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Today at a time when the Sri Lanka army has reduced its recruitment age to 17 in its bid to battle against Tamil resistance, it appears that President D.B.Wijetunga is bent on doing his share for Sinhala chauvinism.
During the first week of September, President Wijetunga addressing a Seminar for government officials held in Hambantota in the South of Sri Lanka gave expression to some of his inner feelings. Said he:
Thinking perhaps that his remarks may be dismissed as the momentary aberration of a Sinhala political leader groggy with recent military reverses, President Wijetunga returned to the fray the following week at a special Central Committee meeting of the UNP Branch at Hanguranketha - again in the South of Sri Lanka. He said (with almost imperial authority):
Appearances to the contrary, President Wijetunga was not speaking in jocular vein. President Wijetunga has two Tamil secretaries, therefore he feels there is no Tamil ethnic problem. Tamils should be suitably grateful that two of them have had the good fortune of directly serving their Sinhala ruler, at and during his pleasure.
Tamils and Sinhalese intermarry, therefore President Wijetunga feels there is no ethnic problem. Given that there are seven Sinhalese for every two Tamils in the island, it is not difficult to see the attraction that Sinhala chauvinism has for intermarriage as a way of accelerating the assimilative process - if you cannot kill them off, marry them.
But then according to President Wijetunga, the Sinhalese have been looking after the Tamils like brothers. And, he was not joking. Hundred of Tamils were killed by Sinhala mobs in 1958, thousands in 1977 and again during the planned genocide of 1983. It was all done in a frenzy of brotherly affection. Clearly President Wijetunga subscribes to the view that brotherly love takes many forms.
Again, according to President Wijetunga, the Tamils have also been 'given' 'universities and other centres of education'. Listeners may have been forgiven if they had got the impression that universities had been somehow 'gifted' by the Sinhala people, as a token of their brotherly affection, without any contribution from Tamil tax payers.
Be that as it may, there was the little matter of standardisation which President Wijetunga was reticent about in a brotherly sort of a way - standardisation that prevented qualified Tamil students from gaining admission to Universities. Presumably President Wijetunga felt that between brothers, there should be some give and take - the Tamil brother gives and the Sinhala brother takes University admission places.
And as for 'giving' other 'centres of education', there was, again, the little matter of the burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981 whilst two of President Wijetunga's fellow cabinet ministers were in Jaffna. In President Wijetunga's book, the burning was, no doubt, a brotherly act of affection by hundreds of Sinhala policeman imbued by the desire to 'looking after' those Tamils who had begun, foolishly, to think of looking after themselves.
According to President Wijetunga, Sinhala kindness also extended to 'gifting' their Tamil brothers with electricity from Laxapana. After all, the Laxapana hydro electric project was situated in the Sinhala south and the big Sinhala brother in a spirit of brotherly affection actually permitted (surprise, surprise) electricity generated by a project funded by the Sri Lanka government to be sold to Tamil consumers who were citizens of the country!
Perhaps because the Tamils had not shown their gratitude in an appropriate manner, electricity has now been cut off and an economic blockade imposed on the North - until such time as the Tamils express a desire to be 'looked after' by their Sinhala brothers again.
Says President Wijetunga:
Selection for government jobs will not be on merit and this shows there is no ethnic problem. Some of his listeners may have found the logic baffling but in matters of brotherly affection, sentiment often clouds rational thought.
Adds President Wijetunga: ''Tamil is now an official language and therefore there is no ethnic problem.'' But the Constitution secures that the Sinhala brother will be able to continue to 'look after' his Tamil brother. It enacts: 'Sinhalese shall be the official language. Tamil will also be an official language.' It is the old formula of Sinhala Only and Tamil Also dressed up in new clothes and government offices in the island continue to function in the old way in Sinhala.
Ofcourse, it is not that President Wijetunga is unaware of the decades of systematic oppression of the Tamil people by a Sinhala majority within the confines of a Sri Lankan unitary state. The United National Party manifesto on which President Wijetunga and his party campaigned for election in 1977 declared:
The brazenness with which President Wijetunga declares today: ''Ethnic problem? What ethnic problem?'' insults not simply the intelligence but also the common sense of his listeners.
Eelam Tamil journalist and human rights activist, Subramaniam Sivanayagam, then Head of the Tamil Eelam Information Unit, put it well, in his own inimitable fashion in 1984:
To Sinhala chauvinism, there is no ethnic problem. To Sinhala chauvinism the problem is the armed resistance. of the Tamil people to decades of oppression. President Wijetunga recent speeches expose the true nature of the cancerous growth of Sinhala chauvinism in the Sinhala body politic.
Meanwhile, informed non governmental sources in Geneva have commented that the political context which impelled President Wijetunga to deny the existence of an ethnic problem is significant. President Wijetunga needs foreign aid to meet the staggering annual Rs.20,000 million expenditure on the Sinhala armed forces.
But aid donors (particularly those with Tamil refugees) are increasingly restive about continuing to pump money into a seemingly bottomless pit. They have begun to recognise that stability will not come to the island unless the parties to the conflict sit and talk to each other and structure a polity where two peoples, speaking two different languages, having two different histories, may live in equality and in freedom. Sri Lanka's rejection of the recent Nobel Prize Winners Peace proposal has not gone down well.
Here, the statement of the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Velupillai Pirabaharan, that the LTTE was prepared to consider a federal structure with the NorthEast forming the Tamil homeland only served to heighten President Wijetunga's discomfiture.
On the 5 September 1993 the Political Correspondent of the Sinhala controlled Sri Lanka Sunday Times, put his finger on the current political reality on the ground:
Clearly, President Wijetunga badly needed to boost the morale of his Sinhala constituency which was questioning a war which was 'not only bleeding the human resources of the country but also the economy which could only portend additional problems in the months to come'.
He had also to withstand increasing pressures from Western aid donors to resolve the 'ethnic conflict'. What better way to buy time and get over the immediate pressures resulting from the continuing armed conflict in the North-East than by blandly asserting: Ethnic problem? What ethnic problem?
The final assessment of President Wijetunga's comments may be left, for the time being, with his own Cabinet Minister S.Thondaman In a recent newspaper interview (reported in the Lanka Guardian of 1 October 1993). Minister Thondaman was typically circumspect but also perceptive: