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‘Lions’ and the ‘Tigers’ of Sovereign Sri Lanka

Aug 7, 2010 9:14:50 AM- transcurrents.com

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The ‘Lions and Tigers’ here are not the four-legged animals that live in forests away from human habitats but the two groups of natives in the war-torn island, who opted to embrace the lion and the tiger as their distinct emblems after the British colony, Ceylon (Sri Lanka since 1972), became an independent self-governing State in 1948.The ‘Tigers’ emerged openly as a distinct species after Black July 1983, though there was some indication of their emergence in the 1970s.

In the light of blatant discrimination and intimidation by the ‘Lions’ that made the ‘Tigers’ feel insecure and futureless, the latter started the violent campaign to preserve the portion of the island considered to be their territory. On the other hand the ‘Lions’ believe they are insecure unless the have full control over the entire island. To the ‘Lions’ nothing else only numerology, the power of numbers, counts. They make up nearly three quarters of the total inhabitants including some liberal Sinhalese. Hence, the justification for insisting on controlling the entire island under centralized majority rule. The diverse demographic features across the island are unimportant.

Their respective flags, one with the whole lion taking the major portion with narrow margins on one end representing the marginal status of the minorities in national politics, while the other with the fierce face of about to attack tiger depict the nature of the conflict that deprived many citizens as well as the entire island the benefits of uninterrupted development, which many less developed countries gained swiftly after independence under sensible leaders committed to national unity and peace.

The narrative of the ‘Lions’ and the ‘Tigers’ below depicts the opportunistic ways the power seekers used the electorate for achieving their narrow aims which promoted ethnic division and disharmony. They were not at all interested in building a robust democratic socialist nation in which all the diverse ethnic groups feel safe and confident about their future. If this had happened, Sri Lankans today would be leading a far better life. Instead, they made security the prime concern of the ‘Lions’. Even now this concern is sustained for political reason. The true fact is the security of all communities and the State depends crucially on their confidence in the system of government that must be inclusive and unbiased. Such an equitable system will help to ensure the ground conditions remain conducive for all to live in concord without encroaching on others rights, liberties and property.

Use of emotional symbols in politics and the consequences

Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Temple University, USA in a comprehensive analysis of electoral politics in independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka has discussed the importance given to emotional symbols such as ancient Sinhala monarchs and Buddhist heroes by the main political parties competing for power. “Almost all elections in Sri Lanka, between 1948 (parliamentary election) and 2010 (both Presidential and general election), have made use of religio-ethnic symbols”. These are irrelevant in the modern world and increasingly damaging to the solidarity of the pluralistic nation. When the developed countries and developing countries committed to steadfast social and economic development have discarded their real dissonant history, even mythological events are politically useful symbols for the ‘Lions’ in Sri Lanka.

Not surprisingly, the way these symbols were used continuously in politics promoted separate communal identities instead of the common national identity. The common interests, the ethnic communities had before independence also disappeared afterwards because of this symbolism. Patriotism became synonymous with Sinhala nationalism, advocated by the self-seeking Sinhala elite, aspiring for power or wanting to consolidate further their influential positions in their society. In response, Tamil nationalism grew as a patriotic fervour fuelled by the policies and actions of the State dominated by the Sinhala majority that blatantly discriminated against the ethnic minorities for immediate political advantage. These as intended pleased the Sinhala electorate. Certainly, there were many disadvantaged people among the Sinhalese compared with the average persons in the minority communities. There were acceptable ways of improving the living standard of the poor Sinhalese but the power seeking political elite chose to remove the rights and privileges of the non-Sinhalese. Thus the case for two separate nation-states was established by the ruthless Sinhala Lions.

To quote Dr. Imtiyaz: “This study argues that symbols are powerful, and they often motivate voters against the ethnic others when they are being politicized. In electoral politics, as argued above, symbols of groups become critically important due to its appeal to the nature of electoral politics, which requires votes for its survival. Political choices of masses not always associated with rational choices, and symbols often influence their choices. In Sri Lanka, elections are heavily symbolized. Sri Lanka’s experiences prove that the symbols win votes and thus politicians continuously use them to win and consolidate power.

