In 2006, Sri Lanka was witness to the worst violence between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam since a ceasefire was signed between the two groups in 2002.
Jonathan Spencer is the Professor of the Anthropology of South Asia at the University of Edinburgh. He has written A Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble: Politics and Change in Rural Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict. I spoke with him in September of 2006 about the roots of the conflict in Sri Lanka.
TIRMIZEY: Could you give a history and the roots behind the conflict in Sri Lanka?
SPENCER: There is a medium length history and a much longer more contentious history. The longer and more contentious history is one which would see sources of the conflict going right back into the pre-colonial period and the relationship between the Tamil minority and the Sinhala majority on the island. That history is controversial and is not a view that I find particularly helpful in understanding what is happening at the moment. To understand what is happening at the moment, I think, we have to concentrate much more on the history of electoral politics in Sri Lanka which started in the 1930s and the period immediately after independence in the late 1940s and in the early 1950s when what could now be called the Sinhala majoritarianism became the hegemonic political project in the island. All minorities, not just the Tamils but minorities in general, began to see they were going to be always on the fringes of power and on the fringes of the state.
The politics of all this simmered through the 1950s, 1960s, and well into the 1970s, without exploding in the ways that we have seen in more recent years. In the late 70s, young Tamil men in the north of the country decided to take on a policy of more direct action against the state, assassinating the odd policeman, state official or politician. This prompted a heavy backlash from the security forces, which in turn escalated the resistance that they were putting up. Then in 1983 a major wave of anti-Tamil violence across the south of the country really tipped the balance from a small and containable insurrection to something much more like a civil war. That is the war that is carried on through ceasefires, talks, and attempts at negotiations for 20 years now.
TIRMIZEY: Why was there the emergence of a very violent form of Tamil nationalism being expressed from the 1980s onwards?
SPENCER: A simple explanation would simply be that this was a response to the violence that had been visited upon on all sorts of Tamil people particularly in the south of the country in series of fairly well organized attacks by gangs of hoodlums in 1981 and again in 1983. But behind that also was the radicalization of young Tamil people, a radicalization that was partly internal, it is a new generation coming up, and partly also by sparked by the failures of the older more stayed political leadership to actually get anywhere to address their problems. Those failures were not simply a matter of poor tactics on their part, it was also to do with the fact that basically the politicians from the majority Sinhalese populations simply did not want to do deals, did not want to compromise, they did not want to offer the kinds of things that Tamils were looking for. Gradually the more moderate Tamil politicians lost credibility and these much more radical and much more violent young people took the lead.
TIRMIZEY: Can you talk about the connections between the neo-liberal policies introduced in Sri Lanka from the 1970s onwards and the current conflict?
SPENCER: There is a simple story, which if you just look at the sequence of events would suggest that there is a strong and clear link between the conflict and the so-called â€œopen economicâ€ policies that were pursued from 1977 onwards. But in fact it is more complicated than that. In 1977 there was a change of government, a new right-of-centre government came in with strong international backing from big donors, to â€“ as they said â€“ open up the economy, to privatize, and to de-regulate. They opened up a free trade zone for garment industries and garment manufacturing in Colombo. They brought in a whole lot of new kinds of imports. That government stayed in power, although there were changes in personnel, from 1977 through till the early 1990s. They presided over the complete decay of Sri Lanka political institutions and particularly the kind of ethnic relations within the country. The link to neo-liberalism is complicated, one reason is that this was a very weird kind of neo-liberalism, this was hugely fuelled by overseas aid money. The share of government expenditure didn’t particularly falter in this period, it was much more like actually other kinds of model neo-liberalisms, Reagan’s kind of neo-liberalism, where you actually had a boom in government expenditure producing a boom in the economy.
Where the obvious links to me lie are to do with the politicization of the economy and the politicization of control of resources, which these aid flows were also a part of. It was politicians and members of the ruling party who controlled who got what. Because it was the ruling part who controlled who got what, areas which didn’t have political representatives in the ruling party didn’t get stuff. So the development that occurred from the 1970s onwards has been extraordinarily uneven. The southwest of the country, the coastal strip near Colombo has moved on in leaps and bounds in terms of per capita GDP and poverty indicators, but the rest of the country including the poor Sinhala parts as well as the poor Tamil parts have been left trailing far behind. Behind the neo-liberalism story there is another story about very uneven economic development in the country. There is also a long and very sad story of exclusion of young people not from the elite, not from the English-speaking upper classes, exclusion of these people from access to employment, access to positions of power, access to cultural resources, and all sorts of things. That has driven all sorts of desperate political moves, not just amongst Tamil youth but also amongst Sinhalese, at times, over the past 20 years. So there is a dynamic to do with poverty and exclusion behind it, but the actually opening up of the economy definitely affected things, but it affected things as it was mediated through the party political system.
TIRMIZEY: So would you say the issue here is really about class but politicians are using the rhetoric of nationalism…
SPENCER: That’s probably a little too simplistic, a lot of people would probably like it to be really about class, because it then becomes intelligible and more familiar leftist language. It is not in that respect. Again and again appeals to class positions and class interests have been trumpeted by appeals to ethnic identity and national identity in Sri Lanka, this goes way back to the 1920s and 30s. To suggest that there is a real class thing there and enough of gang of politicians exploiting it I think doesn’t really do justice to the situation. There are really powerful dynamics around inequality and access to things, and the language of access and the language of inclusion and exclusion is very much framed in terms of the imagery of nationalism. It’s about the government being â€œour governmentâ€ and â€œour governmentâ€ is defined in ethnic or linguistic terms. That’s the crucial point, the point that people see the language of entitlement, if you like, is ethnically inflected. But that’s not something that can be easily explained, and it is not simply a matter of manipulation. People use that language because it works, not because they invented it and are just kind of dumping it upon hapless people who are actually misunderstanding their own position.
TIRMIZEY: How has mass politics in Sri Lanka, by having Tamil and Sinhala politicians appeal to voters using Tamil and Sinhala nationalism respectively, shaped what it means to be Sinhala or Buddhist or Tamil or Muslim? Would you go as far as to say it has created â€œimagined communitiesâ€ and â€œimagined identitiesâ€?
SPENCER: I wouldn’t say that it has completely created them but the form that they take now and the form that people think of, say, a â€œTamil nationâ€ or the â€œSinhala peopleâ€ or whatever, is massively shaped by the work that is being done in the political arenas, since the 1930s. My own view is that that is the single crucial factor in all of this. You can tell a story about it, and you can tell a story that makes some sense about this by comparing with Sri Lanka’s giant neighbour India. In the ’20s and ’30s in India, the anti-colonial politicians, the Nehrus and Ghandhis, were attempting to create this broadened alliance as possible in order to win political rights and to push the British out. The equivalent figures in Sri Lanka basically didn’t exist, there wasn’t a mass nationalist movement, and the British colonial office brought in universal adult suffrage and elections to Sri Lanka, actually in the face of reservations expressed by the only major nationalist party at the time â€“ the Ceylon Nationalist Congress. They said that people were not ready for elections. So when politicians were given elections as a sort of playing field, they had no particular interest in using a broad a base as possible to unite against the British, they were already competing for sectional interests. They had been given the stuff, well before they asked for it. Electoral politics, the first major elections were in the early 1930s, were already structured on ethnic lines in large respect. And again, that was partly to do with the distribution of population. The so-called Ceylon Tamils, as they were called back then but now the Sri Lankan Tamils, were heavily concentrated in the North and East of the island. Politicians could have a power base there with no concern what so ever for Sinhala voters in the Sinhala electorate, but equally Sinhala politicians in the South and West of the island could address their own constituency with almost no concern for the impact of what they were saying on Tamil voters. The result was a constant upping of the rhetoric of ethnic identity and ethnic opposition.
TIRMIZEY: I know you have written a book called â€œA Sinhala village in a Time of Troubleâ€, maybe you could talk about that book and give examples in a very local context of how nationalism is used in politics.
