“East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” was the initial line of a poem called “The Ballad of East & West” written by Rudyard Kipling over a century ago, long before anyone became aware of the term multicultural. Kipling seemed to be saying that all of us are, to some extent at least, unable to adapt to the ways of others. This is certainly true in Sri Lanka where the Sinhala speaking Majority and Tamil speaking Minorities living side by side for centuries have failed to adapt to the ways of the others needing to rewrite Kipling’s words to read “North is North and South is South, and never they shall concur.”
Tamils in Sri Lanka have inherent rights to self-determination and is free to determine their political status and determine their own course of development appropriate to their cultures in North-East of the country accepted for centuries as their homeland. Government policies and neglect have led to continuing disadvantage, discrimination and deprivation of their identity, all of this amount to effective extermination of Tamils in various parts of the country, resulting in mental trauma, active population transfer, displacement, minoritization and marginalization of Tamils in their own lands. Tamils have struggled to assert those rights only because of the majoritization rule by the Sinhala Buddhist majority rulers since independence. Sinhala Buddhist majority rulers breached the safeguards provided in the constitution for the minorities and deliberately changed the demography of the said Tamil homeland in their favour, and are still doing it after seven years of ending the war utilizing the state tri forces and betrayed the Tamils. Along the way, Tamils have rebelled against the state, have had victories as well as losses and martyrs, finally the armed rebellion was annihilated using the brutal force of the state tri forces, but Tamils continue to struggle until today, in response to the alarming realities they continue to experience. They face serious and urgent problems including the violation of their collective rights as Tamils, which are all well documented, internationalized and are being investigated by the UN.
Prior to Independence
Prior to the arrival of the colonial powers the southern and central regions Sri Lanka was influenced by the Buddhist culture passed on from India, while South Indian Tamil cultural influences was noticeable in the northernmost reaches of the country. The colonial occupation left a Christian mark with Portuguese, Dutch, and British elements having intermingled with various traditional facets of Sri Lankan culture and due to its prominence as an ancient trading hub, Islamic cultural influences ranging from East Asia to the Middle East have shaped the island. In spite of Sinhala Buddhists being the overpowering majority, the country was known for its regional diversity with Tamils, a minority ethnic community living predominantly in the country’s Northern and Eastern provinces. Tamils in the north and northeast identify themselves as being a distinct ethnicity with roots in the country dating back millennia. The Tamils of Indian origin live in the country’s center brought over from South India by the British colonial power in the 18th century to work on plantations.
A simple majoritarian system of government devalue democracy in Sri Lanka
With independence in 1948 the local elites took over the governance of the country from the British, largest ethnic group Sinhalese formed the majority in the country. Under democracy though all the people are involved in making decisions by voting to elect representatives to the parliament, the Sinhala Buddhists, as the largest majority community was expected to prosper and they sure did without any fuss. This was accepted by the other ethnic groups particularly the largest minority Tamils, living mainly in their traditional land in the North and East provinces; as the first constitution had entrenched all the protective provisions to safe guard the interests of all minorities of the country. The simple majoritarian system of government enabled the Sinhala Buddhists permanent majorities to rule the country and for a brief period everything seemed well on the surface, there after it was bad governance of varying degree all the way resulting in three uprisings from the people.
Buddhism thrived in the country after independence
After independence Sinhala Buddhists pursued a simple majoritarian rule and things turned sour making it difficult for the other communities to live in peace in the tiny island that resulted in the ethnic conflict. Buddhists themselves as expected thrived, while Muslims as a low key participant in the conflict managed to sustain their growth at a lower rate. The number of Christians in the country slimed down in three phases first when the British left the country following independence, then with 1958and 1983 riots a good percentage of the Burger community emigrated out of the country and the final phase was during the civil war when many Tamil Christians for safety left the island. Worst blunted after independence were the Hindus who as Tamils suffered the most, initially when thousands of Indian origin Tamils were repatriated back to India, following each riots particularly after 1983 riots found refuge in South India; cumulating with the Civil War years Tamil Hindus of middle and low income fled out of the country by sailing to safe their life.
Sinhala Only and the Tamil speaking Minorities
1956 saw the dawn of a new era by a cultural renaissance among the Sinhalese, that took the form principally of an effort to elevate the position of the Sinhala language in the state and society and also of an attempt to revive the customs, traditions and arts of the Sinhalese and to restore Buddhism to the place it had occupied in past history. Unfortunately, however, on the question of the Sinhala language, which was the most important question, the demand took the form of a movement to make Sinhala the sole official language to the exclusion of Tamil, which is spoken by quite considerable minority, made up of three communities and betrayed the Tamils. Thus the Sinhala Buddhists drifted away from the rest without adapting to accommodate others, recalling the famous “Two languages one country. One language two countries” statement made by Colvin R. de Silva, a former Minister and one of the founders of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party when the Bandaranaike government brought the Sinhala Only Act to the parliament; his predictions came true few years later when the Tamil youth rebelled for a separate state.