But what is equally true is that the use of symbols or politicization of symbols of a particular group gradually increases the sense of insecurity among the ethnic others who became clear victim of politicization of symbols. In Sri Lanka, the Tamils, who became a clear victim of politicization of symbols that paved the way for the introduction of the deadly anti-Tamil policies such as the Sinhala-only language and ethnic education standardization as well as state supported anti-Tamil ethnic pogroms, feel that they were being marginalized by the Sinhala politicians to please the Sinhalese, and they will not win justice from the Sinhala polity.

Conversely, the Sinhala symbolism and nationalism pressed the Tamils to adopt their own form of symbolism as a defensive strategy to counter the threats of the Sinhala symbolism. Moreover, the Tamils’ distrust in the fair deliver of state and its institutions persuaded some to embrace violence to exercise their self-determination to build the separate state in the corner of the North and Eastern.

Sri Lanka’s experiences also prove that the use of symbolism for electoral politics in deeply divided societies would hurt the progress of the country. The island of Sri Lanka could have emerged as a model for successful democracy and economic growth, if there had been ethnic harmony and unity among the masses. But such progressive end was not gained mainly due to Sinhala elites’ misuse of primordial symbols for electoral gains”. [The full article, “Deadly Symbols, Vibrant Electoral Politics and War Crimes in Sri Lanka” was posted by TransCurrents on July 28, 2010. It appeared in the IUP Journal of International Relations, Vol IV, No. 3, July 2010. http://www.iupindia.in/International_Relations.asp]

The military victory last year that annihilated the ‘Tigers’ is now the new symbol of power of the majoritarians (‘Lions’). It helped immensely to win this year’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections. The current plan to celebrate annually May 19 as a victory day reflects the intent to hold on to this new symbol, hoping it will be useful for gaining the votes of the ‘Lions’ in future elections. This has also been of immense use in diverting the attention of many ‘Lions’ from pressing economic issues. But as expected by realists, recent developments indicate the emergence of discontent.

Buddhism and contradictory political culture

There is no doubt Buddhism another useful symbol in electoral politics has played a key role in the contest for political power within the Sinhala polity. The rival political parties have exhibited their commitments to Buddhism pretending there are threats to the Buddhist Sasana and there is the need to safeguard the interests of the Sinhala-Buddhists. The ‘Lions’ believe they are “the Buddha’s chosen people, and view the island of Sri Lanka as the Buddhist Promised land”. According to Dr. Imtiyaz, “Buddhism will continue to play a determined role in Sri Lanka’s polity, and that Sinhala political elites, regardless of their attachments to various ideologies, will employ Buddhism to win public office and to outbid their opponents in elections”. Buddhism which served as a useful symbol has no bearing on the nation’s political culture that is immoral and divisive.

What Kumsyoh has said on ‘Low intensity evil in Sri Lanka’ (Groundviews 31 July 2010) is very relevant here. “The logic to make someone or a group dominant at the cost of others is evil. Those who want to dominate make their viewpoints the most dominating viewpoints in public life. They make their viewpoint permeate every facet of society; it is beamed through different lenses and repeated intentionally so that it would influence the totality of the way people think”. The concluding paragraph highlights the dire consequences of negative politics. To quote: “The problem with low intensity evil is that it cannot be always managed. With sustained dissent or the convergence of suppressed anger and we can experience violent repercussions, leaving us to wonder what went wrong. Sri Lanka has been down this path before. Should we travel on it again?” Sadly there are no signs of a mutually acceptable arrangement for the ‘Lions’ and the ‘Tigers’ to shun their separate identities and live in concord in the present as during the time they were pleased to be known as Ceylonese. They did not have then any make-believe enemies within the island.

The creation and subsequent exploitation of the Tamil problem for narrow political gains illustrate this stratagem. The influence of the ‘Lions’ on the Sinhala-Buddhists, the mainstream voting public would not have been strong if not for the punishing treatment given to the ethnic Tamils. Now that the terrorizing lot is gone, the ‘Lions’ seem to be anxious to have at least a proxy to justify the continuation of the role of the protector of the ‘Lions’ terrain. The usefulness of having a hidden enemy within the blessed island is multifaceted.

The continued presence of the armed forces in the Tamil majority Northern and Eastern provinces, where military cantonments and quarters for the families of army personnel posted there can be justified. This is perceived by many Tamils there as another opportunistic move by the ‘Lions’ to colonize the former ‘Tiger’ land. The residents who have suffered under the control of the armed ‘Tigers’, now are under the control of uniformed men with guns from the traditional land of the ‘Lions’. Many do not feel liberated from the fear of sudden attack and displacement experienced since the time the ‘liberation’ struggle intensified into a full-scale war.

