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The Longest War:Sri Lanka’s Identity Conflicts & Conflicted Identities

This month, July, the 25th anniversary of July 83, has quite appropriately seen significant commentary in the press over the interrelated themes of the war, its character or its perceived character, and contending interpretations of Sri Lankan identity.

In 2001, in an essay entitled "The Sources of Intractability", published in Ethnic Studies Report, the journal of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) I wrote of the Sri Lankan conflict that "It is not an ethnic conflict and it is. It is an ethnic conflict and it is not...It is not an ethnic conflict in the sense that it is no longer primarily one. Nineteen fifty eight was an ethnic conflict … But it is no longer 1958 and that is not the main thing that is happening. What it is, is war."

The un-dialectical mind would be unable to grasp that formulation.

Identities are formed by statics and dynamics: who we are is constituted by where we are, where we are coming from and what we have done over time.

We live on an island, on the doorstep of a large landmass. The Southern two thirds of the island are populated by those who speak one language, the northern third by those who speak another. The preponderant language of the South is not spoken by any collectivity anywhere else, not in the adjacent landmass, not anywhere on the planet. It is unique to this island. However, the language of the Northern part has many million speakers elsewhere, across the narrow straits, in the adjacent landmass, and elsewhere on the planet. The island has yet another distinguishing feature. Most in the South adhere to a religion which originated in the adjacent landmass but was displaced from it to find a home in the island to the South and lands to the east. Within this too, that denomination of the religion that has spread the widest, to the Far East, is different from the more orthodox version practiced on the island.

Religion therefore reinforces language as a marker of distinctive identity. Islands, like only children, seem to cherish that which distinguishes them from the surrounding or adjacent mass. Thus it is with England in relation to Europe, Ireland in relation to England, and Cuba in relation to the USA.

Those are the structural facts which have constituted our identities, but there is a dynamic as well. Collective identities are constituted also by dialectics, a clash, a struggle, battles, in short, wars. Collective identities in Sri Lanka are no different.

It would be dishonest, not least to one self, not to admit that a pattern, perhaps the dominant motif, exists in this country’s long history-- that of military contestation between the North and the South. Sometimes this has been a struggle with the near North -- that is the North of the island. At other times it has been a struggle against incursions from the far North, namely the South of the Indian subcontinent. This struggle has often had either as overlay or underlay a battle between two collectivities: Sinhala and Tamil. Now one may debate whether those were nations, nationalities, or tribes, but the truth is that nations evolve by stages and not ex nihilo, out of nothing. These battles were between embryonic nations. Whatever they were, our identities have been formed by that history.

The island’s written history, or rather, the history of the island written from the perspective of the Sinhalese, is a meta-narrative of a bi-polar existential conflict and the Sinhala identity is constituted in greater or lesser degree, by that meta-narrative, itself a Romance, a love story of a language, a religion and an island.

The lad Dutugemunu’s bedtime lament is a brilliant summation of the existential and geo-strategic situation of the Sinhalese: hemmed in between a hostile power centre in the North and the sea at their back, lacking defense in depth and therefore unable to co-exist with a rival power centre on this small island.

The Eelam war in all its stages is in part, a reactivation of this long conflict. It is not a permanent conflict but it is a recurrent one, arguably cyclical, and when it recurs, it constitutes a challenge before the generations alive at the time. It is the challenge of resistance and re-unification. Not every generation has the misfortune to face that challenge, but when it happens it is but a burden that has been carried before by one’s ancestors. It is the fate of being Sinhalese. It comes literally with the territory.

Anyone who doubts this has only to read the propaganda that comes out of any and all pro-Tiger, pro-separatist media, from newspapers in Kilinochchi to Pongu Thamil leaflets in Europe and any website run by the Diaspora. It’s all about Thamil and the Sinhalese. A case in point is the Pongu Thamil leaflet for the Berne, Switzerland demonstration on June 5, 2008 – Black Tiger day disguised as Pongu Tamil—says "let the Sinhalese kneel before the rising Tamils".

Given all this, anyone who thinks that the motivation of a largely peasant army waging a war to territorially reunify a land, a country, a motherland, can be devoid of ethno nationalism, or ethno religious/ethno linguistic nationalism, is being naively utopian. In the aftermath of a phase of appeasement and humiliation (Ranil’s CFA, CBK’s PTOMS), in an era of the collapse of secular identities and "the return of history", it is unrealistic to expect the predominance of Enlightenment ideology.

The long continuity of this conflict is not a construct of Sinhala chauvinists. It has been identified by Samuel P Huntington, who in his The Clash of Civilizations places it in his category of "fault line wars", wars at the fault lines of civilizations.

The two World Wars were in a sense, a continuation of the power struggle (certainly between Russia and Germany) that had troubled Europe for decades, and the Sino-Soviet split was sourced at least in part in centuries old contradictions. Yet the main aspect of the Second World War was the new phenomenon, that of fascism. Both the Arab – Israeli conflict and the "global war on terror" are not devoid of echoes of the ancient and the medieval pasts respectively, and yet they are, in the main, modern and contemporary conflicts.

