A Sinhala Perspective
The Tamil cause
By a Special Correspondent
“We do not have an ethnic problem, we have a terrorist problem” was how a certain former president of this country characterized our situation.
The same person, visiting Paris for an Aid Consortium meeting responded harshly to a European foreign ministry official, who inquired about the human rights situation in the country with the following words: “What human rights problem? we do not have any human rights problem.”
The diplomat had been aghast. He had been taken aback by the man’s tone and all he had to say later was: “May God help you if these are your leaders”.
It has often been said by many Tamils that we the Sinhalese drove them into this present predicament and that we are primarily responsible for the present situation. It is more than useful to examine the truth of this—particularly when our society is suffering from a severe attack of ‘truth decay.’ Unless we, both communities, are prepared to face the harsh truth, we shall never be able to come to terms with the problem.
We must be prepared to face the fact that we have made mistakes, that our judgment has been wrong, good judgment comes from experience and we gain experience mostly through the mistakes we have made in the past.
Let us therefore face the truth with courage. Most unfortunately we do not have a tradition of ‘confession’ in the Christian tradition or facing up to the truth.
Let us commence our journey in search of the truth by flagging few historical landmarks. At the time of Independence the racial/ethnic or ‘community’ percentages of population were roughly as follows:-Sinhalese 73%; Tamils 12.5%; Muslims 7.5% and the rest 7% . One of the principal complaints of the Sinhalese at this time was that the Tamils enjoyed a disproportionate slice of the jobs in the public service which was the principal employer in the country. This situation was compounded by Tamils favouring Tamils — the so called ‘Nambadal’ policy of the Tamils.
Certain government departments such as the railways and the audit were predominantly manned by Tamils. The professions too were dominated by Tamils. Tamil students also formed a disproportionate number in the engineering, science and medical faculties in the university. This situation was indeed resented by the Sinhalese.
G. G. Ponnambalam (Snr) sought to entrench this wholly artificially created situation, when he proposed to the Soulbury Commission that 50% of the seats in Parliament be reserved for the minorities! The Sinhalese who formed two thirds of the population naturally considered this as a racist provocation. The Soulbury Commission quite naturally rejected this preposterous suggestion. Ponnambalam and his ilk sought to make out that the preponderance of Tamils in the public service and the professions was entirely due to the fact that Tamils were more intelligent (sic). This was considered a further provocation by the Sinhalese.
The truth lay elsewhere. The good (English medium) schools were almost all Christian missionary schools and they had been established in the Northern Jaffna peninsula, (the missionaries perhaps considered the Hindus an easy target for conversion). The number of ‘good schools’ in the peninsula exceeded the totality of such schools in the rest of the island. Hence it was that there was a preponderance of Tamils in the government service and the professions.
The efforts of Ponnambalam and other Tamil leaders to entrench this advantageous situation having failed, some of them broke away from the Tamil Congress to form the Federal Party. The name of the party in the Tamil language did not denote ‘Federal’ but much more, leading to suspicion in the minds of the Sinhalese that the Tamils were now advocating the breaking up of the country.
Meanwhile the State Council in 1944, sensing the rise of ethnic nationalism and the fact that the prevailing situation where 13% of the people, the English speaking middle class, could not continue to rule over 87% of the people who knew only Sinhalese and Tamil, sought to head off the problem by making Sinhala, Tamil and English as national languages of the country. Though the British relinquished power in 1948, there was no discernible change as far as the ordinary masses of this country were concerned. They continued to be ruled by ‘western oriented gentlemen’, who proudly wore the ridiculous ‘fancy dress’ of top hat and tails on Independence Day and held a ball (black tie and gowns of course) in the evening.
The ruling party of the time was from the landed class and quite removed from the Sinhala and Tamil speaking proletariat who comprised 87% of the people! Sadly the leaders of the time had no vision and did not think in terms of laying the foundation for a multi ethnic multi cultural society.
Almost 90 % of the non-English speaking people of the country (87% of the population) were Sinhalese and they were not an uneducated mass.
Education being a supreme value with the Buddhists, most of them had received their education in the Sinhala language. They comprised of articulate Buddhist monks, Sinhala schoolteachers Ayurvedic practitioners, the organized working class and the peasantry. They sought recognition and economic opportunity hitherto denied them as they did not have facility with the English language. This was the target group which was waiting for a leader.
For the populist politician, seeking power at any cost, here was a ripe cherry waiting to be picked. Bandaranaike was indeed a perverse Solomon in this situation where 90% of the Sinhalese knew no English. This was indeed a powerful constituency for, as mentioned earlier, it contained the Sangha, the ayurvedic practitioners, the Sinhala school teachers and organized labour. It was not that Bandaranaike, a clever politician with a good intellect, did not realize that there would be a realignment of political and economic power in this country with the passage of time, as the Sinhalese constituted 73% of the people and would come into their own, but here was a God sent opportunity to champion their cause and ride to power. And so he did.
