EUROPEAN UNION & THE TAMIL STRUGGLE
Unmoved by the joint statement of more than 17 non
governmental organisations at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights
in February this year (1994) on the urgency to recognise the right of Tamil
people to self determination, the European Parliament declared in May 1994,
its belief that 'a useful form of aid from the European Union to Sri Lanka
would be the provision of books and educational equipment for the teaching
of the English language.'
The European Parliament's last session in Strasbourg, before fresh
European elections, added a touch of farce to the efforts being made to resolve
the armed conflict in the island of Sri Lanka.
Unmoved by the joint statement of more than
17 non governmental organisations at the United Nations Commission on Human
Rights in February this year (1994) on the urgency to recognise the right of
Tamil people to self determination, the European Parliament declared in May
1994, its belief that 'a useful form of aid from the European Union to Sri Lanka
would be the provision of books and educational equipment for the teaching of
the English language.'
An explanatory statement went on to say:
''... one of the causes of the development of conflicts in Sri Lanka, after
its peaceful achievement of independence in 1948 was the segregation of
schools on linguistic lines. Attempts are now being made to remedy this by
encouraging the use of English. It is already the lingua franca of the
educated Sinhalese and the educated Tamils, but its wider use would be
valuable in bridging the ethnic divide. While there are many excellent
teachers in Sri Lanka, it would seem worthwhile the EC making a special
effort to assist with funds, books and teaching aids. Graduate unemployment
as well as linguistic division are special problems in Sri Lanka, which
would be relieved by such assistance.''
To declare solemnly in this day and age that English is 'the lingua franca
of the educated Sinhalese and the educated Tamils' is to fail to recognise that
the true Tamil intelligentsia today is Tamil speaking and not English speaking.
It is to fail to recognise that 'education' and 'English' are not synonyms. It
is also to fail to recognise that thousands upon thousands of 'educated Tamils'
speak only Tamil.
It is also to fail to recognise that the Tamil struggle for self
determination arose on Tamil soil and has been shaped by Tamils who have hardly
ever spoken in English. It is also to fail to recognise that Tamil is one of the
oldest, if not the oldest, living language in the world, was written and spoken
several centuries before English, and is today written and spoken by more than
sixty million people around the world.
By all means let us study the languages of the world. By all means
let the English study Tamil and the Tamils study English. Each may gain some
understanding of the other in this way. But to suggest that the answer to the
armed conflict on the ground in the island of Sri Lanka is to teach English to
the 'natives' is to preach a cynical, ethnocentric utopionism.
It is hardly likely that the European Parliament would have suggested that,
say, the ethnic divide between Germany, and Great Britain would be bridged by
teaching French to both Germans and the British on the basis that, French was
the lingua franca of the 'educated German' and the 'educated British' (during
pre Napoleonic times).
The segregation of schools on linguistic lines was not a 'cause' of the
conflict in the island of Sri Lanka. For one thing, schools were not segregated
on linguistic lines. That which was separated was the language stream within
each school. But, be that as it may, the fact that two peoples are educated,
each in their own mother tongue, does not have the result that these two peoples
cannot associate with each other in equality and in freedom - unless they are
taught the tongue of their erstwhile alien ruler.
It is unfortunate that the European Parliament did not educate itself by
making an effort to understand that which was said by 15 non governmental
organisations at the February 1993 sessions of the United Nations Human Rights
''We are of the view that any meaningful attempt to resolve the conflict
(in the island of Sri Lanka) should address its underlying causes and to
recognise that the armed struggle of the Tamil people for self
determination, arose as a response to decades of an ever widening and
deepening oppression by a permanent Sinhala majority, within the confines of
an unitary Sri Lankan state.
It was an oppression which included the disenfranchisement of the
plantation Tamils, systematic state aided Sinhala colonisation of the Tamil
homeland, the enactment of the Sinhala Only law, discriminatory employment
policies, inequitable allocation of resources to Tamil areas, exclusion of
eligible Tamil students from Universities and higher education, and a
refusal to share power within the frame of a federal constitution. It was an
oppression by an alien Sinhala majority which consolidated the growth of the
national consciousness of the Tamil people.
During the past several years the Sinhala dominated Sri Lankan government
has attempted to put down the armed resistance of the Tamil people and has
sought to conquer and control the Tamil homeland. The record shows that in
this attempt, Sri Lanka's armed forces and para military units have
committed increasingly widespread violations of the rules of humanitarian
However, despite the sustained attacks of Sinhala dominated governments
over a period of several decades, the territorial integrity of the Tamil
homeland in the North and East of the island has remained. The Tamil
population in the North and East, who have lived for many centuries within
relatively well defined geographical boundaries, share an ancient heritage,
a vibrant culture, and a living language which traces its origins to more
than 2500 years ago.
A social group, which shares objective elements such as a common language
and which has acquired a subjective consciousness of togetherness, by its
life within a relatively well defined territory, and its struggle against
alien domination, clearly constitutes a 'people' with the right to self
Today, there is an urgent need for the international community to recognise
that the Tamil population in the North and East of the island of Sri Lanka
are such a 'people' with the right to freely choose their political status.
It is our view that such recognition will prepare the ground for the
resolution of a conflict which has taken such a heavy toll in human lives
and suffering during the past several years.''
A charitable explanation for the farcical nature of the resolution of the
European Parliament may, perhaps, be found in the comments made by Peter Taylor
writing in the European Newspaper of 13-19 May 1994:
''The European Parliament's last session in Strasbourg before the elections
was a bit like end of term in a boarding school. Metal trunks containing
MEPs most cherished mounds of paper work lined the labyrinthine corridors,
and from behind doors left ajar came hearty sounds of farewell. Almost half
the MEPs will be gone for good - either through retiring, being dropped from
their national lists or losing the election...
The European Parliament is a bizarre institution... Parliament which
shares the Council of Europe's chamber is the cuckoo in its nest. Its own
symbolism - forest of flags, the ubiquitous 12 star logo, Beethoven suborned
to EU service - shows no such restraint. 'Official dignity tends to increase
in inverse ratio to the importance of the country in which the office is
held' wrote the English novelist Aldous Huxley. Judged by that standard,
'Europe' must rank alongside, say, Chad.
In the Chamber itself, ushers dressed in white tie and tails, like
sommeliers, fuss around an amphitheatre of desks. Of 518 MEPs (soon to be
567), there might be 30 in the chamber most of the time - vastly outnumbered
by herds of puzzled visitors in the public galleries. Hardly any of the MEPs
are famous faces... Soporific litanies do not however mean that nothing
important is happening. Quite the contrary. The Friday morning
sessions, when most MEPs have left, is precisely when it is easiest to slide
in a little noticed amendment to protect some special interest group.
MEPs are supposed to register their financial interest but the system is
widely regarded as inadequate. For commissioners themselves and for the huge
army of 'research assistants' (many in the pay of lobbyists), no such
register even exists...''
Whether the resolution on the situation in Sri Lanka was 'slided in'
is a matter of conjecture. But, that it was passed on a Friday is a fact.
Again, what is not a matter of conjecture is the colossal ignorance that the
resolution displays - an ignorance which would be laughable had not the
resolution been intended to be taken seriously. It seems that the European
Parliament has preferred to live up to Peter Taylors description of it as a
'bizarre institution'. But it would be slighting Chad to say that 'Europe' ranks
alongside Chad. After all Chad, a third world country, does not display the
arrogance of neo colonialism which believes that English is the panacea for the