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Reconstructing Sri Lanka’s North

A recent talk on the need for democratic mobilisation of resources and a politics of self-reflexivity in rebuilding Sri Lanka’s social institutions.

Almost five years after the end of the war in Sri Lanka, the country’s North cannot be engaged without considering the broader politics in the country. Democratisation in the rest of the country will shape democracy in these areas. The issue of reconstructing the North is inextricably linked with the need for democratisation in Sri Lanka.

Before getting into the main thrust of my argument, I want to be clear about the lost opportunity in post-war Sri Lanka. I am echoing here the words of the insightful Tamil intellectual Kethesh Loganathan, who critiqued the attempts to resolve the ethnic conflict during the first five decades after Independence, in his book Sri Lanka : Lost Opportunities. Tragically, the great opening that came with the end of the war has been squandered by the ruling Rajapaksa regime in the interest of consolidating power.

In the current situation, authoritarianism with centralised state power and militarisation characterises the state of affairs in the country. Militarisation is doubly oppressive in the war-torn North and East. There has been no serious movement towards a political solution. The reconstruction process has failed, particularly in relation to livelihoods, and a food security crisis is looming over the North.

Amidst this depressing situation, there is now a small opening created by the Northern Provincial Council elections. While the future of both this opening and devolution more broadly depends on the regime and government at the Centre, there also needs to be rethinking in the realm of Tamil politics.

Longue Durée

There is the urgency of addressing our current social, economic and political challenges, but the post-war era must be approached with a longer-term view. What I have to say in this regard will be difficult for many to accept. However, I believe self-criticism is needed to understand the disastrous predicament of the Tamil community today. There also needs to be a break from the Tamil nationalist politics of the last several decades. We must chart a radically new democratic politics.

French historian Fernand Braudel of the Annales School conceptualised the longue durée : the slow economic and social activity of peoples toiling and struggling over decades and centuries, and in that long process, shaping societies. The longue durée of society in the North is characterised by the labour and production of farmers and fishers over centuries, which continue to be the country’s economic mainstay. Our society is also shaped by our social institutions, such as schools created in the mid-19th century, and co-operatives prevalent in the latter half of the last century. But societal changes accelerated with the devastating war and migration, constituting the long decline of our society. This economic and social crisis, engendered by a faltering rural economy and the decline of education and community organisations, is also symptomatic of Tamil politics.

We often discuss the deterioration of the Sri Lankan state and its institutions since Independence, particularly the politicisation of the criminal justice system and the corruption of political representation. However, we have not amply examined the general deterioration of Tamil politics since its turn to exclusivist and narrow Tamil nationalism. Here, I am not referring alone to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and its fascist political culture, which systematically assassinated and eliminated much of the Tamil political leadership, including the Tamil United Liberation Front, and evicted, massacred and alienated the Muslim community. I am referring here to a shift in Tamil politics which goes back to the late 1930s with the ascendancy of the Tamil Congress and then the Federal Party. Whether in opposition to state discrimination or the consolidation of a Tamil political base, the promotion of Tamil nationalism inevitably excluded other communities and disregarded issues of class, caste and gender. Such Tamil nationalist politics has shaped our social thinking over the longue durée.

Again, it is not that I do not see the urgency of confronting the neoliberal policies, characterised by financialisation and market expansion that are indebting and dispossessing rural households. Nor am I disregarding the ugly face of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism targeting minorities, particularly Muslims, in recent years. All of this has to be confronted throughout the country. But underneath the economic devastation and ideological onslaught of powerful repressive forces is the long decline of society in the North. When migration – due to the conflict or for economic opportunities, to the West or to West Asia – is central to the society and economy, there is less investment in and commitment to social institutions. It was over the longue durée that many of our social institutions were built and now we are seeing their long and painful decline.

Charting a new path

Reconstruction of the post-war North should be conceived in light of the historical changes over the longue durée. Furthermore, the challenges of reconstructing our society are compounded by the devastating war. This is no easy task and requires massive mobilisation of social, economic and political resources to meet the mammoth challenge. What is the relationship of reconstruction to democratisation ? It is about rebuilding the social institutions and movements necessary for a democratic society. And that requires the courage to reflect self-critically on our past, including the long arc of our politics.

In an important booklet titled Language in Government and in Education, first published in October 1955 in the lead up to ‘Sinhala Only’, Handy Perinbanayagam, the leader of the Jaffna Youth Congress in the 1920s, warned of the dangers of rejecting parity of status for both languages and emphasised the importance of bilingualism. In this publication, he also critiqued federalism, for its limitations of addressing the language issue “on account of the very wide diffusion of the two languages groups throughout the island.” He went on to eschew separatism with what we can read now as a longue durée perspective :

“I would go further and say that even if the inconceivable absurdity and unimaginable tragedy of two separate states in Ceylon should come into being, bilingualism would be hard to circumvent. Even in a dismembered Ceylon we would yet be next-door neighbours, linked by ancient memories and present necessities. We will yet go on pilgrimage to Kataragama, Nagadipa, Sri Pada, Munneswaram and Madhu. We cannot avoid trading with one another and coming into contact with one another in various personal and public fields of activity. Neighbourly relations established through centuries of common national life will not be sundered by political frontiers. Human love and romance too have a way of ignoring political boundaries.”

If Tamil politics is to go through a process of self-reflection and chart a new path, the perspectives of those like Perinbanayagam have to be revisited and debated.

A self-reflective politics that democratises society and revitalises Sri Lanka’s social pillars has to be prepared to challenge inequalities and ensure dignity for all. Here, Tamil politics has to engage issues of class, caste and gender, and bring them centrally into the process of reconstruction. And the Tamil middle class has to recognise the importance and support the sustenance of rural – mainly farming and fishing – ways of life.

If devolution is only about transferring state power from an authoritarian regime to the elite in Jaffna, it will be meaningless. Devolution continues to be important today in Lanka, but that is because of its democratic potential. When social organisations, including co-operatives, mobilise from the ground and call for devolution of power, they actively participate in reconstruction and development. In this way, democratic forces are strengthened to confront inequalities and exploitation along lines of class, caste or gender.

The small opening created by the Northern Provincial Council – with elections held after 25 years – places some responsibility on the newly formed civil administration. There is now the opportunity for an administration elected from the North to engage with the gamut of post-war issues and make devolution work for the local people. Importantly, it is a first step towards shifting from a militarised administrative apparatus to a civil administration.

But activating the civil administration will not be easy, given interference by the regime at the Centre and the military at the regional level. It will require a step-by-step approach involving many small initiatives by the Provincial Councillors and engaged work among the people. This is something the elected representatives from the dominant Tamil political parties, and particularly the Tamil National Alliance, have never done before. Thus, there needs to be continued dialogue and mobilisation of the broader population. Here co-operatives, rural organisations, schools, the university, farmers, fishers, professionals, the clergy, local bureaucrats and teachers – the social institutions and the people – are important actors and have a major role. It is reconstruction with democratic sensibilities that is the need of the hour.


This article is based on a presentation made in Jaffna on 10 January 2014 at a seminar organised by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, titled ‘Democratising the North : A Dialogue on Governance, Development and Vulnerability’. Other members of the panel included Northern Provincial Council Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran and Former Deputy Secretary, North-East Provincial Council, Mr S Krishnananthan.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.