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IA-Forum Interview with Dr. Asoka Bandarage
Comments (12)

International Affairs Forum: Where does the situation in Sri Lanka stand today? Is the humanitarian situation in the Tamil areas in the North as bad as it was following this year's military offensive? Dr. Asoka Bandarage:First of all, in Sri Lanka there are no areas that are exclusively Tamil or Sinhalese or Muslim, and much of this conflict is about that. In the Eastern Province, there are populations from all the ethnic groups, and the Tamils are a minority there. The notion that the North is a Tamil area is not true in that there was ethnic cleansing of Sinhalese and Muslims from the area. I want to make that clear from the outset. Along with that, it needs to be said that the majority of Tamil people in Sri Lanka live outside of the Northern Province and a very large proportion of the Sri Lankan Tamils are also outside of the country—one quarter or so is part of the diaspora. These demographics are important to understand the situation. With regard to the humanitarian situation, there is no question that there has been a crisis, not just following the military offensive but during the armed conflict as well. There is a lot of criticism of the government for maintaining Tamil people in camps—over 300,000 of them after the offensive. From what I’ve read, now there are less than 200,000, so 100,000 or more have been resettled. There is no question that this is the most important issue, but the issue is nonetheless a very complicated one given that many of the people in the camps came from areas that were under the control of the LTTE and there is evidence that there are LTTE cadres in those camps. For the security of all the people, it is important to make sure that potential terrorists are not released into the larger population. So checking and taking care of other security matters are important. And de-mining the northern areas is also important, since so many mines have been planted there over the years. One of the criticisms that have been leveled at the government is that it has not allowed media to go into the camps and that it has stopped the rest of the world from finding out what is really going on. I think that needs to be corrected, just as the rehabilitation of all Tamil civilians needs to be addressed. But there is also the reality faced by the government. It has been under a lot of attack from the international media and there have been fabricated stories and criticisms. So there is a reluctance on the part of the government to open up certain areas to the media. For example, there was a video that Channel 4 in London aired which supposedly documented Sri Lankan soldiers shooting and killing Tamil civilians. It received a lot of attention around the world. But later it was revealed that this was a concocted video, and Channel 4 expressed apologies accepting that it was duped by a group claiming to be a human rights organization which had provided the video. I’m just giving that as an example of why the government and certain segments of the Sri Lankan population are wary of the international media and human rights groups. This is not to justify keeping the media out because we need to have accountability and transparency, but at the same time, it is important to recognize the possible continuation of the LTTE, which was the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world. So, the government has to take the necessary precautions against the LTTE rearming and reactivating itself. IA-Forum:So are you saying that the current policies are purely security-based? Seeing all the celebrations that occurred in Sri Lanka following the military victory, one wonders if there was there was any element of collective punishment or spoils going to the winner. Dr. Bandarage:We have to move beyond seeing this as a Sinhala versus Tamil primordial conflict, which is the dominant analysis of this conflict, and I take this on in my book. I’m not denying there is an ethnic dimension. But the fact is that the entire population—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims—were all victimized by the LTTE. Terrorism is the greatest of all human rights violations. The Tamils were more victimized in a way by the LTTE than any other group. They were forced to give their children up as suicide bombers. In certain regions, like for example the Eastern Province, each family supposedly had to give a child for the cause. The LTTE established a totalitarian regime which did not allow any kind of dissent. So not having the LTTE opens up possibilities for Tamils and other groups to come together and try to fashion a better future for all the people. IA-Forum:What was the nature of this conflict as you see it? A civil war? A regional conflict? Dr. Bandarage:It is a separatist conflict with domestic, regional and international dimensions. There are Tamils as well as Sinhalese and regional and international actors supporting the creation of a separate Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Likewise, there are Sinhalese as well as Tamils and regional and international actors supporting the continuation of the unitary state of Sri Lanka. As I said before, there is an ethnic dimension to the conflict, but the predominant tradition in Sri Lanka has been one of mutual coexistence. Different ethnic and religious groups have lived together side by side for hundreds if not thousands of years. But in the course of this war, ethnic polarization deepened. But, it is wrong to see this simply as a domestic conflict. In my book, I present the broader regional dimension—the demand for a separate Dravidian-speaking state of Dravidasthan in southern India and the quashing of that separatist movement by India when it passed the 1963 anti-secessionist amendment to its constitution. The spread of Tamil nationalism in southern India in conjunction with developments in Sri Lanka produced this conflict. And then, as I discuss in my book, the conflict became internationalized by the Tamil diaspora, which is quite wealthy and influential in western countries, and which is still supporting the separatist struggle in Sri Lanka. IA-Forum:From a counter-insurgency perspective, what worked and what didn't? Which tactics by the Sri Lankan government improved the situation and which exacerbated it? Dr. Bandarage:I’m not a counter-insurgency expert but from what I understand there were a number of factors. The Sri Lankan government started working with other governments in the international community—and interestingly, it a was a Tamil, Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was a former foreign minister, who initiated contact with some of the western countries