Twenty-two percent of Sri Lanka's population are Tamils. Seventy-one percent are Sinhalese. The casual observer could not tell one from the other.
But today, when these ancient people look at one another, they see nothing but deep, defining difference, and for years, in the tortured land of Sri Lanka, that's been reason enough to kill.
Ethnic violence first wracked Sri Lanka in 1983 when a small band of militant Tamils, pressing their demands for a separate Tamil state, ambushed a detachment of government troops, killing 13 Sinhalese soldiers.
When the Sinhalese-controlled government brought the soldier's bodies to the capital city of Colombo for public burial, riots broke out across the nation. In Colombo, gangs of Sinhalese men, using distinctive surnames on voting lists to identify Tamil hou seholds, roared through the city in trucks, surprising their victims in their homes.
Some Sinhalese avengers showed mercy, allowing Tamil families to escape before setting fire to their homes. Others torched the houses and beat or slashed the terrified Tamils to death as they fled. Scattered reports told of cases in which especially effic ient Sinhalese attackers simply nailed shut the doors of occupied Tamil dwellings and sent them up in flames.
For five days, Sri Lanka Sinhalese kept up the grim work of killing Tamils. When it was over, perhaps 1,000 Tamils lay dead, and nearly 100,000 more were left homeless.
The 1983 riots radicalized most Sri Lankan Tamils, who organized into a fierceand disciplined army and plunged Sri Lanka into a devastating civil war. According to estimates, as many as 70,000 people havebeen killed in the conflict; 500,000 Sri Lankans ha ve fled their homeland because of the war.
After 10 years of fighting, the Sinhalese still refuse the Tamil demand for a separate nation, and extremist Tamil leaders continue to promise bloodshed until that demand is met. In the meantime, ethnicity becomes the defining issue in Sri Lanka, and anim osities between the Tamils and the Sinhalese become the central fact of life.
Portrayed in fleeting images on the nightly news, or in brief dispatches in news weeklies, the mayhem in Sri Lanka seems depressingly familiar: just another ethnic bloodfeud with endless cycles of atrocity and revenge.
In certain cases, exceptional savagery earns a given conflict superstar status: Bosnia and Rwanda, for example, have recently shared center stage. But around the globe, ethnic hostilities are raging. In East Timor, where rebels are fighting for independen ce from Indonesia, as many as 200,000 East Timorese citizens have died from combat, disease, and starvation. Twenty thousand have died in Azerbaijan, where ethnic Armenians are fighting to secede. In India's Punjab, 25,000 have died in the strife between Sikhs and Hindus.
There is ethnic fighting in Burundi, Kenya, Myanmar, Zaire, and a dozen other places. There is the promise of violence in a score of other nations around the globe. No corner of the world, it seems, is safe from ethnic warring.
None of the 38 wars now being fought around the world are traditional conflicts between distinct sovereign nations, according to a 1993 report by Project Ploughshares. Instead, says the report, they are "desperate attempts by states to halt the spread of internal chaos."
And in case after case, ethnic issues lie at the center of the dispute -- a struggle over contested ancestral lands, for instance, or the will of an ethnic minority to secede from one nation and unite with their ethnic compatriots across some contested bo rder.
At Pitt, with its strong focus on international and interdisciplinary research, a fleet of experts from the University Center for International Studies (UCIS) and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) has been monitoring and anal yzing the changing geopolitics.
"There is a thread running through all of these conflicts," says Marshall Singer, professor of public and international affairs, whose area of expertise includes Sri Lanka. "It is us versus them. The 'us' is not defined politically. It is et hnic, with ethnicity being defined as the language you speak or the culture you share. What's striking about these conflicts is the similarity with which the participants behave: 'We are threatened, we have no choice but to fight them or they will drive u s into the sea."'
It is the new face of warfare, he believes, coming to the fore as the age of superpower confrontations recedes. "These conflicts seem endemic, worldwide," Singer says. "And you can predict hundreds more."
