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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamil National Forum > Selected Writings - Victor Rajakulendran > Will Sri Lanka become another Cyprus?

Selected Writings - Dr. Victor Rajakulendran

Will Sri Lanka become another Cyprus?

26 May 2004

[see also A Federal or Confederal Solution to the Cyprus Problem?]

Intensive efforts are being made in Sri Lanka by the International Community (IC) to restart the stalled Norwegian facilitated peace process between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government.  Through this peace process, the IC is trying to prevent the island of Sri Lanka getting divided into two separate entities.  At this time it is very relevant and worthy to have an insight into the failed efforts of the International Community (IC) in Cyprus to keep this divided island together as one country. 

A brief comparison 


Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, 9,250 sq km in size and located south of Turkey.  Out of the 771,657 people living in this island about 80% are Greek Orthodox community and about 18% are Turkish Moslem community and the rest are Maronite, Latin and Armenian minorities.  There are three languages spoken amongst the people of Cyprus namely Greek, Turkish and English. 

Cyprus has been ruled by more than two dozen nations, by medieval knights, and self appointed kings during its long and turbulent history. Its rulers have always been one of the strongest powers in the region, whose rule deeply influenced the island in matters of religion, trade, culture, language, way of life and politics.  

During the Latin period of 380 years, (1191-1571) the Greek Orthodox Church in Cyprus was oppressed and subordinated by the ruling Latin tyrants who were Catholics. The lands and property of the Greek Orthodox Church were confiscated and given to the Roman Catholics. The independence Orthodox Archbishopric was totally suppressed. Orthodox churches were closed and the Greek bishops were deported to remote parts of the island.  

Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1570 brought an end to this Latin domination and for the next 308 years migration of Turkish people from Turkey occurred. Since 1572 in Cyprus, two distinct nations of people existed. One is the Cypriot Greeks the remnants of early invaders, and the other, is Turkish Cypriots, the ancestors of the Turks from mainland Turkey, who were settled in the island a year after the Turkish Conquest, in 1572 and the following years.  

The British took over the administration of Cyprus in 1878, in exchange for providing protection to Turkey from further Russian aggression. Independence from the UK was granted in 1960, with constitutional guarantees for Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to coexist with equal rights. In 1974, a Greek-sponsored attempt to seize the government in Cyprus was met by military intervention from Turkey, which soon controlled almost 40% of the island. In 1983, the Turkish-held area declared itself the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus", recognised only by Turkey. UN-led direct talks between the two sides to reach a comprehensive settlement to the division of the island have recently failed. 

Sri Lanka 

Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean, 65,610 sq km in size and located south of India.  Out of the 19,742,439 people living in Sri Lanka now, 74% are Singhalese, 18% are Tamils, 7% are Moors (Muslims) and the rest are the minorities, namely Burgers, Malays and Veddas (aborigines).  Three languages are spoken in Sri Lanka namely, Singhalese, Tamil and English. 

People living in Sri Lanka originally migrated from mainland India.  The only exception is some of the Muslims, who migrated from Arabic nations.  There is always a debate about who migrated first.  However all the communities in Sri Lanka have lived there long enough to call it their homeland. 

From the time of recorded history Tamils have lived in the North and East of the country and the Singhalese in the South of the country.  Muslims, who came to Sri Lanka for trade, settled mainly in the East and then spread out to other parts.  As a result, the Muslims have adopted Tamil as their mother tongue.  British colonialist also brought considerable amount of Tamils from South India to work in their plantations and they live mainly in the Central hill country where the tea plantations are. 

Before the Europeans arrived, kings ruled this island. Tamil kings of the Tamil kingdom in the North ruled the Tamils and the Singhalese kings from more than one kingdom ruled the Singhalese.  During this period several invasions by South Indian kings also took place.  Occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century and by the Dutch in the 17th century, the island was ceded to the British in 1796, became a crown colony in 1802, and the various kingdoms were united under British rule by 1815. As Ceylon, it became independent in 1948 and this constitution provided a Westminster style government.  Although every citizen's right was protected by this constitution the Singhalese majority government started to implement discriminatory measures against the Tamils.  Tamils resisted with non-violent means and several agreements were signed between the various Singhalese leaders and Tamil leaders, but none were honoured by the Singhalese leaders. 

