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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution: Sri Lanka - Tamil Eelam > US South Asia Conference on Development > Prospects for Peace with Justice
Manogaran, South Asia Conference
on Development, Social Justice & Peace, Catholic University of America,
Brookland, Washington DC, July 19-20, 1996
SINHALESE-TAMIL RELATIONS AND
Professor Chelvadurai Manogaran
This conference on development, social justice and peace comes at a crucial time when thousands of Tamil citizens of the Northern Sri Lanka - many of them joining the ranks of refugees - are facing utmost distress and disillusionment for no fault of their own. Many of them, who had never travelled more then 5-10 miles from their place of birth, were compelled to leave behind their priceless possessions and to take refuge elsewhere in the district. Many of those who were too old, ailing and disabled could not endure the grueling journey and lost their lives.
Tamils are also disappointed because the international community has not raised any objection to the invasion of their homeland by a security force which is exclusively staffed and directed by Sinhalese personnel who do not speak Tamil or understand the feelings of the ordinary Tamil citizens. Although some foreign journalists have been allowed to visit certain areas in the city of Jaffna, they have not been allowed free access to the rural interior.
The Island of Sri Lanka: The Land of Two Distinct Societies
The international community does not realize that there has been very little interracial mixing between the Sinhalese and Tamils, even though they have shared the island for centuries. Sinhalese and Tamils use entirely different languages, have had different historical experiences, and, for the most part of their respective histories, inhabited different areas on the island. The distinctions between the two communities were obvious enough for British travellers and administrators to describe them as being two nations occupying separate areas.
The British government even demarcated the areal extent of Tamil provinces in the nineteenth century so that it corresponded to the areas where Tamil names were used for places and physical features. The well-defined geographical area where Tamil place names were used on the island in the nineteenth century is clearly indicated in John Arrowsmith's 1857 map of Ceylon.
It is within the confines of their homeland that the Sri Lankan Tamils evolved a distinct identity, at least, from the middle ages. Portuguese and Dutch rulers governed this Tamil area as a separate administered unit from the rest of the island for almost two centuries. This separate administrative structure for the Tamil area was, however, abolished when the island came under British rule in the nineteenth century because the British government was determined to bring the two communities together.
Unfortunately, very little social interaction and racial mixing have taken place between the communities because the languages used by the communities are so different that very few Sinhalese or Tamils can understand, read or write in both languages. Many areas on the island continue to be inhabited exclusively by Sinhalese and many Sinhalese have had no personal contacts with Tamils. Therefore, the island persists as a nation of two distinct societies although Sinhalese nationalists refuse to recognize the existence of a Tamil homeland. This homeland is regarded by Sri Lankan Tamils as their single most treasured possession, and to many of them, the fall of the northern Tamil kingdom in the sixteenth century and capture of Jaffna by government forces in 1995 are considered as two of the darkest moments in their history. To Sinhalese, the fall of Jaffna has special historical significance since they still portray Tamils, as they had done in the past, as an enemy to be subjugated.
Sinhalese Nationalism: Stipulations on the Concept of Sinhala-Buddhist Nation
Prominent politicians, many of whom came to power by espousing Sinhalese nationalism, have been thwarted in their ability to resolve the Tamil issue by the very Sinhalese nationalistic slogan that put them in power. Sinhalese nationalism became a political force in the 1930s when the British government began granting greater representation to Sri Lankans in the Ceylon State Council. It is during this period that Sinhalese nationalists decreed that there could only be one nation-state of Sri Lanka, one based upon Sinhalese-Buddhist elements. This ethnonationalism was also advocated by the Sinhalese elite which sought special recognition for its own race, language, and culture at the expense of the minorities. Some of them cited the Pali Chronicles in order to link the cultural identity of the Sinhalese-Buddhist people with the nation-state of Sri Lanka.
Some of the extremists demanded superior status for the Sinhalese-Buddhist community and declared that Sinhala should be the only national language of the nation, that Buddhism should be recognized as the state religion, and that Sinhalese people should be given preference, both in the allocation of resources and in the selection of candidates for public service. They also stressed that the island should remain a single political entity, implying that there was no place for a Tamil homeland. It was therefore not surprising that the government proclaimed the capture of Jaffna with pomp and pageantry in December 1995.
