[lg policy] The Tamil Question in Sri Lanka Part 1
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Sun May 2 15:55:15 UTC 2010
The Tamil Question in Sri Lanka Part 1
I have just returned home after celebrating the 86th birthday of
possibly the nicest man in Sri Lanka (or anywhere else). All the time
we were at his home, the phone rang endlessly as people rang to give
their birthday wishes. Calls came from all over Sri Lanka and also
USA, UK, Australia, Canada, Malaysia, South Africa, Philippines and
Morocco. He is now retired, but during his working life he was a
senior manager in the tea plantation business, working his way up from
being a young “creeper”, as juniors in the tea business are called.
Fifty years ago, he cut the road that leads from the main A5 to the
bungalow which is now our home. Even today, he is honored and revered
in the business and is often invited to conferences and seminars to
share his wisdom with the young Sinhalese managers who run the
His wife is equally warm-hearted and decent and respected by people of
all races and creeds, caste and class. They are both devout Christians
who devote much of their time to running a pre-school day center and
an elders’ home established by the local Anglican church. They are
both Tamils. Another Tamil attending the birthday celebrations also
supports Christian charities, although he proclaims himself to be a
Hindu. Despite that “handicap”, he was very successful in business. He
recently retired as chairman of a large conglomerate with interests
spreading from tea plantations to the marketing of gin. He was
educated at Royal College and Colombo University. Royal, along with St
Thomas’s and Trinity College, Kandy, educates the “elite” who
generally run most things in Sri Lanka.
Another contender for the title of most decent man in Sri Lanka is the
high priest at our local Buddhist temple. When we first met him, his
humorous and humble nature blinded us to the fact that he is very
eminent and influential. On his 86th birthday he got calls from
President Rajapaksa and the leader of the opposition, Ranil
Wickramesinghe. Previous president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, once
offered him a new car which he declined. There is a rumor that,
because of his reputation as a healer, he was kidnapped by the LTTE
and treated and cured the terrorist leader, Prabakharan.
Our Muslim neighbours take their children to the Montessori school at
the Buddhist temple. Most of the workers at the temple are Hindu
Tamils and they help our priest out with his ambitious schemes, such
as creating cooking gas from compost and providing water and
electricity to the village homes of Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims.
These Hindu Tamils prostrate themselves before this Buddhist priest to
bless him. He works closely with the local catholic priest on
job-creation schemes for local people of all races and religions. Many
Tamils are catholic. Many catholic priests and bishops are Tamil. The
woman who works for us was born a Tamil but married a Muslim and
converted. Their adopted son seems to be a Muslim but his natural
parents were Tamil.
Tamil cricketer Murali has been taken to everyone’s hearts. The Sri
Lankan cricket team unites the nation. Most Sri Lankans were proud of
and respected foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar who was a Tamil
-the Tigers killed him. Beginning in 1965, S Thondaman began to use
his representation of estate workers through the Ceylon workers
Council (CWC) as a means of strengthening his ties with the Sinhalese
parties to their mutual benefit; his grandson, A Thondaman, is happy
to appear on billboards outside Hindu temples embracing President
Rajapaksa, Buddhist Sinhalese leader of the SLFP. The UNP in
particular strengthened its position in parliament while the wages,
education and health care on the estates improved markedly. Although
estate workers are still among the poorest people in the country, this
exercise of what Marcuse called “repressive tolerance” has meant that
relatively few plantation Tamils have made common cause with the
militants of the north and east, although they do take action from
time to time against their employers.
At the Victory Day celebration in May 2009 to mark the defeat of the
LTTE President Rajapaksa, dressed in the traditional Sinhalese white
garb with purple scarf, was surrounded by the elite of the Sri Lanka
armed forces festooned with medals. Also on the stage were Muslims in
taqiyahs. Next to a Buddhist dignitary in saffron robes was the chief
of the Veddahs, (the indigenous aborigines of the island) dressed in a
loin cloth with his ceremonial axe on his shoulder. In a sari, seated
beside the president was the president’s first lady, who is a
I report these things not to say that everything is hunky-dory in Sri
Lanka. I am merely trying to correct the distorted views that
sometimes come across in western media. To a certain western mind-set
everything is black or white, minorities are oppressed and
discriminated against, governments must be bad, rebels must be
romantic freedom fighters. I recall when my own trade union in the UK
was contributing funds to the LTTE because they were obviously
“freedom fighters” defending the oppressed Tamil minority.
