Brief History of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka

Brief History of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka

It is virtually impossible to set a date for the genesis of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka.

The Tamil youths began to feel that their political leaders had miserably failed to protect their rights, and give them an appropriate place in the country. In the existing desperate conditions, frustrated youths can easily be motivated by a charismatic leader who may mobilise them towards a cherished goal like their own independent, sovereign country (Eelam for Tamils) for a persecuted ethnic minority community. Consequently, the Tamil Tigers launched a terrorist movement to achieve their objective. The extremist activities assumed intensity in the 1970s. But in the eleven days of violence in July-August 1983, the Tamil community suffered enormous destruction and loss of life. Horrible atrocities were committed on the Tamils and efforts were made for completely destroying the economic base of the Tamils.

@ South Asian Free Media Association

Brief History of Ethnic Conflict

It is virtually impossible to set a date for the genesis of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka. Tamils began weaving dreams of an independent homeland much before militancy erupted, albeit in an embryonic form, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After the 1956 riots, a group of Tamils organized and opened fire at the Sri Lankan army in Batticaloa. Two Sinhalese were killed when 11 Tamils, having between them seven rifles, fired at a convoy of Sinhalese civilians and government officials one night at a village near Kalmunai. There was another attack on army soldiers in Jaffna after Colombo stifled the Federal Party “satyagraha” in 1961, but no one was killed.

The failure of the 1961 “satyagraha” set several of its leading lights thinking. Mahatma Gandhi, they argued, succeeded in India with his concept of non-violence and non-cooperation because he was leading a majority against a minority, however powerful; whereas in Sri Lanka, the Tamils were a minority seeking rights from a majority. And the majority was not willing to give concessions.

Some of 20 men associated with the Federal Party thought Gandhisam had no place in such a separate state. Most of them were civil servants and had been influenced by Leion Uris Exodus. At a meeting in Colombo, they christened their group Pulip Padai (Army of Tigers). On August 12, 1961, the Pulip Padai members converged at the historic Koneswaran Temple in the eastern port of the town of Trincomalee and, standing in its holy precincts facing the sea took a solemn oath to fight for a Tamil homeland.

Pulip Padai immediately got into the act, putting out leaflets and pamphlets printed clandestinely, advocating militancy. A student wing called the Manavar Manram (student’s council) was set up in 1963. Two Federal Party leaders the Pulip Padai strongly backed were Amirthalingam and V.N. Navaratnam (Chavakachcheri MP).

The 1965 decision of the Federal Party to support the UNP government broke up the Pulip Padai and it eventually withered away. But many of its activists remained strongly committed to the concept of an independent nation. Two of them were A. Rajaratnam and Sivagnanasundaram. Rajaratnam died in 1975 in Madras of asthma. Sivagnanasundaram became the staunch supporter of the LTTE. He was killed in Jaffna in 1988 by the EPRLF.

In 1969, Thangathurai and Kuttimani and a few friends gathered in Jaffna to form an informal group that the former wanted to name the Tamil Liberation Organization (TLO). A college professor’s house at Point Pedro, in Jaffna, was a regular meeting point for the group. It included among others Periya (big) Sothi, Chinna (small) Sothi, Chetti, Kannadi (a radio mechanic), Sri Sabaratnam (TELO leader) and V.Prabhakaran (LTTE supremo). One man who drifted by but broke away to chart an independent course was Ponnudorai Sivakumaran, who was to become one of the first martyrs to the Tamil cause.

In April 1971, Thangathurai, known as mama (uncle) and some 15 others were making explosives at the Thondamanaru high school when a bomb went off, seriously injuring Chinna Sothi. The next year, a similar blast occurred, causing burn injuries to Thangathurai, Chinna Sothi, Prabhakaran and V. Nadesuthasan. Earlier, in 1970, Ponnudorai Satyaseelan founded the Tamil Manavar Peravai (Tamil Students League), which was joined by Sivakumaran.

Bandaranaike had in the meanwhile begun to take a hard line towards Tamils, cutting off foreign exchange for Tamil students going to India for higher studies, banning the import of Tamils films, books and Magazines from Tamil Nadu, and proscribing the small Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in Jaffna. Sivakumaran attempted to assassinate Sri Lankan deputy minister for Cultural Affairs Somaweera Chandrasiri in September 1970 and Alfred Duraiyappah, the Jaffna Mayor, in February 1971.

The formation of TUF in 1972 led to the Tamil Elaingyar Peravai (TYL-Tamil Youth League) in January 1973. It was founded by some 40 youths, many of whom subsequently were in the forefront militant movement. The TYL drew support from Thangathurai, the TLO leader. Satyaseelan’s arrest in February 1973 set off the second round of mass arrests in Jaffna and virtually crippled the TYL as well as the older Tamil Students League. Several young men languished in prison until 1977, although some gained amnesty on the eve of the Kankesanthurai by-election in 1975.

By then two developments had occurred in the Indian subcontinent which had a bearing on the Tamils. One was the JVP insurrection which was stamped out. The second was the India Pakistan war which led to the birth of Bangladesh. Both events took place in 1971. The JVP was never popular among Tamils, although it did have marginal support in Jaffna.

