ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Sri Lanka: A Distant Dream

On the 25th anniversary of the anti-Tamil riots, peace and a just settlement seem a distant dream in Sri Lanka.

July 2008 marks the 25th anniversary of the anti-Tamil riots of 1983 in Sri Lanka. The riots marked a decisive alteration of the path of political change in the island. After July 1983, the story of Sri Lanka has been one of civil war, violence and human misery. Sri Lanka can be considered as a paradigmatic example of the failure of both development and democracy to manage an ethnic conflict which had remained for many years within a framework of parliamentary politics, electoral competition and coalition bargaining. That failure also occurred in a context where the postindependence state was captured by the political elites of the majority ethnic community. Sri Lanka evolved into a democratic state with a very weak concept of minority rights and with no particular commitment to ethnic pluralism. The ethnic and religious minorities felt they were treated as internal enemies and that they were subjected to continuing discrimination. When the “normal politics” could not contain the increasing polarisation of majority-minority relations, violence began to replace competition and bargaining. Sri Lanka’s descent into violence began in the 1970s ironically not in the sphere of majority-minority relations, but within the majority Sinhalese community itself. It was quite surprising that an exemplary welfare state suddenly found itself challenged by a youth rebellion in 1971. That to a large extent is a story of development failure.

Sri Lanka since t hen has gone t hrough many cycles of civil war. The 1980s was the worst decade. It saw the beginning of the Tamil ethnic insurgency for secession, the second JVP insurgency for “revolution” and Indian military intervention for “peace restoration”. While the Sinhalese youth insurgency has been crushed, the Tamil insurgency has survived for two and half decades. Several attempts at a negotiated political solution to the ethnic conflict have been made, with and without external assistance. None of them has succeeded in ending the civil war, bringing peace or reforming the existing political order.

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