Review of a history of oppression: The Tamils of Sri Lanka (1)

Review of a history of oppression: The Tamils of Sri Lanka

by Danielle Sabai

Thursday 2 June 2011

In February 2011, the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, celebrated the 63rd anniversary of the island’s independence. In his speech, he stressed the necessity of “protecting the reconstructed nation”, as well as protecting “one of the oldest democracies in Asia”, its unity and its unitary character.

This speech came nearly two years after the end of the war on 19 May 2009, between the Sri Lankan state and the “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” (LTTE). The military command of the LTTE was decimated in the last two months of a merciless war which had led to tens of thousands of deaths since the early 1980s.

Some thirty years of civil war have transformed the Sri Lankan political landscape. Once an island characterised by a developed social policy and high development indicators, Sri Lanka is today ravaged by state violence, the militarisation of society and an authoritarian state.

The end of the war has in no way opened a period of peace and still less settled the Tamil national question. The Sri Lankan government, whose powers are concentrated in the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa and brothers, has not sought to remedy the structural causes which led to the civil war. The state remains Sinhalese nationalist and racist in its essence and rejects any devolution of powers which would allow the different communities to envisage the future together.

The President is at war against his people. State violence is also exerted against Sinhalese, journalists and political activists who oppose him but also against workers as a whole. Despite the end of the war, the government has maintained the Prevention of Terrorism Act which allows it to muzzle its opponents. All communities suffer from the collapse of the rule of law. No peace can last if it does not rest on any political will to settle disputes.

The history of Sri Lanka is rich in lessons. It illustrates to what point attacks against minorities are the premises of more general attacks against workers whatever their ethnicity. They lead inevitably to a weakening, if not a collapse, of democracy. It is important and necessary to review the historic roots which are at the base of the formation of this specific state having led to the emergence of two antagonistic nationalisms: Buddhist Sinhalese nationalism and its reaction, Tamil nationalism.

The germs of inter-communal dissension

Sri Lanka, Ceylon until 1972, has been profoundly marked by several centuries of colonisation. The strategic position of the island in the Indian Ocean explains its successive conquest by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.

The main communities of the island, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, originate from successive migrations from India. The first took place in the 6th century BC by migrants coming from the North West of India and practicing Buddhism [1]. They slowly melted with other groups coming from southern parts of India to form the Sinhala community [2]. This was followed around 300 years later by a smaller migration of Hindu Tamils from the south of India. The Tamil migration continued in the north of the island for several hundred years and at the end of the 12th century, the peninsula of Jaffna constituted a separate state with a culture and language different from Sinhalese.

Neither the Sinhalese nor the Tamils can claim to be the first to have peopled the island since when they arrived, Ceylon was already occupied by a hunter gatherer people, the Veddah or Wanniyaletto, who are today almost completely assimilated in the different communities.

The different social formations which would emerge on the island were however not compartmentalised. In the kingdom of Kandy, for example, the Nayakkar dynasty emerged from the Vijayanagar Empire of southern India. Although the dynasty had been Tamil and originally Hindu, they converted themselves to Buddhism and were fervent promoters of it.

Under Portuguese and then Dutch colonialism, the coastal regions of the island were integrated into world trade in agricultural products from the early 16th century, facilitating the rise of a merchant capitalism. The coastal population was in its majority Sinhalese and Buddhist but trade exchanges made it a place of interconnection where Arabs, Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers mingled [3].

In the peninsula of the North, which was poorer, only the missionaries ventured, converting a minority of the population, previously mainly Hindu, to Christianity. Social relations of a feudal type, in particular a rigid caste system, persisted.

Upon their arrival at the end of the 18th century the British extended foreign domination to the interior of the island in the kingdom of Kandy. They developed big plantations there, imposing a new mode of production, plantation capitalism. They grabbed the communal lands previously devoted to pasturing of herds and the forests where the peasants practiced slash and burn cultivation, characterising them as “waste lands” to better resell them at a derisory price to British colonists. They would develop infrastructures which would allow the direction of the products of the plantations onto the world market.

