[Last Updated: July 2006]

Towards a Resolution of the
Sri Lankan Problem

An ACSLU Report



  1. The Problem Defined
  2. Brief History of the Problem
  3. The Current Situation
  4. The Immediate Imperative (July 2006)
  5. The Ultimate Goal
  6. Consequences of Failure
  7. Prospects for Resolution
  8. Conclusion


1. The Problem Defined

Every country has its own unique problems as there is hardly any that have none. What differentiates these problems is the gravity of the issues involved. Sri Lanka too has its share of problems which as an "underdeveloped" country is greater than usual. This essay does not pretend to provide a solution for all these problems. However there is one problem which is of the utmost gravity as it touches on the very existence of the country as a unified and relatively peaceful one. This is the demand that a section of the country should be carved out as a racial homeland for the Tamils, a minority ethnic group whose numbers have been dwindling of late. This problem arose at the very inception of the country's modern history as an independent nation (in 1948), and has become aggravated in the course of the last half-century. It is to the resolution of this problem that this essay is addressed. Some associated problems which are intimately connected with this central problem will also have to be touched on. But there is no attempt to address the myriad of economic and social problems with which the country is beset, and which are aggravated by the separatist problem which will be dealt with here. In this essay we shall refer to the separatist problem in SL as "the Sri Lankan problem" but this should not be taken to mean that there are no other problems.

The responsibility for the resolution of this problem, as with all major political problems, must rest with the elected Government of Sri Lanka (or GOSL the acronym most frequently used and will also be used here). It is the contention here that the various GOSL administrations of the last two decades have aggravated rather than resolved this problem. In fact it is not even clear if the present GOSL (under President Rajapakse) has even a coherent plan to resolve this question. It has now reached a stage when great sacrifice would be needed if it is to be resolved in a way consistent with the historical record of the nation. But the consequences of not resolving it, or yeilding to those who want some kind of racial separation, which is he implication of their demand for a "Tamil homeland", will be greater in the long-term even though it might appear that some short-term benefit is reaped. The solution that is proposed in this paper looks at the long-term outcome rather than short-term gains on which most people, especially those living in Sri Lanka, seem to be interested in.

It is of course true that the solution should be advanced primarily by those residing in Sri Lanka. The solution that is proposed here is that of an expatriate Sri Lankan group the Australian Centre for Sri Lankan Unity (ACSLU). At the outset it must be acknowledged that expatriates have only a limited say in matters concerning their country of origin. The issues relating to this have been canvassed in the ACSLU paper "The Role of Expatriates in the Resolution of the Sri Lanka Problem" (www.vgweb.org/acslu/RoleExpat.htm). Whatever is said here is subject to the caveats in that Paper which identifies legitimate grounds on which expatriates can intervene in what is primarily a local problem in their erstwhile homeland.

It must also be emphasised that any solution proposed must depend on the point of time at which it is advanced. What is now considered imperative for a reasonable solution would be different from what would have been required a decade, or evern 5 years, back. If the matter is allowed to stagnate the future "soution" would be even more difficult and painful. There would also be a point of no return at which the reasonable solution that is proposed here may not be possible. Indeed there are many observers who conclude that we have alsready passed the point of no return. It is however the hope that this has not happened, and even though we may be in the eleventh hour there is still room for the correct policies to yeild the desired result.

2. Brief History of the Problem

The Sri Lankan problem has long-term, short-term and immmediate perspectives. The current situation will be commented on in the following section and in this section will give a brief comment on the longer-term and the short-term perspectives. There are two complementary forces at work. One is the decline of the dominant ethnic group in the country the Buddhist Sinhalese (who will be referred to as the "Bodhelas"). The other is the increasing militancy of the "minority groups" especially the Tamils, the Muslims and the Christian Sinhalese (Jesuhelas). The two processes have proceeded in tandem, but the decline of the Sinhalas occurred before the minority groups became strident in the pursuit of their objectives. So both aspects have to be considered.

