Friday, December 05, 2008

The roots of this wretched war

I have often wondered as to the factors that have driven this ruinous war in the country. Language, religion, culture and many other factors besides have been put forward as to the causes that fuel the feelings of discrimination and alienation that seem to plague the minority.

I don't think any of these are really the true cause of the problem, the cause is economic. It is competition for resources that causes conflict between people; at a micro level where people are reported to have fought over the last Christmas turkey in the supermarket, to a macro level where border disputes arise between nations.

The issue flared up in 1956 with the Official Languages Act. From the Tamil point of view this act was designed to exclude them from the appointments in the prestigious and much sought-after civil service and from higher education, which meant that even opportunities outside the civil service would be limited.

This is something that would be pretty hard for people of today to understand. How many youngsters who have completed their A'levels are contemplating entry to the State university system? How many would see themselves looking for a career in the public service? Only a minority of the urban population, I would reckon.

Yet in the 1950's, when opportunities were very limited: one either became a planter or a civil servant. Those who failed at either would join the tiny mercantile sector or would be unemployed. This is why language was important. (for a superb a first hand account of how the Official Languages Act was implemented read the articles I've collected here)

Today, it is not the case, education in no longer a monopoly of the state and the broad-basing of the economy has opened up many other employment opportunities, not mention the availability of overseas employment. Indeed proper English has almost disappeared, with only a handful using it properly.

Why then, does the conflict persist? This is a much harder question. There is still the petty discrimination, the petty hassle of receiving correspondence in Sinhalese and suchlike matters but this is not sufficient to fuel a war such as this. It is similar to the discrimination faced by minorities in places like Malaysia. There is plenty of grumbling and annoyance but no outright war. The Palestinian's for example face difficulties of an altogether different magnitude and this can explain the conflict in that benighted land, but the Tamils are not so badly off.

I believe what has happened is that the symptoms of the problem, the militant movement, has grown as a result of the bungled handling of the situation.

For much of its early days, the militant movement was only supported by a tiny minority. It was a joke. They were referred to commonly as 'the boys' almost like a gang of naughty schoolboys, which in a sense they were.

My father was serving in Mannar when the first policeman was murdered in 1981 or 1982. How was it done? Someone rode upto the unfortunate man on a bicycle and shot him with a rusty old pistol at point-blank range. Why did they ride right up to him to shoot? Because they could not even shoot straight. The LTTE greatest triumph, in 1983, was the killing of 13 soldiers who were caught in a landmine. It was sheer accident that there were so many killed, the jeep was overloaded.

It was the events of July 1983 that gave the rebels their first boost. The anger at the government translated into moral and material support for the armed groups. The Government response was always a mess and ended up creating more support for them until they evolved into the terrorists of today.

The real roots of the problem, were, I believe exposed once more during the CFA. By 2001 a whole generation of Tamils had grown up knowing nothing but the war. People who visited Jaffna during the CFA tell me that Jaffna was twenty years behind Colombo by that time. Not that Colombo is a particularly advanced place either. These people, who had known nothing but war, suddenly saw an existence other than war and this was Prabakharan's problem.

He needed a solution, fast, because popular support for a war was evaporating and his cadres were deserting. The removal of the common enemy exposed the fissures that lay within the movement of which the breakaway of a senior commander, Karuna Annan, was only the most obvious outward sign.

Wily Ranil, on the other hand did not give him a solution, talks were dragging on, but no solution was in sight, which is why I believe Prabakharan ensured that Rajapakse won the election. If Ranil had been around for much longer his movement would have imploded from within. Reading the Maveera speech of 2005 and the blame he puts on Ranil tells the whole story.

Having got his war, he now fights what appears to be a losing battle. Whether the State's heavy-handed response is sowing the seeds of a new round of conflict remains to be seen.

ps. For a more detailed view on this read this.

pps. For those who have wondered where the moderate Tamil voice has disappeared to read this, to understand why they are silent.


indi said...

It's all about the government jobs

DeeCee said...

"a whole generation of Tamils had grown up knowing nothing but the war"

How very true.