Here we go round the mulberry bush

By: Dr.Rajasingham Narendran
The English children’s rhyme,” Here we go round the mulberry bush---
“sung while children hold hands and go round and round in circles,
comes to my mind when trying to describe the past and present
discourse on possible solutions to the Sinhala –Tamil problems in Sri
Lanka.  The Sinhala and Tamil leaders and their ardent supporters
have been holding hands single mindedly and in astonishing unity,
while dancing around the core Sinhala-Tamil problems in Sri Lanka
over the past sixty years.   The inanities they utter are their song. We
have never united to tackle the problems headlong and resolve them.
We go back in history thousands of years to prove that one group has
greater claims to parts or the whole of present day Sri Lanka than the
other and justify patently primitive and uncivilized political behaviour.
Any one who tries to be rational, analytical and conciliatory in an
attempt to bring about greater understanding between the Sinhalese
and Tamils and resolve our problems is damned, insulted, character
assassinated and labeled a traitor.  Violence and death await those
who persist in continuing their non-violent crusade.  Dancing around
the bush, with ever evolving sophistry of the steps, has become the all-
consuming passion for our leaders, rather than settling down to
resolve these problems.

Several Tamil writers have condemned the lecture delivered by Dr.
Radhika Coomarasamy recently at the University of Montreal, Canada
vehemently and in an extremely disparaging manner.   Some have
even reached conclusions from non-existent references in her speech
and tried to draw a red herring. In specific reference to Sri Lanka, she
had stated,

•        “It is said that Sri Lankans of all ethnic groups, wherever they are
in the world share one thing in common and that is a passion for their
•        “The problem with Sri Lanka is that there is not one idea of what
Sri Lanka is and the contest over that idea has become vicious and
brutal, fed by underlying material grievances. To the Sinhalese
Buddhist majority, their idea of Sri Lanka is as a Sinhalese Buddhist
land where the majority will must prevail and where the markers of
Sinhala Buddhist identity must be celebrated above all others.  For
Tamils living in the North and east, Sri Lanka is put forward as two
nations where the north and the east are separate ethnic and cultural
space requiring either independence or power sharing with the Sinhala
Buddhist south.--------“
•        “The idea of Sri Lanka then is a  contested one where all these
groups strive for their vision in what is increasingly a desperate
struggle. Each side wants to conquer and eliminate the other and so
the violence continues”.
•        “No-one attempts to formulate a more holistic vision that tries to
incorporate all these ideas in an inclusive concept of Sri- Lanka where
all these yearnings find expression within a plural whole”.
•        “We are still awaiting for a Messiah or a time where everyone will
give up in a state of fatigue and sit down and draft the model social
contract for an island that has had more than its share of hardship.”
•        “In this struggle over the idea of Sri Lanka and as a corollary to
that struggle, Sri Lanka has developed an appalling human rights
•        “At the moment the worst forms of human rights violence come
from the eastern province. Political killings where the perpetrators are
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam and their breakaway group the so-
called Karuna faction and the recruitment of child soldiers by the LTTE
leading to courageous, individual acts of resistance by mothers who
come to our offices in search of redress.”
•        “Sri Lanka has many other human rights issues relating to such
matters as religious intolerance, social economic rights especially after
the Tsunami, and the special problem of women, children, the disabled
and the internally displaced persons”.
•        “I do believe that the Tamil community has genuine grievances
and aspirations and that a political settlement is necessary to vindicate
these rights”
•        “However, the decision to make armed struggle the primary form
of agitation, despite the riots of 1983 and the so-called sixth
amendment that removed moderate Tamil voices from parliament, was
a grave mistake, bringing the force of the repressive arm of the Sri
Lankan State and destroying the social and moral fabric of the Tamil
•        “The Sri Lankan Tamil population has halved and those who
remain are now trapped in a brutal reality where their once high
physical quality of life has been reduced to some of the worst
conditions in the island”.
•        “Moreover, trapped in a bunker frame of mind, many Sri Lankan
Tamils condone one atrocity over another in the name of cause”.
•        “The community appears to have lost its moral anchor, where
violence, brutality and ruthlessness are explained and justified. People
often take pride in how their community is represented both nationally
and internationally’.
•        “The Sri Lankan Tamil community once represented as hard
working and non-violent, is now represented as a community living
close to criminality, informed by thuggery, feeding the international
underworld of crime and being comfortable with forces of terror”.
•        “This saddens me greatly. Peace must come soon to Sri Lanka
and not only with the federal model. It must also come with a
commitment by national and international actors to transform the
politics of the north and the east into a haven for democracy”.
•        “We must also learn the art of reconciliation. I have lived among
the Sinhalese all my life and though some are consumed by the
nightmare of the Tamil “Other”, they have an extraordinary capacity for