To many Americans, these ethnic wars in far-flung places, with their murky goals and atavistic rivalries, seem nothing more than grim, political sideshows, horrific and distressing but, in the end, too strange and far away to matter.
But Dennison Rusinow, UCIS professor of history, believes the geopolitical repercussions of these conflicts should be one of our chief concerns.
"The American people find it much easier to embrace clear-cut threats," he says. "The Russians are coming. The Evil Empire threatens. It's much harder, as the Clinton administration has discovered, to explain what are our national interests in a place like Bosnia.
"But these conflicts can easily threaten our national interests -- either by encouraging the rise of Islamic fundamentalist regimes and aggressive dictatorships, which threaten our business interests, and energy interests if there happens to be oil involv ed; or by simply disturbing the general stability of the interdependent world we now live in."
The national will to construct decisive policies to manage these threats is hampered by a serious misconception, Rusinow says, that these vicious civil wars are the inevitable culmination of ancient, irrational ethnic hatreds.
"It's a wonderful excuse to wash our hands of things," he argues. "You know: 'These people have always wanted to kill each other, what really can we do?'
"It's true that most of these conflicts are ethnic in nature. And in most cases there has been a history of stresses between the groups involved. But it's not true that killing each other is something they simply want to do," notes Rusinow, who sp ent 25 years stationed as a field researcher in Western and Eastern Europe, observing the former Yugoslavia at close range.
"Hatred doesn't spontaneously well up from the people. It is manipulated by politicians and political movements who have found it in their interests to remind people of these old animosities, to rub these old wounds, as a way to gain or retain power."
Rusinow's message is chilling: The force behind modern ethnic warfare is not ancient and irrational, but calculating and ruthlessly opportunistic. It marshals fears and simmering ethnic resentments to preach a harsh commandment -- that because of your rel igion, or the town of your birth, or the way you spell your name, you are morally and politically obliged to oppose, and perhaps annihilate, your neighbor.
And nowhere has that scenario played itself out more typically than in the lovely island nation of Sri Lanka.
The short-sighted politics of ethnicity, which eventually dragged Sri Lanka into the 1983 riots and protracted civil war, began in 1948, only months after the nation had gained its independence from Great Britain.
The British had provided Sri Lanka -- then Ceylon -- with good schools and a flourishing democratic system where every citizen enjoyed the right to vote. But the political vacuum created by the departure of colonial rule required a massive redistribution of power. During that uneasy transition, as the nation struggled to define its new sovereignty, ambitious Sinhalese leaders discovered that there was great political advantage in defining the nation against the minority Tamils.
The Tamils and Sinhalese had lived on the island, in relative peace, for nearly 1,000 years. In fact, when the Sinhalese lost their king in the eighteenth century, they placed a Tamil prince on the throne -- a dynasty that lasted until the British arrived .
Still, the Sinhalese had always regarded the minority Tamils with a mixture of resentment and suspicion due, in part, to the Tamils' resourceful pursuit of success.
"The Tamils live on lousy land," says Singer, who has traveled repeatedly to Sri Lanka since he first studied there on a Fulbright in 1956, and has monitored the armed conflict there since it began. "They grow potatoes, they grow chili peppers, and that's about it. They had to do something else to survive."
They found opportunity in the British schools, where they routinely outperformed their Sinhalese counterparts. Says Singer, "They learned English and went into the civil service or became doctors, lawyers, merchants. All the professions were disproportion ately full of Tamils . In a sense, they were the Jews of Sri Lanka. And similarly, they weren't liked very much."
In 1948, as Sri Lanka's new government took shape, certain ambitious Sinhalese leaders began to mine antiTamil sentiments for political gain. They reminded Sinhalese voters that their ancestors had settled Sri Lanka nearly 10 centuries before Tamil "intru ders" arrived. Tamils had always been interlopers, they claimed, taking up Sinhalese jobs and filling up Sinhalese schools. Sri Lanka, they told their followers, belongs to the Sinhalese.
