Sirisena Amarasekara

Sirisena Amarasekara is a Sri Lankan public servant and diplomat. He is the former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana, and Eswatin. He had functioned as the secretary to the Prime Minister on two occasions, and as the secretary to the Cabinet of Sri Lanka. Having completed more than 50 years of public service, Amarasekara is one of the most senior Sri Lankan public servants.

Sri Lanka: Ramifications of Nation Rebuilding

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A nation is a community of people formed into one state in a particular territory based on shared features such as language, history, ethnicity, culture, or a combination of one or several of those. All citizens of the nation should be able to live together peacefully and feel togetherness towards one’s own country irrespective of individual or group differences concerning religion, race, region, culture, caste, etc.

Once national integration is achieved, individuals will likely work together to build a system that enhances the nation’s and people’s prosperity. The nation-building process in Europe commenced a few centuries back and grew gradually in several phases as viable governance units.

Colonisation by the West

After becoming strong nations, some European countries invaded, migrated, and colonised other parts of the world. Also, many people migrated to western countries from those colonies looking for greener pastures, and migrants became a cheap source of labour in Europe. But the local communities look at them as inferior non-Europeans and relegate them. The scholars of the west developed concepts such as co-existence, pluralism, multiculturalism, etc., to influence local communities to accept those migrated aliens. The governments of those countries also provided legal support to reinforce the above concepts to maintain the cheap labour force.

Colonial administration was the integrating factor, like the basket that kept all potatoes (traditional governance units) together. Once the basket is removed (independence), potatoes start rolling away in different directions (separatism).

Colonialists competitively established governance units (colonies) in the Third World according to their ability to capture territories and parts of territories, irrespective of historical factors, languages, ethnicities, etc. Sometimes, one territory of a traditional leader may have been divided among several colonialists. Also, on some occasions, several governing units of traditional leaders may have been brought under one governance unit (colony). Such states were like baskets of potatoes. Colonial administration was the integrating factor, like the basket that kept all potatoes (traditional governance units) together. Once the basket is removed (independence), potatoes start rolling away in different directions (separatism).

In the 20th century, while responding to independence movements, colonial masters did not attempt to carve out or amalgamate governance units again according to the citizens’ wishes, such as culture, history, religion, language etc. Therefore, in many instances, newly independent nations are creations of colonialists, not by the citizens, according to the historical and cultural factors. Consequently, many newly independent nations struggle to separate or amalgamate to align with their customary identities. Under this scenario, nation-building in Asia, Africa, and part of South America became highly complex, leading to eternal conflicts between and within countries.

The Case of Sri Lanka

After falling off the Polonnaruwa kingdom, Lanka did not have a stable central government to face the South Indian invasions. The Kingdom of Lanka shifted to more secure areas such as Gampola, Kandy, Kurunegala, Dambadeniya, Kotte, etc., to avoid such attacks. During these political instabilities, the Sinhala population also moved to southern and hilly regions, abandoning the Ancient Great Sinhala Buddhist Civilisation centre.

During the Kotte period, regional kings/rulers became independent from time to time. Jaffna was under an independent ruler on several occasions. During the Portuguese invasion in the 16th century, there was no strong central government in Lanka, and regional rulers were fighting with each other to augment their territories. However, Mahavamsa has attempted to show that the kings of the kingdoms mentioned above were “All Island Kings”, and others were regional rulers. It indicates that Mahavamsa has tried to reiterate the concept that Lanka is one nation, one country, and one state. Under this backdrop, the Portuguese could capture the entire low country from regional kings/rulers. However, they could not grab the Hill Country (Kandyan Kingdom) due to its defence-wise strategic location.

With the consolidation of power by the Portuguese, Lanka was officially divided into two states (the Coastal area of the Island as the Portuguese Colony and the Central hilly area as the Kandyan Kingdom). This two-state position of the Island lasted for about three centuries until the British captured the Kandyan Kingdom and formed a single administration for the entire Island in 1815. In addition to the ordinary laws for the Island, the British introduced specific private laws on subjects such as Land ownership and marriages. (Marriage laws for Hill country and Muslims, land laws for Jaffna, etc.)

History of Sinhala-Tamil Conflict

There are no doubts about the existence of the Tamil Community on the Island since antiquity. Throughout history, Lanka struggled to counter the Tamils and other Dravidian invaders from South India. After the Cholas invasion in the 11th century, the Tamil population in Lanka could have increased. But there is little evidence of ethnic or religious conflicts, hate, or discrimination against Tamils by the Sinhalese.

There is not much evidence to prove that the wars of Sinhala Kings were against Sri Lankan Tamils.