The name Ceylon was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972 when the British constitution was changed to a Republican constitution. Tensions between the Singhalese majority and Tamils increased and resulted in the formation of armed separatist movements among the Tamils demanding a separate state for the Tamils in the North and East of the island.  Full-scale war erupted between the Tamil separatists and the Singhalese security forces in the mid-1980s.  Tens of thousands have died in an ethnic war that continued to fester.  After two decades of fighting, large area of the North and East is under the control of the Tamil separatist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).  LTTE has its own administration in its area of control including Law and Order.  The government and the LTTE began a cease-fire in December 2001, with Norway facilitating peace negotiations.  These negotiations are stalled for more than a year now and efforts are being made to revive these negotiations. 

How all went  wrong in these islands? 

British administration in both these islands was in the form of a Legislative Council where communities were represented equally.  However in both these islands there were efforts by the locals to get independence from Britain.  When Britain eventually gave independence to these islands, in both cases it failed to consider the pre-colonial situation and provide adequate measures to prevent communities that are numerically superior to oppress the communities that are numerically inferior.  

In Cyprus 

In Cyprus the Greeks felt that they have to form a Union with Greece ("enosis") and this urge developed into a popular movement among the Greek Cypriots.  This was encouraged from Greece too.  As a result there were agitations by Greek Cypriots against their British administration.  Turkish Cypriots who still felt that Cyprus was a Turkish territory administered by Britain (Britain took over the administration by a treaty with Turkey) protested to this move.  Therefore Greek Cypriots not only targeted British interests during their agitations they started attacking Turkish Cypriots too.  Britain first tried to quell the rebellion by force and then tried to appease the Greeks by granting proportional representation in the Legislative Council favouring Greek Cypriots.  This angered the Turkish Cypriots and they demanded a return of Cyprus to Turkey.  At this stage British annexed Cyprus to its empire.  The Greek Cypriots did not give up their idea of forming a Union with Greece.  They even resorted to armed activity against the British administration with the help of Greek Generals.  Turkish Cypriots also became victims of these armed groups. 

Greece internationalised the issue of Cyprus and the issue was debated in UN too.  Britain continued its tripartite talks with Greece and Turkey and as a result in 1960 Britain handed over the sovereignty of the island to the Cypriot people.  Although the rights of the Turkish Cypriots were guaranteed in that new Republican constitution the Greek Cypriot politicians failed to honour these guarantees. The Co-partnership Republic based on political equality and cooperation of the two Cypriot Communities did not last long. It disintegrated within 3 years.  

Inter-communal clashes took place between 1963-68 and during this time Turkey came to the aid of Turkish Cypriots by carrying out air bombardment on Greek Cypriot positions.  Under the initiation of UN inter-communal talks were held from 1968-74 with no end to the conflict. 

In 1974, the Military Junta in Athens overthrew the government of Cyprus, headed by Archbishop Makarios.  Using this opportunity, under the disguise of protecting the Turkish Cypriots, Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus and still remains there.  In 1983 Turkish Cypriots unilaterally declared independence for their "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" (TRNC).  Turkey only recognises TRNC.  Several countries imposed sanctions on this self-declared republic and most of these are still in place. Turkish Cypriots in Cyprus have been left without any identity for the last 30 years. Since then, Cyprus has been divided along ethnic lines, despite several UN-sponsored efforts to reunite the island.  

In Sri Lanka 

When Gandhi's independence struggle brought an end to the British rule in India, Britain lost interest in holding on to the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).  Immediately after Britain granted independence to India, it started negotiations with the Legislators of Ceylon to hand over the sovereignty of the island to its own people and Britain granted independence to Ceylon in 1948.  Under the first constitution of the independent Ceylon equal rights of all the citizens, irrespective of what language they speak or religion they follow, were guaranteed.  English was made the official language of the island. 

