After an almost three-decade long civil war, the island of Sri Lanka is confronted with the significant political challenge of reintegrating an ethnic minority separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) back into a coherent society connected by state institutions. However, this is complicated by two issues. First, the government that successfully ended the war is highly favorable toward the ethnic majority group, the Sinhalese; and second, many in the Tamil community remain recalcitrant about the prospect of submitting to Sinhala majority rule.
By adopting policies of multiculturalism, liberals in the Tamil diaspora and in Sri Lanka can moderate radical chauvinist claims in their respective camps and work toward a more tolerant society.
Sri Lanka’s De Facto Multiculturalism
Several indigenous ethnic groups claim Sri Lanka as their homeland, but governance of the territory has been primarily contested by two groups, the Sinhala and the Tamil. According to the Sinhalese national mythology, the Sinhalese rulers adopted Theraveda Buddhism after the evangelical mission of the Buddhist Mahinda. The Sinhalese created schools to train Buddhist monks and scholars, teachers, and poets emerged from these learning centers to usher in a golden-age of Sinhalese culture, so the mythology goes. In the north and east, the Tamil population, primarily Hindu, created the independent kingdom of Jaffna either as immigrants from the Indian subcontinent or as another autonomous indigenous group.
In 1948, an independent Sri Lanka was created with a Westminster unitary proportional representation parliament, thereby assuring the majority Sinhalese the power to constitute a new government without balancing other ethnic group interests on the island. Through the resources of the Sri Lankan state, the Sinhala sustained their culture and reclaimed the mythos of a Sinhalese dominated Sri Lanka. Concerned by such displays of majoritarian and authoritarian domination under the Sinhala nationalist parties, several Tamil interest parties consolidated to advance a federal scheme for Sri Lanka.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (“LTTE”) splintered from this Fabian approach to independence and sought to divide Sri Lanka into separate Tamil and Sinhala homelands by force. From 1973 onward, the LTTE represented the pinnacle of Tamil nationalism and established varying degrees of control over parts of Sri Lanka. But in 2009 under President Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan army waged a brutal final campaign against the LTTE and regained control over the territory formerly controlled by the LTTE.
Given the victory of national government over the LTTE, marginalization of the Tamil in Parliament, and crackdown by government on dissent from both minority political parties and groups; there seems to be little hope to be had from the domestic political situation. Moreover, the resort to armed violence is unlikely to achieve its end as the victory of the national government was conclusive.
For a full report on human rights abuses that occurred during the civil war and the authoritarian nature of Sri Lanka’s current government, read the UN Panel of Exports report.
Therefore, post-conflict Sri Lanka is confronted with the following political problem: how to reconcile the Tamil population to the state dominated by a seemingly chauvinist government unwilling to concede the territorial integrity or their authoritarian majority over the state?
Advancing Policies of Multiculturalism
In Sri Lanka, a policy of multiculturalism introduced by a major political party could marginalize radical Tamil and Sinhalese parties hesitant to negotiate with the state and bring disaffected groups into unified vision for Sri Lankan identity to advance nationalism over communal interests. Moreover, such policies could begin to produce a more tolerant society that values different cultural differences, rather than produce social conflict based on those differences.
The major obstacle is for the Sinhala dominated government to adopt such a policy. This is not impossible given the influence of international donors in Sri Lanka and a nascent liberal movement in Sri Lanka. Joint efforts by these two groups could pressure the government to adopt non-ethnic human rights based reforms based on equal distribution of state resources toward the many cultural groups in Sri Lanka. These efforts could lead to the adoption of the important recommendations laid out by the Sri Lankan Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, including bilingualism, cross-cultural exchanges, and more robust non-discrimination protections. Read the full Sri Lanka report here.
The Tamil diaspora could effectively advance this agenda by internationalizing with their significant pull in foreign countries; and advocate at UN organs to pressure the Sri Lankan government to make neutral human rights reforms.
The most obvious strength of the Tamil diaspora community is its ability to internationalize the conflict. The Tamil diaspora is well positioned to take on this role because of the amount of remittances it sends to Sri Lank and the political pressure the Tamil diaspora can assert in host countries that are major international donor countries. It is estimated that total remittances to Sri Lanka amounted to over $2.8 billion in 2009. These do not include the informal remittances of Tamils during the course of the 2009 war. The remittances from Tamil were deployed primarily for the benefit of Tamil internally displaced persons much to the distaste of host countries and Tamils alike. While it is unlikely that all remittances from Tamils abroad to their families in Sri Lanka will be stopped because of many Tamils reliance on those remittances for vital provisions, the remittances toward political causes can be used to tailor the causes of domestic political parties in Sri Lanka, especially the TNA. Moreover, coordination between Tamil diaspora and Tamils on Sri Lanka could bring the economic value of Tamil remittances to the forefront in Sri Lanka.
Secondly, the Tamil diaspora is a transnational group with strong communities, and voting blocs, in many countries. They have proved eager to petition their host countries to take action in Sri Lanka and call attention to the violations of human rights by the government. The leaders of the diaspora have proved effective in mobilizing Tamils. By pressuring host countries that are also donor countries and make concerted efforts at UN organs, the Tamil diaspora can deploy the ‘name-and-shame’ tactic to marginalize Sri Lanka from the international community because of its gross violations of human rights and continued pressure. Finally, the current government has premised Sri Lanka’s future in economic development, especially in the north and east, by foreign corporations. The Tamil can also work against the SLFP’s credibility in Sri Lanka by working to boycott such economic development. Clearly, Sri Lanka’s dependence on donor countries, remittances, and foreign corporations is a weakness for the current SLFP government that can be exploited and the Tamil diaspora is best positioned to do this.
However, as noted above, many in the Tamil diaspora remain committed to the goals of the LTTE and remain loyal to the LTTE itself. But, this is a losing political position in host countries and the credibility of the LTTE was seriously undermined by the decisive victory of the Sri Lankan army. Fortunately, many youth in the Tamil diaspora and leaders in communal organizations recognize the weakness’ pursuing the dead dreams of the LTTE and have moderated their response. The Tamil diaspora, despite its resource and ability to influence the political future of Sri Lanka, will be ineffective if it cannot adopt a more conciliatory tone toward the state of Sri Lanka and the majority Sinhalese. Adapting a stance of multiculturalism can in fact achieve just that and mediate the radical claims of the SLFP government; but adopting such a policy in the diaspora will require clear, powerful, and moral leadership.
A policy of multiculturalism is but one tool of transition in reshaping a country after traumatic political violence. It is not a solution to all social problems. Positive social effects produced by this include the maintenance of peace within a state and the provision of more choices for all persons, especially minorities. This has been true in other societies including Canada, South Africa, and India, and is being used as a tool in other multiethnic states, like Kenya. Although none of these states have resolved all group contestations, political violence has seriously abated and marginalized groups’ participation in government is vastly improved. These alone are insufficient to repair much of the damage in Sri Lanka, but it suggests a common ground that moderates the extreme claims of both groups without sacrificing core elements of either side.
Editor’s Note: Congratulations to the article’s author, David Prater, on his graduation from The University of Maryland School of Law!
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