US Congress resolution on the Tamil cause: Sri Lanka gets fired by its own bullets?
Posted on June 2nd, 2021

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Actual independence for the dominion of Ceylon came on February 4, 1948, when the constitution of 1947 went into effect. The constitution provided for a bicameral legislature with a popularly elected House of Representatives and a Senate that was partly nominated and partly elected indirectly by members of the House of Representatives. A prime minister and his cabinet, chosen from the largest political group in the legislature, held collective responsibility for executive functions. The governor-general, as head of state, represented the British monarch. In matters that the constitution failed to address, the conventions of the United Kingdom were observed. The UNP had a substantial majority in the legislature and attracted support as it governed. There were, however, some basic weaknesses in the political structure. The consensus that the government represented embraced only a small fraction of the population—the English-educated Westernized elite groups that shared the values on which the structure was founded. To the great mass of Sinhalese- and Tamil-educated residents and unschooled citizens, these values appeared irrelevant and incomprehensible. The continued neglect of local culture as embodied in religion, language, and the arts created a gulf that divided the ruling elite from the ruled. Inevitably, traditionalist and revivalist movements arose to champion local values. Britannica

While the reality pertaining to the beginning of the conflict has been one thing, Sri Lankan politics and politicians on both sides, Sinhalese as well as Tamil, have opted to choose opportunism rather than what is right for the people they represent.

In the immediate period before independence and soon after, a minority on both sides, Tamils and Sinhalese, took comfort in assuming they represented the majority although in reality they were safeguarding the interests of the minority that mattered to them. The Britannica quote To the great mass of Sinhalese- and Tamil-educated residents and unschooled citizens, these values appeared irrelevant and incomprehensible” says it all. There is no running away from the truth that a fraction of the population, the English educated, land owning class governed the country and all its institutions, while the majority on both sides lived as second class citizens in their own country.

When Ceylon gained independence in 1948, less than 5% of the population was literate in English, and government offices, the courts, police stations, all functioned in English, effectively disenfranchising more than 95% of the population.

Leading Tamil politicians of the day never campaigned for the Tamil language to replace English as the working language in the country for the Tamil people. Instead, in effect, they advanced the argument that the privileged position enjoyed by English literate minority of Tamil people should not lose that privilege they saw as a right rather than a privilege.

On the other hand, SWRD Bandaranaike campaigned for the Sinhala language to replace English as the working language in government, progressively, with the Tamil language given that status in traditionally Tamil speaking areas of the country. His clear vision was for the majority of the population, and not just the elite minority, to enjoy the fruits of independence gained by the country as free citizens. The mother tongue, meaning Sinhala for the Sinhalese and Tamil for the Tamils was going to be the language of instruction in schools. However, this was planned to be implemented progressively from the mid-sixties.

Rather than travelling back in history, as that is bound to result in an endless deluge of arguments and counter arguments, the writer wishes to advance a line of thought for a role reversal, meaning, the Sinhalese to imagine they were Tamils, and for the Tamils to imagine they were Sinhalese, and to look at history as well as contemporary times, problems, issues, and solutions, from such a prism.

If the Sinhalese happened to be Tamils, how would they view their past, and their present and their future? How would they view the regular attacks on them by mobs, especially the debacle of 1983? Aided and abetted by sections of the then government, Sri Lanka unleashed an abominable attack on Tamils in July 1983. Leaving all politics aside, this attack on innocent civilians and their homes and belongings, and above all their pride, their sense of security, was never condemned by successive governments. If the Sinhala people happened to be the Tamils, how would they regard their future in the country? Will they feel safe and secure? If a government spearheads mob violence, what hope will they have with the government machinery to protect them?

What if your priceless library, repository of one of the largest collections of historical, rare, Tamil and Hindu classics is burnt by a Sinhala mob, again, at the instigation of sections of the government? A new library building cannot restore ancient historical records of Tamil philosophy, culture and literature burnt to cinders by such thugs.

It took 21 years to offer an apology to Sri Lanka’s own sons and daughters, mothers and fathers who were brutally attacked by mobs organised by people in high places and linked to the then government. Was this a genuine demonstration of remorse?

In such a climate of intimidation, how would Sinhala people react if they were Tamils?

If the coin is flipped, and Tamils were the Sinhalese, especially Sinhala Buddhists, how would they view the Sinhala Buddhist point of view?