Like the Greek politicians of Cyprus the Singhalese politicians also had other ideas.  They worked on their believe that the island of Ceylon belongs to Singhalese and the others are minorities who have to be subservient to the Singhalese.  They also believed that Bhudism and the Singhalese language have to be given pre-eminent positions in the island.  Therefore Singhalese dominated governments passed legislation and adopted various measures to achieve this.  Amongst these, State sponsored colonisation of the Tamil areas with Singhalese people, disenfranchisement of plantation Tamils and making Singhalese as the official language of the island are the most sever measures, to mention a few.  Several state aided anti-Tamil pogroms were also carried out to weaken the social and economic status of the Tamils. 

In 1972, without the consent of the Tamils, the constitution was changed to a Republican constitution, severing all the connection to the British Crown and the name of the island was changed to Sri Lanka.  With this change, Sri Lanka became a Bhudist Singhalese nation.  Bilateral negotiations between various Singhalese leaders and parliamentary Tamil leadership ended up in several agreements to provide equal rights to the Tamils in the country's affairs.  All these agreements were abrogated unilaterally by the Singhalese leaders.  The 1972 constitution was again changed in 1978 against the consent of the Tamils.  This constitution paved the way for an all-powerful executive President to sit at the pinnacle of power. 

All these led to the birth of Tamil militancy and resulted in the birth of the LTTE.  From 1983 LTTE have been fighting the Sri Lankan Security Forces (SLSF) to establish an independent State for the Tamils in the North and East of the island.  Under the disguise of eliminating the LTTE the SLSF carried out indiscriminate killings of innocent Tamils. 

Like Turkey intervened in Cyprus, India sent an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to the island's North-East.  Unlike the Turkish forces, the IPKF was made to fight the same Tamil people it came to protect, by the then cunning President of Sri Lanka.  The IPKF was asked to leave by the next President and the fighting between the LTTE and the SLSF intensified until 2001.  During this time the LTTE has brought 2/3 of the North-East under its control and as mentioned earlier LTTE now runs its own administration in this area.

Involvement of the International Community 

In Cyprus 

The IC has been actively involved in finding a solution to the de facto divided Cyprus Island for about 30 years.  This problem has been debated in the UN assembly for a long time.  All these efforts have failed.  The most recent one is the so-called "Annan Plan".  This was worked out to avoid the discomfort of a divided Cyprus joining the EU.  

"Annan Plan' calls for two component states joined within a united Cypriot federation. The plan gives the two communities a great deal of autonomy and sets up a rotating leadership and a number of checks and balances in the Cyprus central government. The plan also envisages territorial changes. The Turkish Cypriot zone would be reduced to about 28% of the island, reflecting more accurately the percentage of Turkish Cypriots and thus allowing the return of a number of Greek Cypriot refugees.  

Turkey would have a permanent presence of the Turkish army on the island (the size to be reduced only after 18 years) and more than 60,000 mainland Turkish settlers would stay, while Greek and other Cypriots would wait for years for the return of their property and land. There would be limits on their rights to buy property, and strict quotas established of Cypriot refugees allowed to return to the north. 

Also, the Annan Plan calls for the �Common State� to pay the financial costs of this plan. The Cyprus Republic will care for and help resettle Turkish, Greek and other Cypriot refugees. The Common State is expected to pay the compensation of Cypriots who win cases for damages against Turkey because of its occupation and to pay all the UN expenses on Cyprus. 

On April 24, this plan was put to a referendum in both sides of Cyprus. While the Turkish-Cypriots mostly supported it, only very few Greek-Cypriots did, and it failed, ensuring that only southern Cyprus was recognised as part of the EU on May 1.  This has led to many countries to reconsider their sanctions against TRNC.  These countries may persuade the UN to continue its efforts to unify Cyprus, mainly the countries of the European Union. 