Similarly, long continuity is only one aspect of this Eelam war. The other aspect is its modernity, it contemporaneity, which resides in the fascist and terrorist character of Prabhakaran, who is no just king as Elara was.

One must be tough-minded enough to recognize this. Where then does the problem arise? Where does this realistic recognition of the enduring power of ethno-nationalism and "the clash of peoples" (to use the phraseology of Prof Jerry Z Muller of the Catholic University of America) become narrow chauvinism? As in every other case, when it is taken to excess.

Excess is manifested in exclusivity, narrowness, discrimination, hegemonism and racism. For a Sinhalese or Tamil, their respective identity is their core or foundational identity, but if it becomes their sole and complete identity, then they lapse into narrow nationalism. We are Sinhala or Tamil but we are also much else and much more: Sri Lankans - which must not be a synonym for Sinhalese – South Asians, Asians, and perhaps most importantly, human beings. Ethnicity must not diminish or supersede our humanity.

Our cultural being must not be exclusively Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim. That identity is our foundation but our dwelling cannot comprise only of a foundation. It must be constructed of the best in all cultures and civilizations, East and West, ancient and modern. While we can and must be proud of our achievements, culture and history, it is counter-productively self-limiting to consider our ethnicity or culture as intrinsically, axiomatically superior to all others. To do so is also racist. Such a sense of superiority is unshared, unsubstantiated and unprovable, leaving us sounding faintly ridiculous.

Abandoning English, a world language and the preponderant one, displacing it with Sinhala only, rather than supplementing it with Sinhala and Tamil, has eroded the quality of our human resources and competitiveness in all fields globally as well as regionally. Neither literary classics nor new knowledge is readily translated into a language spoken by fewer than twenty million people on one small island, and the numbers of qualified translators, who by definition must at least be bilingual, is declining. India and China never made that mistake. Algeria and Vietnam which threw out French colonialism by armed force, retained French as a language. A forensic scientist who fought in the Algerian resistance and rose to be head of the WHO explained to me last week that his comrades Ben Bella, Boumedienne, Bouteflika and the other leaders of the national liberation struggle regarded the French language as something they would determinedly retain as "the booty of victory in the war against French colonialism". We Sri Lankans who did not kick British colonialism out by liberation struggle, went on to kick the English language out instead - a case of throwing the baby out with, or in place of, the bathwater.

It is damaging to cling to some static or pure notion of Sinhala-ness or Tamil-ness. Notions of purity are known to be a quintessential element of fascism. Who after all, can decide on what is authentically Sinhala or Tamil? Cultures change, evolve over time, and at any time, consist of diverse elements. An ideology which holds that only Sinhala Buddhists are authentically Sinhalese, or that Sinhala Buddhists are more Sinhala than others, is exclusivist. Where does it stop anyway? What of notions of caste hierarchy? Are so-called lower castes somehow lesser in their Sinhalaness? Are "upcountry" Sinhalese purer Sinhalese than "low country" ones? Are rural or provincial Sinhalese more Sinhala than urban or coastal ones? The last great rebellion of the Sinhalese against Western imperialism, 160 years ago this month, was led by Puran Appu, a Sinhalese from the "maritime provinces" and a non-dominant caste.

Any notion that Sinhalese must have more rights because they are Sinhalese (and the majority), any notion that Tamils are entitled to fewer rights, or are less entitled to rights because they are a minority, is a deviation from the universal principle of equal rights and merit, and is discriminatory.

There is no homogenous, monolithic sense of identity, not even of ethnic identity. Tamil ethnic identity today, has to take into account resurgent or newly assertive local identities (the East). Different strata, different generations, have different sense of identity and everything evolves over time, with some elements evolving slower than others.

Identity is formed of objective, material conditions, but it is a profoundly subjective, emotional phenomenon, deeply rooted in the psyche. However, not everything in the world is subjective, and ones own subjectivity often encounters the reality of others subjectivities. So it with identity. Any Tamil who thinks that a separate state is possible on this small island or that a minority compact of pro-Western neocolonial elements can durably dominate the country, has to come up against the material fact that the Sinhalese are an overwhelming majority and that the Sri Lankan armed forces have a population base which is infinitely greater than their foe. Any Sinhalese who thinks that they can ride roughshod over the Tamils without sharing this common island home, providing adequately autonomous political and cultural space for all, will have to reckon with the material facts of the Tamil vote in Sri Lanka’s highly competitive democratic politics, the existence of 50 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu with the importance that confers on them within the regional superpower India, the influence of the Tamil Diaspora in the West, and above all the global consensus and consciousness which expects universal standards of equality, fair-play and justice for all communities in Sri Lanka.

(These views are the writer’s personal ones).

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