The qualitative change in the Sinhalese occurred with the European invasion. Previous foretgn invaders came from India but cultural differences between the two were not too great. The Sinhalese were a branch of the Indo-European Aryans and while the origin of the Dravidians is still an unresolved problem their long co-existence with the Aryans in the Indian sub-continent led to a great deal of mutual burrowings. The Buddhism as it developed amongst the Sinhalese acquired many traits from the Hindu religious practice.

But it was totally different with the Portuguese invasion, the first of the Europeans to invade the country. Their twin aims were economic plunder and the spread of the Christian religion. It was the latter which did the greatest damage. The classical civilizations in Lanka, whether the classical Sinhalese or the later Hindu arrivals had a lot in common. But there was little in common with Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions. Many Sihalas, perhas awed by the technical prowess of the Portuguese and their military and economic power, we willing to betray their heritage and become the willing accomplices of the Portuguese. Initially these all embraced Christianity. The desertion from the classical Sinhala reached the highest levels. The two two greatest traitors of the period were Don Juan Dhamapala was was instrumental in betraying the low country, and Konappy Bandara who illegally sezed the throne of Kandy and began subverting the upcountry to the alien religion. But following on their example a large number of Sinhalas became accomplices of the Portuguese. These formed the vanguard of a group whom I have called the neo-Sinhalas. Today they are more conveniently designated as the Helas, a term of uncertain origin but gratly favoured by those who call themselves by that name. Gradually the Hela mindset spread to Buddhist Sinhalese as well, who even though they did not convert to Christianity absorbed some of the values of the Christian religion which they introduced into their form of Buddhism. Thus was born the Hela (or neo-Sinhala) tendency which embraced both Sinhalas who converted to Christianity and those who did not. The modern terminology to designate these sub-cultures of the Helas are Jesuhela and Bodhuhela .

The spread of the neo-Sinhala tendency was slow in the years of colonial rule. The Portuguese were succeeded by the Dutch and the British and even though they did not attack Buddhism with the same venom as the Portuguese nonetheless they sought to subvert the classical Sinhala values and encourage the new tendency of neo-Sinhala, though not to a great extent. The result was that by the end of British rule in 1948 the neo-Sinhalas were in a strong position. They secured their objective in the Great Hela Revolution of 1956 under Solomon Bandaranike who made 'Sinhala Only' his catch-cry. Solomon himself did not last long, overcome not by the Tamil separatists but by the very same Hela forces he had unleashed.

Meanwhile the Tamils were not happy at the decision of the British to grand independence to Sri Lanka as a united, democratic nation. There were two strands of Tamil agitation against the British decision, one demanding equal status with the Sinhalese (the Ponnambalam group) and the other demanding a separate independent state ("arasu kachchi") which has been mistranslated as a demand for Federalism. This group was led by Chelvanayakam. Both these groups did not advocate violent means but it was the "Federal" view that prevailed when his party changed its name to the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). The TULF approach was too tame for the militant Tamils who formed the Liberation Tamils of Tamil Eelaam (LTTE) which vowed to adopt violent and terrorist means to secure a separate state. Their first successful action against GOSL came in 1983 when they ambushed an SL army convy killing a dozen or so soldiers. Soon they set about ethnically cleansing the Jaffna peninsula of the Sinhalese.

Meanwhile the Hela political parties were engaged in a mutual struggle to share the spoils of power. The electorate began replacing one party by the other but with no progress at all. The only discordent note was struck by the Jathika Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) a terrorist grouping of Helas who followed the path of Che Guevara. While the fight against the JVP was absorbing the energies of the other Hela political groups the LTTE was allowed to gather strength, They were greatly helped by the Hela reaction to the 1983 attack which took the form of a riot against Tamils mainly in Colombo. This complemented the ethnic cleansing going on in Jaffna and thus set the stage for the next phase of the separatist problem.

The next decisive event was the action of Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian PM who made an illegal intervention in Sri Lanka to support the LTTE who were then on the brink of defeat. The capitalulation of President J. R. Jayawardene to Rajiv Gandhi by permitting the amalgamation of the Nothern and Eastern provinces as the Tamil homeland. At the time I called this "The Great Betrayal of Sri Lanka" (www.vgweb.org/grt_betr.htm) and a full analysis is contained in that publication. Needless to say the Indian intervention did nothing to dent the power of the LTTE.

