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Conflicts In Nepal And Sri Lanka History Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: History
Wordcount: 5462 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Conflicts in Nepal and Sri Lanka have both been the poor men’s fight; marginalised Nepali population outside of the government service delivery in Nepal fighting the state apparatus controlled mainly by upper caste groups; and ethically isolated Tamils fighting a separatist war in Sri Lanka that were pushed to the fringes by the politically powerful Sinhalese.

When political voice and power platform became inaccessible to the marginalised groups in both Nepal and Sri Lanka, democracy was a casualty. Civil war alone was not the only independent variable in erosion of democracy in Nepal and Sri Lanka. But this research centres on the democratic deficit during and after the conflict in both countries; when Maoist rebels joined the coalition government in April 2007 and when Sri Lankan army defeated the Tamils in May 2009.

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Resting in part to the already available theoretical scholarship on i) state’s top-heavy power and authority in relation to the population, ii) the proximity of these countries to transnational powers China and India, and, iii) historical structures of class and ethnicity, the research seeks to categorically identify the independent variables and attribute these to the erosion of democracy in both Nepal and Sri Lanka.


Nepal, the oldest nation state in South Asia thanks to Britain’s failure to colonise the country, and Sri Lanka, the first nation in South Asia to come under foreign influence when Portuguese arrived in Colombo in 1505 even before Britain began to take over the island in 1796; both emerged out of ruinous civil wars in the last few years. Maoist rebels safe landed into mainstream politics by joining the coalition government in April 2007, whereas Tamils were defeated militarily by the Sri Lankan army in May 2009, by killing the separatist movement’s leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and clearly ending the 26 years old civil war.

Geopolitically too, these two countries could not be more dissimilar. Nepal is mostly landlocked – or India locked if you consider three sides of the borders are with India, consequently dependent on India entirely for trade routes. Sri Lanka is an island nation, with a strong naval trading system in place.

There are robust similarities in the political landscape however. These are both South Asian countries; almost symmetrical in its religious penchant – with Hindus and Buddhists strongly embedded in political affairs.

Civilian supremacy is generally challenged by omnipotent military organization in both countries. Genuine ethnic concerns and grievances are exploited and stoked by trailblazing or often opportunistic political parties. Political landscape is repeatedly manipulated by transnational powers, especially India and, increasingly China.

War has been won. But more than a year after Sri Lanka routed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the country and its government hasn’t had anything to show for its development towards rebuilding of democratic institutions that are on its last legs, or set up conditions to stabilise the peace process. There haven’t been any concrete steps and initiatives from the victorious administration in addressing the genuine ethnic grievances of the Tamils that were the driving force for a prolonged LTTE militancy to begin with.

The military victory will remain just that unless the political landscape dominated by the majority Sinhalese makes moves to accommodate the Tamils for an inclusive democratic state. When retired General Sarath Fonseka challenged President Rajapaksha in last January’s presidential elections, it created new political space to face up to repressive government policies. Rajapksha has won the elections and still reigning supreme as the President. But neither Fonseka offered to, nor Rajapaksha has done anything to cater to minority grievances through political reform. And this is how the democracy is a casualty in Sri Lanka.

War has been won in Nepal too, but without the losers or the winners. Maoists were given a safe landing by the political parties who were united in their struggle to restore democracy by overthrowing the dictatorial king Gyanendra. Here too, grievances of the ethnic and indigenous minorities of the hills and that of the Madhesi peoples living on the Nepalese flatlands bordering India, which had been simmering for decades have been pushed to the margins of politics as main political parties continue to squabble over who gets the lead the government when the new constitution is written through the Constituent Assembly. And this is how democracy has been a casualty in Nepal.

But the democratic deficit story has a longer history in both Nepal and Sri Lanka. True, conflict was the main instigating factor in erosion of democracy in both countries, but if we analyse on three different theoretical frameworks, the story of democracy deficit in both Nepal and Sri Lanka is anything but straightforward as just conflict-induced.

The international studies on weighted average rankings of both Nepal and Sri Lanka in the recent years have also been markedly comparable.

