The United Nations working group on enforced or
involuntary disappearances, reporting on Sri Lanka for 1983
to 1991, characterized killings on that unhappy island
nation off the south coast of India as "by far the highest
number ever recorded by the working group for any single
country." But the United States news media give this tragedy
little coverage. "The Tragedy of Sri Lanka" (editorial, May
5) is a welcome change.
Political violence in Sri Lanka started in 1956, when it was
still Ceylon. The political system, a legacy of British
colonial rule, which coalesced two nation-groups and then
granted permanent power to one, is the cause of this
discord. The Sinhalese, who acquired the dominant role,
embarked on making Sri Lanka a country of one religion and
one language. Sinhala was legislated as the official
language, Buddhism as the state religion. Discriminatory
policies deprived the minority Tamils of education and
employment, and the Government began a policy of state-aided
colonization of Tamil areas.
Protests were quelled with violent reprisals. There were no
fewer than 27 pogroms against Tamil civilians between 1956
and 1983, and 40,000 people were killed. In 1977, the Tamils
voted en masse to secede from Sri Lanka. The Government
retaliated with repressive steps, resulting in the treatment
of Tamil areas as virtual occupied enemy territory. The
Tamil response to this was a violent guerrilla war for a
separate state. The Government started aerial bombing and
naval shelling of these areas. The resultant economic ruin
is compounded by an embargo on food and medical supplies.
The irony is that the conflict is easily resolvable. The two
warring parties occupy well demarcated areas of the island,
the land mass of which is almost twice that of Switzerland,
with its federated states. The easiest solution is to
segregate the Sinhalese and Tamils by separate self-rule for
each area. The two sides, however, are unable to agree on a
suitable political structure.
As a result, violence has escalated between the two groups
and has spread to political parties and factions within
both. This ominous development, compounded by the huge
influx of arms and explosives into this once-idyllic island,
is what culminated in the May Day assassinations (front
page, May 2).
The problem is unlikely to be solved without intervention.
The ill-fated effort by India in 1987 failed primarily
because India, burdened by its own secessionist groups, used
a half-hearted, sometimes partisan, approach. In the end
India got embroiled in an unnecessary war with the Tamil
Tigers and had to abandon its involvement.
The situation demands an honest broker. Some countries,
notably Australia, Norway and Canada have expressed
willingness to play this role. Their hands should be
strengthened, or the United Nations should intervene.
RAJAN K. SRISKANDARAJAH Poughkeepsie, N.Y., May 6, 1993
The writer is editor of Tamil Voice, the newsletter of
the Association of Tamils in the U.S.A.
To the Editor: