While class contradiction remains the fundamental contradiction in all class society, uneven development of capitalism has ensured that class exploitation and oppression would vary in form so that the struggle against class oppression, to succeed, needs to adopt different strategies. Under colonial and semi-colonial domination the struggle was against the main oppressor and emerged as an anti-colonial struggle that united anti-imperialist forces while being conscious of contradictions with the local capitalist and feudal classes. Imperialist strategy changed with the elimination of direct colonial rule; and neo-colonialism, while formally recognising the sovereignty of former colonies and semi-colonies, developed methods for direct and indirect control over them. In countries where a bourgeois elite group replaced the colonial masters, contradictions that were dormant under colonial domination became important for a variety of reasons.
The absence of a visible foreign oppressor, combined with rivalry among the elite for political power and control over wealth, and the need to divert attention from the failure of the new ruling classes to solve the pressing economic problems enabled contradictions based on identity other than class to come to the fore. With nationalism failing to provide answers to problems based on neo-colonial oppression, the ruling elite encouraged and exploited contradictions based on ethnicity, religion, region and caste, and were often helped in the process by the failings of the left. It is in such a context that the national contradiction came to dominate politics in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, the aggravation of the national question and its transformation into national oppression and war has made the national question the main contradiction to the extent that, without going some way towards its resolution, it will not be possible to make progress in the anti-imperialist struggle, let alone achieving working class solidarity and carrying forward the struggle for social justice.
The purpose of this commentary is to trace the historical development of ethnic and national consciousness in Sri Lanka, the development of the contradictions and their transformation into national conflict, oppression and war; and to identify the respective roles played by ethnicity as well as class interests and ideology. The commentary also deals with the different class- and ideology-based approaches to the solution of the national question as well as briefly touches on the role of forces of foreign domination in the aggravation of the problem and to impose solutions that serve their interests.
While the national question is now the main contradiction in Sri Lanka, one needs to be aware that the contradiction has been conditioned by class interests and that various vested interests have been at play in transforming it into war and in prolonging the war. Although the war is visibly between the armed forces of the Sinhala dominated Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) claiming to represent the entire Tamil nationality, a satisfactory resolution of the national question needs to address other less known contradictions that form part of the national question.
Discussion of the Sri Lankan national question and its manifestation as a war spanning 24 years, with brief lulls, has often been conditioned by subjective interpretations of the problem and its history, and by limited objectives. Subjective interpretations of history, especially but not exclusively by the Sinhala nationalists, have gone a long way towards conditioning attitudes towards other communities and the relationships among nationalities and national minorities. It is also important to recognise the role of class, caste and region in the emergence of ethnic and national identities. The myth of ‘purity’ of race too has played a role in the consolidation of ethnic identities, and claims largely based on myths concerning who the first settlers in the island (and therefore the ‘true sons of the soil’) are feed chauvinistic attitudes all round.
While the resolution of the national question concerns more pressing issues than quarrels relating to ancient history, or for that matter prehistory, an understanding of the emergence of ethnic identities over the ages and their fairly recent consolidation into political categories, and how socio-economic developments since the colonial era, the introduction of electoral politics under British rule, and rivalries among elite classes conditioned relationship between the various ethnic groups will be of use in understanding the nature of the problem. Thus the next section will deal with the development of ethnic identities in the context of the relationship between communities, and elite class rivalries that gave rise to ethnic conflicts. The section that follows it will deal with the national problem which had at its centre the contradiction between the Sinhala and Tamil nationalities and leading up to the crisis of 1983. The fourth section provides an overview of the national question from the time that it was transformed into a war up to the current situation, and the fifth section deals with the different approaches to the national crisis and its solution. The final section briefly presents the case for a solution to the national question based on the principle of the right to self-determination applied on the broadest possible basis.
2. The Land and its People: Emerging Ethno-Political Identities
The history of the country and its people cannot be said to be well documented, although historians draw on Mahavansa written around the 5th or 6th century tracing back to the arrival of the exiled mythical Prince Vijaya and his companions from northern India. The chronicle written by Theravaada Buddhist clergymen emphasises contradictions with the once powerful Mahayana Buddhism as well as ‘alien’ Tamils. The historiography of Sri Lanka, with the exception of fairly recent writings by secular modern historians, has been conditioned by the notion that the Sinhalese are the people of the land, Buddhism their religion, and all else alien. The claim that the entire Sinhala race, at times referred to as the Arya Sinhala race, are the descendents of Vijaya and his companions has been propagated through the ages; and in modern times intensely through both state and private media, and through textbooks. This approach has been a major stumbling block to objective archaeological studies until several decades after independence; and subjective interpretations of archaeological data to suit the Arya Sinhala myth as well as the Sinhala Buddhist ideology that struck root under British rule in the 19th century still dominate Sinhala historiography. The fallacy of attaching a Sinhala-Buddhist national identity to the ancient feudal state persists despite the fact that many of the kings, including some of the most famed, were not really ‘Sinhalese’ and had, in addition, South Indian queens who worshipped at Hindu shrines. There was no hostility between the ethnic groups or for that matter between natives and visitors, whereas rivalry between Buddhist monasteries for royal favour and between pretenders to the throne for state power had been important causes for disorder.
Sinhala nationalist claims have been contested by Tamil nationalists, who point to the existence of a Tamil kingdom based in the Jaffna peninsula that defied the Portuguese as well as to Tamil principalities and chieftaincies that survived into the British colonial era. References to Saivaite (Hindu) shrines in the island exist in Tamil hymns composed in the 6th-7th century during the Pallava period of South India. More recent excavations point to the existence of the Tamil inscriptions in the northern part of the island dating back to the 3rd century BC. Besides, there is strong evidence that Buddhism thrived among Tamils in the island at least up to the period of Maanikkavacakar close to 10th century A.D., and the dagabas unearthed in the north of the island, at least in size, resemble those in Tamilnadu better than the massive structures that are characteristic of Sinhala Buddhist dagabas in the South. But to argue therefore that the Tamils of today are the descendents of the ancient Tamils will be as absurd as to claim that the Sinhalese are the descendents of an exiled prince and his companions.
While the possibility of mass scale immigration to the country seems remote, immigration from India, especially South India, has taken place for many centuries under conditions of peace as well as war. Besides the two major South Indian invasions that are said to have dealt deathblows to major Sinhala civilisations, rival kingdoms in the island have throughout history used the services of South Indian rulers as well as mercenaries to settle their disputes. A variety of craftsmen and tradesmen have come into the island over the centuries, with many of them preserving their identity as individual castes. An examination of Sinhala family names (Tamils did not have a system of family names until the modern era) will show names which are distinctly Tamil and Malayalam that probably date back to not more than a few centuries.
At least two caste groups, namely the Karave (fisher folk) and Salagama, are known to have South Indian origins going back only a few centuries. The Salagama, the vast majority of who were brought into the island by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries, had refused to be identified with the rest of the Sinhala community as recently as early 20th century, although they adopted Sinhala as their medium of communication. Equally, there have been several foreign settlements among Tamils. When one takes into account the geography of the island that allows easy movement across the land or along the coast and the fact that there was no nation state in the island which was for most time ruled by rival kings, with parts of the territory under local chieftains, the prospects for inter-racial mixing was high. Also the island, besides continuous interaction with its south Asian neighbours, as well as China during certain periods, has been visited by the Arabs who used the island as a trading post for many centuries before the arrival of European powers on its shores.
Thus, while distinct ethnic identities have emerged in the country and have been consolidated and reinforced by socio-political developments, much remains in common between the people and continue to be more than what are used to divide them.
There are four main nationalities in the island.
The Sinhalese and Sinhala Nationalism. Sinhala identity is based on the mother tongue. However, since the late 19th century the emphasis has shifted towards Sinhala Buddhism, so that the Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian Sinhalese are viewed with some suspicion and hostility by extreme Sinhala Buddhist nationalists.
Caste remains an important identifier but its importance has declined in public life; social oppression by caste has been very much eliminated, notably since the formation of the SLFP-led government led by SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956. The decline in the importance of caste was partly due to the access of sizeable sections of caste groups in the coastal areas (earlier ranked low in the caste hierarchy) to modern education, new trades and commercial ventures under colonial rule. Colonial patronage led to the emergence of a land-owning elite class with feudal origins and an emergent merchant capitalist class with feudal links.
Strong differences existed between the Sinhalese of the Hill Country who resisted foreign rule until the fall of Kandyan Kingdom in the early 19th century to the British and the Low Country Sinhalese who lived in the coastal belt and were subject to European colonial domination staring in the 16th century and direct colonial rule by the Portuguese, the Dutch and finally the British rules through various compromises with European colonists. The first proposal from a Sri Lankan national for federal government was from Bandaranaike in 1929 during colonial rule, in which he sought separate states for the Kandyan and the Low Country Sinhalese.
The current Sinhala national identity although slow to emerge was guided by Sinhala Buddhist ideology whose foundations were laid in the 19th Century. Its initial targets were the Christian missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, and in the late 19th Century led to localised violence against Catholics at Kochikade about 35 km north of Colombo. The anti-Muslim riots of 1915 mark the first occasion on which widespread violence was directed against a community. The violence was the result of rivalry between the up-and-coming Sinhala Buddhist traders and the already well established Muslim traders. There was also rivalry with South Indian traders who were dominant in some sectors of business, and this rivalry was dealt with by the Citizenship Act, introduced at the time of independence in 1948 to deprive an entire ethnic group, mainly comprising plantation workers, of their right to citizenship.
Sinhala chauvinism developed adherents among the petit bourgeoisie; and the right-wing trade unionist AE Goonesinghe, one of the founder leaders of the trade union movement in the country, targeted the strong Malayali working class community based in Colombo that played a major role in building up the left-wing trade union movement, and in particular that affiliated to the Communist Party.
