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The Martyrdom of the Tamils
Dr. David Selbourne
The latest mass attack on the Tamils by the Sinhalese security forces and the Sinhalese mobs on licensed rampage—licensed by politicians who include, most notably, President Jayewardene - was conducted according to the law of Ceylon's political jungle; where, as I wrote in my 1982 articles in The Illustrated Weekly of India, the Sinhalese Lion and the Tamil Tiger "stalk each other" in Sri Lanka's tranquil tropic shade; in the upcountry tea plantations, too, and in the arid scrub of the northern Tamil homelands.
What we have seen—and this time, fortunately, the whole world has seen it, too, though at great cost in Tamil lives and possessions--is first, and at the basest level, the bloodlust of racism.
It is a racism which is deep-rooted, exacerbated by British colonial destruction of the political ecology of the island and fomented by sly Buddhist priests and opportunist politicians. Worse, the immediate local desire for revenge for the July 23 Jaffna Tiger ambush (itself a reprisal for the earlier kidnap and rape of Tamil girls by the "security" forces) was lost in the roars of a volatile Sinhalese populace, always quick to be aroused to violence; particularly when trained to do so - as it has been for decades now in Sri Lanka - by disreputable Sinhalese communalists who have proved themselves swift and ready - with public transport, lists of Tamil addresses and cans of kerosene - to set the beast of prey on to attack its quarry with bush-knives and firebrands.
Several of these communalists - Premadasa, the Prime Minister; Cyril Mathew, the Enoch Powell of Sri Lanka; and others - are well known in Colombo to have their own private armies of hoodlums to do their bidding.
To speak of them as Machiavellian is to do them too great an honour. These are low-level and shallow men, as I know from my 1982 conversations with President Jayewardene and others, whom I will not name here, since even I hope for their eventual redemption from evil.
They are cynical without cunning, dallying and dabbling for 30 years with Tamil political aspiration, without the slightest real intention of reaching a settlement with it; presiding over an economically bankrupt regime, mortgaged to the hilt to the IMF, as Jayewardene himself admitted to me—and, when I published it in The Illustrated Weekly last year, he had me put on a list of "prohibited persons" by the Ministry of Defence; many of them crooks, the worst of them with a thin veneer of "Western" sophistication.
My readers will understand me best if I say it is just like India, only more so.
Take the cynicism of Junius Richard Jayewardene, for example. After the recent round of massacres of Tamils had already begun, massacres supervised and protected by the local security forces - and, it is worth noting, they began in June in Trincomalee, long before the Tiger ambush, not, in July in Colombo—he told the London Daily Telegraph's Ian Ward that he "did not care about the lives of the Jaffna Tamils". The "terrorists" - that is, the sons of the Tamil people who, as a last deeperate resort, have taken to arms, not merely to advance their claims to political separation, but to defend their own community from the "security forces"—would be "wiped out" to the last man.
Now, for the leader of the nation in a country like Sri Lanka, a volcano of fears and emotions, to announce publicly that he is unconcerned about the physical well-being of hundreds of thousands of citizens of the minority is an incitement to violence; and, if he says it to The Daily Telegraph, you can imagine what he says to his followers and hirelings.
Worse, a man like Jayewardene knew, and knows very well, that it was an incitement; worse again, remained silent while his security forces and the mobs whom they lead looted,.pillaged, burned and murdered - waiting days before calling on them to desist; and, worse still (more cynically step by step), than blamed his own army for promoting and provoking violence, for keeping him uninformed, the very man who sits at the centre of the Sinhalese mob, who is constitutional head of the armed forces and whose close relative, Maj-Gen Tissa Weeratunge, is chief of the Sri Lankan army.
Could there by anything worse? Oh yes, many things, above all the massacre of innocents, or the beating to death in his cell in Colombo's Welikade prison - where his family naively believed he would be at least safe from mob violence - of the Gandhian leader, Dr S. Rajasundaram. His selfless and brave rehabilitation work among Tamil plantation refugees from earlier upcountry violence in 1979, whom he had helped to settle in the Vavuniya district on state lands, was a great human achievement.
It included the teaching of over 10,000 refugee children in 350 preschools, well-digging, road-building and the provision and the distribution of medical and food supplies—supported by Christian Aid, the World Council of Churches, Novib, Oxfam and Bread for the World—to the village settlements, as they struggled towards self-sufficiency.
