Sri Lankan Society in an era of Globalisation: Struggling to Create a New Social Order
V. Suryanarayan ·       

This edited volume incorporates research findings relating to the impact of globalization on social cohesion in Sri Lanka. The study was part of a board research project, undertaken by the Institute of Asian Research in the University of British Columbia. The project focused attention on issues of Globalisation and social cohesion in five countries, namely, China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea and Sri Lanka. The volume on Sri Lanka was prepared under the joint supervision of Professor Barrie Morrison of the Institute of Asian Research and Dr. S.H. Hasbullah, Senior Lecture in Geography, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.

"Sri Lanka: Struggling to Create a New Social Order" would have been a more befitting title for the book. The challenges of globalization have not been have not been dealt with adequately in the book. As the Editors put it in the introductory chapter, when "governing arrangements fail, when economies skew the distribution of benefits, when cultural traditions are invoked to divide people, when the individual's potential is truncated, then the time has come to think about alternative ways of organizing society."

The book is divided into three parts. The first part, consisting of five chapters, is titled "Tensions of Class and Caste, Group rights and Individual Freedoms." Two contributions by Bruce Mathews analyse the board themes of social cohesion among the majority Sinhalese and their religious and ideological intransigence. Two contributions by Dr. Dagmar Hellman-Rajanayagam and the third contribution by Sivamohan Sumathy deal with the social and political transformation taking place among Sri Lankan Tamils. The second part titled "Struggle to build a better life, a better society," consisting of four chapters, are detailed case studies. Sri Ranjith highlights the problems faced by self help organizations in an urban slum, Mahaiyawa; Karunatissa Atukorala describes the plight of the old poor and the new rich in Ratnapur, in the backdrop of expanding demand for gems; M. Sinnathamby describes the plight of the bonded tea estate workers of Indian origin and the well known social activist, Paul Caspersz, focuses attention on a unique NGO, Satyodaya, which is trying to inject hope in the midst of struggle. The third part, consisting of three chapters, deal with the peculiar problems which have arisen as a result of systemic changes in the island. S.H. Hasbullah tackles the specific problems of Muslim minority, caught between the majority Sinhalese and minority Sri Lankan Tamils. Nancy Waxler-Morrison highlights the changes that have taken place in Sri Lankan society as a result of migration of women for work within the country and aboard. Sisira Pinnawala probes into the phenomenon of organized violence unleashed by the state and non-state actors. In the concluding chapter the editors have tried to sum and arrive at certain definitive conclusions. An interesting point highlighted by the editors deserve special mention. The policy of liberalization followed by successive Sri Lankan Governments since 1977 and the internationalization of the ethnic conflict have created opportunities for international actors to gain undue influence over decision making. The editors are rightly skeptical whether the international actors can help in the building of a new, forward-looking society. They have rightly concluded that this is primarily the task of Sri-Lankans and they must attain their objectives through democratic dialogue.

In a brief review article, it is extremely difficult to comment on all contributions. I shall, therefore, be selective in my approach. In an interesting essay, "Religious ideology among the Tamils", Dagmar Rajanayagam points out that Tamil Eelam represents two things to militants, an independent state, and what is more, a just and equal society. The militant struggle, she argues, is a struggle in two directions, against the suppression by the Sinhalese and also against the discriminatory practices of the high castes in Jaffna. The belief that the struggle for national liberation would lead to the creation of an egalitarian society has been belied. The revolt led by Karuna is an illustration that the eastern Tamils entertain strong feelings of discrimination against the Wanni leadership. At the same time, Dagmar is right when she points out that the acceptance of a foreign faith (Christianity) did not stand in the way of emergence of Tamil nationalism. To a large extent, the credit for such a forward-looking phenomenon should go to leaders like Selvanayagam and academicians like Fr. Thaninayagam.

In the bitter struggle between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Sri Lankan Tamils, the interests and aspirations of smaller minority groups like the Indian Tamils tend to get forgotten and ignored. Prof. Sinnathamby has redressed this imbalance by dealing with the peculiar problems of the plantation Tamils of Indian origin, many of whom still live as "bonded" labourers. Though they do not subscribe to the demand for Tamil Eelam and their representative political organizations are partners in coalition governments, the Indian Tamils have become easy targets in times of communal conflict. What is more, given their limited numbers and geographic dispersal in the central parts of the island, devolution of powers to provinces would not solve their problems. What is required is further devolution from provincial council to pradeshiya sabhas and innovative constitutional provisions to safeguard their rights as a non-territorial minority group. Unless their peculiar problems-low wages, poor educational attainments, increasing unemployment and factionalism among trade unions-are not redressed immediately, the plantation areas, which have so far remained an oasis, may also come under the influence of radical political forces.

The essays included in the volume are of uneven quality. However, the book will be of great interest to all social scientists, interested in understanding the complexities of Sri Lanka.