Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • July 2018
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Archive for July, 2018

Reflections on July’83 – Thirty-five years on / Never again

Posted by harimpeiris on July 30, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published on Groundviews and Daily News on 26th July 2018)


23rd July marked the 35th anniversary of one of post independent Sri Lanka’s darkest chapters, the July 1983 pogrom against Tamil civilians throughout the country. Which was sparked by an ambush of an Army patrol in Jaffna, by the LTTE, then one of several militant groups operating in the North, in which the entire platoon of thirteen soldiers was wiped out. A couple of days later, as the bodies of many of the soldiers were brought to the Borella cemetery in Colombo for burial with full military honors, anti-Tamil pogrom commenced and occurred. Several thousand Tamil people were murdered through out Sri Lanka and many more displaced and disposed. Thirty-five years later and ten years after the war which it sparked has ended, we can look back now at this shameful chapter in Sri Lanka’s history and learn some lessons for our slowly progressing post war reconciliation process.

Current and prior responses


Thirty-five years after the fact, the response of the Sri Lankan State to July ’83 has been more thoughtful and meaningful. Prime Minister Wickramasinghe and Finance Minister Samaraweera were in Jaffna on the occasion and engaged in a series of measures including the launch of Enterprise Sri Lanka in the North, laying out a vision for a future of hope, engaging with the people and very importantly for women’s issues, cancelling micro credit loans up to Rs.100,000 mostly for the single women headed households, among other measures. Prior to that in July 2004, President Kumaratunga had issued a national apology for the July ’83 riots as an interim reconciliation measure and appointed a special commission to pay compensation to victims who lodged claims with the Commission.

The initial response however by the Sri Lankan State and the political establishment in 1983 was a disaster and weakened democratic and pluralist Sri Lanka and strengthened extremism. The direct beneficiary of which was the LTTE in the North and the JVP in the South, which launched its own second insurrection several years later in 1988.

Basically, the Sri Lankan State failed to protect her Tamil citizens from gross violence and accordingly demonstrated a significant state failure in that most fundamental of state responsibilities, the protection of life (of persons) and properties. The name of a well-known then Cabinet Minister was often mentioned as an instigator, organizer and patron of the anti-Tamil violence, which as is often the case with political violence is not spontaneous but organized. President J.R. Jayawardena was silent for several days as Sri Lanka burned and only emerged to express his empathy with the just outrage of the majority community, thereby transforming the discourse on Tamil militancy, as an attack on a pluralist Sri Lanka to a Sinhala verses Tamil conflict. Sri Lanka burned for nearly twenty-five years thereafter and now a decade after the end of the war, there are lessons to be learnt from those failures of July 1983.

Delegitimizes democratic Tamil politics


The anti-Tamil riots of 1983 were not without consequences. The Tamil militancy movement which was still very much on the fringes of Tamil politics was vastly strengthened as the democratic Tamil political leadership lost legitimacy in the light of their inability to get the Sri Lankan State machinery to ensure basic physical and economic security of the Tamil people. Further the Sri Lankan State lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Tamil community, as articulated best by former TULF Member of Parliament late Neelan Tiruchelvam, who described it as “the anomaly of imposing a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity”. The Sri Lankan State, began to be increasingly seen and perhaps also acting, as a Sinhala State, rather than a pluralistic, multi ethnic and inclusive state.

With the escalation of the armed conflict following July ’83, any accountability for the gross violations of human rights which occurred, including that most basic right to life, was never ensured by the State, until perhaps President Kumaratunga’s Commission twenty-one years later. However, the low-key nature and relative lack of publicity given to the initiative, due to nay Sayers even within her own Cabinet meant that many victims as well as the general public were generally unaware of the same.

Learn the lesson with regard the Muslim Community


It is to the credit of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans that July 1983 was never repeated though the LTTE escalated violence thereafter. However, the mentality, the politics and rhetoric which enabled and created July’83 has sadly not entirely left our public discourse. When the LTTE attacked the army, the counter measures should have been solely a state response against the perpetrators and not rampaging mobs against innocents. To our collective shame, an entire ethnic minority countrywide were targeted, innocent men, women and children.

Worryingly the same rhetoric is emanating from the self-proclaimed saviors of the Sinhala people today, in relation to the Muslim community. We and democratic Sri Lanka need to be protected from these protectors. As the most venerable Maha Nayaka Thero of the Malwatta Chapter observed after the anti-Muslim violence in Kandy. There are no need for “Balsenas and Balakayas” when we have a democratic state and security structures. Which has at least to date, never failed the majority community, unlike the Tamils in 1983.  In the post war decade since 2009, imaginary and perceived threats from the Muslim community are being bandied about to instigate mini pogroms from Dhurga Town Beruwela, to Ampara and Digana Kandy.

Today the names of terrorist groups like ISIS, are household names and claim to wage their war on Islamic principles and for Muslim objectives. However, we cannot concede to a self-appointed violent few, the mantle and leadership of the whole. ISIS never represents Muslims, while 969 in Myanmar cannot be considered as representing the Bama people of Myanmar nor indeed did the LTTE during the war years, legitimize its self-appointed claim to represent the Tamil people and most interestingly the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) which contested the 2015 general elections basically lost their deposits with a few hundred votes per electoral division in the Sinhala constituencies. Perhaps the most enduring lesson of July ’83 should be “never again” and violent extremism should always be challenged and not allowed to flourish.