A man I am proud to remember as a friend, Dr Rajasundaram was arrested in April, tortured—uncharged and untried—his orphanage buildings set on fire by the local security forces, his offices ransacked, the vehicles which took milk-powder and Triposha to the children of the settlement villages gutted—all this I saw myself in June—and finally, in July, they killed him. It is today's reward in Sri Lanka for a man who deserved a Nobel Prize for his work for the most needy and downtrodden of the world's workers, who had fled from the hell of the estate line-rooms. They said he "harboured terrorists"; but, if he did, then the whole of Jaffna is guilty also.
However, in President Jayewardene's case, I will select just one more small item from the infamy of his political conduct. Asked why no inquests had been held after the reprisal massacre of perhaps as many as 100 Jaffna citizens by soldiers on July 23 and 24, President Jayewardene replied: "I didn't know until a couple of days ago. It's too late now."
Too late? How too late? Why too late? Can it ever be too late for the truth, for justice? And this is the dharmista Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, neither dharmista, nor democratic, nor socialist, nor really a republic, either. More a dictatorial fiefdom, with a violent struggle for the succession already under way, a struggle which has been pushed ahead by the 77-year old Jayewardene's disastrous misgovernment of the island.
Machiavellianism is the wrong term for it all, as I said earlier, because to wreck the economy further in pursuit of racial vendetta, to delegitimise the whole polity by criminalising Tamil political representation and to damage Sri Lanka in the eyes of its customers, bankers and investors (even if they are themselves leeches) is not even in the Sinhalese interest. Machiavelli's Prince was at least a man who acted with prudence as well as cunning; and at least gained his own ends rather than destroying them by his stratagems. Instead, the future relation between Tamils and Sinhalese is now governed by new and disastrous factors.
First, what has been gained by the Tamil Tigers—who, even before the recent pogrom, were supported, not by the"Russians", but by millions of Tamils the world over - is new levels of community support of every kind for their national struggle. In the past, whatever they lacked in strength and numbers - both of which will have increased considerably in the last weeks, despite or because of the murders in detention of their leaders, like Kuttimani and Jegan - was made up for in the fevered imaginations of the Sinhalese; as I wrote earlier in this journal, every striped shadow had become a Tiger. In the period to follow, for better or worse, many more striped shadows will in fact be Tigers.
Second, there is a deeper and more awesome point for Sri Lanka's future. Every state has a legal and moral obligation to protect its citizen's lives and possessions. If it cannot or does not choose to do so—as in the case of Sri Lanka's Tamils—then for those citizens the state's legitimacy, in effect, ceases tc exist.
The mere demand in itself (now foolishly made illegal under an amendment to the nation's Constitution) for a greater degree of self-determination on the part of a section of the citizenry can never justify the withdrawal from them of the ordinary protections of the law and the Constitution—particularly when the overwhelming majority of these citizens have not taken up arms, and do -not intend to take up arms, against that state. (Perhaps my old friend, Lalith Athulathmudali, ex-President of the Oxford Union, a lawyer and Minister of Shipping and Trade in Jayewardene's Cabinet, may care to consider where the ship of state he is helping to pilot will end up—if not at the bottom of the Indian Ocean—unless heed is taken.)
Instead, the misguided proscription of the TULF—many of whose leaders had forfeited public influence among the Tamils and lost it to the Tigers, precisely because they were seeking a political compromise with the Sinhalese—together with continuous physical attack on the Tamil population has undermined what little political obligation to the Sri Lankan state remained among them. Moreover, to make Tamil fears and Tamil aspirations illegal further guarantees the development of the separatist movement and puts a premium on violence; while ensuring the ultimate replacement of TULF moderates, like Amirthalingam, by much more extreme Tamil nationalists, some of them deeply chauvinist themselves, with whom political settlement will be much more difficult for the Sinhalese to achieve in the future.
But these are not really, or not yet, arguments which can persuade the Sinhalese, who are still bent on gradual national suicide. It is a kind of Buddhist hara-kiri. Their plans, cynical and even vicious, are quite different. They are, I am afraid, to continue by terrorisation and expropriation to force the Tamils back into their own Northern ghetto and into a showdown of increasingly open violence, which the Sinhalese believe—rightly—that the Tamils could never win.
