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Book review: Sri Lanka and the Defeat of the LTTE

There are no real winners in the contest between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka, writes Soutik Biswas.

books Updated: Jan 12, 2013 10:48 IST
Soutik Biswas

Sri Lanka and the Defeat of the LTTE
KM de Silva
Penguin books
Rs 299 pp 337

How did a thriving political system and a welfare state become one of the most troubled in the world? How did peaceful Sri Lanka descend into the abyss of a violent separatist movement and end up as the centre of a brutal civil war which claimed some 70,000 lives in 26 years?

In this well-researched book, historian KM de Silva attempts to answer these and many such fundamental questions to come up with a digestible history of a tangled conflict.The raison d’etre for Tamil separatism, as de Silva argues, was hardly unfamiliar. There was, he writes, a sense of “relative deprivation at the loss of, or the imminent loss of, the advantageous or privileged position the Tamil minority had enjoyed under British colonial rule”.

There was also a perceived threat to their ethnic identity from the political, economic and cultural policies introduced by the government in the mid 1950s.

Sri Lanka appears to be a telling example of how misplaced affirmative action can tear apart the social fabric. As de Silva recounts, controversial language and university admissions policies sowed the seeds of the ethnic conflict in the 1960s and 1970s.

For one, Sinhala and Tamil replaced English as the medium of instruction in higher classes of secondary schools leading to a build up of ethnic and political pressures. Indigenous Tamils took the hit.

For years, they had enjoyed a predominant position in science, engineering and medicine, partly because of their higher rate of literacy in English.

The government made things worse by introducing a lower qualifying mark for students who took the examinations in Sinhala, in order to achieve a politically acceptable ratio of Tamil-to-Sinhala students be admitted to science, engineering and medicine.

“This new policy played an important role in deterioration of ethnic relations in the island in the 1970s as it led to alienation of Tamil youth,” writes de Silva.

The book records the radicalisation of Tamil politics, the internecine struggles between competing separatist groups, and the violent appropriation of the movement by the LTTE. The rest, of course, is grim and grisly history with a blood-soaked ending. Has Sri Lanka buried the ghosts of separatism?

More than three years after the war ended, rights groups remain concerned about conditions in the north, students have been picked up by the anti-terrorism division, and teachers of Jaffna University have written to the President complaining of a heavy-handed tackling of festering political grievances.

In this contest, as de Silva writes, of a majority (Sinhalese) with a minority complex, and a minority (Tamils) with a majority complex, there are no winners.

Soutik Biswas is India Editor with BBC News website