Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle >   > Tamils in New Zealand - International Conference   > Beyond the Boundaries of Culture

Proceedings of the Conference on 'Tamils in New Zealand',
July 1996 - Wellington, New Zealand.

Beyond the Boundaries of Culture

Sinniah Ilanko

Dr Ilanko received his BSc and MSc in Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester, UK and the PhD in Engineering Science from the University of Western Ontario, Canada. Prior to his appointment at Canterbury in 1986, he has worked in Canada, the UK, Sri Lanka and has held a visiting Professor position at Annamalai University, India, from August 1991 to May 1992. Besides his academic publications, he has written a number of Tamil articles in Science and Engineering.

"The stress we experience is related to our attitude. This is somewhat similar to what happens in materials too. Consider a composite rod made of a hard (stiff) core and enclosed by a flexible shell. When the composite rod is subjected to an axial force, more stress is induced in the stiffer component. So the message is, by being flexible, we will be able to reduce the stresses we experience."


This paper focuses on the meaning of cultural identity and poses some questions that occur in the minds of expatriate Tamils of Sri Lankan origin, particularly as a result of the civil war in Sri Lanka.

On one hand there is a notion that psychological insecurity resulting from perceived or real threats to cultural or ethnic identity may cause inter-ethnic conflicts.

However, cultural diversity is a significant positive factor in the natural evolution, and the fact that some multicultural societies do not have any serious problems suggests that cultural diversity or even cultural identity cannot be blamed for the conflicts.

From the author's perspective, the causes of the conflicts are the conditions that result in the sealing of cultural boundaries thereby promoting cultural and ethnic isolation and conflicts.

This paper is based on the author's thoughts and experience. The subject matter is outside the area of the author's professional and academic field, and the object of the paper is to encourage research on the various issues involved, including ways of ending the hostilities in Sri Lanka and ways of building a harmonious multicultural human race.


As we approach the 21st century, with the help of Science, Medicine and Technology, the human race has sent machines to the boundaries of our solar system, has found ways of saving people from many killer diseases and has enabled communications between thousands of people all over the world to take place in a matter of seconds. However, it has not been able to prevent the killing and destruction that has been going on in many parts of the world, reportedly as a result of ethnic differences. Some of the major wars of this decade are between two or more ethnic groups. Some have been going on for several decades. This phenomenon suggests that in spite of the tremendous intellectual advancement, human beings are not yet ready to understand and modify their behaviour in order to live harmoniously with fellow humans. The behaviour is often conditioned by identification with nation, language and religion. This seems to give a sense of security and any threat to such identities are perceived with great insecurity resulting in conflicts. Are the governments and academic institutes doing enough to conduct research studies on inter-ethnic conflicts?

Cultures have brought in a variety of architecture, music, literature and other arts, but at the same time, it may be argued that cultural differences cause psychological conflicts which sometimes develop into armed conflicts. Does it mean that cultural diversity causes conflict that can be resolved by the creation of a uniform world culture? This difficult question often arises in the minds of people who are directly affected by inter communal conflicts, particularly those who left their native land to live in a different cultural environment.

Expatriate Tamils of Sri Lankan origin fall into this category. Some of them have mixed thoughts about cultural identity. Others are afraid to think about it. Some tend to think that cultural identity or even diversity, is the cause of conflicts. To those who have not been hurt by ethnic conflicts, this notion may be shocking, but it does occur in the minds of some Tamils, some times, although many feel the opposite and would want to cling to the Tamil culture as much as they can. This then leads to the question: Is cultural or communal identity really required for psychological security?

A small but influential and creative minority of Tamil saints have held a radical view that conditioning is an impediment to intelligence and holistic living. This view had its proponents in continuos succession from antiquity to modern times and was a fount of creativity in Tamil. Without going into detail, the position of some Tamil saints and philosophers from south India (Ciththhar for example, Yogaswamy Jaffna, Ramana Maharishi, J. Krishnamurti) is that racial, environmental and personal conditionings create the ego, which is the centre of all problems. They declare that it is possible to be free of conditioning, which they say releases the individual from fear.

