0

Malaya and Sri Lanka: Communal Politics or Communal War?

Sri Lanka's bitter war of terror - one that practically invented the infamy of the suicide bomber - had been showing signs of abating of late. But a bitter power struggle between Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and a schism among the rebel Tamil tigers, now threatens to reignite the violence. Their political duel was aggravated recently when the President, wary that her prime ministerial rival was "too soft" in dealing with the rebel Tamil Tigers, sacked three ministers and took over their portfolios. Now she has dissolved parliament and set new elections for April, three years before they are due.

Having lived through the Malayan war of 1947-1960, I often wonder why Sri Lanka's war has been so much more difficult to end. On the surface, much about those two wars seem similar. In Malaya, ethnic Chinese fought British and Malay regiments and police, which is roughly comparable to the Tamils' fight against the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Like the Tamil Tigers, the Malayan Communists were also damned as terrorists, but the casualties they inflicted were small compared to the mass killings caused by both sides in Sri Lanka's war.

Back then, Malaysia's ethnic tensions produced communal riots in which both Chinese and Malays were killed. These, however, were never allowed to degenerate into the outright communal slaughter that the war in Sri Lanka has often produced.

Could Sri Lanka have learned anything from the Malayan experience? Could the Malayan military strategy to contain the rebellion have been imported? British experts from the Malayan emergency tried to help the Americans in Vietnam - obviously without success. Of course, one reason for that failure is that the South Vietnamese were not different enough from the North Vietnamese for the Malayan formula of identifying and isolating rebel communities by race to work. But Sri Lanka's war, with its ethnic origins, is closer to the Malayan experience and so this strategy could, perhaps, have been tested.