Sri Lanka's Decade of Strife Is a Lesson for Democracies
Once seen as an island of paradise, the South Asian nation had literacy, relative prosperity, and free elections going for it. Then politicians began to play the ethnic card.
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA
IMAGINE an island nation with a healthy, literate populace, a Western-style democracy that has functioned for 46 years, a religion advocating nonviolence, and an economy that is one of the third world's most open. Add beaches, palm trees, and a booming tourist industry.Skip to next paragraph
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Or picture an island nation entering its 11th year of ethnic conflict with one of the worst human rights records in the world - a country where people say their political system is so violent it scares them.
Both images describe Sri Lanka, an island nation that for most of its history struck visitors as a tropical paradise. But in 1983, the country erupted in ethnic violence that has yet to cease.
In the late 1980s, thousands of Sri Lankans "disappeared," giving the government of President Ranasinghe Premadasa a reputation for blatant brutality. On May 1, Premadasa himself was assassinated by an unidentified assailant, only eight days after the murder of one of his chief political rivals.
Sri Lanka is small, but it has problems that are sizeable as well as instructive in the post-cold-war era. It is a country that accomplished many of the things the Western world considers preventions against social and ethnic unrest. It rejected a planned economy 16 years ago. It has educated its people, a stupendous achievement in South Asia. Since 1947, elections have been fair and regular, with one exception in 1982.
If these accomplishments have failed Sri Lanka, how can they bring stability to the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe, the former Soviet states, or even India, where rising Hindu nationalism presages a difficult future?
The answers say a lot about ethnic hatred - not how deep-rooted it is but how it can be created by politicians searching for votes. Sri Lanka is an example of how democracy can fuel ethnic flames, not douse them. In India's shadow
Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is a poor, small country - population 17 million - with stunning tropical beauty, an ancient civilization, and a special place in the history of religion. Buddhism died out in India, the land of its birth, but by the 1st century BC was flourishing in Sri Lanka. From there, the Theravada strain of Buddhism spread to Thailand, Indochina, and Indonesia.
For most of its history, the island was perceived as a miniature India with vastly fewer problems. The different ethnic groups - Sinhalese, Tamils, mixed-blood Europeans, Malays, and the aboriginal Veddahs - lived in relative peace, as did the overlapping religious groups: Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.
But if Sri Lanka lacked India's profound social and ethnic problems, it also lacked the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The country barely had a freedom struggle; it piggy-backed on India's. And while India's Congress Party worked at a new Indian identity embracing all groups, Sri Lanka didn't give the issue much thought.
That is until 1955, when Oxford-educated politician S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike broke away from the ruling United National Party (UNP) saying he wanted to make Sinhalese, the language of the 74 percent ethnic majority, the official language. Such a move effectively blocked the country's English-speaking Tamils - 13 percent of the population- from treasured government jobs.
In response, the UNP adopted an even stronger pro-Sinhalese policy. In a few months, the entire ruling elite of the country had abandoned liberal secularism in favor of vote-winning pro-Sinhalese policies.