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Sri Lanka's seesaw of war and cricket

  • 15 May 2007

Last 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