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Group says Sinhalese Nationalism Obstacle to Sri Lanka Peace

A new report by the International Crisis Group says Sinhalese nationalism is a key obstacle to the resolution of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict. The report examines the nationalism of the country's largest ethnic community and its relationship to the almost 25-year conflict. Tendai Maphosa reports for VOA from London.

Sri Lanka has been mired in armed ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils for the past 25 years. The violence has resulted in the death of thousands.

The International Crisis Group's report urges would-be peacemakers in the Sri Lanka conflict to better understand Sinhalese nationalism, which it says is too often dismissed as merely irrational and racist.

The report traces Sinhalese nationalism to the British colonial period, when the report says it was part of a broader anti-colonial, anti-foreign movement, accentuated by Buddhist revivalism. It grew stronger with independence and electoral democracy.

The report says with the island's society divided along caste, class and political lines, Sinhalese nationalism has been a powerful unifying force, giving radical parties a platform for populist agitation. This, the report adds, has given established politicians a diversion from their failure to address economic weakness, social concerns, and pervasive corruption.

The report says Sinhalese nationalism also aimed to resist what it saw as the excessive political demands of Tamil leaders and the disproportionate power and positions Tamils had gained under British rule.

International Crisis Group says Tamil nationalism began as a peaceful movement for minority rights. The failure to achieve a political settlement eventually led to an armed militant movement fighting for a separate Tamil state, a movement that came to be dominated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The group has been labeled a terrorist organization by several countries, including the United Styates. International Crisis Group's Alan Keenan told VOA that while both groups in the conflict have genuine concerns, ignoring the Sinhalese concerns has thus far contributed to the failure of negotiations aimed at bringing an end to the conflict.

"The thrust of our report is that it has been easier by most international organizations and concerned people to see the grievances of the Tamil people, they are more obvious, they are a minority," Keenan said. "But people need to learn more the history of Sinhalese nationalism, where it comes from; what the legitimate grievances are, how some of those legitimate grievances have been exploited for political reasons by politicians who want power, and to learn how to make that less easy for politicians to do."

The Tamil LTTE rebels say they are fighting for a Tamil state, while the Sinhalese want to maintain a unitary state.

Keenan says a solution would involve addressing the fears of the two groups and agreeing to some devolution of power to the Tamil areas. He said moving away from the unitary state is the only viable basis for resolving the conflict politically because it would strengthen the non-LTTE Tamil parties.

Keenan said this opens up a new, broader political agenda for constitutional reform endorsed by Muslim, Tamil and Sinhalese parties.