After the collapse of the two ancient kingdoms, those territories became a sizeable contiguous forest pushing Sinhalese to South and Hill Country and most Tamils to the Jaffna peninsula. This forest area functioned as the buffer zone to separate Sinhala and Tamil Communities from each other. As a subsistent agricultural society, there was no completion or conflict among the two communities for natural resources such as water or land.

There is not much evidence to prove that the wars of Sinhala Kings were against Sri Lankan Tamils. Those could have been against South Indian invaders such as King Elara, Cholas, Pandian, etc. Otherwise, there can’t be a substantially large Tamil community in Sri Lanka. It means Tamils were not hated or considered aliens to the Sinhala society.

Also, there was no resentment or threat to the existence of Hinduism from Buddhists. Buddhists used to respect Hindu gods without any hesitation. Muslim immigrants, mixed with Sinhalese and Tamils, filled the vacuum of national and international trade needed by both communities. Hence there was no discrimination against Muslims, either from Tamils or Sinhalese. There was no challenge to the co-existence of three significant communities or ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka until the conquering of the coastal area by the Portuguese.

Except for the Kandyan Kingdom, the rest of the Island had ruled by the Portuguese and Dutch as one state. The British conquered the Kandyan kingdom in1815 and brought the entire Island as a British colony under the name of Ceylon in English, Lanka in Sinhala, and Illankai in Tamil. In 1948 Ceylon became an independent county with Dominion status. In 1972 it became a republican under the single name of Sri Lanka in all languages.

The Soulsbury constitution and subsequent two Republican Constitutions, 1972 and 1978, did not provide a robust and broad framework to promote national integration and build Sri Lanka as a cohesive nation. Instead, it has sown the seeds of ethnic disharmony and national disintegration. Consequently, even after seven decades of independence, Sri Lanka still struggles to become a sustainable nation.

Since 1978 the constitution has amended/submitted amendments on 21 occasions. Most of these amendments are not for the broad public interest but to satisfy the little curiosity of individuals, families, and groups. The most critical issues, such as national integration, good governance, and genuine fundamental rights, have gone under the carpet. Now, the government is contemplating the 22nd Amendment.

Sri Lanka can invest many resources expecting national prosperity, but all those may become futile, as in the past, if no national integration exists. Reasons and justifications for these proposals are not given here, as the intention is to make the article brief.

But the proposed amendment also seems to be addressing the vested interest of powerful groups instead of removing major evils and incorporating elements required to heal the wound. This article will discuss many aspects that legally and constitutionally need corrections, but some of these may be politically difficult. I hope many of these proposals can be implemented by the present deformed government because the time has come to keep the personal and group agendas aside and do the neediest things to become a sustainable nation. Sri Lanka can invest many resources expecting national prosperity, but all those may become futile, as in the past, if no national integration exists. Reasons and justifications for these proposals are not given here, as the intention is to make the article brief.

Recommendation and Suggestions

Legal Aspects

All private laws providing special privileges or discriminating against any ethnic/religious group must be abolished and brought under the country’s common law. However, a citizen must be free to follow their cultural, religious practices, and customs within their societies without affecting the freedom of others.

Contesting for provincial and general elections by the priest of any religion should be banned, and religious leaders should prevent them from attending party politics.

Political parties promoting any religion, ethnic group, caste, or profession that leads to social fragmentation should not be registered as political parties. All political parties must have national objectives only in their policy. Any Existing political parties with such narrow interests and policies should be allowed to change according to the national interests.

All kinds of discriminatory activities such as hate speeches, publications, and the use of any media insulting a religion, language, ethnicity, or caste should be prohibited in the law. An Anti- Discrimination law must be introduced.

The use of ethnicity in official documents such as birth certificates, identity cards, etc., in place of ‘nationality or the nation’ should stop. Nationality/ nation in any document should be indicated as Sri Lankan, not as Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, etc. If necessary, the parents’ religion and language may be shown on the Birth Certificate because just born child has no religion or a language

Customarily, in the Sinhala language, “JATHIYA“means Tamil, Sinhala, Muslim or Burger. It does not imply the nation or nationality (Sri Lankan). Now, this deep-rooted connotation can’t be changed. Therefore, without disturbing the Sinhala sentiments, a new Sinhala word must invent for the English word ‘nation and nationality, instead of using the word JATHIYA alternatively for both the ethnicity and the nation. If necessary, the same should do for the Tamil Language as well.

Relevant clauses of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Public Property Act, etc., should be amended or repealed to prevent the detention of the accused for a more extended period to satisfy narrow-minded political aspirations and cover up the inefficiency of law enforcement authorities. And the maximum period for detention should be specified in the law. If the police fail to frame charges during the specified period accused must be released on bail.