Over a period of time with politicians inclined to group-think, of toeing the party line even when they had a very different personal opinion on a policy issue. To stay in power and to satisfy their voters they created a Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness by depriving the minorities of their rights enshrined in the constitution, that resulted in oppression of the minorities causing an uprising that was suppressed by brutal force cumulating to a civil war. This habit of oppression has its roots to period before the country gained independence in 1948 during the precursor of the United National Party, the Ceylon National Congress period. But it has been adopted with relish by both major parties UNP and SLFP and other political parties from the south, at great expense to democracy. In 1915 commercial-ethnic rivalry erupted into a riot in Colombo against the Muslims, with Christians participating as much as Buddhists. The British reacted heavy-handedly, as the riot was also directed against them and hundreds of locals were arrested by the British colonial government and the great reformist Anagarika Dharmapala was confined in Jaffna.
Demography changes by Sinhala Buddhists and the call by the Tamils to merge North and East Provinces
With independence in1948 the Sinhala Buddhists rulers utilized the colonization programme started earlier by the British to change the demography of the North and East provinces. At that time the Sinhalese population in the East was 9%. Between 1947 and 1981 the Sinhalese population in the whole country grew by 238% (2 ½ times) and during the same time the Sinhala population in the Eastern Province grew by 888% (9 times), solely due to a state sponsored colonization schemes that sought to forcibly change the demography of the Eastern Province. This has been a bone of contention and the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam pact of 1957 addressed this issue specifically and provided for a merger of the North and East Provinces, but that accord was not honoured and did betray the Tamils. In 1965 another accord was signed between Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and S.J.V. Chelvanayakam which again addressed this crucial issue of colonization as to who will get priority to be colonized in the Eastern province and that also was not honoured and again the Tamils were betrayed. So this is the background to why these two provinces must remain together. From 1957 onwards we have had agreements to merge the two provinces; particularly after the violence against the Tamil people in 1983 the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed in 1987. There is provision in the Indo-Lanka Accord that the Northern and Eastern provinces are areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking People. So there is that recognition that Sri Lanka also signed an international bi-lateral treaty, which gives that recognition of a linguistic character to the two provinces together and in that accord there is provision made also for the North and East to be merged together. So this has been a fundamental feature and all of the promises given – even by the previous regime had agreed that the 13th amendment to the Constitution which provided for a merger as well, will be fully implemented and go beyond to achieve meaningful devolution. So even when a promise was given that greater devolution will be granted, the fundamentals of the 13th amendment, which included a merger, was agreed to but was never implemented in full and again the Tamils were betrayed. Every effort thereafter from 1993 to 2000 to 2006 – even under the previous regime there was an All Party Representative Committee provides for the merger of the two provinces. So it is a deviation from the normal devolution to the provinces as they are, but because of this serious issue of actually diluting a population and changing the demography which governments have consistently admitted to – and as a measure of arresting that trend and providing the Tamil speaking people in this area a certain measure of autonomy and a unit in which they can exercise political power as one group rather than two separate groups is the justification for it and why there has to be certain special provisions that are not afforded to the other provinces. But with the end of war the provinces were demerged and again the Tamils were betrayed.
Ethnic representation in Parliament after Independence
At the elections of 1947, the UNP won a minority of the seats in Parliament, but cobbled together a coalition with the precursor of SLFP the Sinhala Maha Sabha and the precursor of TNA the All Ceylon Tamil Congress and it was to this government that the British hand over power on Independence. Starting in 1948 with UNP followed by SLFP, but both major parties stressed unity on most policy matters, and opening meddled with the constitution to deprive the rights of the minorities that is emphasized today by TNA. This ‘party discipline’ has stifled real political debate, making even the smartest politicians sound like hacks and act like sheep, it was seen when the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 was passed that deprived voting rights of minority Tamils of Indian Origins and Tamils were betrayed . The Bill was opposed fiercely in Parliament by the Ceylon Indian Congress, which represented the Indian Tamils, and the Sinhalese leftist parties. The bill was also opposed by the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, which represented the Sri Lankan Tamils, including its leader G.G. Ponnambalam. Tamil and Sinhalese opposition to the Act demonstrated the politicians’ inability to speak freely on issues that matter has made democracy all the poorer in Sri Lanka. Only about 5,000 Indian Tamils qualified for citizenship under this act and more than 700,000 people, about 11% of the population, were denied citizenship and made stateless. The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 that the Left bitterly opposed, with Dr N. M. Perera, leader of the LSSP, moving a motion in Parliament that the Act “should be amended forthwith to provide for the Sinhalese and Tamil languages to be state languages of Ceylon with parity of status throughout the Island.” Dr Colvin R. de Silva of the LSSP responded, in what some regard as famous last words: “Do we… want a single nation or do we want two nations? Do we want a single state or do we want two? Do we want one Ceylon or do we want two? And above all, do we want an independent Ceylon which must necessarily be united and single and single Ceylon, or two bleeding halves of Ceylon which can be gobbled up by every ravaging imperialist monster that may happen to range the Indian Ocean? These are issues that in fact we have been discussing under the form and appearance of language issue.” The passage of the act was met with demonstrations from Tamils who organized a satyagraha outside the parliament building. As a response, the Sinhalese nationalist organized a counter-protest and a mob representing this group attacked the Tamil protesters and was responsible for unleashing riots that killed nearly 150 Tamils. This alienation between the majority Sinhalese community and the Tamil community widened as time went on with the exclusion of the Tamil representatives from participating in the preparation of the first Republican Constitution in the early ‘70s again repeated in the Second Republican Constitution of 1978 and with the earlier Sinhala Only Act became a symbol of minority oppression which led to an armed revolt by Tamil youth seeking to establish a separate state in that island and was a factor in the emergence of the decades-long bloody Civil War that came to an end in May 2009 that took the lives of many thousand innocent civilians and untold hardship to many families dragging the country into a mess and various concerns were raised with regard to how that was brought to an end in violation of various norms and international laws.
