Realpolitik #12 – Competing Nationalisms

This is an essay I wrote that was recently published online for my university’s undergraduate international affairs magazine, ‘The Sydney Globalist.’ It’s a historical account of the separatist conflict that has been waged in Sri Lanka for over half a century. The original publication can be found here.


The separatist conflict in Sri Lanka has finally come to an end. In May last year, after the loss of over 80,000 lives, the Rajapaksa government celebrated its victory over the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), killing their charismatic leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. International responses to the end of the war have overwhelmingly been concerned with brokering a more inclusive political environment to ensure that such brutal and intractable conflicts do not occur again.

Previous negotiations to ratify a suitable deal that appeases both the Tamil and Sinhalese communities have broken down on various grounds. These negotiations date back to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact made more than half a century ago. After briefly tracing the roots of the conflict, this article continues with a history of the negotiations between Sinhala and Tamil representatives, and concludes by suggesting possible improvements and solutions to the intractable Sinhala-Tamil tensions.

The Roots of the Conflict: Distinct Cultural Heritage

Various scholars, from Sinhalese professor Asoka Bandarage to Tamil academic Madura Rasaratnam, have suggested that the Sinhala-Tamil conflict is rooted in the two ethnicities’ competing nationalisms. The Sinhala nationalist movement originates from the central role that Buddhism plays in Sinhalese cultural discourse. Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any nation in the world, dating back to the 2nd century BC. As Radhika Coomaraswamy notes, the Sinhalese community widely perceives Sri Lanka to be a “special haven for Sinhalese language and Buddhist religion”.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Tamil community claims a similarly celebrated history, arising out of the influx of Dravidian tribes from South India centuries ago. Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam has pointed out a revisionist reading of history passed down by Tamil elites that valorises the ‘Tamil legend’ through the rich tradition of Tamil epic poetry.

The distinct cultural legacies of these two great ethnicities have created a vast and unnecessary disjuncture. Both nations were subjected to British rule, and both played a vital role in the forging of an independent Sri Lanka. Both the Sinhalese and Tamils are, however, guilty of forging revisionist histories that seek to establish a triumphalist rhetoric at the expense of the other. Instead of building on shared historical experience, Sri Lankan society is built on the politics of antagonism and divergence, and it is no great surprise that the Sri Lankan state finds itself in such a tremulous position.

Tracing Negotiations from 1956 to the Present

From the seeds of ethnic division, the conflict began to take shape in the 1950s, when Sinhala nationalism began to gain primacy in Sri Lanka’s political environment. In 1956, the Bandaranaike government enacted the Official Language Act, mandating that Sinhalese was to be adopted as the national language of Sri Lanka. Tamil elites, particularly those in the northern and eastern provinces with heavy Tamil populations, were vehemently opposed to a law that they believed stifled the diversity of cultural expression characterising Sri Lanka.

Prime Minister Bandaranaike and the leader of the Tamil Federal Party, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, agreed to a pact in 1956 that promised devolution to regional councils, thereby providing the Tamil communities of the northern and eastern provinces with relatively autonomous governance structures and placating fears about cultural repression. However, after widespread protests by Buddhist monks and Sinhala nationalists, Bandaranaike publicly abrogated the pact by tearing it into pieces. Presented with a chance to nip the issue in the bud, the Prime Minister yielded to the pressures of radical elements and thus gave the growing conflict a chance to take root.

J. R. Jayawardene further embedded Sinhala nationalism in the political environment through numerous constitutional reforms. Following a sweeping electoral victory in 1977, he enacted changes to the Constitution that granted more executive powers to the newly created Office of the President. He also kept a candidate for the main opposition party from running for the life of his term in parliament, extended his party’s term in office to 12 yearswithout an election, and barred from parliament any MPs who supported Tamil separatism, in effect eliminating the main opposition party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).

It was during Jayawardene’s term in office that the civil war really began. In 1983, following an LTTE attack on Sri Lankan Army soldiers, the Black July riots took place, marking the nadir of Sinhala-Tamil relations. The riots resulted in the deaths of thousands of Tamil civilians, and signalled the end of the fragile peace between the two conflicting ethnicities.

In response, the Indian government organised the Thimpu peace talks in Bhutan. The Thimpu Principles guaranteed the recognition of Tamil self-determination, full citizenship and territorial integrity. After the Black July pogroms, however, the LTTE was pursuing an intransigent separatist stance, and the talks soon broke down.