Even if it only partially destroyed the pre-capitalist modes of production, plantation capitalism imposed itself rapidly, coming to dominate the island’s economy from the beginning of the 20th century.

The dominant classes of the pre-existing formations became almost naturally the comprador bourgeoisie [4]. Whether of Sinhalese, Burgher, Muslim [5] or Tamil origin, they found a common interest with the nascent bourgeoisie of the planters. Imbued with the colonial culture, they would send their children to study at Oxford and Cambridge, so as to ensure a place alongside the colonial aristocracy.

Numerous members of the Ceylonese bourgeoisie owned their own coconut, coffee or rubber plantations. Thus, unlike neighbouring India, in Ceylon a national bourgeoisie fighting for independence did not emerge. The latter did not play a motor role in the first movements of agitation against the colonial power at the end of the 19th century. Opposition first took the form of Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim religious movements who fought against the privileges of the Christian minority (made up of both Sinhalese and Tamils) and against Western culture.

The British colonial power, which feared a coming together of the interests of the Tamil and Sinhalese bourgeoisies, played upon division to the hilt. Specific and community-based interests became paramount. The Tamil elites demanded favourable treatment in exchange for their loyal service in the colonial administration. For their part, the Sinhalese built networks of communal associations, the Mahajana Sabha, resting on the rural Sinhalese elites – ayurvedic physicians, Buddhist monks, schoolmasters and so on.

The Ceylonese workers’ movement emerged at the same time as plantation capitalism. The Ceylonese workers were mainly Sinhalese peasants expelled from their ancestral collective lands by the colonial power to work in the construction of roads and railways and in the docks. They maintained a toehold in the rural world however. Meanwhile, to ensure work was carried out on the plantations and in the towns, the British colonist had called on Indian Tamil workers from Tamil Nadu who they kept apart from the local workers. The workers’ movement was thus divided from its birth.

Although there were in the early 20th century several workers’ struggles involving workers of all origins and confessions, the nationalist and xenophobic discourse of the Sinhalese nationalist leaders had a profound impact on the working class of Sinhalese origin.

In the 1920s, new workers’ struggles allowed the development of an urban working class which was more unified, defending its own class interests beyond the castes which had survived and community based identities. A trade union confederation and a political party modelled on the British Labour Party emerged under the leadership of A.E. Goonesinha. The political control he exerted, both on the party and the trade union, was however fatal to the workers’ movement. During the great depression of the 1930s, Goonesinha did not hesitate to brand the Tamil plantation workers as being responsible for high unemployment and to accuse Indian merchants of dispossessing small Ceylonese landowners. The use of Sinhalese chauvinism was an easy and rapid means of constituting an electoral base which allowed him to win the parliamentary elections in the Sinhalese constituency of central Colombo. This was a fatal blow to universal suffrage – which had just been granted in 1931- by an unscrupulous politician who deployed it to electoralist ends.

The constitution of a Sinhalese nationalism

Nationalist and racist themes were subsequently regularly used by the ruling politicians for electoral ends or to implement a class policy. Thus, the first law adopted by the first independent Ceylonese government [6], the Citizenship Act, rendered stateless the Tamil “Indian” workers who had been settled for three of four generations in the island, under the pretext that they could not prove that they were Ceylonese by parentage or by naturalisation. The second law withdrew the right to vote under the pretext that they were not Ceylonese!

These laws took the vote away from all the plantation workers of the centre and south, or a tenth of the electoral body. That allowed the ruling UNP to eliminate a million votes, much of which have previously gone to the Left parties and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the main Ceylonese workers’ party. [7]. This party had been created in the 1930s by young intellectuals who had been won to Communist ideas during their studies in Britain and the United States of America.

