Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

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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 national flag of Sri Lanka and State terrorism

Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Dr.Alvappillai Velupillai

Reflections on the national flag of Sri Lanka and State terrorism:
Symbolism of the Sinhala oppression of the Tamils

22 June 2006

"...If one carefully looks at the national flag of Sri Lanka, its recent history and its symbolism, one need not labor hard at understanding the ethnic problem of the island..."

[see also Sinhala Lion Flag imposed by Sinhala Majority, 1948]

Terrorism has recently become a very bad word in international vocabulary. But the word remains very difficult to define. There are many conflicts around the world. Terrorism and counter-terrorism look very much alike. Long period of terrorism from an oppressor produce counter-terrorism among the oppressed. When terrorism and counter-terrorism are in full-swing and there is full-blown conflict, it becomes difficult to distinguish which is which. Who started the oppression and then intensified it in so many ways should be identified as the terrorist. The oppressed, pushed to a desperate corner, fighting for survival through any available means, should be characterized as counter-terrorist; they should be rescued from the oppressor and saved. Sri Lanka is a clear-cut case where terrorism and counter-terrorism could be easily identified.

Flag.gif (5115 bytes)If one carefully looks at the national flag of Sri Lanka, its recent history and its symbolism, one need not labor hard at understanding the ethnic problem of the island. This is an easy way out of a possibly difficult situation because of the sharp ethnic polarization, current media reports, comments and analyses from the Sinhala/State side and the Tamil side could be so much at variance of what is actually going on that many people in the international community do not bother to get to the bottom of facts. Many people have contacts with State side of the story only or with mainstream media which is controlled by the Sinhala side and form their opinions from one-sided presentations.

Sri Lanka is a member of the United Nations Organization. Even though there are more than 190 countries which are members of the UNO, it is very clear that a number of countries are not nations. Each of these countries has more than one nation. Many of these countries are colonial constructs by colonial masters for their administrative convenience and then continue now as independent countries. Some colonies had to fight hard for their freedom and freedom struggles helped to forge some identity among different peoples. In Sri Lanka there was no freedom struggle.

The Sinhala majority, which is moving heaven and earth now to deny power-sharing with the Tamil minority, enjoyed British colonialism so much that not even one Sinhala person was risking his life, fighting against the British between 1849 and 1948. The Sinhalas were ready to be subservient to the British masters but they are not willing to share power with their fellow Tamil citizens. As soon as the Sinhalas found that political power has come into their hands through the concept of majority rule, they began to perfect it as ethnic majoritarianism; deprivation of the rights of the Tamils and reduction of the status of the Tamils to second class became their dynamic political ideology. Thus the small island of Sri Lanka finds itself home to Sinhala and Tamil Nations who appear to be in mortal combat.

Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was called in 1948, had no national flag at the time of independence. The present national flag without the saffron and green stripes was a flag, found among some items seized by the British conquerors from the Kandyan king in 1815. The Sinhalas were strongly attracted to the lion flag in an attacking posture, as the myth of the origin and connection of the Sinhalas to the lion was fascinating to them. Tamils were not accepting it and suggesting a national flag acceptable to all ethnic communities. The government appointed a Parliamentary Select Committee to make its recommendation to the Parliament. This committee had a majority of Sinhalas, two Tamils and a Muslim. The Sinhalas were insisting on the attacking lion flag. No other country in the modern world seems to have such a terrorist banner in its national flag. How do you resolve such a problem when the majority ethnic community insist on having its way?

Many Sinhalas still subscribe to their ancestral myth that they descended from a lion only about 2600 years ago. I think that the myth as narrated in the Mahavamsa should be studied carefully as it seems to explain the deep seated Sinhala fear or insecurity in dealing with the Tamils. According to the myth, the lion came across a (human) princess, took her to its den and cohabited with her. They had two children. The lion had the princess and children within the closed den. Only lion goes out and then returns. The lion loved its freedom but it was never allowing freedom to its family. The lion is acutely aware of is beastly/brutal nature. No human being may continue to be with it, if she has a chance to get out.

Tamils started claiming equal status and equal opportunity. Then, Tamils have demanded federalism but were willing to settle for much less as demonstrated in Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact of 1957 and Dudley Senanayaka � Chelvanayagam Pact of 1965. These agreements were abrogated through opposition from the Sinhala side. The Sinhala side insisting on finding a solution within the unitary constitution, reminds me the position taken by the ancestor of the Sinhalas. They are saying that no freedom of movement outside the den is possible. If freedom were allowed beyond the den, �people of the lion� seems to feel that humans may run away from the beasts.

