[lg policy] Ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jul 13 14:40:39 UTC 2009

Ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka

By A. Sivanandan

The Institute of Race Relations’ director explains the roots of ethnic
cleansing in Sri Lanka in a speech to ‘Marxism 2009′.

‘It’s difficult to talk dispassionately about what is going on in my
country, when the horror of what the government is doing to a civilian
Tamil population-already shelled and burned out of their existence and
now herded into concentration camps and starved of food and
medicine-revisits me to the pogrom of 1958 when my parents’ house was
attacked by a Sinhalese mob, my nephew had petrol thrown on him and
burnt alive, and friends and relatives disappeared into refugee camps.
I was a Tamil married to a Sinhalese with three children, and I could
only see a future of hate stretching out before them. I left with my
family, and came to England.

There is nothing, nothing, so horrendous as communal war, ethnic war.
Overnight your friend becomes your enemy, every look of your neighbour
is laden with threat, every passer-by is an informant. You walk the
streets on tiptoe, casting nervous glances over your shoulder; you are
tight, on edge, the sky lowers with menace.

Only one thing is worse-and that is when your government exploits
communal differences, stokes ethnic and religious fears, all in the
pursuit of power. In the process, it engenders a political culture of
censorship and disinformation, assassination of journalists who speak
out, extra-judicial killings by police and army, government without
opposition-a culture that has to be broken if it is not to descend
into dictatorship.

And it is with that in mind that I want to examine briefly the 150
years (more or less) of British rule, the sixty years of independence,
the fifty years of ethnic cleansing within that and, within that, the
twenty-five years of civil war that have brought Sri Lanka to this

The Portuguese and the Dutch had occupied the Maritime Provinces in
the 16th-18th centuries in pursuit of the spice trade and strategic
sea routes. But it was the British who from 1815 came to occupy the
whole of the country, turned paddy fields into tea estates,
dispossessed the peasantry and brought in indentured labour from South
India to work in the plantations. English was made the official
language and Christianity the favoured religion and a pervasive
British culture won over the subject peoples to their own subjection.
Incidentally, it is important to distinguish between the Tamils who
were brought to Ceylon by the British and the indigenous Tamils who
have been there from time immemorial.

Ceylon got its independence in 1948 on the back of the Indian
nationalist struggle. Hence it did not go through the process of
nation building that a nationalist struggle involves. Instead, it was
regarded as a model colony with an English-educated elite, universal
suffrage, and an elected assembly-deserving of self-government.

These however turned out to be the trappings of capitalist democracy
super-imposed on a feudal infrastructure-a democratic top-dressing on
a feudal base. But then, colonial capitalism is a hybrid, a mutant. It
underdevelops some parts of the country while the part it develops is
not consonant with the country’s needs or growth. Nor does it throw up
institutions and structures that sustain democracy. Capitalism in the
periphery, unlike capitalism at the centre, does not engender an
organic relationship between the political, economic and cultural
instances. It is a disorganic capitalism that produces disorganic
development and a malformed democracy.

Power, then, was still in the hands of the feudal elite, the landed
aristocracy. And almost the first thing that an independent government
under D. S. Senanayake, “the father of the nation”, did was to
disenfranchise the “plantation Tamils” who were now into their third
and fourth generations-thereby establishing a Sinhalese electoral
majority in the upcountry areas. This was followed by colonisation
schemes that settled Sinhalese peasants in the predominantly
Tamil-speaking north-east-thereby changing the ethnic demography of
the area. And although elections were on party lines, the parties
themselves-with the exception of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP)
Trotskyists and the Communist Party (CP)-operated on feudal
allegiances. Hence the government that ensued was government by

The first prime minister was succeeded by his son, Dudley Senanayake,
and subsequently by his nephew, Sir John Kotelawela and so on. So that
the ruling United National Party, (U.N.P.), was more appositely known
as the Uncle Nephew Party.

