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Peace can't be achieved by ignoring Sinhala nationalism, says study

A Brussels-based research organisation urges the international community not to dismiss Sinhala nationalism as "irrational and racist" but try to understand its roots and concerns, reports PK Balachandran.

world Updated: Nov 08, 2007 16:02 IST
PK Balachandran

A Brussels-based research organisation has urged the international community not to dismiss Sinhala nationalism as "irrational and racist" but try to understand its roots and concerns in order to bring about a peaceful and lasting solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

In its report on Sinhala nationalism released on Wednesday, the International Crisis Group (ICG) pointed out that finding a solution to the Sinhala-Tamil conflict in the island had been difficult because of the intense competition between two high pitched nationalisms – Sinhala and Tamil.

While the international community and the peace brokers seemed to have understood and appreciated the roots of Tamil nationalism, they had been rather dismissive about Sinhala nationalism, and had, as a consequence, earned the animosity of the Sinhalas, who are over 70 per cent of Sri Lanka's population.

"The international community has struggled to come to terms with Sinhala nationalism, frequently misunderstanding its nature and legitimacy. Interventions, even including the Norwegian-sponsored 2002 ceasefire, which most Sinhalese ultimately judged as too favourable to the LTTE, have tended to stimulate xenophobic elements in the Sinhala community and help the extreme nationalist parties gain ground."

"With the present administration being one of the most nationalist in the country's history, however, there is a need to review approaches to peace making. Domestic and international actors should begin to fashion new, long-term strategies that take into account the power of Sinhala nationalist ideology, while aiming to minimize the sources of its appeal and its ability to set the political agenda," the ICG report said.

"Excessive Tamil demands" have been among the many factors creating fears in the Sinhala community and spurring Sinhala nationalism. This, the peace brokers and the international community must recognize, the research paper said.

Recommendations

The ICG has urged the international community to publicly tell the Sri Lankan government that it must state its willingness to accept devolution proposals avoiding characterization either as "unitary" or "federal" as these terms give rise to apprehensions in one community or the other.

The international community, including India, must aid the Sri Lankan government's initiatives for state reform, good governance and human rights and equal opportunities for all Sri Lankans, irrespective ethnicity or religion, the ICG said. One of the roots of Sinhala nationalism has been bad governance.

Frustrations arising from denial of opportunities and discrimination have created conditions for the appeal of extremist nationalisms. Concentration of power in a limited social class, and the existence and perpetuation of social inequalities have resulted in Sri Lanka's elitist politicians cynically rousing communal or 'nationalist' sentiments among the masses to perpetuate their hold on power.

Avoid changing ethnic balance in east

There should be a "joint donor task force" to investigate allegations of an ethnic bias in land use and settlement policies in the Eastern Province (which had been recently cleared of the LTTE), the ICG said.

The international community should tell the Sri Lankan government to allow the participation of local ethnic communities, elected leaders and the local administration, in land settlement and other development programmes in that province. The government should also be made to give an assurance that there would be no change in the ethnic balance in the East, where the Tamils and the Muslims fear an imminent Sinhala take over with Colombo's help.