They categorically state that basing psychological security on a thing which does not exist in reality will cause problems. Yogaswamy (Jaffna) has said "just be" (cummaa iru) and other saints particularly Ciththar (Ciththar, 1991)) in their poems have mentioned about a peaceful state of being without any identity (cultural or otherwise) in a philosophical or spiritual sense. Whether we subscribe to these philosophies or not, it is relevant to consider that such a view has existed and continues to persist in Tamil Psyche. We are all conditioned by our culture. It may be best to accept this reality and investigate the question of how to transcend the conflicts caused by cultural differences.

We could start by asking if there already exists an international culture which could help us to surmount the current problems of cultural conflicts. If so why should we have individual cultural identities. The international economic market forces and entertainment industry have created a sort of popular culture which centres on consumerism which may appear to have some attraction for youth, giving them an image of sophistication. However, the origins of this culture has no deep roots and borrows cliches from existing traditional cultures. It does not address the problems of living. It is geared for selling products and appears to depend on the whims and fancies of markets and international politics.

Living beyond the boundaries of culture requires an understanding and appreciation of the various cultures. This may lead to the rediscovery of the values of the traditional cultures. Thus in moving beyond the boundaries of culture what we come up with is the positive values of cultures. What causes problem is not the culture itself but a group becoming political target of a more powerful group. This negative aspect may be related to political & economic aspects of the modern world which are not based on humane values. However, relevance of traditional cultures should not be underestimated in maintaining human sanity.

This paper focuses on the need to explore the meaning and values of cultural & ethnic identity and the exigency to seek a common ground for the evolution of a harmonious, multicultural human race. The article is based mainly on the author's thoughts, experience and his views on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

This is only one perspective (one must remember the story of identifying an elephant by feeling some of its body parts). It does not attempt to find a solution to this problem, but brings into focus the issues in context, and is intended to raise the awareness. It is therefore necessary to look at all prevailing views, in the first instance without making a judgement.

It is hoped that by discussing these issues, we would gain a better understanding of our problems and the problems of others so that we can come to a general consensus and take some steps towards peace and harmony. This may require an in-depth study involving social groups and academic researchers in various fields such as Political Science, Anthropology, Philosophy, Psychology etc. This is relevant to those who are concerned about the survival of the human race, as some of the basic characteristics of the Tamils' problems are common to many other ethnic groups.


Since the 1983 riots in Sri Lanka, there has been a large scale migration of Tamils from there, mostly to India, Canada, Europe and Australasia. A significant proportion of New Zealand Tamils are the recent arrivals from Sri Lanka. These Tamils, while adapting to their new environment and climate, are going through extreme stresses as their kith and kin are suffering in their native land, and they feel that their culture is also under threat. It is therefore important for the Kiwi Tamils to explore some of the issues that directly or indirectly affect them, and present their thoughts and findings on the subject to their fellow New Zealanders.

The expatriate Tamils living in Western countries have to adapt to their new environment in a number of ways. Getting used to the cold weather is one of the simplest problems that most can learn to cope with, although they will keep complaining about it for a long time. Adapting to the new cultural environment is not that simple.

Firstly, when they leave, they are separated from many of their relatives and close friends to whom they are attached. This may be true for any migrant, but compared to most Westerners, the Tamils (and possibly other Asian migrants too) tend to be more emotionally dependent on friends and relatives. This seems to cause significant stress on expatriate Tamils, particularly on those who do not work or study, and the elderly who live with their children as dependants.

Even the ones who study or work, live in two different environments. At work or college, they are in the middle of a different culture, and may not be fully confident about whether they are doing the right things, socially. They may experience the stress of conforming, such as having to laugh at their peers' jokes (which they may find difficult to understand). These problems are not significant, and one can get used to these. With time one can learn the appropriate social behaviour, and adapt to the environment or accommodate the changes.

The world is becoming more aware of the various cultures and customs, and this helps the new arrivals to maintain their traditions. However, there are more serious stress factors for people coming from countries where their people or culture are under threat. This applies to Tamil expatriates from Sri Lanka.


Almost all Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates still have relatives in Sri Lanka. Some live in the war zone, and are at risk . Others live in Colombo and other parts of Sri Lanka, but they too are living in fear. The expatriate Tamils are always concerned about the safety of their family, relatives and friends. They listen to the BBC, Radio Australia and other news bulletins. If there is any news, it is usually bad. Most want to help their people, but do not know what exactly they can do.