The Tamil elite with a feudal background was conservative in its thinking. Although some of the Tamils who settled in Colombo were successful in business, and acquired considerable wealth, Tamils (meaning here Ceylon Tamils as they were known then, with roots in the Northern and Eastern Provinces) were not serious rivals to the Sinhalese in the business sector to be seen as a threat by the Sinhala business community. Rivalry with Tamils largely concerned middle class aspirations. A resolution was introduced in the State Council in 1943 to replace English with Sinhala as the official language, by JR Jayawardane who was to be a founder member of the United National Party (UNP), formed on the eve of national independence. Although it was deflected by consensus to make Tamil also an official language, the resolution was a clear indicator of what lay ahead for the Tamil middle classes whose presence was strong among white collar government employees. The advantage that the Tamils had in state employment was because of the setting up of Christian missionary schools in the Jaffna peninsula which gave a head start for the Tamil elite as well as middle classes, subject to caste barriers. Making Sinhala the sole official language on 1956 was, rightly, seen by the Tamil leaders as an act of discrimination against Tamils. That was to be followed in the decades to come by blatant discrimination against the Tamils in education, employment and various other fields.
Sinhala nationalism developed in the course of aggressive expansion of the emergent Sinhala capitalist class and the consolidation of political power in the hands of an elite class with feudal origins and loyalty to the British colonial masters.
Tamil identity and Tamil nationalism. The term ‘Tamil nationality’ generally refers to Tamils (once known as ‘Ceylon Tamils’) from the Northern and Eastern Provinces, and excludes the Muslims and Hill Country Tamils.
Tamil awareness based on linguistic identity was subject to various constraints and slow to emerge. Tamil Saivaite (also referred to as Tamil Hindu) revivalism in the latter part of the 19th century arose in response to Protestant Christian proselytising in the north, which took advantage of missionary control of modern school education and thereby access to the professions and state employment. Notably, conversion to Protestant Christianity was not in protest against caste oppression but for socio-economic advantage, and attracted mainly the upper caste middle classes who formed the core of the caste-conscious Tamil community of the north. Tamil Saivaite revivalism, like its Sinhala Buddhist counterpart, was not anti-colonial, but anti-Christian.
A class of traders in agricultural produce, tobacco in particular, emerged under British rule and traded in the South as well as in South India. Some of the more successful sections of the Tamil elite invested in education and in property in the South, mainly in Colombo, to become the Colombo-based Tamil elite whose members dominated Tamil politics in the early part of the 20th century.
Given the predominance of the Vellala caste in the North and the exclusion of the depressed castes from access to education and opportunity for social advancement, the Jaffna-centred Tamil politics initially emphasised Tamil Vellala Saivaite interests and in course of time accommodated Christians from the same background. This leadership, based in Colombo, was insensitive to the aspirations of Tamil masses living outside its power base in the Jaffna peninsula. With caste divisions running deep and caste oppression more severe than elsewhere in the island, the emergence of a Tamil national identity had to wait until this elite group was confronted by Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism.
The prospect of sharing the spoils with the colonial masters implied rivalry among the elite groups. The nature of the rivalry became more clearly on ethnic lines following the move towards elected government, and universal franchise soon after. It is, however, remarkable that Tamils in the North were the first to articulate progressive political thought: a sizeable section of the educated Tamil middle classes and an enlightened section of the elite, inspired by the Indian independence movement and leaders like Gandhi and Nehru, formed the Jaffna Youth Congress which was the first organisation in the country to call for complete independence from British colonial rule. (It was the left movement of the country that carried that campaign forward, but a combination of circumstances ensured that Sri Lanka had no independence struggle comparable with those in other Asian colonies of the time). The Youth Congress also defied the conservative elite in standing by the women and the depressed castes to call for universal franchise. Thus, despite awareness of Tamil ethnic identity, the Tamil leadership of the time thought in terms of the whole country so that a Tamil nation and secession were not serious political considerations, although betrayal by their Sinhala elite counterparts led the prominent Tamil political leader P Arunachalam and later P Ramanathan to found Tamil political organisations in the 1920s.
Sinhala nationalism, or rather Sinhala-Buddhist ideology, became increasingly assertive in the run up to independence, and it was against this background that Tamil parliamentary political parties emerged. Tamil Congress, the main Tamil political party of the time, and other Tamil leaders were willing to barter their support to the Sinhala nationalist UNP in exchange for cabinet posts and other favours. Class interests ensured that this love-hate relationship survived several tests.
The Tamil leaders were offended by the design of the national flag, which emphasised Sinhala predominance. Colonisation schemes, conceived in the post World War II years before independence and implemented since the early 1950s in the Eastern Province, aimed at taking away fertile land from Tamils and Muslims and settling Sinhalese there and thereby reduce the Tamils and Muslims to a minority in their traditional homeland, did not pass unnoticed, but did not lead to a struggle at the time. The Citizenship Act which deprived the Hill Country Tamils (then known as Indian Tamils) was supported by several Tamil MPs for various inducements offered by the UNP leadership, but was opposed by the entire left. The dubious role played by the ACTC leadership in this issue led to a split in the ACTC and the founding of the Federal Party (FP) in 1949.
The FP claimed to speak for all the Tamil-speaking people (including the Muslims and Hill Country Tamils) and sought a federal form of government with the Northern and Eastern Provinces constituting a federal state for the Tamil-speaking people and the rest of the country a predominantly Sinhala state. The kind of federal solution proposed by the FP showed a lack of vision since it was inadequate to address the problems faced by the Muslims who were distributed throughout the island with pockets of large concentrations in the east and along the west coast of the island. The FP demanded the restoration of citizenship to the Hill Country Tamils, but abandoned the Hill Country Tamils to the putative Sinhala dominated federal state. Nevertheless, it was the FP that gave form to the concept of Tamil national identity. But it took until the ‘Sinhala Only’ cry of 1956 for the FP to establish itself as the main Tamil party.
The concept of ‘Tamil-speaking people’ alone was inadequate to unite the three ethnic groups against oppression by Sinhala nationalism. The FP, which in reality only represented the Tamils (‘Ceylon Tamils’), by addressing the national question as one concerning a Sinhala-speaking majority and a Tamil-speaking minority, failed not only to take into account the fact that each of the three ‘Tamil-speaking’ ethnic groups had developed separate identities but also to appreciate the complex socio-economic and political circumstances under which it happened. And the just cause of the Tamils for their rights paid dearly for this folly in the decades to come.
Muslims, and Religion as Ethnic Marker. The Sri Lankan Muslim community is predominantly Tamil-speaking, but has maintained an identity distinct from that of Tamils. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, the Muslim community is scattered throughout the country with a majority living in the predominantly Sinhala South. While the claim by some Muslim leaders that they are descendants of Arab settlers in Sri Lanka is questionable, it cannot be denied that a significant number have Arab ancestors. The argument that the Muslims adopted Tamil as their language merely because it was the language of commerce in the region will not apply to all or even most Muslims. The desire for the community to hold together and the presence of a sizeable number of Muslims of South Indian origin could have played an important part in the choice of a common language. However, the Muslims have lived in relative harmony with their Sinhalese and Tamil neighbours until the emergence of Sinhala and Tamil nationalist politics.
The importance that the Muslims attach to their linguistic identity varies with class and geographic location. However, the religious identity, in addition to taking precedence over the linguistic, has become very assertive within the community.
At the time of independence there was a considerable large Tamil-speaking ‘Indian Muslim’ community besides other Muslim communities of Indian origin. The population of these communities, especially the ‘Indian Muslims’, has shrunk since independence for a variety of reasons, and while these communities do preserve their identity within the Muslim nationality, they increasingly tend to identify themselves publicly as Muslims.
Among subjective factors that contributed to the Muslims insisting on an identity distinct from the Tamils are the tendency for certain Tamil nationalist leaders to claim that the Muslims are Tamils who had converted to Islam, and memories of the anti-Muslim violence of 1915, when a very prominent Tamil leader took the side of the Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinists at whose hands the Muslims had suffered. Considerations of survival made it necessary for the Muslims to adapt to their environment, and efforts by the Tamil nationalist leadership to count them among Tamils while not addressing problems specific to them drove the Muslims further away from an identity based on language. Muslim attitudes were further hardened by hostile acts by the Tamil militant movements since the mid-1980s.
Although the Muslims have for long asserted in various ways their identity as a nationality distinct from the Tamils, there was no claim to nationhood until the mid-1980s. The notion of a ‘Muslim nation’ has been actively promoted by a section of the Muslims from the East since the early-1990s, but has failed to attract mass support, although the creation of one or several Muslim autonomous units in regions with large Muslim concentrations had broad appeal among the Muslims.
It should also be noted here that a lack of facilities in much of the South to learn in the Tamil medium, the hope of better career prospects by learning in the Sinhala medium, and persuasion by a section of the Southern Muslim leadership have tempted an increasing number of Muslims, especially from the middle classes in the South, to have their children educated in the Sinhala medium. The evolution of a Sinhala-speaking Muslim community with little knowledge of Tamil would have serious implications for the unity of the Muslims as a nationality.
Hill Country Tamils. The term Hill Country Tamils refers to the descendents of people who were brought into the country in the 19th century by the British, mostly as indentured labour and employed predominantly in the plantations. They were deprived of their citizenship and the right to vote in 1948 and, under the ‘Sirima-Shastri Pact’ of 1964, India agreed to the ‘repatriation’ of some 525,000 to India while Sri Lanka would grant citizenship to 300,000, and the fate of the rest (estimated at 150,000) would be determined later. This harsh decision was denounced by the genuine left since the Pact failed to consider the views of the people affected by the decision, a vast majority of whom would have preferred Sri Lankan citizenship. The agreement, to be implemented within a 15-year time frame, was slow to take effect for many political and practical reasons.
The plantation workers are still the lowest-paid wage labourers in the country with a normal daily wage less than half that for casual unskilled labour in urban areas. The nationalisation of the plantations in 1972 under land reform legislation, falsely hailed by the parliamentary left as a socialist measure, led to Sinhala nationalists taking control of the plantations at various managerial levels and brought further misery to the plantation workers. Some tea estates were closed, the workers expelled, and the land distributed to Sinhalese villages for political gain. The drought conditions that followed in 1973-75 led to a shortage of working days. This combination of circumstances drove a sizeable section of the plantation workers out of the tea estates and a large number were reduced to begging on the streets. Those who moved to the North in search of agricultural and farm work found that life was no better under Tamil employers. Attempts by humane Tamil nationalists to settle the Hill Country Tamils in the North and the East had limited success owing to difficulties created by the state. The deteriorating living conditions in the plantations, escalating ethnic tension since 1977, and the violence against the Hill Country Tamils in 1980 and 1983 led, in a decade since 1975, to the ‘repatriation’ of around four hundred thousand Hill Country Tamils to India, a land where none of them had ever set foot before.