Apparently, there is a political need for the government to claim that the ground situation is not normal yet to remove fully the various restrictions imposed during the war. Emergency rule continues still, more than a year after the war ended. Also the emphasis on security helps to distract the people from annoying day-to-day problems, which have multiplied with the collapse of good governance, rule of law, independent judiciary, poverty alleviation, forward planning and not least the widely relied APRC process. It is unclear whether the development of the war-torn North-East is according to a comprehensive plan prepared in consultation with the local leaders.

The absence of coherence and practicality in decision-making is patent from the impulsive decisions such as the substantial salary increase promised to public servants, the award of 20% bonus on the interests paid to the savings of senior citizens deposited in commercial banks and to pay the monthly pensions of Sri Lankan government pensioners residing abroad in foreign currencies. Those who opted to receive their pensions in Dollars or Pounds are free to spend them at any time they want but other expatriates who get paid in Sri Lankan Rupees that too only into specified savings account must revisit Colombo to withdraw their pensions! Now the authorities are finding it difficult to implement the earlier decisions because of the shortage of funds. Any further discussion on this subject is outside the scope of this paper.

Buddhist principles did not influence the way of life of the majority of Sri Lankans, particularly the governance. The teachings of the Buddha, emphasize that falsehood, deception, pride, arrogance, intolerance, inconsideration, violence etc. are negative qualities. Both the ‘Lions’ and the ‘Tigers’ have competitively contributed to the evolution of the violent culture that continues to destroy life with impunity even after the much acclaimed dawn of peace with the elimination of the ruthless ‘Tigers’. Ironically, the ‘Lions’ and the ‘Tigers’ have each contributed unwittingly to the ruthlessness of the other. The ‘Lions’ defeated the ‘Tigers’ using some brutal methods during the final months of the war similar to those used by the ‘Tigers’ for decades. Given the nature of the conflict between the ‘Lions’ and the ‘Tigers’, will there be any use in investigating the alleged war crimes? Human rights, UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and international humanitarian law seem to be irrelevant in the ferocious ‘war’ between the two Sri Lankan groups, the ‘Lions’ and the ‘Tigers’. This contentious issue has to be seen in the context of ‘lost senses’ alleged to have prevailed since Black July 1983.

‘Lost senses’ since Black July 1983

Basil Fernando, a Director of ‘The Asian Human Rights Commission’ (AHRC) a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia based in Hong Kong in his article on Black July 1983 interpreted the gruesome event and subsequent ones, paradoxically in the name of peace that caused destruction and extensive suffering in the context of lost human senses.

“When acts of violence become so common and there is nothing much to talk about, it simply means life itself has reduced to something that there is nothing much to talk about. That is how I saw July 1983 events. Things in Sri Lanka is reduced to a point where there was nothing much to talk about. People talk about things in order to make some sense out of it and if possible to remove the nonsense that is involved in some events and to bring back society into some sense. To bring the lost senses back to what may be called a normal human sense and then to make some change, something creative, something meaningful out of suffering”

All what happened after Black July1983 are considered as just incidents reflecting more of the lost senses. “Then we got divided - The South Vs the North and East. Many of yet another incidents happened every day. Then a victory (refers to the triumphant military victory that mercilessly destroyed the ‘Tigers’) was celebrated. Was the victory not yet another incident? Many wanted to believe it was not. As days goes by it not possible convince ourself that such victories also are yet another incident only. …. I did not see July 1983 as an ethnic event. I saw it as a senseless situation. I saw it as a problem of the whole nation I have not seen an end of that situation but only a continuation.” (Sri Lanka Guardian 26 July 2010)

Although the optimists will not agree fully with the above comments, these give some idea of the complex nature of the national problem and the approach needed to resolve it once and for all. Joint actions are needed on several fronts, which entail the vital attitudinal change and trust between the divided ethnic and religious groups. The sensible Tamils have urged the different political groups in the North-East to abandon parochialism and unite at this critical time when the future of the community is increasingly uncertain.

