The Enduring Impact of Tamil Separatism
Posted on March 30th, 2017

Asoka Bandarage

In May 2009, the Sri Lankan military defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a most lethal and well-organized terrorist group in the world,” which had fought for nearly thirty years to establish a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka.1 Since that decisive victory in what was considered the longest-running conflict in Asia,” significant steps have been taken towards the reconciliation and integration of the Tamil minority into the country’s political system.2 Local government elections held in July 2011 brought the Tamil National Alliance into power in the Northern Province, which signified a return to democracy and normalcy in the north, as elections could not be conducted during the armed conflict.3 Despite possible dangers to national security, the current Sri Lankan government, which came into power in 2015, lifted the ban on Tamil separatist organizations, released imprisoned Tamil rebels charged with terrorist activities, and returned thousands of acres of land in the north and the east that the military confiscated during the thirty-year war.⁴

Members of the Tamil elite have taken important government positions, including Chief Justice and Governor of the Central Bank, notwithstanding ethical and legal controversies surrounding some of those appointments. A Tamil politician was appointed as the Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition, even though his Tamil National Alliance party won only sixteen seats as opposed to the fifty-one seats gained by the United People’s Freedom Alliance of the Sinhalese in the 2015 Parliamentary elections. In an effort to appease Tamil sentiments, Sri Lanka’s national anthem was sung in the minority Tamil language at the official Independence Day celebrations in 2016 for the first time since 1949.(5)

Regardless of such efforts, Tamil separatism has not been halted. Since the military defeat of the LTTE, a faction of the Tamil diaspora in the West has regrouped, forming new initiatives to carry on the separatist struggle through political means. In June 2009, a Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam” was inaugurated with New York-based attorney Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran, the international legal advisor to the LTTE, as its first prime minister. The Global Tamil Forum, a conglomerate” of pro-LTTE diaspora organizations, has renewed the call for the creation of an Autonomous Tamil Region” in the northern and eastern provinces through a rearrangement of Sri Lanka’s governance structures.”6 In Sri Lanka, the Northern Provincial Council, which is dominated by the Tamil National Alliance, has passed a resolution that the north and the east provinces should merge into one. A Northern Provincial Councilor (a relative of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran) has said that if constitutional reforms uphold the unitary state, we will not be in a position to accept it…there will not be any room for reconciliation and the country will split into four or five parts.”7

Internationally backed constitutional changes that focus merely on Tamil separatist interests overlook the interests of the Sinhala majority and the Muslim minority. By ignoring the island’s historical, demographic, and geopolitical evolution, they could reignite violent conflict, leading to ethnically based balkanization. The international community tends to see the Sri Lankan civil conflict simply as a case of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian aggression and Tamil minority oppression. The various peace initiatives built upon this narrow perspective, such as the Indo-Sri Lanka Treaty imposed by India in 1987 and the peace initiative facilitated by Norway in 2002, sought to create a separate region for Tamils in the north of Sri Lanka. Given the marginalization of all groups opposed to separatism, those initiatives led to the intensification of the conflict and violence rather than to peace and conflict resolution.8 It is important, then, to develop a balanced historical and pluralist perspective and to consider the wisdom of international support for Tamil separatism, which threatens multiculturalism, peace, and stability in Sri Lanka and the South Asian region.

Evolution of Tamil Separatism

British colonial policies had differential impact on the diverse ethnic, religious, and caste groups. The colonial state’s grants-in-aid provided most of the Christian missionary schools to the Northern Province. As a result, the Vellala caste, dominant in the Jaffna Peninsula, gained disproportionate access to English language education,university science faculties, careers in the civil service, modern professions, and the trust of the colonial masters. The post-independence Sri Lankan government of the 1950s and 1960s introduced some language and university entrance policies to redress those ethnic, class, religious, and caste disparities established in the colonial era. The government has reversed those policies since then, and Tamil is now an official language, a status it does not have even in India where there is a much larger Tamil population.

When the shift towards electoral democracy beginning in 1921 first threatened the Vellala Tamil advantage, Ponnambalam Arunachalam, a Sri Lankan Tamil leader, turned to the idea of a pan-Tamilian state. At the inaugural meeting of the Ceylon Tamil League, he stated its objective: to keep alive and propagate…throughout Ceylon, Southern India and the Tamil colonies…the union and solidarity of ‘Tamilakam,’ the Tamil Land.”9 In 1949, one year after the island became independent from the British, the Malaysia-born Tamil politician S.J.V. Chelvanayakam formed the Tamil Federal Party. In the Tamil language, it carries a distinctly separatist connotation as Illankai Tamil Arasa Katchu (the Tamil State Party). Chelvanayakam saw federalism as a stepping stone to eventual secession, the motto of his approach being a little now, more later.”10 The traditional Tamil homeland” that has been invoked since the 1950s constitutes the Northern and Eastern Provinces, which the British carved out largely from the Sinhala Kandyan kingdom for administrative convenience. The Sinhala origin of place names and extensive historical evidence reveal the existence of Sinhala Buddhist settlement and culture throughout the northern and eastern regions;11 it did not constitute a unified Tamil political entity that has existed from the beginning of history.”12

The militant movement for the creation of a Dravidian state, Dravidasthan, in South India, encompassing Tamil Nadu, Mysore, Kerala, and Andhara, where Dravidian languages are spoken, goes back to the late British colonial period. Tamils in South India, however, were compelled to give up the formation of a nation-state in their own country when the Indian government adopted the draconian anti-secessionist constitutional amendment in 1963 following the Sino-Indian War.13 Then, in conjunction with policies introduced in Sri Lanka to redress grievances of the Sinhala majority, South Indian Tamil support for a surrogate” Tamil state in Sri Lanka expanded. The confluence of local and regional factors resulted in the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan state and Tamil militant groups in the mid-1970s, leading to the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983. Increased terrorism and state violence followed.

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