Independent Sri Lanka: Tamils Denied the Benefits of Freedom from Colonial Rule
Sri Lankan Tamils have, since the mid-1950s, been maimed, humiliated, and killed both within and without their traditional homeland for no fault of theirs. They were as enthusiastic, as Sinhalese citizens were, to cherish their new-found freedom from British colonial rule in 1948. To Tamils, the anticipation of being emancipated was exciting, since they had not experienced freedom since the sixteenth century. Tamil politicians were doubtful, given the rise of Sinhalese nationalism at the turn of this century, whether their rights would be preserved in an independent Sri Lanka. Therefore, they insisted that the rights of minorities should be guaranteed by the Constitution of independent Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan Tamils were dumbfounded to discover that no sooner had the country become independent then the Sinhala-dominated government snatched away the freedom that had been rightfully granted to them by the British. It is as if the Tamils had no right to be emancipated or be recognized as a distinct society with a traditional homeland. Sinhalese politicians even accused the Tamils of conspiring with the British to monopolize most of the government jobs.
Appointments and promotions to government jobs during British rule, however, were based on a working knowledge of the English language and on how well the applicants did in their studies. Only a small percentage of the Tamil population had been employed in public service, the vast majority of them had been involved in agricultural and commercial pursuits. Nevertheless, discriminatory legislation was passed to deny Tamils their legitimate rights as soon as the country became independent. Since 1956, Tamils have been denied their right to use their language for official purposes, to gain access to public service jobs without a working knowledge of Sinhala, and to secure admission to universities based purely on merit. The government also pursued its aggressive program of settling thousands of Sinhalese peasants in Tamil districts through government-funded colonization schemes.
Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: A Product of Sinhalese Nationalism
Tamil nationalism is a recent phenomenon and the question of self-determination was not raised by Tamil politicians until the Tamil community was faced with the prospect of losing its distinct identity, its economic future and the territorial integrity of its traditional homeland. It was the passage of Sinhala Only legislation in 1956, followed by the anti-Tamil riots which were instigated by Sinhalese in the ethnically mixed Gal Oya Colonization Scheme which compelled S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, leader of the Federal Party, to advance this concept of a Tamil traditional homeland as a legitimate demand of the Tamil people. He stressed that a people without a territory are a diaspora.
It became obvious to Tamils, as early as the mid-1950s, that the Sinhalese-dominated parliament was determined to deny them their right to participate freely in the affairs of, at least, their provinces. To Tamils, the right of self-determination represented unfinished business of decolonization, but Sinhalese extremists claimed that Tamil nationalism was extremely divisive. Tamils, however, were not interested in establishing a separate Tamil state at this stage of their struggle in the 1960s, but they demanded semi-regional autonomy for Tamil areas. Tamil politicians used peaceful means to express their displeasure over the discriminatory policies of the government, but peaceful demonstrations did not deter Sinhalese thugs from tormenting and killing Tamils or from destroying their homes and businesses between 1956 and 1983. Of course, it was the Tamil homeland that provided the only safe haven for thousands of Tamil refugees who fled riot-torn Sinhalese districts during this dreadful period, but its very existence was already been threatened by the government's aggressive policy on colonization.]
Government Policies Threaten Economic Future and Ancestral Homeland of Tamils
Sinhalese leaders justify government-funded colonization schemes as a means of increasing food production and relieving population pressures in the Wet Zone. While Tamil leaders have raised no objections to the establishment of peasant colonization schemes throughout the Dry Zone, they are opposed to the government strategy of targeting Tamil-majority districts for establishing Sinhalese peasant colonies (see Figure 1). Tamil leaders claim that the location of colonization schemes, and the method of selecting allottees for resettlement, have been contrived by the government to alter the ethnic composition of Tamil-majority districts. "Nearly a quarter of the island's population was moved from the Wet Zone to the Dry Zone between 1946 and 1971, even though the settlement schemes were not profitable in terms of return from capital investment." Colonization has triggered the outbreak of many violent incidents and continues to be the critical issue hindering any negotiated settlement.
