By Uditha Devapriya/Ceylon Today
Sri Lanka’s civil war has been the subject of countless studies. It has been written on by defense analysts, political columnists, military experts, anthropologists, and novelists. No two studies make the same point, surprising for a conflict that took place in such a small country. Yet the underlying message in them remains the same: be it Chandraprema’s Gota’s War or Weiss’s The Cage, the point is not so much that it should never have ended as that it should never have happened. It’s a testament to how political polarizations give way to a recognition of the common tragedy belying such wars, hence, that while many valorize the ending of the war, no one glorifies the war itself.
The argument these writers make is not that the civil war should have ended the way it did, but that had the leaders decided differently, it would never have produced a situation which required military intervention.
For obvious reasons, this argument unifies everyone: that had leaders acted more prudently, had they read the signs and taken due note, the island’s history could have played out differently. As it turned out, however, it was not to be. Historians and political analysts probing the reasons for this are working with the benefit of hindsight: regardless of their opinion of the war, they diagnose reasons, suggest solutions, and point out how conflict could have been averted.
Sadly, the really good historical account of the Sri Lankan conflict is yet to come. I make an exception for Jayatilleka’s book, but its focus is not so much on the war as the peace that should have followed in its wake. The best among the books that focus on the conflict so far is Asoka Bandarage’s The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka.
Yet, written within the constraints of her time – she had to rely extensively on secondary sources, a weakness she readily admits to in her introduction – it deserves an updated, expanded edition. Autobiographical accounts are, naturally, less objective than either Bandarage’s or Jayatilleka’s scholarship, but these are crucial too, be it Karannagoda’s or Gunaratne’s memoirs. This is what makes the lack of a book, even an article, by Sarath Fonseka quite deplorable: as the brain behind the army’s campaigns against the LTTE, his version of events is sorely needed.
Other books dig deeper. K. M. de Silva’s Reaping the Whirlwind is essential reading on this front, though there are other interventions, such as by Michael Roberts’, that charts a longer historiography of the war. Yet the best historical account of the ethnic conflict I have read so far is not a book, but a series of essays on Indo-Lanka relations, Sinhala-Tamil relations, and plantation Tamils, by the LSSP’s Hector Abhayavardhana
A leading Left theoretician of his time, Abhayavardhana combined analytical rigor with a longue durée view of the conflict, highlighting the political economy of the growing rift between Sinhalese and Tamils and its implications for the country’s links with India. These essays are comprehensive despite their brevity.
No two Marxist interpretations of the war are the same. Thus while Abhayavardhana highlights the material causes underlying Sinhala-Tamil relations, Sri Lanka’s first Marxist anthropologist, Newton Gunasinghe, adopts a different interpretation of those relations. Gunasinghe understood the limitations of a politico-economic approach to the situation in Sri Lanka, and sought to apply Gramscian and Althusserian theory to it; he was particularly interested in how ethnic polarizations had triumphed over class conflict, a phenomenon he analyzed using Althusser’s notion of “over-determination”.
To give one example of how Gunasinghe differed radically from other Marxist scholars in his reading of the war, he observed that the antecedents of Sinhala-Tamil clashes were to be found in the transition from the Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration’s protectionist measures, which (for him) entrenched a middle layer of Sinhala businessman, to the J. R. Jayewardene government’s liberalization of the economy, which (again, for him) ruined prospects for many of those businessmen. What he does here is to eschew the usual class reading of the war in favor of an interpretation that gives more prominence to its ethnic dimensions. Political economy, in other words, had given way to identity politics.
Sound as this analysis may be, it nevertheless fails to appreciate several crucial points: that minority businessmen also benefitted from Bandaranaike’s policies; that farmers, regardless of ethnicity, flourished thanks to those policies, which banned imports of agricultural produce; and that rural electorates in Jaffna supported the SLFP over the ACTC long after that party lost a presidential election so spectacularly to the UNP.
Gunasinghe’s distinction between Sinhala and Tamil traders fails to explain why a Sinhala Buddhist candidate, Hector Kobbekaduwa, from a party associated strongly with Sinhala nationalism, the SLFP, got 59 percent of the vote from a Tamil electorate, Kopay. It also fails to explain how Colombo’s minority businessmen continued to vote for the UNP long after the 1983 riots. This is a largely generic problem, common to all academics and social scientists that play with categories of race under the assumption that such categories are linear, and fixed, and are not disrupted by other categories, such as class.