to ban the LTTE as a terrorist organization, including in the US. Efforts to cut off funding for the LTTE and efforts to separate the Tamil issue from the LTTE also had a role to play because the LTTE presented itself as the sole representative of the Tamils. Making that distinction was important. Also, the country became war-weary. It had gone through several peace processes and attempts at negotiation with the LTTE including the 2002 peace process. When that failed, not just the Sinhalese, but also some Muslim and other Tamil groups became fed up with the LTTE. So there were both internal and external factors which came together to create a sense of urgency to bring the armed conflict to an end. This doesn’t mean that the political conflict is resolved. There is still a lot of work to be done, but, the conclusion of the armed conflict opens the space to address those broader issues. IA-Forum:What, if anything, did the insurgency achieve for the Tamil people? Dr. Bandarage:The Tamil people really lost a lot due to the insurgency. The community lost its moderate leadership. It lost some of the best and brightest people, who left the country. That is not just a loss for the Tamil people—it is a loss for the entire country because they were among the most talented and experienced professionals. And with the insurgency, the Tamil culture and community were destroyed and weakened. The Tamil community had been a relatively advanced community, so this was a tremendous loss. So many leaders were killed. That’s why it’s important not to continue this conflict and start another cycle of war. Instead Tamils have to take their rightful place in society because they have a lot to contribute to Sri Lanka and they always have. IA-Forum:Not to justify it in anyway, but through the use of violent struggle, did the insurgency succeed at all in at least calling attention to the legitimate grievances of those Tamils who felt they were disadvantaged? Dr. Bandarage:Yes, I think so. For example, if we look at some of the post-independence legislation, which was meant to redress grievances of the Sinhalese majority that had been discriminated against during the British colonial era. In retrospect, the insurgency has made people question if those were the right steps. So I think it has opened up an opportunity to really look at the whole history of the country and relations between different communities. The loss of all those lives also raise questions about the meaning of democracy and justice for all groups. I try to do this in my book—to look at Tamil grievances but also the grievances of other groups, and how all of that can be redressed. One thing that often gets overlooked when we talk about the Sinhalese or the Tamils as monolithic groups is the differences and inequalities within groups. Within the Sinhalese, the majority are underprivileged. Similarly, within the Tamil community, there are differences between elites and masses and caste differences. And now, of course, you have the difference between the diaspora and the people on the ground. The diaspora supported the armed conflict, which was the longest running armed conflict in Asia. Now, after the military offensive is over, they are continuing the separatist struggle outside of the country through political means. This makes it difficult for the government and domestic Tamil groups to move forward in terms of rehabilitation and development because the political conflict has intensified. This is not to say that that political issues should not be addressed, but it should be done in a constructive way rather than in a way that polarizes communities and continues the acrimony. The diaspora and other groups should be focusing on how to bring communities together—and they should think of the people on the ground, like the people in the camps, who are the ones that have suffered the most. They are the real victims. Meeting the basic needs - shelter, employment, land, access to water, and education for children—needs to become the priorities over the political interests of elites from all communities whether they be Tamil, Sinhalese or Muslim. IA-Forum:Now that the LTTE has, for all intents and purposes, been dismantled, what happens next? Who represents the Tamils? Will there be new efforts at political reconciliation or will the government try to maintain a sort of status quo with the Tamils in a very weak state? Dr. Bandarage:Again, I go back to my earlier point about looking at different communities and differences within the Tamil ethnic group. If you look at the group known as the Indian Tamils or the Hill Country Tamils who are the descendants of laborers brought by the British to work the plantations during the colonial era, for a long period of time they did not have Sri Lankan citizenship. They were considered stateless citizens—neither Indian nor Sri Lankan. But now they are all Sri Lankan citizens and enfranchised. As far as they are concerned, their motivation was to be integrated into the Sri Lankan state and the Sri Lankan polity rather than be separated from it. So there has been a disjuncture between the interests of the so-called Indian Tamils and the Sri Lankan Tamils, who have a longer history on the island and who claim the North and East as their homeland. The Indian Tamils have their own political parties and leaders, for example the Ceylon Workers Congress, who fought for their rights, and they have their leader who is a minister in the cabinet. They have fought for representation, and their focus has been to gain greater access and power within the Sri Lankan parliamentary system rather than to separate from it. And then there are the Tamils in the Eastern Province and Karuna, who was the leader of the LTTE in the Eastern Province. Now he has his own political party, which rose out of a breakaway faction from the LTTE. He is a minister in the government and his party has joined the parliamentary process. So it’s not like all Tamils are outside of the parliamentary political process. There are still other groups as well including other former militants who have joined the political process. The majority of Tamils want to participate in the Sri Lankan political process and gain greater power and strength rather than separate, but there are issues that need to be addressed in terms of the sharing of power, not just by Tamils but all groups. The decades of mistrust and the fears coming from decades of violence are intertwined. Those political and psychological issues need to be dealt with in order to bring reconciliation and lasting peace. IA--Forum: What does the government have to do in order to convince the Tamils that they are not second-class citizens? Might it be necessary to put aside the idea of Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist state and make it an officially secular or officially multi-religious state? Dr. Bandarage:In the Sri Lankan constitution, all groups and individuals are equal. There is nothing that says that one group has privileges over the other. In fact, during the British colonial period—and I give the statistics in my book—the Tamils as a group were disproportionately represented in the higher professions and the administrative service, and had economic and political power that was disproportionate to their numbers in the population. After independence, the Sinhalese politicians tried to change that, which is what led to the emergence of the modern conflict. Affirmative action quotas based on ethnic grounds failed and created a lot of problems. It led to the perception that the Tamils are second-class citizens, but constitutionally that is not the case. Let me go back to the issue of the Sinhala-Buddhist state. Sri Lanka has a clause in the constitution which says that Buddhism has a special place, but if you look at the reality, Sri Lanka constitutionally allows freedom of religion and consciousness and the right to change one’s religion, which is a right that is not allowed in many countries throughout the world. This is not just the Islamic countries, where you can’t change your religion or have any proselytization in the country, but even in a liberal country like Norway, the constitution states that it is an Evangelical -Lutheran state and that the Norwegian king must always be of that religion, so on and so forth. So although there is a statement that Buddhism has a special place, in reality there is much greater freedom of religion and freedom for conversion or proselytization in Sri Lankan than is available elsewhere. Having said that, I still think there is great mistrust and animosity between groups, and it’s not going to change overnight. There is a lot of work that needs to be done for people from different ethnic and religious communities to come together. But in order to do that, especially for the younger generations, opportunities must be made available. Here I think the diaspora has an important role to play, because as far as the people of Sri Lanka are concerned, the military offensive is over, the war is over, and the country needs to move forward. But the diaspora, which is far removed from what’s happening on the ground, likes to perpetuate the conflict—, I hate to generalize, but a certain, small segment of it doesn’t want to give up their dream of a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. It is important to work with the younger generation of the diasporas—both Sinhala and Tamil, as well as Muslim—and the international community has an important role to play. The Tamil diaspora is quite wealthy and influential. They have been influencing international media as well as politicians, using the power of votes and money to perpetuate this struggle for separatism. But that is going to continue the conflict and possibly lead to violence in the future. Also, on the other side, the enormous political pressure on Sri Lanka is creating a lot of anti-Western feeling. Many groups feel that the West or the international community is supporting the continuing diaspora separatist effort. It is contributing to the weakening of the Western—especially US—authority and influence in the Indian Ocean region and alienating many groups from the international community. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be international influence or even intervention, but it has to be done carefully. The human rights concerns need to be raised with an understanding of the reality of terrorism and the need to eliminate it. It is necessary to take into account the struggles of a small country like Sri Lanka to withstand the enormous pressure brought by the confluence of powerful states, NGOs, media and the Tamil diaspora. IA-Forum:Is there anything other countries facing similar situations can learn from the Sri Lankan example? Dr. Bandarage:That’s a good question. Sri Lanka is a country that tried its hardest to negotiate with terrorists, which is a position that is not generally taken by more powerful—especially Western—countries. Sri Lanka tried to do so a number of different times, and it failed. So if countries try to negotiate with terrorist organizations, what are the conditions that need to be laid down? For example, should disarmament of terrorist organizations be made a requirement? In the Sri Lankan case, that was not made a requirement because the focus was on bringing the LTTE to the table. But, it led to the perpetuation of these cycles of war and peace, where hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives. The economy was weakened and the country and the society really fell behind as a whole. So there are some lessons to be learned from Sri Lanka’s experience of these cycles of war and peace and negotiations. Even this military victory cannot be taken for granted as a permanent situation, so what can be done to avoid a return to war? Other countries should also learn from Sri Lanka not to give into this notion that wars are unwinnable against terrorist organizations, which was the belief with regard to Sri Lanka. During the 2002 peace process, there was an attempt to give into a lot of the demands of the LTTE in order to keep them within the peace process. But it ended up creating a situation in which that group got control over a vast extent of territory in the North and East and was essentially running a de facto government keeping the Tamil people under their totalitarian control. That was not a solution to the conflict. How can countries win these wars? It can’t be done by countries going at it alone. Even in the Sri Lankan case, there were many regional and international forces that supported the defeat of the LTTE. But, the issue is not just the struggle against terrorism. The broader struggle for democracy and justice too needs to be approached from a regional and international perspective, which means that fundamental issues of human rights need to include the economic rights of people—the rights of employment, education, healthcare, housing, so on and so forth. I think that if these can be addressed globally, then the potential for mobilizing people along ethnic or religious lines by terrorist organizations would be greatly reduced. The question of economic rights of all groups and individuals, is the fundamental one. Asoka Bandarage is a professor in the Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University. Her latest book is entitled “The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka: Terrorism, Ethnicity, Political Economy” (Routledge, 2009)