All political leaders after Jayawardene such as Sirimavo Bandaranike, Premadasa, Ranil Wickremesnghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga and now Mahinda Rajapakse either did nothing or made the situation worse. They all conformed to the Hela political culture in which they looked after themselves, their kin, their friends and their Party hangers-on. A system of sleeze, patronage and corruption was set in place. Diplomatic positions were given to people as political rewards. No wonder they could not sway in international opinion which was slowly consolidating behind the Tamil separatists. Finally they could not match the LTTE propaganda machine whose story won the day. No wonder with such ineptness and corruption the LTTE was able to make headway.

3. The Current Situation

We may date the current phase as beginning with the signing of the Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) with the terrorists in February 2002. By any standard this was an extraordinary agreement. There had been previous cease-fire agreements before but they did not last long and were always broken by the LTTE. The most important of these was the Premadasa's agreement under which several hundred policemen who had surrendered to the LTTE were killed in cold blood. Yet all these were forgotten and the agreement entered into this time even giving the LTTE the substance of their Eelaam demand. This took the form of one-seventh of the country which was conceded to them in which they could run their own Government.

The CFA was negotiated by the Kumaratunga-Wickremasighe government. For a time the LTTE suspended its attacks and suicide bombings, and the whole country celebrated as if a great victory had been won. They forgot that they had just sold the sovereignty of the country, and validated terrorism. It also provided the LTTE a safe and secure haven in which they could make preparations for the final Eelaam war, the fourth according to the reckoning of some. Yet the Helas turned a blind eye and enjoyed the little respite they had which was the reward for teir treachery. Meanwhile the Kumaratunga-Rajapakse GOSL which succeeded the after the electoral defeat of Kumaratunga continued the same policy with no change whatsoever. The negotiations with the LTTE conducted first in Thailand and then in Japan predictabily did not produce any tangible results.

The Tsunami of December 2004 proved to be a serback to the plans of the LTTE as it devastated the de facto Eelaam as it did other parts of Sri Lanka. The precise damage to the LTTE will never be known. Some surmised that even Prabhakaran the LTTE leader was killed in the Tsunami. But this was probably wishful thinking on the part of the Helas. The political significance of the Tsunami was that it resulted in Prime Minister Rajapakse presenting a Bill in Parliament (called after its initials PTOMS) to share foreign aid received for the Tsunami with LTTE front organisations. While this may have been rejected due to public pressure there was no restriction on NGOs operating in the LTTE territory. This was the first attempt at giving some de jure recognition to the de facto Eelaam created by the CFA.

In November 2005 the latest Presidential election was held, the two chief runners being Ranil Wickremesinge for UNP alliance and Mahinda Rajapkse for the SLFP-JVP-JHU alliance. This resulted in a narrow victory for Rajapakse with most observers agreeing that the result would have gone the other way of the LTTE had allowed Tamils in the North and East to vote freely. With the election of Rajapakse the LTTE gave up all pretense of observing the LTTE. Attacks on the security forces increased as also ethnic killings in the areas bordering the LTTE. There were targetted assasinations even in the Colombo region. The most significant of these were the killing of Foreign Minister Kadirgarmar, the suicide bombing in the Army HQ in Colombo in which the head of the Army was wounded, and the killing of the third in Command of the Army. The killing of military personnel in land and sea, and the killing of civlians reached levels not seen since the worst days of the terrorist insurgency.

In the face of these developments the President had only one policy — negotiations with the LTTE. He had forgotten that all previous attempts at negotiation with the LTTE had failed. He finally managed to arrange a negotiating session in Geneva, with the help of the Norwegian mediator. This was hailed as a great victory for the President's "peace policy". These negotiations resulted in the President to "respect and uphold" the CFA which had created the de facto Eelaam. No concession were ever got from the LTTE despite the utmost cringing servility. A subsequent negotiation session arranged for Oslo did not take place as the LTTE flatly refused even to sit with the GOSL delegation.

