Sri Lanka Guardian Essays - Page 3

Was Gorbachev a failure?

17 mins read

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” (William Shakespeare)

Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing away on 30th August has compelled observers around the world to assess his place in history. For three decades, he has cut a tragic figure, ignored and vilified, mocked and sneered at by his own people and country. The reality is far more complex, and can be appreciated only if one has an understanding of the state of the Soviet Union when Gorbachev assumed power in March 1985.

I was privileged to be a witness, with a ringside view, to the Gorbachev era – first as Political Counsellor in the Indian Embassy in Moscow from 1984 to 1988, and then as the Head of the Soviet and East European Department in the Ministry of External Affairs in India from 1988 to 1991. During this time, I had occasion to meet him, study him, analyze his policies, including as the interpreter from the Indian side for the talks that Gorbachev held with Indian leaders during his visit to India in 1986.

Returning to Moscow in July 1984, exactly nine years after I’d left the country at the end of my first posting to the Soviet Union from 1973 to 1975, I found that the country had not changed at all in the intervening period, except that the ailing and geriatric Leonid Brezhnev had passed away in 1982, as had his successor Yuri Andropov in 1984. Konstantin Chernenko was the new leader, but he was also on his last legs. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984, Chernenko visited the Indian Embassy to sign the condolence book. At the request of the Soviet side, the book was kept in the entrance at the ground floor of the Indian Ambassador’s residence so that Chernenko would not have to climb the steps to the reception room on the first floor. Even then, Chernenko had to be physically hauled up the two small steps at the threshold of the Ambassador’s residence!

To me, that symbolized the state of the Soviet Union in 1985, when Chernenko died and Gorbachev took over. The atmosphere was one of stagnation and gloom, resignation and indifference. Both society and politics had ossified. Survival in the Soviet Union was practically a full-time job, even for diplomats who had privileged access to hard currency stores. In the local markets, fresh fruits and vegetables and decent quality meat was a rarity (I once had to barter a bottle of Scotch whisky for a leg of lamb!). Rumours of availability of basmati rice, fresh bananas or watermelons in local markets were enough to prompt people to set aside their work and rush to grab them before they vanished. Although I never had such a first-hand experience, veteran diplomats who had served in Moscow in the sixties said that it was considered acceptable behaviour for guests attending National Day celebrations organized by Embassies to pocket oranges and apples from the buffet table, since that was the only way to get them! The best memories that Soviet officials travelling to India on official trips came back with were of enjoying fresh tomatoes and cucumbers! For visitors from India, especially if they were vegetarian, a meal at an Indian home was like dining in a Michelin star restaurant where they could actually eat fresh vegetables that used to be transported for Embassy personnel once a month at subsidized rates by Air India flights.

You might have to spend a whole day wandering across town looking for a can opener, and in the process come across the strange sight of people walking with a garland of toilet paper rolls that they had managed to buy – not just for themselves, but for family and friends too. Russians always had a sturdy string bag in their overcoat pockets just in case they came across something worthwhile to buy. On seeing a queue, people instinctively joined it since it was assumed that it had to be for something worthwhile; securing a place in the queue was more urgent than finding out what was on sale! For an inexperienced foreigner, trying to buy anything in a grocery store was a bewildering exercise, what with different queues for different products, and a complex system of ensuring that one spent as little time as possible in the shop. There were queues to first check what was available, do a quick mental calculation and join another queue to pay the bill, then back to the original queues to pick up stuff, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for which queue might be moving faster, and then securing one’s place in different queues by marking one’s place with the person in front and behind! Workers in state and collective farms could not keep anything for their own consumption; everything had to be sent to a regional collection point, to which farmers had to drive in their vehicles or buses to visit towns or villages to buy milk, meat and eggs produced in their farms!

Foreigners were corralled in special buildings, with KGB guards controlling entry and exit. In all hotels, a floor lady monitored the activities of guests and visitors. All local domestic help, and any kind of services (like travel, hotel bookings, home repairs, even tickets to the Bolshoi Theatre) were channelized through a special agency staffed and controlled by the KGB. Most of the Soviet Union beyond a 25-kilometre radius from the centre of Moscow was closed to foreigners, and prior permission was required to visit any of a handful of open cities. Contacts with locals were actively discouraged.

As for the locals themselves, they were shut off from the outside world. Travel to the West was a dream, and only the privileged elite could visit friendly socialist countries. News and information, especially from abroad, was strictly censored, and dissidents were either sent into exile in Siberia or had taken refuge abroad. There was little creativity in the arts and literature. Factories turned out shoddy goods, which is why wary consumers always took care to check the date when an item had been manufactured, since it was a common belief that goods produced towards the end of a month were inferior quality products that were churned out in a hurry to meet the monthly production targets. Not that there was any reliability about statistics – as was later admitted, these were all cooked up. For most people, life meandered on aimlessly. Corruption, absenteeism and alcoholism were rife. True, no one was starving or homeless, but life was stuck in a deep rut with little hope or prospect of any change for the better. The Soviet Union continued to be ruled by an oligarchy of old men and an entrenched self-serving and self-perpetuating nomenklatura (bureaucracy). The three decades of Stalin’s rule had deadened Soviet society and polity, and deeply affected the psyche of the people. So secretive and tightly controlled was the system that the outside world only had an inkling of how hollow and brittle the system had become.

The system was crying out for a radical change – in fact, it had been doing so for the previous three decades after the death of Stalin, and the problems had only aggravated with time. Khrushchev did try to eradicate Stalinism. His “secret” speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 was seen as a landmark event, but Khrushchev ultimately failed to bring about any change. Kosygin (in the second half of the sixties) and Andropov (during his brief tenure between 1982 and 1984) also tried to institute economic reforms, again to no avail. On Chernenko’s death, Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the CC of the CPSU by a very narrow margin. As a young man influenced by the “thaw” created by Khrushchev in the mid fifties, and as a protégé of Andropov, Gorbachev clearly had the conviction and the determination to reform the Soviet Union, as well as a sound assessment of the reasons for the failure of earlier reform efforts. Now, with a mandate and opportunity to change things, he was imbued with a sense of mission. There was no time to lose. As he put it, “If not now, when? If not we, who?”

Subsequent pillorying of Gorbachev as being politically naïve does not provide a satisfactory answer to the question of how he managed to climb up to the very top of the greasy pole of Soviet politics at such a young age. It also ignores his ruthless sidelining of opponents and his steady accumulation of power in his early years in office. Both by background and conviction, Gorbachev was cut from a different mould than his predecessors. Unlike them, he was well educated, that too at the prestigious and premier Moscow State University. In addition, in Raisa he had a spouse who was smart, educated and intellectually aware. Unlike the spouses of his predecessors and much to the annoyance of traditionalists both in the party and society, she was not content to live life in anonymity and is thought to have played an important role in shaping his policies.

From his very first days in office, Gorbachev showed a decisive and vigorous style of leadership, oozing determination and confidence, impatience and urgency. He was open and accessible, mingled freely with ordinary citizens in the streets, encouraged popular criticism, and eschewed any personality cult. When one met him in person, he radiated warmth and sincerity. His initial goal was to reform socialism, not destroy it; to make the Party a more effective instrument of governance, and not sideline it. Thus his slogan in the early days was merely “uskorenie” or acceleration. He called for “new thinking” for an interdependent world in the nuclear age, dreamt of the Soviet Union as part of a “common European home,” brought about a thaw in relations with China, withdrew troops from Afghanistan, gave a new dynamism to relations with India, worked for bold and courageous cuts in nuclear and conventional weapons and, in the Delhi Declaration signed with India in November 1986, breathtakingly endorsed the idea of a nuclear weapons free world. The tight grip over the East European countries was loosened, and support to Marxist regimes around the world on ideological grounds was given up. Although discerning diplomats and journalists could see the far-reaching logical and ultimate consequences of Gorbachev’s foreign policy pronouncements, no one really expected, at least in the early years of Gorbachev, that Soviet troops would be actually removed from the Warsaw Pact countries.

Was Gorbachev merely a dreamer, an idealist imbued with the ideas of truth, morality and humanism? As subsequent events showed, he did have some of these qualities, when he refused to send troops to quell uprisings in different parts of the Soviet Union and in the East European satellite states. But Gorbachev was also a realist. His outreach to the West was a compulsion, born out of the recognition that, saddled with a stagnant economy, the Soviet Union did not have the wherewithal to compete with the West, with which he foresaw a period of intense competition, aggravated by US President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”). As a satiated territorial power, Gorbachev needed peace with the West, and did not want to fritter away energy and resources to export of revolution. To many of us living in the Soviet Union at that time, it was evident as early as in 1985 that Gorbachev’s coming into power would be a turning point in the history of the Soviet Union. Even cynical and skeptical observers were compelled to revisit old stereotypes and assumptions about the Soviet Union.

After having got a mandate from the 27th Congress of the CPSU in 1986, and having consolidated his political authority in the Politburo, Gorbachev shifted gears from merely “uskorenie” or acceleration to a wider “perestroika” or comprehensive restructuring of all aspects of political, economic, social and intellectual life. In order to overcome the entrenched vested interests of the party elite who were bent on sabotaging Gorbachev’s policies, Gorbachev tried to enthuse ordinary people to support his perestroika. He exhorted people to believe and feel that they were the ‘owners’ of the country. His was a nutcracker approach: cleanse the top ranks of the leadership, and then use the people to exert pressure on the party and bureaucracy from below. In the early months, there was indeed considerable enthusiasm and optimism among at least a section of the elite in the cities. The cultural renaissance, criticism of past leaders’ policies, removal of ‘blank spots’ in history, release of dissidents, reopening and restoration of churches and monasteries, easier travel abroad, emigration of Jews, access to foreign broadcasts, articles in the press exposing misdemeanours of officials – all this released considerable pent-up frustration. 1986 and 1987 were years of heady optimism, mingled with anxious hope that this was not just a dream.

Gorbachev’s strategy didn’t quite pan out the way he had intended. None of this ferment percolated down to the small towns and villages. The bulk of the people were passive and could not get out of their ingrained habit of receiving orders from above. They were uneasy at having responsibility thrust upon them, and their decades-long bitter experience of life in a Stalinist environment prompted them to be naturally cautious and circumspect, even fearful. The bureaucracy was sullen and hostile, at best fence sitters. In any case, they did not know how to work in a more open and liberal environment. One instance that typifies this problem comes to mind. Thanks to Ambassador TN Kaul’s initiative, an agreement was reached to open an Indian restaurant as a joint venture in Moscow. The opening of a foreign restaurant in Moscow was a pioneering and path-breaking development. But the nitty-gritty of opening was infuriatingly frustrating. The Russian General Manager and his Indian deputy took a long time to arrive at a compromise on whether the doors of the restaurant should be kept open or closed. The Indians wanted open doors, whereas the Soviets (in keeping with the prevalent practice that doors to restaurants were kept shut and it usually required a bribe of a rouble or two to persuade the doorman to let in customers!) wanted the doors to be kept shut and a doorman appointed to regulate access to the restaurant. The compromise reached was that the doors would be kept open, but there would be a doorman to keep an eye on who was coming in. A couple of days after the opening of the restaurant, a diner hailed the Indian Deputy Manager with a complaint that his soup was cold. As he went to the kitchen to investigate, he found that there was a babushka(old lady), seated at the entrance to the dining room from the kitchen, weighing the portions of soup and other food items before they were sent to the dining room. Aghast, the Deputy Manager asked why this was being done. The babushka said that she was simply following rules: the prescribed quantity of each soup serving was 300 ml. and she was just making sure that no one got more or less soup! It took considerable effort by the Deputy Manager to persuade the kitchen staff and the supervising babushka that two ladles of hot soup were preferable to an exact 300 ml. of cold soup!