Some of us at Canterbury keep writing letters to the New Zealand government, and also make donations to relief agencies such as the NZ Red Cross. From our point of view the war has been going on for too long, and the innocent people are suffering in silence. We have condemned acts of violence against the innocent civilians. Whether they are attacked by knife wielding gangs, or by artillery shells and aerial bombs, we condemn such killings.

We have asked the NZ government to do whatever it can to bring an end to the suffering of civilians. We feel sad that while we are getting enough to eat, have a comfortable place to sleep, and are able to send our children to school, our kith and kin in Sri Lanka may not have any of these and may be running for their dear lives, drinking only the rain water that drips from their umbrellas (this was the situation in December last year when nearly half a million people were displaced from their homes). Now the government of Sri Lanka claims to have gained full control over the Jaffna peninsula, but many of us have not yet heard from our relatives. This is one sad face of expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils.

The ongoing ethnic war has also caused a fear of cultural extinction among the expatriate Tamils. They want to maintain their culture, and they have a serious problem when it comes to the question of bringing up their children. Are the children going to be typical Kiwis or Aussies and will they even speak Tamil? In the opinion of the author, there are some good answers to these questions.

First of all we have to recognise that all cultures continue to evolve. Tamil culture like any other culture - say Kiwi culture or European culture - is evolving. Knowingly or not, we are all contributing to this evolution.

Interaction with other cultures has some effect on this process. We often wear the same types of clothes as the Kiwis. At work, at shops, in many of our day-to-day activities, and with many friends, we converse in English. Some of us may also enjoy watching or playing rugby. Some may attend political party meetings. Many of us watch TV.

That may make us Kiwis in some sense, but that does not take away the Tamil identity altogether, as we would most probably talk in Tamil at home, eat our traditional hot food, watch Tamil videos and write letters to our relatives in Tamil. At home we essentially live as we would in our native land. What we see here is the disappearance of some cultural boundaries. We can move between the cultures in areas that we find comfortable. Even in our native countries we do this to some extent.

We usually do things that we are comfortable with. Stress occurs when we have to do things that we do not like. While, to some extent, we should be able to choose and use whatever is agreeable, problems could arise in adopting some values for children. Thus we come to the point that we could adopt in several areas without conflicts, is there a core behaviour that we would like to perpetuate through our children.

This brings in the question of what makes a person a Tamil? One vague answer may be, a person who has a good understanding of the Tamil culture and who is comfortable to practise the contemporary Tamil tradition, is a Tamil.

In this definition, the contemporary traditional behaviour itself may be subject to interpretation. Is this core culture contained in: the way we treat guests; the way we respect the teachers, the learned and the elders; the traditional responsibilities of marriage; how we meet bereavement, illness, economic mishap and such major crisis in life? Traditional cultures have a way of soothing problems which needs to be retained.

The ceremonies, the food we eat and the music we listen to are other aspects that the expatriate communities are finding their way around. The language is an important aspect of a culture and is a useful vehicle to convey the meaning of traditional values and practice. One interesting feature of Tamil culture is the absence of family names. Should we try to maintain this tradition? Many of us may be searching for answers to such questions.

The NZ Tamil societies could form a study group to focus on the cultural needs of our society. At the same time we could open links with the society at large, including Maori, Pakeha and other ethnic groups. We can interchange ideas, experience living in other cultures and make the life more interesting for us and other Kiwis. Once we accept that all cultures undergo changes ("pazaiyana kazithalum puthiyana puhuthalum") then we may be able to approach the questions such as how we should bring up our children, and how we can contribute to the process of cultural evolution, in an objective manner.

As for the language, the expatriate Tamils need to look at the potential benefits of bilingual education. A brief description of the influence of language on thought is given in a text book in Psychology (Wade & Tavris, 1993). According to the theory of linguistic relativity, language has a powerful influence on cognition (Whorf, 1956). Although the extent of influence of the linguistic differences between cultures on thought and perception may be subject to debate, psychologists generally agree that language does have an effect on thinking, reasoning, problem solving and social stereotypes.