In 1973, the Sri Lankan navy seized a boat belonging to Kuttimani filled with dynamite. Kuttimani fled to India but was arrested and deported from Tamil Nadu to face a Sri Lankan prison sentence. Tamil Nadu was then governed by M. Karunanithi’s DMK party.

Jaffna witnessed its first case of death by cyanide poisoning the next year. Sivakumaran had been lying low for a while but took an active interest in the 1974 International Tamil Conference in Jaffna. He had been influenced by his parent’s pro-Federal Party views. He studied at Urumpirai Hindu College which was to several recruits to the Eelam campaign-up to the advanced level, majoring in Chemistry. He is the only one among the Tamils of that era who is remembered fondly by everyone.

He was a very sensitive person. He believed that despite the need for militancy, the Federal Party was important and often compared Chelvanayagam with Mahatma Gandhi and the boys with Subash Chandra Bose. He was a restless character. He would discuss all night, emphasizing the need for an armed struggle.

Since breaking off from Thangathurai, Sivakumaran had set up his group, which came to be known as the Sivakumaran’s group. The 1972 & 1973 mass arrests had slowed down his pace. His contemporaries say he was a shattered man after the Tamil Conference fiasco. He had worked for its success, and it pained him that nine people died for no fault of theirs. Since then he had passionately advocated vengeance-against Duraiyappah, the Mayor, and a Sinhalese police officer he held responsible for the deaths.

On June 5, 1974, Sivakumaran was trapped by the police while attempting a bank robbery in Jaffna’s Kopai town. He was 17 years of age and knowing about police torture if he were caught, he used to carry a cyanide pill. On that day he swallowed it without so much as an afterthought and died almost instantly. Thus was born Sri Lanka’s cyanide culture.

Hundreds thronged Sivakumaran’s funeral. All shops in Jaffna downed their shutters in mourning and hundreds of pamphlets were distributed in the town and its outskirts, eulogizing the martyr as Eelam’s Bhagat Singh. At the funeral, several TYL members slashed their fingers and with the blood that dripped placed dots on their foreheads, pledging collectively to continue the fight for an independent state. Tamils later put up a bronze statue outside Jaffna in the memory of the young man-it showed a defiant youth, his clenched fist outstretched and dangling a broken chain.

Formation of Tamil New Tigers 1970s

In 1974, Jaffna engulfed in protests when Bandaranaike visited the town to open a university campus. The Mayor, Duraiyappah did his best to bring crowds to her meeting. The visit was preceded be several acts of violence which the police blamed on the newly-formed Tamil New Tigers (TNT) of Prabhakaran. Bombs were thrown at a police jeep in Kankesanthurai, a port town. Another bomb went off at the residence of a communist leader who was to be the premier’s interpreter and some more incidents.

The first successful robbery blamed on Tamil militants took place in 1974 when 91,000 rupees was taken away from the Multipurpose Cooperative Society to Tellipallai. Tamil source said Chetti and one of his cousins were among the responsible for the robbery, while one published account attributed the raid to Prabhakaran. Around the same time, Chetti slipped to Tamil Nadu and teamed up with a crowd from Valvettithurai that was camping in Salem.

By the start of 1975, general strikes and other forms of protests were the order of the day in Jaffna. Time and again police cracked down on suspected militants whose number was slowly on the upswing.

In January 1975, several TYL members released from Colombo prisons on the eve of the Kankesanthurai by-election returned to Jaffna to heroes’ welcome. Dozens of youths campaigned for the ageing Chelvanayagam, who was contesting the polls, not because they argued with his politics of moderation but wanted him to win to prove that Tamils no longer desired a federation with Sri Lanka.

Two underground groups were active in 1975. The Thangathurai group, benefit of Kuttimani, and the TNT, which in informed circles came to be known as the Prabhakaran’s group. Both enjoyed the tacit blessings of Amirthalingam.

In January 1975, a group of Sri Lankan Tamils residing in London formed the Eelam Revolutionary Organizers, which took the acronym EROS. Although it failed to take roots in Sri Lankan Tamils areas for a long time, it played a key role in shaping the growth of militancy.

The Duraiyappah assassination was the first political murder in Sri Lankan’s northeast. Chelvanayagam’s election victory had queered the pitch for the Eelam campaign. Although the sickly Tamil leader was a Gandhian by faith, neither afford to criticize the murder. The number of militants in Jaffna then could not have been more than 50.

The popular perception among the ordinary Tamils was that the “boys”, as the young guerrillas were called with adoration, were acting under the orders, if not the control, of the TUF and that they could and would be caged if need be.

On March 5, 1976, Prabhakaran led a raid on the state-run People’s Bank at Puttur and escaped with a half a million rupees in cash and jewellery worth of 200,000 rupees after holding the employees at gunpoint. It was the first successful bank robbery in Jaffna.