SPENCER: The book itself came out some years ago now. It was based on work I originally did in Sri Lanka 25 years ago when I lived for the best part of 2 years in a small and relatively poor village, out of the fringes of things, in the south of the island. Most of the population were Sinhala, there were some Muslims, and one or two Tamil people. It was the early years of the open economy. Party politics were extremely important in the village. There were all sorts of ways that this played out. There were great intensities in the divisions between the political parties. But also, it was possible to see the ways in which certain kinds of institutions like schools, the Buddhist temple, were sights for the production and reproduction of a vision of this place as ultimately united, a single community brought together by the fact that everybody was Sinhala and everybody was Buddhist. The symbols of Sinhala Buddhist identity were repeatedly being employed in these kinds of circumstances. The part about that was that this was a place where a generation or two ago there hadn’t been schools, there hadn’t been a temple, and people were mostly illiterate. I was able through oral historical work to see how people’s own sense of themselves, as Sinhala Buddhist, had changed. They were very self-conscious about the way in which it had changed: â€œwe weren’t very good at being Buddhist back in those daysâ€, they said, â€œwe didn’t know what we were supposed to be doing, we were ignorant, we were uneducated.â€ I was lucky enough to have some wonderful people that I worked with who were great oral historians who could explain how this village was entering into the world of a modern economy and modern politics, and had at the same time pretty systematically been re-defined as a village, not defined as caste, or regional identity, or anything like that, but defined in terms of this national identity. That was the theme of the book. But as I said, it was the moment just before the conflict really turned very serious, right up to the period of the big anti-Tamil violence in 1983. And the people who carried out the attacks on the Tamils in 1983 were the same sort of people that I was meeting and dealing in the village. They were local party political workers and people like that. The violence, as I said, was organized. And agents in the ruling party were very heavily implicated in it. So there was a kind of continuity, there were all sorts of small scale political violence in the early ’80s going on directed not on ethnic grounds but whoever you happened to be against in a particular locality. The personnel who carried that stuff were also the personnel who attacked Tamils in 1983 and precipitated the quantum leap up into a civil war, from what otherwise was a much more containable situation.
TIRMIZEY: In some parts of the world we are seeing non-state actors controlling large areas within states. For example, we have the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico; Hezbollah in southern Lebanon; and the Maoists in Nepal. How much sovereignty does the government of Sri Lanka have, and how much sovereignty does the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have in parts of Sri Lanka?
SPENCER: In abstract academic terms, it is a fascinating question. In human terms, it is a tragic question. The answer is depends on where you are. The LTTE have areas where they more or less completely control, where the government don’t go. The government obviously has control of large amounts of the island which are pretty much unchallenged by the LTTE. Then there are a lot areas where it is not merely the government or LTTE asserting competing sovereignty in the same space but there are also other groups. There is a break-away faction of the LTTE which is challenging the LTTE’s hegemony in parts of eastern Sri Lanka and there are Muslim groups who are challenging the LTTE in parts of eastern Sri Lanka. Ten to fifteen years ago there were violent Sinhala groups that were challenging the sovereignty of the government and in parts of the south as well. Yet even within the LTTE areas you have got very paradoxical situations where the LTTE are very concerned to present themselves now like a state like entity. Since the ceasefire a few years ago they have invested very heavily in the visible appearances of being like a state by having a judiciary, police forces, schools, and so forth. At the same time, the government is still running various things that are happening in their areas. For example, people will go off to the post office to get their pensions paid by the government, the school teacher’s salary will be paid by the government, kids will be sitting public exams run from Colombo by the government. Depending on what part of life you are looking at, one or other party could be seen being like a state. That has made, I think, the attempts at negotiations and the attempts at the kind of peace process more problematic because things tend to be very much structured in terms of unambiguous actors and a bilateral process behind two clearly defined entities. But in fact you’ve got something much more blurred and murky going on there, and in the murk one of the ways that people try to make it clear who is in charge is the simple brutal act of violence. Both parties have been guilty of this during the period of the ceasefire, of using violence in order to assert their sovereignty in a particular area. It has of course the long term affect of undermining stability. Even as your saying we are in charge you are also stoking the possibility of counter-violence against you.
TIRMIZEY: What spaces are available to Tamils, or even Sinhalese, who are critical of both the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers but want social justice?
SPENCER: There are some heroic people people who have carried on both sides, from peace activists, feminists activists, some church and religious groups, particularly Christian groups, but also people from all of the religious parties, who have tried to push forward a progressive political agenda while also trying to address this big serious upset in the heart of polity. People are there, some space is there, but it would foolish to pretend that it was easy work or even if it was safe work. Just a couple of weeks ago we saw a long term Tamil radical activist who had started working with the government Peace Secretariat assassinated on his door step in Colombo. This is the latest in a long line of people who have tried to de-ethnicize the political arena and concentrate more on issues of social justice. Many of those people are being killed. The people who carry on with this work do so knowing it can be very very dangerous. I think it is more dangerous in the LTTE controlled areas because they really don’t like any hint of pluralism. Recently there has been a return to the old politics of disappearances and abductions of people like journalists. Which is a very worrying kind of phenomenon that was much more common in the 1980s there. So yes there are plural political voices, there are alternative political voices, work is going on, and some sort of that work is very affective for the long run in terms of building up some of that momentum for peace, particularly in the south.