The Tamil workers on the plantations would not find much help from among the North-Eastern Tamil members of parliament. Most of the latter voted for these retrograde laws. A dissident group led by S.J.V.Chelvanayakam founded the Federal Party [8]

This was a fatal blow against the Sri Lankan workers’ movement which became divided along ethnic lines. This major political defeat was a portent for the future. The use of nationalist appeals against a part of the population, considered wrongly as foreign, was soon applied to other ethnic minorities and in particular against the Sri Lankan Tamils from the north and east of the island. From 1949, the UNP government of DS.Senanayake put in place a policy of attribution of land to Sinhalese peasants who had been deprived of it. This policy was applied in the east of the island in a Tamil majority area. The arrival of these peasants modified substantially the demographic and therefore electoral composition of the constituencies concerned and thus gave a fiefdom to Sinhalese politicians who had lacked one.

In 1951, Bandanaraike [9], motivated by personal ambition, left the UNP to found the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP). It rested on the Maha Sabha [10], one of whose main objectives was to promote Sinhalese-Buddhist culture throughout the island. The SLFP was constituted on the basis of the Sinhalese petty bourgeoisie giving it support among the rural masses neglected both by the comprador bourgeoisie of the UNP and by the LSSP whose base was rather among the workers (even though it represented also paysants in some rural constituencies).

1956 constituted a major political turning point for the island. A year of presidential elections, 1956 also represented for the Sinhalese Buddhists the 2,500th anniversary of the death of Buddha as well as the anniversary of the “peopling of Ceylon” and the origins of the Sinhalese people. The electoral campaign was the opportunity for Sinhalese chauvinist outbidding.

Bandanaraike campaigned on the slogan “Sinhala Only” and proposed that Sinhalese replace English as the sole official language of the island. In the 24 hours following his investiture, the measure was decreed. This law was all the more unjustified in that before independence in 1944, the legislative council had voted by a very large majority for a law adopting Sinhalese and Tamil as official languages for education, examinations and parliamentary debates, recognising the importance of the equality of the languages.

The Sinhalese community was not however homogeneous. It was itself divided by lines of caste, class and regional differences. The state identified itself with Sinhalese nationalism but not with the Sinhalese community as a whole. It was the middle classes and the Buddhist clergy, through the Maha Sabha, who would contribute to the dissemination of Sinhalese nationalist ideology. This petty bourgeoisie was convinced that this chauvinist policy would bring it jobs by reducing the opportunities of the Tamil minority.

The renunciation of the left parties

Founded in 1935, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), Ceylonese section of the Fourth International from 1940 onwards, was the first party to demand the independence of the country against British imperialism. From its foundation, it developed significant work in the mass movements and trade unions. The second biggest party on the island in terms of size, the LSSP was the main workers’ party and also the main opposition party in parliament until the emergence of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

A multi-ethnic and multi-cultural party, it included among its members militants of different languages, religions, genders and castes. Its activists fought attacks on workers whatever they were as well as the inter-communal divisions of the working class. Thus, when after independence, the first UNP government voted through the Citizenship Act rendering the plantation Tamils stateless, the LSSP was one of only two parties which opposed it. The party denounced a racist decree, directed against the working class and damaging to democracy.

However, in 1956, the internal situation of the party had qualitatively evolved. Internal struggles and a first split in 1945 had weakened the party. The divergences mainly concerned the question of the construction of the party: branch of a South Asian party or party in the national framework. In 1950, after several years of political conflicts fed by personal rivalries and generational divergences, Philip Gunawardena, main founder of the LSSP, left the party and founded a new one, the Viplavakari – LSSP (LSSP-Revolutionary). A third of the party joined the VLSSP following the political reverse by the LSSP during the general elections of 1952. During the presidential election of 1956, the VLSSP allied with the Bandaranaike’s SLFP to form a coalition, the People’s United Front (MEP), which came first in the elections. The VLSSP openly betrayed the workers by voting for the “Sinhala Only Act” with all the majority parties. Only the Tamil minority parties and the LSSP opposed it in parliament. The leader of the LSSP, Colvin R. de Silva, presciently observed that this law, which made Tamils second class citizens, rested on a disastrous logic: “two languages, one nation; one language, two nations”.