Radhika Coomaraswamy is absolutely right and has spelled out issues
confronting the Tamils and Sri Lanka lucidly and very objectively. She
has said what several others and I have been trying to convey in the
recent  past, very succinctly.  The only sentence that is open to
misinterpretation is the one that refers to each side wanting to conquer
and eliminate the other.  In the context of what she has said in the
larger body of the speech, what she meant was the contest to out
maneuver each other (Sinhalese and Tamils) that have been going on
for the past sixty years.  Definitely the Sinhala polity has been
determined to establish permanent dominance over the Tamils through
every tool available at their disposal, while the Tamils in response
have fought a vicious civil war, projected territorial claims over parts of
the island that are predominantly Sinhala at present and threatened
the existence of Sri Lanka as a nation-state. We have a serious
problem that affects the Tamil community (also the Sinhala community)
and that is the inability to face the truth, when it stares at our face.  We
not only try to smash the mirror that is held in front of us, but also try to
quarter the person holding it.  How long are we to continue to be
ostriches that proverbially bury their heads in sand, when confronted
with danger?  Our propensity to do so is being taken advantage in a
very calculated and cunning manner by our so-called liberators, to the
ultimate detriment of the voiceless and helpless people who have no
alternative other than to continue to live in the north and east of Sri
Lanka.   The adversity these people have lived through and are now
burdened with are immeasurably greater than what the Tamils who
have had the opportunity to leave the north and east, can narrate and
even seek revenge for.  These people have been pushed to the limits
of their endurance and set back at least a century in socio-economic
terms. This fact has to be borne in mind at all times by the Tamil
Diaspora, irrespective of their bitter experiences, feelings, vision and
political inclinations.  Radhika Coomaraswamy’s speech has been
extensively quoted, as it provides an ideal backdrop to the thrust of
this article.

According to K.M.De Silva, Sri Lanka’s historian of re-known, the
Sinhalese have been on the Island for at least 2500 years and the
indigenous Tamils of the north-east for at least 1500 years.  The
Tamils of recent Indian origin have been on the island for at least 150
years and the Muslims from at least the 10th century A.D.  Although
De Silva’s figures for duration of the presence of the Sinhalese and
Tamils on the island are arguable, they can be accepted as the basis
for discussion here. M.Gunasingam has explained the lack of written
historical records among the Tamils, as the principal reason for the
inability to establish the duration of the Tamil presence in the island.  
According to Gunasingam the tradition of preserving records in
Buddhist temples and shrines, has provided the Sinhalese a written
history from the time Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka in the
middle of the third century B.C.  Considering the proximity of the Tamil
hinterland in India to the relatively verdant Sri Lanka, it will be foolish to
assume that there was no significant Tamil presence in the island,
prior to the arrival Vijaya and his colleagues.  K.M de Silva says,” Sri
Lankan scholars generally believe that the Sinhalese originally came
to the island over 2500 years ago, from northern India, Gujarat and /or
Bengal and at later times from Southern India as well. The roots of
Sinhala culture and civilization are thus Indian”.  Beyond argument,
both the Tamils and Sinhalese have their physical and cultural origins
in the Indian main land.

Having witnessed the Tsunami and its ferocity last year and
considering the geographical features in the Indo- Sri Lankan area, it
seems logical that Sri Lanka was part of the Indian mainland in ancient
times and was severed from the mainland by cataclysmic geological
events.  The presence of four of the five Siva temples of antiquity (
Naguleswaram, Thiriketheeswaram, Koneswaram. Muniswaram) in Sri
Lanka and the fifth (Rameswaram) being in peninsular India, is food for
thought.   The Rameswaram temple was also under the patronage of
the Arya Chakaravarthy’s of the Jaffna Kingdom.   The worship of
Hindu pantheon of deities by Buddhists at large, acceptance of Lord
Buddha as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu by most Hindus and the
presence of the ancient Nagadipa Buddhist vihara in Nainativu in the
north and Lord Murugan’s shrine in Kataragama in the south, indicate
a past that was plural and more inclusive.  Although as K.M de Silva
says,” In Sri Lanka the past is a powerful presence and often carries
with it powerful memories of invading armies, battles lost, cities
destroyed, temples and palaces pillaged and kingdom’s subverted”,
this past is remembered and passed on to posterity by the ruling elite
and aspirants to power.  These memories do not affect the day to day
thoughts and lives of the ordinary people, whether Tamil or Sinhalese.  
These memories and the distortions and exaggerations there-in are
the burden of the power hungry elite. The Tamil armies from south
India were frequently invited by Sinhala Kings to side with them in
internecine quarrels within the island and were a more common
occurrence than direct invasions by south Indian Tamil armies.   The
Tamils and Sinhalese have more in common between each other than
any other peoples on this earth- genotypically, phenotypically,
culturally and linguistically.  This commonality is worth fighting for,
preserving and celebrating, than the perceived differences that are
unfortunately, but intentionally given so much prominence by our so-
called leaders who have set us on a path of self-destruction.  We are
living in an era where the common man has come of age and his
interests are paramount, both individually and collectively.  The days
of the Kings, Queens, war lords, dictators and the elite are over and
with them the days of hero worship, xenophobia, megalomania and
empire building.   The well being of the common people cannot any
longer be sacrificed at the alter of primitive instincts and political