The breakthrough came in 1956 when the Oxford-educated Solomon West
Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike decided that the only way that a distant
relative like him could break into the dynastic succession was to
resort to the ethnic politics of language and religion that would
guarantee him a ready-made electoral majority. The Sinhala speaking
population, after all, amounted to something like 70 per cent (the
Tamils around 20 per cent) and they were mostly Buddhists. All he was
doing, as a nationalist and patriot was returning power to the people,
restituting their ancient rights. And so he came to power on the twin
platforms of making Sinhala the official language and Buddhism the
state religion. The language policy was to be introduced within 24
hours of his taking office-and all government servants would have to
learn to conduct business in Sinhala within a given period if they
were to keep their jobs. Sinhala would also constitute the medium of
instruction in schools.

Bandaranaike had struck at the heart of Tamil livelihood and
achievement. Coming from the arid north of the country, where nothing
grew except children, the Tamil man’s chief industry was the
government service, and education, English education, his passport.
And Britain’s divide and rule policies encouraged and reinforced the
growth of a class of Tamil bureaucrats. So that at independence they
were over-represented in the administrative services and the

Bandaranaike’s policies were meant to put an end to that but, in the
event, they degraded the mother tongue of a people who held up Tamil
as an ancient language (which it was) and its considerable literature
as their bounteous heritage. In protest Tamil leaders staged a mass
non-violent sit-down in front of the Houses of Parliament and were
beaten up by government-sponsored goondas for their pains-giving
meaning to the phrase sitting ducks.

And there begins the two trajectories of ethnic cleansing: the “legal”
and the illegal, the civil and the military, the parliamentary and
extra-parliamentary, each overlapping and reinforcing each other.
Ethnic cleansing is a process not an isolate, genocide its logical

The prime minister, having divested himself of his Oxford bags for
national dress, Christianity for Buddhism, English for Sinhala, was
caught now between his social democratic principles and his
nationalist practice, and proposed to make Tamil a regional language.
But his ministers and the Opposition upped the racist ante and the
Buddhist monks, whom Bandaranaike himself was instrumental in bringing
out of the monasteries and on to the hustings where their influence
was decisive, demanded that he return to his original remit. Peaceful
Tamil demonstrations were met with police violence, participants
travelling to a Tamil convention in the North in May 1958 were taken
off the trains, cars and buses and beaten up by goon squads organised
by Sinhalese politicians. Attacks on Tamils in their homes, on the
street and work-places right across the country followed. Bandaranaike
vacillated and a monk shot him dead. The chickens had come home to

>>From then on the pattern of Tamil subjugation was set: racist
legislation followed by Tamil resistance, followed by conciliatory
government gestures, followed by Opposition rejectionism, followed by
anti-Tamil riots instigated by Buddhist priests and politicians,
escalating Tamil resistance, and so on-except that the mode of
resistance varied and intensified with each tightening of the
ethnic-cleansing screw and led to armed struggle and civil war.

I do not want to go into the details of that sequence here (for those
who are interested there is a 1984 article of mine on the IRR’s
website which goes into the specifics and is entitled ‘Sri Lanka:
racism and the politics of underdevelopment’). It is enough to note
the key acts of successive Sinhalese-dominated governments that led to
the spiralling cycle of repression and resistance. If Mr Bandaranaike
had cut out the mother tongue of the Tamils, it was left to Mrs
Bandaranaike to bring the Tamils down to their knees-by using the
language provision to remove and exclude Tamils from the police, the
army, the courts and government service generally, further colonising
traditionally Tamil areas of the north-east with Sinhalese from the
South, repatriating the already disenfranchised Indian Tamil
plantation workers and, more crucially, requiring Tamil students to
score higher marks than their Sinhalese counterparts to enter
university-on the grounds that Tamils should not continue to be
over-represented in higher education and the professions.

