Riots and protests have always played an important role in human history. In Sri Lanka, riots and protests appeared from time to time as a result of people’s pressure or as a political stunt. Regardless of the reason, in many occasions, they have resulted in chaos and made things worse.
However, the protest we are witnessing at present is different from the violent protests we had in the recent past as it seemed to be rising from within the general public. However, it still has failed to pressure the politicians substantially, and also as it is now led by political parties and those with personal agendas, it seems as if many unbiased public who do not favour any political party are disappointed with the protest. Will this protest bring hope to the oppressed general public? Or will it also be dissolved with time as it has happened in the past?
Joining us today in conversation to tell us more about the recent political history of Sri Lanka and how it has led us to the mess we are facing today, is Kaushalya Abeywickrama who is a journalist, author, and researcher on political communication. Below is the conversation we had with her.
After the horrible 1915 Sinhala-Muslim riots and their devastating results, the next notable and unfortunate protests began in 1956 when the Language Policy act was introduced by the then prime minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.
The Language Policy protests
The Language Policy widened the rift between the Sinhalese and Tamils and also, caused great damage to the Sinhalese community, although some see it as an act of patriotism.
The Sinhala Only Act or the State Language Policy was passed in the Parliament of then Ceylon in 1956. The act replaced English with Sinhala as the sole official language of Ceylon, with the exclusion of Tamil. This decision of Bandaranaike caused massive riots, loss of lives, and property damage.
The tragedy is that still, even after decades since the riots, the anger and animosity between the communities have not completely healed despite the Act was changed.
Demand for Eelam, Riots in Jaffna, Black July, and the LTTE
Hatred, racism, and separatism were instilled in the minds of the people by racist Tamil politicians and leaders since ‘30s and ‘40s. Since as early as this, separatist Tamil leaders stood against the resettlement of Sinhalese people in the North and East under the agriculture projects by the British rulers in Sri Lanka.
Due to the heightened separatist ideologies and demands in the 1970s, Sri Lanka lost its ability to move forward as a country and the main task it had to do was to go back and forth and negotiate to appease the separatists. The Government of India was also directly involved in this.
However, appeasing the Eelam separatists was not easy. As time passed, agreements were signed and torn apart, and their reluctance to settle issues through negotiation and peace talks increased. They believed in a mythical homeland (which is archaeologically and historically proven to be false), and they greedily and ruthlessly demanded the coastal region from Puttalam all the way to Kumbukkan Oya through Jaffna and Ampara for a Tamil Eelam.
They also demanded that the Eastern Province be divided into three parts according to the Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims. They also called for the evacuation of Sinhalese people from the Eastern and Northern Provinces, claiming that they require a 100 per cent Tamil ethnic area.
One of the earliest violent acts of the rebellions in Jaffna was to kill the Mayor of Jaffna Alfred Thangarajah Duraiappah in 1975 while he visited the Varadaraja Perumal Temple with his daughter to worship. He was shot by the LTTE and in April 1987 the LTTE issued an open letter, published in Verakesari, in which they claimed the responsibility for the killing of Duraiappah and eleven more people.
As a result of these tug-o-wars and racism, a guerrilla group led by Velupillai Prabhakaran became active in Jaffna.
In 1983 the wretched Black July happened as 13 Sri Lankan army soldiers were murdered by LTTE in Jaffna.
In 1985, the LTTE attacked unarmed civilians ad pilgrims in Anuradhapura town and at the Sri Maha Bodhi premises. The LTTE killed a large number of civilians with suicide bombings and had a notable number of child soldiers with them.
Since then, Sri Lanka entered a dark tunnel of which it took 30 years to come out.
Immediately following the end of the war, on 20 May 2009, the United Nations estimated a total of 80,000 – 100,000 deaths. More than 40,000 missing persons have been reported. The internal conflict had an immediate and indirect impact on Sri Lanka’s economy. The political system, culture, and social damage were all too severe.
“Sri Lanka has not yet fully achieved peace,” said Abeywickrama adding further that what we have in terms of understanding and harmony between civilian groups can be identified as ‘Bad Peace’. “We need to achieve positive peace,” she further added.
“This situation is still dragging the country backward in terms of sustainable development. Rational, national, and religious issues are in high demand and can spark violence at any time. This is a barrier to the development of the country’s economy and the country’s sovereignty.”
Rohana Wijeweera and the JVP
The JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna—the People’s Liberation Front) is a socialist party and a former militant organisation that first gained international attention when it launched an insurgency in 1971. The movement was involved in two armed uprisings against the Sri Lankan Government, one in 1971 and the other in 1987–89.
In 1987, the JVP attempted to retake power through force. The 1987–1989 insurgency was much organised and also more violent than the 1971 insurgency, and the casualties and societal consequences were correspondingly higher. JVP assassinated their own people who opposed their socialist dream. Many notable public figures were murdered and Buddhist religious places and events such as the Kandy Dalada Maligawa and the Kataragama Esala Perahera were attacked.
They caused property damage and hampered Sri Lanka’s development for more than a decade. Although the JVP came close to achieving State power in late 1988 and mid-1989, it was quickly destroyed.
“Even though Sri Lanka talks about equality and equity, there is a large gap when it comes to the practice. People have equal rights in many ways, but when it comes to equity, the entire system fails,” said Abeywickrama.
She also said that, on the other hand, cultural norms and beliefs are causing many problems in society and among ethnicities.
“When we look closely at Sri Lankan history, we can see that the state does not protect the fundamental human rights of the civilians. People in our society feel mistreated because of inequity. It could be due to culture, disparities in wages, discrimination, insufficient infrastructure, ethnicity, or religion.”
Abeywickrama further explained that a conflict is a struggle and a clash of interests, opinions, or even fundamental principles. Conflict will always exist in society, regardless of whether the source of the conflict is personal, racial, political, international, or related to class and/or caste.
Abeywickrama also shared her thoughts on the current protests happening at Galle Face Green.
“In my opinion, this is the first time in history that Sri Lankans have broken down barriers such as religion, ethnicity, culture, and belief to unite against the State. This is a positive sign of the democratic country’s aspiration to build a people-governed State. The protest takes a unique form of requesting a democratic State free of nepotism and political corruption, which are the most dangerous barriers to development as a developing country.”
In our last segment, we emphasised that the understanding, tolerating, and coexistence between the ethnic and religious groups living in Sri Lanka is essential to achieve a socially, politically, and then eventually economically stable country. We also must understand that, as the party political system prevailing in Sri Lanka is extremely corrupt in which dirty games are often played to gain or retain power. Politicians are neither ashamed nor reluctant to manipulate the public for their selfish needs. ‘Divide and rule’ and racism is an evil tool used by them, and the public must not fall prey to it.
To be continued…
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy