Sri Lanka's seesaw of war and cricket


Sri Lanka - famous for war and cricketLast weekend, Sri Lankans huddled together around TV sets to cheer their team battling unsuccessfully for the Cricket World Cup. But nationwide panic following Tamil Tiger attacks on Colombo shattered the momentary euphoria of togetherness even amid defeat.

This seesaw of war and cricket, the island’s only current claim to news headlines, cannot match the legendary fame of Serendip, the home of serendipitous people.

What set the island’s Sinhalese and Tamil communities against each other? For two millennia, the two pacifist peoples, followers of Hinduism and its offshoot Buddhism, worshipped in adjacent temples. Even last week, Colombo media reported Mahela Jayawardena’s Buddhist parents praying at a Hindu temple for his team’s success in the World Cup.

The two communities co-existed, often intermarrying, except when set against each other by exploitative kings, colonisers and politicians. Rulers periodically whipped up ethnic sensitivities, as a Trojan horse, to divide and rule.

British rule was a recent landmark in this story. Just as import of consumables made Northern farmers redundant, land acquisition for tea gardens ousted Southern peasants from farmlands. Some locals rebelled, most endured. Traditional resilience brought the communities together and the past was greatly forgotten. Also, administrative streamlining for colonisers’ convenience helped reintegrate communities. Road and rail transport for trade and commerce, schools to educate a cadre of clerks as well as lawyers and doctors, and courts to implement law and order benefited people, even by default.

Quick to grasp the basics of representative democracy, native elites joined the political process. After World War II, the crumbling empire and India’s freedom struggle hastened independence for the then Ceylon.

The smooth transition to self-rule was cushioned by local mission school-educated civil and judicial cadres at home in the rule of law. However, then came the 'gold-rush' by hastily cobbled together political parties. Local entrepreneurs saw politics as yet another enterprise. As the country’s last president admitted, it became 'family business.'

Dreams of multi-ethnic nation building collapsed as the old strategy of divide and rule overtook the rule of law. Race and caste based politics hijacked governance. Trade unions and egalitarian politics chickened out. Education, employment, land development, and administration became discriminatory. Tamils were the worst affected.

Today most politicians admit the need to rectify these injustices but they lack the political will. The military suppression of southern Sinhalese rebels and of their entry into the political mainstream is seen by some as a model to solve the Northern uprising. A military solution to militancy remains no small threat to the nation’s future.

Sri Lanka - famous for war and cricketFor one thing, when viewed from a people’s perspective, grievances behind the Southern uprising have only gone underground, just as Northern grievances continue to fester. After the uprisings of 1971 and 1989, the Southern People’s Liberation Front, JVP, found a forum of hope in Parliament. Northern militancy was an uprising of despair after Tamil leaders failed to find a forum in Parliament. If Tamils are to be won back to the democratic process, they must be given hope in the form of a new forum to dispense justice. The proposed autonomous North-East council may meet their aspirations.

Leaders trusted by people of both North and South should craft the framework for such a body. In particular, civic and religious leaders of northern Tamils as well as of Muslim, Sinhalese and Tamil communities in the East should have a voice in the forum.

Desperate problems call for radical solutions as well as magnanimity. The previous president’s proposal to appoint a Tamil prime minister was statesman-like. But, recently, the government has proposed replacing the executive president with an executive prime minister. That may be the occasion to appoint a minority person as ceremonial head of State. Tamils and Muslims can hold the office in turn, just as in India. An inclusive second chamber to represent multisectoral interests too has been proposed.

Such moves will help long-term healing and national reintegration. Religions have a major role in that mission. The concerns expressed recently by Pope Benedict XVI and the World Council of Churches must encourage local Churches to effect that mission together with Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Of course, religions can mediate effectively only if they practise what they preach. And religions had better make sure the inside of their cup is as clean as the outside.



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Existing comments

Pakistan has always had a mix of Christian and Muslim cricketers (predominantly Muslim, of course.) It's a pity the two sides in this civil can't take a lead from their cricketers.
Interestingly, two Melbourne men been charged with funding Tamil Tigers by claiming to raise money for Tsunami Victims.

meredith jones | 03 May 2007  

An article worth reading

Jayantha Weerasinghe | 03 May 2007  

Excellent article, really well balanced in its presentaion of the facts. I don't know what the safe course for Sri Lanka might be, but one can only hope that it is a course that will lead to peace.

Jayani P | 03 May 2007  

Multi-ethnic nations are historically very difficult to create. i'm not sure what role religion can play in this, but perhaps it is the starting point for more tolerance?

andy johnson | 03 May 2007  

It will take more than statesmanlike gesture to save the situation in Sri Lanka. I think the most likely outcome is a breakway, rump Tamil state, a la the balkan states.

p. m. smith | 03 May 2007  

Hello Hector Welgampola

Your article "Sri Lanka's seesaw of war and cricket" was very interesting. How ever I have to tell you that you have not only failed to write all the facts but you also have displayed lots of misinterpretation of the actual ground situation.
In 1974 When Fr.Tissa Balasuria wrote an article in the "The Sunday Observer" about the ethenic problem in Sri-lanka and sugested how it could be solved I wrote supporting his proposals the following weekend in the same paper. I also pointed out to him that in Sri.Lanka the Budhists are all Singhalese, the Hindhus are all Tamils but the Christians and the Catholics are among both the Singhalese and the Tamils. Therefore it would be easy and it is very immportant that the Catholic Church should play a very important role in bringing both sides together and evolve a political solution to the ethenic crisis in Sri.Lanka If not at least bring about a peaceful seperation.

There were many Catholic members too in the Parliment at that time.The Catholic Church I must say have failed in this task.

Bishop Emilianuspillai of the Jaffna Diocese, withdrew all the Tamil seminerians studying at the national seminary because of the harresment and humiliation caused by the singhala seminerians and created a Tamil seminary in Jaffna.

My brother is a catholic priest and he was targeted by security forces a number of times purely because he speaks to the foreign journalists who interwiews him.There had been many attempts by the security forces to kill him. Even now he is unable to come out of the wanni region because of the threats issued by the security forces at the Vavunia border.

Leave all that aside. You have said that the former president wanted to appoint a Tamil Priminister. Whom are you trying to hoodwink Mr.Hector? Every Singhalese political party thet had come into power had appointed a couple of Tamils as ministers and had been making use of them to deny the rights to the Tamils Those Tamils were hirelings - not elected by the people but appointed by theGovt. The so called man whom the former president wanted to appoint as prime minister was a betrayer of the tamils. He was holding the portfolio of foreign minister for a number of years too.

From 1956 onwards there had been a number of pacts between the Tamil leaders and the Govts that had been in power. Those pacts have not been implemented by the Govts that entered into them.

I am certain that the the Tamils have reached the 'point of no return". It would be better for both sides to part peacefully. It would help both sides to lead peaceful lives and spend the millions of dollars that are spent on this unwanted war to develop the Singhala Sri.Lanka and leave the Tamils to develop their Tamil Eelam. JOE

Joe pathinathan | 05 May 2007  

Joe, while you make some good points, I think you show your bias too clearly. I understand that the Tamils have suffered greatly, but they have also perpetrated suffering. The situation is analogous to the situation in Israel Palestine - both sides claim the other to be worse, the perpetrators, the guilty, whereas in fact both have transgressed. What is needed is a different approach, and an end to the blame game. I also do not think it is incumbent on the CAtholic Church to solve Sri Lanka's problems - all it can do is 'shine a light'

Alan Peters | 05 May 2007  

I was born in Sri Lanka in 1935. My ethnic origins were German/Dutch/Sinhalese. I migrated to Australia in 1956 so as to make a better life. I have visited S/L in 1993,1999 and 2004. I have been deeply disappointed in the unfolding of events such as the escalation of War between the S/L Govt forces and the Tamil Tigers. I feel that this war originated with Intolerence by the Majority Bhuddist Sinhalese over the Minority Hindu Tamils. When I went to school,and during the 40s & 50s Sinhalese,Tamils.Muslims and Burghers coexisted and learnt/played together quite well.
What went Wrong?

Hal Keegel | 19 May 2007  

Well, Alan, I am a Tamil, so as you said I might be biased.

But for what its worth here is my opinon. There is a war. Civilians are being targeted. There has to be a ceasefire monitored by parties both sides trust. Am disappointed that this humanitarian crisis has not been highlighted, and people are discussing if the prime minister should be Tamil or Sinhalese.

I would say the same about Israel and Palestine. But this situation is almost hopeless due to the vested interests of foreign powers. It is not just about Israelis and Palestinians fighting. I can only offer my prayers and write letters to my politicians.

Sri Lanka has greater hope. I hope the international community will push for a ceasefire soon because next to Darfur we have the largest number of displaced people in the last year. Also next to Iraq we have the second largest number of people disappearing in a Year.

S.J | 23 May 2007  

As the son of a Sri Lankan son I have observed the decline of that lovely place over these past years. Who of us are prepared to enter into a ongoing time of prayer and fasting
for this nation so that in time we will see just government under the will of God ?

Kerry S McCarthy | 11 July 2007  

Hello every bady don't war pleace.

Jsmith | 30 January 2009  

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