Gwynne Dyer: Sri Lanka’s Future

First, the good news. Sri Lanka’s government, whose 26-year war against the separatist Tamil Tigers ended in total victory last May, is keeping its promise to let all of the 300,000 Tamil civilians who were captured in the final battle go home again. Not only that, but it is going to hold a free election next month–so free that the ruling party might even lose it.

The bad news is that it does not much matter who wins that election. Both the incumbent and the challenger are committed Sinhalese nationalists whose policies towards the Tamil minority militate against any reconciliation between the two groups. Tamils are less than a fifth of the population, so if tough treatment is enough to keep them quiet, then Sri Lanka faces a peaceful future–but repression has not worked in the past.

It’s easy to understand why the government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapkasa, insisted on a decisive victory over the Tamil Tigers, whose insurgency had caused 70,000 deaths over the years. There had been cease-fires and peace talks over the years, but the Tigers never really abandoned their goal of total independence for the Tamil majority areas in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

That was utterly unacceptable to the Sinhala-speaking majority, so the war was bound to end in a last stand by the Tigers sooner or later. They could have carried on with suicide bombings and assassinations forever, but their territorial ambitions drove them to seize and hold ground with a more or less conventional military force. (They even had a navy and an air force of sorts.) That made them vulnerable to military defeat.

All it took to make that happen was a government willing to devote all the resources of the state to building an army able to defeat the Tigers in stand-up battle, and tough enough to refuse all negotiations until the enemy was completely destroyed. The Rajapaksas provided that government.

All the well-meaning foreign pleas last May for a cease-fire to protect the Tamil civilians trapped with the Tigers were quite rightly ignored by the Sri Lankan forces. The Tigers always made sure that they had lots of innocent civilians around when they fought. The civilians absorbed a lot of the enemy fire, their deaths served to radicalise other Tamils–and cease-fires to protect civilians had frequently allowed the Tiger fighters to escape in the past.

Nor was Colombo wrong to round up all 300,000 Tamil civilians who were caught up in the Tigers’ last stand. Any surviving fighters were bound to try to hide themselves among the civilians, so a protracted sorting-out process was needed. But the Sri Lankan government promised that everybody except suspected fighters would be released within six months–and it has kept its word, more or less.

The camps have been emptying out fast over the past couple of months, and Colombo promises that everybody will have gone home by the end of January. There are justifiable complaints that not enough is being done to help former detainees resettle, but there have been much uglier ends to long and brutal wars like this one.

The problem lies not in the past, but in the future. The Tamils are always going to be there, and the prospect of a peaceful future for Sri Lanka depends on reconciling them to coexistence with the Sinhalese in a state that treats both communities fairly. They will probably never again create a semi-conventional army like the Tigers, but it would be all too easy for them to resort to terrorism again if they feel desperate enough. And it would be almost impossible to stop it.

The trouble is that it took an ultranationalist Sinhalese regime to create the army that defeated the Tigers, and it is still in power. It does not want to welcome the Tamils back into equal citizenship, nor does it feel that it needs to. The Rajapaksa government has called an early election for January 26  to exploit its victory and consolidate its hold on power–and if it should happen lose the election, then things may just get worse.

The Rajapaksas’ challenger is none other than General Sarath Fonseka, who commanded the army that finally defeated the Tigers. The main opposition group in the Sinhala community, the United National Party, has banded together with nine smaller parties and put Fonseka up as their presidential candidate.

Fonseka could actually win, for his role in the defeat of the Tigers was just as large as that of the Rajapaksas. But he is also just as uncompromising a Sinhalese nationalist: as the war was nearing a conclusion, he was heard to say that Sri Lanka “belongs to the Sinhalese...(Minorities) can live in this country with us, but they must not try to demand undue things.” Like equality, perhaps?

That is the attitude that drove the Tamils into insurrection in the first place. The next time it wouldn’t take the same form, but it could guarantee another generation of misery, insecurity (and perhaps also tyranny) for the long-suffering people of Sri Lanka.

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, was published recently in Canada by Random House and Vintage.



Sen C

Dec 24, 2009 at 4:45pm

In April this year, it was read 'all the Tamil civilians who have escaped from the Tigers should be freed from the detention camps where they are now being held within the next few weeks.'
Oh, never thought about the 61-year old agenda and the extension of punitive aspects. Still, not a single civilian death.

Until then, we print and not let anybody call for ceasefire.

Reconstruction for the degeneration is almost complete except for couple of monuments for the dead after the elections.Trade is vibrant in the Eastern province beaches and still second in Asia, soldiers with experience in Haiti should help achieve this. Democracy there with the henchmen is the five-star.

Only stumbling block is the diaspora- all need to be branded animals. This is possible with the minority governments and the Afghan war, thanks to the best-ever Bush. Then the missions loyal to Sultanate and the paid consultants will help accomplish the rest.

Never thought about the maritime ambitions and the all new-anti content subcontinent foreign bunch.

Once murmerd 'Sri Lanka's Buddhist heritage should make it a gentle and civilised' It is true, Burmese Than Shwe was red-carpeted first time ever for his service to humanity and was taught all about the Lasantha like people revealing chemical weapons deals. Shwe was very conducive to blackout conditions and the bunch of foreigners crying about starving people, protection to people, hospitals etc. All will be useful to him in future endeavours. Finally a joint statement on how 'Theravada Buddhism' can be a unifying force in the Asia.

Until then, let the people can ponder over where the North Korean cargo was bound for or about axil of evils or the Afghan mission.

Dave D Alwis

Dec 24, 2009 at 6:47pm

Sri Lankan tramils have freedom as much as singhalese in Sri Lanka, but it is up to them to protect it. that is why 60% Tamils of Sri Lanka livng in south with Sinhalese people. Without knowing the true knowlede about Sri Lankan culture, no pint of writing this kind of stupid Articles

11 9Rating: +2


Dec 24, 2009 at 7:13pm

A great article by Robert Kaplan for the Atlantic explored the history behind the issues facing Sri Lanka. The best quote from that article is "Buddhist Sinhalese are a demographic majority with a dangerous minority complex of persecution. The Hindu Tamils, for their part, have been labeled a minority with a majority complex"

There was system in place before the British colonized the country which allowed harmony between the Sinhala and Tamil kingdoms. Like most issues in the world, the British are responsible for destroying the fragile social eco system which worked for the country.


Dec 25, 2009 at 5:00am

Quite a shocking piece. It seems Dyer implores the Sri Lankan government to show "equality", whilst justifying locking up, raping and abusing 300,000 people, denying them all civil rights and the realisation of their aspirations under some chauvinist pretext. Shouldn't have happened for 6 hours, let alone 6 months. If such abuses are tolerable, so were those the Tigers were alleged to have undertaken. That then is an entirely understandable logic.
As we all know, you can't dictate to people whether independence, equality or eating a mango is right or wrong. It is their choice to decide. They vote for those parties who want that, then that's what they're owed. Simple as. Sorry if that doesn't add up to your vision of democracy, but thank god it's the way the Tamil diaspora and it's increasing pool of support now consistently sees it.

Pat Gunaratnam

Dec 25, 2009 at 6:14am

I guess Tamils do not have a choice other than to select one of these 2 candidates. It is true that Sinhalese is a majority and Tamils are less than 20% of the population. Sarath Fonseka never said that don't ask for equal rights. The writer here is speculating that. Yes the country belongs to Sinhalese . But it does not mean the Tamils should not have equal rights as many other countries with large minority groups such as Canada, Australia etc. When there were issues with Muslims in Australia , Australian priminister very clearly expressed this view.
What is required in sri Lanka is a legitimate govt. who is willing to exercise equal rights to all citizens including, Tamils, Muslims as well as some part of the Sinhalese population.
I don't think there is equal rights even to some Sinhalese in Sri lank a today. wealthy and elite sections even within the Sinhalese population will have higher rights over the poor and
not so elite Sinhalese. This has to change. I think out of the 2 candidates Sarath Fonseka has a better chance of doing it.


Dec 25, 2009 at 6:53am

To David D Alwis -- I'm from the States and my husband is from Sri Lanka. He's Sinhalese and left because of the war. Running a presidential campaign on Sinhalese nationalism (1950s) and winning a landslide, then making Sinhalese the national language to exclude Tamils from government jobs, then creating entrance into medical schools based on "demographics" (Tamils get 5% of the spots and Sinhalese get 70%) instead of merit is not freedom whether they live together or not. Anyone from the States, if they're being honest with themselves, would recognize this type of behavior as simply trying to institutionalize racism. We have a much more insidious history to be sure and we're not by any means where we need to be on this issue in the States -- it's a long, hard road. Equal doesn't mean same. Yet equality is inherent in reciprocity. We won't reach our destination until there is no "us" and "them" only "we" with differences intact. Don't fool yourself or try to mislead readers.


Dec 25, 2009 at 6:59am

The Tamils who live among Sinhalese, of course everything is centralized in Colombo with over 50%GDP and intl airport, are to be registered with the police. This is the way Tamil have been treated by the regimes and the several ethnic riots are a testimony.

Tamill politicians who sided the Sri Lankan government are either ex-militants seeking own safety or who cannot complete a sentence in Tamil.

Anybody who writes volumes about Sri Lanka, is free to think about a vulnerable minority in the longstanding conflict and the thug culture, vulgar triumphalism, ethnic riots in perspective.

Foreign aid worker

Dec 26, 2009 at 5:49am

We have to keep our mouths and minds shut and our hearts hard when working in Sri Lanka - oppression of Tamils by the government in all possible ways is in the air for the last three years of my experience. The previous post-holder had the same story to tell me.


Dec 26, 2009 at 7:19am

What do you say about a government that prevents aid agencies from helping detainees held in terribly overcrowded camps after being battered by three decades of war?

Justin Kariyawasam

Dec 26, 2009 at 2:57pm

For nearly 60 years Tamils have had the dilution of creating a so-called Homeland in a Sinhalese country. This is understandable because Tamils do not have a country of their own.They are like the Jews prior to the creation of Israel. Their real homeland - Tamil Nadu with 60 million Tamils is under Indian rule. Then three million Tamils in Malaysia are under Malay rule. Another million in Singapore are under Chinese rule. Half a million in Canada are under White rule. And so in South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, the West Indies, UK, France, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and the list goes on.

Unfortunately Sri Lanka became a soft target due to the generosity and tolerance of the Sinhalese people. One unknown fact is that 60% of the Tamils in Sri Lanka live among the Sinhalese. The demand is for 2/3 of Sri Lanka's coastline and 1/3 of its land mass for the remaining 40% in a population which accounts for just 9% of Sri Lanka's population.

In any other country such a demand would have been mercilessly squashed at its infancy. But the Sinhalese being a tolerant race didn't do so until the May 17th of 2009. They were 60 years late.