The term Indian Tamil was used to refer to them until the 1960s in view of the relatively recent Indian origin compared to the Sinhala and (Ceylon) Tamil nationalities. The Hill Country Tamils are predominantly members of the working class employed in the tea and rubber plantations; a smaller section is employed in other sectors in different parts of the country. There is a sizeable middle class comprising middle-level managers, small traders and a slowly growing class of white-collar workers. The term Hill Country Tamils replaced the term Indian Tamils in the 1960s, to emphasise the sense of belonging to Sri Lanka and not India.
Wealthy members of the community resent the term Hill Country Tamils in view of its association with the plantations and the implied class connotations; and recent attempts to re-label the community as “Tamils of Indian Origin” have not succeeded as a result of the rise in political consciousness of the Hill Country Tamils and their assertion of their identity as a distinct nationality. Political consciousness was slow to arrive owing to the educational backwardness of the community and the systematic denial of educational opportunities by the plantation management, which also ensured that, at least in the tea estates where most of them lived, the Tamil-speaking workers did not interact with the Sinhalese from villages neighbouring the estates. Hostility thus existed between the plantation workers and poor and landless Sinhalese peasants in parts of the central highlands, where the peasantry saw the plantation workers as alien occupiers of the land which could have been lawfully theirs. This hostility suited both the Sinhala exploiting classes and the Hill Country Tamil elite that dominated the trade unions in the plantations, since it prevented the coming together of two severely oppressed sections of the population. There was also resentment among Hill Country Tamils about exploitation by the ‘high-caste’ middle-class Tamils, mainly from the North, working as teachers and officials from British colonial times and well into the 1960s.
Although ethnic consciousness among Hill Country Tamils developed in response Sinhala chauvinism and exploitation by middle-class Tamils from the North, political consciousness, hindered by the disenfranchisement in 1948, was slow to develop. The reactionary elite of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) took advantage of the ‘Indian’ label to keep unionised labour in its control, and the poor educational background and the restrictive practices of the plantation management stood in the way of progressive politics.
Hard work by educationalists from the community, leftists, and progressive trade unionists enabled the emergence of a sizeable population of politically conscious educated youth and to greater awareness of the rights among the people. A series of mass struggles led in stages to the eventual restoration of citizenship to all Hill Country Tamils near the end of the last millennium, further consolidating the status of Hill Country Tamils as a distinct nationality. Meantime the Hill Country Tamils face increased threats from forces of Sinhala chauvinism seeking to weaken them politically by a process of Sinhala colonisation and forced displacement of the Hill Country Tamils from areas where they live in large numbers.
Besides the four nationalities, there are several national minorities that have historically asserted their individuality. The following are the most important among them.
Burghers. The term refers to descendents of the Portuguese and Dutch settlers in the Island. The Portuguese settled in larger numbers than the Dutch and there has been considerable mixing with the local population. Within the Burgher community, which is entirely urban and predominantly English-speaking, there is a sharp distinction between the Portuguese descendents who are almost exclusively Roman Catholics and the descendents of the Dutch, a majority of whom belong to the Dutch Reformed Church. The numerically smaller Burgher community living among Tamils of the North and East uses Tamil for its day-to-day activities and, until recently, had a sizeable number of speakers of a Portuguese Creole.
The Burgher community outside the North and East, although culturally European-oriented, was well integrated with the local communities, had a strong sense of belonging, and actively participated in national politics. Notably, some of the best works on the history, culture, geography and the flora and the fauna of the country were by eminent members of the Burgher community.
The rise of Sinhala-Buddhism and the animosity of the Sinhala nationalists towards Burghers worried the community so that, following the passage of the Official Language Act (better known as the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act) in 1956, a majority, from among the lighter skinned English-speaking sections, took advantage of the immigration policy of the Australian government giving preference to European descendents, to migrate to Australia in large numbers. The remaining members still retain their ethnic identity as Burghers, but are less assertive in the political affairs of the country.
Malays. The community comprises descendents of people from Java, brought into the island by the Dutch colonial masters who also controlled Indonesia, and ethnic Malays who arrived later during British rule from Malaya (now the most populous part of Malaysia). Several prominent political and social leaders came from the community, which asserted its distinctness from the Muslims (then referred to as Ceylon and Indian Moors).
A combination of circumstances, including the marginalisation of the community in sectors of employment, like the armed forces and the police, where there was significant Malay presence, and the rise of Muslim nationalism, has politically weakened the Malays. Despite alignment with mainstream Muslim politics, the Malays are still assertive of their social and cultural identity as distinct from the Muslim nationality.
Attho. The plight of the aboriginals of this country is comparable with that of many native communities in the Americas and Australia. The Attho, numbering around 4500, have preserved the basic features of the aboriginal community for over 2500 years and live mainly in the forests of the Mahiyangana region of the Uva Province, and make their livelihood as hunter-gatherers and chena (slash and burn) cultivators. Their territory has gradually shrunk as a result of systematic encroachment in the name of development, by the state as well as by capitalist predators. The Attho have their own language, which probably has a longer history in the island than either Sinhala or Tamil. Their system of worship, customs and cultural traditions are distinct from those of the Sinhalese and Tamils, although there has always been interaction between the Attho and the Tamils and Sinhalese in adjoining regions.
The community, while finding it increasingly hard to make a living in the traditional way, is not presented with opportunities to modernise on its own terms. Meanwhile, there is, with state support, social and political pressure on the Attho to abandon their way of life and thereby assimilate it to Sinhala Buddhist identity.
Other Muslim communities: Special mention must be made of other communities such as the Borah, and Memens, who are considered part of the Muslim nationality, have distinct ethnic roots and cultural features and therefore assert their individuality to resist integration with the Sri Lankan Muslims. Indian Muslims, who were once distinguished from their Sri Lankan Counterparts by the terms Ceylon Moor and Indian Moor, have dwindled in number. Given their cultural proximity to the Sri Lankan Muslims, they could in course of time integrate with the latter.
Other Communities with Tamil Identity. Immigrant communities from South India such as the Colombo Chetties and the Parava who settled mainly along the west coast have kept their Tamil linguistic identity but have always asserted their respective identities as distinct from that of the Tamils. The term Indian Tamils refers to people of Indian nationality living in Sri Lanka as well as to naturalised Indian Tamils. They are largely members of business communities and are reluctant to be identified with the other Tamil nationalities.
Excluded Sinhala Communities. Two Sinhala-speaking communities with a long history, namely the Rodi, a community of outcastes, and the Gypsies are not integrated with the Sinhala society. Both communities have been historically discriminated against and viewed with a mix of suspicion, fear and contempt.
Malayalis. Although the Malayalis have ceased to be a distinct ethnic group in Sri Lanka, they, despite being a community of immigrant workers, made a positive impact on the political affairs of the island. They were closely identified with the people of this country and contributed to the winning of trade union and political rights. The leading role played by the vibrant Malayali immigrant community of workers and intelligentsia in the early part of the 20th century in the left and trade union movement met with the wrath of Sinhala chauvinism in the 1930s, which led to the elimination of the Malayali ethnic identity. A considerable number of Malayalis stayed back even after independence, of whom a majority returned to Kerala by 1960 while those who remained have integrated themselves with the Sinhala and Tamil nationalities.
The foregoing identifies the role of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism in marginalising ethnic minorities from the various sectors of social activity in the country. It also identifies how narrow nationalism grew in response to chauvinism and the role of class in the emergence of nationalist and ethnic politics. Thus, even before independence from colonial rule, signs had emerged that, in the absence of predominance of working-class politics, the national question would take centre stage in the politics of the island.
3. The National Question Becomes the Main Contradiction
The Run-up to the Sea Change of 1956. As stated earlier, there was no independence struggle in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). In 1948, the British colonial masters transferred power to a loyal group of Sinhala nationalist elite who dominated the UNP. The unitary form of government as set out in the constitution, despite the built-in safeguards against legislation inimical to the minority communities, failed at its first hurdle with the disenfranchisement of the Hill Country Tamils. There was no possibility of redress for this injustice through the parliamentary system, which was to become tyranny in the name of the majority. Given the conservative elitist leadership of the CWC representing the plantation workers, the indifference of the ACTC, and a majority of the Tamil MPs who had become part of the government, the campaign against the legislation fizzled out.
Although the Muslims were the main target of the Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinists because of business rivalries in early in the 20th century and the Malayalis in the 1930s for anti-left political reasons, with the Hill Country Tamils politically disarmed in 1948, the Tamil community became the main target of Sinhala chauvinism in the 1950s. The predominance of Tamils in a large and contiguous territory, their claim to a long history in the island, and the challenge posed by the Tamil leadership to Sinhala dominance were major considerations. However, the emergence of a new generation of educated middle classes Sinhalese vying with the Tamils for government jobs and other white collar employment was of greater electoral significance than matters that directly concerned bourgeois and feudal elite interests.
The Tamil leadership was conscious of the intentions of the Sinhala chauvinist leadership so that the ACTC had proposed an alternative formula for parliamentary representation in independent Sri Lanka that would avert a Sinhala-dominated government with absolute power. But the way in which the proposal was structured failed to gain support from other minority communities and was rejected. Despite its own approach being based on parliamentary political strategy, the FP, newly formed in 1949, saw the flaw in the collaborationist approach of the ACTC, and warned the Tamils that what befell the Hill Country Tamils would soon befall them. The FP demanded a federal form of government that would safeguard the interests of the ‘Tamil-speaking people’ as a whole, but failed to convince the Jaffna Tamil electorate at the polls in 1952, and was badly defeated by the ACTC.
The fortunes of the FP changed with the adoption of the ‘Sinhala Only’ language policy by both the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP, founded in 1951 by UNP dissenters led by Bandaranaike) in the run up to the general election in 1956; the FP was to dominate Tamil politics since that time until Tamil militants posed a challenge from around 1980. The FP in 1956 put forward as its four demands, granting Tamil parity of status with Sinhala as official language, setting up of a federal form of government to address the concerns of the Tamil-speaking people, stopping state-sponsored colonisation of Sinhalese in predominantly Tamil-speaking areas, and granting citizenship to all Hill Country Tamils. While these were just demands, the emphasis of the FP was on the language problem which affected a sizeable section of the Tamil middle class which depended on government service for its livelihood, but not the Muslims and the Hill Country Tamils to the same extent.