Tamil leaders claim that the government's land settlement policy has been motivated by political factors and designed solely for the benefit of the Sinhalese community. Sinhalese politicians, on the other hand, justify Sinhalese colonization of Tamil areas on grounds that Tamils have been migrating to Sinhalese areas. There is, however, a distinction between the migration of Sinhalese from the Wet Zone to the Dry Zone and of Tamil migrating from the Dry Zone to the Wet Zone. Whereas Sinhalese colonization has been planned, financed and encouraged by the government, Tamil migration has always been voluntary and personally financed. Moreover, Tamil migration to Sinhalese areas has not changed significantly the ethnic composition of Sinhalese districts or established Tamil electorates in Sinhalese provinces
Sinhalese colonization has altered the ethnic composition of many Tamil districts between 1953 and 1981 (Tables 1 and 2). Population growth in the Tamil districts of the Eastern Province grew between 145 and 394 percent, with Sinhalese population recording the greatest increase. An analysis of the population statistics of the Eastern Province indicate that the ethnic composition of many Tamil districts has been dramatically altered between 1953 and 1981 by the settlement of thousands of Sinhalese peasants in government-aided colonization schemes. During this period the overall population of Tamil districts, excluding the Jaffna District, grew between 145 to 394 percent.
Sinhalese population, in particular, increased by 424 percent during the same period and this altered the ethnic composition of the districts dramatically. The ethnic composition of the Tamil population in the Eastern Province declined from 47.7% to 42.1% between 1953 and 1981, whereas the Sinhalese population increased from 13.1% to 25.0% during the same period. The ethnic composition of the Muslim population declined from 37.7% to 32.3% during the same period. The largest increase in the Sinhalese population was registered in the Trincomalee and Amparai districts, two of the three districts in the Eastern Province (see Figure 2). In 1881, Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims constituted 64.8%, 4.2% and 25.9%, respectively, of the population of Trincomalee District. By 1981, the ethnic composition of the district had changed to 33.7% Tamils, 33.6% Sinhalese, and 28.9% Muslims. In the Amparai District, ethnic composition of the Sinhalese population increased from 7.0% in 1911 to 38.0% in 1981, whereas the Tamil population in the district declined from 37.0% to 20.0% in the same period. The Muslim population declined from 55% to 41.5% during the same period.
TABLE 1: Changes in the Ethnic Composition of Trincomalee District, 1881-1981
Source: Census data on Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for the period,
Source: Derived from census data on Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for the period, 1911-1981.
Until the 1980s, Sinhalese colonies were confined to Tamil districts of mixed ethnic communities. Since then, Sinhalese colonies have been established in districts inhabited exclusively by Tamils (see Figure 3). For example, the Tannimurippu colony in the Manal Aru basin of the Mullaitivu District was settled exclusively by Tamil families until the late-1970s when they were forced to evacuate the area to accommodate Sinhalese settlers. Sinhalese colonists were armed and protected by security forces for fear they would be driven out by Tamil rebels. Irrigation facilities have been extended from the basin of the Yan Oya to the Manal Aru basin, under the Mahaweli Ganga Extension Scheme, in order to strengthen and expand the Sinhalese colony.
With the establishment of the Sinhalese colony, Tamil name of Manal Aru was changed to the Sinhalese name Weli Oya. Similarly, the Tamil-named Thannimurippu colony is now referred by the Sinhalese name, Janakapura colony. A Sinhalese colony in Mullaitivu was planned in order to deny the Tamils the right to claim any area on the island as their traditional homeland and to bifurcate the connective link between the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces (see Figure 3). This colony may be eventually linked with the Sinhalese colony in the Trincomalee District to form another Sinhalese electorate in a Tamil province.
The question as to whether there can be peace with justice in Sri Lanka can only answered by examining the history of Sinhalese-Tamil relations over the past forty years. Sinhalese-Tamil relations suffered the first setback in the 1950s when Prime Minister Bandaranaike of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party failed to receive the backing of the United National Party and the Buddhist clergy to devolve legislative and executive powers to Tamil areas under a pact he had signed with S. J. V. Chelavanayakam, leader of the Federal Party.
The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 provided for, among other provisions, the recognition of Tamil as a language of a national minority and the language of administration of the two Tamil provinces, the establishment of one Regional Council for the Northern Province and one or more for the Eastern Province, direct elections to the Regional Council, and for Parliament to delegate wide ranging powers to the Regional Councils over subjects ranging from agriculture, industries, land development, colonization, and water schemes to taxation and borrowing.
The most appealing aspect of the Pact was that Regional Councils would have the power to select colonists for newly established colonization schemes in the area under their administration. The Tamil people agreed to all the provisions, although the provisions fell far short of their original demands for the establishment of a federal system of government. Unfortunately, the government abrogated the pact and no serious attempt has ever been made since then to legislate any of these provisions into law.
