28 April 2014

National and international observers are watching with considerable interest the post-conflict efforts of the Sri Lankan government to reveal the roots and possible horizons of the Sinhalese-Tamil tension. Are the ethnicities ready to buy the narratives of the chronicles, invoked to assert the multi-ethnic character of the nation? Would an internal political negotiation ring true, or be just, in view of the more recent scars? What can lead to a balanced give-and-take in the poignant acts that make the play of nation building? Inter-actions brings you the second debate on Sri Lanka, with two voices from the country. Susantha Goonatilake unearths interesting chronicles from the island’s chequered past, and presents multi-ethnic Colombo as the future template for a space that has been at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean traffic for millennia. Aaranya Rajasingam brings out the other side of the picture by highlighting how, in the country, diverse discourses have been intimidated into silence. She ponders the necessity of an objective, open-ended outside intervention to ensure justice.


Hold the cursor on the illustrations to display animations and descriptions.

A Phoenix Rising from Blood?

Susantha Goonatilake

A Mighty Silence

Aaranya Rajasingam

Susantha dtr--bw-150

As the ‘Sri Lanka situation’ is shrouded with much misinformation in India – deliberate or otherwise – let me begin with some basic facts. The ‘Sinhalese’, in spite of speaking a North-Indian-derived dialect, have the largest genetic diversity in the country, due to interbreeding — natural for a place that has been at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean traffic for well over 2,500 years. In comparison, the majority of Tamils brought as indentured labour by the British in the 19th century, or by the Dutch into the Jaffna peninsula to work on their tobacco plantations, have far less genetic variety. The nearly extinct Sri Lankan adivasis, the Veddahs, are hardly diverse.

The Sinhalese have been formed through a remarkable cultural continuity, as attested by epigraphic and other archaeological data as well as Sri Lanka’s chronicle tradition. There was free flow of people across political boundaries, and no exclusive ‘traditional homeland’ for any ethnic group, and hence the claims of the Tamils have to be seen against the historical records. There was a Tamil kingdom for a short time, limited to the Jaffna and Mannar Peninsulas, as shown by the earliest European maps. This kingdom has not left behind any significant physical remains. According to the 14th century Moroccan explorer Ibn Batuta, as well as by later Portuguese sources including Francis Xavier, its main source of income was piracy. Although ruled by a Tamil King, a major part of the population was still Sinhalese, which would become Tamilised through the centuries.

Dona Catherina, Queen of Kandy in the 16th Century

The archaeology of Jaffna and the Northern Province reveals Buddhist ruins identical to those of the rest of the country. The 100 year old collections in the Jaffna Museum easily illustrate this. These collections, from the British period, were mislabeled during the LTTE occupation of Jaffna as ‘Tamil’, and separated from the rest of Sri Lanka. Once the LTTE was defeated and professional archaeology resumed in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, LTTE fronts like the TamilNet website were in the fore of opposing professional archaeology, including those involving Europeans. I must also mention here that there is no Tamil equivalent to the Sinhalese chronicles, except one commissioned by the Dutch in the mid-18th century and written by an “illiterate”, according to Rasanayagam, the Tamil author of Ancient Jaffna.

quote sri lanka 2 SG 1

A fictional ‘traditional homelands of the Tamils’ was constructed in the mid-20th century, based on the now infamous “Minute” by Cleghorn who, visiting from Britain for a few months, stated among others, that the Sinhalese came from Siam! Professional historians have debunked this story. The roots of the conflict lie partly in the divide and rule policies of the British, as well as the Tamil separatist movement in India with which Jaffna Tamils had contacts. The colonial experience had only heightened the deep sense of history that the Sinhalese possess. For instance, the damage caused by Portuguese ransacking was so severe that Buddhist higher learning had to be re-imported centuries later from Siam and Burma. The problem began when the British offered the Jaffna Tamils preponderance in the public services. This was resented by the Sinhalese, and the situation has been now reversed. Again, during the constitutional reforms prior to independence – ‘the Soulbury Commission’ – the minority Tamil representatives wanted ‘50/50’, an equal number of seats in the legislature as the majority Sinhalese. Even the British commissioners labelled this “clearly undemocratic” and an attempt “to create a minority into a majority”.

