Sri Lanka, an island nation with its strategic location astride the main Indo-Pacific sea lanes through which today pass two-thirds of global oil supplies and half of the world’s container cargo with the port of Colombo being South Asia’s busiest trans-shipment port, could have retained its position on independence in 1948, as a leading nation of Asia. Unfortunately, the rulers like frogs in the well, with no thought of geo-politics went about messing the ethnic and religious harmony for petty political gains at the expense of their people; without an all-embracing identity; took the wrong decisions calculatedly against the composition of the country that is multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural; that caused the failure. Opportunities were presented many times by neighbouring India and many western nations to get out of the pit; but due to lack of courage, intelligence and foresight the rulers pondering to racial and religious emotions persisted with their divisive policies, only to fall back into the communal quicksand pits.
Historically, there were three separate kingdoms in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), prior to the arrival of European colonisers; in 1556 the Portuguese imposed their rule over the Sinhalese maritime kingdom of Kotte and three decades later in 1619 they annihilated the maritime kingdom of Jaffna, which was the Tamils homeland. The third kingdom of Kandy was in the central hill country was not captured by the Portuguese nor the Dutch; the British, who defeated the Dutch, in 1815 did capture the Sinhalese kingdom of Kandy. The colonisers, who arrived as traders went on to rule the country; destroyed many local places of worship that led to the conversion of many people to Christianity. It was these colonial rulers who introduced Christianity into the country; in particular when the British began to rule the whole country the system of education was changed and many schools were started by them; further introduced new system of administration. Islamic faith too was brought in by traders, but they did not rule any part of the country. While the bulk of the people remained subdued by the rulers, many locals of privileged families in the top and middle of the feudal pyramid system that prevailed before the arrival of the colonisers, associated with the rulers and got familiar with the western customs to become the elites and were referred to as WOGs (Western Oriented Gentlemen), while for survival the poorest of the poor in the bottom of the feudal system converted to Christianity and got employed for manual tasks by the new rulers.
When there were hopes of ending the foreign rule during the pre-independence era, the WOGs were keen to clear all obstacles caused to their culture by the 300 years foreign rule. To this end the Ceylon National Congress (CNC), a coalition of multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-caste was formed by WOGs. Unfortunately, many majority community members dominated the CNC began to manipulate events to their advantage before bloodlessly negotiated independence from the British. Then the majority community rulers covered up these manipulations and continued with the same divisive rule into the post-independence era for almost seventy years; the fallouts are felt by the whole nation and most affected were all minorities; that resulted in three uprisings and a cruel civil war that were all crushed with external assistance, at a heavy cost of human lives and destruction of properties.
Some of the key fallouts are listed as follows:
- 1921 – Failure to acknowledge that Ceylon did not constitute a single nation
- 1928 – Proportional representation not carried over for universal adult franchise
- 1931 – Began plan to change the demography of North and Eastern Provinces
- 1943 – Official Language status for Sinhala proposed in the State Council
- 1945 – Failure to accept a federation system along the lines of the earlier kingdoms
- 1947 – Disenfranchising Indian descent people to prevent a future Left Government
- 1956 – Uncorking the genie of Sinhala-Buddhism that defunct the First Constitution
- 1957 – Establishment of Regional Councils by B-C pact was opposed
- 1958 – Riots in the island, that resulted in Tamil refugees transported by ship to Jaffna
- 1961 – Tamil politicians arrested and detained for peaceful picketing at state offices in N-E
- 1970 – Introduction of media-wise standardisation in relation to university admissions
- 1972 – Introduction of Republican Constitution and district quota system on higher education
- 1974 – Attack on World Tamil Convention killing many civilians
- 1977 – Second Republican Constitution and carving out constituencies from East
In spite of all these atrocities caused for over fifty years by the state from 1921 to 1970, the section of people at the receiving end of the discrimination, relied heavily on democratic process of negotiations. As the state made matters worse, the Sinhala youths in the south felt enough was enough and took to arms to rebel against the state from 1971 and again 1987, while the Tamil youths from 1977 to 2009 for three decades there was a bloody civil war between the state forces and these youths. The ferocity of the civil war increased year by year and was such it went out of control many a times causing miseries to the people. Many nations got involved, including India to put an end to this ethnic conflict, that included signing of a peace accord in 1987, between the governments of India and Sri Lanka; amended the constitution and gave a form of devolution of power to the provinces with the North and East provinces merged and accepted as the homeland of Tamils. Unfortunately, it was never implemented properly and civil war resumed with more vigour, only to cause more miseries to the people. Then again with the intervention of many nations the guns were silenced and the civil war was brought to end in 2009.
Some of the key fallouts during the war period are listed as follows:
- 1979 – Army dispatched to North to flush out opponents, youths arrested and killed
- 1981 – Burning of Jaffna Public Library, Jaffna Main Market and Eelanadu office
- 1983 – July Riots the worst of the pogroms and total island brain drain that followed
- 1984 – Military operations in N-E provinces started the Civil War and mass exodus
- 1987 – Indo-Lanka Accord brokered devolution was not implemented and cease fire failed
- 2009 – Civil War ended with unaccounted loss of lives, prolonged into negative peace years
The majority in the country Buddhist, with the rest of the people of other faiths were delighted to see the end to the cruel civil war and all hoped at long last will be able to breathe peace in the country. With the war over, these Buddhists, who always evaluated the venerate members of the Sangha rationally and gave them due respect, naturally expected them to spread the teachings of Buddha to ensure that all Buddhists have a happy and content life coexisting with others and so did most monks. Unfortunately, it was the politicians who disturbed this coexisting culture in the country by using the Buddhist monks in the fifties, the security forces and police in the seventies and the judiciary during the war years and the state machinery during the negative peace years to sustain their positions of power that caused miseries to the minorities. Not to be outdone during the three uprisings, in particular during the cruel civil war the armed youths too caused untold miseries to unarmed civilians, including killings of many politicians of all shades. These events from 1971 and 2015 resulted in thousands of people missing, in addition to loss of lives, many disabled and destruction of properties; that put the development clock back by five decades. Sadly, there were ambitious self-seekers, in the government and many other legislators, who had fallen into the communal quicksand pit could and were unable to bring them out of this trap; celebrated the war victory, went around to pay pooja to monks as conduits to power and are thereby ensuring prominence for themselves ahead of followers of other faiths in governing the country, this situation continued for six long negative peace years.
In 2015, a true Buddhist monk respected by all late most Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera with many civil organisations enlightened the people and they did vote the frog in the well minded rulers out. Many nations including India came to the assistance to help the people to vote in a new coalition government made up the two main political parties and few smaller parties, who are mandated to produce a new constitution that will rid of the communal quicksand pit that has been destroying the country for over seventy years. The new government is unable to gather momentum to revive the economy of the nation; as they are taking long to put in order the mess caused to the people by the civil war and the negative peace years; the latest being the signing of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Act as the first step in transitional justice mechanism. Fortunately, it is understood that the legislators of the minorities who are campaigning for justice for their people in the new constitution have said there would be no objection in retaining the clause in the constitution giving prominence to Buddhism, provided the state grants all the powers already devolved to the provinces as non-retractable powers with due rights to non-Buddhists to follow their own religion without any hindrance from the Buddhist rulers. But there are still some extreme legislators who have not come out of the communal quicksand pit, it is the hope that many Buddhist monks will follow the steps of late monk, Sobitha Thera to enlighten the frog in the well type legislators to get out the communal quicksand pit, for the country to survive let alone prosper.