The failed States Index, Foreign Policy Magazine

Country Rank Total score

Sri Lanka 25 95.7

Nepal 26 95.4

Freedom in the World, Freedom House

Country Political Rights Civil Liberties Status

Sri Lanka 4 4 Partly Free

Nepal 4 4 Partly Free

Democracy Index, Economist Intelligence Unit

Country Index Category

Sri Lanka 6.61 Flawed democracy

Nepal 4.05 Hybrid regime

Theoretical frameworks in Comparative Analysis

“Comparative studies of democratization have produced two types of generalizations: those having nearly universal application and those applying to a range of countries within a region. In the first category are such arguments as the role of high levels of economic development in guaranteeing democratic sustainability, the centrality of political elites in establishing and terminating democracy, and deficits in rule of law and state capacity as the primary challenge to the quality and survival of new democracies” [1] 

Sri Lanka’s Quest for Peace and Democarcy

Britain relinquished its colonial administration in 1948, after almost 450 years of colonial rule by various western powers. Westminster style of parliamentary democracy was put into practice, with elections soon turning on ethnic issues, which was given a class face during the colonial administrator’s preferemce of one ethnicity over the other.

Nationalists Sinhalese majority (74% of population) which formed the government started advocating socialism and propping up Sinhalese interests, by making Sinhalese the national language through the 1956 act, reserving top jobs in civil service for the Sinhalese, passing laws discriminating against Tamils (18%) and Muslims (6%), including and 1972 constitution giving Buddhism ‘foremost place’ in state. Tensions were flaring up between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils by the 1970s With Tamil youths turning to violence to disagree with inadequate socio-economic opportunities. Government started imposing curfews and state of emergency in Tamil areas ,and a Tamil secessionist movement was born.

1972 saw the Tamil New Tigers militia formed to struggle for an self-governing homeland for ethnic Tamils. Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came to exists as an unified goup gour years later. The 1983 massacre of an army patrol in the northern town of Jaffna instigated Sinhales mobs on a three day rampage, killing thousands of Tamils, burning huts and houses and looting tamil properties. When LTTE intensified guerrilla warfare and terror campaigns on central government targets, and began to take hold of territory in north and east, Government responded with killings and “disappearances” of Tamils.

In 1987, India signed an accord with the Sri Lankan government that led to the peacekeeping force (IPKF) to north east and starting making the first few moves for constitutional amendments promising Tamil autonomy. IPKF was fast becoming entangled in war with LTTE

Hopeful of opening an avenue for a way resolution President Ranasinghe Premadasa In 1990 ordered IPKF out of the country and started negotiating with the Tamil tigers. LTTE soon called off the talks and intensified its violent campaigns against the state, including suicide bombs to murder Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 and Premadasa in May 1993.

With People’s Alliance’s (led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party) parliamentary victory, there was another push for peace attempt in 1994. SLFP’s Chandrika Kumaratunga’s was elected as Preisent who promised a negotiated conclusion to teh conflict. But the peace process again buckled down in April 1995 when LTTE attacked and sank Sri Lankan Navy’s two gunboats.

There were some marginal efforts in democratic and constitutional reforms for devolution of power to north and east in spite of an attempt on President Kumaratunga’s life in December 1999. But the parliament voted the proposal down in August 2000 as both United National Party (UNP) and (People’s Liberation Front) JVP.

Peace platform gave the victory in parliamentary elections in December 2001 which forced President Kumaratunga into edgy cohabitation with new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. The government, under Noregina’s effective role in mediating, agreed on ceasefire in February 2002. During the negotiations, LTTE and the government decided to explore a resolution based on broad self-government Tamil areas under a federal system.

Mahinda Rajapaksa (SLFP) won the presidential elections in November 2005 fronting the Sinhala nationalist alliance with JVP and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Negotiations and violent conflicts were on and off until the government forces took over Tamil Tiger camps in Thoppigala in 11 July 2007 giving the Government forces’ absolute command over entire eastern province.

The war then came to an end with government declaring victory on 18 May 2009 after sustained military offensive in teh north killed LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and the entire LTTE leadership.

Class Power

“Historically, democratization has been both resisted and pushed forward by teh changing dynamics of class relations and different classes pursuing their separate interests” [2] . Potter further argues that “Subordinate classes have usually pushed for democracy, dominant classes nearly always have resisted it”. [3] 

The assumption has beena round with us for now that the middle class played a vital role in the democratization in Asia. The middle class theory probably developed due to the allure of Asia’s new rich and their political manoeuvrability. This new rich have been moslty attributed with bringing about the popular democratic movements and changes that took in South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia etc in early 80s and 90s.

British developed an educated class in Sri Lanka principally to assist their reach deeper into the Sri Lankan society. Besides, the growth of mercantilist plantations developed a new segment in society, of traders and contractors.

In 1947, the Sinhala formed in this polity a clear majority of about 70 percent. There was a politically and economically quite powerful minority of almost 23 percent Tamils. Somewhat less than half… were so-called Ceylon Tamils who had lived in Ceylon for many centuries… Somewhat more than half, however, were Indian Tamils, who as contract labourers, had been brought from South India to Ceylon by the British in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The slow but steady development of a commercial economy required the conventional elite – Sinhalese village chiefs and the Kandyan elites to contend with new class groups to get the British patronage. Selected Sri Lankans were brought into civil service by entrance examinations that were conducted in London. This could be considered as one the first initiative, or error for that matter, on part of teh british in creating divisons along class lines.

