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 

Home Whats New  Trans State Nation  One World Unfolding Consciousness Comments Search

Home > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle > > Tamils in New Zealand - International Conference   > Political Economy of Ethnicity: Sri Lankan Tamils  

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

Political Economy of Ethnicity
With Special Reference To Sri Lankan Tamils

V. Nithiyanandam

Dr Nithiyanandam is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the School of Applied and International Economics, Massey University-Albany Campus, Auckland. He was the Head of the Economics Department and the acting Dean of Agriculture at the Jaffna University, before his arrival three years ago. His current research interests are Development Economics and Political Economy.


Ever since ethnicity in Sri Lanka reached the proportions of a 'conflict' among the different races, it has been dissected to an extent that no stone is left unturned. Although this has led to analyses of different sorts, there still exists a socio-cultural bias in most approaches and, solutions have been offered within this range. There is, however, a general dearth of literature taking a political economy perspective. The inadequacy is further exacerbated when one considers the Tamil side because even the few studies undertaken probed the national scenario scarcely touching on the North and East of the country.

Yet, the nature and character of the conflict through its different phases of origin and escalation have been moulded by political economic factors not only relevant to a particular period but, in several respects, also unique to Sri Lankan Tamils. This paper is an attempt to trace such factors and examine how they in their own right have contributed towards the conflict.

The paper recognises that the Sri Lankan Tamils did not emphasise their separate identity as a nation at the beginning and had operated within the Sri Lanka national structure. But political economic developments at the Sri Lankan national level prompted the Tamils to react in chosen ways. Their reaction at each period has also been influenced by features characteristic to the political economy of Tamils. The paper, therefore, divides the factors as indigenous and those related to Sri Lanka.

The analysis is based on three different stages: a formative stage, a growth stage, and an establishment stage. The formative stage takes up the period 1956 -1970 and shows how the political economic standing of the Tamils was affected by the language and religious nationalism of the period. But this, in turn, also led to a nationalism based especially on language among the Tamils. The reasons for such a development are discussed.

The growth stage is considered to be between 1970 and 1983 where, it will be shown that Tamils were confronted with an opposing set of developments. On the political side, while their condition deteriorated further, on the economic side, there were some positive changes. But towards the end of this period there were deliberate attempts to destroy this advantage which took the conflict into the next stage.

The establishment stage which could be referred to as the period 1983 - 1990 saw certain key developments from the Sri Lankan Tamil side. This resulted in the Sri Lankan Government formulating policies that were a reflection or reaction to Tamil strategies. This had been quite contrary to what was happening up to now in that the Tamils were reacting to Sri Lankan Government actions. At the same time, the policies also brought out their contradictory nature in relation to international political economic developments.

The paper consists of five sections. The first is rather introductory and looks at the reasons why Sri Lankan Tamils, initially, failed to emphasise their identity as a 'nation' and chose to operate within the national complex. The following three sections identify a formative phase, a growth phase and, an establishment phase in the evolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and focus on the underlying political economy which characterised each of these phases. The concluding section deals with the recent (October 1995) stalemate situation and outlines its implications for Sri Lankan Tamils.


The subjugation of the Jaffna Kingdom by the Portuguese in the year 1619, described by historians as 'one of the more lasting effects of Portuguese rule' in Sri Lanka, also proved to be the death knell of a state-centric or apex-centric Tamil nationalism. Despite the loss of the sovereign kingdom, the geographical area it covered by and large left a territorial homeland for Tamils to nurture their nationalism. Yet, it turned out to be a non-starter for a very long time, perhaps, until the 1960s or 1970s. The reasons for this lapse have to be found in the political economy of Sri Lanka.

During the span of 1505 to 1815 Sri Lanka in its entirety gradually went under Western powers. Nationalism of the Sinhalese as well as of the Tamils had, thus, been altogether overwhelmed by colonialism. In addition to politics and economics, the introduction of alien religions too made heavy inroads into the nationalistic feelings of the indigenous. A breakthrough in this was only made possible during the British era through their policy on education.

The Colebrooke Commission in 1833, realising the need for an English educated bureaucracy in the country, recommended the induction and promotion of English education in Sri Lanka. An additional reason for this step was its belief that the creation of an English educated urban elite group would ensure a segment within the indigenous society which would be always loyal to the British. This, in turn, the Commissioners thought would discourage the growth of anti-British or nationalistic feelings among the locals. Despite qualified success in this expectation, the educational policy of the British very soon encountered problems in its implementation. On the other hand, the solution they sought to overcome these difficulties led to more than one kind of nationalism developing in the country.

Sri Lanka was one colony where there had always been an increasing demand for education. Consequently, the Colebrooke recommendation quickly ran into difficulties. It was grossly impractical to impart education in a foreign tongue to a large majority of the local population. In about 1867, in order to come to terms with this problem, the Britishers adopted a compromising policy. In addition to preserving education in English, which had, by now, been transferred into the hands of the state assisted missionary schools, the Government also geared itself to the promotion of education in 'swabasha' (national languages) through both government and assisted vernacular schools.