Bandaranaike successfully rallied round the SLFP an assortment of the petit bourgeois classes, and capitalised on mass resentment of the UNP for its policies that failed to address the needs of the common masses as well as its brutal handling of the Hartal of 1953. Although Bandaranaike was a member of the Sinhala Christian elite who converted to Buddhism for political advantage and was not literate in Sinhala, his opportunist pledge to make Sinhala the official language had greater credibility than a similar pledge by the UNP which had ruled the country in English for eight years, and, besides stirring up Sinhala nationalist sentiments, it had mass appeal for practical reasons: it appealed to the Sinhala educated youth aspiring for government employment and addressed the resentment of the ordinary people who could not get anything done in government offices in their language and had to seek the help of someone who knew English. Thus the Sinhala Only policy was a populist move with Sinhala chauvinist as well as anti-imperialist connotations. The electoral success in 1956 of the SLFP-led alliance including the Trotskyist VLSSP of Philip Gunawardane as well as various minor chauvinistic parties, under the banner of Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP, a name that Gunawardane was to take over after the break-up of the alliance in 1959), also marked for the Sinhala masses an upsurge in national awareness and, for the first time, a sense of belonging in the affairs of the state.
The left (this time with the exception of the VLSSP which was in the MEP coalition) joined the Tamil MPs and the Muslim MPs from the East to oppose the Official Language Act making Sinhala the sole official language. Muslim MPs from the South who either belonged to the SLFP or to the UNP voted with their parties in favour of the Act.
The Tamil Response and Consequences. The response of the Tamil leadership, especially the FP, to the Act was rash. The FP organised a massive rally in Trincomalee in the same year to demand parity of status for Tamil, but with no plans for a mass struggle. They appealed to Tamil government servants not to learn Sinhala even if it meant losing their jobs, and canvassed Tamil schools in the North to cease teaching Sinhala as an optional subject.
Realising the strength of feelings among the Tamils, Bandaranaike entered into an agreement (known as the Banda-Chelva Pact) with Chelvanayakam, the leader of the FP, that went some way towards accommodating the three of the four demands of the FP that pertained to the Tamils of the North and East, through the setting up of District Councils with considerable autonomy including a major say in colonisation schemes, and provisions for the use of Tamil for official purposes, while retaining Sinhala as the official language. The Left fully supported the agreement, but Bandaranaike, when confronted by a section of the Sinhala chauvinistic Buddhist clergy with whose support he came to power in 1956, yielded and tore up the agreement.
What served as the pretext for tearing up the agreement was the campaign launched by the FP in January 1957 to replace the Sinhala character reading ‘Sri’ from motor vehicle number plates with its Tamil equivalent. The introduction of the character ‘Sri’ in late 1957 to replace the existing English letter series was a gesture to please Sinhala chauvinists. The over-reaction of the FP to make it a campaign issue led to Sinhala chauvinists blacking out Tamil letters in name boards of shops, streets etc. and culminated in the first major anti-Tamil violence of May 1958. (There were, however, several incidents of attacks on Tamils in the wake of the passage of the Sinhala Only Act in 1956 but rather sporadic and much smaller in scale). The government failed to act until after the killing of several hundred Tamils and many more incidents of rape, assault, arson and looting. Rather than bring to book the culprits, the government placed under house arrest a few Sinhala extremist politicians and, to placate Sinhala chauvinist sentiments, detained all the MPs and the Senator from the FP.
In August 1958, the government passed legislation to enable the use of Tamil for a number of specified official purposes. But the provisions of the Act were rarely implemented because of willful indifference on the part of the government and government officials in key positions.
The Continuing Pattern. The pattern of events recurred with increased impact until the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 July. The major events that offended Tamil sentiments since 1958 and the response of the Tamil leadership are summarised below. What is important is that the series of events led to further deterioration of the relationship between the two communities to make the national question the main contradiction.
In 1960 the SLFP government made Sinhala the official language for litigation by the Language of the Courts Act. Negotiations between the government and the FP made slow progress, and in 1961 the FP, with little preparation, decided to launch a Satyagraha campaign for the language rights of the Tamils. Police brutality against demonstrators led to mass support for the campaign, the aims of which were supported by the left, although the Communist Party was critical of the approach of the FP. The faux pas by the FP in printing postal stamps for a Tamil federal state provided the pretext for the government to slap down a state of emergency and the campaign came to a grinding halt. Rather than address the just grievances of the Tamils, the government began in 1961 to implement in earnest the official language legislation.
The leaders of the FP were released from detention after several months, and launched another poorly organised campaign in 1962 to persuade the Tamil people to carry out all correspondence with the government in Tamil. The campaign failed to take off since it was the upper layers of the Tamil community, which was more at ease in English, that corresponded most with government. A campaign to persuade Tamils to settle in new land development schemes in the East around the same time too failed to take off because of unwillingness on the part of the Tamils in Jaffna to leave the peninsula. (This was, however, to change in the 1970s when agriculture became a profitable venture owing to a restriction on import of several food items). Efforts of the FP for legal redress through litigation by its clerical service trade union also proved futile.
Despite the populist approach of the FP in the 1950s and the public enthusiasm for it up to the Satyagraha of 1961, the FP had by 1962 shown beyond reasonable doubt that it was not a force capable of leading the Tamil people into struggle for their rights. It was thus condemned to tread a path no different from that of the ACTC between 1948 and 1956.
Class Alliance with the UNP and Aftershocks. In 1965 general election the FP openly sided with the UNP on the basis of an agreement between the leaders of the two parties Chelvanayakam and Dudley Senanayake (known as the Dudley-Chelva Pact) to became a partner in the UNP-led government which also included Sinhala extremist parties. Regulations for the use of the Tamil language enacted in 1966, under the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act of 1958, met with protests not only from the SLFP but also the LSSP and the CP, each of which had undergone a split in 1964. The revolutionary factions of the LSSP and the CP denounced the opportunism of the parliamentary left. The Regulations, like the legislation of 1958, failed to be implemented. Unable to make progress in setting up District Councils as set out in the Dudley-Chelva Pact, the FP left the government in 1968 on a weaker pretext, but continued its close relationship with the UNP and support for the government.
An SLFP-led coalition with the LSSP and CP, called the United Front (UF) swept to power in 1970 to form the government, to the dismay of the FP which boasted in 1960 and 1965 that the Tamils will be the deciding force in determining who forms the government in the country. Distrust between the FP and the UF worsened with time for a variety of reasons.
On suspicion that Tamil examiners were over-marking Tamil medium answer scripts at the GCE(AL) examination of 1970, based on which the university admissions were to be decided, a system of medium-wise ‘standardisation’ of the raw marks was introduced, thereby drastically reducing the eligibility of Tamil students to university admission, especially in the sciences and professional degree programmes. Although a government inquiry ruled that there was no malpractice, standardisation continued until 1974, after which a ‘district quota’ system was introduced, that benefited Tamil and Muslim students from educationally backward districts outside Jaffna, but led to a further drop in the overall percentage of Tamil-medium admissions. Given the dependence of the Tamil middle classes on government jobs and the professions, standardisation aroused the educated middle class Tamil youth of the north, and the seeds of militancy were sown around that time.
The JVP Shows its Fangs. Meantime, the Sinhala nationalist JVP, with Marxist pretences, launched its adventurist insurrection in April 1971. At the time the JVP was not overtly hostile to the Tamils, but portrayed the Hill Country Tamils as arms of ‘Indian expansionism’, as they understood the term, and went to the extent of wanting to rid the country of Hill Country Tamils. The armed struggle against the state, although disastrous, had an impact on Tamil militancy in the North, which witnessed a successful armed struggle led by Marxist Leninists against caste oppression between 1966 and 1971.
The Parliamentary Left Surrenders to Chauvinism. The constitution of 1972 was drafted by Colvin R de Silva a veteran Trotskyist who once suggested the demolition of a famous dagaba and use the bricks to build public toilets, and best remembered for his famous quote, “Two languages, one country. One language, two countries” in 1956. The constitution by which the country changed its name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka and declared itself a republic so that the monarch of Britain ceased to be the formal head of state, also disposed of the earlier constitutional safeguards against legislation oppressive to minority ethnic groups and made it the duty of the state ‘to protect Buddhism’. The FP, which withdrew from the Constituent Assembly (CA) set up in 1970 in protest against the refusal by the CA to consider its draft proposals, denounced the constitution. The Constitution was also strongly criticised by Marxist Leninists and other left groups that rejected the parliamentary path to socialism.
The escalation of the antagonism of the FP towards the government was to a considerable extent due to the UF government acting to undermine the standing of the FP among Tamils in various ways. But the FP compounded the problem by aligning itself more closely with the UNP and encouraging Tamil militancy. (The latter has been attributed to the electoral defeat of A Amirthalingam, who lost his seat despite the electoral success of the FP amid a decline for the first time in its share of votes received; and Amirthalingam has been accused of using the disgruntled Tamil youth to rebuild his authority in the FP).
The Drift towards Tamil Eelam. The FP decided to bury the hatchet with its rival, the ACTC to form a Tamil United Front (TUF) in 1972 to fight for the rights of the Tamils that have been denied by the new constitution. The partners, besides the FP and the ACTC, interestingly, included the CWC, whose leader S Thondaman was a nominated MP in the earlier UNP-led government but sidelined by the UF, and KW Devanayagam a prominent Tamil MP and UNP politician from the East. The TUF proved inadequate to address the escalating unrest among the Tamil youth caused by the growing frustration with the continuing discrimination in education and employment among other things and the heavy handed approach of the government in dealing with the militant youth.
The dispute over the venue for the Fourth International Tamil Research Conference in January 1974, the clumsy handling of visas for participants by the government and the desire of the FP to transform the event into political theatre to force a confrontation with the police culminated in the insensitive conduct of the police that led to the killing of nine people in a stampede, for which the government failed to take responsibility or act to bring the offenders to book. This added fuel to the fury of young Tamil militants already angered by standardisation. They responded with attempts on the life of Alfred Duraiappah, the SLFP Organiser for Jaffna, who was once an MP for Jaffna and a former popular Mayor of Jaffna. The killing of Duraiappah in 1975 July marked the start of a cycle of violence involving the Tamil militants and the police and a series of political assassinations of ‘Tamil traitors’, with the blessings of some TULF leaders, subsequently extended to rival militants as well as TULF leaders.