By 1988, perestroika had begun to sputter, and within a year the situation had become critical. There was a flux in all spheres of life. Old systems had been dismantled but new ones hadn’t been set up. The most worrying aspect was the state of the economy because, far from bringing a change for the better, perestroika had worsened the day-to-day life of people. Ethnic and separatist problems began to surface. Gorbachev’s popularity and credibility sharply declined. He was widely blamed and intensely hated for crating the mess in which the country found itself. As it was impossible to turn back the clock, Gorbachev decided to press ahead even harder with radical changes. He got himself elected as President, though not through direct elections. While that gave him more legal powers, it did not give him greater political legitimacy. There were now many independent centers of power – the party, the republics, the army, the KGB, the miners, workers and farmers. Ethnic and regional nationalism, as well as separatism, surfaced menacingly throughout the country.

Soon, the Soviet Union was like a runaway train, hurtling towards a crash. Gorbachev had opened too many fronts simultaneously, and was unable to control the course of events. The Communist Party was made to give up its leading role, but it was forgotten that it was not just a political organization but also the administrative organ of the State that held it together. The old system had been dismantled, but there wasn’t a new one to replace it. Laws to regulate property rights were not in place. No one in authority had any experience in managing a market economy. Nor did ordinary people understand what it meant. By the second half of 1990, as republics, regions, towns and districts declared their “sovereignty” there were serious widespread doubts in the minds of observers and even Gorbachev himself whether the Soviet Union could survive. A referendum in March followed by an agreement reached in April 1991 between nine of the fifteen Republics to have a new treaty that would restructure the Soviet Union as a loose federation or confederation of sovereign states with a weak Centre was a last-ditch effort to avert a looming train wreck. However, the August 1991 failed putsch against Gorbachev, and Yeltsin’s grab for power torpedoed this possibility. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev stepped down as President of the Soviet Union. The Gorbachev era was over.

Was Gorbachev a failure? In his later years in power, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and even a few years later when he received less than one percent popular support for a failed Presidential bid, he was scorned and hated by the people at large. It was not just because the Soviet Union had been broken up, and day-to-day survival had become an ordeal for ordinary people. The sense of despondency and despair deepened during the tumultuous decade of the 1990. Gorbachev slid into irrelevant anonymity as a drunken and dysfunctional Yeltsin did nothing to set things right, the West and local oligarchs looted Russia; and NATO steadily spread eastwards. Yet it is noteworthy that he was given, albeit grudgingly, a modicum of respect by the establishment when he passed away, and many ordinary citizens, as well as former Russian President Medvedev and Hungarian Prime Minister Oban, attended his funeral.

Gorbachev was one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century. Like him or hate him, he cannot be forgotten or ignored. There is wide consensual acknowledgment of his enormous global contributions – a peaceful end to the Cold War, reduced risk of use of nuclear weapons, freedom to Eastern Europe from the Soviet yoke and the reunification of Germany without bloodshed. Just for that, he deserves a grateful salute. Outside Europe, Gorbachev’s policies have shaped, for the better, the development path that China and India have taken over the last three decades. The Chinese leaders drew their lessons from Gorbachev’s failed perestroika and took a reform path that was intended to avoid the pitfalls of Gorbachev’s strategy. India was forced to open up its economy and diversify its foreign relations, which is why India today is a more self-confident country with global influence. Ideological regimes across the world that had been propped up by the erstwhile Soviet Union have collapsed. As far as his ideology goes, Gorbachev continued to believe in socialism, but a “humane socialism.” Even if the socialist and communist experiments around the world have left much to be desired, the idea of socialism remains firmly entrenched among hundreds of millions around the globe, especially as it is glaringly evident that capitalism has been unable to ensure either sustainable or inclusive growth, has caused irreversible damage to the environment, and accelerated climate change. Gorbachev’s call for “new thinking” remains painfully relevant.

For Russians, the touchstone of Gorbachev’s legacy is the transformation he has brought about in his homeland. Was he responsible for the breakup of the Soviet Union? He certainly set in motion policies and processes that led to the breakup, but the Soviet Union could have survived as a confederation were it not for the selfish ambitions of the demagogic Yeltsin who stoked Russian chauvinism, and the inherently artificial and semi-colonial structure of the former Soviet Union. It is noteworthy that the Central Asian republics, heavily dependent on Russia, did not want the breakup of the Soviet Union; it was Russia that spurned them in the mistaken belief that they would become a burden on Russia. Gorbachev also made mistakes – there was too much breast-beating and self-flagellation about the crimes of Stalin and other preceding Soviet leaders. He did not realize that sovereign states have an obligation to engender a positive national narrative, and do not admit their mistakes. He was naïve in trusting the West, and failed to secure ironclad guarantees about the future direction of a united Germany and the Soviet Union’s erstwhile satellite states in East Europe. It was humiliating for a proud and patriotic people to stomach the betrayal of their toil and sacrifices to build up their country and the squandering of the gains of a hard-fought victory over Nazi Germany.

Was perestroika a failure? Certainly, from an economic perspective, perestroika failed. Should it have been even tried? There was a strong feeling among the leadership, though not a complete consensus, that there was an urgent need to change the way the Soviet Union was functioning; otherwise, Gorbachev would not have been elected as the General Secretary. He could well have taken a safe line and done nothing, but the danger was that the Soviet Union was likely to have become a giant, and more dangerous, version of North Korea. Could Gorbachev have gone about perestroika differently? Could he not have followed the Chinese reform strategy? Not really – for many reasons. Apart from the fact that the Chinese had the benefit of learning from Gorbachev’s mistakes, Russia was saddled with far more baggage than China. While China had the advantage of having a tradition of entrepreneurship that had survived the three decades of Mao’s rule, Russia had been catapulted from a feudal society to a completely new and untested form of governance, communism, whose prolonged life over seven decades of Stalinist rule had snuffed out all spirit or knowledge of entrepreneurship. Unlike Russia, China also benefited from having Hong Kong as a crutch and a teacher, as well as a large and prosperous Chinese diaspora. Since earlier incremental reform efforts had got bogged down and ended in failure, Gorbachev felt that a more radical, even if riskier, approach was called for. In pursuing this line, the deeper he dug, more and more unanticipated problems surfaced, and soon Gorbachev found that he had opened a can of worms.

As I see it, Gorbachev’s biggest and lasting achievement is the eradication of the cancer of Stalinism in Russia. He definitively and irreversibly destroyed the old centralized, inefficient and corrupt authoritarian system of governance based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. Equally importantly, he radically transformed the psyche and liberated the minds of his people. His domestic critics would do well to reflect on the irony that they got the right and courage to speak out only thanks to Gorbachev! By bringing down a crumbling, hollowed out edifice, Gorbachev created the precondition for a rejuvenated Russia. It is unrealistic to expect that he should also have managed to clear the rubble and erect a new structure. Those who destroy are not destined to create as well; that is a task left for new leaders and generations with different skills. To those who may regard this as an unduly apologetic and charitable perspective, it is worth pointing out that the suffering and trauma that millions of Indians experienced as a result of the Partition of India does not take away from the achievement of Independence from British rule. Many might even regard the Partition, perhaps justifiably, as a blessing in disguise.

Although three decades have passed since the end of the Gorbachev era, it is still too early to pass a definitive judgment on Gorbachev. As long as Putin, the handpicked successor of Gorbachev’s arch-rival Yeltsin, remains in power, it would be difficult for the Russian establishment to make or even permit an objective assessment of Gorbachev. In the decades to come, history is likely to judge Gorbachev more kindly. Russia is once again at a turning point. Russia’s break with the West is likely to be a definitive one for at least a generation or two. Russia appears to have finally given up its centuries-old effort to gain acceptance as a “European” country, and is now focussing on forging an independent Eurasian identity. It will have to rely more on its indigenous talent and resources and build cooperative relations with countries that constitute the Rest rather than the West. The conflict in Ukraine is for Russia an existential battle for survival. It is a war that Russia cannot afford to lose. Its outcome will shape the future of both Russia and the West. Should Russia be confronted with the admittedly remote possibility of losing, then, sadly, the use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. Putin’s Russia will not go down without taking the West down with it. On the other hand, if Russia were to prevail, it would be only because, thanks to the flywheel that Gorbachev set in motion, Russia is a stronger, more confident nation than the old Soviet Union could ever have become. Either way, Gorbachev would be smiling in his grave, whether ruefully or happily!

Views expressed are personal

What Sri Lanka Can Learn From Thatcher’s Legacy

5 mins read

The following article, describing the economic situation of post-war United Kingdom (UK), extracts information from “The Power of Capitalism” by Rainer Zitelmann. The reader is encouraged to refer to this book for more details and references.

After the War

In 1945 the Labour Party won the general elections, and prime minister Clement Atlee began implementing democratic socialism. About a fifth of the UK economy, comprising banks, civil aviation, mining, telecommunications, railways, shipping canals, road freight transport, power and gas, manufacturing industries including iron and steel, was nationalised.

When the Conservative Party (Tories) returned to power in 1951 Winston Churchill retained the majority of the socialist policies. During the 50s and 60s the UK enjoyed an improved standard of living by having low unemployment and increased consumption. But it still lagged behind other European countries such as West Germany, where the number of telephones, refrigerators, TV sets and washing machines were higher per 100 residents. The gap continued to widen because productivity was too low.

The Impact of Unions and Strikes

During the 70s the UK’s weakness became obvious. The country was disabled with frequent strikes. The German magazine Der Spiegel in 1974 reported:

“A row about wages and nationalised collieries turned into a showdown between the government and unions, which has plunged the country into ‘a new dark age’. Over a million people are already unemployed, over two million only in part-time employment, with a further ten million plus – almost half of the British workforce – likely to suffer the same fate in the next few weeks… the imperial avenues (of London) more sparsely lit than the streets in the urban slums of the UK’s former colonies. Candles flicker in the offices of the financial district, while hurricane lamps provide emergency lighting in department stores, and warehouses are illuminated by the headlights of lorries. Only one in four radiators is turned on inside the prime minister’s residence at 10, Downing Street, and signs at underground stations advise passengers to take the stairs as escalators have been taken out of service to save power”.

The trade unions were very powerful. The shop stewards (the union’s spokesmen within companies) were able to call a strike and break agreements whenever they wanted to. Neither the unions nor their officials could be held accountable for damages.

For some union officials their own interest and envy of co-workers mattered more. The rivalry between two steelworkers’ unions delayed the testing of new manufacturing equipment for months. The dockworkers’ union protested against the construction of state-of-the-art container terminals, because loading was to be done by a different sector. England’s most advanced high-speed train stood idle for half a year because railroad workers’ union insisted on two drivers, although there was only room enough for one in the operator’s cabin. During the 70s, 466 unions averaged 2000 strikes and 13 million working day losses per year.

Conditions escalated during the winter of 1978, when the country was paralysed by more strikes leading to the transport system breaking down and rotting garbage piling up on pavements.

Thatcher Begins Reforms

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. She had studied the writings of the classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek, and being impressed by his criticisms of welfare state socialism she put his free-market ideas into practice. She faced massive resistance from unions as well as many socialists in her own Tory government.

Thatcher’s pro-market reforms focused initially on inflation. She resisted price controls and abolished the Price Commission. This led to a sharp rise in unemployment from 1.3 to 3 million between 1979 and 83. Thatcher said “The paradox which neither the British trade unions nor the socialists were prepared to accept was that an increase of productivity is likely initially, to reduce the number of jobs before creating the wealth that sustains new ones”. Inflation fell in the short term, accompanied by a significant improvement in productivity.

Thatcher cut marginal tax rates from 33% to 25% in the lowest brackets, and from 83% to 40% in the highest. To balance the budget she was forced to increase VAT from 12.5% to 15%. She reduced bureaucracy by expediting planning permissions and simplifying or abolishing planning controls.

Restricting Unions

Thatcher implemented laws restricting unions. Arthur Scargill, a prominent union leader, led miners into a large-scale strike against planned pit closures and privatisations, despite three in four pits operating at a loss and receiving 1.3 billion pounds of taxpayer money.