This policy from the very outset had the potential to drive a wedge in the Sri Lankan polity and carve out two groups of people - an English educated and a vernacular educated. The latter could further be subdivided on ethnic lines into Sinhalese and Tamils. But what is important with regard to the Tamils was that this division between the English and vernacular educated was less clear than among the Sinhalese. This had far reaching implications for Tamil nationalism and the moulding of the ethnic conflict. But before dwelling on this it would be useful to note how this dual system of education served as the catalyst for two kinds of nationalisms in the country.

The primary feature of the dual educational policy was that it was based on class lines. In contrast to vernacular schools where education was free, the English schools levied very high fees which an average Sri Lankan could seldom afford. Moreover, they never kept pace with the demand. Apart from Colombo, Jaffna was the only other location which had a reasonable supply of English schools, thanks to the Christian missionary activity. It is clear, then, that it was only the wealthy elite in the urban areas who could aspire for an education in English. Whereas, the outcome was even worse. While the English educated 'held positions of wealth, prestige and, power', the most a vernacular educated could hope for was to be a teacher.

Under such circumstances, there was a need for alternate economic opportunities. However, in the absence of any kind of industrial development (plantations excepted), the village economy continued to serve as a source of economic opportunities. The 'swabasha' educated Sinhalese, therefore, had no option but to become part of the Sinhalese peasantry in the village economy. The peasantry as a whole remained a class devoid of any political aspirations and ever dependent on the protection offered by the state.

On the other hand, the elite class, with its aristocratic backgrounds and far wider knowledge, evinced an interest in political matters and grew into a 'ginger' group under the British rule. It signalled the origin of a nationalism in Sri Lanka against the British. Yet, it never crossed peaceful and constitutional boundaries nor took the form of a mass agitation like that of India. It was always confined to seeking a series of constitutional reforms which the Imperial Government sooner or later could accommodate. It could also be seen that the economic aspirations of the elites never confronted the British interests and were either supportive or independent of English activities. What is important in the context of this paper is that the vast majority of the Sinhalese masses were not active partners in this expression of nationalism. Their feelings had to be dormant until they were articulated in the post-independent period by a section of the Sinhalese elite class in a manner detrimental to the Tamil minority.

When one compares these with developments in the North, the main difference was that land as a source of wealth and economic opportunities had undergone a process of general deterioration. Two reasons could be attributed to this: (i) With the fall of the Jaffna Kingdom, land as a factor of production went into a state of neglect. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch were driven by mercantalistic ambitions and never showed an interest in agricultural production. Whereas the British, who came as a part-industrial capitalistic power was only concerned with primary commodities to service their industrial society. The palmyrah palm, the predominant crop of the North, had all, if not, better qualities of a primary crop. But, for different reasons, it did not at this juncture enter into the British equation. Given the arid nature of the soil and climate in the region, after long term neglect it was difficult without state initiative to maintain land as a resource. (ii) The steady increase of population. Jaffna peninsula had the highest density of population for cultivated square mile in the whole island between 1616 and 1921. There was, therefore, a progressive decline in agriculture as whatever agricultural land available was taken more and more for residential purposes. In the event of a normal growth process, those who were displaced from agriculture would have found employment in a newly growing manufacturing sector. Its absence left Tamils of the North in a precarious position. With access to land and industry denied, they had to look for other means and, it is in this context, 'the acquisition of education, specifically English education, became the substitute for industrialisation and economic growth in the peninsula.'

The implication of this had been that the Tamils fully aware of the limited opportunities for vernacular educated did not take it up with any enthusiasm. Instead, they chose to concentrate on English education. The high costs of such education were viewed as necessary investments not only to better their prospects but also as a means of survival. The class distinction between the English educated and the 'swabasha' educated which was marked among the Sinhalese was not, therefore, evidently clear at this stage among the Tamils.

When it came to nationalism, this English educated Tamil intelligentsia combined with the Sinhalese elite in order to wrest constitutional concessions from the ruling colonial power. They had, in fact, buried their linguistic and ethnic loyalties in joining hands with the majority community. This had two different kinds of impact on the Tamils. On the one hand, Tamil nationalism which was already submerged under foreign domination was further obscured by this elitist combination. On the other, it also imparted an initial weakness in the ethnic nationalism of the Tamils leading colonial administrators to believe that territorial representation was the best platform for politics in Sri Lanka. Consequently, the later day Britishers refused to recognise Tamils as a separate nation and even their mild demands like the request for communal weightage were rejected.

None of these, however, disturbed the economic opportunities of Tamils. They continued to thrive on the basis of an education acquired in English. But it was not going to be so for long and, even before independence there were symptoms that a change was imminent.

