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 > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Right to Self Determination - Tamil Eelam > The Crisis & Struggle for Fundamental Change - Ramani Chelliah


The Crisis and Struggle for Fundamental Change

Speech by Dr.Ramani Chelliah at the ‘Conference on Asia ’
held on 25 and 26 May 1991 at University of London

I have been invited to talk to you about the present situation in Sri Lanka.

When we look at the current situation in Sri Lanka today, the first point that needs to be borne in mind is that there are two units of analysis involved - the Tamil nation of Eelam and the associated Tamil national liberation struggle and the Sinhala nation of Sri Lanka and the struggle of the oppressed there against the ruling regime. These two national entities are quite distinct, representing two different social formations, the dynamics of each being driven by different political, social and economic forces.

What I intend doing today, is to provide an outline of the present reality in Eelam and situate it in relation to Sri Lanka.

The backdrop to the emergence of the Tamil national liberation struggle in Eelam is provided by the national chauvinism of the Sinhala ruling elite, which over the past 40 years has dictated a persistent policy aimed at destroying the Tamil nation. It is the consequences of this disastrous policy that made a revolutionary rupture from joint existence an inevitable alternative.

So what are the features of Tamil National oppression?

- The first act of independent Ceylonese government was the inhuman Citizenship Act of 1948 which robbed 1.2 million Tamil plantation workers of their basic human rights and reduced them to an appalling condition of statelessness. In one stroke, this Act deprived almost 50% of the Tamil population of its basic fundamental rights.

- The Tamil language which represented an aspect of the identity of the Tamil nation was another target for attack. In 1956 the Sinhala language was declared the only official language of the country which directly resulted in thousands of government servants immediately losing their employment, due to their non-proficiency in the Sinhala language.

- The Sinhala only policy coupled with open discrimination has resulted in the almost complete drying up of employment opportunities for Tamil speaking people. Today a Tamil employee in the public sector is a rare finding although Tamils constitute almost 30% of the populations.

- In education, the norm of open competition has been abandoned in favour of various standardisation and regional quota systems, the sole result of which has been to exclude well qualified Tamil students from higher education -this in a country where education is highly valued and the literacy rate is 97%.

- A most sinister threat to Tamil nationhood has been posed by the state-aided colonisation schemes that have been vigorously carried out since independence. Aimed at destroying the geographical entity of the Tamil nation, it is also used to reduce the Tamils to a minority in their own homelands. As a direct result of colonisation two new Sinhala electorates have been created and more than one third of the land area in the Eastern province has been taken over.

- The traditional Tamil homelands have been starved of investment and development. Of government investment from 1948 to the present day, less that .01% has been for the benefit of Tamil people. Aid projects and industrial development projects are exclusively sited in Sinhala areas. As a result, while the rest of Sri Lanka prospered, the Tamil nation has been impoverished and made dependent on the Sinhala master nation.

- Various acts of culture barbarity have been carried out as in the police disruption of an International Tamil Research Conference in 1974 (resulting in 9 dead and 100s wounded) and the burning down of the Jaffna Library in 1981 with its collection of rare and irreplaceable archives. In either case, no inquiry was ever held.

- Periodic pogroms occur in which thousands of innocent lives have been brutally sacrificed at the alter of national chauvinistic hatred. On every occasion the state and the armed forces colluded with thugs and vandals in their sadistic orgy of arson, rape and mass murder.

- Various laws have been rushed through parliament aimed at crushing Tamil resistance. The PTA Act of 1979 denies trail by jury, enables the detention of people for a period of 18 months without being charged and allows confessions extracted under torture as admissible evidence.

- The brutality of the Sri Lankan army of occupation in the Tamil homelands is an everyday threat to the life and livelihood of ordinary citizens in the Tamil homelands.

It is out of history of oppression that the struggle for national liberation emerged.

The point was eventually reached when it became evident that the only solution was the establishment of an independent state of Eelam in the traditional Tamil homelands of the North and East. While the history of oppression and betrayal by the dominant powers in Sri Lanka goes back over four decades, yet the cry for an independent Eelam is relatively recent. It is important to remember that the Tamils had already travelled the path of peaceful agitation and parliamentary participation asked for minimum autonomy and federal status - only to be met with betrayal at best and total dismissal at worst as the foundations were laid to create a Sinhala Sri Lanka.