After Independence, legislation for free compulsory education, campaigned for by the Buddhists with the Hindu support, but opposed by the Christians, gave Sri Lanka a high development index. Sinhalese was declared an official language, with Tamil usage in the Tamil majority areas. Today, both as well as English are official languages. A parliamentary act for the Prevention of Social Disabilities subverted the caste-based Hindu temples that banned entry to the presumed low castes. Following the example of Ambedkar, the latter groups in Jaffna began to convert to Buddhism, but during the LTTE regime, under fear of death, these Tamil Buddhist groups were disbanded.

The Tamil separatist war began in 1972, when 20,000 detonators were smuggled into Jaffna. In the 80s, the Indian government invested in training and arming around one dozen Tamil groups. But, parallel to the increasing Tamil rhetoric, there were anti-Tamil riots in 1958, 1978 and 1983. My wife and I witnessed the tragedy of the last two, as we struggled to save Tamil friends. The violence was not just ethnic. For instance, in 1971, the JVP, a revolutionary Marxist party led by a Soviet-returned student, set an armed revolt against the then government. In 1987, the JVP staged what they called an armed national liberation movement against the Indian incursion into the country. The promotion of cross-border terrorism that began under Indira Gandhi ultimately led to the killing of her son Rajiv by an LTTE suicide bomber. In addition, Sri Lankan president Premadasa was killed by the LTTE, as were several Sri Lankan ministers. One of the non LTTE groups attacked the two most sacred sites for Buddhists, the branch of the tree under which the Buddha achieved Enlightenment, sent to Sri Lanka in 3rd century BC by Emperor Ashoka, and the temple of the Tooth Relic, brought by an Indian princess in the 4th century. According to some sources, the attack was sanctioned by the Indian RAW. Initially, all the Indian-trained groups operated, but later the LTTE turned on to the others.

One might say, the fictional ‘traditional Tamil homeland’ in Sri Lanka was fully created through the Indian incursion in the late 1980s. A cowed President JR Jayawardene forced all his MPs into a hotel guarded by the military, only to be whisked to Parliament to sign a neocolonial constitutional amendment drafted by India. Under the so-called ‘Indian Accord’ passed with Indian gunboats leveling guns on Colombo, Indian forces, in the form of IPKF, was brought in to quell the LTTE. Because of their human rights violations, Jaffna citizens called them the ‘Indian People Killing Force’.

The late 1980s Indian Peace Keeping Force
soon got involved in violent actions,
as the LTTE refused to get disarmed

Probably more Tamils got killed through the LTTE than in the war with the state. As recent publications based on the LTTE documents point out, the LTTE chief Prabahakaran had chosen as a guide, after careful consideration, Hitler and his methods. Prabahakaran ethnically cleansed ‘his’ areas by killing the Sinhalese and Muslims. While the LTTE was banned in many countries including India, Tamil parliamentarians unable to go to their electorates, sheepishly chanted the slogan ‘the LTTE is the sole representative of the Tamils’. Although Prabahakaran forbade government activities in ‘his’ areas, government welfare schemes were allowed to function. This made the LTTE, an army that marched on enemy-supplied food and medical care.

quote sri lanka 2 SG 2

The war ended in 2009, tens of thousands being killed over the years. As government troops, with a pincer movement closed in on a sliver of land, the LTTE forced the civilians to the battlefield. The LTTE had earlier demanded for its war one member from each family, before increasing it to two towards the tail end.

Let us think of India’s position vis-à-vis the Sri Lankan question. In this protracted war, there was ‘collateral damage’ of civilians ‘caught in the crossfire’. India and the US moved doublespeak resolutions in the UNHCR against Sri Lanka, but India abstained this year, probably worried about setting a precedence for UN interference in Kashmir, the North-East and Punjab. One must remember that there was a Tamil separatist movement in South India, which started, ironically, as a Buddhist movement nurtured initially by the Sinhalese, as recent Dalit writers, such as G Aloysius, have pointed out. The soft attitude India has towards Tamil separatism is evidenced in the fact that the Sikh assassins of Indira Gandhi and the terrorists who attacked Mumbai in 2008 were hanged, but the LTTE assassins of Rajiv Gandhi did not receive the same punishment. Is the difference evoking the separatist faultlines in India?