Open violence, because the Sri Lankan army is not capable, as Maj Gen Weeratunge himself unwisely told me, of defeating the Tigers' hit-and-run tactics. However undisciplined (despite its officers' clipped accents and bristling Sandhurst moustaches), it is nevertheless well enough organised to sack, loot and assault the unarmed Tamil population—with the full knowledge and connivance of its higher ranks—in the only kind of struggle a mob army is capable of waging.
Second, since the Sinhalese have never been, and are not now, serious about genuine political concessions to the Tamils ("After all, they are only 11 per cent of the population") and will not countenance separation, partition or even federation, the TULF's deeply embarrassing desire for compromise has had to be continuously thwarted by Sinhalese politicians. In consequence, the TULF has first been undermined and now been banned altogether. (There is nothing inconsistent about Sinhalese realpolitik.)
Indeed, Jayewardene is well aware that his own policies have helped create the Tiger movement; but, having accomplished the murder of its cadres held in custody, he and his advisers believe, wrongly, that they can now eliminate the supposedly demoralised cause of Tamil separation entirely.
Finally, the officially sanctioned punishment of the civilian Tamil population (which will continue indefinitely in outbreaks of racial violence as long as there are Tamils left on the island) is unlikely to lead to India's direct intervention. However tempting to Mrs Gandhi would be the recovery of her battered political fortunes in Andhra and Karnataka by being proclaimed in Madras the triumphant saviour of the Sri Lankan Tamils, India cannot really intervene decisively as long as there are more than a million Indian Tamil hostages in the upcountry plantations. They could, and would, begin to be put to the sword, at whatever cost—and it would be a huge one to the Sri Lankan economy - as soon as the first reports reached Colombo of an Indian landing on the beaches of Jaffna.
As it is, there have been brutal attacks and killings in the recent violence, not only in Colombo, Kandy and Trinco, but also in the estate areas—as always. But it is the line-rooms, with their cargoes of helpless plantation slaves, which would burn if the Indians invaded; particularly since so many other potential Tamil scapegoats have now been driven out of Colombo.
So that, in the immediate future, the herding of Tamils into an increasingly isolated and vulnerable Jaffna, Sinhalese physical attack and Tiger reprisal, the Sinhalese colonisation of Tamil lands in the east and the expulsion of earlier plantation refugees settled on the borders of the Northern region in Vavuniya will continue. They will continue, even though wiser Sinhalese are now deeply anxious in private about how to come to terms with legitimate Tamil demands for their own means of self-government and self-defence.
Indeed, a few hours before my own expulsion from Sri Lanka on June 24 for "violation of journalistic ethics", Sirimavo Bandaranaike made plain to me in a long conversation, her own recognition of the seriousness of the Tamil struggle and of the need to find a political solution to it.
Moreover, despite seeming Sinhalese unity of purpose in the denial of Tamil demands the ruling UNP is itself a battlefield. -With deep factional divisions in its ranks made sharper under the pressure of the separatist movement and with obvious disarray in the army—where Mrs Bandaranaike's SLFP still has strong support—the anxiety of the Buddhist establishment to find an adequate successor to Jayewardene
who can guarantee their political and cultural hegemony in the island is growing.
Indeed, the struggle over the succession has been intensifying throughout this year; Jayewardene's Wijewardene, has already "disappeared" in a plane crash.
The only light relief to come will be the continued use, and misuse, of the "red scare" about "Naxalites", "Russians", "Marxists" and so on; Sveh paranoia about "foreign hands" is familiar to students of the Indian subcontinent. But, for the rest, the martyrdom of the Tamils will continue, as the Sinhalesesearch for a "final solution" to the "Tamil problem"; and the corruption of the whole discredited Sri Lankan political system will continue with it.
In Jaffna—I was told by a highly placed source in June—soldiers can sometimes be seen standing at the roadside, especially at busy crossings, hitting out at passers-by; who wipe the blood from their faces and walk or cycle on without murmur. "as if they had become normal".
To have been expelled from such a state is a great honour. Yet it is blood on my face, and your face, too, reader; for we are all, come to think of it, citizens of Jaffna in one way or another.