The message was bold and satisfying, and the Sinhalese people, rallying to the call of ethnic nationalism, embraced it. Ethnicity soon became a central issue, with the Sinhalese-controlled government defining Tamils, more and more, as a burden, or worse, as the dark, scheming "other."
"The idea that a majority is threatened by a minority has a very curious political appeal," says associate professor of anthropology Robert Hayden, who studies law, culture, and politics. "It's a wonderful way for politicians to gain power. That's somethi ng the Sinhalese leaders discovered very quickly."
One of the first laws passed by the post-colonial government, in fact, was an act that stripped citizenship from a million of the poorest Tamils.
"They had been brought in by the British to work the mountain plantations," says Singer. "It was miserable, back-breaking work that no one else wanted. But now the Sinhalese said, 'These people are not Ceylonese, they are Indian. They are taking up a mill ion jobs.'
"So they disenfranchised the Indian Tamils, which eliminated half the Tamil vote. That created a lot of tension among remaining Tamils, and that's when the conflict really began."
In the following decades, more laws aimed at curtailing the rights of Tamils were passed. One especially devastating 195 8 law decreed that Sinhala would replace English as the national language. Tamils, who spoke only English and their own ancient tongue , suddenly found themselves excluded from the best universities, the professions, and civil service.
Remarkably, the Tamils adapted, learned Sinhala, and flourished again. But they were dealt another setback in the early 1970s when the government, claiming to have discovered a proTamil bias in the schools, passed laws restricting college enrollment among Tamils.
The education laws sealed from the hope of prosperity and inflamed social tensions. Many moderate Sinhalese leaders, who had opposed the discriminatory laws, urged their government to consider Tamil rights. But in this overheated arena of ethnic politics, compromise had become impossible. Opportunistic politicians wielded the Tamil issue like a club.
"If the party in power wanted compromise," says Singer, "the opposition would accuse them of selling out and call them traitors to the Sinhalese people. There would be protests by Sinhalese teachers, students, Buddhist priests. Compromise became impossibl e."
Enraged by Sinhalese intransigence, militant Tamils began to call for a separate state, ruled by Tamils but in federation with the Sri Lankan nation. The government refused. Tamils then demanded complete independence. Then in 1983, a band of young, armed Tamils ambushed a detachment of Sinhalese soldiers. Days later, the anti-Tamil riots began. According to Singer, Sinhalese leaders did not intervene.
"Finally, on the fifth day," he says, "the Sinhalese president got on the tube. He expressed no regret for the killings. Instead he described the violence as the result of the cumulative indignation of the Sinhala people for all the years of oppression at the hands of the Tamils. "
It was that, Singer believes, which radicalized many Tamils, who organized into fierce and disciplined forces and took the nation into war. Presently they control Sri Lanka's northern regions where they have established a stern, authoritarian society and grown as stridently nationalistic as their Sinhalese counterparts. Meanwhile, compromise drifts, or is blown, out of reach.
In May of 1993, Sri Lanka's president Ranasinghe Premadas, a Sinhalese who tried to devise a political settlement to the civil war, was assassinated by a suicide bomber. Police have blamed the Tamil separatists. More recently, encouraging peace talks were clouded when a presidential candidate was killed by another suicide bomber.
In the meanwhile, the misery of war drags on.
"I'm sure that in Sri Lanka the vast majority of the population wants a peaceful settlement," says Singer. "But extremists on either side -- and they don't make up more than five to 10 percent of the population -- aren't going to let that happen. They're determined to fight to the death."
The ruthless dynamic that keeps warweary Sri Lanka locked in civil war has earned even more horrific celebrity in Eastern Europe. But what makes it all the more depressing is the distant memory of euphoric possibility touched off by the Soviet Union's col lapse.