Many miners didn’t the support the strike, and violence was used to prevent them from working. Attacks on police by striking workers or sympathizers resulted in serious injuries. Families of miners who did not participate were threatened or bullied. A Welsh taxi driver was killed by two miners who dropped a concrete block from a footbridge onto his taxi while he was transporting a strike-breaking miner to work. Thatcher refused to give in, and the unions had to abandon the strike when money ran out. Their defeat had a symbolic impact and broke the power of the unions, who had lost a third of their members and much political influence.

The Impact of Privatisation

Thatcher saw privatisation as “one of the central means of reversing the corrosive and corrupting effects of socialism”. Far from putting the people in control, public ownership simply “amounts to control by politicians and civil servants. But through privatisation – particularly the kind of privatisation which leads to the widest possible share ownership by members of the public – the state’s power is reduced and the power of the people enhanced”.

When British Telecom, employing 250,000, was privatised 2 million Britons bought shares in what was then the largest Initial Public Offering (IPO) in history. Around half had never owned shares before. During Thatcher’s premiership, public share ownership rose from 7% to 25%.

Subsequent privatisations included British Airways, British Petroleum (BP), Rolls Royce, Jaguar, shipbuilding companies and several utilities. This resulted in the state losing its dominance in the economy. Local councils sold off much of their housing stock to tenants to create a million new homeowners.

Privatisation caused prices to fall and service quality to improve. New telephone line subscriptions, which previously took months or a bribe to obtain, could now be obtained in just 8 days with the price having dropped 50%.

Deregulating the Finance Industry

Thatcher deregulated the finance sector by abolishing currency and capital controls. In 1986 she liberalized rules on share trading and the stock exchange, and eliminated restrictions on foreign banks. As a result London became the world’s leading financial centre, rivalled only by New York, with thousands of new jobs created by foreign bank branches.

In 1976 sovereign default was imminent and the government was forced to borrow 3.9 billion USD from the IMF. In 1989 this situation had completely turned around and the economy generated a surplus of 1.6%. This was possible due to increased tax revenue from foreign businesses.

Thatcher’s Legacy

Thatcher in her memoirs says there “was still much I would have liked to do”, “Britain under my premiership was the first country to reverse the onward march of socialism”.

The stuffy socialist culture of envy was replaced by a pro-market and pro-business environment where ambition was richly rewarded, leading to sharp increases in the number of private business and self-employment. The number of businesses registered rose from 1.89 to 3 million between 1979 to 89, while self-employment grew from 1.9 to 3.5 million. State-ownership reduced by 60%, 600,000 jobs had passed from the public to private sector, with 3.32 million jobs created between 1983 and 90.

Thatcher was voted into office to liberate the economy from state control. The British honoured her by re-electing her twice. Her premiership lasted 11 years, longer than any other 20th century British politician. Her policies were so successful that, in the following years, Tony Blair’s Labour government broke with party tradition and made no attempt to reverse them.


The Sri Lankan crisis is caused by an excess of government control and an overlarge public sector. Thatcher was faced with a similar situation. Despite public opposition, she resisted currency and capital controls and adopted free markets. Her courage was rewarded with a flourishing British economy.

West Germany and Chile are two other examples of countries that have had problems similar to Sri Lanka. They also adopted free-market policies and have now become first world nations.

Related Articles by the Author

  1. Fixing the Sri Lankan Economy
  2. Crisis in Sri Lanka: Lessons from Germany, Venezuela and Chile

Are these floods in Pakistan an ‘act of God’?

5 mins read

Calamities are familiar to the people of Pakistan who have struggled through several catastrophic earthquakes, including those in 2005, 2013, and 2015 (to name the most damaging), as well as the horrendous floods of 2010. However, nothing could prepare the fifth most populated country in the world for this summer’s devastating events, which began with high temperatures and political chaos followed by unimaginable flooding.

Cascading frustration with the Pakistani state defines the public mood. Taimur Rahman, the general secretary of the Mazdoor Kisan Party (‘Workers and Peasants Party’), told Peoples Dispatch that after the 2010 floods, there was ‘enormous outrage about the fact that the government had not done anything to ensure that… when there is an overflow of water, it can be controlled’. Evidence of relief funds being siphoned off by corrupt politicians and the wealthy elite began to define the post-2010 period; those memories remain intact. People understand that when the disaster industrial complex is in motion, cycles of corruption accelerate.

A third of Pakistan’s vast landmass was inundated by floods in the last week of August. Satellite imagery showed the rapid spread of the waters which broke the banks of the Indus River, covering large sections of two major provinces, Balochistan, and Sindh. On 30 August 2022, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called it a ‘monsoon on steroids’, as the rainwaters swept away more than 1,000 people to their deaths and displaced about 33 million more. The situation is dire, with those who fled their homes in immediate and long-term danger. The people camped out on higher land, such as major roadways, are currently at risk of starvation and in danger of contracting water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, dysentery, and hepatitis. In the long-term, people who have lost their standing crops (cotton and sugarcane) and livestock face guaranteed impoverishment. Pakistan’s Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal estimates that the damages will total more than $10 billion.

At first glance, the primary reason for the floods appears to be additional heavy rain at the tail end of an already record-breaking monsoon or rainy season. A very hot summer with temperatures of over 40°C for long periods in April and May made Pakistan ‘the hottest place on earth’, according to Malik Amin Aslam, a former minister for climate change. These scorching months resulted in abnormal melting of the country’s northern glaciers, whose waters met the torrential rain spurred by a ‘triple dip’ – three consecutive years of La Niña cooling in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. In addition, catastrophic climate change – driven by global carbon-fuelled capitalism – has also caused the glacial melt and downpour.

But the nature of the floods themselves are not wholly due to turbulent weather patterns. Significantly, the impact of the rising waters on Pakistan’s population is due to unchecked deforestation and deteriorated infrastructure such as dams, canals, and other channels to contain water. In 2019, the World Bank said that Pakistan faces a ‘green emergency’ because each year about 27,000 hectares of natural forest is cut down, making rainwater absorption in the soil much more difficult.

Furthermore, lack of state investment in dams and canals (now heavily silted) has made it much harder to control large quantities of water. The most important of these dams, canals, and reservoirs are the Sukkur Barrage, the world’s largest irrigation system of its kind, which draws the Indus into the southern Sindh River, and the Mangla and Tarbela reservoirs, which divert the waters from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Illegal real estate construction on floodplains further exacerbates the potential for human tragedy.

God has little to do with these floods. Nature has only compounded the underlying crises of capitalist-driven climate catastrophe and neglect of water, land, and forest management in Pakistan.

What are the urgent multiple crises afflicting Pakistan?

The floodwaters have revealed a set of enduring problems that paralyse Pakistan. Surveys in May, before the floods, showed that 54% of the population considered inflation to be their main problem. By August, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics reported that the wholesale price index, which measures fluctuation in the average prices of goods, increased by 41.2% while the annual inflation rate was 27%. Despite inflation rising globally and the acknowledgment that the cost of the floods would be over $10 billion, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has promised a mere $1.1 billion with austerity-like conditions attached to it such as ‘prudent monetary policy’. It is criminal that the IMF would impose strict austerity when the country’s agricultural infrastructure is utterly destroyed (this inadequate action is reminiscent of the British colonial policy to continue the export of wheat from India during the 1943 Bengal famine). The 2021 Global Hunger Index already placed Pakistan at 92 out of 116 countries with its hunger crisis – prior to the floods – at a serious level. Yet, as none of the country’s bourgeois political parties have taken these findings to heart, undoubtedly, its economic crisis will intensify with little recovery.

This brings us to the acute political crisis. Since its independence from the British in 1947, 75 years ago, Pakistan has had 31 prime ministers. In April 2022, the thirtieth, Imran Khan, was removed to install the current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Khan, who faces charges of terrorism and contempt of court, alleged that his government was removed at the behest of Washington owing to his close ties to Russia. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI or ‘Justice Party’) did not win a majority in the 2018 elections, which left his coalition vulnerable to the departures of a handful of legislators. That is precisely what was done by the opposition, which stormed into power through legislative manoeuvres, without a new mandate from the public. Since his removal, the standing of Imran Khan and the PTI has risen in Pakistan, having won 15 out of 20 of July’s by-elections in Karachi and Punjab, before the floods. Now, as anger rises against Sharif’s government due to the slow pace of relief for flood victims, the political crisis will only deepen.

What are the tasks at hand?

Pakistan is suffering from ‘climate apartheid’. This country of over 230 million people contributes only 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is threatened by the eighth highest climate risk in the world. The failure of Western capitalist countries to acknowledge their destruction of the planet’s climate means that countries like Pakistan, which have low levels of emissions, are already disproportionately bearing the brunt of rapid climate change. Western capitalist countries must at least provide their full support to the Global Climate Action Agenda.

Left and progressive forces – such as the Mazdoor Kisan Party – and other civilian groups have organised a flood relief campaign in Pakistan’s four provinces. They are reaching out mainly with food relief to tackle starvation in hard to reach, largely rural areas. The Pakistani Left is demanding that the government stem the tide of austerity and inflation that is sure to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.

In the summer of 1970, flash floods in the mountainous region of Balochistan caused great damage. A few months later in the general elections, the poet Gul Khan Nasir of the National Awami Party won a seat in the Balochistan provincial assembly and became the minister of education, health, information, social welfare, and tourism. Gul Khan Nasir put his Marxist convictions to work building the social capacity of the Baloch people (including setting up the province’s only medical school in Quetta, the provincial capital). Thrown out of office by undemocratic means, Nasir was sent back to prison, a place he had become all too familiar with in previous years. There, he wrote his anthem, ‘Demaa Qadam’ (‘Forward March’). One of its stanzas, 50 years later, seems to describe the zeitgeist in his native land:

If the sky above your heads
becomes full of anger, full of wrath,
thunder and rain and lightning and wind.
The night becomes dark as pitch.
The ground becomes like fire.
The times become savage.
But your goal remains the same:
March, March, Forward March.

Excerpts from the newsletter of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research

Public Centric Police: How to Get There?

12 mins read

In every civilised society, a police system exists for the common good of the community. World over, the primary duty of any Police Force is the prevention and the detection of crime and criminal law enforcement with the view to apprehending perpetrators of crime and collecting evidence against them, enabling them to be prosecuted in courts of law and to maintain public tranquility.

Of course, based on the nature of the structure of the State and its organs and the system of law and justice, the structure and the powers and functions of the Police vary from country to country. Due to 130 years of British colonial rule, Sri Lanka inherited a police system similar to its former colonial ruler — the United Kingdom.

In many countries, including Sri Lanka, laws and statutes specify the functions of the Police Force, the obligation for it to be an institution for crime prevention and to function in this capacity. However, it meets with misunderstanding and often veiled opposition when it seeks to assert its preventive and social role. This attitude which is widespread among the public must be changed. The Police essentially need to secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the Rules of Law.

Law and order is the basic foundation of any civilised society. The most fundamental issue for the Police is dealing with the community. Over the passage of time, the tasks of the Police in serving the community have become more complex and extensive. The Police have to accomplish the impossible and therefore have to develop an operating mode that is acceptable to most of the people most of the time. The role of the Police is vastly different to the approaches of other State apparatus with a totally divergent “culture” and an arduous 2 x7 duty to perform, which needs to be understood by society.

The fundamental duty of the Police is to serve mankind; to safeguard lives and properties; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence and disorder, and to respect the Constitutional rights of all people to liberty, equality and justice.

Nevertheless, people most of the time seem to be unaware that they expect the Police to perform an arduous and difficult task. Moreover, they are often a scapegoat for the community’s social and moral default.

Police in Sri Lanka are primarily responsible for the maintenance of law and order, prevention of the commission of crime, detection of crime, investigation of crime with the view to identifying and apprehending suspects, collecting evidence and thereby facilitating their prosecution in courts of law
When exercising this primary duty, Police are often criticised for their coercive role, while on the other, their attempts at purely preventive and social work are ill-received. “That’s not their job” is often heard with allusion to the alleged incompatibility between their coercive functions and their preventive aspirations.