The Formative Phase: 1956 - 1970

Having sketched the conditions under which the Tamils failed to emphasise their separate identity, it is necessary to mention that the evolution of the ethnic conflict and the growth of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka went hand in hand and neither could be treated in isolation. When we seek an explanation in terms of the political economy of the partners involved in the conflict, the major player had always been the majority community. It was represented by the government in power. The Tamils had no choice but to play second fiddle. This is somewhat inevitable. Having identified with national politics for so long, suddenly when the senior partner decides to turn against them Tamils were by and large unprepared. They could, in most instances, only reflect or react to what was dished out. It was only in the later stages of the conflict that they reached a point where they could take the initiative in the struggle. Until then, although a Tamilian flavour could sometimes be identified it was not only sparse but also was all mixed in the same bowl of soup.

In the previous section it was shown that the Sinhalese mass element was left out of the nationalistic equation during the colonial era. It was, therefore, given the right conditions, always to be expected to come to the forefront. However, when it ultimately came it was not through its own accord but emerged out of the contradictions of party politics among the Sinhalese elites. Timing apart, what was more alarming was its chauvinistic character. In this regard three aspects could be picked:

(i) it was an ethnic nationalism identified entirely with the Sinhalese,

(ii) it was also a religious nationalism always going along with Buddhism, and

(iii)despite its ethnic and religious characters, there was always an attempt to equate it with state or apex nationalism.

How did this come about? The elitist nationalism, when it gathered momentum and gradually succeeded in the 1930s and 1940s, had to move towards the Westminster model based on parliamentary democracy. This, in turn, meant that there was a necessity to win the votes of the masses. From the beginning the cardinal strategy adopted to accomplish this had been economic measures reflected mainly through the government social welfare programme. Even the Leftist opposition which entered the political stage in the 1930s approved this and always campaigned for an enlargement of the programme. Despite the presence of a Sinhala Maha Sabha, established in 1937 by S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake, there was no attempt to use language or religion for political purposes. English continued to be the language of administration and the secularity of the state was preserved.

But a struggle for leadership within the United National Party (UNP) which was brewing for some time when ultimately surfaced put an end to all these. S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake, realising that his chances of securing the party leadership in the near future was remote, decided to leave the UNP with his Sinhala Maha Sabha in 1951. He almost immediately disbanded the Sabha and substituted it with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Once a political party was formed the logical prerequisite was to device a strategy which had to be different from that of the UNP but attractive enough to capture the Sinhala mass vote. It did not take long for a person of Bandaranayake's calibre to discern that the correct line would be a socio-cultural approach. His experience with the Sabha was, no doubt, of great value to him in this respect. He, therefore, decided to utilise the nationalist sentiments of the majority Sinhalese which so far remained an untapped resource. Its articulation, however, had to be of a different complex. Thus, ensued the birth of an ethno/religious nationalism in Sri Lanka.

Victory at the 1956 General Elections gave SWRD the opportunity to translate his vision into reality. He did not waste time in making Sinhala the official language of the country. Another step taken in the direction of more recognition to Sinhala was the policy of providing education in one's own mother tongue, initially confined to the social sciences but later (in mid-1960s) extended to natural sciences as well. In the religious sphere, the coinciding of the Buddha Jayanthi 2500 (2500th anniversary of the birth of Buddhism) served as a starting point to promote religious nationalism. On the economic front, there was a need to enlist the Sinhalese into activities other than peasant agriculture. While expanding the social welfare programme, an attempt was also made to widen the public sector. Under a policy of nationalisation which stopped short of plantations several ventures which were in private hands now came under public ownership. One of the accepted policies of these state owned enterprises was to create as many job opportunities as possible. These were, in most instances, given to the Sinhalese majority.

The repercussions of this new political economic programme on the Tamils of Sri Lanka are not difficult to perceive. In addition to the need of learning Sinhala to retain as well as to seek state sector jobs, they also found to their dismay that the public sector expansion programme was of limited use to them.

In the final analysis, it could be argued that the Tamils did not have a proper answer and were simply swept away by this tide of ethno-religious nationalism. They had to also endure a physical assault when violence was unleashed on them during the 1958 communal riots. Peaceful measures of protest adopted by the then Federal Party (FP) drew almost a blank. Two reasons could be attributed to this extreme weakness of the Tamils during this phase:

1. The rapid pace and success of the Sinhala/Buddhist nationalism. A clear indication of this was the speed with which it was adopted by other political parties operating in majority areas, Leftists not excluded. The latter, though for a long time had an interest in Tamil areas, suddenly decided in the 1963/64 period to abandon Tamils and confine themselves to the Sinhala electorate by joining the SLFP in a coalition. Each political party was trying to outdo the other in the promotion of Sinhala/Buddhist nationalism even when it amounted to bringing an economic peril to the country. This was very obvious when the UNP coalition in 1965 adopted the Poya holiday scheme. Subsequently, in 1970, when it was proved that the scheme had been an economic burden on the nation, it was abolished by the new United Front (UF) Government.