The passing of the “Sinhala Only Act” in 1956 was followed by strong protests from the Federal Party. In 1957, the SLFP in government and the Federal Party signed the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam agreements promising a regional autonomy to the provinces of the North and East. Tamil, in particular, became the official language of the administration of these two regions. But the Sinhalese chauvinist forces organised by the Buddhist monks, on whose support Bandaranaike had relied to gain power, launched a virulent campaign against this agreement. On April 9, 1958, the United Front of Monks (Eksath Bhikku Peramuna-EBP), an organisation of reactionary and racist Buddhist monks, besieged the residence of the prime minister. The same afternoon, one year after having signed it, Bandaranaike renounced the pact. Subsequent Tamil demonstrations in Jaffna were severely repressed by the police. In Colombo and other regions Sinhalese nationalists launched pogroms against the Tamils leading to criminal arson and murders organised in complete impunity by Sinhalese hooligans and thugs. The violence unleashed soon escaped any control but Bandaranaike refused to intervene for fear of upsetting the Sinhalese nationalists. In vain. In 1959, he was assassinated by a member of the EBP.

The Buddhist monk making vows of abstinence and poverty gave way to a much less spiritual monk who used his traditional position to exercise power. Bandaranaike had utilised Sinhalese nationalism to come to power but he was incapable of detaching himself from it after he had succeeded in his aims. The Pandora’s box was opened, and it was impossible to contain the Sinhalese nationalist racist forces unleashed.

The LSSP could have been an important element to oppose this nationalist and racist drift. Its strength rested in its ability to organise the masses at the rank and file. It has shown this during the organisation of an immense hartal [11] against the UNP government in 1953 which paralysed the country. Overwhelmed, the government took refuge on a ship. But when it was in a position of strength, the LSSP did not push the struggle to its advantage. [12]

This positioning prefigured the capitulations to come. The working class base of the party shrunk under the pressure of the inter-communal conflicts and the electoral successes of the SLFP destabilised the leadership of the LSSP. Defeat in the elections of 1960 disoriented the party. N. M. Perera, the main organiser of the LSSP’s mass work, proposed forming a coalition government with the SLFP which was rejected by the majority of the party, but the LSSP parliamentary group supported the vote of confidence in the newly elected government against the “main enemy” of the UNP which had continuously ruled Ceylan since 1948 [13]. In 1964, Perera engaged the majority of the party in a coalition government with the SLFP and the Ceylon Communist Party [14], the government being led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the widow of the prime minister assassinated seven years earlier. The earlier political demands of the two left parties in favour of equal rights for the plantation Tamils and parity of status between Sinhalese and Tamil languages were put aside. In the same year, the LSSP was expelled from the Fourth International which saw entry into the SLFP government as a political treason.

A minority group around Bala Tampoe and Edmund Samarakkody continued to defend the traditional positions of the LSSP in a new party. But the only mass political party which had defended workers regardless of their ethnic origin had betrayed, leaving a political vacuum in the working class and strengthening Sinhalese nationalism. [15]

In 1968, the SLFP, LSSP and CP formed the United Front which won the 1970 elections. The LSSP and CP, definitively converted to parliamentarism, justified this alliance by the desire to oppose the UNP, “the party of foreign and Ceylonese capitalist interests” whereas the United Front campaigned for a policy of industrialisation through import substitution, the development of social protection and the nationalisation of the Bank of Ceylon, transport and the tea plantations.

The policy of this government was however less progressive than it appeared. It was Sirimavo Bandaranaike who pushed further the political logic of discrimination against North_Eastern origin and plantation Tamils to satisfy her electoral clientele. That had significant repercussions on the economic policy pursued. In a difficult economic conjuncture owing to the first generalised world recession in 1974-75, with an unprecedented increase in unemployment, the UF government sharpened discriminatory policies which were already in place and invented new ones: the “Sinhala Only Act” was used to exclude Tamils from the police, army, courts and governmental services in general; the policy of colonisation of Tamil areas was accentuated; the plantation Tamils were voluntarily or forcibly repatriated to Tamil Nadu. Standardisation of access to universities, which was deeply discriminatory against part of the Tamil community, was imposed. This racist policy was implemented by parties who identified themselves with the workers’movement. How could the coming generations of young Tamils still have confidence in the Left parties?

All these discriminatory policies had the goal of transferring resources to the Sinhalese to the detriment of the Tamils. In 1971, however, the government faced a very significant insurrection from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a group made up of young Sinhalese living in the south of the country, mainly rural and members of the petty bourgeoisie. Such an uprising of youth, supposedly the main beneficiaries of the political measures taken, show how much the discrimination against the Tamils did not benefit the majority of Sinhalese and did not alleviate poverty and unemployment. The ruling coalition responded with a terrible repression. Several thousand youths were killed by the army and the police and more than 10,000 were jailed [16]

The emergence of the Tamil national question

In the early 1970s, the crisis in relation to the Tamil minority deepened. In 1972, Colvin R. De Silva, the former historic leader of the LSSP and then minister for constitutional affairs, drew up a new constitution which, among other things, gave Sinhalese the status of sole official language, established Buddhism as virtually the state religion. It removed section 29 of the 1947 Soulbury Constitution that guaranteed certain protection clauses for ethnic and religious minorities. It also introduce a new fundamental rights chapter that was applicable to North-eastern Tamils but not to those plantation Tamils who were stateless because it only protected citizens.

At the economic level, the policy of the government was profoundly discriminatory with respect to the Tamil community. The nationalisation of the plantations was accompanied by a redistribution of land in favour of the Sinhalese majority. The linguistic policy of the government deprived young Tamils of jobs after their studies. The new standards of access to the university were perceived by middle class youth as one discriminatory measure too far with respect to their community. This measure mainly affected the young Tamils of Jaffna, who were more educated. It did not affect the youth of the East, from Vanni and the plantations of the centre who for the most part did not go to university. It was nonetheless the detonator for big mobilisations and the entry into politics of a new generation of Tamil youths.

The Federal Party and the Tamil United Front (TUF) [17] began to distil a nationalist rhetoric which proclaimed the unity of all Tamils beyond class and caste inequalities. At this time, the notion of Tamil identity was real but it was not the substance of the Tamil community. In everyday life, belonging to a caste and a village constituted the main vectors of identity and dominated social relations.

The battles of the FP and TUF did not go outside of parliament, leaving a vacuum occupied by these young Tamil militants in Jaffna. Since independence, the attempts at political negotiations with the different parliamentary parties (SLFP and UNP) and the campaigns of Satyagraha [18] of the Federal Party had brought no solution to the Tamil cause. The refusal of the state to accord a minimum of autonomy and devolution led these young militants to reject the policy followed by the traditional Tamil political parties.

The young Tamil generations no longer believed in the possibility of developing their rights by democratic means. Only a separate state seemed to them to guarantee their linguistic, religious and cultural rights. Thus the question of a separate Tamil state emerged as the sole alternative and the means of winning it could rest neither on parliamentary battles or traditional campaign of agitation.

A major event marked the beginning of a cycle of violence [19]. In January 1974, a literary meeting to celebrate Tamil language and culture was organised in Jaffna. It was supported by the TUF. The coalition government led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike did not like it but did not dare to oppose it directly. When a final meeting attracted nearly 50,000 participants, the riot police attacked the crowd leading to the death of seven people. Following this event, the TUF and FP accentuated a campaign against the mayor of Jaffna [20], launched from 1972, accusing him of being a “traitor”. These vicious attacks ended with him being assassinated on July 27, 1975 by a member of an organisation formed in 1974, the Tamil New Tigers. This new organisation changed its name to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976. (Contd. Part 2)

http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2168


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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist

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