The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) emerged from the TUF 1976, with the FP and a section of the ACTC as main constituents, and declared as its goal a separate state of Tamil Eelam. But it is doubted to this day if the TULF really meant it: a much spoken of public debate in 1975 between the Revolutionary Communist Party leader N Sanmugathasan and the FP parliamentarian V Tharmalingam and a subsequent series of debates on the subject involving the two parties revealed that the leaders of the TULF had no plan whatsoever to achieve its declared goal of Tamil Eelam. The TULF resolved the problem by prohibiting its members from public debates on the subject. The events that followed 1977 showed that Tamil Eelam was only a ploy to placate the disgruntled youth and deter them from militant activities and a means of reversing the declining electoral fortunes of the FP and ACTC.
Calling the TULF Bluff. The UNP, whose leader JR Jayawardane had an understanding with the TULF and the CWC, scored an unprecedented victory at the elections of 1977, bagging 5/6 of all seats in Parliament, with the SLFP reduced to a mere 8 seats out of a total of around 150 seats, and the parliamentary left, which contested separately following the break-up of the UF, suffering absolute humiliation at the polls. The leader of the TULF, Amirthalingam, was content with his new role as Leader of the Opposition in the hope that Jayawardane would deliver on his promises. While Jayawardane delivered on his promise of increasing the proportion of the students admitted on merit, a matter in which the Sinhala elite too had an interest, he had no intention of dealing with the more serious grievances of the Tamils. Instead he sought to put the Tamils ‘in their place’. The anti-Tamil violence that broke out in 1977 shortly after the elections surpassed the events of 1958 and was to be the worst act of mass crime since the arrival of European colonialists in 1505, until the pogrom of 1983. In 1980 the Hill Country Tamils faced the first spate of mob violence against them on a mass scale, although localised violence existed and was on the rise since the nationalisation of the plantations in 1973.
The Constitution of 1978 made Jayawardane Executive President, and he supplemented his almost dictatorial powers with other dubious means of political control. The constitution, however, made some concessions to the language demands of the Tamils, twenty-two years too late but not intended to be implemented, while it had provisions that militated against the interests of the Tamils, namely granting Buddhism foremost place and making Sinhala the language of administration.
Rising Militancy and the Fall of the TULF. By 1978 the TULF had started to lose its credibility with the Tamil electorate, and dissidents began to assert themselves. The UNP government passed legislation banning the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 1978 and followed it with the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act of July 1979. In a desperate bid for survival, the TULF leadership gambled what was left of its credibility by placing its trust in the political brokerage of AJ Wilson, an unashamed supporter of the UNP and son-in-law of the late Chelvanayakam, the much adored leader of the FP. After two years of wrangling Wilson extracted from Jayawardane in 1980 the District Development Councils Act. The DDCs were so pathetic that they had even less authority and resources than a local authority; and the government rubbed salt into the wound by its blatant malpractices during the elections for the Jaffna DDC in 1981, and topped it up with burning down the Jaffna Library, one of the finest libraries in South Asia.
It was after that the TULF flirted with the idea of doing business with the ‘parliamentary left’ to mobilise resistance to the corrupt and authoritative UNP regime. But that was not to last, and the Tamil leadership out of political desperation was soon back to its old ways of putting its faith in the UNP. The militants had become more aggressive and in the name of Tamil solidarity threatened left candidates against contesting the DDC elections and forced the Nava Samasamaja Party (NSSP) to withdraw its nominations.
Following his victory in the presidential election of October 1982, which his popular opponent Mrs Bandaranaike could not contest since Jayawardane had in 1980 stripped of her civic rights, Jayawardane delivered a body blow to parliamentary democracy by extending the life of the parliament by a further six years by conducting a referendum in December 1982. In both the presidential election and the referendum the Tamils of the North and the East demonstrated their displeasure with Jayawardane, who returned the compliment by intensifying brutality by the armed forces in the North, leading to an escalation of armed conflict between the armed forces and the youth and the holocaust of 1983.
By 1983, the TULF was very much isolated from the masses in the north so that most Tamil MPs avoided visiting their electorates initially for fear of embarrassment later for fear of their own lives. When the pogrom of 1983 was unleashed following the killing of 13 soldiers in an LTTE ambush, no part of the country was safe for Tamils. While government-backed mobs attacked Tamils in the South, the armed forces went on the rampage in the North and East. Unlike in 1958 and 1977, the Tamils had nowhere to go. The TULF had no answers, nor did the Tamil militants at the time. While the TULF leaders fled the country to save their lives, the militants stayed on; and the militants who crossed the waters had other things in mind as did the host government.
The holocaust had effectively destroyed the credibility of the moderate political leadership, although a few retained credibility on an individual basis, but not as leaders.
Less Spoken Aspects of Tamil Politics. A monolithic image of Tamil politics had come into being since the FP came to the fore in 1956. This was accompanied by a tendency to underplay the significance of caste and class oppression in the name of the struggle for Tamil rights. And discussion of caste and class, even today, is denounced by some as an attempt to divide the Tamils, even with the Tamil nationalists bitterly divided among themselves on politically less important issues.
To understand the conduct of the Tamil nationalist leadership during the past century, it is important to recognise its class loyalties. The fact that P Kandiah, of the CP, was the only leftist to be elected from the North demonstrates the power of conservative thought in the North. Tamil nationalist political parties were dominated by the Vellala elite: except for the FP nomination of a member of a depressed caste to the Senate in 1957 with backing of the LSSP, until 1977, neither the ACTC nor the FP fielded a candidate from the depressed castes comprising 30% of the Jaffna peninsula population. It was only after the successful mass movement against caste oppression led by the Marxist Leninists in 1966, the humiliation of Messrs Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam at the polls in 1970 by the increasingly assertive depressed castes, and the creation of the electorate of Udupiddy with a sizeable depressed caste community that a candidate from among the community was fielded in 1977.
The FP consistently portrayed the left, especially the communists who were a stronger political force than the LSSP in the North, as traitors to the Tamil cause. Such labelling was possible because the CP and the LSSP lent support to the SLFP, which they saw as more progressive than the unashamedly pro-imperialist UNP. While the FP drew attention to the Sinhala chauvinism of the SLFP, it took no notice of the anti-imperialist and other progressive aspects of the SLFP. This approach was necessary, since highlighting issues of social justice will invariably concede a greater role for the left among Tamils. Thus the FP remained a single-issue party, which saw the language problem as the main problem facing the Tamils.
The betrayal of the working class and with it the minorities by the parliamentary left by entering into a coalition with the SLFP (the LSSP since 1964 and the CP since 1970) made it possible for the FP leadership to insincerely brand the entire left as traitors, although it knew that that a sizeable section of the left had split from the opportunists and as ever stood for the rights of the Tamils. But what is often forgotten is that the old left, which led the working class and the masses in the General Strike of July 1947 and the 1953 Hartal, had let down the working class in the interest of electoral politics well before it let down the Tamils. The peak point of the treachery of the old left was its betrayal of a united struggle by the workers based on 21 demands, which included political demands and addressed problems faced by the entire working class of the country. The demands, to which the trade unions affiliated to the three main left parties were signatories, had overwhelming support from the working class across the country. But the trade union action planned for 1963 was aborted as a result of the MEP and the LSSP, in turn, being tempted by the prospect of joining the SLFP government, which feared a strike based on political demands besides economic ones.
The ACTC and the FP under various pretexts opposed the SLFP-led government moves between 1956 and 1959 such as asking the British to leave their naval and air bases in the country, nationalising the Colombo Harbour under the control of foreign companies, nationalising the private bus monopolies to make bus services more accessible to the rural population, and even the half-hearted Paddy Lands Bill designed to curtail exploitation by big landlords. This pattern repeated when the SLFP government (1960-65) nationalised the foreign oil companies, with the leader of the FP calling it unrighteous. The FP sided with the Christian and Catholic missionaries when in 1960 the government took over state assisted-schools, where the state paid the bills and the missionaries ran the schools. Notably, the state allowed the option for to the schools to go private, but without a mandatory fee from the children; and some of the leading schools took the option. Here the ACTC and the FP actually defended the Tamil elitist interest, since the Hindu schools in Jaffna and to a less extent Protestant Christian schools were bastions of Vellala elitism. Discriminatory practices denied the ‘untouchables’ access to education beyond primary school, and sometimes even to primary education. Nationalisation placed the management of schools in the public domain and, in fact, gave a boost to the educational aspirations of the socially backward.
Tamil nationalist hostility towards the local communists was extended to the Soviet Union and China. (Notably, it was the SLFP-led government of 1956-60 that established diplomatic relations with the socialist countries). When war broke out between China and India, the FP was even more vehement than the UNP in denouncing China as the aggressor, without examining the facts. Also, soon after the April 1971 insurrection by the JVP was put down, the FP joined the UNP to falsely accuse China of supporting the JVP. Hostility towards China has persisted among Tamil nationalists, many of whom still portray China (but not the US or Israel) as a friend of the Sinhala chauvinist state, besides being a threat to Indian interests in the region.
The Anti-Left Trend in Tamil Nationalism. The anti-left mindset of the FP relates to its class nature. Although the FP started as a populist alternative to the conservative ACTC, which it subdued in 1956, it inherited the mantle of the ACTC to serve the same Tamil elite class interests. Understandably, the Vietnam liberation struggle in the 1960s was seen as communist trouble making by the FP so that it denounced the struggle against caste oppression as a communist effort to make a Vietnam out of Jaffna.
Another line of thinking that has haunted Tamil nationalist thinking since around the time of the failed Satyagraha of 1961 and continues to do so even after turning to armed struggle against an oppressor backed by imperialism is the desire to emulate Israel. Some Tamil nationalists imagined parallels between the Tamils and Jews and drew inspiration from the Zionist forefathers of Israel. After 1977, however, a section of the youth recognised that valid parallels were with the Palestinians, and some Tamil militant groups even received combat training from the PLO from the late 1970s until the early 1980s, when the Indian establishment began to play godfather.