Today, Colombo and its suburbs are very multi-ethnic, with more Jaffna Tamils living among Sinhalese than in the North. Ten years ago, the Tamil areas of Colombo had the highest land prices in the country, but they have waned, as expatriate Tamils are now investing in Jaffna. The Northern Province, with heavy government investment, is having the highest annual growth in the country, albeit from a war-ravaged base.

After over 40 years of multifaceted bloodletting, Sri Lanka seems to be rising. The genetic mixing that characterised this island could resume, as in the plantation areas where Sinhalese and plantation Tamils are beginning to marry each other. But inter-mixing can be dangerous too, where there are caste hierarchies, as between the Jaffna Tamils and the plantation Tamils. To give perhaps a macabre example, Kumar Ponnambalam, named by Prabahakaran as a ‘Mahaveer’ (big hero) and the son of the author of the original ‘50-50’ demand, was killed by anti-LTTE elements, lured by the bait of a Sinhalese girl. Kumar was my classmate, growing up in Colombo, and his particular penchant for ‘genetic mixing’ was well known among his friends. Yet, multi ethnic Colombo holds the template for future Sri Lanka.

Confused? Should be.

Aaranya dtr--bw-150

The UNHRC debate still rages on in Sri Lanka. The resolution sponsored by a core group of nations, including the United States, demands that an independent international investigation process be started to probe all the human rights violations committed by both the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the last years of war. This is the third vote from the council putting pressure on the Sri Lankan government to start a credible reconciliation plan in the country. The resolution also highlights the need to document and report continuing extra judicial killings, torture and kidnappings, as well as acts of violence and intimidation of human rights defenders.

The resolution is open ended, as there are still questions as to what the council wishes to do with the evidence. Especially in the light of Sri Lanka announcing that it will not support this investigation in any way. An unsupportive, and even hostile Sri Lanka is unlikely to pave the way for the productive implementation of any recommendations that may arise from the council. In fact, the current regime has used this to garner support for its extreme nationalistic outlook within Sri Lanka. And unlike other regimes, this one has come to power without minority votes, so there is no motivation to woo the minorities in any way. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated in her report to the council that it seemed “fundamentally a question of political will” in the country. And now perhaps it is clearer why.

The GoSL retaliated to the vote by passing a law under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) on 1 April, banning 16 Tamil diaspora organisations in exile. This is a clear attempt to punish diaspora groups that have participated in collecting information about past human rights violations in the country, so that they would now curtail the flow of information from within the country to the international community, for fear of reprisals. And it does something else: it attempts to alienate Tamils living outside of Sri Lanka from their friends and family within. This is another avenue through which the persecution of Tamils continues in Sri Lanka.

quote sri lanka 2 AR 1

What is interesting, however, is that the dynamics of the war for Eelam has changed. It is now being fought internationally, instead of within the territorial borders of Sri Lanka. And it takes the form of multiple pressure groups and lobbyists who work to uncover hidden evidence incriminating the GoSL and the LTTE. As diaspora groups use rights-based forums to fight for justice for their people and families back home, they have become the ultimate threat to a regime that has everything to lose if it loses power.

The recent PTA law aims at sanctioning
overseas Tamil support groups

However, the human rights discourses invoked by the diaspora groups to justify the establishment of a Tamil nation are not without their limitations. This kind of international discourse does not give room for a healthy play of nationalism. While looking at people of the war as victims, it does not recognise them as agents who participated and supported an armed struggle. Frightening as the LTTE is, it must be admitted that they had immense grassroots base among the Tamil people. That is what enabled them to survive for so long. It is this political agency that gets diluted in human rights discourses. The conflict in Sri Lanka continues to be branded as an ‘ethnic’ conflict, and the struggle for nationhood is still easily identified as ‘separatist’ within these forums. This is a contradiction that these groups continue to grapple with. Only time will tell whether the Eelam conflict will transform the way in which human rights discourses hope to enable the right to self-determination. Who knows, it just might – after all, it was the war that made the UN internal review panel admonish its own actions during the final months of the war.