We have now come to the beginning of our search for an understanding.
Slogans became more important than substance. The cry ‘Sinhala Only’, by its very words represented a provocation to the other minorities in the land. That it was wholly iniquitous and as unfair as the situation it claimed to redress, should surely have been apparent to Bandaranaike at least. The 90% of the Sinhalese, speaking only their language and immersed in their world and in the belief that the country belonged only to them, sought to deny the others in the country the rights they were demanding for themselves.
Our search/inquiry continues with this as the back-drop. The Sinhala Only Act may have been the weapon, the ‘kaduwa’ which was to open the door to economic opportunity for the Sinhalese, but it was also the weapon which sought to make eunuchs of the Tamil people. As stated earlier it was through the denial of opportunities which we sought for ourselves that we were seeking to advance. What was our raison d’etre? The Sinhalese Buddhists had been denied their rights from the time of the Portuguese through to British times. They had suffered numerous indignities whilst in keeping with the British policy of ‘divide and rule’, the minorities had enjoyed privilege for hundreds of years and most definitely in the 133 years of British rule of the whole country.
Solomon Bandaranaike would certainly have known that the ‘Sinhala Only Act’ was a road to nowhere and more importantly that it was a perpetration of an injustice – shutting out the language rights of an important section of the people of the country. Bandaranaike had in earlier years (in the State Council) proposed decentralization of the administration on the basis of Provincial Councils. This he sought to re-introduce as a means to redress the iniquitous situation created by the Sinhala Only Act. What followed was the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1958. This was the first attempt at finding a negotiated settlement of the problem.
Whatever their detractors may say about the Tamil translation of “Federal Party’ and that the Federalists were two-faced, we need to acknowledge here the position of the Federal Party, as set out in their manifesto of 1956, in regard to the matter of ‘separation’, “It is our firm conviction that the division of the country in any form would be beneficial neither to the country or the Tamil speaking people. Hence we appeal to the Tamil-speaking people not to lend their support to any political movement that advocates the bifurcation of the country.”
It was a categorical statement against separation. We must here also flag the fact that the Tamil people decisively rejected the political party which advocated ‘separation’ in 1956 and subsequently rejected C. Suntheralingam, who incidentally lost his deposit when he contested on the ‘Eeylom’ ticket. It is said that we make our enemies. How true!
It would be recalled that agreement was reached for the peaceful resolution of the conflict way back in 1958 through the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact – and who was it that sabotaged the pact, who but a small groups of racist Sinhalese (and the Sinhalese as an ethnic group have been blamed). No one could deny the role played by a small group of Buddhist monks such as Talpawila Seelawansa, Baddegama Wimalawansa and the man convicted for the murder of Bandaranaike—Mapitigama Buddharakkitha, none of whom would have understood the concept or known that many countries in the world have Federal Constitutions. Associated with these monks were racial fanatics who apparently suffered from paranoia, such as F. R. Jayasuriya and K. M. P. Rajaratna and a man who certainly should have known better, who opposed the settlement for diabolical political reasons – J. R. Jayewardene (he had been decisively rejected by the people in 1956). It did not take much for Bandaranaike to capitulate to the extremists.
Ten years on in 1968, we see the same tragic story being played out once more this time around it was Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake who sought to find a peaceful settlement of the conflict. This time around too the same group of reactionary Sinhalese – with the SLFP in tow, who sabotaged and aborted a fair settlement. All of them are no more but another generation is paying with their blood for their stupidity.
When the odds were in our favour we did not take the chance— now that chance too is lost for everything has its time. As for the Tamils, they were cheated once again.
We next have the coalition of 1970. Tamil hopes are raised—for in the government were the Marxist parties who advocated parity of status for the two languages —and the so called ‘golden brains’ of our country.
It should be here recalled that it was no less a person that the Constitutional Affairs Minister in the government of 1970, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva who had stated during the debate on the Sinhala Only Bill in 1956 that “if you have one language you will have two nations but if you have two languages you will have one nation”!
The situation in the country had deteriorated since 1956, and the expectation of the Tamils would have been that this champion would pull the chestnuts out of the fire — but alas what a let-down there was to be. I suppose the 14 years that had elapsed had ravaged the great man’s mind. In the Constitution which Dr. de Silva fathered he even removed the minority protection clauses that had been enshrined in the Constitution of 1948.
What followed and what the Marxist members in the cabinet acquiesced in was even worse. The government introduced ‘standardization’ on regional basis and language basis —to the university.