With the fading of the British Empire, the FP saw in the US its salvation, especially when the SLFP was in power, since the SLFP was in American eyes too close to the ‘reds’. Despite a strong feeling of kinship with India because of a shared cultural heritage and common language with Tamilnadu, there were reservations about India’s role since the Nehru clan was warm towards the Bandaranaikes, despite resentment of Sri Lankan neutrality in the Sino-Indian border dispute and Sri Lanka allowing Pakistani military aircraft to refuel in Colombo in the war preceding the formation of Bangladesh.
Although the FP at its foundation called itself socialist, with the exception of the Hartal of 1953, it never sided with the working classes against capitalism or imperialism. Another manifestation of this approach was that the FP consciously distanced itself from any form of struggle in the South for social justice, explaining its aloofness in terms of its limiting its interests to the Tamil cause. Thus it was no accident that R Sampanthan, later to become an important leader of the TULF, in his maiden speech in parliament in 1978 spoke approvingly of the policy of economic liberalisation announced by the UNP government. Sadly, this reactionary streak in Tamil nationalism has survived a quarter century of armed struggle against Sinhala chauvinism backed by US imperialism.
Other Significant Events and Trends. The economy of the Jaffna Peninsula, home to the majority of the Tamils, depended considerably on earnings from small trade and wages earned outside the peninsula, so much so that it used to be jovially referred to as a ‘money-order economy’. Employment in the police and the armed forces was relatively low. Systematic discrimination in state employment and education meant that Tamil presence in state jobs declined to levels far below the percentage population. Tamil recruitment to the armed forces became negligible since the 1960s and recruitment to the police declined to levels so low that by the 1970s in several police stations in the East it became very difficult to deal with the police in Tamil; this pattern extended to the North from the 1980s.
There was no significant state investment in industry in the North and East since the 1950s, in contrast to the large number of medium and large industries established in the South with state funding and foreign ‘aid’, and instances of investment in the East were such that they encouraged Sinhala settlement. Even after the UNP government declared its open economic policy in 1978, investment in the North and East was discouraged by the state, except where it fell in line with its chauvinist programme.
Economic tragedy in the North was averted by two developments in the 1970s. The government was compelled by balance of payments problems, partly due to the ‘Oil Crisis’ of the early 1970s, to restrict the import of non-essential goods and several items of agricultural produce such as chillies, potatoes and onions which could be grown locally. This boosted agricultural production in the Jaffna peninsula, where for the first time the agricultural small producers experienced a sense of well being. This also contributed to a thirst for land, and many people from the peninsula began to venture out to put to use land lying south of the peninsula. Thus, the Tamil population became politically aware of the problem of land as a result of economic reality rather than Tamil national awareness.
By this time the government was determined to contain Tamil settlements and the issue had become increasingly political. While Tamil settlers faced risks and threats on an increasing scale, illegal settlement of Sinhalese, often in strategically chosen locations with the backing of the armed forces and for clearly chauvinistic political reasons, proceeded unhindered alongside a growth in Sinhala population induced by expanding economic activity. The demographic shift in the East gained impetus under the Mahaweli Project, the largest single irrigation and hydropower scheme to be undertaken in the country, which was implemented in a way that Tamils were effectively excluded.
The second development also related to the ‘Oil Crisis’, and concerned employment in the Middle East. Tamils sought and secured employment in various service sectors and in the professions in the Middle East as well as in the growing economies of Africa. This was to be a mixed blessing: while on the one hand it provided badly needed economic relief, it had an adverse impact on the tradition of frugality and hard work in the North and, in the context of worsening relationship between the nationalities and distrust in the government, on the attitude of the middle class youth in what was essentially a conservative society.
With Tamil nationalism as the main resistance to the Sinhala chauvinist agenda, it was inevitable that the chauvinists transformed the Sinhala-Tamil contradiction into a hostile contradiction. However, until 1977, the government interfered, although not always with an adequate sense of responsibility, to ensure that the conflict did not escalate into ethnic war. The attitude of the UNP government elected in 1977 was different, and was provocatively confrontational from the outset.
Chauvinist Challenge to Other Nationalities. Although the Tamils had been the main target of Sinhala chauvinism since 1948, the Hill Country Tamils continued to be targeted ‘lawfully’ under the Sirima-Shastri Pact of 1964 and by the closing down of tea estates following nationalisation in 1974, and unlawfully by chauvinistic acts of violence including arson, forced expulsion from the estates and other misdeeds. The Hill Country Tamils have occasionally succeeded in resisting chauvinist aggression, but remain vulnerable to state sponsored moves to displace them: under the Mahaweli scheme in the early 1980s and more recently the Upper Kotmale Hydropower scheme and the resettlement of Sinhalese victims of natural disasters. Attacks against the Hill Country Tamils have escalated since the nationalisation of the tea estates and, since the escalation of the conflict in the North East, the linguistic affinity between the Tamils and the Hill Country Tamils is used by the security forces to harass and persecute Hill Country Tamils in the name of combating Tamil terrorism. Chauvinistic harassment and the failure of the Hill Country Tamil leadership to stand up for the people has driven a small number of Hill Country towards the LTTE, but not in significant numbers.
The Muslims in the East suffered as a result of acquisition of land by the state, colonisation and illegal settlements. In the West, there have, from time to time, been major acts of violence directed against the Muslim community starting with the police firing on Muslims in a mosque in Puttalam in 1976 up to the attack on Muslims in Dharga Town in 2006. Muslim businesses have been systematically targeted by chauvinistic organisations close to the Sihala Urumaya, now Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Sinhala chauvinist resentment of Muslims gathered new momentum following the often dubious benefit to the Muslims from employment in the Middle East, new trade opportunities, and aid from certain Arab countries.
The grievances of the Muslims and the demand of the Muslims for an autonomous region in the East are encouraged by a section of the chauvinists merely to weaken the Tamil demand for autonomy and to widen the rift between Tamil and Muslim communities. However, no opportunity is spared to make inroads into Muslim controlled businesses and territories. It should also be noted that a section of the Sinhala Buddhist elite has over the past two decades solicited the support of a section of the Tamil Hindu elite with affinity to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Indian saffron brigade to promote anti-Muslim and anti-Christian sentiments.
Class and Chauvinistic Politics. It is true that the petit bourgeois classes have been the main base for chauvinist electoral politics. The class interests served by the main chauvinist parties have, however, been those of the feudal-capitalist classes; and it was the rivalry between sections of this elite and their relationship to foreign capital that once marked the difference between the UNP and the SLFP and the nature of the alliances formed by them. The reactionary feudal-capitalist classes have continued to cynically manipulate nationalist sentiments to divide the people along ethnic lines, and have been encouraged by imperialism to do so. It is noteworthy that chauvinists and narrow nationalists who express strong sentiments about preserving traditional social values turn a blind eye to the adverse effects of imperialist globalisation on the various aspects of social life.
The old left through its opportunist alliance with the SLFP, initially for electoral advantage and subsequently for a share in state power, compromised its working class loyalty; and its corruption infected the affiliated trade unions. The rise of chauvinism also helped to divide the trade unions, especially the white collar unions, on ethnic lines. The political degeneration of left-dominated trade unions made it possible not only for the SLFP but also the UNP to make inroads into the trade union movement. Following the erosion of the electoral base of the old left, the JVP made its entry into white-collar trade unions and used a mix of chauvinist ideology and left slogans to expand its base. Thus the weakening of working class politics and the subjection of working class interests to electoral politics have contributed in no negligible way to the rise of chauvinism.
4. The National Question as War
The anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 marked the escalation of a conflict between the state and Tamil nationalists into war. There is reason to believe that this escalation of the national conflict was a well calculated strategy by the government to divert the attention of the Sinhala masses from economic issues, and in particular the plans to liberalise the economy, privatise state-controlled ventures and ‘reform’ social services in line with the dictates of the IMF, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank. Despite a steamroller majority for the government to pass any legislation at will and an executive presidency with virtually unlimited power, privatisation of services, especially education (provided free by the state from primary school to university) and health services (provided free by the state), and the removal of food and other subsidies would have met with strong public resistance. In fact, no previous government, including the UNP, dared to attack these institutions or to privatise any venture that had been nationalised.
Some argue that the change in economic conditions caused by the open economic policy led to the sharpening of the ethnic conflict. This argument seeks to deflect the blame for the transformation of the ethnic conflict into war away from the historic role of chauvinistic politics with successive governments pandering to chauvinism. It also inverts the sequence of things, since it was the escalation of the national contradiction that enabled the government to pass legislation that could be used to put down any form of popular resistance, and to beef up the armed forces. Not surprisingly, neither the repressive legislation nor the militarization of the state was a matter of concern to the imperialists.
Although the scale of the anti-Tamil violence of 1983 sent shock waves across the world because of unexpected media publicity, the imperialist countries (or the international community as they like to be called) did not bring pressure on the Sri Lankan government to resolve the national question or to protect the rights of the people. While Sri Lanka was ritually warned at various international forums about its violation of human and fundamental rights, the imperialists kept going their economic backing as well as military and strategic support for the government.
Build-up to the Showdown of 1987. Taking advantage of the climate of fear following the violence of 1983, the government diverted attention from its role in planning and executing the pogrom by proscribing the JVP, the Nava Samasamaja Party (NSSP) and the CP, and passed the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution making espousal, promotion, financing, encouraging or advocacy of the establishment of a separate state in Sri Lanka illegal, thus making it necessary for the TULF MPs to formally abandon their demand for Tamil Eelam to continue in parliament. Meantime, the Indian government on the one hand applied pressure on the Sri Lankan government to end the ethnic conflict and on the other wanted a major role for India in that matter. It should be noted that a considerable number of Tamil militants were already receiving combat training in India, and the number shot up after July 1983.
On the political front, talks initiated in December 1983 between the two countries led to an All-Party Conference on devolution of powers in January 1984 but the Sri Lankan government abandoned the proposals of the conference. The assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 October led to an apparent change in India’s approach to the Sri Lankan national question, but it is doubtful if the aims of the Indian establishment were altered by the event. The Indian establishment, besides taking the TULF under its wing, also patronised the five main Tamil liberation militant organisations (EROS, EPRLF, LTTE, PLOTE, and TELO) and a number of smaller organisations through its various agencies including the notorious Research and Analysis Wing (RAW); and guided their political strategy and to some extent their military strategy. Following the failure of the talks between Sri Lankan Tamil parties and the Sri Lankan government, held in Thimpu, Bhutan under Indian patronage, another Sri Lanka All-Party Conference was convened in June 1985 to resolve the ethnic crisis but got nowhere. The rival Tamil militants, while being covert beneficiaries of the largesse of the Indian establishment, also cultivated their Tamilnadu political patrons out of mutual interest. It was evident that by 1987, all but the LTTE and a few minor organisations, which for ideological reasons rejected Indian patronage, had surrendered their independence to their Indian patrons.