At one stroke, Mrs Bandaranaike had cut the ground from under the feet
of Tamil youth. At one stroke she had blighted their future. You take
away a people’s language and you take away their identity. You take
away their land and you take away their livelihood. You take away
their education and you take away their hopes and aspirations. They
had seen their parents try reason and reconciliation, but to no avail.
They had seen them try non-violent resistance only to be met with
violence. They had seen their representatives in the Federal Party
running between the government and the Opposition with their electoral
begging bowl. And they had seen the Left, the Trotskyists and the CP,
who had once stood square against racist laws and for the parity of
language, succumb at last to Mrs Bandaranaike’s blandishments of
nationalisation in exchange for dropping their call for parity, and
join her United Front government.

The Left in Ceylon, and the Trotskyist LSSP, in particular, had
hitherto had a noble history. Formed in the 1930s, during the malaria
epidemic and led by doctors, they had set up people’s dispensaries in
the villages to treat patients free of charge. They had, along with
the CP, politicised the urban working class and engendered a
flourishing trade union movement. And in 1953, when the UNP government
withdrew its subsidised rice ration at a time of rising food prices,
they brought out the country in a hartal (cessation of all work) and
drove a beleaguered cabinet into the safety of a ship in the harbour.
But 1953 also marks the Left’s failure-for instead of pressing home
the advantage, a middle-class leadership took fright at the enormity
of its own success, agreed to talks and called off the hartal. The
moment of revolution had passed, and from then on Parliament became
the Left’s pitch-landing them, as I mentioned before, in Mrs
Bandaranaike’s racist government. But the final degradation was yet to
come. Asked to frame a new constitution, Dr Colin R de Silva, LSSP
historian, now made a constitutional proviso for the repatriation of
disenfranchised Tamil plantation workers.

There was still the self-styled Marxist Sinhala youth movement, the
JVP, the People’s Liberation Front, whom the Bandaranaike government
had to contend with. But their insurrection in 1971 was ruthlessly put
down and their protagonists murdered by the army and the police. Their
politics though claiming to be Marxist stirred up racial animosity by
stoking fears of “Indian expansionism”. Their second coming in
1987-89, though laced with anti-Tamil propaganda, was even more
mercilessly put down by the Jayawardene government. Today they are the
most virulent racists in the Rajapakse coalition government-second
only to the Aryanists of the JHU, National Heritage Party of the
Buddhist monks.

The degradation of the Left engendered the degradation of the
intelligentsia who now turned to middle of the road reformist
politics. The Tamil youth looked around and saw no allies in the
South. Nothing and no one seemed to work for them. They had only
themselves to rely on. They had no choice but to take up arms. (The
violence of the violated is never a matter of choice, but a symptom of
choicelessness-and often it is a violence that takes on a life of its
own and becomes distorted and self-defeating.)

The youths began with robbing a bank or two, stealing arms from police
stations-and making their getaway on bicycles. The north, and Jaffna
in particular, is not orthodox guerrilla country with mountains and
forests to hide in, but its villages-a maze of narrow twisting lanes
and by-lanes tucked away behind large dense palmyrah-leaf fences-are
bicycle country inhospitable to motor vehicles. Bicycles, besides,
were the Jaffna man’s chief mode of transport even in the towns, and
“the getaways” were lost among them. And as the frustrations of the
police increased and the stories of the hold-ups became legend, the
parents and elders closed ranks behind their young. Their generation
had been stereotyped as weak and cowardly and they had been brought
down to their knees by government after Sinhalese government. Their
young had now set them on their feet. They were “their Boys” and
“Thambi” (younger brother) their leader. They would keep faith by
them, give them sanctuary, let them disappear among their midst-be
water to their fish.

But the romance of the Robin Hood period turned sour and vicious in
the late 1970s when the Jayawardene government let the police loose in
Jaffna to break up peaceful demonstrations, arrest and torture Tamil
youth, burn down the Jaffna bazaar when refused free foodstuffs-and
generally lord over it the Tamil people. And this in turn led to the
reprisal killings of policemen by the Boys. In 1979 the government
passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act and sent the army to Jaffna
with instructions to “wipe out terrorism within six months”. The
imprisonment and torture of innocent Tamils that followed in the wake
of the PTA drove the civilian population further into the arms of the
emerging militant groups, all demanding a separate Tamil state, Eelam,
the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) the most militant of them.