One would have assumed that these events would make the Rajapakse GOSL turn away from the policy of negotiation. But there is no other policy in the arsenal of the President, so he is obliged to go on with the mythical cease-fire. On July 16, 2006 a posse of over 100 SL soldiers went across the border of the de facto Eelaam at Vakenieri. They were immediately confronted by the LTTE and in the ensuing fight 12 SL soldiers were killed, one captured, and the rest beat a hasty retrueat. The bodies of killed soldiers were uncermoniously dumped into a truck, paraded aroud, surrounded by gleeful LTTE cadres. This was adding insult to injury. The bodies were subsequently handed over to GOSL. The President did not show much respect for the dead soldiers either. Their bodies were simply handed to the next-of-kin, and the blame for the whole incident was placed on the SL soldiers for daring to stray into Eelaam territory!

This is the current (July 2006) sad situation with the Rajapakse GOSL without any policy except subservience to the LTTE. Meanwhile the LTTE is receiving international recognition. It has even constructed a hospital in its de facto capital at Killinochchi with funds from the Asian Development Bank. The President's long-term solution is "maximum devolution within a unitary state". This so-called policy involves a fundamental contradiction of terms. If devolution of any sort is given the country will cease to be a unitary state. Many other groups who have put forward "solutions" speal of devolution, federalism, confederalism etc. all on a racial basis. All these solutions recognise the principle of a racial homeland for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Paradoxically the only group opposing the devolution plan is the LTTE. It has not compromised on its fundamental demand for a separate Eelaam. Even though it has been given the nucleus of its Eelaam demand it will continue to fight for full legal seperation. They have prubicly claimed that anything short of that will not see the end of their terrorism.

4. The Immediate Imperative (July 2006)

This leads us to suggest a solution to the impass that the country has reached in nearly 50 years of wasted opportunity since the great Hela Revolution of 1956. Because of the treachery and blunders of a succession of Hela governments there is no easy solution. The country is now in the eleventh hour. Whether this is too late one cannot say. The solution given below, which we shall describe as the ACSLU solution, is based on fundamental principles of justice and based on the historic record of Sri Lanka over the millennia and the events of last few decades.

The ACSLU solution is presented in two parts. This section ("The Immediate Imperative") will list what has to be done as of now (July 2006). The actions are presented sequentially and will be numbered A1, A2 etc. An immediate solution however has little meaning unless it is places in the context of the ultimate goal that has to be reached. The principles that govern this ultimate goal will be given in the next section, and they will be identified by B1, B2 etc. This way of identifying the various sections will make it convenient to reference the various elements of the ACSLU solution in the final sections of this document. The immediate actions that should characteriize the ACSLU solution are the following: The above eight points should not be taken as the entire course of action that should be immediately undertaken. They are merely some of the obvious measures that appear necessary if the military solution is to work. An essential ingredient of any war effort is to create a think-tank and a planning agency that will investigate all possible military tactics and strategies. Such a competent body should be set up, and some of the country's brilliant minds recruited. They would no doubt make further suggestions on how the main courses of action identified above could be expanded, and even suggest totally new strategies.

5. The Ultimate Goal

No amount of military action will succeed unless it is supplemented with a vision of what the nation should aim at after a successful outcome from the military strategy. The military strategy will only eliminate terrorism but the minority issues will still remain. This could be accomplished through normal political and constitutional processes. But it sould be the duty of GOSL to put forward a blueprint of how the country will look like after the defeat of terrorism.

Suggestions in this area must of necessity be more nebulous than than the strict requirements of a military effort. So this section of the ACSLU total solution will be less definitive than the imperatives A1 to A8 considered in the previous section. Nonetheless it must be an important part of the total soluton. We may advance the following propositions in this regard.

