Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

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

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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings - Alvappillai Velupillai  > Reflections on the shedding of Tamil blood for fifty years in Sri Lanka

Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Dr.Alvappillai Velupillai

Reflections on the shedding of Tamil blood
for fifty years in Sri Lanka

Beginnings of State oppression of the Tamils

Many people in the international community seem to blame the Tamil side for not talking, negotiating and settling the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. They don’t seem to understand the complexity of the problem. My view is that the Sinhala side has been so intransigent throughout – Sinhala chauvinism more and more assertive during the last two years -that there is no basis for negotiating any just solution for the suffering Tamils.

The latest ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’ speaks about finding a solution within a unitary constitution; President Mahinda Rajapakse is talking about ‘maximum devolution’ within a unitary constitution. This is euphemism for cosmetic changes within Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. To get justice for the Tamils, the constitution of Lanka should be structured differently; it should be acceptable to mainstream Tamil opinion.

On certain matters, the situation in Lanka in the forties and fifties should be taken into consideration when finding a solution today. The history of mainstream Sinhala political parties after independence does not give any hope for the Tamils that they can pin their hopes on one of the two main Sinhala political parties. Even though it is arguable that the UNP has done less evil, it is responsible for sliding the country towards Sinhala Buddhist hegemony, immediately after independence. Even though it had a historic opportunity in 1977 when it came to power with a huge majority and introduced a new constitution, it failed miserably to find a solution to the ethnic problem, even though it spoke eloquently of the need to find a solution in its election manifesto.

It is now 58 years since Sri Lanka attained independence from British rule in 1948. Oppression of the Tamils in various forms by the Sinhala dominated State started in 1948 itself. The UNP government was in power till 1956. It was not interested in building up a modern secular democratic country for all the people of Lanka. It was more interested in restoring the ancient Sinhala kingdom. At that time, Sinhala Buddhist hegemony was not the ideal discussed in the political platform. It was just national interests, securing the welfare of Lankan nationals like the Sinhalas, Lankan Tamils, Lankan Muslims, etc. About 10% of the population of Lanka, who were mainly Tamils, were deprived of citizenship and franchise, because they were considered recent arrivals from India during the British rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries. At the time of independence, Lanka had roughly about 70% Sinhala speakers and 30% Tamil speakers. Depriving the franchise of a big segment of Tamil population has reduced the Tamil share in the political process of Lanka to an insignificant level.

The Sinhala dominated State went a step further to increase its grip on the political process in Lanka. The disfranchised Tamils were counted for the purposes of demarcation of electorates but were not allowed to vote. What this meant was electorates with majority or substantial Tamil population and with insignificant or minority Sinhala populations elected members of parliament with pro-Sinhala or anti-Tamil platforms. Thus, this step of the UNP government seems to have set up the stage for the future politics of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. Most of the Tamil members of parliament supported the Sinhala dominated government on this issue as they didn’t want to raise a communal cry.

At the time of independence, the Northern and the Eastern Provinces of Lanka were just Tamil-speaking. The Sinhala populations even in the border districts were less than 10% of the population of those districts. The UNP government wanted to develop irrigation and agriculture and to settle people from over-populated districts. The Tamil speaking Eastern Province was found to be sparsely populated. Massive irrigation schemes were developed in the East and Sinhala populations were settled in different parts. Trincomalee district was a focus for Sinhala governments because of the importance of its natural harbor. Seasonal migrant Sinhala fishermen were encouraged to settle there, the Sinhala State providing all the necessary facilities.

Lands not owned privately in Trincomallee district were also given away, to be developed by private enterprenuers, a vast majority of them were Sinhalas. The Sinhala State has changed the demographic pattern of the East. Some of the Sinhalese claim that at present the East is multi-linguistic and multi-cultural because of this development. From the Tamil perspective, the East has to continue as part of the Tamil traditional habitat as Sinhala colonists after independence could not be rewarded for their aggrandizement.

The Sinhala colonization had been slowed down after the ethnic civil war began. If the Tamils decommission their arms, it will be a signal for large scale Sinhala colonization. The talks cannot lead to any solution as the gap between the expectations of the Sinhala and Tamil sides remain huge. The international community, if it really cares for peace, should come forward to impose some parameters on which peace talks could start.

 Just insisting on the Tamil side starting talks with the Sinhala side so that at the end of the tunnel there could be a glimmer of hope, seems to be very unrealistic. The Tamils giving up arms and declaring that they will seek only a negotiated solution may end up in genocide of the Tamils as the solution for the ethnic problem.

1956 was the first year Tamil blood was shed by the Sinhalas in independent Lanka. It also marked the historic 2500 years of the birth of the Buddha, according to Lankan records. The SLFP, which started as a splinter group of the UNP, came to power on Sinhala communal platform. Sinhala only was to be the official language of Lanka while reasonable usage would be allowed for Tamil. Finding that that there was a wave of support for the SLFP, the UNP also changed its policy from parity of status to Sinhala only. Many Tamils who trusted the UNP felt let down by the opportunistic change of UNP policy. There was an ethnic polarization from 1956.

Both main Sinhala political parties joined in supporting Sinhala only as official language. All the sixteen members of parliament from the Northern and Eastern Provinces opposed this move. Two Marxist political parties- the LSSP and the CP- joined in the opposition, prophesying the doom of united Lanka from ethnic polarization. Most of the Tamil members of parliament from the North-East were elected on Federal Party ticket, demanding the creation of a Tamil state within united Lanka. They organized peaceful Gandhian type Satyagraha protest outside parliament building protesting against ignoring the claim of Tamil language to official status. The Sinhala hoodlums cannot tolerate the protest of the Tamil leaders. The Tamil leaders were manhandled in Colombo. Some of them were injured and some Tamil blood was shed in Colombo. There were also instances of killings of Tamil civilians by footloose Sinhala laborers/ Sinhala colonists in sugar-cane plantations in Gal-Oya Scheme and Padaviya Scheme in the Eastern Province. This is also the beginning of the Lankan tradition- there was no attempt to bring the Sinhala criminals against the Tamils to justice.

What started in 1956 has been going on intermittently during the last 50 years, even though it has taken different forms at different times. There was a huge explosion in 1958 when Sinhala hoodlums went on rampage against the Tamils. Many Tamils had to be ferried to their historical habitat of the North-East for their personal safety. The Tamils were made to understand that the Lankan State was really a Sinhala State and the Tamils had to accept a subservient status to preserve peace. After watching these developments, B.H.Farmer, a Professor of Geography at Cambridge University, published a book under the title, ‘Ceylon- A Divided Nation’.

The country had been divided emotionally and sentimentally from that time. Sinhala people could not produce real national leaders who could rise above narrow Sinhala nationalism and who could unite the country for the past fifty years. Tamil people could not put up armed resistance for many more years. Political leaders of the Tamils were trying to talk to the Sinhala leaders on compromises. Each time, they were rebuffed.

Could the international community point out how the situation is different now?


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