CONFLICT – Through the Eyes of a Sociologist

Posted on October 11, 2008



There is a famous poem by the Tibetan Monk S Mahinda about the necessity of a King for the clan. He lamented that even ants has a King but not us. That was when we were under British rule. Every ethnic enclave, whether it is Sinhalese in the South or Tamils in the North, craves for such a leader who understands their cultural callings.

This is especially true in a feudal economy where the leader is supposed to steer and control the destination of everyone under him. The clan is the key, not the individual and this clan has to be lead, looked after and cared for. Leader ensures fair play as determined by the culture of the community.

Farial Ashroff was minister of housing and construction when tsunami struck the island. Though in her capacity as housing minister she should have concentrated on the initial work necessary for putting up temporary shelters immediately, her first priority was to ensure sufficient supplies of dry rations to Ampara district. Whole housing ministry was behind ensuring the same and they failed to provide even the immediate guidance that were required by the people who wanted to put up temporary shelters in the initial days.

We had a prime minister, Mahinda Rajapakse, when tsunami attacked was representing Hambantota; again helping Hambantota was his priority.

Before Ashroff can become the Housing Minister for the country she has to be the leader of the east. Before Mahinda can become the prime minister for the country he had to be the leader of the South. Even as the President, Chandrika could not avoid feeding Gampaha and Mahinda, now as the President, the Hambantota.

Most of our leaders have enclaves they serve and they would continue to do so after becoming “national figures”. This fact was not brought in to pin point about a weakness all our leaders share. It is just to point out that they simply heed to the call of the culture.

One can question how this can happen in a market economy where feudal leadership does not hold.

Purely market economy exists in and around Colombo and few major cities. In rest of the country one can find feudal economic relationships where bland power is called upon to interfere with the market forces.

The decision of water distribution of the Mahaveli major projects are politically driven though there is a bureaucracy to handle it in theory. The selection of Samurdhi beneficiaries are again decided to a greater extent by the local politician on political criteria. The state fund allocation for various regions, licenses for lucrative businesses, recruitment to key positions in the public service are all done by the political authorities purely on personal discretion.

The communities which have powerful lords are looked after in this game. The regional lords maintain law and order in their own way, show obedience to the center and even pay taxes (mobilization of people for elections, providing funds to run elections, etc) and other dividends in return of the privileges the region and the lord enjoys (in a subtle form; voting for the center leader to stay in power at the centre).

This is where a vacancy exists for regional leaders, feudal lords.

Thondoman (for upcountry), Ashroff (for Muslim east), Mahinda (Hambantota), Mangala (Matara), Premadasa (Colombo) were few such lords of the yesteryear. Some were elevated or now have been elevated to the national level others demoted or sidelined temporarily.

People worshipped this leadership, called them “Hamuduruwane” or “Hamu” or “Uthumaneni” or “Sir” depending on the locality and show obedience and loyalty in various ways. Some were and even now are ready to die for their leader.

The members of the community considered their clan and the leader as one. The leader in turn made sure he/she served his/her clan before serving the country. “Our people first and the country next” was the agreed upon and approved slogan for all such leaders, irrespective of their clan or locality, shared by the community itself and tolerated by the whole nation.

Every enclave (other than those who have been deliberately excluded) expects their leader to join the Government (or similar power bases) in a bid to get the maximum for them. That is why you see every day government ranks swelling and opposition thinning out despite of government’s poor show in almost all fronts.

Any ethnic or any other enclave not entertained within the boundaries of power have to fight for the establishment of their own power centers (trade union that create pressure and political parties able to create the same) or own country (separate state). It is necessary to make your own King who would fight for your cause, in the most brutal form.

Idea is the same; to get the maximum, if not by identifying with the government then by opposing and pressurizing it; whether it is the nurses/doctors fighting for a room in a hospital or a regiments fighting in the jungles of Wanni for statehood, it is the same. Not only the aspirations but also the strategies adopted are same, both trying to use force, even at the expense of civilian casualties.

Individuals have no place in this social set up; that is why no one respects human rights.

Rights of group / majority are normally upheld; individuals (especially those oppose to the main stream thinking) and minorities have less voice, in side this frame.

Leaders are supposed to protect and take care of the clan no matter what they do. It is the moral obligation of the members of the community to uphold the same; keep a blind eye and a deaf ear to the aristocracies your own people commit while condemning even the minor violations of the other. You only have to listen to the government spokes person and the LTTE to understand and appreciate this.

Even the lapses of your own side that costs so much and give all the advantages to the other side are ignored and go unpunished. No one paid for lapses that lead to Kadiragamar’s death and any other for that matter.

Risk avoidance being part of the culture, it is often said that don’t even think of giving the slightest opportunity for the other side; not even the 13 amendment with a council even after taking all the important powers. The argument being that they will use it to their advantage, what ever small you give; leave no room and hence give nothing. Avoid any uncertainty; no risk, even a calculated one.

Both ethnic enclaves (and all other regional enclaves) are therefore satisfied with having their leader who will take care of them no matter what they do; take care of them at the expense of the other; avoid their risk by not giving the other side the slightest thing; and for such a leader they are prepared to work and worship; be obedient and loyal.

They are prepared to deal with any one who will go against this leader (both in North and South alike) especially if such dissent comes from their own ranks. “Traitors” of the enclave will be punished severely and rudely (in both sides of the fence) than the opponents.

This culture, feudal in nature, was helpful while we were an agricultural society, but still prevail even with the advent of the market economy; pushing market economy to a side. The war economy and war society have been instrumental in pushing market economy in to the background. Market forces are increasingly encroached by the political forces. The feudal culture will play a crucial role in marginalizing the market economy getting impetus from the war and the war economy. Market economy would be at the receiving end soon, if not later.

The reason for such an attack could be found in the contradictory culture market economy is propagating. It is a culture that focuses on the individual progress and individual rights, including right to property, right to express and right to compete irrespective of one’s background (ethnic, political or religious). It is a culture that appreciates the capable and strong. It is a culture that entertains adventurism and risk taking against expecting protection from a powerful feudal lord (you are your own lord). It destroys all group boundaries and all static hierarchies, money cutting across those.

Market economy will be sidelined not because it is less human (has an “inhuman” face). It will be sidelined because expansion of it will negate the feudal cultural relationships, which has given a meaning to the ongoing war, on both sides.

However market economy will not be eliminated. It has provided the all important money to carry out this war. The political leadership (both sides of the fence) will “marry” it. Not because it loves the market economy and the culture that is brought by it (actually it hates those as explained), but because of the “dowry” that it bring along with. That money is required to play with the “fiancée”, the cultural callings (in South and North both).

Feudal relations will never bring economic prosperity to the country. In fact it will hinder such progress. But leadership would like to keep the feudal relationships (as fiancée) while having another avenue, market economy (as lawful wife), for sustenance and extravagance associated with kings.

Once married with the Feudal lord, market economy will have to serve the master of the house. It will be subjugated and will ask to fret, but lie low. “Lawful wife”, the market economy will be secondary to the “fiancée”, the feudal relationships (the culture).

Will market economy accept this mean position or will it strike back, getting the help of the global “parents”, is something that one needs to wait and see.

Future of the conflict will be determined not only by what is happening at the battle front but in the battle fought in the sphere of culture and the political economy it is associated with. What culture wins (feudal or market) will determine the course of the conflict.

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