Ceylon, 4 February 1948. One hundred elephants, decked out with white pantaloons and ruby necklaces. Golden-robed chieftains. Maidens and bare-chested youths dancing with bells on their ankles. All are celebrating freedom from British rule. Even Britain's Royal Duke & Duchess of Gloucester join the celebration. Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake raises the Lion Flag. Ceylon, later known as Sri Lanka, is no longer a British colony. The celebration goes on for a week. Optimism reigns, and why not? The economy is good, the people educated, and the two ethnic/religious groups get along well
Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), 1984. Civil war rages, the culmination of decades of turmoil and discrimination. Peace and optimism? Only distant memories. The misery of war goes on. Why?
Before we look at the cause, we need to know a little about that new country. The population consisted largely of minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese, differing in religion and language as well as ethnicity. The better-educated Tamils held a majority of government positions. The Sinhalese, whose native territory was more fertile than that of the Tamils, gravitated to agriculture. During the colonial period that worked well, there was essentially no animosity between the two groups.
Enter the demagogues, prime culprit one Solomon Bandaranaike. Sinhalese by birth, raised as a Christian and educated at Oxford, he did not even speak Sinhalese until he decided on a “divide and conquer” strategy to gain power. He converted to Buddhism, learned Sinhalese, and became an extremist for the Sinhalese language, culture, and religion. He used the classic technique of the demagogue: create a victim class, then stir up that class against its supposed oppressors. If done “right” the “victims” do not even think about why they lack the advantages of their “oppressors,” they simply follow the demagogue.
Bandaranaike did it “right.” He had little in common with the low-paid people he claimed to represent, but he promised to help them against the Tamil “oppressors.” It worked. He became prime minister, then set out to increase his power by more demagoguery, more blaming of the Tamils for all the country's ills.
With the populace polarized, peace fled. The Sinhalese took complete control of the government and only Sinhalese was allowed as a government language. Other demagogues piled on, treating the Tamils as outcasts and restricting them from education and employment. Government power increased and freedom was restricted – steps toward serfdom. The rulers confiscated and attempted to manage businesses, predictably worsening the economy. All the fault of the Tamils, of course.
The Tamils complained and trouble brewed. Bandaranaike finally realized that he had gone too far, but fanaticism unleashed is a wildfire in dry brush. Attempts at compromise came too late.
Eventually poetic justice prevailed. Bandaranaike died at the hand of his own creation, assassinated by a Buddhist fanatic who believed he had not gone far enough. His death did not end the trouble. Ethnic strife fed on itself and unleashed a civil war that lasted until 2009. At least that was its official end; racial strife torments those poor people to this day.
Bandaranaike is only one example. Milosevic caused similar problems in the former Yugoslavia. Hugo Chavez used class division to gain and maintain power in Venezuela. Others created similar tyrannies. Compiling a reasonably complete list would take more time than I want to spend, nor would you want to read such an account. This blog is depressing enough already.
Any politician who bases his campaign on emotions, class division and similar distractions should get a big boot in the backside. We must think carefully about the type of people we are electing. Demagogues tend to rise to the top in any statist system, or even in free governments if we allow them to do so. Power attracts them, and they are willing to do what it takes to obtain that power. If we understand their motives and methods, we will be better able to counteract them. What gives demagogues the ability to advance at our expense? Next time we will look at that.
 Thomas Sowell, Affirmative Action Around the World, An Empirical Study,Yale University Press, 2004, pp78-79, 85-89