Greek Cypriots complain Annan Plan have granted too many concessions to the Turkish side, negatively affecting the Greek-speaking side.  They also argue that, while the Cypriot side long ago accepted the principles of a bi-zonal state, many Cypriots believe the Annan Plan with its �twin identities� (two states, two flags, two anthems) will not help promote reunification, but foster and entrench division.  There is also an element of truth in the argument among the opponents of the Annan Plan that, outside powers are trying to impose a plan in order to avoid the discomfort of a divided Cyprus joining the EU.  

Therefore the fear among the Greek Cypriots of conceding too much of concessions to the Turkish Cypriots and the urgency with which the IC have acted to satisfy their own needs have once again delayed a solution for the Cyprus problem. 

In Sri Lanka 

Although the IC, especially Britain, was aware that an ethnic problem existed between the Tamil and the Singhalese communities in Sri Lanka from the time of independence, no one took any initiative to raise this issue in any international forums, until recently.  Only the neighbouring country India took some initiatives at one stage but she also maintained a hands-off approach for the last 10 years.  May be other countries left this problem to be handled by India. 

Unlike in Cyprus, there was no one like Turkey prepared to come for the protection of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.  Tamils had to defend themselves against the SLSF.  After few attempts at bilateral negotiations between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government to find a solution failed, the armed conflict escalated.  After a series of major military victories were achieved by the LTTE, in year 2000 LTTE declared few unilateral cease-fires and invited the Sri Lankan government to come to the negotiating table again.  Even at this stage instead of persuading the Sri Lankan government to negotiate some members of the IC were still helping the Sri Lankan government to strengthen its security forces and further escalate the conflict. 

However, after September 11, 2001 events, the IC, especially the US, has started to show special interest in this conflict.  The IC has chosen Norway to act as a facilitator between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, a cease-fire was declared (which is still holding) and a peace process was initiated by December 2001.  After several rounds of negotiations between the two sides under the auspicious of Norway in various capitals for two years, the peace process was suspended in April 2003.  At that stage the LTTE has agreed to explore acceptable arrangement for Tamils to co-exist in the island with the Singhalese. LTTE also has submitted a proposal to establish an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) for the North-East of the country as an interim measure until a final solution is worked out.   

Cohabitation problem between the President and the previous Prime Minister has vanished with the new government taking over after the April 2nd elections.  This election also have shown that the Tamils have accepted the LTTE as their sole representatives and supported overwhelmingly the idea of establishing an ISGA. 

Now the IC, especially the US, EU, Japan and Norway are making intensive efforts to restart the negotiations as soon as possible.  During this process, comments have been made by some of these countries that are not acceptable to one or the other party to the conflict. These comments have made observers of this conflict to raise their concern that whether the IC is trying to find a quick fix to this conflict to satisfy their own needs. 

Like the Greek Cypriots, Singhalese also fear that with the involvement of the IC, too much concessions will be given to the Tamils. The IC also seems to have its own interest to find a solution within their own timetable.  Therefore there is a general fear that this peace process may also find the same fate as Annan Plan for Cyprus. 


Like the Turkish Cypriots, Tamils have expressed their willingness to consider preventing the partition of the Island.  If the Singhalese government fail to make use of this opportunity to render its cooperation to find an amicable solution, the IC will be forced to re-evaluate their own position regarding the LTTE�s original demand for an independent State for the Tamils in the island.  However, many Tamils believe that outside powers are in a haste to impose a plan in order to avoid further delay in achieving their own goals, using the territory of this island.  While most of the people in Sri Lanka want peace and a resolution as quickly as possible, it must be workable, just and comprehensive. At this crucial time, neither the people of Sri Lanka nor the rest of the world need an imposed, flawed, quick-fix settlement, that will form the basis for future conflict.  After waiting for so many years, people in Sri Lanka must if necessary, wait a little longer to work out a plan that will work, if Sri Lanka is not to become another Cyprus.


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