[lg policy] Sri Lanka: Cry for Self-Rule by Tamils Is Muffled by Reality

Jeremy Graves jayrkirk42 at YAHOO.COM
Mon Feb 8 18:30:13 UTC 2010

Dear Dr. Schiffman,

A friend of mine sent me this link to an interesting article regarding Language Policy


From: Harold Schiffman <hfsclpp at gmail.com>
To: lp <lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu>
Sent: Mon, February 8, 2010 6:37:09 PM
Subject: [lg policy] Sri Lanka: Cry for Self-Rule by Tamils Is Muffled by Reality

February 8, 2010
Cry for Self-Rule by Tamils Is Muffled by Reality

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka — Jaffna is a city of ruins. Some are physical, like
the overgrown jumbles of mold-streaked concrete where graceful
buildings used to stand. But perhaps the biggest ruin of the Tamil
Tiger insurgency against the Sri Lankan government is the very thing
the Tigers wanted most: any hope of self-rule. After 26 years of war
that ended with a decisive government assault last May, Sri Lanka’s
Tamil minority seems no closer to winning a measure of autonomy in a
Sinhalese-dominated nation, and Tamil nationalism, the cri de coeur of
the Tamil Tiger insurgency, seems all but dead. “All of this armed
struggle, so many dead and wounded, for what?” said P.
Balasundarampillai, who leads the Citizen Committee in this city on
the claw-shaped peninsula of the northern Tamil heartland. “In many
spheres of public life our role is very much reduced. Economically we
are weak, and politically we are weak.”

Just how little power Tamils have was made plain in last month’s
presidential election. Though the Tamil Tigers’ war for a separate
homeland in the north and east of this island nation has dominated
life in Sri Lanka for nearly three decades, the question of how to
address the root causes of the conflict — perceived discrimination by
the Sinhalese majority against the Tamils — barely figured in the
campaign. Instead it was a contest between two men claiming the mantle
of war hero for vanquishing the Tigers, President Mahinda Rajapaksa
and his former military chief, Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

The main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance, cast its lot with
General Fonseka, betting that a fragile coalition with disaffected
Sinhalese and Muslim voters could dislodge the popular incumbent. The
gamble failed, and Mr. Rajapaksa rode to a resounding 17-point
victory. Now more powerful than ever, Mr. Rajapaksa has given vague
assurances about unifying the country. He has made clear, however,
what is not on the table. Federalism, the starting point for virtually
every Tamil party, is not acceptable, he said. Nor is he willing to
merge the provinces in the north and east to create a large,
Tamil-dominated state. Mr. Rajapaksa has, however, said he would cede
some powers to the existing provinces, which was required by a
constitutional amendment but never fully put into practice.

This leaves many Tamils wondering where this shattered community will
go from here. The Jaffna Peninsula, the cultural heart of Tamil life,
lost hundreds of thousands of residents over the course of the war.
About 100,000 are dead, but many more have fled. Far from Colombo’s
shimmering seaside skyscrapers, the hollowed-out city of Jaffna seems
stuck a generation behind the rest of the country. For every inhabited
house stands an abandoned, weed-choked one. Many buildings still bear
bullet scars even though the last fighting here was in 1996. Its
famous university, once among South Asia’s best, is crumbling.

These ghostly vistas are a stark contrast to the camps just south of
here where at least 100,000 people live in squalid detention camps,
awaiting the government’s permission to go home. A political
settlement to what is known here as “the Tamil question” remains as
elusive as ever. Professor S. K. Sitrampalam, a historian who is also
a senior member of one of the largest Tamil political parties, said
that there was “a history of broken promises and missed opportunities”
between the government and the Tamils. Part of the problem for the
Tamils is that the war left few political leaders standing. Many
talented and skilled Tamils fled to exile in Canada, England, the
United States and elsewhere. Velupillai Prabhakaran, the ruthless
rebel commander and self-proclaimed leader of the Tamil people, was
killed in the Tigers’ last stand. Before that, his forces had
systematically purged dissident leaders in a series of chilling

Other Tamil political parties have joined forces with the government,
seeing little point in struggling against the majority. Douglas
Devananda, a former Tiger who has become a powerful minister in Mr.
Rajapaksa’s government, said it was better to work with those in power
to gain something rather than remain on the sidelines achieving
little.  Still, asked what he had achieved for the Tamils, the
barrel-chested former fighter seemed at a loss. “It is difficult to
say,” he said. “There are a lot of achievements. Ask the people. They
will tell you.” But he conceded that the Tamils, having overwhelmingly
opposed the president’s re-election, were in no position to make
demands from the government.

For young Tamils the frustration is even greater. “With the defeat of
the Tigers the political power of the Tamil people is gone,” said S.
Arihan, president of the student union at the University of Jaffna.
Like many Tamils in the north, he said he hoped that international
pressure would force the government to act. But such hopes are
unrealistic, said Ahilan Kadirgamar of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum,
an organization that is trying to reconcile the country’s ethnic
divides. Hard-line nationalists “just keep waiting for the
international community, but it is not going to deliver,” he said.
Indeed, much of the ideology of Tamil nationalism was formed in the
1970s and ’80s, when Tamils were facing pogroms and fleeing the
country by the thousands.

An armed struggle for an independent state had a certain logic then,
analysts say. But in postwar Sri Lanka the situation is less black and
white, and many Tamils are focused on recovering from war. “People
have been so battered by the war that the basic issues, like
resettlement and jobs, that is what is foremost in their minds,” Mr.
Kadirgamar said. “It is not that the desire for a political solution
is gone; it just needs to take account for the ground realities of


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