2. The feeble nationalistic response from the Tamils. They were, in many respects, not prepared for this sudden onslaught of the Sinhala/Buddhist nationalism. They had not groomed a nationalism based on their language or religion which could work as an antidote. Tamil had just begun to be used as a medium of instruction and, in the short period it was in operation, it could not gather sufficient strength to promote a nationalism that would meet the Sinhala challenge. On other hand, the FP, the chief political voice of the Tamils during this period, directed its action against the Sinhalese nationalistic threat mainly in two ways. One, it was seeking a parity of status for Tamil with Sinhala at official levels. The other was its demand for more regional autonomy under a federal constitution. Both these measures, notwithstanding their total rejection by Sinhala parties, could not evoke a nationalist response among the Tamils.

The reason for this, however, has to be found in the economic sphere. Despite the economic weakening Tamils underwent as a result of the measures taken by Sinhala nationalist governments, they were not completely ruined. It was employment at the middle level that was affected and whoever who could rise above this level was still assured of success. The professional job market was unaffected by party politics and a professional qualification by a university degree or otherwise ensured competition on equal terms with the Sinhalese counterpart. Tamils wasted no time in utilising this opportunity. They channelled their resources into this arena and reaped maximum benefit. Very soon they controlled some sectors much above their proportion in the country's total population. For example, in the Irrigation Department alone Tamil Engineers comprised a staggering 48.1 per cent in 1963, increasing their share from 46.1 per cent in 1955. In the medical field the pace was even more marked. In the Health department the proportion of Tamil doctors increased from 35.3 per cent to 40.6 per cent. At the same time, in the affected middle level, one could observe a tendency for the Tamils to come to grips with reality. Even though a few retired under the language issue, others learnt their Sinhala and prospered in their own fields. For those seeking new jobs at this level, there was an obvious delay and , in the interim period, the social structure of the Tamils served as an insurance against undue pain.

The scenario described above invariably led to some changes among the Tamils. The demand for education leading to professional courses was excessively high. Even after diverting additional resources most of the schools found it difficult to meet the new demand. Consequently, when standards were raised it resulted in acute competition among individuals. One notable outcome of such a situation was that private tuition mainly in the popular subjects becoming more a norm than an exception.

In conclusion it could be said that Tamil reaction to Sinhala/Buddhist nationalism during this era had been one of self-sacrifice and internal competition. They were the only means to keep their heads above water levels. But at that stage they little realised that there was bigger tide awaiting them in the next phase.

The Growth Phase: 1970 - 1983

This phase could easily be described as the most crucial in the political economic analysis of the conflict from the Tamil perspective. The main feature of this period has been that, unlike in the earlier phase, there were some very positive political and economic responses from the Tamil side. But, understandably, these came in the wake of a new wave of ethno/religious nationalism from the Sinhalese.

At the outset, the growth phase could be sub-divided into two: 1970 - 77 and 1977 - 83. A marked, at the same time, similar feature of these two periods has been that there were pendulum swings from Right to Left (1970) and, then again, from Left to Right (1977) in the parliamentary majorities obtained by the ruling parties. In each of these swings the winning party/coalition procured a a two-thirds majority. This overwhelming strength was sufficient enough to bring about changes in the Constitution. Either party could have easily used this towards more recognition of minority rights possibly to the extent of accepting the national identity of Tamils. It was possible, for example, to accommodate the demand for a federal state. But, instead, each party in its own way went to the other extreme. They utilised this majority to deprive the minority communities of whatever safeguards they previously had. In both instances new Constitutions were promulgated with damaging effect on the minorities. Some of the unfavourable facets of the two constitutions can be listed as follows:

(a)removal of Section 29 (b) of the Soulbury Constitution, which, at least, nominally protected minority rights,

(b)conversion of the bicameral legislative assembly into a unicameral one,

(c)incorporation of the official status of the Sinhala language, and

(d)proclamation of Buddhism as the state religion.

There is no doubt that these changes drastically weakened the political standing of the minorities in general and that of the Tamils in particular. They polarised the Tamils to the extent that at least at the parliamentary level they decided to bury their differences and merge themselves into one single party - the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). From a Sinhalese perception the thinking seems to be that when Tamil support was not required for its parliamentary survival, Tamils could altogether be marginalised. An inevitable outcome of this polarisation process had been that a Sinhalese majority government had to eventually face a predominantly Tamil opposition. It was, therefore, not very surprising that, in 1977, the TULF leader became the Leader of the Opposition.

Under the circumstances, it was also becoming increasingly clear for the Tamils that peaceful parliamentary measures would be of little use to win political rights. There had to be a change not only in strategy but in the desired goal as well. The Vaddukoddai Convention of the TULF in 1976 reflected this and a resolution was adopted at this Conference to the effect that a separate independent state for Tamils should be sought. The resolution also implied that extra-parliamentary measures could be employed to achieve the end. The real incentive for the change in tactics, however, came again from the economic side. The catalyst this time was the contrasting set of economic policies of the two governments during the two sub-phases.