Due to serious security threats faced by the country as a result of separatist terrorism perpetrated by the LTTE up until mid-2009, the Sri Lanka Police were compelled to assume additional responsibilities for the protection of the State, sovereignty, its national leaders, the civilian population, and property. In this regard, the Sri Lanka Police were required to perform unconventional duties similar to those performed by the security forces. The deployment of Police personnel to perform national security functions did lead to virtually one-half of the entire 85,000 odd Police Force deployed either in the Northern and Eastern Provinces referred to as ‘Operational Areas’.

As a result, the number of Police personnel available to perform conventional Police duties such as patrolling for the purpose of preventing the commission of crime, early detection of crime and receiving intelligence and conducting criminal investigations, became far less than the actual number required to carry out such duties and responsibilities effectively.

Be it either the former or the latter reason, the Police alone cannot solve the crime problem or establish Order. Police certainly could do better with the active participation of the community. The civic community must support compliance with the rule of law, instead of looking to the Police as merely an institution responsible for controlling criminality, public tranquility and/or Law and Order. An excellent case in point is the last General Election. The public well understood the importance of good behaviour and obedience to Law and Order, except in a few isolated negligible number of incidents. This perceptive approach of the public made the role of the Police relatively uncomplicated and helped them to discharge their duties towards enforcement of Law and Order with a positive note for the conduct of a fair and peaceful election. This undoubtedly enhanced the public trust in the Police.

Going by this illustration, for the Police as the enforcing arm of the Law, it is needless to say that the public adherence to discipline and observance of the rule of law undoubtedly rest as pre-requisites, they being the main stakeholders to achieve this objective. This is the most important fabric and foundation, essentially needed if we are to progress as a nation.

C. Wright Mills in his book “Sociological Imagination” has referred to social problems quite correctly as a threat to values. The high level of literacy, social mobility and the long history of exercising the adult franchise cannot be single-handedly considered as influencing forces to transform the behavioural patterns of individuals. Efforts to prevent crime must therefore include the teaching of conventional values. In this context, it is also necessary to find ways to strengthen individual bonds to society, commitment to the conventional order and participation in conventional activities. The best way is to strengthen the institutions that socialise people and continue to regulate their behaviour throughout life — the family, the school, and the workplace — address the individuals as part of society and teach necessary values for social wellbeing. In this backdrop, personal or inner controls are as important as social or external controls in keeping people from committing crimes and for the observance of the Rule of Law.

Thus, it would be seen that the solution to control crime is not only in the hands of the Police. It has a combination of multiple factors, to put it very simply, the public behaviour, their perception; attitudes; more importantly obedience to the law, respect for authority, upholding values, investment in customs and traditions – they all too play a major role, a role that will certainly be supportive in the maintenance of Law and Order by Police. Therefore, Civil society essentially plays a pivotal role and needs to be a driving force to support the Police in the flow of information to curb crime or could group together to support crime prevention mechanisms, stop other violations adversely affecting the wellbeing of the community and respect and observe the Rule of Law.

In the light of what is said, the conception of its vocation in the field of crime prevention must, at the outset, be shared by all those who are capable of helping the Police either through moral influence in the country or through their professional relations with the Police such as judges, sociologists, criminologists, social workers, probation officers, and, above all, peace-loving citizens.

It must be regarded with no separation that Policing in a democratic society is a Public Political function. It emanates from the three divisions of the Government, namely, the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary. All of this is subjected to civilian oversight, with the community finally responsible for all the processes dealing with crime and criminals. What the Police are, what they do, how they do, how well they fulfill the expectations, how professional they are, and what improvements they need are political questions, that inevitably need to be viewed as prerequisites for enhancement and enforcement of the laws.

On the other hand, reinforcements of informal controls on individual behaviour are the most vital way to reduce the incidence of crime. Compliance with most laws does not depend upon the likelihood of them being enforced, but upon the acceptance of informal norms and a concern for the feeling of others. The participation of all social institutions in the maintenance of peace and public order is a must and they could be partners in systematic crime preventive action through more effective Police-Community cooperation, which is seriously lacking in our country.

If you look back, history reveals that crime has been analysed in the last century from every aspect; biological, theological, sociological, psychological and economical. The evolution theory has taught us that we evolved from an animal state where killing and being killed were part of nature’s design. Millions of years have passed and we have shed more of our instinct. Our minds are, however, still preoccupied with the most predatory instincts, and society is pervaded by overt and covert forms of violence generating a general climate of irrationality.

No police system in this world has ever succeeded by functioning in isolation. No Police Force in the world has been able to effectively deal with crime and other Law and Order problems without the active support of the community it serves. Therefore, as leaders of civil society, as conscientious community and social leaders, as responsible citizens of Sri Lanka, all should help the Police in the discharge of their duties and functions.

Given this orientation, crime and disorder are major concerns to be dealt with by Police and could be termed “Community Malignancies” that would imperil the quality of living and morality to a very harmful extent. It is in this theoretical matrix that the community’s role and responsibility in crime prevention have to be viewed as decisive.

Unlike in totalitarian systems, in a democratic society, the police function depends, to a considerable degree, on self-policing by every citizen. This dictum comes into play a pivotal role as law observance is the most salient part of law enforcement. Traffic management is a case in point. The Police spend a great deal of time and resources doing it, but most of the actions (tasks) are done by motorists who have to abide by road rules. Hence, the order cannot be secured only through fear of punishment and the public too have an important role to play to obey the “Rules of Law”

Ironically with the social changes, the approach of the Police in dealing with Law and Order has to be generally one of professional development, including elevation of recruitment standards, extensive training covering a wide range of subjects including Police-community relations, strengthening against submissions to the demands of politicians and expansion of specialised training, resources to some degree and the gradual emergence of police-community relations.

The purposes of these areas and developments in the recent past have been to strengthen the implementation of equal protection under the law for all citizens, to foster and improve communication and mutual understanding between the Police and the community and to enhance Police education and training especially to deal in social and behavioural attitudes to meet the ever-changing challenges, vastly different to the conditions of yesteryears.

Against this backdrop, the social behaviour of people must be also well understood. The current social behaviour is that many people become so preoccupied with their own personal issues that they pay little attention to larger community problems. This situation has distanced the people from supporting the Police by way of providing true and genuine information and responsiveness to curb crime and for productive enforcement action.

Further, as in the past, large numbers of today’s youth do not submit to traditional behaviour controls, in or out of school. Problems of discipline loom large in and around classrooms. School behaviour, to say the least, especially at the upper levels, is often marginally criminal, often violent, as many witness during big matches and in the newly emerged ‘demonstration culture’, turning dangerous and frightening and even to the extent of students manhandling the teachers. Therefore, obviously, the maintenance of order continues to be important in a school setting. The fact is that if anger or hostility is accompanied by physical attack upon school staff, fellow students or property, the optimum atmosphere for teaching or learning is bound to rapidly deteriorate. Teachings at school levels and in homes and improving the quality of instructions and monitoring the activities and behaviours of students will improve the discipline and order to make children good citizens.

Public support, community-wide interest and individual participation, therefore are important to be enlisted. In other words, the information that allows the Police to exert formal control must be supported by the people.

Therefore, mutual assistance among the various components of society will certainly encourage the Police to become more functional. The best solution is to have only one urge and that should always be allowed to exit; the urge to live in peace. In this context, not only the Police but the people too have a vital role to play.

The community must understand that Police need the community in their role and that such participation is equally beneficial to all segments of the community. Public interest in the Police-community relationship at times surmounts adversely when civic peace and order are threatened by dissident groups in street demonstrations, confrontations and the like. Unfortunately, such treacherous actions have now become more common than in the past. Often these events spill over into violence and Police are quickly labelled as “villains”, forgetting the fact they are guardians of the law.

Today, people are used to a culture of taking to the streets, blocking the roads, thus inconveniencing the peace-loving public, to bring forth their grievances in the form of protests, seeking the intervention of the authorities to resolve their problems. Such situations have, of late, been a common site with no single day passing by without a demonstration taking place. The publicity drawn on such events for public consumption has also led to the replication of occurrences in the guise of democracy, little realising the ill effects to the community in particular and public tranquility in general.

Citizens must understand that the prevention of violent situations is not the responsibility of the Police alone. A just social order for all is the ultimate answer and reaching this goal is a vital responsibility also of the community. One of the most enduring Policing tenets attributed to Sir Robert Peel – the 19th Century British Home Secretary, who played a key role in the establishment Metropolitan Police Act is the adage “The Police are the People and the People are the Police”. The truth of the saying could be made real only when the community plays a hands-on role in making their neighbourhood safe and observing the Rules of Law. The citizens essentially need to understand the core values of the society they live and collaborate between them and the Police to uphold and maintain Law and Order.

It is unlikely that many instances of Police action have ever been completely satisfactory to everyone concerned; for no matter how brilliant or efficient may be, it is at most times not viewed with enthusiasm by the thwarted or apprehended offender or his or her family, friends and/or interest groups. Constructive criticism must come by way to improve the efficiency of the Police but certainly not in the way of destructive criticism to incapacitate and/or ridicule their image. Therefore, the community needs to alter this adversarial element in its relationship with the Police to understand that in all their functions, the Police carry out a multifaceted responsibility assigned to them by the community they serve. Public participation to assist the Police in their duties must be understood as a civic right of the community and not to enable the Police to win popularity contests.

Reduction of crime through community involvement, reduction of fear of crime, solicitation of information from the public, involvement of the community in Police functions and improvement of the image of the Police Force are some of the key factors that require to be listed.

The Police need the public in their role as a supportive body. The public has frequently taken the position of not wanting to get involved and then pointing the finger of blame at the Police for rising crime. This is not to say that the Police can simply point the finger of blame back at the public. What it means is that the responsibility of an efficient Police Force is two-way; it needs public support and participation to deter offenders from working against society and, on the other hand, the Police need to improve their professionalism to serve the public.

Public support, community-wide interest and individual participation, therefore are important to be enlisted. In other words, the information that allows the Police to exert formal control must be supported by the people. However, information must be truthful and should not be brought forth due to other dubious reasons, such as personal enmity, professional and personal jealousy, resentment and intervention of interest groups to fabricate evidence. Such irresponsible transgressions will only divert the attention of the Police on a wrong trail, making the end result pessimistic and negative.

Citizens must be the ones who are the major reporters of crime, witnesses of crime and accusers of wrongdoers; they are the information sources for the Police to act swiftly for the benefit of the community at large.

Police require community-based support in crime prevention and enforcing the Rule of Law. This approach of the public will exemplify the problem-solving nearness to Police and community relations, in which citizens could function as the eyes and ears of the Police. The public should not remain passive, only to protect individual interests. Public support is few and far between. Although one can observe a descending trend in civic engagement across the globe, it is amply clear that at least a minimum level of civic participation is essential to sustain effective implementation of the Rule of Law. The civic consciousness indisputably still holds great value and correspondingly needs citizen mobilisation as a driving force, if we are to translate the enforcement of Law and Order.

Citizen involvement in crime prevention and control cannot be considered an unrealistic expectation in today’s context; many citizens are apathetic and prefer that Police alone be responsible for maintaining law and order. Citizens must, therefore, should not forget the fact that all policing is community policing and the job of the Police will be easy if the citizens obey the Rules of Law.

Abraham Maslow has said that “when one’s only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. The public participation in assisting the Police is twofold: to be disciplined and to cooperate with the Police in the prevention of crime and the preservation of public tranquility.

The creation of this kind of community participation requires the collaborative effort of all social agencies as a complementary option to conventional law enforcement. The impetus of building a Police-Public partnership will certainly bring forth success in civilian policing for the wellbeing of the community and is bound to ameliorate the maintenance of Law and Order to enhance the quality of life.

