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

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The influx of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers has significantly altered the composition of some parts of Britain  

Immigration is the issue many in Labour fear most

Nigel Morris
The Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf heads the inquiry  

Why should Fiona Woolf be expected to remember every dinner date?

Mark Steel
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster