“All people who lived in Sri Lanka, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, or any other difference, whether Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher made their fullest contribution to the achievement of independence. It is almost 70 years since Sri Lanka attained Independence from Colonial Rule. Ethnic strife had plagued the country from shortly after it attained Independence. Pacts entered into between Prime Ministers and the Tamil Political Leadership to help resolve such ethnic strife and enable all citizens to live together in peace and amity, with equality and justice were not fulfilled by the ruling elite. As a result of such ethnic strife and ethnic violence against the Tamil people in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and thereafter, up to 50 per cent of the Sri Lankan Tamil population were compelled to leave their own country largely on grounds of insecurity and take up residence in different countries the world over.”
Some of the above is true, some can be contested. Yes, people from all communities contributed to the achievement of independence, but it was the Sinhalese or rather the Sinhala Buddhists who sacrificed lives, over and above ‘the call’ of demographic slice. The ‘other contributions’ came much later. They were important, though.
Yes, ethnic strife has plagued the country. Pacts between Tamil political leaders and various governments have collapsed, yes. On the other hand it is not the case that what was contained in the pacts died natural deaths. Some of it survived and was even enshrined in constitutions later on. Still, the objective of peace and amity, equality and justice, were not achieved, and not just as far as the Tamils are concerned.
Sampanthan implies that successive governments are to blame, first for not resolving the ‘problem’ and secondly for being unsuccessful in stopping attacks on Tamils. He is correct.
On the other hand, it is not that the Tamils have been blameless in all this. When you paint aspiration as grievance, when aspiration includes a desire to take control of one third the land mass and half the coast, when myth is called history and fiction called fact, you are essentially robbing your cause of legitimacy. When you deliberately feed anxiety to the point that it evolves to self-righteous objection to perceived hurt, when you are silent as the demons unleashed by you turn into blood thirsty terrorists who will not stop at abducting your own children and holding your own community hostage, you are not helping your cause.
Things then are not pretty. Maybe this is why Sampanthan says, ‘Ethnic violence against Tamils is an imminent danger unless and until there is a political resolution of the conflict.’ In other words, he believes that if there’s no ‘political resolution’ to ‘the conflict’, then Tamils would get attacked. This brings up two issues. First ‘the conflict’ and secondly, the inability of successive governments to resolve it.
Why have government’s failed? The common explanation is that successive governments have ‘capitulated to pressure from extremist Sinhalese’ (sometimes called ‘Sinhala Buddhist extremists’ or chauvinists or racists). Sometimes the ‘extremist’ qualifier is dropped and it’s blamed on the entire community or else the entire community is described as ‘extremist’. Even the ‘state’ as well as particular governments have been described as ‘Sinhala’ or ‘Sinhala Buddhists’, never mind the fact that neither the state nor governments have exactly been kind to these communities, butchering them on occasion by the thousands.
One possible reason, however, for ‘Sinhala intransigence’ is the absurdity of Tamil demands. Just because you want something, it doesn’t mean that others are supposed to desist from assessing the fairness of the demand. You can say they are ‘racists’ for saying ‘no’, but then again that’s crass politics, nothing more.
We can interpret all this as a simple matter of politicians who depend on votes desisting from doing something that might get them thrown out of office. We can also bring in the pertinent reality of political parties playing political cards ‘right’ to retain or regain political edge. For instance, oppositions have typically opposed the bad as well as the good, clearly for reasons of political expedience. And this kind of choice is not the preserve of Sinhala politicians. Tamil politicians, as Sampanthan knows only too well, have upped the nationalist ante just to secure votes. Exaggeration is a useful tool in anxious times, we should not forget.
It is prudent to take fixations of communal identity as givens. It is silly to paint one community as villains and others as innocents. Given these realities, we need to understand that anxieties as well as the fact that extremists are best served by falsehood and not the truth with respect to grievances. This is where Tamil politics has failed. Sinhalese cannot be expected to swallow a tall story.
This is also where successive governments have floundered. The homeland myth has not been unpacked. The issue of lines arbitrarily drawn by the British being taken as the boundaries of this mythical homeland has not been challenged. The contradiction between claiming discrimination and the reality of half the Tamil population choosing to live outside the so-called historical homelands has to be taken up.
It is time for a historical audit. Otherwise, we will continue to have people like R Sampanthan disappointed and claiming that Tamils are running out of patience. The truth is that the Sinhalese have been patiently listening to fabrications tossed out by Tamil extremists for decades. It is time to stop keeping everyone in suspense. It is time that the Government did the hard thing: get the homeland story, shake it, strip it of frills and obtain its true dimensions. Until then we will have Tamil nationalists talking about the intransigence of Sinhalese and Sinhala nationalists returning the favor, charging that their Tamil counterparts are charlatans trying to shove fictions down the throats of Sinhalese to serve a land-grab objective. It will be a ‘they are the bad guys’ back and forth that takes no one anywhere any time soon.