Sri Lanka: Costs of Sinhala Hegemony

6 mins read

The Government should have reduced expenditure at a time of severe economic crisis that we undergo presently rather than raising it further while the public suffers from high inflation rates. If benefits were to be given to the penurious needy some other expenditure should have been cut down. Because inflation would not come down as the Central Bank was continuing to print money to meet expenses. A fortnight ago it printed Rs.30 billion according to reports. Unless the Government cuts down expenditure, including Capital expenditure, we would not be able to reduce the inflation rates and stabilize the economy. Of course reasons have been given for the increase in expenditure. But increase in expenditure would further increase the inflation rates.

In addition to public administration, a notable increase can be observed in the expenditure assigned for the President, for Defense, education and health.

The defense allocation has been increased and a sum of Rs. 212,808 million has been allocated to the Ministry of Public Security. A sum of only Rs.138,560 million has been allocated for agriculture in contrast. Such are the priorities.

It appears we are not going to tarnish our reputation as the 14th largest Army in the World. Why does our small Country need such a large Army? Generally a Country would focus on the process of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) after a War. These are essential to restore sustainable peace in a post-war scenario. We should have reduced our Army personnel as soon as the war was over or at least a few years later. We have today 331,000 Army personnel officially as opposed to Britain’s 90000. This number is to be further reduced by Britain soon. The DDR is one of the significant aspects of the process of post-war peace-building. Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) is a process that contributes to security and stability in a post-war recovery context by removing weapons from the hands of combatants, taking the combatants out of military structures and helping them to integrate socially and economically into society by finding civilian livelihoods for them. But those who fought the war are still in our Armed Forces. Some of them are still working in the combat areas. It is high time they are taken out of the North and East and reintegrated into the civil society.

After thirteen years since the end of the war why is the Military being allowed to occupy our Peoples’ lands and buildings, our forests and shores?

In most of the cases world over, this process has been implemented with the assistance of foreign governments and international or regional institutions. However, the circumstances under which the Government of Sri Lanka happened to take over the sole responsibility for implementing the DDR process have raised serious concerns both at the local and international level. The findings of a recent study show that the DDR process was not fully implemented in a broad manner in the Sri Lankan context, but only served as a continuation of the military victory over the LTTE. In particular, not much attention was paid to disarming and demobilizing the armed groups, and the so-called DDR process took place in Sri Lanka without international assistance and supervision. One would think that the Sri Lankan powers that be had a purpose in keeping out international assistance and supervision. I would surmise it is to keep the North and East under the Military boot.

This coupled together with the expenditure for the armed forces in the Amendment Bill show that there has not been any changes in the psyche of the powers that be in Sri Lanka even after the aragalaya. Thoughts of Sinhala hegemony still reigns heavily in their minds.

All the talk about an All Party Government becomes a mockery in the light of such continuous military spending. Therefore the clarion call to unity is an empty shell. The Government under the present President wants to continue to spend large amounts of money to maintain our 14th largest Army. It has no intention of forging any form of reconciliation with the minorities.

And whom is the Government expecting a war with? Against India? Against China? Against America? Or even against Maldive Islands? No ! They expect an attack from us poor Tamils of the North and East! Because the government believes that the Tamil people will not continue to endure against the Sri Lankan state’s continued oppression and genocide. That is why the Sri Lankan Government preferred to conduct the so-called DDR process without international assistance and supervision. They want the presence of the Military permanently in the North and East.

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is due to many factors. One major factor was the war and the money that Sri Lanka borrowed to buy destructive weapons. Another is the massive corruption among Government and Defense department officials.

A further major reason for the crisis was the ethnic cleansing that forced most of the Tamils to quit small businesses, high tech-related jobs, manufacturing trades, exportation and training, impeding Sri Lanka’s economic development, managerial efficiency, and productivity. The State by its shortsighted racial policies sabotaged itself.

Earlier racial discrimination against the Tamils forced many of them to leave Sri Lanka. They are the Tamils who are now offering to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for Sri Lanka if the political problems of the Sri Lankan Tamils are solved.

All of the erstwhile racist activities led Sri Lanka to this economic crisis. It did not happen overnight. It started with the ethnic riots of 1958.

Israeli Professor Oren Yiftachel has said ethnocratic countries often experience ethnic tensions which cause instability. Therefore, as long as Sri Lanka remains an ethnocratic country, there will continue to be instability. This will never lead to sustainable peace and economic prosperity as expected by His Excellency. The fact that you have increased defense spending to keep the army in the North-East and to establish massive military infrastructures and settlements to continue oppressing the Tamil people shows the instability that will continue in the future.

After thirteen years since the end of the war why is the Military being allowed to occupy our Peoples’ lands and buildings, our forests and shores?

The existing problems that the Tamils face which were brought to the notice of the President are conveniently forgotten in the Speech. We feel though the President had positively responded to our queries regarding the day to day problems the Tamils face apart from the need to solve the political problems of the Tamils, he prefers to remain silent in Parliament regarding our problems lest he disturbs a hornet’s nest.

I am reminded of Robert Walpole who was Prime Minister of England in 1715 or thereabout whose policy was “Let sleeping dogs lie”. May be because our Tamil Youths in recent times have not resorted to Aragalayas in their areas he believes we are but sleeping canines, best left to be unsaid and unreferred to. But am sure this time Geneva would reiterate its stand quite positively.

I like to remind the contents of my request letter to which His Excellency responded to positively. His Excellency promised to release all Tamil political prisoners. Nothing has come out from that promise. It is said that there is a move to release some persons taken into custody on suspicion after 2019 just in time for the Geneva deliberations. None are going to be fooled by such gimmicks if they be true.

If the case of the Tamil Political Prisoners, some of them languishing in jails for over quarter of a century is not going to be considered in a humanitarian manner considering the long period of incarceration and the type of diseases that have been contracted by some of them, I am wondering if any Tamil Parliamentarian could be ethically and morally be called upon to join in an All Party Government. Many of these Prisoners had been found guilty solely on their confessions made to Police officers under the PTA. Such confessions to Police officers cannot be accepted as evidence under our regular criminal law. That was why I had asked for the release of the Tamil Political Prisoners and for the scrapping of the draconian PTA from our statute books. Instead, it is being now used against the Aragalaya leaders. These leaders would soon be called Terrorists.

Any attempt to bring in diverse political viewpoints together under one umbrella must be preceded by genuine acts of goodwill towards those holding such viewpoints. It is useless saying join us and I will give you a free hand to express your views. The moment a Tamil Parliamentarian joins the Government he would lose his freedom of speech. Majority in the governing Party will rule the roost! I hope the Tamils whose names have been included in a Ministerial list recently would wait till the Geneva deliberations are over before taking office.

I have no objections to attending a meeting of Party leaders friendly towards this Government to put forward the viewpoints of the Tamils.

Finally, my request to the donor countries and the IMF is that in this difficult situation for Sri Lanka, you should definitely help to save the people of Sri Lanka from starvation, but please see that you do your assistance in such a way that your assistance is not used to suppress the rights of the Tamil people and be used for defense expenditure.

Views are personal

Sri Lanka Crisis – why people get on boats

6 mins read

If you asked most Australians to tell you about the current situation in Sri Lanka, you might hear that the schools had to close because there were no supplies and that the country had run out of petrol, or you might just see a shrug and a blank look. For the affluent west, not much attention is paid to this small South Asian island nation. So, it is no wonder that the humanitarian crisis currently affecting Sri Lanka is receiving no real consideration. This is further compounded by either inaction or the application of standard old “go back to where you belong” tactics employed previously by so many Australian governments towards those fleeing their homeland and looking for safety and security in Australia. It is therefore vital to unpack the roots of the current political and economic situation leading to this humanitarian crisis and resulting in Sri Lankan refugees attempting to get to Australia. Equally important is the Australian response to this situation.

The Roots of The Current Political and Economic Crisis

So, first to the roots of the current political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka. The origins of this can be tied directly to the actions of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family, including his brothers former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa. Gotabaya came to power in 2019. In 2020 his party, the Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP), consolidated its supermajority and therefore control in parliament due to their popular political approach which peddled populism and Sinhalese nationalism. The Sri Lankan people were convinced that they had elected a government that would consider the needs of the ordinary people, yet they were mistaken. In passing the 20th amendment to the Constitution, Gotabaya further consolidated an extraordinary amount of power in the executive presidency. Here was a near-dictator using tools of nepotism, corruption and the promotion of retired military officers into almost every sector of government. As well, accusations abounded of human rights violations during the Sri Lankan civil war. But in the end, it was simply Gotabaya’s terrible governance and mismanagement of the economy especially during the pandemic, that led to the Sri Lankan Government’s declaration of economic crisis, the worst in the country since the 1948 independence from British colonial rule.

Ordinary people and political opposition began to protest peacefully but were labelled extremists and met with violence and curfews. These protests demanded responses to food, fuel and medicine shortages, power cuts and out of control inflation. Amidst these protests, Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as Prime Minister on May 9, yet his brother still chose to maintain his position as President. Finally, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was chased out of office by protesters. Eventually he fled the country and submitted his resignation, from exile in Singapore, on July 14.

Economically, the Sri Lankan government had created the perfect storm with a failing domestic economy, budget shortfalls and ensuing Balance of Payments deficits. These were coupled with the failure of agricultural reforms and subsequent problems with the drop in export earnings and reliance on imports, as well as the disaster of the Tax Cuts policy that essentially saw the loss of one million taxpayers. Some economists have called Sri Lanka’s handling of foreign exchange as simply debt trap diplomacy. Currency depreciated and inflation increased. The Tourism Industry plunged, affected first by the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo and then, of course, by the global pandemic. Sri Lanka’s history with International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans, and later reluctance to seek a bailout from it, as well as a history of sourcing sovereign debts with high interest rates and shorter durations of payment were issues that rounded out the economic crisis. Thus, the Sri Lankan economy completely collapsed.


This collapse of the country’s economy has resulted in a humanitarian crisis and could lead to what the United Nations (UN) warned of in June this year – a full-blown humanitarian emergency. Certainly, the series of events I have just described have threatened the health, safety and wellbeing of the Sri Lankan people. As days go by, these issues are becoming increasingly critical.

While most humanitarian crises around the world are triggered by conflict or the effects of climate change, the crisis in Sri Lanka is solely due to the economic collapse caused by governmental mismanagement and corruption. The humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka is multidimensional, and as we think about taking that Panadol for our work-related headache or what we might cook – or order – for dinner, Sri Lankan people and aid agencies are faced with food insecurity, threatened livelihoods and the shortage of essential medicines. As well, there are real concerns for safety and protection. Of the 22 million-plus population, it is estimated by some sources that nearly 6 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, with nearly 5 million being considered as food insecure.

The Humanitarian Needs and Priorities (HNP) Plan, backed by the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organisation (WHO), was launched in June this year, and has already highlighted nearly 2 million people. In order to avert this crisis becoming a humanitarian emergency, the Humanitarian Needs and Priorities Plan (HNP) has called for $47.2 million US dollars to be channelled into lifesaving sectors in order to support resources that simply save lives. Furthermore, the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), established by the United Nations (UN) in 2005 to enable responders to deliver life-saving assistance during crises, has approved a US$5 million rapid response allocation to address urgent needs of food assistance, basic agricultural and livelihood support, vital and essential medicines and supplies, child protection, nutrition, safe water and education in areas worst affected. The work of both the Humanitarian Needs and Priorities Plan (HNP) and the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) are understandably hindered by Sri Lanka’s fuel shortages, posing a major operational constraint for humanitarian response and monitoring. Sadly, assistance is not assistance if it cannot reach the people it is designed for.

People Fleeing the Country

This is not a conflict, so the “fight” in the “fight or flight” motto does not work. The natural response then to save life is flight. With no sign of this crisis letting up, and no bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in sight, many Sri Lankans feel forced to leave. As the economic and political crisis continues, Sri Lanka is facing a mass exodus with young men and women waiting for long hours to secure a passport in an effort to leave. At the same time, refugees have been travelling by boats to nearby countries such as India and Australia in a desperate bid to escape the unfolding disaster. In June, an elderly Sri Lankan refugee couple was found unconscious on an Indian beach suffering from severe dehydration. The couple had tried to cross from Sri Lanka to India by boat. The elderly woman later died in hospital. This certainly puts a human face to the situation.