Notwithstanding the various political manoeuvres of the UF Government in 1970, there was a steady decline of the country's economy. Two major indicators of this were the unfavourable balance of payments position leading to a foreign exchange crisis and rising unemployment. It was also true that the latter was too severe among university graduates. Policies pursued to encounter these twin problems helped, in opposite ways, to push the Tamils towards a transformed strategy.

In order to prevent a drain on foreign exchange reserves, the UF Government in 1971/72 decided to extend the already existing import sanctions on manufactured consumer goods to subsidiary food commodities, especially onions, chillies and, potatoes. Onions and chillies had for long been traditional crops of the Jaffna District and grown, more often than not, in surplus quantities. It, therefore, became an opportune moment for the farmers of the Jaffna District to derive optimum advantage. Increased quantities could be produced and supplied to the market at higher prices. To cite one example, the open market price of onions rose from 43 cents a pound in 1970 to Rs1.14 in 1972 and over a million cwts. were sent out of Jaffna. The Jaffna farmer also successfully experimented with growing potatoes and, very soon, it was possible for him to generate substantial income from the cultivation of this crop. Monies earned through subsidiary food crop cultivation could easily be compared to urban middle class incomes. The prosperity achieved went a long way in casting aside doubts regarding the economic viability of a Tamil nation. At a time when thoughts about an independent state were at an incipient stage, no doubt, this would have been a contributory factor.

Another development which worsened the foreign exchange crisis during the period too was a blessing in disguise for the Tamils. It was the 1973/74 OPEC oil price hike. When petro dollars earned out of this crisis by Middle East countries were converted into wage payments for skilled and unskilled workers hired from abroad, Sri Lanka, along with other Asian countries had its share. Among the Sri Lankans were a large number of Tamils in the middle and lower grades who obtained employment. To this number one must also add those Tamil youth who succeeded in gaining jobs in the various ocean liners. The trek of the professionals to overseas locations too had by this time made a slow start. Although the overall implications of this overseas dimension had to wait until the next phase, at this initial stage, these avenues while providing employment to a population starved of such opportunities, also furnished additional income to the region exacerbating the thinking on a separate state.

If these new sources of income boosted the confidence of Tamils, some of the policies of the Colombo Government to quell unemployment simply drove them towards taking a militant attitude. These policies were no where near the conventional macroeconomic wisdom of creating job opportunities through increased domestic product. They were, on the other hand, typical of a LDC with a multi-ethnic society. They aimed to 'rob Peter to pay Paul' and, in the Sri Lankan context, attempted to enhance job opportunities to the Sinhalese at the expense of Tamils.

It has already been pointed out that making Sinhala the official language largely curtailed employment opportunities for Tamils. In addition to this, now, two further measures could be considered as victimising Tamils with regard to jobs. The first was the continuation of the policy of expanding the public sector, initiated during the previous phase. The policy was interpreted as synonymous with socialism. It manifested in the opening of a number of public corporations replacing private ventures. The Corporations were almost entirely located in the majority Sinhalese areas and offered jobs on the basis of political patronage. In other words, only Sinhalese who had taken part in the formation of the government could hope to benefit. Consequently, the number of Tamils in middle and low level occupations fell alarmingly. In the early 1970s, Tamil representation in these categories is said to be in the region of nearly half their proportion in the population.

The second measure adopted by the Government was aimed towards higher grade professional job opportunities which, up to then, as mentioned earlier, were free from political pollution. As to be expected, such targeting turned out to be far more serious for the Tamils with long term implications. It was the policy of "standardisation" used to determine university admissions. It has come under close scrutiny by scholars in different disciplines and what is relevant to here is that, like the earlier strategy, this too attempted to reserve university placements for Sinhalese students by shutting out Tamil students. The latter were required to score a higher aggregate than their Sinhalese counterparts to gain university admission. The step, in fact, was a direct outcome of the envious position the Tamils had by this time carved out for themselves in university placements, more specifically in professional courses. In the closing years of the 1960s, Tamils made up of 35.3 per cent of all admissions to science based courses and in Medicine and Engineering it was well over 40 per cent. In this milieu it is not surprising at all that the 1970 UF Government took a serious view of the allegations that the Tamil students were being favoured by their examiners and the rumour that almost 60 per cent of the admissions to the Engineering Faculty consisted of Tamils. "Standardisation", under the circumstances, was the only strategy which could redeem the situation and buy back the confidence of the Sinhalese community.

>From the Tamil point of view, however, this 'short-cut' method to enlarge higher education opportunities for the Sinhalese wiped out the last resort they had in the form of professional employment. This could be termed the climax of a rapidly growing unemployment problem among Tamil youth, the majority of whom coming from the lower middle classes. There is, now, a general consensus among scholars that it is these developments more than anything were directly responsible for the ascendancy of youth power and the vociferous state Tamil nationalism entered in the mid- and late 1970s.

Another significant development which created an atmosphere where Tamil nationalism could flourish was the establishment of a university in Jaffna. Ironically, this occurred at a time when total admissions of Tamils to existing universities were coming under a threat. Nevertheless, it soon became the rallying point for Tamil academics who were scattered in other universities around the country. It also succeeded in attracting a few from overseas. A university always serves as a nucleus for the expansion of knowledge and research pertaining in particular to the region where it is located. The university in Jaffna was no exception to this. Once granted, the government found it near impossible to block or slow down its progress. Two events, in the course of 1977, greatly strengthened the role of the university in Jaffna. One was the university autonomy granted under the new Universities Act. This made decision making relatively easier without much government interference. The other was the voluntary decision of the Sinhalese students who were in the University from its inception to permanently leave the University in the wake of the 1977 communal riots. This had the advantage of making the university exclusively Tamil oriented. Consequently, the University of Jaffna developed into a Centre for any aspect dealing with Tamils. In the early 1990s, when the LTTE took control of Jaffna it made full use of the facilities offered by the University.

When one moves to the second sub-phase, it was, now, the turn of the UNP to enjoy a two-thirds parliamentary majority. The UNP, from a Tamil perception, quickly grew into a twin headed creature with a 'good' and a 'bad' side. At one level, it was willing to grant certain political concessions to Tamils. But at another level, there were elements in the party that preached open racism. The crux of the matter, however, was that by this time the Tamil nationalism had graduated to a stage where it could not be appeased by minor concessions. UNP's economic policies, on the other hand, could not help bestowing some further advantages in this respect.

The UNP's answer to the economic woes of the country was a complete reversal of the policies of the previous government. Instead of a controlled economy it decided on an open economic policy. Restrictions in all spheres of the economy were removed. It also created a Free Trade Zone to attract foreign investments. If the policies of the previous government had helped the Jaffna peasant, these free trade policies greatly assisted the Jaffna trader. Apart from public service, trading had been the other major economic concern of the Tamils. Jaffna traders were widespread if not in the entire island, at least in all the major towns. The control measures of the SLFP had curtailed their activities and reduced their profit earning capacity. They, therefore, welcomed the change of economic policies which enhanced the scope of their activities. It is also true that the flourishing private sector, especially those concerns in the hands of Tamil entrepreneurs and overseas investors created new employment opportunities for Tamils. Aptitude of the Tamil youth for hard work and superior knowledge of their English served as conducive factors.

But the irony of the foregoing changed circumstances was that their impact on the Tamil struggle did not accrue from this advantageous position, but rather from the disadvantages they encountered. A perusal of economic policy making in Sri Lanka will reveal that, much against the wishes of the Sinhalese majority governments, policies governed by certain principles of economics could not discriminate between communities. Both the import substitution ideology of the SLFP and the open economic concept of the UNP proved it beyond doubt. The UNP Government, however, while retaining the open economic concept for development purposes, was keen to deprive Tamils from enjoying these advantages. Their rationale for doing so mainly derived from two reasons.

One, the traders operating in the southern areas along with the Tamil public servants working there were seen as elements of exploitation. They were fully aware of the transfer of wealth from the south to the north. The other reasoning emanated from the first one. While the Tamils enjoyed a good life with all their earnings, why should they seek more and more through their political agitations- both non-militant and militant. It is the thinking on these lines which resulted in frequent violence against the Tamils under the UNP rule. There were communal riots in 1977, 1979 and, then, to crown it all in 1983. In all these riots, it was later established, that the Government had to take either a minor or a major share of the blame. Agencies of the Government had either incited violence or when it eventually broke out had been passive viewers without any attempt to prevent or control it. These pogroms and the attitude of the Government greatly undermined the confidence the Tamils had in the government. They had, therefore, no option but to seek redress from other parties.

The noteworthy factor of the growth phase has been that the manner in which the different segments of the Tamilian society were incorporated into the struggle. Beginning from the middle class public servants, then, middle and lower middle class youth and, peasants and later on even the petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie have all been dragged into the conflict. It is this phenomenon and its expression of frustration and anger which transformed the Tamil nationalism into an established force for anybody to reckon.

The Establishment Phase: 1983 - 1995

The Tamil struggle, having gone through its stages of growth, did not take long to establish itself not only within Sri Lanka but in a global sense as well. In this process, it had also undergone a modification. It could no longer be considered only in political terms. To this the military dimension needs to be added. The Sri Lanka government in particular tended to view it more and more as a military exercise and the struggle as a whole had come to be characterised as a 'war'. This had its economic implications for the government. Of these, the easiest to identify has been the increase in defence spending which, in 1996, is estimated to be more than 8.4 per cent of the country's GDP. Unduly large loss of physical resources including human capital too needs to be taken into account.

A positive element emerging out of this rather gloomy outlook has been the indirect recognition of the political dimension of the struggle. The Tamils are more and more seen as a nation and their struggle as a national struggle, though this is not openly accepted. It is in this light that even the October 1995 run over of the Jaffna peninsula by the state army was viewed by the Government. It was celebrated as a victory over (the de facto state of ) Tamil Eezham and Tamils and the national flag was hoisted in a special ceremony. It remains for us to see how did the political economy of Tamils help them to reach this stage.