In 1981 security forces burnt down the Jaffna library, with its “ola”
manuscripts and rare literature, the epicentre of Tamil learning and
culture. In the same year Gandhiyam, a refugee camp turned farm, set
up by a Tamil doctor to restore refugees to some sort of normal life,
was over-run by the police-and its organisers killed or imprisoned. In
1983 the Tigers killed thirteen soldiers in Jaffna and the government
brought their bodies to Colombo and put them on display before an
angry Sinhalese crowd and so provoked “the riots” (pogroms really)
that followed culminating in the killing of Tamils prisoners in
Welikade jail, awaiting trial under the PTA, by Sinhalese prisoners
whose cells the guards forgot to lock!

That’s when the civil war began in earnest-with each side, the
government and the guerrillas, ratcheting up the terror count, with
the occasional pause for “talks” or peace mediation, during which each
side refurbished its forces and came out more intransigent than ever.
The government now added an official military dimension to civil
ethnic cleansing by letting loose its private armies to terrorise
Tamils and drive them from their homes. Refugee camps were attacked,
its inmates killed or driven out, Tamil plantation workers were
forcibly taken from their houses and dumped hundreds of miles away by
thugs in the pay of the Minister of Industries in trucks provided by
him. (The state against its Tamils.)

The LTTE’s guerrilla struggle, likewise, had degenerated into ad hoc
militarism with suicide bombings and assassinations. And politics went
out of the window. The military tail had begun to wag the political
dog-and instead of winning people to their cause, whether among the
Sinhalese or their own people, the Tigers began to eliminate anyone
who stood in their way, be it one of their own dissenters or the
Indian prime minister-an act of self-defeat in that it alienated the
Tamils of India. Two years later, 1993, they assassinated Sri Lanka’s
President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The final self-defeat came in 2004
with the defection of Muralitharan, their military strategist and
their second-in-command to the side of the Rajapakse government. And
it was the inside information that he and his men provided on
guerrilla positions and strategies that helped the government to
finally overcome the Tigers. He is today the Chief Minister of the
Eastern province and a member of the Rajapakse government and held up
as a symbol of the government’s goodwill towards the Tamils, and an
indication of its intention to afford them some sort of regional

But the President’s own actions since the defeat of the Tigers and,
more importantly, the political culture that his government, even more
than all the previous governments, has created, belies any such
democratic outcome. For what has evolved in sixty years of
independence is an ethnocentric Sinhala-Buddhist polity reared on
falsified history reinforced by feudal customs and myths, with a
voting system that seals the ethnic majority in power for ever-while
reducing the party system to a war between dynasties, flanked by monks
and militias.

And within that polity the Rajapakse government or, rather cabal (he
has three brothers in the cabinet) has instituted a regime of blanket
censorship under cover of which it has conducted a ruthless war not
just against the equally ruthless Tigers but against harmless Tamil
civilians, a “war without witness” someone termed it, while feeding
the Sinhalese public with government-manufactured facts and seeing off
any journalist who dared to criticise the government. (You will all
remember the case of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of the Sunday
Leader, who sent a letter to his friend President Rajapakse,
excoriating him for murders of outspoken journalists and predicting
his own at the hands of government thugs. And so it came to pass.)

What, in sum, we are faced with in my country today, is a brainwashed
people, brought up on lies and myths, their intelligentsia told what
to think, their journalists forbidden to speak the truth on pain of
death, the militarising of civil society and the silencing of all
opposition. A nation bound together by the effete ties of language,
race and religion has arrived at the cross-roads between parliamentary
dictatorship and fascism. It is for the Sinhalese people I fear
now-for if they come for me in the morning, they’ll come for you that


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