On the battlefront, Tamil militant activity escalated, with bomb explosions at the Meenambakkam Airport (August 1984), various locations in Colombo (October 1984), and in an Air Lanka aircraft at the Katunayake Airport (1986 May), and the shameful gunning down of 250 Sinhalese civilians in Anuradhapura (May 1985) with alleged logistic support from Indian undercover agents. While the GOSL armed forces continued to harass Tamils in the North and the East, militants continued with political assassinations, setting new precedents like the killing of two former TULF MPs in 1985, so that the targets, were no more restricted to ‘Tamil traitors’ or the enemy. Besides the killing of leading members and cadres of rival movements, dissent met with brutal response in the leading militant organisations. Indian patrons of the militants turned a blind eye to such events, and had been directly or indirectly responsible for several of the problems.
Organised violence targeting civilians began to escalate since 1984. In 1985 June, Sinhala chauvinists supported by the armed forces attacked Tamil villages in the Trincomalee District killing over 150 within two weeks; several hundred Tamil villages were destroyed and hundreds of Tamil civilians were killed in the months that followed. Tamil militants, in turn, killed Sinhalese civilians in large numbers. In April 1987, 128 Sinhalese bus passengers were cruelly massacred and another 50 injured on the Habarana-Trincomalee road. This was soon followed by a bomb explosion killing 113 persons and injuring more than 300 in Pettah, Colombo. Shortly afterwards, the government launched a massive military operation called ‘Operation Liberation’ at Vadamaratchi (the north eastern part of the Jaffna peninsula) to put an end to the dominance of the LTTE in Jaffna which was already suffering a blockade denying transport of goods to the peninsula.
The IPKF Misadventure. The subsequent turn of events was rapid, with the showdown between the two governments over sending essential supplies to the North culminating in the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord on 27th July 1987. The Indian government had obtained under duress the consent of the LTTE leader to abide by the accord and to disarm the LTTE, and lost no time to land the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) on Sri Lankan soil starting 30th July.
While most of the Tamils welcomed the accord, the Sinhalese had mixed feelings, based on the aspects concerning the national question. But there was more to the accord than that, and the less spoken parts of the Accord explicitly placed restrictions on Sri Lankan foreign and defence policy, asserting India’s position as the regional hegemon. The vast majority of the left and progressive forces in the South welcomed the Accord; and only the Left Communist Party, renamed the New Democratic Party (NDP) since, made a comprehensive criticism of the Accord and warned that it would not lead to the resolution of the national question but pave the way for Indian hegemony. Concerns about implications for the sovereignty of the country were expressed by Sirima Bandaranaike, the leader of the SLFP, whose civic rights had only been restored a year earlier by Jayawardane; but the main objection of the SLFP was to the setting up of provincial governments with a merged North-East province. There was dissent within the ranks of the UNP as well; but it was the chauvinistic JVP that was to make political capital of popular concerns.
Following the 13th amendment to the constitution that made provisions for the setting up Provincial Councils in November 1987, a bitter campaign was launched by the JVP, initially with the support of the SLFP, which was soon sidelined by the JVP. The campaign escalated into an insurrection accompanied by a hate campaign against everything Indian. The JVP used terror tactics to stall the functioning of the government; and R Premadasa, who was opposed to the Accord, was elected president in 1998 December, with covert support from the JVP. The JVP insurrection continued unabated and Premadasa used the anti-terrorism laws designed to put down Tamil separatists to combat the JVP. By late 1989, when the JVP’s campaign of destruction and terror was finally overcome by state terror, which annihilated all but one member of the politburo of the JVP, well over 60,000 persons, mostly Sinhala youth, had been killed or disappeared, mainly by the government forces. JVP killings included an estimated 6000 left and democratic political activists, including Vijaya Kumaranatunga (the husband of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga) who was a popular figure supporting the Accord, as well as several important UNP personalities. The leader of the NSSP, Vickramabahu Karunaratna was shot and critically wounded by a JVP attacker but saved by surgical intervention. It should be noted here that, in the north, leaders of NDP and the NSSP were issued death threats by Tamil militants, the LTTE in particular, following their effective campaign in support of Sirima Bandaranaike against Premadasa in the 1998 presidential election. The NDP leaders successfully evaded their potential assassins, but Annamalai, the leader of the Jaffna branch of the NSSP, was killed as were several left sympathisers.
The LTTE was deeply suspicious of Indian intentions and the Accord, and was readily provoked by the clumsy handling of a delicate situation by the Indian High Commission and the IPKF. With the GOSL armed forces in the South preoccupied with the JVP insurrection and the forces in the North and East confined to barracks, armed conflict erupted between the LTTE and the IPKF. The latter proved vulnerable to the guerrilla tactics of the LTTE; and the heavy-handed response of the IPKF and incidents of misconduct by IPKF personnel further antagonised the people. The net result was that the people of Jaffna suffered a severe loss of life and property and the IPKF lost many soldiers.
The EPRLF, a client of the Indian establishment, elected to power in the North East Provincial Government in October 1988 under dubious circumstances, acted in ways that alienated it from the people. In the end, abandoned by a defeated IPKF, opposed by a contemptuous Sri Lankan government, and cornered by a hostile LTTE, the EPRLF leadership made its last desperate bid for survival by unilaterally declaring the independence of Tamil Eelam in 1990, and fled the country in ignominy.
President Premadasa, known for his resentment of the Accord and the presence of the IPKF, backed the LTTE in its campaign against the IPKF and called for its withdrawal. With the JVP defeated in the South and the IPKF on the retreat in the North East, Premadasa demanded the withdrawal of the IPKF by the end of the 1989; the IPKF withdrew early next year, following the change of government in India. He took advantage of the unilateral declaration of the independence by the EPRLF government to take direct control of the Province.
The LTTE Takes Over. Undeniably, the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord was the first comprehensive accord concerning the national question that any Sri Lankan government went some way towards implementing. However, the Accord itself was seriously flawed and addressed the national question merely as a Sinhala-Tamil problem and sought to assert Indian regional hegemonic interests. In drafting it, there was no consultation with the Tamils, especially the main Tamil militant force, the LTTE. In its implementation, the IPKF as well as the Indian High Commission showed little understanding of the underlying issues. Nor were they equipped to deal with the consequences of the Accord in a way that would help the resolution of the problem. Thus Sri Lanka was left with a worse problem than before the Accord.
As the IPKF retreated and finally withdrew, the LTTE moved in to take absolute control of much of the North and East. In 1990 February, for the first time, a Sri Lankan government held formal talks with Tamil militants. Although the relationship between the government and the LTTE was superficially warm, there was mutual distrust as well as the intention to undermine each other. This soon led to the second phase of war at a great cost to the lives and livelihood of the people in the North-East and to the country’s economy.
The LTTE made its biggest political blunder in antagonising the Muslims firstly by mass killings in the East and then expelling Muslims wholesale from the North. The erroneous approach towards the Muslims arose from a refusal to recognise a separate identity for the Muslims and the demand that the Muslims gave unqualified support to the Tamil militants in the same way that the Tamils had been conditioned to.
The killing of the leaders of the EPRLF (Pathmanabha faction) in Chennai and TULF leaders Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran in Colombo confirmed that the LTTE, like other leading Tamil militant movements, placed the gun in command. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, denied to this day by the LTTE, dealt a severe blow to the LTTE support base in Tamilnadu, from which it has not quite recovered. It also made it politically expedient for the corrupt and opportunist DMK and ADMK dominating Tamilnadu politics to distance themselves from the LTTE as well as the demand for a separate Tamil Eelam.
From Talks for Peace to War for Peace. By 1992, dissent grew within the UNP government, and an elitist faction took the initiative to impeach the President for his undemocratic conduct of state affairs. The attempt failed and the dissenters left the UNP to form a rival party, whose leader Lalith Athulathmudali was shot dead, later alleged to be by forces loyal to Premadasa, during the parliamentary election campaign in 1991. This was quickly followed by the assassination of President Premadasa in May 1993 and the UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake the following year. Chandrika Kumaratunga, who returned to the fold of the SLFP in 1992 after splitting from it in the mid-80s to join the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshayaya (SLMP) founded by Vijaya Kumaranatunga, who promised an end to war and a peaceful resolution of the national question, was elected President with a 60% mandate by a war weary people.
The first few months of the Kumaratunga presidency raised hopes; but the sloppy handling of the negotiations with the LTTE led to an end to the unilateral ceasefire declared by the LTTE in 1994 following her election and fierce battles followed. In October 1995 the government drove the LTTE out of its stronghold in Jaffna, a virtual centre of parallel government. Under pressure from the LTTE, the people fled Jaffna to LTTE held areas, but many returned as the situation stabilised.
The turn of events led to reconciliation between the LTTE and the TULF, and the LTTE, having learnt from its tactical blunder in calling for a Tamil boycott of the elections in 1994 which allowed the EPDP (which splintered from the EPRLF) to secure a large number of seats in parliament with a handful of votes and thereby an important ministry which it used to build a base for itself in the North, decided to support, first indirectly and later more openly, a group dominated by the TULF (and named the Tamil National Alliance in 2001) in the elections that followed. The Tamil leaders who owed their parliamentary seats to the LTTE acted in consultation with it and endorsed the LTTE claim that it shall be the sole representative of the Tamils in peace negotiations. Thus, the TNA (now called the FP, because of complications caused by a split in the TNA), despite its inherent loyalty to the Indian establishment, was shunned by the latter who preferred Tamil politicians hostile to the LTTE, even when they had been rejected by the Tamils at the elections.
Attempts to introduce legislation through a devolution package submitted by President Kumaratunga to the Parliamentary Select Committee in 1996, aimed at addressing some of the main grievances of the Tamils. The package, owing to Sinhala chauvinist pressure from within the ruling alliance and outside, was already a severely watered down from what was conceived in 1994, and failed to please the Tamil leadership; and a bill to enable devolution of power presented in Parliament by Kumaratunga in August 2000 was withdrawn following unruly conduct by the UNP and other chauvinistic parties opposing it.