Few in Sri Lanka itself, whether Sinhalese, Muslim, Christian, or
indeed Tamil, would see them that way. I recall doing business with a
Tamil called Prabakharan who described his namesake, the ruthless
leader of the Tigers, as “Hitler”. Despite outbreaks of horrific
communal violence over the years, and vicious reprisals against
innocent Tamils by badly disciplined police, generally speaking,
different ethnic and religious groups live side-by-side in harmony.
The different ethnic and religious groups mingle freely, do business
together and intermarry. It is not the case of a homogeneous block of
majority Sinhalese oppressing a homogeneous block of minority Tamils.
Many Tamils are rich and influential. If discrimination does exist, it
is not of such a nature as to prevent Tamils getting on just because
they are Tamils – other factors such as education and family
circumstances are more important.
As Speedy Aquaye shouted to Ronnie Scott when I was at his Soho club
many years ago – “This am no South Africa”. Sri Lanka is not apartheid
south Africa. It is not Palestine or even Louisiana. There is no
institutionalised or legislated segregation here. In apartheid South
Africa, there were white members of the ANC and black members of the
white supremacist National Party. Sean McStiofan was the leader of the
Provisional IRA which fought the British in the 1970s. He was actually
an Englishman called John Stephenson.
The CWC represents Tamil plantation workers. In the 2004 general
election one of its MPs was a Muslim, Faizer Mustapha. The TNA was
seen as a proxy of the Tamil Tigers. One of its MPs was a Muslim. In
the 2010 general election, the successor to the TNA elected a
Sinhalese MP. The LTTE had Muslim members and there were even
Sinhalese Tigers. The Sinhala nationalist JVP sometimes colluded with
the LTTE and had some Tamil members.
Real life is complicated.
To take one example of how the propaganda of the Tamil diaspora is
swallowed whole by some westerners - David Begg of the Irish Congress
of Trade Unions managed to find the time in his busy schedule of
dealing with the disappearance of the Irish economy down the toilet -
redundancies, and pay and benefit cuts for his members - to urge the
Irish Foreign Minister, Micheal Martin, to apply sanctions to faraway
Sri Lanka as a protest against “genocide” and “concentration camps”.
Begg’s letters seemed to suggest that he thought that all Sri Lankan
Tamils had been confined to a narrow strip of beach to be shelled by
government troops and then herded into extermination camps. This
suggests a certain ignorance about Sri Lanka’s history and of the
current situation. Trinity College, Dublin recently hosted a two-day
hearing by the Permanent People’s Tribunal which delivered the
judgement that the Sri Lanka government was guilty of war crimes and
crimes against humanity. The tribunal was further pondering the issue
When I have written on this subject on Le Monde diplomatique my
articles have drawn a strange mixture of responses. In particular two
people with similar nom de plumes have expressed diametrically opposed
views. ‘Maham’ says: “A highly prejudiced and one-sided article. The
Tamils have been continually ill-treated by the racist Sinhala
majority. They never wanted to give the due political rights to the
Tamils. From 1948 for about 30 years Tamils fought for their rights in
a peaceful way. Take the case of the Bandaranaike — Chelvanayagam Pact
and the Dudley Senanayake - Chelvanayagam Pact and what happened to
them? Both the pacts were dishonoured by the Sinhala leaders. When the
peaceful methods failed to achieve anything, then to save the Tamils
from the Pan-Sinhala army and its terrorism, as a last resort the
Tamil youths took up arms.”
‘MahamahaRaja’ is clearly not a Tamil. He tells me: “Tamils have not
faced any ‘discrimination’ in Sri Lanka. Wanting colonial era
privileges to be maintained for them, in the home of the Sinhalese
into which they were brought like slaves, which they achieved through
unwavering servitude and sucking up to their colonial white masters,
is UNACCEPTABLE! Do some research before regurgitating terrorist
propaganda.” To state baldly: “Tamils have not faced any
‘discrimination’ in Sri Lanka” avoids the question: “Why did Tamil
separatism become such a powerful force to lead to a civil war lasting
30 years at the cost of 100,000 lives?”
I have no interest in “taking sides”. I am not taking any sides but
merely trying to get at the facts and correct obvious misperceptions.
I will try again and hope Maham and MahamaRaja will get to read this.
I will be happy to be corrected on matters of fact and would love to
discuss differences of interpretation in a civilised manner.
The British Legacy
‘MahamaRaja’ was more than a little confused when he wrote about
Tamils who were “brought in as slaves” “sucking up to their colonial
white masters” and “wanting colonial era privileges maintained for
The British indeed brought in indentured laborers who were little more
than slaves. The British, as in many countries, such as Ireland and
Kenya, stole the land and divided the native people. They commandeered
much of the land in Ceylon for the cultivation of tea and rubber and
imported vast numbers of indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu in order
to maintain the plantations.
The British have been accused of contributing to current problems by
adopting a divide and rule strategy which favoured educated Tamils at
the expense of the Sinhalese majority. There are, to put it rather
simply, if not crudely, two types of Tamil in Sri Lanka, the Jaffna
Tamils, sometimes referred to as “Sri Lankan Tamils”, and the
plantation Tamils, sometimes referred to as “Indian Tamils”.
Jaffna Tamils have generally been considered as conservative. Jaffna
Tamil society has been thought of as rather rigidly caste-bound. They
have a reputation for distinguished service in the professions and in
government. They also have a record of success and prosperity in other
countries. A. Sivanandan, a Tamil who was Director of the UK Institute
of Race Relations, (he was only the librarian when I met him in 1968)
said in a recent interview in the New Left Review: “The British
strategy was to divide politically in order to integrate economically.
One of the main instruments for this was to provide Tamils with
educational opportunities and use them to staff the administrative
apparatus. While economic wealth remained in the hands of the old
Sinhala feudal elite, the public services, train stations, post
offices and so on were all run by Tamils.” Siv also said that he did
not like these Tamils much as they reminded him of Scottish
Jaffna Tamils differ from Batticaloa Tamils and there are divisions
within each of those groups. Caste is a dominant identity marker. The
Vellala caste was dominant in the north until the 1960s when
intermediary or oppressed castes began to challenge them. The LTTE
leadership mainly came from the Karaiyar caste.
Under British rule, the Jaffna Tamils came to be seen by the Sinhalese
majority as a favoured elite. Even today, in 21st century Sri Lanka,
after 62 years of independence the Sinhalese majority displays a
minority psychology and bizarrely sometimes calls for affirmative
action on its own behalf. The Sinhala language is not spoken any where
else in the world but the small island of Sri Lanka. Although the
Sinhalese are in the majority in Sri Lanka there are 65 million Tamils
just over the water in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Before independence, Jaffna Tamils began to organise to protect their
minority rights but at this stage separatism was not an issue. With
the first constitution establishing universal suffrage and majority
rule the northern Tamils were anxious that they would forfeit the
privileges they enjoyed under the British. Under Tamil Congress
founder G.G. Ponnambalam, Jaffna youth carried out boycotts and
demonstrations to back up their demand for equal political
representation for minorities. Since the elections of 1936 the
political elite recruited from the Sinhalese majority had monopolised
Plantation Tamils had very little connection with the educated Tamil
elite of the north. Even under the Portuguese there had been a regular
flow of migrant labour from South India to the kingdoms of Kotte and
Kandy. During Dutch rule manual labour from Tamil Nadu was used in the
maritime areas. These incomers tended to become Sinhalised over time.
The British approach to colonisation was somewhat different in that it
was infused with an ethos, however spurious, that went beyond trade
and religious conversion. This ethos comprised modernity and
enlightenment. It was modern in a sense that is probably now becoming
obsolete with the advance of global environmental collapse – British
rule in Ceylon demonstrated the urge to dominate nature, an urge which
was fuelling the supremacy of capitalist thinking in Britain itself.
The Crown tamed the wilderness by expropriating “waste” land and
transforming it into plantations, first coffee and then, when in 1869
heimleia vastrartix devastated the coffee crop, tea. The plantation
system required a year-round demand for labour, which the British
imported in the thousands from Tamil Nadu. One often hears, especially
from the Sinhalese, that the importation of foreign labour was
necessary because the Sinhalese were too lazy or proud to do the work,
but there is no evidence that the British tried to recruit Sinhalese.
It is likely that the British decided that it would be easier to
control and exploit indentured Indian workers who had nowhere else to
go. Plantation management systematically created enclaves of a
permanent underclass enduring abominable working conditions and slum
housing. A former plantation manager, not British (of indeterminate
mixed lineage but with plenty of money), now feeble in his 80s,
proudly told me how estate workers were expected to lie in the ditch
while the lokhu mahataya rode by, and how he himself had punched out
all the teeth of a labourer he thought had showed him disrespect.
