On September 21, the people of Sri Lanka's Northern Province will be allowed to vote in their first democratic election in 36 years. This follows an end to the country's 26-year long civil war, which saw the deaths of between 70,000 and 100,000 people.
The last election held in the Northern Province was in 1977. Almost five years to the date afterwards, Sri Lanka's Civil War began. It pitted the Tamils, an ethnic group who lived mostly in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the island, against the Sinhalese, the other and much larger ethnic group who lived in the South and West. At the start of the war the Tamils constituted about 18 percent of Sri Lanka's total population of 20 million, while the Sinhalese made up about 74 percent, with the remainder being made up of Muslims and Christians.
The Tamils fought the Sinhalese for two primary reasons: 1) the 'Official Language Act' of 1956 made Sinhala (the language spoken by the Sinhalese) the official language of the state, and 2) the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions made Buddhism the favoured and protected religion of Sri Lanka. The Tamils, who spoke Tamil and were primarily Hindu, thus felt betrayed by their own government since the two acts effectively robbed them of their ability to speak their own language and practice their own religion. The 1978 Constitution is, by the way, still the supreme law of Sri Lanka.
Over the decades the Tamil feeling of betrayal moved into full-scale civil war only ending in 2009 with the complete destruction of the Tamil militant group, the LTTE. During the war, the LTTE carried out the most suicide bombings of any terrorist organization in the world up until 2003. Their suicide bombings included their attacks on the Sri Lankan World Trade Center and the state's military headquarters. The LTTE was certainly a terrible terrorist organization, and yet it was largely the only Tamil group fighting in the civil war.
Although the war ended in 2009, the East had its first provincial elections in 2008, rewarded for having betrayed the LTTE. The North, therefore, for the past four years has been under a type of military occupation. After Sri Lanka's President spoke out against the creation of provincial councils in February, he now seems to have conceded to the immense international pressure for elections in the North. Ironically, both Tamil and Sinhalese leaders first agreed to provincial councils in 1957, only to have extremists on both sides accuse the other of ill intentions. (Neil DeVotta, "Blowback", pg. 98, 102-105, 111) Thus after 56 years of marginalization and war, the North will finally have what both sides agreed upon.
Sri Lanka serves as a powerful example of what can come when two peoples share the same territory and yet possess different religions, cultures, and languages. One cannot but help but think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which itself is demarcated by these very factors as well as the use of suicide terrorism as a modus operandi of the self-proclaimed marginalized groups. However, one should not want to go down the same road as Sri Lanka which killed tens of thousands of people, lasted three decades, and made the Sri Lankan Tamil population fall from 18 to 3.9 percent. One, including the Israelis, would not and do not want the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to end the same way.
However, while it may seem at times that Israel-Palestine are slipping down the same road, for example even during the Oslo Peace Process the Israelis doubled the number of settlers in Palestine and even expanded the total number of settlements, Israel/Palestine has something Sri Lanka never had during its 56 years: international awareness and pressure for peace. Since the conception of Israel there have been two Oslo's, two Camp David's, and two UN resolutions (181 and 242) regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations. Sri Lanka never shared any of these (except for the SLMM) until this very year's UN resolution. And while the situation today, and for the foreseeable future, may look faint, the Palestinians need not worry. Their position will never become like the Tamils of Sri Lanka, "Never Again."