Recently members of an Australian Border Force (ABF) vessel took into custody 46 Sri Lankans attempting to migrate to Australia by boat. All 46 were “repatriated” back to Colombo in early August and handed over to Sri Lankan authorities. When we choose our vocabulary so carefully, for example using “repatriated” instead of “sent back”, “removed” or “expelled”, we sanitise the issue and perhaps absolve any responsibility or guilt.

The Australian Border Force (ABF) Regional Director for South Asia, Commander Chris Waters, recalled the long-standing cooperation between Australia and Sri Lanka and revealed that the Australian Border Force (ABF) has repatriated 183 individuals from Australia following six unsuccessful maritime crossings, since May of this year. He explained that even with the change of federal government, there have been no recent policy changes by Australia in relation to unauthorized maritime people smuggling.

Again, since May, there have been 15 boats that attempted to leave Sri Lanka but were stopped by the Sri Lankan Navy. Some of these boats had children on board. Just over 700 people were arrested from these boats and a further 210 were arrested on land by police with the assistance of the Navy.

Operation Sovereign Borders came into effect in Australia under Tony Abbott in 2013, and our then Prime Minister gifted Sri Lanka with two retired patrol boats. Australia continues to provide tactical assistance and training to Sri Lanka’s Navy under this scheme. The Albanese government has also donated more than 4000 GPS devices to help Sri Lankan authorities in monitoring activity in their own waters.

It is believed that people smugglers are convincing Sri Lankans that since the Australian Labor Party was sworn into office on May 23, refugees will be welcomed. This is clearly not the case. Just prior to the last federal election this year, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), called for a response to its three priorities, the third of which was the reinstatement of Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program.

There are some questions to be asked. Has Australia recognised the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, and if so, why is it exerting its efforts to support the removal of maritime immigrants rather than supporting those Sri Lankans in crisis? When will policy be reviewed regarding the unauthorised arrival of refugees and asylum seekers? When will our policy on refugees and humanitarian support be reviewed?

Several people have commented on the strength of a society. In searching for a pertinent comment, I had to settle for an American rather than Australian voice, however. Hubert Humphrey, who served as US President from 1965 to 1969, said:

“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the sunset of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and those with disability.”

There is now another moral test for our own government!

Views are personal

Sri Lanka:  Anatomy of Baleful Crisis

15 mins read

The following article is based on the keynote address by the author at the recent seminar titled, The Conundrum of an island: Sri Lanka – Present Crisis, Geo-Political Challenges and Way Ahead, organized by the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) which is a Chennai-based Think Tank that mainly carries out research on developments in China and assigns priority to Indian policy interests.

May I, at the outset, express my deep sense of appreciation and heartfelt thanks to my good friends Commodore RS Vasan, Bala and his junior colleagues for associating me with this significant seminar and requesting me to deliver the keynote address.

When I went through the programme I found that I have been allotted 20 minutes. There lies the problem. It takes nearly 20 minutes for a Professor to warm up in the classroom and to expect him to conclude his presentation in 20 minutes is an unfriendly act. However, I shall try to be as brief as possible. As the Hollywood actress, Elizabeth Taylor, told her husband, soon after her 9th marriage: “This too shall be brief”.

Appropriate Title

My congratulations to Commodore Vasan and Bala for choosing an appropriate title – Conundrum of an Island. It reminded me of the poem written by the Great English Poet, John Donne, entitled No Man is an Island. Just as no man is an island, no island can remain an island. In a world of shrinking geographical boundaries and widening intellectual horizon the momentous developments taking place in its immediate neighbourhood and in the wider world will have a tremendous impact on Sri Lanka. Let me quote parts of John Donne’s poem:

                        No man is an island, entire of itself

                        Every man is a piece of the continent,

                        A part of the main…

                        Any man’s death diminishes me

                        Because I am involved in mankind

                        And, therefore, never send to know for

                        Whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

South Asia a Unique Region

     The most striking feature of South Asia is the pre-eminent position of India, which bestrides the region almost like a colossus.  In terms of area, population, economic resources and armed forces, India is more than all the other countries put together. The World Development Report, a few years ago, pointed out that India has 78 per cent of the area, 73 per cent of the population and 77 per cent of gross domestic product.  What is more, India is at the very centre and all other countries are bordering on India. The other countries do not share anything in common, except perhaps fears and misgivings about India. The crux of their foreign policy is how to manage relations with India. In other words, India is the axis around which the wheel of South Asia revolves.

Despite our common cultural heritage, each country has its own individual personality and national identity. And given the ethnic, religious, political and economic linkages, what happens in one country will have its fallout on another. If the Hindu temples are destroyed and the Hindu population comes down, as in Pakistan and in Bangladesh, naturally the Hindus in India will be agitated. And if the Muslims in India are discriminated against and when the Babri Masjid was demolished the Muslims in the region were naturally agitated. If the Tamils in Sri Lanka are singled out for discrimination and subjected to violence, naturally the Tamils in Tamil Nadu will campaign for them. We have to recognize these realities and then evolve a neighbourhood policy.

Despite our common cultural heritage, each country has its own individual personality and national identity.

The ideal neighbourhood policy, with reference to smaller neighbours, was explained by former Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh as “asymmetrical reciprocity”. Inaugurating the road between the Indian side of Kashmir and Pakistani-occupied Kashmir Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh said, “I cannot do anything about the borders, but I can try to make the borders irrelevant”.

In the classroom situation, I am fond of narrating a story which exemplifies the need for a win-win situation. The Christian Missionaries started a school among Adivasis in Madhya Pradesh to teach the children the three R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic. A large number of students were admitted to the school. At the end of the year, the Principal decided to celebrate the first anniversary by organising a sports meet. 100 meters race. All the boys were asked to assemble. On your mark, get set and go. All boys began to run. There was a strong boy who was running ahead of others. Everybody cheered him. But mid-way he stopped. The Principal went to him and said, “you were running ahead of others. You could have easily lifted the trophy. Why did you stop in the middle?” The boy told the principal “Madam, in our community that victory is the greatest victory when we all win together”. Win-Win situation – that should be the objective of India’s relations with smaller countries in our region.

Some Issues relating to Nation Building  

I do not know how many of you – I am asking the students – have heard of Khan Abdul Wali Khan. You have not heard his name. You must have heard his father’s name, Abdul Ghaffar Khan– Frontier Gandhi (Sarhadi Gandhi) – as we used to affectionately call him. Khan Abdul Wali Khan who was president of the Awami National Party in Pakistan and a son of the prominent Pashtun nationalist leader Ghaffar Khan passed away a few years ago. Wali Khan was asked by a journalist “Are you a Pakistani, a Muslim or a Pathan?” Wali Khan replied: “I am all the three combined into one”. The journalist will not give up. ”You must tell me what is your primary identity, what is your secondary identity and what is your third identity?” Wali Khan replied: “I am a Pakistani for the past 35 years, a Muslim for 1800 years and a Pathan for the last 5000 years”.

All of us have multiple identities. When I was an undergraduate student in an affiliated college of Bombay University in the mid-1950s, my Professor used to say: “You are an Indian first, you are an Indian second and you are an Indian last”. Those days, we never disagreed with our teachers, because the teachers did not like that. So all of us nodded our heads in approval. As I grew older, I realized that I have several identities – I am a Tamil because my mother tongue is Tamil; I was born and brought up in Kerala and had my school education in Malayalam medium; in fact, my Malayalam is better than my Tamil, so I have a Kerala identity; I had my under-graduate and post-graduate education in Bombay and started my teaching career in an affiliated college in Bombay University, therefore, I have a Maharashtrian identity; I  have a teacher identity; an Indian identity; I have a South Asian identity; I have a universal identity. These multiple identities must co-exist harmoniously.  They should not clash with one another. That is the basis of ideal nation-building.

I speak several languages – Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, English; I learned Sanskrit as the second language, I can read and write Sanskrit, but cannot speak; while in Bombay, I learned a little bit of Marathi, though I am out of touch with it now; as a doctoral student, I learned Bahasa Indonesia. The more languages I learned I became more tolerant My good friend, K Suresh Singh, former Director General of the Anthropological Survey of India, used to tell me “Diversity and linkages, freedom and tolerance go together”.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil political leaders drifted from collaboration with the Sinhalese elite and eventually began to demand a separate state of Tamil Eelam. The Dravidian movement in India followed a diametrically opposite course.

The distinguished political scientist, Louis Halle, in early 1970’s, surveyed all countries in the world (132) and found only 13 (9.0 per cent) did not have problems of integration because they were inhabited by people speaking the same language, follow the same religion and belong to the same ethnic group.  There is only one country in South Asia which does not have problems of nation building. It is the Maldives. But it is not a model to be followed. It is a downright reactionary country. According to Maldivian Constitution, only a Sunni Muslim can be a citizen of the country.

The Italian political philosopher Massimo d’ Azeglu, I do not know how the Italians pronounce the name, I am pronouncing the name in my Malayalam – Tamil way, said in 1848, after the unification of Italy: “We have made Italy, now, we must make Italians”. The same is true of all countries in our region. We have become independent states but the process of making the Indian nation, Pakistani nation; Bangladeshi nation and Sri Lankan nation have begun only after independence.

Two Contrasting Scenarios

I would like to submit two propositions which can be considered as the yardstick for the success of nation-building experiments in multi-ethnic societies in South Asia. First, the political system should provide sufficient space for minorities so that they can preserve, promote and foster their identities while being part of a wider country.  Second, a federal polity, with entrenched provisions for sharing powers between the Centre and the States, can lead to softening of secessionist demands and pave the way for eventual national integration. Two illustrations, one a success story from India and the second, a tragic narrative from Sri Lanka, both relating to my community – Tamils – are given below. What is interesting to note are the differing political developments and contrasting responses on the issue of nation-building.

            In Sri Lanka, the Tamil political leaders drifted from collaboration with the Sinhalese elite and eventually began to demand a separate state of Tamil Eelam. The Dravidian movement in India followed a diametrically opposite course. The scholars studying the Dravidian movement are unanimous in pointing out important milestones – the formation of the Justice Party and the non-Brahmin movement in 1917; E V Ramasamy Naicker’s Self-Respect Movement and Anti – Hindi agitation; the formation of the Dravida Kazhagam in the mid-1940s and its demand for a separate state of Dravida Nadu; the formation of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam under C N Annadurai in 1949;  the coming into power of DMK after the 1967 general elections; and the domination of DMK and its offshoot All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in 1972 in the politics of Tamil Nadu. The DMK gradually got “domesticated” because the Indian political system provided sufficient space within which the Tamil identity and regional autonomy could be preserved and fostered. What is more, the domestication of the DMK was evident even before Annadurai formally renounced secessionism in 1962 (after the Sino-Indian conflict) and the 16th Amendment to the Constitution (which proscribed secessionism and required from all candidates, seeking political office, an oath of upholding the Constitution) was passed. The DMK/AIADMK stakes in the unity of India got further strengthened when these parties started sharing power in the Centre.

            (Let me give an illustration of how the interests of Sri Lankan Tamils were sacrificed by Karunanidhi and the DMK during the Fourth Eelam War. It needs to be recalled that the Dravidian parties considered protecting the interests of Overseas Tamils as one of their foremost objectives. In the Tamil film, Parasakthi, (the script was written by Karunanidhi)  Gunasekaran, the hero (acted by Sivaji Ganesan) asks the question “Why are the waters of the Bay of Bengal saltish?” and then he replies “It is because of the tears of Overseas Tamils”. During the Fourth Eelam War, the DMK was an ally of the Centre and went on with India’s Sri Lanka policy. It did not do anything constructive to prevent the genocide of the Tamils. Karunanidhi was permitted to do a political gimmick; he undertook a hunger strike in the Marina. He started the fast after breakfast and concluded it before lunch. The Union Ministers rushed to Chennai and persuaded Karunanidhi to withdraw from the hunger strike).