Notwithstanding the above bit of history, the fact is established that the
indigenous Tamils have been on the island for more than 1500 years
and the so-called Tamils of Indian origin for at least 150 years.  This is
more than ample time to claim equal citizenship rights and where
applicable territorial rights.   How can the descendents of Vijaya and
his friends who arrived from India uninvited and accidentally call even
the indigenous Tamils whom they claim also came from India,
‘Kallathonis’ (Illicit boat people).   The descendents of the indentured
labour who were brought from South India by the British 150 years ago
to work in the coffee, tea and rubber plantations, cannot be also
considered ‘Kallathonis’ as they arrived in Sri Lanka, quite
legitimately.  At the risk of angering and insulting some sensitive
Sinhala nationalists and much against my natural instincts, I wish to
point out that the only ‘Kallathoni’s” who have a significant presence in
Sri Lanka are those who claim descent from Vijaya and his friends.  I
am alluding to this fact to jolt the band of blinkered Sinhala nationalists
to face facts and stop calling others derogatory names.  Whether
Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims, let us face reality as it exists at present
and deal with it in an objective, sensible and scientific manner.   We
can be each proud of our origins, our beliefs and our heritage.  But let
us at least be tolerant enough to accept that the so-called ‘Other’ that
Radhika  Coomaraswamy refers to have the same right to be proud of
themselves.  This should be the basis of our new social contract and
discussions on a political settlement for the Sinhala-Tamil and majority-
minority problems in Sri Lanka.  As K.M. De Silva says,” The island has
one of the most complex plural societies in any part of the world: three
important ethnic groups and as many as four of the world’s major
religions”.  When countries such as the U.K, Canada and the U.S.A are
taking pride in their multicultural composition and actively promoting
this pluralism, it is a shame that we are reluctant to politically
accommodate the multi-culture and pluralism that have existed for
thousands of years in Sri Lanka.  The 2500+ years of civilization the
Sinhalese and a longer period (to the origin of earth!) the Tamils boast
of, will be only an idle one, if we fail to prove that it is more than skin
deep.  Our civilizations are much older than those of Europe. Emil
Saundaranayagam (the flamboyant, brilliant, devious and infamous
son of Jaffna) passionately proclaimed in a London court of law in the
1960’s, “Our ladies were dressed in silk and bedecked in gold, when
you  (the Europeans)  clad in animal skins were hunting with bows and
arrows”. Where are we and what are we today?

What is the reality in Sri Lanka today, with regard to the Sinhala, Tamil
and Muslim peoples who populate it?  We are each concentrated in
geographically distinct areas in the island, while being dispersed in the
others. We are a majority in some areas and are minority in others.
The Sinhalese due to their numerically larger numbers, are a majority
in a greater area of the island than the Tamils and Muslims.  The
attempts by the Sri Lankan government to change demographic
patterns in the north and east in the name of agricultural development
have succeeded and is a reality today.  The Sinhalese in the Vanni
and the eastern province are now long standing residents of those
areas. This should be accepted and accommodated within the new
political model for Sri Lanka.  This is a demographic and political reality
as much as the high concentration of Tamils in the Western, Central
and Uva provinces.  The federal model of governance, irrespective of
the nuances that are a matter of debate, has been generally accepted
by all peoples of Sri Lanka as a solution to our long standing political
problems.  The nuances being debated are largely irrelevant and are
the last stand of a stubborn minority within the Sinhala and Tamil
communities.  The units of governance within the island under the
federal model, should be the present provinces or the combinations or
parts there of.  All units should have the same powers devolved to
them.  The powers devolved should be extensive, operative within the
context of a united Sri Lanka and irreversible.   Both the central and
peripheral governing units should have an elected executive and
bicameral legislatures.  The ministers should be selected by the
elected executive from the general population as per their abilities and
experience, and be approved by the legislatures. An elected member
of the legislature should not be eligible to hold an executive office
simultaneously.  A mechanism to share power equitably with the
minorities at the centre should also be found.