Comments in Chronological order (12 total comments)

Report Abuse
Tue, November 10, 2009 11:49 AM (about 125422 hours ago)
Dear Dr. Bandarage,
We are proud of you and your answers. And also telling truth about the ground reality. Many pro LTTE org are busy preparing bogus stories and you have managed to to tell the bitterer truth about the Dream Team EELAM..
Great! and we thank you for keeping our path WARM!
Senaka Rajapakse
Sri Lankan Expatriates Forum
Tue, November 10, 2009 07:08 PM (about 125415 hours ago)
The true story needed to be told and the enormous task of putting it together fell upon you. You have done a yeoman job, a great service to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans.

A great thank you from all.

P. P. Mukerjee
Tue, November 10, 2009 11:14 PM (about 125411 hours ago)
difficult job done with finess and clarity. Well done
Tue, November 10, 2009 11:14 PM (about 125411 hours ago)
difficult job done with finess and clarity. Well done
Tue, November 10, 2009 11:14 PM (about 125411 hours ago)
difficult job done with finess and clarity. Well done
Tue, November 10, 2009 11:14 PM (about 125411 hours ago)
difficult job done with finess and clarity. Well done
Tue, November 10, 2009 11:14 PM (about 125411 hours ago)
difficult job done with finess and clarity. Well done
Tue, November 10, 2009 11:14 PM (about 125411 hours ago)
difficult job done with finess and clarity. Well done
Wed, November 11, 2009 03:17 AM (about 125407 hours ago)
Dear Asoka ,

Very proud of your achievements . Having to explain the ground reality in SL in another story ,and you have excelled in regard to this with your straight talk . You have also made Vissakha and the Visakhians very proud . Keep going as we do need a lot more people like you to familiarise the SL reality to the international community . All good wishes Anoma Silva ( UK) nee Kulatunge
Fri, November 13, 2009 09:34 PM (about 125340 hours ago)
I thought The questions were very well thought out and directed.

In order to receive a complete , credible response , the questionaire also has to do the job well.

Good Work Mr. Ben Linden

Mitchell Alexander...NYC
Fri, December 11, 2009 09:15 AM (about 124681 hours ago)
I sincerely congratulate Dr Bandarage on her evaluation and analysis.
I have found Dr Bandarage to be a very objective minded Sri Lankan, who thinks in a very deeply and wholesomely in regard to the country, and its people. I believe if all Sri Lankans can think and evaluate the situation in the same manner she does, we can move forward as one, irrespective of our differences.
I am very proud of her book entitled: The Separatist Conflict In Sri Lanka
Terrorism, Ethnicity, Political Economy.
I wish Dr Bandarage all the very best in her future endeavors.
Best of wishes,
Ramesh Somasunderam.
Fri, December 18, 2009 12:06 AM (about 124522 hours ago)
Have the displaced Tamil civilians been resettled? There are disturbing reports that they're being segregated in much worse fashion than Blacks were in this country during Jim Crow
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