The most notable development in the post-1983 period has been the rise of the LTTE as a singular militant force. At the beginning, there was a multiplication of the militants into several organisations. One explanation for this is that these groups were mere manifestations of the economic disillusionment suffered by an educated youth. Frustration combined with a dose of nationalist sentiment drove them towards militancy. But not all groups had the strength, will power, leadership etc. to blossom into a freedom movement and withstand a long drawn out struggle. Most of them would have died a natural death. The LTTE, however, without waiting for this natural elimination process used its military muscle to annihilate them and ascended itself to a superior position. This, of course, had the advantage of creating one single movement to carry on with the struggle. But, on the other hand, it also allowed the residue elements of other organisations to regroup and come to be bitterly opposed to the LTTE. When major operations were ochestered by the state they were found to be aiding the government side much to the chagrin of the Tamil community, leave alone the LTTE. To this day, this has proved to be a hindering factor in the establishment phase.

Since this graduation of the LTTE, in whatever way one analyses developments concerned with Tamils, the LTTE factor looms large. When one talks of the LTTE, what immediately comes to one's mind is its dedicated fighting force with the famous cyanide capsule. From a politico-military angle, however, another factor that immensely contributed to the LTTE success was its leadership. The leadership exhibited qualities of a high degree of skill, bravery and, far-sightedness in its decision making. There are numerous instances where this was clearly demonstrated.

One major area where this excelled was in the LTTE dealings with India - both the Tamil Nadu and the Centre. A closer analysis will reveal that from the beginning the leadership recognised that Tamil Nadu would be the strength and weakness of the struggle and formulated its strategy accordingly. The changes in the Tamil Nadu political scenario too need to be taken into consideration here. The selection of Tamil Nadu as the LTTE headquarters and, then, deciding to abandon it at a chosen time are not, when one looks back now, decisions taken at the spur of the moment. They were all far-sighted moves taken after sufficient amount of thinking. The same could be said of the decision to take on the Indian army, the third largest in the world. There were many at that time who thought that the leadership was insane. But, ultimately, when the Indian army was compelled to withdraw from Jaffna without its set task unaccomplished, the judgement proved to be correct. In dealing with India's Centre, the leadership refused to give in to pressure when there was a more than reasonable attempt to thrust the Indo-Lanka Accord on the Sri Lanka Tamils. It is this display of character and quality which prompted the Lanka Guardian, the reputed political fortnightly in Sri Lanka, to declare, in 1990, the LTTE leader as the "Man of the Decade" for the 1980s.

But not all decisions of the LTTE were above board. There were instances where the leadership itself had accepted the error of judgement. The decision concerning the Muslims in the North could be cited as an example. But more than rights and wrongs of the decisions, what one tries to emphasise here is the capacity of the leadership to take decisions quickly, especially in times of acute crisis.

One major development during the establishment phase had been the evolution of a de facto state in the North under the control of the LTTE. With the passage of time this entity had become more and more full-fledged embracing almost every area affecting the daily lives of Tamils. It had (and still has in a shrunk area) its own administration, economic management, bureaucracy, judiciary etc. It has also influenced the education, cultural and, social issues of the area. In fact, a socio-economic transformation has been in progress which needs to be studied more deeply.

The momentum for this overall control over the management of the region sprang actually from at least three reasons. The first was the gradual breakdown of the state machinery leading to a paralysis of the administration. Even where it was present there was a tendency for it become deviated from the day to day needs of the public. Especially during a time when the needs themselves were undergoing change depending on ground conditions in the area. The remote control from Colombo failed to work satisfactorily. Moreover, the closing down of one police station after another gave rise to a problem of internal security. In short, there was a vacuum slowly but steadily getting larger. At a time when the LTTE stuck to a policy of retaining as high a population as possible within the region, it had to ensure that this was filled and the right environment for a smooth life was created.

The second reason was the economic embargo thrust on the Tamil community by the Sri Lanka government. It originated with a few items, but with the escalation of the conflict the list had continued to grow. The banned items included several essentials and semi-essentials like fuel, soap, batteries and, fertilizers. The LTTE administration took upon itself the task of finding alternate or substitute commodities for at least some of these. This had given rise to a number of new small scale industries which employed people displaced by the closing of some of the other avenues like fishing and, masonry. In many instances, the technology used in these ventures was conducive to the given environment and available resources. There was also a need to ensure an equitable distribution of the limited stock of commodities which was ultimately received into the area.

The third reason has been the need to generate a revenue. In order to maintain a big fighting force and engage in operations a large amount of wealth was required. A main source of income from the beginning had been the "voluntary" contributions from the public. But when the scale of operations increased and when the LTTE assumed additional responsibilities described above, it became imperative that they put revenue collection on some firm and at the same time an organised footing. They, therefore, devised their own fiscal system which could yield at least a part of the income they urgently required.