            In contrast, an overview of Sri Lankan Tamil politics since independence clearly shows that the Tamils had been mainly “reactive” to Sinhalese politics. Since Sinhalese-dominated governments never fulfilled their hopes and aspirations, frustrations became intense, demands more radical, which finally culminated in the demand of a separate state of Tamil Eelam in 1976. The politics of Tamil opposition started with the demand for balanced representation and responsive cooperation; which spanned the period from 1948 to 1956. The demand progressed to Federal State and non-cooperation during 1967-1972. It escalated to separatist slogans during 1973-76. Finally, it ended with the demand for a separate State in 1976. But, while the demands changed, the mainstream Tamil political leadership confined themselves to strategies of peaceful agitation, parliamentary and non-parliamentary alike. From 1979, militancy began to creep into the agitation and by the beginning of this century, the Tigers became the most dominant force in the Tamil areas.

Fire must not only be extinguished but the causes of fire must be removed once and for all. A solution could be found only if there is a Sri Lankan consensus. 

            By mid-1970’s, the Sri Lankan Tamils, who were, to begin with, “reluctant secessionists”, began to define themselves as a separate nation, entitled to self-determination and a separate state. Discriminatory legislative enactments and governmental policies in the areas of language, education, land colonization, religion and employment opportunities, the abrogation Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact of 1956 and the Senanayake- Chelvanaygam Pact of 1965, which conferred limited autonomy to the Tamil areas, and, above all, brutal military repression convinced the Tamils that they cannot co-exist with the Sinhalese.

Cardinal principle of India’s Sri Lanka Policy

            India was committed to the principle that Sri Lanka should not solve the ethnic problem through military means. When the July 1983 holocaust took place Prime Minister Indira Gandhi telephoned President Jayewardene: “Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao is coming to Colombo tomorrow to study the situation”.  It must be highlighted that Mrs. Gandhi did not seek Jayewardene’s permission. Narasimha Rae toured Colombo and became deeply sensitive to the undercurrents of the conflict. If the communal fire is not extinguished it would spread to Tamil Nadu also. The fire must not only be extinguished but the causes of fire must be removed once and for all. A solution could be found only if there is a Sri Lankan consensus.  In other words, the solution must be isolated from competitive Sinhala politics.  

T-72 M1 and the crew from the Indian Army 65 Armoured Regiment during Operation PAWN in Sri Lanka [ Photo © Frontier India ]

            At the end of July 1983, Amirtalingam came to India and visited New Delhi. In order to escape the attention of Sinhalese hoodlums on the way to Colombo airport, he was dressed as a Muslim and travelled in Thondaman’s car.  It was a changed Amirtalingam who met Indira Gandhi and G Parthasarathy. Hitherto Amirtalingam’s main support came from the Dravidian parties. Amir used to say” “In India south is fighting against the north, in Sri Lanka north is fighting against the South”. The TULF leader began to realize India has its stakes in Sri Lanka and it would be in the interests of Tamils to get the support of New Delhi. In the closed-door meeting Indira Gandhi told Amirtalalingam that India would not support the creation of an independent state, but a solution less than that of independent Tamil Eelam, Tamils could count on India’s backing. Then the GP asked Amirtalingam: “What is the strength of Tamil militants? Will they be able to defend the Tamils if JR launches a military offensive?”. Amir replied: “The number of militants, all alphabetical combinations together, is less than 100. They are in no position to defend the Tamils”. New Delhi, to assist the Tamils to defend themselves began to provide military training to Tamil militants. It should be pointed that the twin pillars of India’s Sri Lanka policy, at that time, namely mediatory and militant supportive, were contradictory. How can you mediate when you support one side through military training? Naturally, India’s Sri Lanka policy resulted in a quagmire. However, New Delhi was determined not to permit Colombo to solve the problem through military means.

The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the suicide squad of the LTTE completely altered the situation. India, especially Tamil Nadu, underwent a catharsis, from which we are yet to recover.

            When in May 1987 Colombo launched Operation Vadamarachi and the LTTE guerrillas were running away from the battlefield, New Delhi stepped in. It violated Sri Lanka’s air space and dropped food materials in Jaffna.  The international community did not even “lift a finger” against New Delhi. JR later explained his dilemma as follows. He first sent Lalith Athulathmudali to Pakistan to seek its support. Lalith realized that Pakistan would not open another front against India. Then he went to China. China was, at that time, interested in normalizing relations with India and advised Lilith to settle the ethnic issue with the help of India. Events moved swiftly and concluded with the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Accord, and the induction of the IPKF on the invitation of President Jayewardene.

            The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the suicide squad of the LTTE completely altered the situation. India, especially Tamil Nadu, underwent a catharsis, from which we are yet to recover. India’s response to the fourth Eelam war is an illustration of the changed situation. The Sri Lankan military forces realized that if they have to win the war against the Tigers, the flow of refugees to Tamil Nadu should be stopped. The Sri Lankan Navy, therefore, began to consolidate its hold on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Strait, from Talaimannar to outer islands in Jaffna. On the Indian side, the Coast Guard stepped up its vigil and prevented the refugees from coming to India. During the last stages of the war, five Tamil refugees took a boat from Mullaitheevu and came to India undergoing great suffering. Three of them died of dehydration and two reached the Mandapam camp. Thanks to the NGOs working among the refugees I could meet these two refugees and talk to them They said” Every innocent Tamil, caught between the Sinhalese lions and the Tamil Tigers, would like to come to India as refugees”.   

When the Fourth Eelam War degenerated into a savage war against the Tamils and the Sri Lankan air force began to bomb hospitals, places of worship and orphanages I raised the matter in the National Security Advisory Board, of which I was a member. Ambassador Shankar Bajpai, who was the Convenor, requested Ambassador Tirumurthy, who was Joint Secretary in charge of Sri Lanka, to initiate the discussion. He performed his duties faithfully and justified New Delhi’s then Sri Lanka policy. When my turn came I pleaded that  India, along with the United States and members of the European Union, should pressurize Sri Lanka to declare a ceasefire, so that those innocent Tamils who want to escape from the war zone could be evacuated to a safer place. My plea turned out to be championing a lost cause. Only 9 members of the 27-member NSAB supported me. The end result was according to the United Nations 40,000 innocent Tamils died during the last stages of the war. India, I submit, is guilty of collaboration with Sri Lankan armed forces. As Lady Macbeth said in the sleepwalking scene: “There is the smell of the blood still. And all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten my dirty hands”.   


Commodore Vasan is pointing the wristwatch to me implying that I have exceeded my allotted 20 minutes, Therefore, let me come to the conclusion. I shall conclude with one of my favourite quotes from Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography. The quote is in relation with his visit to Jaffna.

“One little incident lingers in my memory. It was in Jaffna, I think. The teachers and boys of a school stopped our car and I said a few words of greeting. The ardent, eager faces of the boys stood out. And then one of their number came to me, shook hands with me and without question or argument said: “I shall not falter”. The bright young face, with shining eyes, full of determination, is imprinted in my mind. I do not know who he was, I have lost trace of him. But somehow I have the conviction that he will remain true to his words and will not falter when he has to face life’s difficult problems”.

            We in India, especially in Tamil Nadu, should have an interest to see that this young boy, and as he grows older, his son and grandson, do not become once again the cannon fodder in the senseless conflict between the Sinhalese Lions and the Tamil Tigers, on the contrary, he is provided with opportunities so that he could blossom into another Ananda Coomaraswamy.  

Future of Islamist Terrorism in South Asia

5 mins read

Time turns a page to mark a year since the re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan through the colossal failure of the Biden administration’s botched military withdrawal. The threat that the Taliban now emanates to Asia and the world is not pristine but rather a neo-mandate of its former leadership. This is not to say that its leadership is weak or incapacitated as the same leadership is ultimately responsible for kicking the Americans out whilst largely being operational out of Afghan cave systems. It is simply to say that there exists a visible shift in Taliban strategy towards international acceptance and ratification.

During the pre-9/11 days of Taliban control in Afghanistan, the country hosted a profusion of training camps run by al-Qaeda and other terror groups.During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s and 80s, thousands of fighters from the Muslim world flocked to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Young fighters that formed the Afghan Mujahedeenincluded Osama Bin Laden from Saudi Arabia and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from Jordan who would ultimately form al-Qaeda and the Islamic State respectively.

As passenger airliners flew into the majestic towers in daytime New York, Bin Laden became a more influential entity than any other government, leader or organisation in modern history. As the towers fell to dust, America fell to its knees, thus triggering the global War on Terror – an ongoing conflict that has snatched millions of lives and dismantled countless communities across the world.

Twenty years down the line, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a major political win for the Taliban cementing their return to power in Central Asia. This return to power is not merely a Taliban comeback but rather the aggravation of the al-Qaeda alliance in the region.

With the Taliban’s phoenix-like rise to power, dozens of terror and non-terror groups across the world sent them their congratulations and praises – including Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance. Naturally, groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State cells are bolstered in their international politico-religious agendas as Afghanistan has once again become a haven for threat groups. The highly unstable and ever-changing political situation in Afghanistan clearly illustrates how tribes and government groups have often switched sides and backed terror groups to ensure their own survival.

The Taliban had emerged through the Afghan Mujahedeen as a defensive group that assembled to form a bulwark of sorts against Soviet assault on the traditional Pashtun culture. This initial stance by the Taliban has cemented their popularity among the Pashtun people for decades. However, the Taliban’s historic ties, familial relations and shared outlooks with other groups had resulted in a slow infiltration of the Taliban to function as a jihadist group. The Salafi Wahhabi ideologies that emanated from the Gulf had ideologically penetrated the Taliban ranks to shadow its Pashtun roots and embrace fundamentalist and violent Islamist perceptions.

Although twelve months have passed after the rise of the Taliban, the world has not seen the violent consequences of Biden’s failure – yet. A momentary glimpse of the boiling pot was made when it was revealed that Ayman al-Zawahiri had taken refuge in the capital of Taliban-controlled Kabul. Al-Zawahiri remained al-Qaeda’s most consequential leader after Bin Laden was shot in Abbottabad, Pakistan eleven years ago. The very fact that al-Zawahiri was given refuge in a villa belonging to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of Taliban’s Afghanistan, underpins the threat that the Taliban posits to the world at large.

The Taliban in itself may not necessarily be a threat to global security as its neo-mandate appears to focus on national governance and international ratification – however, the group’s emergence to power creates a black hole in Afghanistan that functions as a terror haven for other terror groups to train, bolster and consolidate. Groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba threaten regional security especially in India, while groups like al-Qaeda threaten the status of global security. Both groups operated training camps during the Taliban’s previous phase of power and are likely to run camps under the new Taliban.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda were linked to the killing of Maldivian journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla back in 2014 and have sowed seeds of discord in the country since the 1990s. Terrorist networks in South Asia do not stop at borders and easily transcend them. This is especially true of international global terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State brand of terrorism.

The Taliban/AQ alliance and Islamic State, however, are rivals. Although Salafi Wahhabism has infiltrated the ranks of the Taliban, the top leadership of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have deep-rooted long-standing disputes. Operational as Islamic State Khurasan Province (IS-KP), its attacks have become frequent in targeting Taliban efforts in a tug-of-war fight for power, dominance and authority in the region and amongst the population. The two groups frequently engage in propaganda campaigns against each other that easily divide and sow discontent.

Sri Lanka, at present, is a figurative sitting duck amidst a massive geopolitical powerplay between the US, Russia, China and India while the threat of terrorism looms from the black hole in Central Asia. A unified Islamic State and Taliban/AQ alliance would spell doom for South Asia and other regions of the world.

