What is happening between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar and how it is portrayed by the western media have all the signs of yet another wannabe Arab spring in the making. It is to the credit of the ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and Sinhalas that they did not fall into the trap. The government should also be applauded for not letting the aggravations escalate. Springs may come and go but problems with regard to minorities need addressed and permanent solutions found. The key to solving them however depends on understanding the problems.
We know that some Tamils of Sri Lankan origin, living in Sri Lanka and abroad, dream of an Eelam in the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. There are other Tamils who do not want to secede but want special privileges given to Eastern and Northern provinces through some sort of mechanism such as provincial councils or federalization. What is common about these aspirations is that they are based on the claim that Eastern and the Northern provinces, as mapped out by the English colonial rulers in the late 19th century, is the homeland of the Tamils of Sri Lankan origin. Based on their political aspirations alone these Tamils can be called Eelam Tamils. Then there are other Tamils who want to join force with Tamil Nadu to carve out an Eelam from parts of India and Sri Lanka. Because they envision being belonged to a greater Tamil nation with Tamil Nadu at the center, Based on their political aspirations one could identify them as Sri Lankan Tamils. For Sri Lankan Tamils being a Tamil take precedence over being a Sri Lankan. By definition, Sri Lankan Tamils are a subset of Eelam Tamils. It is probable that a large number, if not a majority of Tamils of Sri Lankan origins are Eelam Tamils.
However, one would hope that there exist at least a minority of “other” Tamils who do not subscribe to the Eelam theory. In mathematical terms these “other” Tamils belong to the complement of the set defined as Eelam Tamils. It can be assumed that “other” Tamils identify whole of Sri Lanka and not just some parts of it as their homeland and equally importantly they do not identify any part of India as their homeland. Since this is normally true for most Sri Lankans, based on their political aspirations alone these “other” Tamils can be called Tamil Sri Lankans. One cannot be both an Eelam Tamil and a Tamil Sri Lankan as it would be contradictory. Ideologically Eelam belong exclusively to the Eelam Tamils and Sri Lanka belongs to Sinhalas, Tamils and other minorities.
It is natural that individual Tamil Sri Lankans want what individual Sinhalas want but can Tamil Sri Lankans as an ethnic group aspire for a unique socio-political status in the Sri Lankan culture beyond what is rightly theirs as individual citizens?
If we look into so called multi-cultural western societies for inspiration the answer to this question is a resounding no. Minority cultures in the west do not enjoy the same status as the majority Christian culture in western countries. In fact, as Dr. Nalin de Silva points out there is no country in this world that practices multiculturalism in the strong sense where all cultures are given the same status. The so called multiculturalism in the west is nothing but a manifestation of personal freedoms. In the west, personal freedom allows one to practice his or her own life style whether it is being a Tamil Hindu or being a body piercer on the condition that fulfilling these personal aspirations does not impact the way of life of the society and its institutions of education, commerce, government, etc. as dictated by the Christian culture. Therefore if we go by the western standard of multiculturalism, Tamil Sri Lankans must contend with personal freedom to exercise their culture as a life style (or simply as an identity) and must assimilate to the way of life of the dominant Culture in which they live.
This recipe does not work in Sri Lanka for two reasons. First, in Sri Lankan culture, whether one is a Sinhala or a Tamil, personal freedoms are not considered to be that much important; at least to the extent they are practiced in the western culture. Therefore, freedom to practice one’s culture simply as a life style is not something that Tamil Sri Lankans would be satisfied with. Second, the Sinhala Buddhist culture, though it is the prominent culture in Sri Lanka, is not dominant enough to force people to assimilate to it. One does not see Tamil Hindus being converted to Buddhism en masse in Sri Lanka. We had Veddhas in our country that chose not to assimilate into the Sinhala Buddhist culture for over two thousand years and both were able to live in harmony until recently when the western culture disrupted the way of life of the both. So the reality is that unlike their immigrant cousins of the west, Tamil Sri Lankans will neither be satisfied with a token personal freedom to practice a life style nor they will necessarily assimilate to the prominent culture of the country. The western recipe of multiculturalism will simply not work in Sri Lanka. Therefore if unique aspirations of Tamil Sri Lankans, beyond their civil rights are to be met, they must look for a homegrown solution.
Tamil Sri Lankans’ aspirations can be realized through a nationalist movement based on the Tamil Sri Lankan identity. It can even be suggested that the identity of Tamil Sri Lankans be rooted on a concept of Sri Lankan Hinduism. Sri Lankan Hinduism can be culturally different to Hinduism practiced in any part of India just as Sinhala Buddhism is different to Buddhism in Myanmar, Thailand or Tibet. Through such a nationalist movement Tamil Sri Lankans can aspire for a socio-political status in Sri Lankan culture beyond what their immigrant cousins can hope to achieve in the west. Clearly this is not an encouragement to assimilate to the Sinhala Buddhist culture and those who habitually complain of such motives must ask themselves where else in the world that a nationalist movement of a minority had been tolerated by a majority.
The Eelam project will not succeed and the Eelam Tamils do not have a choice but to become Tamil Sri Lankans if they are to co-exist with the Sinhalas. It was a project of the Tamil elites to grab power and nationalistic elements, if at all, were only added in recent times. As they say in the west,a pig is a pig even with lipstick on. However the Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist movement must succeed in the interest of the Sri Lankan state. Economic development in the East and North will have a positive impact on the national integration. However cultural projects that merely try to bring Tamils and Sinhalas together socially are only child’s play and will not have the desired effect. These are conducted under the belief that there exist an ethnic strife between Sinhalas and Tamils. This is what the western educated experts want us to believe and we know that this is not the case except may be among the western educated experts themselves. What is needed to accompany the economic development is a grass root nationalist movement of the ordinary Tamil Sri Lankans. The government and the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists must put their weight behind them.