Gunasinghe’s criticism of a purely politico-economic reading of the conflict comes out more fully in an essay he wrote for May Day 1984. In it he raps sections of the Left more concerned with bringing down the Jayewardene regime than with taking on chauvinist elements in the anti-regime bloc. Regardless of whether one agrees with this reading – and there is much to disagree with it, even if you happen to be ideologically opposed to Sinhala and Tamil racialism, like me – his erudition shows well in it.
Then there are diplomatic memoirs. The prototype here, of course, is Jayatilleka’s Long War, Cold Peace; a more recent contribution is Rajiva Wijesinha’s Representing Sri Lanka. Since we won the war in Nandikadal, but lost spectacularly in New York and Geneva, these works are important in that they advise us how we can regain the confidence of the world without compromising on our sovereignty.
It’s telling that both Jayatilleka and Wijesinha contend that Sri Lanka’s government and people are right in viewing the military victory as deserved and unavoidable; neither of them sees a contradiction between the necessity of winning the war and maintaining the gains of that hard-won victory abroad. The question they raise, then, isn’t so much about the war won so well here, as it is about the war lost so badly abroad.
Indian accounts of the Sri Lankan war are, on the whole, a little contentious. Surprising as it may seem – or perhaps not so surprisingly – most Indian authors criticize, sometimes disparage, the LTTE. This is, of course, understandable: the LTTE not only did a double-whammy on the Indian military and, with the most primitive arsenal and ammunition, delivered the biggest, most embarrassing defeat to one of the most powerful armies in the world, it also wound up assassinating the man – the Indian Prime Minister, none less – who intervened to save the LTTE from near-certain defeat in 1987.
This does not guarantee accuracy and objectivity in these accounts – most of them, for instance, view Ranasinghe Premadasa with a “singularly jaundiced” eye, as Dayan Jayatilleka has noted – but it does prevent them from becoming apologies for terrorists. What we need to appreciate there is that the relationship between India and the Sri Lankan war was never as clear-cut as nationalists tout it to be: the truth, as always, was more complex.
Analyses of Sinhala and Tamil nationalism – which are crucial to any proper understanding of the war – are not hard to find, but most of them lack insight. Srikantha Nadarajah’s Nationalism in Sri Lanka, an exception to this rule, unearths the myopia of both Sinhala and Tamil extremists well, without tilting to either side.
The fundamental rift between these two forms of nationalism, the way I see it, boils down to the majority-minority dialectic that pits the one against the other: hence, while Sinhala nationalists are a majority with a minority complex, their Tamil counterparts happen to be a minority with a majority complex.
To simplify this further, Sinhala extremists think, not unjustifiably, that Sri Lanka is the only home they’ve got, while Tamil extremists believe, again not unjustifiably, that while there are no States in the world without their kind, there is as of yet no state in the world that is exclusively Tamil. A good study of these nationalisms would delve into these dynamics, but barring the rare intervention – which Bandarage’s and Jayatilleka’s, not to mention Nadarajah’s, works are – such a study is nowhere to be found.
Finally, of course, there are accounts of the many peace processes that tried, and failed, to resolve the conflict. The most recent contribution would be Chanaka Talpahewa’s Peaceful Intervention in Intra-State Conflicts: Norwegian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process, but while the contribution it makes is indeed commendable, its full worth is yet to be registered or appreciated by local scholars and students.
Talpahewa’s historiography of the war is similar to Bandarage’s, yet he goes further than the latter in ascertaining why Norway failed to repeat its success with the Oslo Accords here. His argument is not just that the Norwegians were attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole, but that the peg they were trying hard to push in was specific to its context, its underlying model lacking universal applicability.
I realize that a bibliography of Sri Lanka’s separatist war is hard to come up with. So much has been written on so many things, and by so many authors. Discriminating between the good and the bad is of course a matter of taste, dependent on how one views the conflict in the first place. Yet while some would prefer Nalin de Silva’s reading of Prabharakan’s fathers and grandfathers, many others would prefer Bandarage’s more solid account of the dynamics of the conflict. As for me, I am just grateful to have the books I do. I hope, however, that more is written on the subject: few conflicts from recent times, after all, have been as misread, and misapprehended, as the Sri Lankan.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])