As the conflict continued and the LTTE took a more militant role, President Chandrika Kumaratunga initiated her controversial ‘War for Peace’ policy in 1995. The Sri Lankan military saturated the rebel stronghold of Jaffna with gunfire, seeking to weaken the separatists so that they would be forced to come to the table for peace talks. The military’s controversial methods, which included bombing a church and thus causing the deaths of 65 civilians, were not what Kumaratunga intended. LTTE guerrilla warfare intensified, culminating in a suicide bombing on the Central Bank, killing 90 and injuring 1,400.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current President of Sri Lanka and the man responsible for the end of this most intractable of conflicts, was equally unsuccessful with his negotiation methods. The LTTE had relaxed its demands for a confederative structure of government that accorded full regional autonomy to the Tamil-dominated provinces; however, peace talks once again broke down in 2006 when the LTTE claimed, perhaps a little facetiously, that it was not granted adequate security measures while in Oslo for the talks.

Sri Lankan soldiers march on the last strongholds of the LTTE

Rajapaksa finally lost patience with the LTTE’s belligerence and ordered an offensive against the LTTE strongholds in the northern province, aiming to cripple the separatists’ organisational capacity. On May 18, 2009, the government announced that it had killed the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, after surrounding him in a patch of jungle in the north-east. Finally, after over 25 years of violence, the civil war had ended.

The Aftermath of the War: Humanitarian Concerns

Despite the end of the war, the Rajapaksa Government has had to deal with a raft of humanitarian allegations regarding its treatment of civilians in the aftermath of the conflict. Initially, the Government did not allow NGOs access to the welfare camps in which it held the disenfranchised civilians, but eventually opened the camps following significant international pressure. In addition, the civilians who have been identified as bearing ties to the LTTE, including hundreds of children, have been separated into entirely different camps. NGOs have no access to these camps, and the UN has vocalised its discontent candidly. These overtures have been rebuffed by the Government.

Given the widespread accusations of humanitarian misconduct, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, ordered an international inquiry into the war and potential humanitarian crimes conducted by the Sri Lankan Government. The UN investigation officially began in late September 2010, after an experts’ panel deemed the investigation both viable and crucial to the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka.

Civilians look for shelter in decimated areas of northern Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Government believes that the international community’s heavy intervention in the post-conflict environment is damaging both sides’ chances of reconciliation. President Rajapaksa maintains that there is no need for an inquiry by the UN, as the conditions maintained in the welfare camps are more than acceptable.

Conversely, the Tamil community feels satisfied to have its interests represented following the dismemberment of the LTTE. I would agree that having a powerful representative such as the UN – one that places value on the diplomatic process and is able to mobilise considerable influence in negotiations – will lead to more agreeable relations between the Sinhalese and Tamils. Were the LTTE still in place, it is probable that negotiations would be forever in flux, and the violence would continue unabated.


The end of the separatist conflict in Sri Lanka presents an opportunity to the Government and the representatives of the disenfranchised Sri Lankan Tamils. It provides them with an opportunity to forge a new relationship based on consensus and rational negotiation, rather than the extremism and intransigence that became emblematic of the obdurate LTTE-government peace talks. A number of lessons can be learned from the traumatic experiences of the past.

Neither the Sri Lankan Government nor the Tamil representatives can afford to be hijacked by radicals. The deadly effects of such commandeering were most evident in the abrogation of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact, as well as the eventual displacement of diplomatic negotiation in favour of political violence by the LTTE. Furthermore, negotiations must be mediated by an independent body that has, in its best interests, the future stability of the Sri Lankan state. Devolution is the most appropriate solution, granting regional councils significant autonomy to govern the needs of the Tamil-dominated north-east. At such a tortuous time in the history of this great nation, the misappropriation and misdirection of the political agenda would be lethal.

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” At the end of a bloody and brutal war, there remains a breach between the Tamil and Sinhalese nations that must be filled. A politics built on mutual experience and pluralistic nationalism is the way forward for this most troubled democracy, a politics that will glorify the triumphs of the Sri Lankan state as a whole. The opportunity to write a new, shining chapter in Sri Lanka’s history awaits its leaders. One can only hope that they don’t mess it up.

Get Involved

The conflict may be over, but Sri Lanka is still in dire need of help in its reconstruction efforts. Donate to Oxfam’s Sri Lankan Relief Fund here and help this poor nation rebuild its war-torn Northern provinces.


About Rage
Australian student with interests in music, film, literature, politics, pop culture and more.

One Response to Realpolitik #12 – Competing Nationalisms

  1. Nice breakdown of the whole situation. I was only lightly familiar with the situation in Sri Lanka, and love the additional material to do further research from.

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