Muslim refugee kids campaigning on the way to Mannar
I occasionally get mails from foreign people doing research or programs on Sri Lanka the basket case. Foreign journos tromp through The Sunday Leader office like its some sort of media Mecca. Often they ask the same thing, which is how do Tamils feel, or what’s the Tamil perspective on X or Y. I think this is the wrong question. The racial view is only one way to analyze this nation, and I no longer think it gives the most information. Sometimes I think it’s the wrong information. Black, blue, LTTE or SLFP, UNP or JVP, if you support Mahinda Rajapaksa the man you’re on the right side of the law. Yellow, red, Tamil or Burgher, Muslim or Sinhala, if you oppose him you are not. That’s about all it is. I’m not saying its post racial, but it’s really not about race anymore. I’m not saying Tamils don’t get disproportionately shafted. I met a Tamil journalist today and that seems about as fun as wearing a kick-me sign on back and front. But it’s like, race is not really the way the cake is cut anymore.
For one thing, there simply aren’t that many Tamils left. The exodus, especially in potential political powerhouses like Jaffna, has been massive. There was a demographic bulge in the seventies and eighties that offered up any number of young people for any number of revolutions. They’re dead or fled now. They killed most of the moderate politicians and got a whole bunch of unrelated people killed. The result I think we’ll see in the next census (the first in like twenty years) is a country that contains Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils, in that order. I think Muslims will outnumber Tamils soon.
For another thing, it wasn’t completely about race in the first place. It was about government jobs and university spots. The west has trouble understanding how important government jobs are in Asia, but they are like the house, yard and white picket fence. They get you married. Or they get someone else married to your girl. When English was removed as the government language (something that had to happen) there was suddenly Sinhalese language administration everywhere (something that didn’t have to happen). Many Tamils, many intelligent and powerful Tamils, were like forget this, let’s start our own government. That’s the active grievance. Not that their aren’t other grievance, but I think the one that spurred the war. There was a demographic bulge and the unemployment to make it catch fire. It was literally a baby boom.
That was once a useful way to analyze Sri Lankan politics. Parties were racial (or racist). The UNP was involved in the 83 riots and at one point the Tamil parties were the opposition. Now, however, Sri Lanka has a unitary state centered around a man. Not a race or a religion, though those are important symbols. The fundamental core of the new authoritarian state is Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family. Under their wing you will find Sinhala nationalists like the JHU but also former LTTErs like KP and Karuna and former UNPers like GL Peiris and Keheliya Rambukwella. Public enemy number one is no longer the Tamil Tigers but the General who fought them. The greatest crime is no longer ethnic separatism but opposing Mahinda. That’s why you see General Sarath Fonseka in jail and Karuna Amman in the club.
Mahinda long ago said that there were no more races in the country, there are only people who love the motherland and those who don’t. This is generally true, except the gender is wrong. The main divide in Sri Lanka is between people who love Mahinda and those who don’t. That’s the useful level of analysis.