Sri Lankans achieved a degree of self-government from Britain in 1931 and it took another sixteen years until full independence. The government espoused socialism and propped up Sinhalese interests, by making Sinhalese the national language and reserving top jobs in civil service for the Sinhalese.

This design was apparently to address the disparities between the English speaking, Christian educated elite and the majority Sinhalese. But it sensitised the Tamil Hindu minority politically who in turn started pressing for increased autonomy in northern and eastern parts of the country, which were the main Tamil areas.

It is imperative to note that conflict between communities that came about after the independence in the background of a lively parliamentary democracy. Moreover, Sri Lankan Society dwindled into violence within a democratic framework and, although from time to time the conflict has endangered Sri Lanka’s tolerant democracy, democratic configurations have never been shelved nationwide.

Also, in the 70s and 80s, constitutional reforms were introduced along the lines which draw close theoretical parallel to what Horowitz stipulates. [4] Besides, contrasting to most countries in conflict, Sri Lanka has benefited from continued economic growth and sustained general progress in human development indicators even when undergoing violent conflict on a big magnitude. [5] 

The Constitution of 1978 that was facilitated by the new UNP government at that time, reformed the political arrangement from a Westminster like parliamentary democracy to one which is similar to the current French system, with a constitutionally strong president, prime minster and the parliament.

Most importantly, the new constitution substituted the First Past the Post (FFP) electoral system with a proportional representation system functioning next to bigger district lines. [6] 

Whether this reorganizing of the political system established new spurs for ethnic space as Horowitz pledges is for all to see. “In Sri Lanka’s case, the answer is an unequivocal no. In fact, it could even be argued that the current institutional system creates incentives which encourage continued marginalisation of the Tamils.” [7] 

The after effects, one can argue, led to a rising Muslim middle class in the southwest becoming exasperated with a government which was clearly attentive only to Sinhalese interests and indifferent to support Muslim socio economic progression.

Furthermore, policies that were attentive toward endorsing Sinhalese, land colonisation for example, intensified rivalry between Muslims and Tamils. likewise, as

both Tamils and Muslims in the east were schooled in the Tamil language, plans to

support Muslim education drew off jobs and resources from the Tamis, thus spurring a legacy of bitterness.

Thus, When Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1947, it appeared to possess all that was required to renovate itself into an sovereign democratic state. Few newly independent colonies had such positive attributes.

Sri Lanka already had an elected parliament for more than 15 years, with the idea of universal suffrage implemented even before some European nation states. The literacy rate was high, people were already reading newspapers for the last 150 years, and British had instituted an almost corruption free, efficient public service. It was one of the most affluent countries in Asia.

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So how did a nation state with its stellar record and a promising democracy as early as 1940s slid into the state that it is today? One way to look at it throught Potter’s analysis of Class Power in democratisation is that the new form of democratic authority could not familiarize itself to the requirements of class needs and the absence of cohabitation only increased the fissures in society, as “class inequality has historically been the most important for democratisation” [8] 

“The politics of Independent Ceylon was based on general elections. The electoral system was similar to the British district system, each electorate supplying one member of Parliament. This implied that the ethnic composition of the population came forcefully to the fore.”  [9] Thus, it can be argued that the disengagement between the constitutionally stipulated democratic doctrines and the reality on teh ground came into teh fore right at the beginning.

“Amongst the earliest acts passed by the House of Representatives were the Citizen Act (1948), the Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act (1949), and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act (1949)”. [10] 

The 1948 Citizen Act and Citizenship Act left without citizenship to the majority of Tamils of Indian origin and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act a year later was also directed at disenfranchising them. This gave the Sinhalese Majority the absolute electoral strength against the one taht could have been enjoyed by the Tamils in the central province where tanils held the majority in several districts.

The overture of the majority model of democratic regulation in Sri Lanka set up previously during the dying years of the colony smoothed the way for political forms that were essentially non democratic. It can be argued here that this democratic process as the only way of managing the conflict botched and the government’s firmness led to brutal resistance. The Sri Lankan government answered with even more brute and force and in the resulting life and death altercation began to influence both legislation and the judiciary, apparently to create bigger liberty to fight the enemies within.

Tensions were flaring up between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils by the 1970s. Government started imposing curfews and state of emergency in Tamil areas ,and a Tamil secessionist movement was born.

