actions would need to be taken by, say the UN, to establish consent for this action.

There should also be strong fallback plans to ensure that the country’s economy can bounce back speedily from a militant incident. Terrorist attacks make tourism levels drop and trade halts as foreign investments are revoked. Strong agriculture, fishing and tea industries, however, can consolidate for losses once importing and exporting resumes. It could even hasten their recommencing if the industries are performing exceptionally well.

The New England Complex Science Institute conducted a study on areas with ethnic communities of different magnitudes living side by side. It concluded that sub-national boundaries aligned with natural communities can reduce ethnic tensions and prevent violence. Boundaries are usually viewed negatively but scientifically, living near people you find you are similar to can reduce the feeling in individuals that violence is required. Then again, this can go both ways. That is why and where comprehensive studies carried out by government professionals, mediators and experts in the area become important. Truth Reconciliation Committees are also very helpful in solving decades or even centuries-long conflicts. They unearth wrongdoings in hope that that will solve the problem in modern-day. South Africa is known for owing its peace to the Truth Reconciliation Commission. Maybe we could too.