This explains the almost universal support for the national liberation struggle amongst Tamils today which cuts across class, caste and gender barriers. This is not to say that all or any of the particular liberation organisations leading the struggle enjoy universal unconditional support. The point is, that amongst the Tamils as home and abroad, there is a wide consensus of support for national liberation as an essential goal which takes primacy over internal contradictions and problems within the liberation movement itself. These problems have to be resolved within the context of national liberation - not outside of it.

It is now almost 20 years since the inception of the armed struggle for national liberation. It has been fought against great odds. The Sri Lankan state has refused to seriously consider anything other than a military solution to the problem.

It has imported massive arms supplies from various countries including the USA, Britain, Pakistan, South Africa, Taiwan and Israeli. Israeli secret service personnel and British mercenaries have been used in combat operations. All resources have been directed to the massive programme of militarisation with enormous increases in defence expenditure.

Then there was the Indian adventure when Rajiv Gandhi took the decision to send in troops to bail out the then President Jeyawardena’s tottering regime in Sri Lanka and in the process exacting a handsome price in terms of economic and political rights within Sri Lanka. The infamous Peace Accord signed in 1987, met none of the Tamil demands, was negotiated over the heads of Tamil representatives, and in the face of Sinhala opposition. The only way of enforcing the problem - ridden accord was to impose it by force and the necessary precondition of crushing Tamil resistance was a required step in the process of India gaining control, not only over the Tamil nation, but the entire island of Sri Lanka.

At the height of the Indian invasion, over 120,000 troops were stationed in the Tarril homelands of Eelam The concentration of these troops in the northern province was such that for every 10 people in that region one was an occupying enemy soldier. In spite of the power and might of the Indian army and the large scale loss of civilian lives that it inflicted on the Tamil population (a conservative estimate has been put at 100,000), Tamil resistance could not be crushed. The Indian Peace Keeping Force, dubbed the Innocent People Killing Force had to withdraw two and a half years later, defeated and disgraced.

Currently the Sri Lanka army is back on the offensive. The army of occupation in Eelam is in fact confined to army and navy barracks in certain towns - the rest of the country being under the control of the LTTE. Nonetheless, the army is able to inflict havoc and heavy civilian casualties through its daily indiscriminate bombing - using napalm bombs over densely populated areas and indiscriminate shooting from helicopters. They are operating a policy of levelling to the ground entire villages.

Since June of last year, when the latest offensive began, to the present day, all electricity supply to the northern province has been cut off. The transport of medical supplies, including life-saving medicines into Eelam is banned. The transport of petrol, kerosene, any form of batteries and matches have been banned. In addition there is an embargo on sugar, milk, paper and money. The cash economy is collapsing due to lack of paper money with elements of bartering system emerging. As fuel shortage rules out transport, more and more people of Eelam are being pushed back into a primitive, self-sustaining form of life reminiscent of the last century.

Over 4,000 civilian have been killed since June. The effects of the bombing are compounded by lack of medicines and trained medical personnel. The region's biggest hospital has been evacuated. other small, working hospitals have been bombed. In an effort to dent civilian morale, they have even been showering the area with human and animal excrement - which speaks volumes about the psychological underpinnings of this war.

Civilian casualties are high, but so is their spirit. The net outcome is that those who are fighting against the state are heralded as protectors, and saviours from the otherwise certain fate of genocide.

Over the last decade the struggle the Tamil people of Eelam have paid a heavy price. Those who have been forced to flee the country as refugees amount to about 125,000 in Europe (including UK), 200,000 in India and a sizeable number in Canada and other parts of the world. Within Eelam itself, the havoc and destruction of war means that about 1 million people are currently displaced. The loss of life, mostly among civilians, runs into several hundreds of thousands. In fact, the situation facing the Tamils is one of genocide and I use the term advisedly. In spite of all this, the iron will of the people as a whole to win their freedom has been tested through fire and found to be unshakable The fundamental basis for the Tamil national struggle for liberation has only be enforced. Having been conceived in the womb of national oppression, it is impossible for that struggle to be aborted by that very same oppression, however intense. If anything, it is sustained by it

That is the current situation in Eelam.