An ill-advised attack on the historic Temple of the Tooth in Kandy in 1998 by the LTTE led to a ban on the LTTE and a set-back for campaigners for peace. Escalation of the war by the government led to unprecedented loss of life, displacement of people and loss of home, property and livelihood. The initial territorial gains by the government were soon reversed and the subsequently the government lost more territory than it gained, including a major army camp in Mullaitivu and the strategically important Elephant Pass.
An attempt on the life of Kumaratunga, allegedly by the LTTE, on the eve of the presidential election in December 1999, helped her re-election. However, subsequent LTTE attacks on selected economic targets in the South hurt the economy and the popularity of the government, and forced Kumaratunga to seek the services of Norway, whose assistance she had used for monitoring ceasefire as early as 1995, to facilitate peace negotiations; but progress was slow owing to extreme chauvinist pressure. At the end of April 2000, the LTTE nearly overran the main army camp in Jaffna, but signals from India that it may intervene on the humanitarian pretext of saving the lives of Sri Lankan soldiers appear to have deterred the LTTE from fighting to the finish. Humiliating defeats of the government military campaigns up to 2001, termed the Orwellian-sounding ‘War for Peace’, led to the strengthening of the LTTE both militarily and politically.
Renewed Hopes for Peace. The destruction of half the fleet of SriLankan Airlines by suicide bombers in 2001 had a major impact, and political horse-trading by the UNP later in the year led to fresh elections, and a UNP-led United National Front (UNF) coalition government in December 2001. This was followed by rapid progress towards a ceasefire agreement (CFA) and a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed early in 2002. Peace negotiations started in Thailand in September 2002 were followed by a second round in November, also in Thailand, and a third round in Norway in December, where the LTTE indicated willingness to consider a federal solution in place of its call for a separate state. Progress in subsequent meetings (Thailand, January 2003, Germany, February 2003 and Japan, March 2003) was poor owing to obstacles placed by the armed forces and the failure of the government to deliver on what had been agreed in the earlier meetings on matters including the resettlement of the displaced and rebuilding the war affected Tamil areas.
The process showed signs of stalling after the talks in Germany and ground to a halt after the meeting in Japan. The LTTE opted out of the talks indefinitely, and rejected three successive proposals by the government for the resumption of talks on the grounds that they were inadequate to deal with the issues concerned, and put forward in June 2003 a comprehensive proposal for an interim self-governing authority (ISGA) for the North-East as a step towards solving the national question.
End of the Road for Peace Talks. President Kumaratunga took advantage of the impasse in which the UNF government found itself following the ISGA proposal from the LTTE, and exercised her executive powers to take crucial ministries directly under her to render ineffective the peace process. After dismissing a politically weakened UNF government and dissolving parliament, Kumaratunga consented to an opportunistic alliance, the Sandanaya, between the PA and the JVP, which came to power in April 2004 at a price to the PA, and more to the prospects for peace.
Despite the lack of progress in solving the national question and the failure to restore normal life in war affected regions, the cessation of hostilities between the armed forces and the LTTE gave the people of the North-East a badly needed respite, which lasted nearly four years since the unilateral declaration of ceasefire by the LTTE in 2001. But moves behind the scene to undermine the CFA involved a range of subversive activities like the attack on a Chinese vessel some distance outside what the LTTE claimed to be its territorial waters, inciting clashes between Tamils and Muslims with the connivance of certain Muslim political leaders, and even more cynically engineering a split in the ranks of the LTTE. It was revealed at the time of the presidential election in 2005 that the groundwork for the split that occurred in March 2004 was carried out by US undercover agents, on the request of the leader of the UNP during the peace talks, in which Karuna, the leader of the Eastern Command of the LTTE was a participant. Karuna’s group (now called the TMVP), although militarily defeated by the LTTE, was with the help of the Sri Lankan armed forces able to make life difficult for the LTTE by killing leaders and members of the LTTE in the East, as well as Tamil politicians sympathetic to the LTTE.
The prospects for peace received another blow with the tsunami of 26th December 2004. The North and East and the South were badly hit and Mullaitivu in the north east of the island where the LTTE naval base is located was one of the worst hit areas. The partiality of the government in distributing international relief to the refugees and, besides deliberate neglect, obstruction by the armed forces of the transport of essential supplies to affected areas under LTTE control was a bad sign. Partly under international pressure, President Kumaratunga agreed to set up the P-TOMS (Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure) by which the government and LTTE would cooperate to provide essential relief to the tsunami victims in LTTE-controlled areas. The JVP initiated a mass campaign against the P-TOMS and sealed its fate by securing a court ruling, based on legal technicalities, against its implementation.
Towards an Undeclared War. Meantime, chauvinists opposed to the peace process saw in the split in the LTTE, and the impact of the tsunami on the economy in LTTE controlled areas and on the military capability of the LTTE, a golden opportunity to finish off the LTTE. Such thinking had its adherents in high places in the armed forces as well as among leaders of the ruling party. Escalation of the conflict thus seemed inevitable.
The election of Mahinda Rajapaksha in November 2005 was aided by a last-minute call by LTTE for a boycott of the presidential election. A politically more meaningful call by the NDP several weeks before the election, asking the people of the North East to spoil their ballot papers, was not even considered by the LTTE. It has been recently alleged that the LTTE was bribed to call for the boycott by a member of the Rajapaksha clan. While the charge against the LTTE is serious and if true a betrayal of the trust of the Tamil people, it is doubtful whether the prospects for peace would have been different in substance if the UNP candidate was elected president.
India had banned the LTTE in 1991 following information linking the LTTE to the assassination of Rajeev Gandhi. The Kumaratunga government claimed credit for the US ban in 1997 and the UK ban in 2001. Canada banned the LTTE in 2006, and the ban by the EU in May 2006 was under pressure from the US applied through the UK. It seems likely that these steps against the LTTE were taken to serve the interests of the countries concerned and, if otherwise, the interests of the US; but by no means to satisfy the Sri Lankan government. The ban by the EU instead of making the LTTE more flexible in its approach, as anticipated by the advocates of the ban, hardened its attitude, while the Sri Lankan government appeared to see the ban as licence to destroy at will. The EU ban also had an adverse effect on the performance of the ceasefire monitoring mission set-up under the CFA, and the ceasefire agreement is observed only in its breach.
From the outset President Rajapaksha showed little interest in initiating talks, and used objections from his chauvinistic allies, the JVP and the JHU, as excuses for creating obstacles to a peaceful resolution of the conflict with the LTTE. Talks were arranged in 2006 by the Norwegian intermediaries with great difficulty, the first in Geneva and the next in Oslo. The escalation of violence, the violation of the CFA and support for the TMVP paramilitaries from the armed forces of the GOSL to carry out attacks against the LTTE became the central issues. The talks came to naught because the government failed to honour agreements reached in the Geneva round on the question of the paramilitaries. The Oslo round was doomed to fail even before it started because of endless disputes that preceded it on matters like transport which would have been minor issues only a year earlier.
A War by Any Other Name. An attempt on the life of the Army Commander Sarath Fonseka in April 2006 served as the pretext for a series of bombing raids and dispute over a waterway in the East led to an escalation of the conflict. The LTTE has been held responsible for anti-personnel mine attacks on the armed forces, the use of suicide bombers against senior personnel of the armed forces and politicians, killing leading political opponents, and fatal attacks on innocent Sinhala civilians who had little to do with the conflict. Killings, kidnappings and threats became part of everyday life and the targets included not only members and supporters of LTTE and those hostile to LTTE, but also other civilians. The government forces have used every alleged LTTE attack as pretext for retaliation, mostly against civilians, in the locality following minor skirmishes with the LTTE and whole communities on other occasions. Since mid-2006 people living in LTTE-controlled areas in the East have been driven out by indiscriminate bombing raids by Israeli-built K’fir aircraft and MIG fighters, and artillery and multi-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL) attacks against civilian targets, although claimed to be strategic LTTE targets. Sixteen months of the Rajapaksha presidency has steered the country into an undeclared war and unprecedented mass destruction across the North and East. This is accompanied by a political climate marked by an unending spate of acts of extortion, kidnapping, disappearing, death threats and murder, many of which take place in broad daylight not only in the troubled North East but also in Colombo. Often the armed forces and the police have been indicted as accomplices by neutral observers. The victims until recently were only Tamils. But now there is evidence of political targeting of Sinhalese who are outspoken critics of the war.
Since the middle of 2006, the Batticaloa district in the East has become a massive refuge camp. Some 200,000 or more were added in March-April 2007 to the number of internally displaced persons in the North East, owing to intense bombing and shelling by the Sri Lankan armed forces in a bid to drive the LTTE out of its strongholds.
The LTTE, while it has lost direct control of much of its territory in the East as a result of attacks by the government forces, seems to have made a strategic retreat with the intention of regrouping and reverting to guerrilla warfare. It has shown its capability for surprise attacks in its attack on a Sri Lankan Navy convoy in 2006, an attack by sea on the Galle Harbour, and the recent air strikes on the Air Force base at Katunayake, the army base in the North and fuel tanks north of Colombo using light aircraft. While the LTTE is not equipped to score a military victory, its attacks have called into question the defence capability of the armed forces and had a major adverse impact on a struggling economy.
Today the ceasefire is a shambles and exists only on paper and desperate attempts to revive it and restart peace talks are unlikely to succeed in the current political climate. A worrying new development in recent months is that attacks on media personnel and political personalities have been extended to the Sinhala community as well. This is seen as a concerted effort to silence by a variety of means all political opposition to the Sinhala chauvinist agenda and to the domination of a newly emergent junta.
The country is in an impasse on the national question, and the democratic and fundamental rights of an increasingly wider section of the population are under threat. Substituting one president with another or one chauvinistic government with another will not resolve the national question or the increasingly worrying plight of democracy and human rights.
Therefore, to find a way out of the current crisis, it is important to understand the approaches of the important players to the national question as well as the broader political issues that cannot any more be separated from the national question. The next section identifies the players in terms of the social group interests that they seek to represent, their ideology, and approach to the national question. The respective roles of important external players are also identified and commented upon.
(TO BE CONCLUDED)
S Sivasegaram is a prominent Tamil poet, activist and scientist from Sri Lanka.