In English, the absence of gender-neutral terms for he/she and the use of terms such as he, him and his in the gender-neutral sense, may cause the children to understand the "neutral" he as masculine which can affect their sex stereotyping of animals, objects, and perhaps jobs (Wade & Tavris, 1993).

This is an area where bilingual education could enhance children's lateral thinking. It is worth stressing that while Tamil culture is not free of sex stereotyping, the use of gender-neutral terms in written and spoken Tamil ('avar' for third person, and 'athu' for an animal) has helped to reduce such bias.

Since children have almost unlimited potential to learn, they may be encouraged to learn a second language not just for the sake of learning that language, but also for widening their learning skills and thinking. Expatriate Tamils have an excellent potential to teach Tamil language to their children.

From personal experience, the author can state with confidence that children will enjoy learning another language and culture. They are very curious, and this natural curiosity is a good motivating factor. Despite their small number, Canterbury Tamil Society has started teaching Tamil to the children as well as some interested adults.

Just as culture, languages also evolve. Tamil language is not an exception. It is evolving rapidly. In the last two decades, even the shape of some Tamil scripts have changed. Tamil is now used on Internet. Four years ago the author composed about 50 verses (2 line 'kurals' and 4 line 'venpaas') describing the basic concepts and formulae that are taught in a core engineering course: Mechanics of Materials. This was possible due to the versatility of the language.

In Tamil there are many words that have the same meaning. This is ideal for writing poems. The author does not know the reason for this, but wonders whether it indicates that this language originated or evolved in a large area, or it is the result of influence of other languages such as Sanskrit. It should be borne in mind that English language which is very rich in vocabulary includes words that were derived or borrowed from other languages including Tamil (e.g. catamaran, mulligatawny, curry). Tamil language does have a wide base, and the Tamils are happy to incorporate words from other languages, including English. It has an excellent potential for survival.


Having looked at the problems of Tamil expatriates, let us now ask whether cultural diversity can be harmful to the human race. As mentioned earlier, the recent ethnic conflicts cause one to ask this question. There may be a tendency for some ethnic groups to embrace the culture of another (stronger) group in their own or different environment. This is sometimes encouraged by even democratically elected governments which tend to succumb to communal political elements within or outside their own parties, and favour the majority in employment, education etc.

On the other hand, the natural selection process in evolution requires diversity to ensure a high survival rate. The author is of the opinion that cultural diversity enhances the quality of our lives, and may be necessary for the survival of the human race. Even the technological advancements may be linked to cultures.

For example, Aryabhata, an Indian astronomer knew that the earth was spherical and that a year lasted 365.3586 days, in 500AD (Cumming, 1995). The author wonders whether this could have been the influence of the local culture which had faith in astrology. The interest of the community in astrology may have motivated research in astronomy. The Greeks contribution to Maths and Mechanical Engineering may have something to do with the wars (sometimes ethnic wars can result in useful by-products, but the author is not advocating war for the sake of inventing machines). The technological advancement has been the result of contributions from various cultures.

Since technological advancement is a key to the survival of the human race, one can say that cultural diversity contributes to the evolution. There may also be other subtle, but possibly more important contributions, such as the influence of lifestyle on mental stress. The way in which our body and mind react to the stresses may affect even the biological evolution. So one wonders whether culture could have an effect on biological evolution too. If culture has the potential to influence the evolution, then one may see the advantages of having diversity in culture to complement each other.

From the above discussion, it appears that cultural diversity is a desirable feature of human race. If so, we need to trace the source of cultural conflicts. Is it ethnic or cultural identity? The author's view is that ethnic or cultural identity alone is unlikely to cause any problems. It is interesting to study how communities respond to the introduction of foreign cultures. It is worth recalling an ancient Tamil verse "yaathum oorae, yaavarum kaelir" which means "any town is home-town, everyone my kinsman". Tamils did practise this, and were quick in adapting under the European rule that lasted about four centuries.

During the early part of this, their religion Hinduism was under threat, but somehow it survived, not as a result of their fighting but by their accommodating behaviour. Interestingly, Hindu religion survived but Christianity and Catholicism were accepted by some Tamils. Even those who did not embrace these religions, have accepted the reality calmly. Even now, some Hindu Tamils also go to churches and pray. The harmony between the people who strongly practise these religions is a strikingly interesting feature of this part of Asia.

Another point to note is that coexistence of diverse cultures has not caused serious problems in some countries such as Canada, India and Singapore. Although there have been problems in some parts of India, namely Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab and some states in the north-east, on the whole the secular democracy has worked reasonably well. Sri Lanka is an example where the Westminister style democracy has failed to keep the people united. The successive governments have either exploited the ethnic difference or have not been able to resist such exploitation by other communal elements in creating a division among the people. It is important to study the possible causes of these problems.


Tamils of Sri Lanka, just as any other community in the world, have been and are peace-loving people. The same applies to the Sinhalese people. There were no armed insurrection in the Tamil parts of post-colonial Sri Lanka until the seventies. Most Tamils of Sri Lankan origin were happy to be "Ilankai (Sri Lankan) Tamils", and it must be said that they were even somewhat indifferent to the citizenship problems of the Tamils in the plantation sector who immigrated from India during the British rule.

Then came the discrimination and Sinhala only act in the Fifties. Sinhala was made the official language, and Buddhism became the state religion. Tamil government employees had to learn Sinhala or loose their jobs. The elected Tamil MPs were beaten up by police for demanding justice peacefully. In education, Tamils had to score more than others to get into the university. The communal riots in 56, 77 and 83 created a fear among the Tamils that has continued to grow. The most sacred institution of all, the Jaffna public library, was burnt down by members of the security forces.

Since the large scale armed confrontations began, each guerrilla attack on the security forces resulted in indiscriminate retaliatory attacks that left many innocent people dead or maimed. A significant proportion of the houses and public buildings in some areas were destroyed in aerial attacks. The economic embargo that has been in force for several years has resulted in extreme hardship to the civilians (Pieris, 1992). The escalation of Sinhala-Tamil violence and the resulting internationalisation of the conflict is reported in a book Ethnic Conflict, edited by Bouche et al (Arasaratnam, 1987).

Escalation of violence and the state's mishandling of it have caused a fear among the Tamils: That is, the Tamil culture is under threat. All these actions have caused the Tamils to cling to their identity and fight for their rights. They began to see them as Tamils first. It was a forced identity. Initially they asked for equal rights, and the major Tamil political party "Federal Party" asked for federal status. Deals were made but they were quickly broken by the ruling parties, because they could not afford to give the Tamils control over their own affairs at the expense of loosing popularity among the Sinhalese, as the oppositions were always against such deals.

The governments changed, but when a governing party became an opposition they were ready to block any moves to give federal status or equal rights to the Tamils. Gradually the Tamils lost faith in the Sri Lankan state, and in 1976 the Tamil parties from the north and east of Sri Lanka formed Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), and issued a manifesto demanding the creation of an independent Tamil state. In 1977 elections, TULF won the elections in the north and east. At this stage, Tamils remembered being under their own rule prior to the arrival of Europeans, and wanted to run their own affairs.

Under continued external pressure, there emerged a strong Tamil identity. This is not to say that the Tamils did not have a communal identity prior to these events. It is just that it became so strong that it turned into nationalism. This was forced onto them by the actions and in-actions of the Sri Lankan governments: actions such as discrimination in education and employment, colonisation and unfair constitutional changes; in-actions that encouraged rioting gangs to attack Tamil civilians and property and allowed security forces to use violence against civilians. It is worth noting that in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the people do not have such a strong identity crisis Their culture, they feel, is under no threat in the secular state of India, and they have a sense of belonging to India. Similarly, despite being a small community, the Tamils in New Zealand feel that they are not under any external threat and are safe and happy to belong to this country.


At this stage, it is appropriate to find the conditions under which cultural identity causes problems. One possible answer is that the identity itself is harmless, as long as individuals are able to move between the cultures, crossing the traditional boundaries. In other words, the boundaries must be permeable. When a community is subject to excessive external pressure from another community or other socio-political forces, it may seal its boundaries, and cultural identity then becomes a major issue. Such a community may become sensitive to any external stimuli, and it may unknowingly become self-centred and isolated, not only from the source of the initial external pressure, but also from other communities. Under these conditions, internal struggles from elements that want to escape from the isolated structure could cause serious problems (such as division among the Tamil groups). In such a closed community, external forces could cause the boundaries to collapse or the internal forces could rupture the boundaries (see Figure 1). This may lead to an identity crisis.