One should not hasten to conclude that their system of administration or fiscal measures were fair and efficient. They had to be judged in terms of the conditions under which they were propagated. As already mentioned there was an urgent need to fill in a vacuum. It could be mentioned that the prevailing mechanisms clearly demonstrated the organising talent of those in control against very heavy odds. They further strengthened not only the notion of an economic viability but also the administrative viability of the region. Some of the commodities for which Jaffna had to look out were not any different from what Sri Lankahad been importing for a long time. The whole system of administration and the socio-economic transformation one witnesses negated the frequent allegation of the Sri Lankan state that the LTTE had been a destructive force. On the contrary, it had, indeed, been a constructive force. It is due to this reason that the confidence the Tamil public has in the LTTE, despite the ups and downs in its popularity, has constantly been high.

Another important facet which needs to be mentioned is the foreign dimension provided by the Tamils overseas. It has already been noted in the previous section that the Tamil youth due to a contraction of employment opportunities locally were seeking them abroad. While the situation in this regard had not improved in any way, now, another wave of outward migration commenced mainly as a sequel to the series of communal riots and, more specifically as an aftermath of the 1983 pogrom. The generally deteriorating political and economic conditions too served as an additional inducement. Fears for the personal security of their children reaching young age became a great concern for parents and made them search for greener pastures. The trend continues to this day.

It has, therefore, been the 'push' factor rather than the 'pull' factor that worked as the incentive to emigrate. The only other influence determining the pace of the outflow seems to be the immigration rules and conditions imposed by host countries. The extent of sympathy shown towards human rights violations in general and in particular in the context of the Tamil struggle may, perhaps, be an additional criteria.

The outflow has been two-fold in nature. One category consisted of those seeking 'refugee' status. The other was professionals looking for peaceful and profitable climes. The latter category always searched for Western locations and could easily be classified as a 'brain drain' for the Sri lanka economy including the Tamil regions.

But from the standpoint of the Tamil struggle several positive features emerged. Overseas Tamils became the primary source of funding and the struggle, arguably, could not have been sustained without it. Such assistance was also useful in caring for an umpteen number who were displaced and ended up as refugees in their own country. In this connection, funds channelled through the various NGOs played a key role. Another contribution from the Tamil community abroad has been that it served as a medium of propaganda for the Tamilian cause. This, at times, had the ability to create some very embarrassing moments for the home government. Clearly at this stage, Tamil nationalism had entered a 'transnational' phase. Its primary function has been to strengthen the nationalism at home. Numerous news papers, magazines and, periodicals had been the main device used for such propaganda work. This mass communication network also served as a forum for debate the various issues cencerning Tamils. The role of the Tamil societies, formed in almost every country where Tamils have settled, too has to be recognisedin this respect. A more recent phenomenon from the overseas dimension has been the counter propaganda against the LTTE. Nevertheless, they too never failed to emphasise the national identity and the right of self-determination of the Tamils.

In sum, when one takes stock of this phase, it will observed that the Tamils were no longer reacting to or reflecting on the actions taken by the Sri Lanka governments. Instead, it was they who called the tune. Their activities and behaviour (mainly governed by LTTE actions) determined the course of action of the government which, in essence, had the objective of nullifying or softening the impact of measures taken by the Tamils. The political economy of the Tamils has had the strength to change roles of the parties involved in the conflict.


After the change of government in Sri Lanka in 1994, there were some efforts to resolve the conflict. But once these ended in a failure, counter measures of the Government entered a new phase. Military manoeuvres formed only a part of this strategy. Now, there is also an attempt to confront the Tamil transnationalism. A lot of funds have been channelled to meet the challenge of overseas funding and propaganda of the Tamils. Even help from private organisations has been sought at high cost.

These measures have brought a reasonable amount of success to the Government. A major step in this direction has been the re-entry of security forces into the Jaffna peninsula. This, in turn, brought its share of misery and suffering to the Tamils. But, more importantly, it completely destroyed the infrastructure built by the LTTE. This weakening trend has given rise to suggestions that the fate of the JVP could befall the LTTE too. Siri Gamage (1994) in one of his articles mentions that 'depending on the developments in the ground situation...the fate of the JVP may or may not be forecast to future developments in the Tamil conflict.'

It is clear, then, that the Tamil nationalism is faced with a renewed challenge. There is once again an imminent threat to force down a solution which could more be artificial than anything else. But two factors could stand in its way and deny success to the Government. These, in other words, could be termed as favourable to the Tamils.

1. The geographical contiguity of Tamil areas mentioned at the beginning of this paper. This would make it difficult for the national army to operate freely, given the guerilla warfare employed by the militants.

2. Tamil activities overseas. Despite government campaigning, supplemented by the Sinhalese community abroad, if the Tamil diaspora continues to guide its activity in a meaningful manner, it would be difficult for Tamil nationalism to veer from its path. In this context, the Tamil community overseas should guard itself against a 'weariness' that seems to be creeping in at this stage. There has to be a continuous effort to mobilise resources towards seeking a just and peaceful solution to the conflict.



Mail Us Copyright 1998/2009 All Rights Reserved Home