Constitutionally, a system of inter-dependency between the three levels of governance (central government, provincial councils, and local authorities) shall introduce to ensure an indivisible Sri Lanka and to prevent conflicts between the representatives of the above three levels. That may avoid surfacing personal interest rather than local, provincial, and national interests, which is highly visible under the present system. For instance, instead of conducting a separate election for the provincial councils, chairpersons and mayors of local government institutions in the province can become ex-officio members of the provincial council. The governor can appoint the member who can command the support of the majority in the council as the Chief Minister. Under this arrangement, local authorities become part and parcel of the provincial council. To make the devolution more reliable and robust, provincial chief ministers shall make ex-officio members of the cabinet, representing the provincial interest. Such a system may pave the way for national integration and do away with the arguments on Federalism Vs. Unitary system. All three tires will be interwoven, and no room for separation.

While the central government is designing the national programs, implementing all divisible programs and projects should be the responsibility and right of the provincial council and local authorities. The central government must implement only the indivisible programs. To reflect these requirements, necessary amendments to the constitution and elections laws must be affected.

Religions

The establishment of new religious places such as temples, mosques, churches, kovils, planting Boo-trees, and erecting statues in public places, must regulate under the laws of environment, physical planning, archaeology, etc. according to approved parameters, with due consideration to the needs of such new places.

In addition to existing ones, Laws must introduce to prevent the introduction of new religions, which could lead to further social fragmentation.

Conversion from one religion to another through unethical inducements such as cash or material bribes and offering privileges should be banned. However, conversion with understanding, knowledge, and education must be allowed.

A national program is necessary to impart knowledge about the basic principles of all religions among priests enabling them to have an interfaith understanding.

In addition to their faith, all students must acquire general knowledge about other accepted religions in the country, enabling them to avoid religious conflicts and gain interfaith understanding. The Syllabus of religious studies must be prepared to accommodate this requirement.

A national program is necessary to impart knowledge about the basic principles of all religions among priests enabling them to have an interfaith understanding.

When the history of Sri Lanka is analysed carefully, it is possible to assume that Buddhist archaeological sites in the north and East could be Buddhist ancestral assets of the Tamilspeaking people who have been converted to Tamil Hinduism or Islam faith due to Indian invasions and co-habitation in those areas. Therefore, Sinhala Buddhists in the South should not claim those as solely Sinhala Buddhist heritage. Tamil-speaking Hindus and Muslims must encourage preserving and protecting those as their ancestral heritage.

The government should stop establishing separate ministries for each religion and culture. One ministry of Religious and cultural affairs is sufficient. Also, the government’s assistance to religions should be rationalised to prevent discriminatory service to some religions.

All religious schools must register under the Ministry of Religious Affairs and regulate (Curriculum development, examinations, certificates, teacher qualifications, physical facilities, etc.). Religious schools should not be an alternative to the general education system in the country.

The naming of government schools after religions/ethnicities/linguistics such as Sinhala College, Muslim college, Tamil College, Hindu College, Buddhist College, Catholic college, etc., should not be allowed further. Schools must name according to the school classification of the department of education. If a school is named after religion or a language, such schools must teach only that religion or language regulated by the ministry of religious affairs.

Today, English is taught as a subject from grade 3 in Swabasha (vernacular) schools. But teaching English as a subject (link language) must commence from grade 1. An adequate number of English, Tamil, or Sinhala (second language) teachers in all schools in the country are a must.

Learning English, Sinhala, and Tamil as subjects must be compulsory for all students to GCE (O/L). Today, in government schools’ a second language is taught only to read and write. Still, high priority must be given to training in speaking, which is very important for inter-lingual interaction and employability in any part of the country.

The medium of instruction should change to English from grade 5 or 6, step by step over 10-12 years, while two vernaculars are taught as subjects in secondary education and universities.

While moving for English as the medium of instruction, an attempt must be made to have classes of multi-ethnic, multi-religious students in schools.

School textbooks and curriculums must develop/revised to prevent the proliferation of antireligion and racialist views and to promote co-existence and the concept of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans.

Local market in Kandy, Sri Lanka – Photo © Florian Wehde

Official Language

Along with the above-said changes in the education system, the possibility of making proficiency in the second language an entry qualification to the public service should be considered in several steps.

Accept English, Sinhala, and Tamil as national and official languages with equal status and allow national and subnational level government institutions to select two Languages (English and Sinhala or Tamil) as official languages with due consideration to social and cost factors.

However, National level agencies must be equipped to communicate in all three languages.

The appointment of an adequate number of translators, especially Sinhala- Tamil translators, to government offices is a paramount need under the prevailing circumstances. All universities in the country can introduce language streams to produce tri-lingual graduates (Sinhala, Tamil, and English) to fulfil the needs of qualified people. The government must guarantee the employment of tri-lingual graduates as translators and teachers.