The powers to be vested in the central and provincial/state
governments respectively and subjects having joint jurisdiction
(concurrent powers) should be drawn up based on the current realities
in Sri Lanka.  The fact that the Colombo based central government
should be exclusively responsible for key areas such as defense,
postal services, inter-state/ provincial policing, external trade, ports
and airports, currency and central bank, national maritime zones, tele-
communications, broadcasting, inter-state/ provincial highways and
rivers, and external affairs, should be indisputable.  The powers of
taxation should be shared between the central and peripheral
governments as per delineations to be negotiated.  The peripheral
governments should have policing and other powers to promote
development in education, industry, agriculture and trade within their
areas of jurisdiction.  Central government should also be vested with
power to lay down broad policies for education, health, social services
, agricultural development, water resource management, industrial
development and environmental protection. While primary and
secondary education should be the exclusive concern of the peripheral
governments within parameters formulated by the central government,
tertiary education should be a shared responsibility of the central and
peripheral governments.  Internationally accepted democratic, human
rights and jurisprudence practices should be included as governing
principles for both the central and peripheral governments.   The rights
of every citizen to reside where he wants and be treated equal to every
one else should be enshrined in the constitution.  Sinhala, Tamil and
English should be the national languages of Sri Lanka and every
citizen should have the power to deal with the state- central or
peripheral, in the language of his choice. The medium of instruction in
schools should be in the mother tongue and English primarily and the
other national language –Sinhala or Tamil should be offered in every
school as a non-compulsory subject of choice.  The system of justice
should be also devolved with the national Supreme Court having a
final say in all matters pertaining to the citizens of Sri Lanka. Crown
lands, forestry and wild life sanctuaries within the provincial or state
boundaries should be a subject of joint jurisdiction between the central
and peripheral governments with the national Supreme Court as the
final arbiter in case of disputes.  The public services sector, whether
central or peripheral, should be built on the principles of merit and
excellence, and should be governed by independent public services
commissions –central and peripheral.  There are other areas of
governance of minor significance that can be easily sorted out, once
agreement is reached on major issues. The Indian model with
modifications to suit our requirements and prevailing circumstances
should be our goal.  The emphasis should be on building institutions
that are efficient and can be trusted by all the peoples in Sri Lanka.

If the issue of sharing of power between the major ethnic groups is
approached in a rational manner as outlined above, the words such as
self-determination, traditional homelands and Thimpu principles, which
cause much misunderstanding and unnecessary suspicions, become
irrelevant. The power sharing between the centre and the periphery
will be universal and dispersed, and not restricted to the Tamils and
Muslims.   This will remove suspicions as to possibilities of eventual
secession of the predominantly Tamil provinces to form Tamil Ealam.  
The historic reasons for the Tamil militancy should be acknowledged,
while also conceding that it has outlived its usefulness.  The fact that it
has become counter productive at present should also be understood.
The role of the Tamil youth- now middle aged men- in this militancy
and their sacrifices should also be acknowledged, while conceding that
their act should come to an end now. They have to be given the
opportunity and protection under the new dispensation to assume
roles they and the society at large deem fit within the Tamil polity and
nationally.  Several have already done so, and the others should be
encouraged to do so. I may be called naïve, stupid and even a traitor,
for venturing to write what I have.  However, I hope that this will trigger
a sensible, logical and focused debate among the Sinhalese, Tamils
and Muslims, as to what needs to be done for the future in a forward
looking manner.  The past is a reality we have to learn not to dwell on,
while learning lessons from it.  

Let us stop going around the mulberry bush and tackle the issues at
hand humanely, bravely and with a sense of purpose.  There is a time
to sow, a time to harvest and a time to rotate crops. The ability to stop,
introspect and change course are requisite for leaders. It is easy to
make war. It requires much more courage and exceptional men to
make peace. We should clutch at even straws, if they hold the promise
of peace.  Let all parties to the conflict forego the option of violence
and war once and for all. Violence begets greater violence. We have
seen this in Sri Lanka over the past several decades and we have not
harvested anything but additional misery yet. I am sure good sense will
ultimately triumph, however bleak the scenario looks at present.


1.        Radhika Coomaraswamy- Human rights at home and in the
2.        K.M.De Silva- Reaping the whirlwind. Penguin books-1998
3.        Murugar Gunasingam- Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: A study of
its origin. MV Publications, Sydney-1999