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.

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.

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.

Bandaranaike won power in 1956, and since then power has shuttled back and forth between his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SFLP) - led by his widow Sirimavo since his 1959 assassination by a Buddhist monk - and the UNP. The main electoral strategy of both parties has been to appeal for Sinhalese votes through anti-Tamil rhetoric or policies.

The strategy proved powerful despite Sri Lanka's 88 percent literacy rate. Politicians wooed voters with a siren song of Sinhalese purity and vulnerability. They said the Sinhalese were Aryans - descended from north Indian royalty - and the minority Tamils were dark-skinned Dravidian usurpers.

They rewrote history curricula to include national myths, including the Buddha's three visits to the island (which historians doubt). They preached that the Sinhalese were an endangered race: One day, they said, the Tamils in Sri Lanka would join forces with their families on the Indian mainland to overrun the island of the Buddha.

The strategy polarized the Sinhalese and Tamils, who had lived together peacefully for centuries.

The Tamils agitated for autonomy, then an independent homeland. In July 1983, ethnic tension turned into violence, when Sinhalese killed 3,000 Tamils nationwide. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought for an independent homeland throughout the 1980s.

In 1987, Sri Lanka signed a deal with India that landed thousands of the latter's troops to fight the Tigers. The Sinhalese thought their national nightmare had come true: an invasion from the north. They threw their support behind the shadowy, insurrectionist Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), which nearly toppled the government.

President Premadasa dispatched government hit squads to wipe out the JVP by night. Tens of thousands of young Sri Lankans were killed summarily, many of them innocent. The JVP leader was executed in 1989, ending the insurrection. A stalemate lingers

Today, tourists are back on the beaches in near-record numbers, and other parts of the economy are robust. The government's fight against the Tigers in the north and east is stalemated. Its promise to give political autonomy to the Tamil provinces has been stalled for months.

But the political uncertainties unleashed by the killing of Premadasa could make a dramatic dent in the economy. Many think the country has been too traumatized by the ethnic hatred and the political violence to recover any time soon.

"Fear is all pervasive," says a university professor in Colombo, the country's capital. "It is in every strata of society, especially the fear to speak out."

A merchant in Nuwara Eliya agrees: "People aren't free here anymore, not since 1988 and 1989. If the government doesn't like me, it can kill me. Is it a democracy if you can't speak out?"

Much of the fear centered around Premadasa, who ordered the reign of terror in 1988 and 1989. (In addition, many Sri Lankans suspect that the April 24 killing of his rival, Lalith Athulathmudali, was ordered by his government.)

It is too soon to say if Premadasa's party might rebound under new leadership, or whether the country is entering an entirely new era, in which neither the UNP nor the SLFP can expect to govern.

All that is clear is that the people are rattled and uncertain.

"The people are tired of having their boys come back in body bags," says a Western diplomat here. "They're just worn out."

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