The following are some issues that perhaps Tamils could consider wearing a Sinhala Buddhist hat, as it were. A Sinhala Buddhist perspective that prevails in regard to the longevity associated with their pre- colonial cultural and governance dominance. Historically, except for the period of the Jaffna Kingdom of around 300 years, much of the rest of history has revolved around Sinhala Buddhist dominance, of course, interspersed with non-Sinhala Kings and Queens of Indian origin during this time. If a Tamil were a Sinhalese, how would that person view this historical situation?

The Sinhala Buddhist also views the special place accorded to Buddhism due to cultural, and historical reasons, and also entertains fears that a large number of Tamils from across the Palk Straits could impact on the Buddhist heritage in the country. A fear exists that over 70 million in Tamil Nadu is a threat to the 15 million Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka. The influence of Tamil Nadu politics in Sri Lankan issues of course is well known and has been a dominant factor in the Indian government’s policy towards Sri Lanka. 

Another factor that has perhaps prevented an amicable solution to the ethnic conflict has been what Sinhala Buddhists regard as an unsubstantiated claim about what is touted by the Tamils as their homeland in the island, the Northern and Eastern provinces. While there may have been sporadic settlements from time to time, there is no evidence, archaeological or otherwise to identify the Eastern province as part of a Tamil homeland.

In fact it is recorded that Hugh Cleghorn, the first colonial secretary, having never set foot in the North or the East, had recorded an official minute to the effect that the Northern and Eastern regions were occupied by people who were different, culturally, linguistically and by religion to the people in the rest of the country.

Historian K M De Silva states in his publication The Traditional Homelands” of the Tamils: Separatist Ideology in Sri Lanka: A Historical Appraisal” that quote,” the entire claim had been structured on one single minute prepared in June 1799 by Hugh Cleghorn, a British Academic who had been in the island in the early years of the British rule as a political trouble shooter and who later had become the Colonial Secretary for Sri Lank” unquote.

De Silva goes onto say, quote It is this noting that the Tamil separatists have used ad infinitum to drive home their point about their traditional homeland. It should have been obvious to them that Cleghorn’ s knowledge about Sri Lanka was abysmally poor for he traced the origin of the Sinhalese to Thailand,” unquote

A related fear arising from this spurious claim of a Tamil homeland, is the extent of the claimed homeland, being more than 25% of the land area of the island, and more than 50% of the sea front of the country with less than 10% of the population of the country living in this land mass.

It would be useful for this discussion, if Tamil people could think of themselves as Sinhalese, especially Sinhala Buddhists for the reasons given, and consider these factors from such a perspective.

The suggested role reversal approach may hopefully enable both sides to the conflict to see their positions from the others perspective, and people themselves, not politicians, may be able to better understand each other’s position and arrive at some consensus as to how both sides could move forward.

It would benefit the people of the country greatly if the historical position and the origin of this politician made conflict as described in the Britannica, The continued neglect of local culture as embodied in religion, language, and the arts created a gulf that divided the ruling elite from the ruled. Inevitably, traditionalist and revivalist movements arose to champion local values”, could be presented, impartially and objectively, so that subsequent developments may be viewed contextually by all parties.

This has never happened in the past, and finding a solution has been left to politicians, who in fact created this conflict in the first place, letting it simmer even after 73 years of independence.

While the reasons for mistrust felt by both communities are many and not limited to the above mentioned issues, it needs to be recognised that these issues are the reactions to the beginning of the conflict, not the cause of the original conflict. 

The LTTE, the war, UNHRC resolutions, the proposed US Congress resolution, are all reactions to a festering wound, and none of them represent a solution to the core issues that created the conflict in the first place.

Politicians on both sides have their constituencies to consider, and both constituencies have their own power bases. There can never be a solution unless these power bases agree to such a solution. It is impossible to see how this could happen as these power bases are only interested in safeguarding themselves and their power, and in regard to the conflict, the hardening of their individual positions have in fact strengthened their power bases.

Sri Lankans, both Sinhalese and Tamils, through their political representatives, and in the case of Tamils, sections of the Diaspora, have provided the bullets for various entities in the world to fire at Sri Lanka. A mechanism will have to be found for the people concerned to work out a solution and cease distributing these bullets. If is left to the politicians, whatever they come up as a solution will only result in creating another problem, as for them, the conflict is like a beggar’s wound. If it heals, the beggar will have no reason to beg for, and so, consequently, it can never heal.

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