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The irrational urge for one folk, one fuhrer, one fatherland

Posted by harimpeiris on July 6, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in both The Island and the Daily News of Friday 6th July 2018)

 In the context of an anemic economy and the failure of a democratic coalition to resolve the economic uncertainty and fear people felt, a proud and ancient people, turned to a former Army corporal and in a narrow win, elected the fascists to power. No, not in Sri Lanka, this was Germany in the early nineteen thirties where the failures of the Weimer Republic and its weak coalition governments created an attraction for the strongman politics and ideology, loosely defined as Fascism, to become increasingly popular. Adolf Hitler and his fascist Nazi Party promised a strong Germany, one folk, one fuhrer and one fatherland or one people, one leader and one great country.

The implementation of this vision, unleashed the horrors of the second world war on Europe and the world. The creation of one people, meant that another people (the Jews, but also Gypsies and other minorities needed to be eliminated). The existence of one leader, meant that there was no need for debate and dissent, accordingly the Reichstag (the German Parliament) conveniently burned down one night in a mysterious fire. The need for one fatherland meant that Germany needed to expand its borders, hence the annexation of Austria and the invasion of Poland as Germany tried to recreate the country according to history. Over six million European Jews and millions of others, civilians and military, including pre-independent Ceylon’s troops in the British Army, perished in the war.

The interesting fact, is that while many German people saw the excesses, the weaknesses, the flaws and the social self-destruction which the pursuit of an Aryan master race and German fascism would entail, German society provided no outlet, no space to even explore this topic, until the tragedy played out. Ethnic German nationalism extracted a unbelievable toll on Germany, Germans and the world.

Tamil nationalism and the quest for Tamil Eelam

 Fast forward about forty years after the second world war to post independent Sri Lanka and Tamil nationalism within the country had changed from peaceful, Gandhian non-violent and democratic demands for political and cultural rights to a violent armed conflict for a separate state. In the pursuit of a Tamil Eelam, Tamil nationalist leadership was captured by the “sole representatives of the Tamil people”, the LTTE, which also promised “one leader, one people & one land”. In the pursuit of having only one leader, the “Suriya Thevan”, (among other titles), countless other Tamil leaders from Appapillai Amirthalingaml, Sam Thambimuthu to Neelan Thiruchelvam had to be murdered. In the pursuit of having one people, the Muslim community had to be ethnically cleansed from the land, hence the expulsion of Jaffna’s Muslim by the LTTE. In the attempt to carve out a mono-ethnic enclave in the North and East of Sri Lanka, a violent thirty-year conflict was waged, heaping untold misery on all Sri Lankans in general and the largely Tamil civilian population of the North and the multi ethnic population of the East in particular. The cost of the LTTE and the armed conflict to the Tamil community was huge, their children conscripted, their towns and villages destroyed, their communities internally displaced, their leaders murdered, intra Tamil democratic debate and dissent destroyed, their middle class scattered throughout the West and the poorer sections of Tamil society forced across the border as refugees to India. Nonetheless, before, during and even ten years after the conflict, there is still neither the political space or will to explore and possibly condemn the astronomical human cost and the non-existent benefits of the thirst for Tamil Eelam, through the means of “one leader, one people and one land.

Sinhala nationalism should not go down the path of European fascism or Tamil nationalism  

It is Ambassador and prolific newspaper columnist Dayan Jayathilaka, who I believed first coined the phrase “the sons of ‘56” to the SLFP led UPFA administrations from 2005 to 2015. The phrase denoting that the Sinhala nationalist ideology and social direction of the post CBK SLFP led administrations. The changeover from the PA to the UPFA, was a more Sinhala nationalist, albeit moderate and modernist, exercise, than President Kumaratunga’s Peoples’ Alliance (PA) Administrations. As the focus in Sri Lankan politics turns nearly one and half years ahead to the elections of 2020 and in the context of the February local government polls victory by essentially the political forces of former President Rajapakse, there is interest and focus on what type of a “sons of ’56” Sinhala nationalism, a proposed JO / SLPP / Rajapakse third term would entail. In that context, even the mere hint of serious calls or exploration of a “strong man” rule, and seeking support for the same from ethnic identity, rather than a broader more pluralistic nation state civic identity has the potential to have similar disastrous consequences.

Sri Lanka is democratic and pluralistic. We have been let down in the past, not due to an over-abundance of either democracy or pluralism, but rather due to a deficit of the same. We had our national conflicts, including with both the LTTE and the JVP and now most recently post war with the Muslim community, due to a democratic and rule of law deficit, not an excess. If we have not developed our economy, it is not due to the absence of a strong leader, but rather the absence of checks, balances, transparency and accountability which would be common features in an open and democratic society. Sri Lanka has largely implemented an ill-liberal democracy. While we have representative government, we have not valued, cherished or developed either accountability or transparency in governance.

Accordingly the answer to the Sinhala community’s frustrations may lie in greater transparency, accountability and checks and balances through a consolidation, strengthening and institutionalization of changes brought about through the 19th Amendment, the resultant Independent Commissions and the Right to Information (RTI) Act, rather than trying to shift a democratic, pluralistic and inclusive Sri Lanka to “one leader, one people and one land”.

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