When the independence movement first began to blaze through Eastern European states, many Western observers confidently predicted that new democracies would blossom all along the Soviet rim. Instead, one nation after another has succumbed to ethnic extrem ism, and television news has treated us each night to video snapshots of something horribly surreal: artillery attacks on civilian populations, systematic rape and torture, the matter-offact campaign of ethnic cleansing.
From a distance, it seems clear that freedom had been done in by dark and primal hatreds. But according to Robert Hayden, democracy in Eastern Europe was done in by something much more calculating and composed: "What threatens the concept of democracy is not ancient animosities, but the spread of majoritarian politics -- nationalist movements based on the premise that this territory belongs to the ethnic majority, that others do not belong there."
The leaders of these independence movements in many Eastern European countries paid little heed to the widely espoused notion that anti-communist meant democratic. In many of the former Soviet republics„led by strident ethnic nationalists -- democracy nev er had a chance. "These leaders," Hayden says, "are out to create a state where the majority is firmly in charge, and minorities, if allowed to remain at all, are reduced to a state of permanent discrimination."
The fundamental premise of such a state -- and what majoritarian leaders must sell -- is that ethnic groups cannot live together. But to win their point, majoritarian leaders must magnify and mobilize ethnic tensions. And that, Hayden notes, takes some do ing.
"In Yugoslavia from l945 to l990, Serbs, Croats, and Muslims were not only living peacefully together, they were intermarrying in large numbers and producing children,"says Hayden, who first traveled to Yugoslavia on a Fulbright in 1981. "The idea that th ey simply hate each other is nonsense."
Not that serious tensions didn't exist. During World War Il, Croatian forces committed mass atrocities against minority Serbs, killing 20 percent of the Bosnian Serbs, and 16 percent of the Serbs living in Croatia. But the creation of the Yugoslavian stat e, which offered equality and security for all ethnic groups within its borders, quelled hostilities and quieted Serbian fears. But the disintegration of Yugoslavia into ethnic states alarmed the Serbs, and brought memories of the Croatian atrocities bubb ling to the surface. "There are a lot of Serbs still living who survived the atrocities, " says Hayden,"who know exactly what happened to their parents, to their brothers and sisters. They were a population primed not to let this happen again."
Still, says Dennison Rusinow, their animosities had to be given shape and direction: "The ethnic tensions between the Croats and Serbs weren't that acute until someone with something to gain reminded them that they should be."
That reminder, says Rusinow, came in the form of an aggressive media blitz in the early 1990s: "In Serbia the statecontrolled media began to broadcast program after program about the terrible things the Croatians had done to the Serbs in World War II. Sim ilarly, in Croatia, the media demonized the Serbs as a megalomaniac people who had always wanted to dominate the region. " It was relentless, effective propaganda. And eventually it drove home, on either side, the dangerous lie: 'Our enemies do not belong here, we cannot live safely among them, they must be driven away.'
"That's a dangerous concept," says Hayden. "And once you accept it, partitioning, and conflict, are inevitable."
It also opens the door to the grim option of ethnic cleansing, which, from a deadly cold, but strategic, point of view, is an effective policy for protecting the logic of majoritarianism.
"If you're trying to justify the need for a pure ethnic state," says Hayden, "a mixed ethnic region cannot be allowed to exist. That's why much of the fighting in Bosnia and Croatia has been about forcibly dividing mixed regions. Left to themselves these people would continue to live peacefully together. But the point is, you are trying to justify the need for an ethnically pure state. You are defining a new politics in which ethnic groups are defined in hostility to each other. Peaceful co-existence in a n ethnically mixed region cannot, conceptually, exist."
As ethnic civil conflicts continue to assert themselves as the new face of war, American policymakers, still steeped in the priorities and presumptions of the Cold War age, have struggled to find an effective response. Our inexperience and lack of decisiv eness in managing civil strife were disastrously clear in the US mission to Somalia. Uncertain policy and questionable tactics yielded tragic consequences that hardened the nation against the notion of humanitarian intervention.