Today according to the country’s most recent census in 2011 the total population is over 20 million made up of 74.9% or 15.25 million Sinhalese, 11.15% or 2.27 million Tamils living mostly in north and east provinces, Tamil speaking Muslims 9.3% or 1.89 million, while Tamil of Indian origin 4.12% 0.84 million living mainly in central Sri Lanka, with balance 0.53% or 0.11million is made of Malays, Burghers, Moors and Others. The country is progressing in a transitional phase that commenced in January last year following the disposition of the previous regime and with Maithripala Sirisena as President who does not belong to the political elite. Prior to that, the country was moving towards an authoritarian regime. The Constitution had an executive presidential system with a two term limit that had been amended to enable the incumbent to run for however many times that he wanted to and there were very serious concerns with regard to democracy deficit and accountability and non-accommodation of dissent and so on. Past President who was Prime Minister from 2003 to 2005 ascended to the office of President from that largely nominal office, was lucky in that he then had a President elected from the same party who did not rock the boat and make life difficult for him unlike what the present Prime Minister had to contend with during his 2001-2004 premiership.
The National Government has promised to bring about a permanent solution to the ethnic conflict and that lands from which the Tamil people had been displaced due to the civil war would be returned to them. All issues will be looked into and the displaced people would be all resettled and a political solution to the long standing issue will be found on extensive devolution. The process has started and is moving at snail phase and TNA on behave of the Tamils has asked for a federal form of government and that the North and East provinces be merged as one unit of devolution something that has been agreed to from 1957 onwards. The first pact that was signed between the Tamil leaders and rulers in 1957 provided for a merger of these two provinces and every negotiation thereafter provided for these two units to come together. In 1987 the Constitution was amended by the 13th amendment to the constitution the provinces were merged and existed for 18 long years until the Supreme Court did away with that merger due to a technical matter rather than any principle. Bitter truth –after this ruling and the circumstances that prevailed at that time under the past regime the independence of the judiciary was questioned particularly by the Tamils, who were affected by the ruling and lost faith in the local judiciary. Judiciary would have served the nation better by upholding its independence from the government had they advised the rulers to correct the technical matter by holding the referendum on the merger that was due 18years ago. Bitter Truth – It is accepted that the local judiciary does not have the capacity to handle war crime investigations and need the hybrid system proposed by UN; Doubts expressed as to whether the Constitution of Sri Lanka would allow for foreign nationals to function as judges was clarified and was agreed there would be a hybrid tribunal to try these mass atrocities.
However, the accountability mechanism is not clear as yet to investigate how the war was ended. There is a lot of hot air being blown against an international involvement in this accountability process by the breakaway dissent legislators in parliament and many others. The Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979 is still in force seven years after end of civil war. There are people in North and East provinces not permitted to go to their own land occupied by the military, who are cultivating in it and the produce are sold at the market for lower prices than what the civilian farmers are able to sell impacting on their livelihood. There are other issues such as justice to the victims and reparation and guarantee of non-recurrence that are yet to be resolved. Only the Office of Missing Persons has been created to date.
History repeats itself for a hundred years earlier the people with their native King deposed the leadership passed for the first time in the Kandyan provinces into the hands of ordinary people; non-aristocrats took the first transitional step towards abandoning the feudal form. Now a century later the leader of SLFP Maithripala Sirisena as President, who does not belong to the political elite with leader of UNP Ranil Wicramasinghe as PrimeMinister is striving to pull the country out of the corruption and oppression of the minorities. Unfortunately, the narrow focus of the legislators within a divided SLFP is not the same as that of their leader, they first wants to avoid their past catching up with them for they fear being called up for any corruption related investigations; rather prefer to prepare to defect UNP their National Government partner at the Local Council Elections due early next year, it is the same with the UNP legislators. These only delays further the primary task of reconciliation with the Tamil community.
In the meantime this posting on Northern Breeze is an attempt to analyse how the extermination policies adopted by the Sinhala Buddhists rulers.over the years have caused a “North is North and South is South, and never they shall concur”mind set on the Tamils resulting in the call for a federal form of government for them in North-East of the country.