Reviewed by Professor Mahinda Werake.

A timely contribution
Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis - Towards a Resolution

By R. B. Herath

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

 

R. B. Herath's most recent work is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the ethnic crisis of Sri Lanka and also one of the few serious studies published so far on the resolution of the conflict through a federal system. While one may agree or disagree with the views expressed by the author in this volume, there is no doubt that he was committed to this study because of his passionate love for his homeland and the fervent desire to help Sri Lanka find a peaceful solution to the prolonged civil war that engulfed the country for two decades. Although, since 1984, the author has lived most of his life outside the country, the book shows that he has not lost touch with Sri Lanka and has been a keen observer of its developments. Through his association with the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy (SANSARD) in Vancouver, Canada, the author has been able to pursue a serious academic study of South Asian affairs.

 

Thought provoking

As an introduction to his book, the author provides a brief glimpse of Sri Lanka's past. His discussion of Sri Lanka's post-colonial history is thought provoking. His comments are worth consideration in understanding why we have failed to achieve success as a nation. All citizens concerned should take his main argument that post-colonial Sri Lankan leaders have failed to recognize the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature of the country and build a nation based on pluralism and true democracy.

 

As an introduction to his book, the author provides a brief glimpse of Sri Lanka's past. His discussion of Sri Lanka's post-colonial history is thought provoking. His comments are worth consideration in understanding why we have failed to achieve success as a nation. All citizens concerned should take his main argument that post-colonial Sri Lankan leaders have failed to recognize the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature of the country and build a nation based on pluralism and true democracy.

 

His criticism of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike for promoting Sinhala Buddhist nationalism may be too strong, for it was not only Bandaranaike but also the leaders of the UNP who played the Sinhala nationalist card to their advantage. In that context, we need to understand that in post-colonial Sri Lanka, while leaders of almost all Sinhalese political parties promoted Sinhalese nationalism, the leaders of Tamil political parties in response espoused Tamil nationalism. In other words, leaders of both Sinhalese and Tamil communities are responsible for not promoting or supporting a true sense of 'Sri Lankan' identity.

 

Another debatable point is the political activism of the Sangha. According to him, the Sangha's entry into politics, which was encouraged by Bandaranaike, has complicated issues and has made it difficult for any government to seek rationalistic solutions to the country's problems. While recognizing the immensely valuable role played by the Sangha in preserving Buddhism and Sinhala culture during the colonial times, he argues that in multi-ethnic and multi-cultural post-colonial Sri Lanka, it was not proper for the Sangha to directly involve themselves in politics, because it exacerbates the already existing tensions between Buddhists and non-Buddhists, and thereby directly contributes to the already existing divisions.

 

The question that can be raised here is whether the Sangha should completely keep away from politics or should confine themselves to a role of advising the rulers. Realistically speaking, in the present day highly politicized culture of Sri Lanka, we have to expect the Sangha to play some role in politics but it may be desirable for them to restrict their participation to an advisory role as practised in some Buddhist countries such as Thailand.

 

True democracy

 

The author's contention that democracy in Sri Lanka has so far failed to achieve its desired results because its political leadership has remained in the hands of the elitist class who were not interested in promoting democracy among people but wanted to gain or remain in power, is a valid observation that can be applied even to the traditional Marxist parties in the country. In that context, the rise of the LTTE in the North and JVP in the South can be viewed as a response to the failure of the Sri Lankan political system to deliver political and economic freedom to the common man in post-colonial Sri Lanka. The outcome of this development is that both the JVP and the LTTE decided to gain such freedom through undemocratic means. In order to rectify this situation, the author recommends encouraging direct participation of people in democratic governance at different levels, which is an excellent proposal. However, the question is whether the Sri Lankan political leadership would be willing to overhaul the present political system and replace it with a truly democratic one. The irony of the situation is that without such a transformation in the South, we cannot expect the LTTE to do the same in the North. It is indeed a challenge to all Sri Lankan political leaders.

 

The second part of the book is devoted to a discussion of a federal structure for Sri Lanka in order to solve the ethnic crisis. The author's brief examination of the federal systems in the United States, Canada, India, and Switzerland is quite useful to understand how federal structures function in other countries which have diverse ethnic and cultural populations. Because of Sri Lanka's multi-ethnic and multi-cultural character, he recommends a similar structure, which he believes, can be established at either provincial or district level. His idea is to give those entities the power to decide their own affairs except in matters of national interest such as defence, foreign affairs, imports and exports, and currency, which would remain under control of the central government. The author recognizes the need to adapt the federal structure that he proposes to meet the needs and aspirations of the people of Sri Lanka.

 

One interesting point the author raises in this book is the importance of recognizing the rights of the Veddahs, who wish to retain their own identity. As far as I am aware, none of the political parties in Sri Lanka have recognized them as a separate group of people who deserve respect as descendants of the first inhabitants of the island. They should be entitled to equal rights under a truly democratic system.

 

Another matter that the author brings to our attention is the urgent need to solve the citizenship issue of the remaining Indian Tamils who opted to go to India but could not do so due to various reasons. It is heartening to note that the present government has already taken steps to solve this human problem since the publication of this book.

 

A suggestion

 

The solution to the ethnic crisis proposed by Herath is based on the concept of declaring the whole of Sri Lanka as the homeland of all Sri Lankans, which undoubtedly is an excellent idea. However, the question that remains is whether the LTTE could be persuaded to accept such a concept and give up their claim to a separate homeland in the North and East at this juncture.

 

In any event, it goes without saying that the government of Sri Lanka, in finding a final solution to the ethnic crisis, should make every effort to ensure that Sri Lankans of any ethnicity be allowed to move freely and settle down anywhere they like within Sri Lanka.

 

This is a book that all Sri Lankans who are concerned about the destiny of their country should read. The author should be commended for bringing out this volume at this crucial point in our history.

 

t is a timely contribution to finding a lasting solution to the most devastating problem that Sri Lanka has faced since independence. It is hoped that the author would successfully bring out the Sinhala and Tamil versions of his book, as he plans, in the near future.

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