Feature Article

Sri Lanka, a case of political inequality

[TamilNet, Friday, 04 July 2008, 16:38 GMT]
Striking a sharp contrast to Colombo's portrayal of Eezham struggle as a terrorist issue, Frances Stewart, the director of the Oxford based Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity (CRISE), looks at the crisis as a case of inequalities in political power between the Tamils and Sinhalese. In an interview that appeared in Human Rights Tribune, on Thursday, she said: "Horizontal inequalities have political, economic, social and cultural dimensions… Inequalities in political power, which are very important, where one group may have total dominance of the political system, and another group does not have any access, which is the situation more or less in Sri Lanka."

Ms. Stewart said it while answering to a question posed by IPS correspondent Michael Deibert, who interviewed her in relation to a publication of CRISE, 'Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict: Understanding Group Violence in Multi-Ethnic Societies', which is going to be released shortly.

CRISE, directed by Ms. Stewart is a Development Research Centre within Oxford University, supported by the British Government Department for International Development (DFID).

Frances Stewart
Frances Stewart, director, Centre for Research on Inequality Human Security and Ethnicity. [Photo courtesy: www.iisd.ca]
Answering another question on steps that should be taken by governments and international institutions to address these inequalities and prevent conflict in the future, she said:

"This issue has been surpassingly neglected by the international community. If you look at the normal policies that we advocate, such as democracy, saying that countries have to be democratic and they have to have many parties, we don’t think about the implications between groups."

"Democracy can lead to quite a dangerous situation in a multi-ethnic society unless you accompany it with policies to protect groups. If you have one group that is in a majority, they can really suppress the freedoms of a minority group," she said.

"On the political side, what it requires is recognition of the importance of distributing power across groups and not having exclusive power."

A CRISE working paper by Ms. Stewart, titled "Horizontal Inequalities: A Neglected Dimension of Development," available at the Centre's website, reveals that the research was based on nine case studies, ranging from Africa and Asia to Latin America.

The paper says that Horizontal Inequality has provoked a spectrum of political reaction, including severe and long-lasting violent conflict (Uganda, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Northern Ireland), less severe rebellion (Chiapas), coups (Fiji), periodic riots and criminality (the US), occasional racial riots (Malaysia) and a high level of criminality (Brazil).

"Where ethnic identities coincide with economic/social ones, social instability of one sort of another is likely –ethnicity does become a mobilising agent, and as this happens the ethnic divisions are enhanced. Sri Lanka is a powerful example; Chiapas another," is one of the conclusions found in the working paper.

However, the main problem in the development analysis of the CRISE research is its basis that Tamils were better placed in development than the Sinhalese under the British rule, said a Sri Lankan development analyst in Colombo when contacted by TamilNet.

The CRISE paper places Sri Lanka along with Malaysia, South Africa, and Uganda and says these are situations where the politically powerful represent the relatively deprived.

The paper argues that the government policies to bridge the gap in Sri Lanka provoked serious violence because the policies were culturally (language policy) and economically invasive and because of the geographic concentration of Tamils in the Northeast, facilitating a demand for independence unlike the case of the Indians in Fiji.

The paper also compares and contrasts Sri Lanka and Malaysia:

"Both apparently started in a similar situation, with the political majority at an economic disadvantage, but while attempts to correct this situation in Malaysia were successful, they actually provoked war in Sri Lanka."

The paper continues with statistics in education and government employment in Sri Lanka and argues that government policies to bring in horizontal equality by reverting the better position held by Tamils earlier, were successful, but provoked crisis.

But, according to the Colombo analyst, the better position held earlier by Tamils in education and government service, doesn't mean that they were better developed. This is again falling a prey to the sophisticated propaganda of the Sri Lankan state to justify its genocidal programme. Not only the international study groups, but even some Colombo-centric Tamil intellectuals have taken the bait, he said.

"Education and government service never meant an economy for Tamils in their own land and never helped the accumulation of capital in the Tamil areas."

"Economic autonomy last prevailed in the Tamil areas only under the Dutch. At that time, there were Eezham Tamils who were able to compete with officials of the Dutch East India Company in getting the pearl-diving contracts."

The British period marked a decline and eventual disappearance of the foreign trade of Tamils. "The plantation based economy of the British helped only the accumulation of capital in Colombo and made Tamils to depend on it," he observed.

The ports and communication infrastructure of the Tamil regions, which were vital for development, were neglected under the British.

"For instance, while railway was introduced to southern Sri Lanka in 1864, it came to Jaffna only in 1905. The coastal highways linking the Tamil areas were never developed. Even the Jaffna - Colombo coastal route was abandoned in British times."

Observing further, he said that there was no urbanisation in Tamil areas under the British.

The last population influx to Tamil areas was only under the Dutch, if the Sinhala colonisation schemes are not counted. "The fact that people were moving out from Tamil areas and urban centres since British times only indicate that there was no development."

Talking on education as an index of development, he said that education in Tamil areas were actually developed by the American Mission, whom the British wanted to downplay at that time by sending them off to a region, which was not in their priority.

The kind of education that was developed first by the missionaries and later by the native schools, helped a middle-class formation, produced professionals and was the only option for livelihood, but this was never translated into a sound basis for the development of the Eezham Tamil region, he opined.

"It is a myth that the Tamils were the favourites of the rulers and received advantages under the British. Anyone, who doubts it should read the British government assessment of Ceylon communities in the Donoughmore report of 1928. The coastal Sinhalese were assessed as the most progressive community and not surprisingly independent Ceylon was transferred to them in 1948."

"Had the Tamils been 'the developed' and the 'favourites,' they would have seen Eezham in British time itself," said the Colombo based analyst, who doesn't wish to be named due to the naive ban on TamilNet and the prevailing security situation for journalists and academics in Sri Lanka.


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