Another major setback to Sinhalese-Tamil relations occurred when Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake of the United National Party failed to receive the support of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the Buddhist clergy to enact into law the provisions of the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965. Mr. Chelvanayakam agreed to sign the pact even thought it offered limited regional autonomy to Tamil areas compared to what was proposed under the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact. In particular, governmental powers under the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact were devolved to smaller administrative units at the district level rather than to larger units at the regional or provincial levels
. The overall powers of the District Councils were also restricted in scope, and they were to function under the control and direction of the central government. In addition, the amended Land Development Ordinance weakened the authority of District Councils to select settlers for colonization schemes in the area under their administration. Explicit provisions for the use of Tamil for administration purposes in the Northern and Eastern provinces were made, but no steps were taken to enforce these provisions. Tamil was also made the official language with Sinhalese in 1977, yet Tamil people continued to receive government directives in the Sinhalese language and English.
Fifty years have lapsed of the signing the Banadaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact and no government has yet succeeded in obtaining the approval of all parties, especially from the opposition, and religious organization to legislate into law any proposals that would devolve substantial powers to Tamil areas and facilitate development of the massive reconstruction plans for Tamil areas. On the contrary, the Tamil issue has been used by both the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, to jockey for power. President Chandrika Kumarathunga's devolution proposals, with some of its initial provisions watered down, will meet the same fate as those proposed by her predecessors.
Indeed, it is inappropriate for the government to accuse the Tamils of not negotiating peace treaty if it does not have the backing of Sinhalese parties and private organizations to do so. The Tamil people have been agitating for their legitimate rights for more than forty years and Sinhalese leaders are fully aware of what the Tamils rightfully deserve. It is these leaders' responsibility to convince the Sinhalese electorate and the Buddhist clergy to support legislation that would grant a substantial degree of regional autonomy without threatening the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. For example, it is their duty to educate the Sinhalese electorate on what is meant by a federal union of states and how this system of government has worked admirably in many small states to bridge differences between ethnic groups. Political developments in Belgium, Switzerland, and the United States clearly suggest that under a federal system of government, people belonging to different ethnic groups in a multi-ethnic society can remain united and committed to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of a union of states.
Government's Devolution Proposal and Future of Peace in Sri Lanka
The degree of semi-regional autonomy that the Government of Sri Lanka has been willing to grant to the Tamil areas, thus far, has been disappointing. All proposals for the devolution of powers to Tamil areas have been designed to decentralize merely administrative function to all provinces. This does not resolve the Tamil question. Any meaningful proposal that will be reviewed favorably by Tamils should deal specifically with the social and economic problems faced by the people of the Tamil provinces and not by the people of Sinhalese provinces. Unlike the Tamils, the Sinhalese people have not faced the devastating impacts of discrimination or watched hopelessly as their homes, streets, schools, hospitals, farms, industries and churches and temples deteriorated and fell into disrepair or were destroyed by bombing and shelling. Therefore, devolving the same powers to both the Tamil and Sinhalese provinces is not politically expedient. It is imperative that the ultimate aim of devolving powers to Tamil areas should be to permit its inhabitants to participate freely and directly in the planning and reconstruction of the war-torn areas and in projects designed to alleviate their social and economic problems.
The government claims that a quarter of a million Tamils have returned to their homes because they want to live in peace and under better economic conditions, but an editorial in the Economist on May 11, 1996 suggests that the willingness of the displaced people to return to their villages may be dictated more "by a yearning for home than from any political motive." The government also claims that the people are resuming their normal activities, including shopping, banking, receiving their rations, taking the sick and wounded to the Jaffna Hospital, and even sending their children to schools. These claims seem to suggest that government has never controlled the Peninsula in the past and that this is the first time it has been given the opportunity to undertake adequate measures to alleviate the chronic social and economic problems plaguing the Tamil people.
It continues to promise the Tamils a devolution package which has already been rejected by the United National Party and the Buddhist clergy. Indeed, Sinhalese leaders of the United National party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party have a history of promising regional autonomy to Tamils which they have failed to deliver because of similar opposition. To think that the present government will alleviate the problems of the Tamils, given the forty years of broken promises to the Tamils, is totally unrealistic unless the international community can intervene to bring Sinhalese and Tamils to the negotiating table. Foreign intervention has been instrumental in bringing about peace in many parts of the world, including the former Yugoslavia. If the government is serious, as it claims to be, it should seek the assistance of the international community to find a political solution to the ethnic problem.