Media

The mass media has a critical role in awareness building, inspiring, and influencing the people, opinion leaders, and political leaders to achieve the goal of national integration. Owners and managers of media must realise their responsibility to the nation and society to provide clean, transparent, and reliable information. All media in the country must build up an ethical agreement and understanding to refrain from spreading news, rumours, views, and concepts counterproductive to the objective of national integration

Owners and managers of media must realise their responsibility to the nation and society to provide clean, transparent, and reliable information.

The media must be used to promote the concept of Sri Lankan and Sri Lanka, not the identity of ethnicities.

Spreading news and views detrimental to ethnic and religious co-existence must be banned in the country’s law. The media shall not use words such as ‘Sinhala man has been assaulted by a Muslim man or ‘Tamil youth has been taken into custody by the USA police,’ highlighting individuals’ ethnicity.

As we are accustomed to using the word ‘JATHIYA’ to name the ethnicity throughout history, the media should not use the same word to call the nation and the nationality. A new Sinhala word may be invented and used for nationality and the nation.’

Land

All ethnic groups must be given the opportunity proportionate to the population in any new major irrigated settlement schemes.

In the Northern and Eastern Districts, lands occupied by security forces, which are strategically crucial for national security, must be appropriately acquired under the land acquisition Act and pay compensation to owners in line with the ‘National Involuntary Resettlement Policy. All other lands must release back to their original owners without delay.

Accommodate People who have lost their land due to the civil war or natural disasters in new settlement schemes with irrigation and other infrastructure facilities to cultivate and live on. In such events, all people who have lost lands must accommodate, disregarding the percentage of the population.

Legal and constitutional provisions must introduce to delegate a limited authority on land matters to provincial councils while keeping the prime control with the centre.

Miscellaneous

Instead of commemorating the war victory, objectives and arrangements of “Ranaviru Day’’ must be changed, enabling the whole nation to participate in commemorating the loss of the lives of their loved ones and to celebrate the bliss of defeating terrorism. It could be the day of the National Integration, not Rana Viru Day.

The Indian Tamils should not confine to estates as bonded labour. Their accessibility to the main streams of the economy should be improved and facilitated to move into other areas for employment and living through higher education and diverse skills.

Designing a program is necessary to encourage, motivate, and support people of the oppressed castes in the North for upward socio-economic mobility and migration to other areas, enabling them to establish social recognition.

Serious consideration is necessary to bring the country’s name to pre-1972 status. In Sinhala, it can continue as Sri Lanka, in English as Ceylon, and in Tamil as Illankai. Though the Tamils are more accustomed to the name Eelam, during the last three decades, it has given a bad connotation to Sinhalese.

Tamil speakers must allow using Tamil words for the National Anthem without changing the meaning and the music.

Instead of excessive interference and threats, the UNHCR and interested external parties should respect the county’s sovereignty, allow local systems to operate within the culture and ethics atmosphere, and support fill gaps. They shall encourage the Tamil diaspora and the leadership to find a solution within the country’s social, economic, political, and historical background by working with the government and the Sinhala majority instead of widening the ethnic gap and cultivating hatred. The government in power also must understand the Tamil community can’t be cheated by camouflaged proposals and promises; it should be genuine and highly committed. There must be a separate ministry or a bureau under the president with sufficient powers and strength to drive and monitor all actions for national integration.

Conclusion

These proposals are brought forward to benefit all stakeholders interested in unity within the religious, ethnic, and culturally diverse Sri Lanka. I propose that the mindset of all Sri Lankans should change to think, speak, and behave as Sri Lankans while maintaining their religious, ethnic, and cultural identities without affecting the freedom of others. Must respect and accept the citizens’ right to live in any part of the Island and engage in livelihood according to their wish. Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, and Malay are not nations. They all are ethnic groups, and “Sri Lanka” is the country and “Sri Lankan” is the nation.

Nowhere in the world has national integration been achieved by forcefully and entirely loading the culture and the interest of the majority on the minorities.

After independence, Sri Lanka has sacrificed 74 years unproductively to counter or manage internal conflicts. Otherwise, it could have been devoted to building a prosperous nation. Nowhere in the world has national integration been achieved by forcefully and entirely loading the culture and the interest of the majority on the minorities. In many countries, the majority has compromised many values and interests to allow the minorities to feel that they are equal with others. The attempt to persuade minorities to comply with Sinhala Buddhist Cultural values will make it difficult for them to live with the majority. Then, it justifies the demand for a separate country.

As such, compromise is much better for everybody, including the Sinhala majority, to avoid unwarranted external influences and stand as a sovereign nation. Also, leaders of the minorities must realise that their problems can’t be resolved only with international pressures, ignoring the government and the majority. Compromise will pave the way for a sustainable solution.