1972 saw the Tamil New Tigers militia formed to struggle for an self-governing homeland for ethnic Tamils. Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came to exists as an unified goup gour years later. The 1983 massacre of an army patrol in the north instigated Sinhales mobs on a three day rampage, killing thousands of Tamils, burning huts and houses and looting tamil properties.

In Sri Lanka, for example, there was a deterioration of democracy mainly because of an “explosion of ethnic conflict into violent insurgency, which . . . polarized the polity, embittered all groups, and provideda n excuse for increasinglya uthoritarianm easures.” [11] 

Class extracted State power in Nepal

Nepal’s class and ethnic structure is more along the lines of functional and occupational class categories, with higher caste Hindus, mainly Brahmins and Chhetris in the ruling class, Newars and those of Mongol descent as the working class and the rest as untouchables.

In terms of disparities in wealth and access to political influence, Nepalese society could broadly be categorised into a small ruling elite; an emergent and proportionally bigger group of government officials, big land holders, and tradesmen; and the huge majority of the population made of the peasant base. These divisions are both of functional class categories and social class divisions based on the Marxian thought of the social associations of production.

The smallest of the three class divisions is the ruling elite, largely composed of high caste, learned Pahadis, namely different levels of Brahmins and Chhetris. The monarch was at the pinnacle of this class, whose power was derived from the conformist Hindu ideology that considered king as the reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, whose role in the Hindu religion is defence.

The Nepali state’s stratification of class based on Hindu supremacy and state’s disproportionate strengthening in relation to its peoples went hand in hand in Nepal. The all pervasive Hindu polity in Nepal, in which religion and monarchy have the influential role – was acted out firmly with dictats like the Civil Code 1854 that stratified the people in three broader categories in superiority order; sacred- thread wearing Brahmin caste at the top, alcohol-drinking matwalis as working middle class and then untouchables at the lowest rung. [12] 

Thus, by classifying the ethnic groups into the strata of Hindu based hierarchical system of caste; the state was disproportionally strengthened in relation to the peoples living within the state, and the class system further ingrained in the political system.

This Hindu system of hierarchy has seeped into the political system so deeply and comprehensively, that the political leadership, and senior government offices are all overwhelmed by the so called upper caste Brahmins and Chhetris.

The state also undertook a policy of promoting nepali as the official language at the expense of all other existing languages, even though 52% of the rest of the Nepalis had their lingua franca. Nepal’s National Planning Commission back in 1955 reportedly had this approach.” No other languages than Nepali should be taught even optionally, in the primary school, because few children will have need for them, they would hinder the reaching of Nepali … other language will gradually disappear and greater national strength and unity will result” [13] 

Centralization of civil administration and politics was another tool of the state’s bolstering scheme under the pretext of national assimilation. Centrally deputed elites or local elites co-opted by the government were at the forefront in administering all 75 districts of the country, and these elites were of the highest class Brahmins or Chhetris.

Another manner in which Nepali state consolidated its grip throughout the country and through all ethnic and class devides was by Hindu-isation, or spread of the culture of teh high caste Hill people and institutionliasing the caste system, meaning, as explained earlier, translating diverse ethnic identities into caste structures, and centralising administration.

Another aspect of a strong state hypothesis in relation to its peoples in Nepal is the way centre has been handing teh affairs of the Terai region – flat strip of productive land areas bordering India, which the centre calls Madhes.

As mentioned earlier, the state of Nepal carried out sustained efforts to “assimilate the 100 plus ethnicities of Nepal into a pan-Nepali identity through language, schooling, and legal directives. These policies codified the cultures of upper caste Pahadis, legalizing systematic discrimination and under-representation in the government of any in Nepal who did not have this lineage” [14] 

besides, the government sponsored resettlement program in the mid 1980s through relocation of hill based ruling class Pahadis to the Terai in an attempt to harden its control over the precious farming and manufacturing region. [15] 

“Architects of the program viewed Terai citizens as ‘conquered people’ or illegal Indian migrants with no land rights” [16] 

Then there is army.

There are clauses both in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) [17] that was signed in November 2006 that formally ended Nepal’s civil war and the Maoists were mainstreamed into politics, and in the Interim constitution of Nepal [18] to ‘democratise’ the army

But threin lies the problem. Senior corps in Nepal Army come from well connected and politically powerful upper caste Brahmins and Chhetris from the hill, along with aristocratic families. Hence, the composition in the Nepal Army has never been an inclusive one, meaning Madhesis from Terai were considered inferior to be included in teh Army and other ethnic Hill tribes like Magars, Gurungs and Rais were deliberately kept at the bottom rungs on army hierarchy.