One way to understand what is happening in the conflict areas of the country is to see the condition of women there. For example, the women from former Tiger-controlled territories are both warriors and victims, and the government in the post-war era seeks to both punish and save them. The aims and policies are contradictory. Government benefits and training programmes are accompanied by arrests, detentions, tortures, intimidations and the continuation of sexual violations. These women cope by becoming day-labourers or prostitutes to support their families bereft of men. And in a militarised economy, it does not take a long time to find out the myriad ways in which this exploitation takes place.

As a scholar of politics and governance, I understand that this state did not come here overnight. The militarisation, corruption and centralisation of powers weren’t achieved by one man alone. It took multiple presidencies, bureaucratic machineries and the militarisation of the people to break down democratic institutions in this country and to support violent repression as the answer to all political dissent. Having failed to stop all those regimes, activists now struggle to save what is left of democracy in Sri Lanka.

quote sri lanka 2 AR 2

Likewise, years ago, Tamils faced what Muslims face now. White vans came for the Tamils in the North and East, long before they came for those in the South. Many Sivarams were killed before Lasanthas. But because we have failed to stop them then, they have come to our doorstep in the South. Now, journalists in the South quail to write anything critical about the current regime. And rightfully so. Journalists who write in Tamil and Sinhalese, the language of the masses, are more likely to be a threat to the regime. A critically thinking subject is the last thing this regime needs. We even find that sexual violence against women has increased throughout the country. After all, values percolate and policies trickle down. You cannot confine draconian laws and militarisation to the North: they will come to the South.

A proposed stamp of Eelam

quote sri lanka 2 AR 3

In Sri Lanka, politics is polarised for the people. Years of war, attrition and entrenched powers do that, I suppose. The debate space on this website that extends the discourse to accommodate multiple points of view is a case in point. There are not many entries now, but in time that point of polarisation will become visible to the readers, I hope. On the surface, it may seem as if we all have different points of views, diverging ideas about homeland and nationalism, about ways towards reconciliation and justice, and about whether international attention and investigation is beneficial or not. But what becomes obvious is that it boils down to whether we recognise the right to self-determination of the population of the North and East in Sri Lanka or not. Delivering justice for this polity includes permitting their right to political justice, that is, recognising their demand for self-governance, their demand for safety from military terror and their ability to participate in the reconstruction of their lives as equal stakeholders. If we cannot recognise that, then we can continue to debate for time immemorial about whether the continuation of their oppression is validated or not. ‘Gopis’ will be created whenever such a regime needs them to justify the militarisation of the region, the continued surveillance of the people and the oppression of any dissent. In Sri Lanka, diverse discourses have been intimidated into silence, their authors killed or forced to flee the country. There are only two sides to this coin and one side is heavy. So, no guesses as to which side the coin will fall on.

Susantha Goonatilake is an author, academic and social commentator. He has worked with several academic and research centres around the world and has advised the UN in various capacities. Among his recent books are A 16th Century Clash of Civilizations: The Portuguese in Sri Lanka (2010), Recolonisation: Foreign Funded NGOs in Sri Lanka (2006), Anthropologizing Sri Lanka: A Eurocentric Misadventure (2001) and Toward a Global Science: Mining Civilizational Knowledge/Race, Gender, and Science (1999). He is currently the President of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka.
Aaranya Rajasingam is a scholar of governance and public policy. She is a Programme Officer at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS), a South Asian think tank based in Colombo, and the Regional Liaison Officer for Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), a global network of civil society organisations actively working on conflict prevention and peace building. The post-war political processes in Sri Lanka is one of her most abiding concerns.

Update (29 April): Modifications are brought to the version published on 27 April, in the fifth and tenth paragraphs, due to editorial concerns.

(16 June) As some readers suggested that references should be provided to support Susantha Goonatilake’s line of argument, the author has provided detailed references, available as PDF here.

Update (5 May): The second image is changed, due to editorial concerns.

Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
LILA Inter-actions will not be responsible for the views presented.
The images and the videos used are only intended to provide multiple perspectives on the fields under discussion.

Images courtesy: Caravan Magazine | Karava | Asrilanka | Daily FT | New Internationalist | Eranga Jayawardena for AP | Simtropolitan

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