How the gem of the earth became a land scarred by savagery and violence

Share

The battle of Jaffna is a critical and bloody showdown in the war between the Lion and the Tiger. But it will not end it. Seventeen years of ferocious struggle have brewed hatred, brutality and fanaticism on a monstrous scale. It is hard to believe that Jaffna will mark the beginning of the end.

The battle of Jaffna is a critical and bloody showdown in the war between the Lion and the Tiger. But it will not end it. Seventeen years of ferocious struggle have brewed hatred, brutality and fanaticism on a monstrous scale. It is hard to believe that Jaffna will mark the beginning of the end.

Everyone who has observed the civil war in Sri Lanka has noted the particular viciousness and pitilessness of the fighting, even in this modern age of savage conflict.

The people of the island have witnessed, have taken part in, have been victims of, an extraordinary and instructive political failure exacerbated by cynical manipulation.

The paradoxes and ironies of this disaster make a dismal list. This is a green, fertile country, a democratic state with one of the Third World's highest literacy rates, "the very gem of the earth," according to one of the British histories of it.

Legend says that Sri Lanka was Eden, that Adam's Peak is marked by the footprint of Adam. Arab merchants called it Serendip, hence the happy word. And Lanka itself means resplendent. Its past is cultured, its appearance brilliant and enchanting. And in February 1948, when the British departed after ruling the country for 133 years, its prospects looked decidedly handsome.

But a poison lay within. In the 52 years of independence the chief characteristic of Sri Lankan politics has been violence. Organised thuggery became an important part of elections, the main instrument of dissent. Violence became not the last political option but the first.

Certain political leaders and intellectuals stirred the emotions of the island's two peoples, the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, so that suspicion and hostility grew between people who had, by and large, achieved a relative harmony in a co-existence that had lasted for many hundreds of years. On the whole they had remained separate communities. Intermarriage was rare, they had retained their different styles of life and and were devoted to their mutually incomprehensible languages.

There was no doubt that in independent Sri Lanka the shades and contradictions of society posed a singular test of the creative and conciliatory powers of leadership. The leaders, in a parliamentary, democratic system, failed it.

It is sometimes said that Sri Lanka's troubles lie in ancient rivalries. The Sinhalese - the word means People of the Lion - are mostly Buddhists who believe they are Aryan people who came from the north of India more than 2,500 years ago. They have drawn inspiration and a sense of destiny from the dying words of Buddha: "In Lanka, O Lord of gods, will my religion be established."

The Tamils, about a fifth of the population of 18 million, are thought to have arrived in waves from the second century BC to the ninth century AD. Although Sinhalese and Tamils fought from time to time and had their mutual fears, the modern conflict is rooted not in ancient history but in modern events and the invention of myths. The British ruled Ceylon as a single community and the Tamils prospered. They learnt English, thrived as businessmen, qualified as teachers and engineers and won a disproportionate share of jobs in the colonial civil service. These achievements bred resentment in the seventh-tenths Sinhalese majority.

The crucial year was 1956. To seize power from his political opponents, the Oxford-educated SWRD Bandaranaike played the race and resentment card and won the general election overwhelmingly, promising the Sinhalese that Sinhala would be the sole official language. The Tamils reflected bitterly that the downgrading of English undermined their economic chances. Teaching through the medium of English was stopped. University and public service entry was manipulated to provide more places for the Sinhalese.

The first rioting to disturb the country's peace occurred in 1956 and subsequent eruptions made reconciliation a priority. The Sinhalese were persuaded by their intellectuals and leaders that the Tamils were usurpers in a Sinhalese land, that "religion, language, nation" - as the politicians put it - made them the guardians of an ancient and beleaguered Buddhist tradition. More than that, Sinhalese were encouraged to see themselves as the true and pure Sri Lankans who should fear the supposed threat posed by the millions of Tamils in India, a few miles across the Palk Strait.

The Tamils, it was said, could always "go home." But the Sinhalese had only their island.

Tensions grew and then exploded in the early Eighties. In the Tamils' northern and eastern strongholds there was an angry response to a police rampage and hotheaded political speeches. The first calls were made for a separate Tamil state, a demand that infuriated Sinhalese determined that their country could never be divided. The Tamil Tigers had already been formed by the ruthless and utterly intractable Vellupillai Prabhakaran, a former Boy Scout and lover of Clint Eastwood videos, who had seen his uncle burnt to death in a riot.

In 1983 the trouble began to spiral out of control. The Tigers killed 13 soldiers in an ambush and in a reprisal more than 600 Tamils were murdered. Soon the ledger of horrors began to fill with massacres, explosions and assassinations. Sri Lanka's leaders vowed that there could only be a military solution.

In 1987 India sent troops in an ill-fated attempt to bring peace to Sri Lanka, an action that inflamed the atavistic fears of invasion shared by many Sinhalese. India lost more than 1,000 soldiers and in 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a Tiger suicide bomber. Such weapons, as well as the cyanide capsules worn by Tigers around their necks, have helped to make the Tigers feared. They are not guerrillas, a Sri Lankan officer said, they are a regular army.

In the Eighties, when the killings were just beginning, I talked to a Sri Lankan government official who sketched out for me the history of the quarrel. "The history points to the future," he said, tears welling in his eyes, "and I see only killing, killing... and no more peace in Sri Lanka."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A royal serving the nation

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003