Thus even before the debate and controversy over the issue of civilian supremacy raged over the Amry Cheif of Nepal disobeying the then Maoist Prime Minister, Nepal Army had always been the state;s instrument in strengthening the grip of high caste feudal and aristocratic groups, which in turn actually was the state apparatus.

Thus, Nepali state was disproportinalely stronger vis-a-vis its people and therefore also one of the main variables in bringing about deficit of democracy in Nepal.

Transnational power

Sri Lanka

There are two core issues that seems to determine the Sri Lanka’s relations with India; security due to the now resolved protracted conflict in Sri Lanka and the collective ethnicity of Tamils living in the southern parts of India and in the northern and eastern areas of Sri Lanka.

When the conflict in Sri Lanka escalated, Tamil separatists are known to have set up bases, raised funds, collected weapons, and, allegedly trained too in Indian mainland, with the stealthy support coming in mainly from private sources. violence in Colombo aginsts the Tamilsm in July 1983 pressed India to get involved in the Sri Lankan conflict, but mediation efforts were futile.

In May 1987, When the Sri Lankan government made an effort to recoup control of the north eastern parts of Sri Lanka through an economic blockade and military action in May 1987, India assisted with food and medical supples through its air and naval forces. Sri Lankan president J. R. Jayawardene and Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi signed a pact in July 1987 aiming to settle the conflict by instituting the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). The mandate of the IPKF was to establish order and neutralize Tamil separatists mainly by disarming them, to set up new administrative entities and conduct elections to accommodate Tamil demands for self-government, and also to repatriate Tamil refugees in India and Sri Lanka.

LTTE declined to disarm, and Indian troops from IPKF sustained heavy casualties while at the same time failing to inflict any considerable damage on the LTTE. In June 1989, newly elected president of Sri Lanka Ranasinghe Premadasa ordered the extraction of the IPKF. This led to the renewed tensions between India and Sri Lanka, but New Delhi at the end caved in to teh Sri Lankan demand and withdrew from Sri Lanka in in March 1990.

Bilateral relations got better to some extent in the 90s as India sustained its interests in the statis of Tamils in Sri Lanka. But it was in sharp contrast to the direct involvement as in the 80s.

The assassination of Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in May of 1991 by the LTTE was a turning point as well. New Delhi started to crack down heavily on the LTTE presence and its networks in Tamil Nadu and also set up naval patrols along the Palk Strait to bar LTTE movements to and from India.

Sri Lankan expert in international affairs Prof. Shelton Kodikara once summed up the India Sri Lanka relation dynamic succinctly, “Perceptions of threat are, indeed, intrinsic to a small power – big power relationship, but India is Sri Lanka’s only neighbour and in historical times all invasions of the island, barring one, emanated from South India” [19] 

To focus on relations only from the security point of view is a partisan view of history might not do much justice in explaining the relaatiosnhips betweeb Sri lanka and India, especially india’s influence on most features of Sri Lankan life – religion, art, culture and language.

But there is a genuine fixation with the gigantic state of India in the north, or what Ivor Jennings explained as “a mountain, which might, at any time, send destructive avalanches” [20] has created psychological wall between the two countries. John Kotelawala, the former Prime Minister of Ceylon said, “the day Ceylon dispensed with Englishmen completely, the island would go under India”. He considered the inclusion in the Commonwealth, as the first insurance against any possibility of aggression from quarters nearer home.


External Actors; India everywhere

Nepal’s destiny is sealed to the geography. It has nothing to do with Nepal being a landlocked state; it has everything to do with her geopolitical misfortune of being India locked. With borders stretching 1690 kilometers to the east, the west and the south, and access to the sea only through Calcutta port, India routinely dictates and arm twists Nepal to fulfill its security concerns.

China to the north is eager to contain Indian influence in Nepal. But the barriers to its eagerness are lot more than rugged mountainous border and ‘the language problem’. China, with its rigid system of governance never saw an ally in Nepal’s democratic political parties. It pinned all of its geopolitical calculations on Nepal’s monarchy as a safeguard against the extensive Indian involvement.

Diplomatic relations with the United States was established in April 1947, some four months before the Indian independence in August that year. Although Britain had an envoy in Nepal calling the shots starting way back in 1816, their real influence in Nepal vanished the day they packed up in India. Other European states never really mattered to Nepal unless for the monies that it received in aid. Besides, with the Cold War long gone for major powers to be active here, and “the clash of civilizations” having nothing to do with Nepal because of its predominantly Hindu population, the elephant in the Nepalese room, in the absence and disinterest of the West, naturally was an Indian.

As the king took over the executive power on Feb 1, 2005, imp


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