One Tamil member of the Parliamentary Select Committee wanted to come to a compromise about the national flag issue and asked for a saffron stripe to represent the Tamils. The saffron color represented the color of the flag of the Tamil Jaffna kingdom which was conquered by the Portuguese in 1621.The Muslim member wanted a similar recognition for his community in the form of a green stripe. The green color is special to Islam. The resolution was to assign two stripes, a saffron stripe to represent the Tamils and a green stripe to represent the Muslims, outside the frame of the lion flag.. The other Tamil member- Senator S.Nadesan- gave his dissent that the design of the whole national flag proposal was unacceptable. He wanted to have a new flag, without the ferocious animal representing the majority community. Even though he was just one member, he seems to have represented the widespread sentiments of the non-Sinhala populations, especially the people of the North-East. The Sinhala attitude to the Tamils is reflected well in the national flag where lion having a raised sword is trying to tear down the saffron stripe representing the Tamils.

The way that the issue of national flag was determined shows to some extent how Lankan political process was going to work in Lanka. As there was universal suffrage except for a substantial section of the Tamils and as there were periodic elections and as there were peaceful change of governments, some people credit Lanka as a democracy. The Sinhala Buddhists have their own way. The two main Sinhala political parties have been competing for political power for many decades and Tamil-baiting becomes the main political platform.

The attitude of the Muslims is interesting. They have not identified with the Tamils in their freedom struggle. When Federal Party was popular in the North-East in the fifties and sixties, there were a number of Muslims like Kariyappar, Mustapha, Ahamed and Muhammed Ali who contested on FP tickets and won their parliamentary seats from predominantly Muslim electorates. But soon after elections, they crossed over to Sinhala government sides and this created a lot of ill-feeling among the Tamils. As they succeeded in getting a green stripe, equivalent to the saffron stripe of the Tamils, they demand that they should be an equal third partner. Peace talks in Lanka should be trilateral and tsunami aid arrangements also should be trilateral. But when government takes a tough line and Tamils start suffering, Muslims remain silent. The Tamils feel that their struggle could have been a success, if Muslims, majority of whom, speaking Tamil, cooperate with them. But most of the Muslim parliamentarians continue to carry favor with Sinhala governments and enjoy perks of office and personal and other favors.

Among the nearly two hundred flags at the UNO, only Sri Lanka has a terrorist flag- a ferocious animal, carrying a raised sword in one of its paws in an attacking posture. Facing that brute is the saffron stripe representing the Tamils. Muslims are not directly attacked as the green stripe is on the other side of the saffron stripe. This flag represents nicely what goes on in Lanka from the early 1950s.

From 1956, the ideology of the Sinhalas was Sinhala hegemony, when Sinhala was made the only official language. This develops into Sinhala Buddhist hegemony in the 1970s. Each of the two major Sinhala political parties, which came to power with big majorities in the 1970s, produced their own constitutions, one after another in 1972 and 1978. Both of them went a step further in alienating the Tamils in that Buddhism was given the foremost place in the constitution, making it in practice an official religion. Four bo leaves, representing the sacred tree of the Buddhists was surreptitiously incorporated into the four corners of the national flag without any parliamentary discussion or approval. The Sinhala Buddhists have become so bold that they didn�t care a damn of what non-Sinhala Buddhists think about these changes.

One can catalogue a long list of issues of Sinhala attacks on the Tamils since independence. Extensive land grab from historical habitat of the Tamils, deprivation of the right to vote for a substantial section of the Tamils, denial of official status to Tamil language, almost forced repatriation of half of the disfranchised Tamils to India, denial of merit as the basis for recruitment to public and corporation jobs to the detriment of Tamils and standardized admission to the universities to reduce opportunities for Tamils- these are some of the issues that instigated the Tamils. As a final step, even a new constitution was proclaimed in 1972. Tamil proposals for looking after their interests were summarily rejected. A Sinhala Buddhist State of Sri Lanka emerged. It was at this time that the Tamil leaders decided that the Tamils could not expect justice by being a part of the Sri Lanka State which is based on Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. They formed the Tamil United Liberation Front and declared that the Tamils should strive for a separate state.

When the international community advises the Tamils to choose the ballot instead of the bullet, it does not seem to be aware that the Tamils have tried that method for more than a quarter century. Tamil community had been represented in Parliament by eminent lawyers and scholars. They have presented the Tamil cases very eloquently. The Sinhala media and State and Sinhala-controlled media very rarely publishes those contributions. Tamil politicians have talked to Sinhala political leaders and formulated compromises, in 1957 and 1965. Opposition Sinhala parties and Sinhala extremists have always blown up any compromise as total betrayal of the Sinhalas and succeeded in getting those pacts torn up. The Tamils decommissioning arms at this stage will only mean that they will go down to the status of the federal party trying to talk and come to a settlement in the fifties and sixties.