Figure 1. Cultural Identity Model

The above model can also be applied to the Sinhalese community. It must be stated here that the entire Sinhalese community cannot be held responsible for this pressure. Even perceived threats could act as external pressure. After independence from the British, sections of Sinhala elite reminded the people of pre-colonial Indian invasions and an epic battle that had become part of the Sinhala folklore between a Sinhala and a Tamil king in the second century B.C to mobilise support for their particular concerns (Arasaratnam, 1987).

This and the fact that under the British rule, proportionately more Tamils were employed in government service may have caused the Sinhalese to start applying pressure against the Tamil community. State leadership's inability to deal with the Sinhala nationalism encouraged this process. That is to say that cultural identity may have become an issue for the Sinhalese whose reaction to the perceived threat then became a real threat for the Tamils.

Whether the above model is right or wrong, we have to understand this problem in order to find a solution. Perhaps this model would serve as a starting point. In any case we need to look at possible ways of resolving the conflict between the two communities that are locked in their own shells. To reverse the above process of cultural isolation, it is necessary to remove the factors that started it in the first place. This means, all threats, real and perceived, must be removed.

In Sri Lanka, this implies that both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil fighters must renounce violence, particularly against civilians. This is where the international community including the New Zealand government can help. Neither side is in a position to trust the other. This can be changed with international mediation and security guarantees.

A permanent solution to the problem is achievable, if the two communities are allowed to run their own affairs without interference. This requires a commitment from both sides. In the interests of the future generations, both sides must change their apparent inflexible attitude. The Sri Lankan government and other Sinhalese mainstream politicians need to realise, and explain to the public, that the unity of the people is more important than maintaining a unitary administration by force. LTTE need to realise that for long term peace, they will have to take some steps to win the hearts of all communities.


The relative success of the Indian democracy may be attributed to several factors. One is that India is a multicultural society and as such no particular group is under threat. The argument against this is that Hindi language is similar to many north Indian languages, and is spoken by the majority. Yet, the South Indians, including Tamils the majority of whom don't speak Hindi do not feel threatened. Perhaps it is the secular nature of the Indian state and its devolved administrative structure that has united the people of North and South. This is where the hope lies.

The author believes that further devolution of power to the states may even resolve other remaining problems in states such as Jammu & Kashmir. Sri Lanka should learn from this and go for a full devolution of power in the interests of the future generations. This should not be a question of pride or politics.

All major Sri Lankan parties should try to understand the problem and let the Tamils run their own affairs. There are hard-line communal elements among the Sinhalese who may never cease to oppose any move to devolve power to the Tamil regions. In the past, a number of agreements between the Tamil political leaders and Sri Lankan governments were made, but they were broken on all occasions due to the inability of the governing parties to implement the agreements without risking their hold on power.

While some foreign observers see the Sri Lankan government's 1995 devolution proposal as a reasonable compromise, the Tamils are waiting to see whether it will be implemented or will be put aside under pressure from extremists. This is where external mediation would help. Given the current circumstances where the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government are not in a position to trust each other, negotiations with the mediation of neutral governments appears to be the only peaceful means of ending the violence.


The Tamil societies including the NZ Tamil groups could get together to study the problems that the Tamils are facing. We could start by searching the answers to various questions related to the cultural identity. If Tamils consider themselves as having a distinct identity worth preserving, then they should be able to articulate as to what is worth preserving and why. This needs quite a soul searching, as the immediate replies may not be the real answers. The New Zealand Tamils could also play a vital role in bringing an end to the suffering of innocent people in Sri Lanka, with the help of the fellow New Zealanders.

First of all we have to unite and identify some common goals. This is not an easy task. This requires a commitment, and minds that are free to think and accept alternative approaches. We have to realise that our view may not be complete, even if it appears to be clear. We can discuss with experts in the relevant areas. It may also be necessary to make compromises. If we are to function as a fully integrated structure, such compromises may cause stresses. We simply will have to accept them. We have the old saying "Union is strength" (in Tamil "adampan kodiyum thirandaal midukku"). Superficially it is easy to understand. What may not be transparent is the fact that sometimes stresses are inevitable. This problem may be compared to the stresses induced in physical structures.