Two of the deadliest Islamist terror attacks that occurred in South Asian history are tied to the Islamic State. The 2019 Easter Attack killed more than 270 people in Sri Lanka and was the largest IS attack outside of Iraq and Syria and the 2016Dhakaterror attack killed 22 people. This acts as a clear indication of the propensity for the Islamic State brand to be adopted by local bad actors to gain political advantage and recognition for their terror attacks globally. Earlier this year, Indian authorities arrested two terrorists belonging to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The two men, according to the arresting officers, were planning to conduct deadly attacks in the state capital of Lucknow. In the same month, three were arrested in connection with setting up terror networks in Kolkata. The overall risk of the Taliban and its affiliates inspiring regional conflict is significant and growing.

Many high-ranking officials of the Islamic State cite South Asia as an important region for their activities. Even though they have enjoyed success of sorts in the form of successful terror attacks, they have not gained a strong foothold there yet. With the largely successful decimation of the IS caliphate in the Middle East, IS has not been able to appoint a charismatic leader, build a strong chain of command in the region or sustain coordinated operations in South Asia. However, after the US killing of al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri in Taliban-controlled territory in July 2022, the possibility looms of a temporary truce between al-Qaeda, Taliban and IS working together. If this fusion transpires, the threat to global security will rise significantly.

As the US shifts its foreign policy from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region, intense conflict and deep-rooted crises could materialise within South Asia.With the Taliban firmly ensconced in Afghanistan and enjoying political freedom from the lack of pressure the United States previously applied, this possibility is strongly underpinned. Training facilities, recruitment efforts, and offensive staging capabilities could all be protected under this terror ecosystem being redeveloped in Central Asia.

This is of course coupled with the ignominious failure of the Biden-Harris administration in abandoning billions of dollars worth of state-of-the-art equipment – something that now gives the Taliban and its allied terror factions greater access to launch mid- and high-level operations across South Asia. The high-tech equipment has effectively equipped the Taliban to be a force to be reckoned with.

Sri Lanka, at present, is a figurative sitting duck amidst a massive geopolitical powerplay between the US, Russia, China and India while the threat of terrorism looms from the black hole in Central Asia. A unified Islamic State and Taliban/AQ alliance would spell doom for South Asia and other regions of the world. The establishment of intelligence-sharing mechanisms among regional and international agencies will significantly reduce the threat that emanates from Afghanistan. Likewise, strict monitoring of online spaces, especially social media and chat rooms, is paramount to a strong defence capability against an ideologically-charged terrorism threat. Sri Lanka must brace herself for impact.

Sri Lanka: Towards a political vision combining social justice and pluralism

8 mins read

The post-war Sri Lankan state’s inability to fulfil the demands of global finance capital has devastated the lives of millions of Sri Lankans. This is a country where we see the socio-economic impact of the new period of capitalist transition that emphasised the private sector, markets and openness to global capitalism for more than four decades. The other dimension that has had a wide-ranging impact on society has been three decades of a military strategy to consolidate the territory of the centralised Sinhala nationalist state. This began in 1979 with the enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and sending troops to the North and was achieved in 2009. A full understanding of the social impact of this dimension needs a lot more research. If we add to these the impact of COVID and the economic crisis we get the full picture of the socio-economic issues that people within the Sri Lankan state are facing. Of course, the impact of these issues is mediated through the social structure. Therefore socio-economically marginalised population is facing a worse situation, and their condition is bound to deteriorate further.

The media is full of analyses and answers to these problems. But as one of my favourite Critical Theorists – Robert Cox – who worked in international political economy, says all analyses are done for someone and for some purpose. There is no politically neutral analysis. The bulk of the discussion is geared towards restoring capitalist growth. Often this is accompanied by a desire for what is called political stability. But advocating political stability without defining how this is to be achieved, in a country where we have seen thousands of deaths through state repression, is not only dangerous but downright reactionary. Rather than political stability, we need to talk about political legitimacy. A regime that has a greater degree of political legitimacy can give leadership to developing a new social contract, which is essential for Sri Lanka to face the current situation. This note is aimed at the social and political forces that have begun to challenge existing orthodoxies in the current context. These protests are found cutting across ethnic groups. It aims to combine social justice and pluralism and point towards new areas where progressive politics can be strengthened.

In a situation where wages become a major source of income, education and skills development becomes a critical area for social mobility. State monopoly on education was broken in the new period of capitalist transition

To begin, we need to consider the impact of more than four decades of the more liberal period of capitalist transition. The bulk of the economy is concentrated in the Western Province, which was better endowed to benefit from the new directions in the economy. Central Bank data shows that in 2019 these areas accounted for around 39 per cent of the total national output. According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey of 2019, which managed to cover the entire territory of the state because it was unified through military means, 11.9 per cent of the households in Sri Lankan live below the official poverty line. There is a great degree of variation in this indicator between districts. While Colombo district had 1.8 per cent of households below the poverty line, the Mullativu district in the Northern Province. it was as high as 39.5 per cent of households. This area has also been affected by three decades of armed violence. In reading this data it is necessary to remember that the poverty line, as defined by the state, measures a basic minimum a household needs for survival, although it is propagated as a great achievement in development. What these figures show is the proportion of the population who could not secure even this basic minimum.

With the deepening of capitalist relations of production, there have been significant changes in the agrarian sector. The share of agriculture in the economy has significantly declined. In 1977, 30.7 percent of the national output was from agriculture. By 2019 it had declined to 7.0 percent. There has been a gradual deterioration in the viability of smallholder paddy. The 2019 Household Income and Expenditure Surveyshows that only 8.6 per cent of income in the rural sector was from agriculture.Further reforms in capitalist transition backed by international actors will try to promote markets relations in state land. This will make it even more difficult for the smallholder peasantry to earn a living from their land.

The other side of this rural transformation is the growth of a population depending on wages. The growing working class is found in multiple socio-economic formations – organised, informal, sub-contractors, etc. A significant section of this labour are women. Some sections of the working class sell their labour in other countries. While the working class has grown, institutions that protect their rights and working conditions don’t operate in many sectors. What existed in the past has been gradually dismantled. The effectiveness of these institutions depends a lot on the presence of trade unions. But the working class is not organised in all sectors. On the other side, business interests will continue to try and dismantle the remaining institutions that protect rights of the working class.  

It is necessary to pay attention to the austerity measures that are sure to follow an agreement with the IMF.

In a situation where wages become a major source of income, education and skills development becomes a critical area for social mobility. Since the state monopoly on education was broken in the new period of capitalist transition, the role of the private sector in education has expanded. This has become a new avenue where richer classes can ensure an education for their children. In addition, the state sector is not an equal system. Therefore, both private sector education and state education provides more opportunities for the richer section of population to provide a quality education for their children. The cumulative effect of these changes has been the growth of a significant level of inequality. Data for 2019 show that while the richest 20 percent of the population acquired 51.4 percent of national income the poorest 20 percent had only 4.6 percent.

The answer to these socio-economic issues from those whose main agenda is restoring capitalist growth in the current context, is the same old idea of protecting vulnerable groups that we heard 40 years ago. The foundation of this idea is the notion of growth and trickle-down. Sometimes these policies are called targeted safety nets. The argument is that these policies are meant to safeguard the poor from the impact of capitalist reforms. This is supposed to be the main role that the state should play vis-à-vis the poor – in the long run, economic growth would take place, and the benefits would trickle down to the poor. The analysis that underpins these ideas always focuses on households in isolation from the structures of socio-political power that maintain this population in this condition in the first place. Therefore, it takes us away from the need to tackle the reasons for marginalisation.

During the new period of capitalist transition that emphasised markets, private sector and openness to global capitalism, all sections of the Sri Lankan population did not accept these ideas of safety nets propagated by the political elite and their international backers. That is why there have been struggles in various sectors, such as the urban working class, plantation working class, sections of smallholder peasantry, fisheries, etc., to improve their living conditions by challenging the structures of power that maintained existing the social relations of production. The entry of women’s groups into these struggles added a new dimension. Of course, there were setbacks, such as state repression of the July 1980 strike. At present what is needed is to take a close look at this experience, learn lessons and look for possibilities of reviving these struggles.

Finally, it is necessary to pay attention to the austerity measures that are sure to follow an agreement with the IMF. In approaching this question, it is important to remember what we have is a post-war state. The result of more than four decades of the new period of capitalist transition and three decades of armed conflict has been the growth of armed forces and proliferation of state institutions at several levels. Today the institutional structure of the centralised Sinhala nationalist state has institutions at presidential, parliament, provincial, districts, sub-district and local authority levels. Almost all these levels include elected members and a bureaucracy. In addition, institutions of the central state have undergone numerous divisions. One of the reasons has been the need to maintain coalition regimes and large cabinets.The strategy of the political elite has been to divide state institutions and distribute them among coalition partners. State is bound to give priority to ensure resources for these institutions in implementing austerity. The objective of progressive sections should be to focus on how policy changes will affect the marginalised, and counter possible negative impacts.

During the new period of capitalist transition that emphasised markets, private sector and openness to global capitalism, all sections of the Sri Lankan population did not accept these ideas of safety nets propagated by the political elite and their international backers.

If we are to go by the past experience in Sri Lanka, the politics of economic reforms to ensure capitalist growth need not be peaceful. We need to remember that the state has draconian laws and a better-developed security apparatus to meet any challenges to these reforms from society. As in the past, the political elite is more likely to use this repressive apparatus to achieve their own political objectives, rather than aim towards political legitimacy through a new social contract.

Beyond reconciliation

As pointed out at the beginning of this note,policy discussions on social justice should not ignore the political demands that have been raised by ethnic minorities right throughout the post-colonial period. While the political elite inaugurated the new period of capitalist transition after the 1977 elections, the Tamil minority demanded a separate state in the same election. One of the responses of the centralised Sinhala nationalist state, that presided over the new period of capitalist transition was to enact a Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), establish a discourse of terrorism and send troops to the North-East. This military effort lasted for 30 years, and in 2009 the territory of the centralised state was consolidated. But none of the major issues in relation to minorities and the centralised Sinhala nationalist state have been resolved. In fact, in some areas, the situation has worsened for example, with the Muslim population becoming a target of extremist violence. 

At present some of the key aspects that the ensure security of the post-war state are maintaining the strength of the armed forces, continuing a presence of armed forces, especially in the Northern Province at a level higher than when Tamils demanded a separate state, and keeping the PTA in the statute books. In this context various activities under the title of reconciliation become an element to stabilise the post-war state.

The focus of reconciliation is society, rather than the nature of the state and state-society relations. Although there is an element of prejudice and animosity between identity groups in Sri Lanka’s conflict, they exist in a context of a centralised Sinhala nationalist state. Ignoring this within the discourse of reconciliation means ignoring the need for fundamental state reform focusing on its identity, public policies and structure to suit a multi-ethnic society. What we need is not a nation-state with a unified identity, but a state that has space for multiple identities. Its structure and public policies have to fit into this vision.

Given the socio-economic impact of the economic crisis that is affecting all ethnic groups at present, there is space to focus on a strategy where diverse ethnic groups come together to struggle for common socio-economic rights. This can give a new meaning to reconciliation and combine social justice with a vision of a plural society. There are scattered examples of this happening already. For example, every year we see demonstrations by the mothers of the disappeared from the North (victims of the military strategy to consolidate the territory of the Sinhala nationalist) and South (victims of the state repression in 1989/90). There have been some links between them. But this certainly can expand. During my work in the North/East after the war ended, I have seen examples where people from a Tamil village and adjoining Sinhala village come together to lobby state institutions to restore their land documents. Another example is Muslim and Sinhala villages coming together to lobby about supply of water in the irrigation canals. There can be many such examples that can built upon. These are small examples. In the current context there is space to build on this strategy.

To end this note I would like to emphasise the need to get away from an analysis that places class and ethnicity in isolated compartments when dealing with the problems of the marginalised in Sri Lanka. In this regard, my best personal experience has been when working with the plantation working class/Hill Country Tamils. There was no way one could separate ethnicity and class at analytical or political level when working with this population. The struggle for political,socio-economicand right to a distinct ethnic identity had to go together. This is an experience that we can learn from.

Views are personal

Sri Lanka: Ramifications of Nation Rebuilding

14 mins read

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.


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.


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.’


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.


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.


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.