Tamils gave an overwhelming mandate to the TULF to establish a separate State for the Tamils in general elections of 1977. Of the predominantly Tamil electorates in the Northeast, the TULF lost only one seat. In 2004, the TNA contested on the platform that the LTTE is the sole spokesman for the Tamils and won all the Tamil seats except one even in a proportional system of elections. Tamils have shown what they want. Nobody could argue that these mandates are not enough.
It is important to notice what happens in Sri Lanka parliaments even now. Even after twenty years of civil war, Sinhala politicians do not make an attempt to understand Tamil grievances and Tamil demands. When Tamils bring in proposals to discuss the problems of the Northeast, most Sinhala politicians absent themselves as they don�t want even to listen to them. Even in the most recent discussion about the Northeast problems in Lankan parliament, Both Mr.R.Sampanthan, the leader of the TNA and Mr.Rauff Hakeem, the leader of the Muslim Congress, have to complain that most of the Sinhala members were absent from the House.
I am aware that the President and members of the government declare that they are ready and look forward for talks and negotiations with the LTTE. Based on what the Tamil parliamentarians demand, the government can formulate a set of proposals for consideration by the LTTE. The LTTE leaders have no special arguments to bring forward to the table. How they differ from the parliamentarians is in having force to back up the demands of the politicians. If the government cannot understand what the Tamils want even now, the LTTE without arms, cannot be expected to succeed in enlightening the government more than now. That means there is no scope for fulfilling Tamil aspirations by open-ended talks between the government and the LTTE.

The introduction of a new constitution in Sri Lanka, whose focus is Sinhala Buddhist hegemony, also led to the emergence of Tamil militant groups by about 1975 as it was becoming clear that no accommodation is possible for the Tamils who yearned for equality of status and equality of opportunity within a Sinhala Buddhist State. During the seventies, Tamil militant groups concentrated their attention on destroying Tamil collaborators and on robbing State banks for funds. The government came out with the dragonian Prevention of Terrorism Act and the armed forces were entrusted with the task of bringing to end the Tamil insurgency. The LTTE mounted a major attack on Sinhala soldiers only in 1983, thirty-five years after independence and twenty-seven years after Sinhala only act. It is very important to note this fact, when coming to a decision on, which is terrorism and which is counter-terrorism. This year marked the beginning of the civil war in Lanka where the Sinhala State was on one side and Tamil militant groups are on the other side. Very soon, the LTTE emerged as the only powerful movement fighting for the Tamils.
1987 marks a very important land-mark in the history of the civil war. It started a process of �liberating� the Northeast from the LTTE. Shelling and aerial bombing becomes an important part of the government warfare. Death and destruction was brought to the Tamils by the State of Lanka which reflects its attitude of considering the Tamil people as enemies of Lanka. The armed forces also engaged in numerous massacres of innocent Tamil civilians during the course of this civil war. Armed forces move about with the lion flag; among large number of Tamils, this flag generates fear and humiliation and not love and respect.

It is interesting to note the emergence of a national flag among the Tamils. Tamils look up to the tiger flag as one capable of resisting the lion flag. The Tamil Kingdom which existed for centuries in Lanka had a flag whose main feature was a seated recumbent bull. The Tamil resistance movement did not choose this flag as a bull could not be expected to stand up to a marauding lion. The Chola kingdom of Tamils in South India had a tiger flag. There is lot of symbolism in the change over from a bull to a tiger. When the lion was attacking the Tamils for about two decades, the peaceful law-abiding Tamils were behaving like a cow/bull. A realization that they have to behave like a tiger occurred to few Tamils in the seventies. This view is shared by a vast number of Tamils now.

The marauding lion of yore is complaining that the newly emerging prowling tiger is a terrorist. Just because an ethnic community has forced the marauding lion to be the central figure in the national flag of a State and behave likewise against another ethnic community in that State, the international community should not turn a blind eye to what goes on and decide that an established State however evil and cruel it may be, it has to be defended. If the lion flag does not appear to be a terrorist flag, how could anybody say that the tiger flag is a terrorist flag?

If a really united peaceful country for the whole island were to emerge out of the tragic events, a new national flag transcending the marauding lion and the prowling tiger may have to be devised.


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