But the Somalian mission was flawed not in principle, but in execution, says professor of political science and public and international affairs Ned Lebow. "The people in the military who plan these operations know very little about humanitarian or civil interventions," he says. "They are trained to do very different things."
Lebow, a specialist in strategic planning and international relations and the author of the nationally prominent We All Lost in the Cold War, believes with a more effective approach, the mission could have been more successful: "It was clear that g angster-type forces had asserted themselves. We should have gone ashore with a major show of force to disarm them at the outset. Then, we could get on with business."
We didn't do that, he says, because of the domestic political risks: "God forbid you lose a soldier. That's the lesson of Somalia. The American military is unwilling to expend the life of a single American soldier in what they see as merely a huma nitarian mission. And they seem to be supported in this by the lion's share of Americans."
An understandable sentiment, says Lebow, but one that misses the point that the United States has more than a humanitarian interest in resolving civil instability around the globe. In addition, it's an attitude that perpetuates the Cold War preoccupation with clearcut enemies and military threats.
"What's ironic is that the very people who are now so adamant against intervention are the people who were first to demand it in the days of the Cold War," he says, "whether it was in Chile by surreptitious means, or in Vietnam, or the Dominican Republic. They supported those things because they saw opposing the Soviet Union as something that was central to US interests. These people still think about security in narrow, military terms. But that's not the name of the game anymore."
With the world becoming increasingly interconnected, our national security depends upon the security of other nations. "We need to encourage strong democracies and economic growth, " Lebow contends, " so we have stable markets and people to trade with. We need to staunch the rising tide of refugees, and to protect the earth from the kind of environmental degradation that can lead to global changes which could affect the food supply. The survival of our way of life depends upon a certain sense of order in the world. If the world descends into economic misery and chaos, our way of life is threatened, not only politically, but in every respect. We can't get off the planet."
Of all the threats to world stability, Lebow is convinced that prolonged civil conflict is among the most alarming.
"Once these conflicts get started," he says, "they last a long time. And they only get resolved when one group triumphs -- which is rarely the case -- or when everyone gets so sick of the fighting that they say enough is enough. That seems to be what's ha ppening in the Middle East right now."
Once hostilities break out, the chance of successful intervention rapidly declines. That, Lebow says, makes prevention the key.
Bosnia offers a prime example. When European leaders unconditionally recognized the independence of Croatia and other breakaway Yugoslav republics, says Lebow, they created an atmosphere of uncertainty that alarmed the already anxious Serbs and, in effect , gave them a strong incentive to make war. "The Europeans should have demanded that the breakaway republics guarantee civil rights and liberties of minorities, including the Serbs, and they should have put the Serbs on notice that they would defend any r epublic attacked by Serbs. That would have created a situation in which cooler heads could have prevailed."
Lebow believes that the United States must take a leadership role in marshalling this kind of preventive diplomacy and in convincing allies that the devastating geopolitical stresses of civil conflict will not just go away. In such a climate, the ongoing scholarship at Pitt's UCIS and GSPIA programs can contribute to the formation of sound policy in this post-Cold-War world.
"We have something like 30 million refugees in the world right now," says Lebow. "And the curve is going up astronomically. Imagine, 30 million people with no place to live, children with no hope for the future, living hand to mouth on food and me dicine from relief organizations."
Lebow knows the situation is overwhelming and dauntingly complex, but he believes wise and timely intervention can make a difference. "I don't mean military intervention," he says. "I mean you use economics, you use politics, maybe a threat or two."
The recent breakdown of peacekeeping efforts in the Bosnian conflict highlights the shortcomings of military interventions in ethnic civil wars and points out the need for preventive diplomacy. And while even the most carefully orchestrated strategies of prevention won't stop every ethnic grudge match from exploding into war, Lebow insists that the harrowing spirals of suffering these wars set in motion make it imperative that we do our best to try.
"You're not going to succeed every time. But even if you succeed only half the time, that's a lot of lives you've saved, a lot of suffering averted."