This dashed the hopes of hundreds of Tamil students and ruined their lives — for education, to the Tamils from the arid north, was the highest priority and was the key to their emancipation. Our Socialist heroes were found to have clay feet.
The only consoling factor for the Tamils in the 1970-77 period, was good prices for their agricultural produce because of the closed economy.
The wounds the Tamils suffered in 1956 had by the mid seventies begun to fester—the new obstacle relating to admissions to university was the last straw that broke the back of the Tamils. Gangrene began to set in and hence the decision in 1976 — to amputate! The Vadukoddai Resolution called for the establishment of Eelam! They also cited the fact that they were attacked in 1956, 1958, 1966, 1971, 1977, 1981 and finally in 1983, when over a thousand innocent Tamils were killed and their properties destroyed in Colombo and the rest of the country.
“What would you have done if that happened to you? Would you not want to live separately, in security and with dignity, and decide on your own destiny? “? These have been their questions to the Sinhalese.
Besides the overt discrimination and the violence identified above, yet another factor contributed to the decision to separate—— the ham-handed actions of the security forces. The cycle of spiralling violence seemed endless. The attacks on the armed forces by the so called militants was on the increase, particularly through the use of landmines and time bombs. These cowardly attacks by an unseen enemy were met by retaliatory attacks in sheer exasperation, on civilians. Such reprisals were perhaps what the LTTE wanted to enable them to recruit.
The cleavage between the communities was becoming a yawning chasm.
The new government of 1977 sought to head off the situation through the District Development Council Bill which was prepared in consultation with the TULF and Neelan Tiruchelvam in particular. The objective of the bill was to decentralize the administration and place an Executive Minister in charge of each District. Most unfortunately the sense of urgency that should have attended the exercise was absent and it took two years to be ‘born’. Even then the much needed funds were not forthcoming—neither did the central government ministers devolve power to the districts. When election time (to the DDCs) arrived, as they would say in Sinhala, “the train had gone”. It was indeed far too late.
The militants had taken over from the moderates who had by then lost control over their protegees. The candidates of the governing party were assassinated and the political environment vitiated. The government’s response, ‘Israeli’ in form was to put it metaphorically, was to seek an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 1983 was the watershed—This helped the insurgents to mobilize further— we were now on the road to war. We the Sinhalese lost sight of everything other than the insurgency. To us the problem was one of countering terrorism. At this point we also lost sight of the most important aspect of the matter——the cause of the insurrection.
At the time that the insurgency took on formidable proportions, assisted by our powerful neighbour India, Tamil language rights had not been restored, the land settlement policy had not been settled only the ‘standardization’ of university entrance examination marks had been done away with. But by then the hopes and dreams of thousands of Tamil students who had aspired to a university education had been dashed. They joined the militants! (Just as the Sinhala youth without a future on the horizon joined the JVP).
And so to the statement of our Tamil friend who stated that we drove them into the insurgency. It does seem from the evidence before us that we the Sinhalese are indeed culpable because of our ‘sins’ of omission and commission. Whilst conceding that it has been the insurrection that has obtained for the Tamil people their language rights and removed the obstacles to higher education, and won them back their dignity, I must emphasize that many do not believe that separation is the answer. The insurgency must be crushed. We the Sinhalese must draw a distinction between the Tamil people and the LTTE. We must understand that like us, many of them are nationalists and do not want the separate state that the LTTE is fighting for. The only answer is a Federal State where the security of not only the Tamils but of all the other ethnic groups in the country is ensured. Let those who want a military solution realize that there can be no victor’s justice in the modern world.
The war has shattered the social order of the Tamil people and at the same time anaesthetized both the Sinhalese and the Tamils to violence and transformed what was once a relatively ‘Buddhist’ society into something quite removed in practice from that noble religion.
In conclusion let me pose a question to the Sinhalese people and let us have an honest answer. Have we not let prejudice and even hate affect our judgement in this matter? Have we not driven the Tamils to this by our insensitive and ham-handed handling of this emotive issue. In this regard I am reminded of the manner in which Mr. D. S. Senanayake not only established new settlements from Padaviya in the North to Ampara in the South-East, but also de-franchised the Tamils of ‘recent Indian origin’ with such formidable Tamil leaders such as Ponnambalam, C. Suntheralingam and C Sittampalam in his Cabinet ! Tact and diplomacy seem to have been significant by their absence when Bandaranaike and those who followed him, dealt with the Tamil issue.
I would commend to the government that we launch a major peace initiative with an army of monks (at least ten thousand of the thirty thousand) who could be briefed comprehensively on the issue and the government’s proposals. They could be asked to explain to the Sinhala Buddhist masses that peace can only come through the message of the Buddha, by extending Maitri (Love) and Karuna (compassion) to all and sharing power with all the people of this country. The peace dividend will bring prosperity to us all.