In 1946, the plantation Tamil group exceeded the numbers of Jaffna
Tamils but deportation and voluntary emigration have depleted their
Soon after independence, the UNP government passed legislation
depriving nearly a million Indian Tamil plantation workers of their
citizenship and voting rights. This upset the balance in parliament
which subsequently made it easier for a Sinhalese party to obtain a
Ceylon had won independence from Britain fairly painlessly. Unlike
other colonies such as Ireland and India or Cyprus there was no need
for any real struggle to free the country from the shackles of
imperialism. There were no national heroes like Michael Collins, Nehru
or Makorios. Politicians had to find some other way to strut their
stuff. The imperial power let the colony go easily and conscientiously
prepared for departure. Pre-independence, there was solidarity between
the Sinhalese and the Tamils of the westernized elite as they united
to press the colonial administration to introduce an elective element
into the legislature.
Sinhalese-Buddhist activists helped Solomon Bandaranaike and the SLFP
win the elections of 1956 and were determined to claim their reward by
making the new government honour its pledges to elevate Sinhala to the
status of the sole national language. Many Sinhala students only had
unemployment to look forward to and resented the fact that coveted
government jobs required a fluency in English which they did not have.
Resentful unemployed graduates made articulate and motivated
campaigners who had time on their hands. Practitioners of Ayurvedic
medicine felt threatened by the attraction of western medicine
encouraged by the central government’s development of an effective
national health service free to all.
The SLFP was strongest in rural areas with Sinhalese majorities and it
felt its electoral advantage would be gained by responding to their
demands rather than northern Tamils who would not vote for them
anyway. Teachers in Sinhalese day schools strongly argued that
establishing Sinhala as the sole official language would improve their
status and income.
A group of about 200 Tamils gathered on Galle Face Green for a silent
peaceful protest against the SLFP’s legislation to make Sinhala,
spoken as a first language by 70% of the population, the only official
national language. The police were given orders not to protect the
protesters and anti-Tamil mobs were allowed to take the law into their
own hands. Violence spread from the Green to the whole country. The
death toll in the riots of June 1956 was 150, small, perhaps, by the
standards of ethnic violence elsewhere in South East Asia, but this
first violent encounter between Tamils and Sinhalese in modern Sri
Lankan history was a shock to the system and many thought it could
have been avoided. The warning was not heeded and further wounds were
suffered and continue to be endured to this day.
Bandaranaike was not untypical of a tradition in Sri Lankan politics
of employing high-flown rhetoric in the pursuit of electoral success
without necessarily intending to do much to fulfil promises once in
power. The SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem said in 2007 “The subject of
political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system
does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver upon
the commitments made during the polls.”
Bandaranaike to extricate himself from the difficulties he had himself
created. He tried for reconciliation with the Tamil community by
providing, through the Tamil Language Act, for Tamil to be used for in
administrative purposes in the north east. The government tried to
appease Tamils by modifying the language policy, only to arouse the
wrath of the Sinhala activists. In the riots of April 1958, the death
toll was higher, around 600. The government was persuaded to back down
from the compromise it had agreed with the leader of the Tamil Federal
Party, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, whereby concessions should have been made
on language, on devolution and on colonisation of Tamil areas by
At around 9.30 a.m. on September 25 1959, Bandaranaike finished a
meeting with the American ambassador and walked with him to the
veranda of his home where a crowd of petitioners was waiting. In the
crowd was the Venerable Talduwe Sonorama a Buddhist priest and
Ayurvedic practitioner. The prime minister bent towards the saffron
robed priest, hands clasped in a gesture of greeting and respect.
Sonomara fired four shots into him. Bandaranaike died 24 hours later.
His widow, Sirimavo, took over the premiership becoming the world’s
first female prime minister. She ignored her late husband’s
vacillating attempts at reconciliation and pressed ahead with
implementing the Sinhala only policy to the full.
The UNP under JR Jayawardene continued with policies that Tamils found
Moderate Tamil politicians who tried to operate within the existing
state arrangements failed and gave way to militant separatists. The
old school politicians argued for a federal arrangement with more
devolved power. The new generation saw this as futile and eventually
turned to violence in the pursuit of a separate state of Tamil Eelam.