6. Consequences of Failure

The solution which we have proposed for the separatist problem in Sri Lanka in Section 4 of this essay is often called the Military Solution. This was incidentally the solution that was originally adopted when the problem erupted in the early 1980s by the then President J. R. Jayawardena. The policy came within an ace of success especially under the capable Minister of Defence Lalith Athulathmudali. However that attempt was checkmated by the intervention of Rajiv Gandhi on the side of the LTTE. The failure of the JR regime to effectively counter Rajiv Gandhi's intervention really marked the gradual abandonment of the military solution by GOSL,

Reinstating the Military Solution today is an infintely greater task than it was at the time of J.R.Jaywardene. This is because the capacity of the LTTE has greatly expanded, their international links greatly strengthened, and above all since 2002 they have been given a safe haven within the country itself. Failure to adopt the Military Solution could be considered a national failure of the greatest magnitude. Unfortunately this failure has characterised all governments since JR Jayawardena's capituation to Rajiv Gandhi. The current GOSL administration of Mahinda Rajapakse epitomises this Failure to the ultimate extent. He has described the essentials of his policy as the "Peace process" and "Negotiations" with the terrorist leader. In an oft-repeated phrase he talks of walking the "extra miles" to solve the problem in private talks with the terrorist leader. The only hitch is that the terrorist leader will not speak with him, just as he did not allow him to make the Madhu pilgrimage in 2005. Besides the President's view that a problem of this magnitude can be solved in private talks with a leading terrorist is obnoxious. Many other parties are involved in this problem. Unfortunately the "peace process" which SL governments had engaged in for the last few years has not brought peace but an endless series of killings, and negotiations have not produced anything tangible.

The catch-cry of this failed policy is "devolution". Devolution comes in many brands from the Tamil Eelaam of the LTTE to the "maximum devolution within the unitary state" of the President. But these differences of terminology mask the common fact that an area of land is to be demarcated as the Tamil homeland. The problem with this policy is that once it is granted there will be other claimants for their own share of devolved land. Thus the Muslims through the SLMC have demandeed a non-contiguous devolved area for their use. No doubt this will form the nucleus of the Sharia state. Other claimants like the plantation Tamils, the Jesuhelas etc. will not be far behind. Thus the end product of the devolutionary process will be the disintegration of Sri Lanka into a pathwork of racial or religious states.

However that will not be the final end of the devolution story. There will be disputes as to where the border of the various devolved regions should lie. Border conflict even leading to border wars could become common. Then there will be disputes as to how common resources are to be shared. This will arise in matters like the sharing of river water for irrigation, the sharing of martime resources, etc. Only a centralized state can use all the resources of the nation in a rational way for the benefit of the polity as a whole.

7. Prospects for Resolution

What are the prospects of adopting the solution outlined in sections 4 and 5 above? Frankly the prospects are indeed slim. We know that the current President has explicitly ruled out the Military solution which is at the centre of the proposed solution. Even if the question is put to a referendum it is unlikely that it will be approved. This is because of the spread of the Hela mentality amongst the ordinary people of Sri Lanka.

Paradoxcally while Sri Lanka has rejected the Military solution the world community has generally adopted it when dealing with terrorist insurgencies. Many of the succeses in putting down separatist insurgencies in many parts of the world, including our neighbour India, has been accomplished through the military solution.

The most recent development is the eruption of Islamic terrorism targeting the Western world. The Western response to this has been the military solution. It has been argued that the Western countries have large military establishments and can afford the luxury of the military solution. But then the enemy they are confronting is much more formidable that the LTTE. If Sri Lanka has to survive as the integral unit it has been for most of its history it cannot abandon the Military Solution in the present moment.

8. Conclusion

The solution proposed in the Essay consists of two parts, the immediate response (Section 4) and the Ultimate Goal (Section 5). Both parts are essential for the total solution. Of course the ultimate goal can only be implemented if the immediate actions are implemented. So what is needed is a clear statement of the shape of the ultimate goal even though its actual accomplishment willl have to await the successful outcome of the military solution.

There is a tendency by some to think that the Military Solution is the final solution. It is only part of the solution. The Ultimate Goal must be clearly defined. Very few of the commentators on the Sri Lankan problem have defined their view of the ultimate goal. They seem to argue that this is something for negotiation between GOSL and the other contenders. But GOSL is the legitimate government and it is its obligation to lay down what it conceives as the basic framework of the Ultimate Goal. Perhaps there could be changes in the detail but the principles on which it should be based must be stated. Section 5 of this essay identifies the principles that should determine the ultimate shape of the country. It is the view of ACSLU that if these principles are sacrificed for expediency the historic destiny of the nation would be betrayed.