It is not difficult to bend a soft-bound book when one side is held and the other side is pushed. On the other hand, if the pages are glued or held tightly then it becomes very strong. The difference between the two is the shearing type of stresses that are induced between the individual sheets. When the sheets are bonded, there will exist some stresses between the sheets thus enabling the structure to resist external loads more strongly.

The same is true in compound beams and reinforced concrete beams. There is however something to watch out. That is, if the inter component stresses exceed the bond strength, then the structure may fail suddenly with possibly devastating consequences. Therefore it is essential to ensure, at the design stage, that any inter-component stresses are within acceptable limits. It appears that identifying common goals of a social group is also an extremely important task.

It is interesting to use the above example to a multiethnic society. In Canada, the French and English are getting along reasonably well. In India, the various states have reasonable power, and there are no inter-state wars. There is a good working relationship between most states. Would it work, if France and Germany were to come under one government. It is hard to predict the outcome, but the European communities, from a secure position within their countries, are uniting on the economical front.

Can this happen in Sri Lanka? Clearly the inter-ethnic stresses are at a critical stage. To reduce the stresses, both communities could be allowed to function independently to such an extent that the stresses would fall to acceptable levels. Whether or not the country will break is a too simple question.

A more meaningful question may be, whether the people in that island will have a better chance of long-term survival and prosperity under two or one administration, and if the answer is the latter then the author is of the opinion it would have to be a federal type, as the current unitary structure has proved to be a failure. (Giving regional autonomy may be compared to the rails in a railway track. When laying a track, unless a clearance between rails is provided, there may develop excessive stresses between the rails due to temperature changes, which can sometimes cause them to buckle resulting in derailment.)


The subject of cultural boundaries is important to all New Zealanders. If we understand the significance of cultural diversity, and learn from each other, all communities will benefit. The author's nine year old daughter became interested in Maori language, and is learning it as her third language. She has discovered some similarities between Maori and Tamil. Both languages have adjectives that are not found in English.

For example, korE3 (meaning 'there' while referring to a place away from both the speaker and the person spoken to, Harawira1994) and kon=E3 ('there' while referring to a place near the person spoken to). There are corresponding words in Tamil (ang=EA and ung=EA). Most Kiwi Tamils would have noted the similarity between m=E3n=E3 (Maori) and m=E3nam (Tamil) both having similar meaning. While the similarity and differences between Tamil and English are likely to have been studied elsewhere, the author is unaware of any work relating Maori and Tamil. There exists an excellent potential for the two communities to learn each other's language and culture.

The problems that the Tamils in Sri Lanka are facing are not just our problems. These are humanitarian problems that everyone should understand. By discussing it with the society at large, we will be sharing our emotional burden and at the same time there are other potential benefits including some guidance and advice from others on how we can help to bring peace in Sri Lanka. If we are prepared to be flexible, and shift our viewing position, we may be able to widen our understanding of all our problems. Understanding a problem is the first step in solving it.

The Sri Lankan conflict is a dynamic problem. A solution that would have been viable in the seventies is now unacceptable. With each passing day, the destruction of something that we cannot create is progressing. Innocent people are dying. Others are living in fear and turmoil. The distance between the opposing sides have continued to widen. For the sake of humanity we must all do whatever is possible to bring the conflict to an end.


The subject of this paper is the result of a discussion the author had with his brother Kumaraparathy (Transpower, Wellington) on cultural identity and conditioning and how this was viewed by Tamil saints and philosophers. A critical assessment of an original version of this article by Kumaraparathy and his son Gnanabharathy (Works Environmental, Christchurch) has broadened the scope of the paper and has removed some ambiguities. The author is also grateful to his colleagues John Peet (Chemical & Process Engineering) and Jacob Bercovitch (Political Science) for their comments and encouragement, and his wife Krshnanandi for her comments and input through many discussions.


1. Arasaratnam, S, (1987). Sinhala Tamil relations in modern Sri Lanka, in J.D. Boucher et al (eds), Ethnic Conflict, California: Sage Publications.

2. Ciththar (1991) Civavaakkiyam, in Meyyappan, S. (ed) Ciththar Paadalkal, Chidambaram (India): Manivaasagar Publishers.

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