Tamil political parties
A number of political parties sought to represent the Tamil people in
The Ceylon Workers Congress (founded in 1939 as the Indian Workers
Congress at the suggestion of Nehru) represented the plantation Tamils
as a political party and as a trade union.
The All Ceylon Tamil Congress was founded in 1944 by GG Ponnambalam.
The ACTC stood for a principle of minority over-representation, asking
for a 50% Tamil presence in parliament even though Tamils were only
20% of the total population. This was rejected by the Governor General
as a “mockery of democracy”.
The ACTC was discredited by its association with the UNP when the UNP
moved to a pro-Sinhalese position and deprived a million plantation
workers of their citizenship. SJV Chelvanayakam broke away from the
ACTC and formed the Federal Party.
The Tamil Federal Party was founded in 1949 by a group of
parliamentarians under the leadership of S Chelvanayakam. The party’s
aim was to achieve a federal union of the Northern and Eastern
provinces where there was a Tamil-speaking majority and to end
state-aided colonial settlements of Sinhalese in the north east.
The Tamil United Front (TUF) was a short-lived organisation that
combined the TFP, the ACTC, and the CWC together with some independent
Tamil politicians to protest against aspects of the 1972 constitution.
The constituent elements of the TUF were traditional rivals and the
alliance did not succeed.
The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) was founded in 1975 after the
ACTC and the CWC went their separate ways. It emerged from the 1977
general election as the second largest party to the UNP winning more
seats than the SLFP. The TULF leader A Amirthalingam became the
official leader of the opposition in the national parliament. He was
assassinated in 1989 by the LTTE. The TULF moved away from a policy of
seeking autonomy for the north and east under a federal constitution
to working toward a goal of “a sovereign socialist state of Tamil
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was a group of four Tamil parties
led by the TULF. The TNA has until recently taken a strongly pro-LTTE
stance. The TNA fought the recent elections under the name Illanka
Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK).
The new constitution of 1972
The ethnic situation remained fairly stable for ten years after the
riots. The SLFP was strong enough to be complacent about the
grievances of Tamils and even to take actions which widened the
The first Republican constitution which was adopted on May 22 1972
marked the beginning of a new phase of ethnic conflict because it
consolidated the status of the Sinhala language and elevated Buddhism
to the status of “foremost among religions”.
Section 29 of the Soulbury constitution which gave some protection to
minorities was abolished. State policies were decided in a cabinet
where Tamils were not represented and so Tamil parties could not
Sri Lankan Tamils saw the new constitution as a legalistic mechanism
for excluding them from full recognition within the nation of Sri
Lanka. They began to move away from campaigning for protection of
their minority rights, towards assertion of the right to
Tamil politics, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, were further
radicalised by changes in university admissions policy. Up to 1970
Tamils managed to hold their own in the more prestigious professions.
Although indigenous Tamils were 11% of the country’s population they
made up 35% of admissions to science-based courses and represented 45%
of engineering and medical faculties. This was on the basis of open
Tamils were able to achieve such good results because of the superior
educational facilities in the Jaffna peninsula. Quota systems were
introduced which gave a distinct advantage to Sinhalese and Muslims.
(The education minister was a Muslim). The qualifying mark for
admission to the medical faculty was changed to 250 out of 400 for
Tamil students and 229 for Sinhala students.
Tamils had been so dependent on state employment that a quota system
which made entry to the professions and to scientific and technical
education more difficult for them caused a great deal of bitterness
and frustration. The reduction in admissions was so severe that it was
felt as a loss of rights rather than loss of privilege.
In 1979, the people of Jaffna were further alienated by a state of
emergency and a counter-insurgency operation by the army. The LTTE
targeted Tamil policemen, informers and government supporters. In
revenge for the killing of a Tamil UNP candidate and many policemen,
the Jaffna Library, home of 90,000 volumes and many rare manuscripts,
was burned to the ground, it is alleged, with government collusion.
Sinhalese youth might feel alienated from a system which embodied
class privileges. Indeed they felt this strongly enough to mount two
bloody uprisings which threatened to topple the state. Tamil youth had
the added alienation of feeling like ethnic outsiders. These
intelligent and disaffected young men added a volatility and violence
to Tamil politics and helped to form an ideology of separatism.
To be continued
By Padraig Colman 2010-05-01 10:26
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