Lionel Bopage, a former JVP leader in his recent speech on ‘Peace and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka’ delivered in Melbourne, Australia said: “The current political conflict cannot be oversimplified to a simple linear equation between development and peace”, which seems to be the case going by the government’s statements and actions. He has emphatically said that “the way forward for peace and reconciliation lies in exploring the potential for rebuilding inclusive relationships among the diversity of people through the existing and available dialogue and interaction mechanisms within communities both local and diasporic”.

Since a principled or rights based approach to resolve the issues of Tamil people cannot be expected to materialize from the ruling elite, he has suggested all movements committed to human rights, democratic rights, civil liberty, social justice and social inclusion to join in a non-violent campaign to get rid of the repressive political culture. The need for them “to exert pressure on the state to negotiate towards a meaningful and just power-sharing arrangement” has also been stressed. The political elite will not voluntarily change their attitude but will continue to exploit the social and political divisions for their benefit. They will also keep the present system exploitable. (The entire speech posted by groundviews on July 25, 2010)

Another prominent Sri Lankan residing in Australia, Brian Senewiratne has also explained lucidly ‘why national reconciliation is not possible in Sri Lana’ (30 July Sri Lanka Guardian). He has said for national reconciliation to occur the following fundamental requirements must be met.

“1. There must be a genuine intention to do so.

2. There must be regret for all that has happened to make national reconciliation necessary.

3. The fundamental problems that caused the rift must be addressed.

4. There must be a determination to wipe out all the obstructions to this process.

Since none of these are present in Sri Lanka, national reconciliation is not possible”.

He thinks the ‘Lions’ feel they are now in a good position to achieve their aim of formalising Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist country. “The major obstruction (to national reconciliation) indeed the most virulent ones are the politically active Buddhist clergy and Sinhalese ethnoreligious chauvinists. There has been no action to control these disruptive elements that are now more vocal and virulent than they have ever been. If the Buddhist clergy are told clearly and unequivocally that their place is in Buddhist temples and not on the streets stirring up Sinhala supremacy and demanding the establishment of a Sinhala Buddhist country, then there might be some optimism of a national reconciliation. There has been no such move and these bigots are doing what they have done since Independence in 1948, destroying any possibility of a united country”. Although, there are Sinhala moderates and few politicians from the ethnic minorities in the government, it is the staunch Sinhala Buddhist nationalists who are influential.

My own view is they are not against unity but they want this on their terms that entail the acceptance by all the supremacy of Sinhala Buddhists and their right to govern the entire island which they consider to be exclusively their native land. Because of the influential status they have acquired after independence for reasons stated earlier in this paper, Brian Senewiratne thinks no government “will have the courage to confront these dreadful people who are not only doing irreparable damage to the country and its future, but bringing disrepute to one of the greatest teachers of peace and nonviolence the world has ever known, Gautama Buddha”.


The ultimate aim of the government leadership given the present ad hoc initiatives on the political front that are unrelated to the widely desired needs of the humble people is puzzling. No discerning person has said it focuses on rectifying the past blunders and building a unified nation respecting pluralism and equality, human and, political rights and democratic freedoms of all citizens. The system must also ensure equal justice for all regardless of their locality and status in the society. The civil society can no longer allow the political elite to decide the system of government needed for the welfare of the country and all the diverse groups in the Sri Lankan society. The two Republican Constitutions failed to protect equal rights and the justifiable interests of all recognised segments of the mixed society because of the exclusion of independent experts.

As before, the present political elite too are overly concerned about the near term in their approach to constitutional reform. The contemplated reforms too are perceived from their own political needs. It seems their confidence in effecting these changes within the present structure is high because of the military victory and the impression created that they have the power and the means to protect the Sinhala nation from any future revolt. Even the apparent move towards authoritarian rule may be perceived by some as necessary to avert another ‘Tiger’ menace. Sri Lankan Prime Minister told Parliament on August 3, the government troops have arrested more than 1500 Tiger suspects last month, nearly 14 months after the heavily armed group was crushed militarily. The usefulness of the ‘Tigers’ at the present time is also in other critical areas.

The ‘Tiger’ leadership or more aptly the leader also believed in the effectiveness of his high-handed methods in the pursuit of absolute power ignoring completely international opinion. The Tamil community paid the terrible price for his unrealistic conviction in absolutism and confidence in the brutal methods used to achieve his political aim. Now it is for the Sinhalese to think seriously whether they should be led along similar risky path, ignoring the present national and international realities.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]