Another War in Paradise?


As the ultra-nationalist Australia First Party prepares to rally in a display of White supremacy in Sydney this Australia Day, a group of international peace brokers will be launching a last ditch attempt to stave off an ethnic war in another island nation.

Sri Lanka is labelled a developing nation but, when it comes to racial conflict, the country’s experiences offer an invaluable history lesson for the so-called developed nations that are only just beginning to grapple with notions of terrorism and race-related violence.

International negotiators flew in to Sri Lanka this week in a desperate attempt to revive failed peace talks. The coming days and weeks will determine if the country plunges back into a violent conflict that has killed over 65,000 civilians and at least 40,000 military personnel, and left hundreds of thousands displaced.

LTTE cadres in training

A civil war has been raging in Sri Lanka for 23 years. The battle between the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (known as the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE) – who are fighting for a separate Tamil homeland – and the Sri Lankan Government forces has created a culture of suspicion and fear between the minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese that will take generations to mend.

And it all started with an ambitious politician who used the race card to win popular support.

The British, who were the last of a string of colonisers, ruled Sri Lanka by dividing the population along ethnic lines – deliberately favouring the minority Tamils, who were considered more educated and hard working than the Sinhalese. When the British left, granting the island full independence in 1948, a disproportionate number of top administrative jobs were in the hands of Tamil people.

Sinhalese nationalism grew in this post-colonial environment.

In 1956, the Oxford-educated SWKD Bandaranayake ran for the presidency, promising to make Sinhala the country’s only official language. The Sinhala Only Act, as the language policy became known, was seen by many as a historical correction – but in practice it meant more jobs for the Sinhalese. Bandaranayake was voted President in a landslide victory.

However, while the majority benefited, the minority suffered. Tamils were effectively made second-class citizens overnight and over the coming years other policies would further disempower them. The most significant was an education policy that made it harder for Tamil youth to enter tertiary education.

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious territory. There are four ethnic groupings: Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers. Although the Sinhalese claim to have arrived first, the Tamils have also made Sri Lanka home for well over 2,500 years. There is a long history of co-existence and it is only in the post-colonial period – during the last 50 years – that race and land rights have become such a volatile issue.

In February 2002, a ceasefire agreement was signed between the LTTE and the Government. As part of the agreement, the Tigers were given control of parts of the north and east of the country. However, after initially optimistic discussions, the peace process stalled and for the past three years a dirty shadow-war of assassinations has been taking place between the LTTE and oppositional Tamil groups who are effectively acting as proxies for the Sri Lankan military.

During the last two months, the situation in Sri Lanka has deteriorated significantly. In tit-for-tat attacks, over 70 soldiers and navy personnel have been killed. In a recent attack, the Tigers completely destroyed a Sri Lankan Navy fast-attack craft, killing 13 personnel. Although there has been significant pressure on the President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to respond militarily by his more extremist political partners, he has resisted. And equally importantly, the Sinhalese majority show little enthusiasm for war.

Rajapaksa came to office in November last year. He ran a highly nationalistic campaign, siding with two political parties with extremist policies who oppose any concessions being given to the LTTE. Part of Rajapaksa’s platform was an assurance that Sri Lanka would remain a unitary state. He only scraped in to the presidency by 180,000 votes.

The Tamil population in the north and east of the country were discouraged from voting in the election by the LTTE. In Jaffna in the country’s north, less than 1 per cent voted, and in Tiger-controlled Killinochchi in the northeast, only a single vote was cast.

The irony is that if the Tigers had allowed the Tamil population a free vote another candidate, Ranil Wickremesinge, who initiated the 2002 peace process and was more open to power sharing under a federal system, would most likely have won.

There is no doubt that the LTTE is a highly sophisticated and effective force. A war between the two sides would be indefinite. Before the collapse of the last series of peace talks, the LTTE indicated they would be happy to consider a federal solution. However, many Sinhalese doubt the Tigers’ leader, Velupillai Prabakharan, would in fact be satisfied with a devolution of power to the north and east, believing that he is after control of a separate country.

Questions also remain as to how much the Tamil population, including the diaspora, actually support the LTTE. There are a number of prominent Tamil voices critical of the Tigers, suggesting their support isn’t total. It should be noted that more Tamils live in the south than in the north and east.

Despite these questions, the reality is that the LTTE holds the power in the north and east, and are therefore the party the Government has to negotiate with.

Mapping the Sri Lankan experience on to Australia produces a frightening picture. The seeds of discrimination have already been planted here and unless principled leaders are brave enough to navigate through the current tensions to build a moderate society that respects all people, despite their ethnicity (or religion), Australia could easily be divided along racial lines.

All it takes is one opportunistic politician.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.