TIRMIZEY: In the past year we have seen the escalation of violence and the end of the ceasefire, what do you see as the reasons behind that?
SPENCER: It probably wasn’t such a simple change. There had been violations of the ceasefire by both sides all the way through, particularly by the LTTE who had been picking off its political enemies in the areas it controlled all the way through the ceasefire. There was a change of government, a new President was elected with a new kind of power base from his predecessor at the end of 2005. That did coincide with the kind of ratcheting up of pressure from the government and the security forces to the LTTE. That though was also was matched by the LTTE’s caring out a number of provocations against the security forces, blowing up of buses of sailors or soldiers going home on leave, with the hope that it would provoke a backlash and legitimate something that they might have been intending to do. Both sides have been systematically using the ceasefire agreement as a fig to leaf to cover quite a lot of very nasty work that was going on without necessarily getting international attention. Then in the last month or so, this has really changed again. There has been much more like an open military campaign around the eastern port of Trincomalee and then again there has been air strikes and something more like a regular military campaign in Jaffna in the north as well. We now have a couple of hundred thousand of new internal displaced people as a result of this. There has been a kind of quotated shift just in the last month, but even now it is not completely clear that this is a shift towards open war. It is not clear that either side has really the resources to return to war or indeed a kind of strategy that could possibly lead to anything that could look like a victory. This does look still as it looked three or four years ago like an unwinnable situation for both sides.
TIRMIZEY: Do you know of any writers, books, or sources of information that you would recommend to people that are helpful in understanding the conflict in Sri Lanka?
SPENCER: Probably the best way would actually be through fiction. There is a wonderful wealth of writing in english that has come out in the last ten or twenty years. Of which Michael Ondatjee is by far the best known, altough I’m not sure that Ondatjee’s novel Anil’s Ghost would necessarily illuminate the struggle, but it does provide a kind of commentary on what has happened. The National Film Board of Canada has recently produced a fantastic documentary called ‘No More Tears Sister: Anatomoy of Hope and Betrayal’ about the life and tragic death of a Tamil activist called Rajani Thiranagama. That film, which has been seen around Canada and around the world in the last twelve months, gives a good account of the background of what has happened. There there are other writers, for example Shyam Selvadurai is another Canadian-based Sri Lankan writer. His first book, Funny Boy, details the atmosphere of the months leading up to the 1983 violence and it does it quite well. I think you can get a sense of what is happening in Sri Lanka without necessarily going into the more academic writing, of which there is a great detail, but it is not necessarily the most helpful immediate way into it all.
TIRMIZEY: Do you have any final remarks that you would like to make, something you think that is important to say.
SPENCER: I think it is desperately hard this last month to say this, but I still see signs of hope, I see signs of hope in peoples everyday lives. I have been visiting Sri Lanka once or twice a year for the last however many years. People still want peace to some level, they need peace, war really isn’t an option for that country. And yet somehow the big political actors don’t seem to know how to translate that popular desire for peace into kind of working political relations. That doesn’t mean that the desire isn’t there. And I think certainly in the south, which is the sort of areas that I know best, people have learnt bitter lessons from the war in the 80s and 90s. They know the human cost of some of the more unrealistic ethnic fantasies that they subscribe to. And I think that amongst people themselves there are signs for hope, but even as I say that the events of the last month have been absolutely horrible for the people who have been caught up in them.
The other thing to point out is that this is very much a transnational conflict. I mentioned the aid flows that propped up the government through the 80s as their human rights record went down and down and down. This did not impact upon the quantity of aid that was coming in from the big western countries who were very excited by the appearance of neo-liberal economics and policies. Also, there is the support that comes from the expatriate Tamil community to the LTTE. People who are living relatively comfortable lives on the whole in places like Scarborough, Massachusetts, or London, or wherever, giving their money to buy guns and things. They are not the people who are going to be actually at the receiving end when the government responds with air strikes. There are ways in which people outside of Sri Lanka have quite a lot of leverage. The international community that provides aid and support to the government and the transnational Tamil community that keeps the LTTE show on the road, those are the people who have the capacity to make a difference in terms of bringing about peace as well. They are major players on what is going on there.
This is a transcript of an interview originally recorded for community radio CKUT 90,3 fm in Montreal.