Let us turn now, very briefly to the situation in Sri Lanka.

Economically, the country is in tatters. According to a recent, confidential World Bank report, Sri Lanka is on the brink of a "disaster scenario". Defence spending accounts for almost 20% of the budget, mostly spent in hard currency needed to import arms. Domestic inflation is at 20%. The official figure for unemployment is 22% t the real figure is much higher). The 1991 budget deficit stands at Rs.60 billion. External debt service ration is 20.3%.

The recent Gulf crisis has added to the problems. Middle Eastern earnings is the second largest export earner for Sri Lanka, second only to tea. Its benefits were enjoyed by large sections of the lower middle classes, as opposed to being concentrated within the few hands of the very wealthy. The sudden drying up o this source as a spin off effect of George Bush acting out his Rambo fantasy as ''ass kicker" means that there is not only increased economic hardship in Sri Lanka, but also that it is acting as a serious destabilising force given the class character of the people who have been adversely affected.

The degree of state repression has been steadily increasing and human rights violations have been condemned internationally. A four member team from the European Parliament who visited Sri Lanka at the end of last year have reported that at least 60,000 people have been killed or have disappeared in central and southern Sri Lanka in the past 3 years i.e. 1 in every 250 people. These developments are related to the brutal suppression by the state of the violent Sinhalese anti-government uprising over the past few years led by the JVP. Accounts of barbarity abound such as the incident when uniformed police publicly line up/ shot in cold blood and beheaded 6 boys for an alleged crime of taking part in a bank raid.

These killings and disappearances are mostly carried out by paramilitary and vigilante groups representing a new layer of institutionalised violence beyond the army and police force that is unaccountable and unidentifiable. Parallel to this is the militarisation process that has been taking place within the state apparatus itself. Recent years have seen a massive multiplication of ''security" ministries and the proliferation of security-related ministerial posts with the creation of new departments for '"defence", 'internal security", national security", "commercial security'' and "manpower mobilisation".

The methods used to crush the JVP have taken on a momentum of their own placing under severe threat democratic structures in the country. Trade Unions are often not allowed to function properly, lawyers who file habeas corpus applications on behalf of the disappeared are threatened, and local journalists have to exercise extreme caution. Organisation such as Amnesty International have been banned from the country for several years.

Leading the struggle against the repressive state in Sri Lanka is the JVP. It is only radical force of any significance, which in spite of its brutal means and utter ruthlessness, poses the question of seizure of state power and its radical transformation. It is however, rabidly chauvinistic and under the slogan of "defence of the motherland" makes a direct appeal to Sinhala national chauvinism. It represents a sizeable proportion of the most oppressed section of the Sri Lankan nation. It's support base is provided by the poor, students, unemployed youth and recently they have begun drawing support from a sizeable section of the intelligentsia and made inroads into the organised urban workers movements.

Although the entire top and second ranking leadership of the JVP has been systematically and brutally wiped out over the last two years by the regime, it still remains the only significant radical challenge to the state.

To conclude my presentation, I will sum up with the following points:

- For the Tamils of Eelam national liberation is the only solution. The social, economic and political contradictions within the Tamil nation have to be resolved and can only be resolved within the context of national liberation.

- For the Sinhalese in the South of Sri Lanka the points and sites of confrontation between the people and the regime are multiplying. As the state resorts to increasingly repressive tactics, it is creating the conditions for an imminent revolutionary upheaval there.

- Unity between the leading forces in Eelam and Sri Lanka can only come about on a basis of equality. The precondition for this basis of equality is the liberation of Eelam. It cannot be otherwise, given the effect of 40 years of rampant Sinhala national chauvinism that has struck deep roots in the psyche and fabric of the Sinhala nation coupled with the unparalleled oppression and sacrifices imposed upon the Tamil nation.

- At present the only common feature between the Tamil national liberation struggle in Eelam and the struggle against the state in Sri Lanka by the oppressed Sinhalese is that neither will tolerate super-power intervention, or any external influence for that matter. national consciousness and the right to self-determination are pivotal factors for both struggles.

These are some of the features of the present reality in Eelam and Sri Lanka. Thank you.


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