Forward – By Hari P. Sharma, Ph.D.

Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis - Towards a Resolution

By R. B. Herath

Publishers: Tafford Publishing, Victoria, Canada - ISBN 1-55369-793-6

It has been a pleasure to have known R. B. Herath for the last several years - as a person, and as a co-worker on the Board of Directors of "South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy" (SANSAD).

As an organisation, SANSAD strives to bring together the diverse segments of the South Asian Diaspora living in British Columbia, Canada : people who have brought with them the rich cultural heritage from the lands of Bangladesh, India, Nepal , Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Cutting across the barriers of language, religion, national identities and affinity to the countries of origin, SANSAD strives to promote mutual respect among the people, peaceful resolution of conflicts between the countries of the region, the values of social justice, secularism and democracy, and upholding the rights of all minorities within the framework of democratic polity in plural societies.

“RB”, as he is fondly known among his friends, has been a valuable asset as a Director of SANSAD. He has brought long years of political experience, consummate love for his country of origin Sri Lanka, an internationalist perspective, and above all a firm commitment to the values of democracy, secularism , and social justice. His being a Sinhalese did not affect his ability to look at the totality of the Sri Lankan situation in a proper historical and objective way. The earlier background paper on the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis he (along with other Sri Lankan Directors of SANSAD) produced was a very useful tool for an educational program organised in the South Asian community. I am glad that RB has now completed a book length study of the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka. I feel honoured to be asked by him to read the manuscript of this book and write a few words as a foreword.

Sri Lanka, as a nation-state, is not exceptional in having a great deal of diversity among its people: diversity based upon religions practised, languages spoken, tribal or clan-based affinities, or varying histories of ancestral settlements in the land. Such diversity is found in practically every country of the world. Even in Western Europe (where the modern Nation State emerged after centuries of long struggle against monarchy, landed aristocracy and feudal order, and where the State eventually became an expression of the "national" character) there are still differences among the people based upon identifiable primordial affinities. However, those differences - in most cases, at least - could be accommodated due to the long process of consolidation of democratic norms and institutions. The situation is vastly different in post-colonial societies. What we have as national boundaries are constructs and legacies of the colonial rule. Centuries of colonial domination deprived these societies of the natural, necessary and long process of nation building. Whatever social differentiation based upon new class formations and economic developments might have occurred was thwarted. On the contrary, old feudal and pre-capitalist relations of production were reinforced and nurtured; and traditional differences based upon primordial identities (religion, language, etc.) were deepened, accentuated and turned into cleavages. If a new class emerged, it was the class of political and bureaucratic compradors, who could be relied upon, and who eventually emerged as the privileged, and often dynastic, elite in the post-colonial situation. Such has been the scene in most of the ex-colonial world; definitely so in the South Asian region. Conflicts based upon ethnic, linguistic or religious factors have been rampant. And they have acquired ominous character if the legitimate economic, political and cultural aspirations of distinct identities remain denied or are suppressed - especially through majoritarian self-righteousness and arrogance.

The conflict between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is somewhat of an exceptional case due to the prolonged civil war that has been raging there, and because of the internationalisation of the conflict. RB rightly labels it as an "ethnic crisis". His book is a thorough and dispassionate account of the Sri Lankan history through different stages. In a most ruthless manner he nails down the root causes of the civil war which is now almost twenty years old, and has taken a toll of tens of thousands of lives. It is also a systematic study of the political and constitutional shifts and alliances over the period of five decades, which have so far failed to find a proper solution to the Sinhalese – Tamil conflict.

The most important aspect of the book is the earnestness with which RB makes a case for an entirely a new political beginning: to devise a new constitutional and political framework that would aim to secure full democratic and participatory rights to the various segments of Sri Lankan people.

It is a book that should be read by everyone interested in the phenomenon of identity politics, and in matters of democratic processes to ensure the civil, human, and political rights of the entire citizenry. And most certainly it is a book that should be read by all Sri Lankans, living in Sri Lanka or abroad. Hopefully, the book will generate the necessary and much-needed dialogue among the people as RB so earnestly desires.

Hari P. Sharma, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Sociology
Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada
President, South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy (SANSAD), and President, International South Asia Forum (INSAF)

June 2002

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