Prabhakaran founded the LTTE on May 5, 1976. Barely 10 days later, the TUF held its first convention at Pannakam, Amirthalingam’s birthplace. On May 14, 1976, exactly four years after the TUF’s formation, the main star of the TUF convention was Amirthalingams, although Chelvanayagam was presiding over the meeting. Since Chlevanayagam’s victory, leaders of the erstwhile Federal Party and its traditional rival, The Tamil Congress, had come closer. On that day, they jointly announced the formation of the Tamil Liberation Front (TULF), which described the Sri Lankan Tamils as “a nation distinct and apart from the Sinhalese”.

This convention resolved that the restoration and reconstitution of the Free, Sovereign, Secular, Socialist State of Tamil Eelam based on the right of self-determination inherent in every nation has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil nation in this country. And it was with this resolution that the TULF went to the electorate in the July 1977 elections, now overdue by two years.

From the Tamil standpoint, the 1977 polls were momentous in 3 ways.

1. For the 1st time, one of Sri Lanka’s main parties admitted publicly that there existed a Tamil problem.
2. For the 1st time, a Tamil party was propelled as the main opposition in the Sri Lankan parliament.
3. The sweeping outcome in the northeast polls catapulted Tamil militancy.

The UNP, now galvanized by Jayawardene, came into power accepting the position that there are numerous problems confronting the Tamil-speaking people.

The TULF, led by Amirhtlaingam (Chelvanayagam had died in April 1977) asked the Tamils “to proclaim with the stamp of finality and fortitude that we alone shale rule over our land our forefathers ruled. Sinhalese imperialism shall quit our Homeland”.

The TULF was recognized as the opposition party in parliament and Amirthalingam became the opposition leader in the house, a post which carried the status of a cabinet minister. The TULF secretary general was a much sought after man, and although his sympathies to the militants were an open secret, he made occasional noises about Gandhian concepts.

“We are attached to a program of non-violent agitation, but I envisage a stage sooner or later when we are going to have to fight it out,” he said after the elections.

The emergence of Uma Maheswaran and LTTE

Early on the morning of August 15, 1977, three unarmed constables stopped 3 boys riding bicycles at Puttur, Jaffna. Without warning, one of the boys took out a revolver and fired, injuring one of the policemen in the thigh. The cyclists escaped. The next day, police shot and killed four persons and wounded 21 others in a bloody shoot-out in Jaffna after the policemen were obstructed from seizing arms carried by some youths.

JR, angry at what he thought was the audacity of the “boys”, ordered the army into Jaffna, where the old market was almost totally gutted in a fire the Tamils blamed on the security forces. The 1977 anti-Tamil riots had begun.

Sinhalese mobs began attacking Tamils outside the northeast. For the first time, a large number of Hindu temples came under attack during the two weeks of arson and rioting, which left more than 300 people dead and many more wounded. Thousands of Tamils left their homes and fled to the northeast for safety. They included an estimated 40,000 Indian Tamils, many of whom became destitute overnight even though they were opposed to the Eelam campaign. Many of them went to Vavuniya in the North, where several voluntary groups helped them to begin a new life. Many were sent to Jaffna by 3 ships, as in 1958.

In parliament, JR accused Amir of promoting secessionism and thundered amidst applause from his MP’s: “If you want to fight, let there be a fight. If it is peace, let there be a peace. It is not what I am saying. The people of Sri Lanka say that”.

Amir told parliament 5 days later: “We tried our best to live in a united Sri Lanka like brothers but failed……We are still prepared. We are trying to explore a peaceful solution”.

The riots provoked indignation in Tamil Nadu, which until then had remained largely indifferent to the plight of the island Tamils. The Tamil Nadu assembly expressed “rude shock” over the violence, in which some Indians had also been hit.

The DMK, which only 4 years ago had handed over Kuttimani to the Sri Lankan authorities, organized a general strike and a mammoth procession that wound its way through the city to the office of the Deputy High Commissioner of Sri Lanka.

But in 1977, no Sinhalese living in Jaffna came under attack from Tamils. Until Tamil militancy took deep roots in Jaffna, almost 10% of its population was Sinhalese, who were bakers, traders, civil servants and businessmen.

The 1977 anti-Tamil riots were different from earlier Sinhalese onslaughts. Previously Tamils had rarely hit back in an organized way. But now the Tamil society had its “boys” who were more than willing to take revenge.

On August 31, 4 young men came in blue Morris car robbed the People’s Bank in Manipay and walked away with 26,000 rupees. Around that time unidentified decamped with 8 rifles and revolvers from a customers office in Jaffna. Also, several cases of theft of chemicals from schools were reported in the peninsula.

In September, Thangathurai presided over a meeting at a temple in Thondamanaru and decided to formally set up a militant group called the Tamil Eelam Liberation Army (TELA) and a political affiliate known as the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO). According to a participant they would function on the lines of the Irish Republican Army and its political wing, the Sinn Fein.

By now, The most active militant groups in Jaffna were the one led by Thangathurai and the LTTE.

In 1977, a soft-spoken land surveyor, Kadirgamapillai Nallainathan, better known as Uma Maheswaran, joined the LTTE. He was made the chairman of the central committee. Prabhakaran, younger to Uma by some 10 years, continued to be the group’s military commander but remained largely in the background. The English speaking and suave Uma was referred to in the LTTE as Mukundan.

In January 1978, Uma and Prabha made their way to Colombo, where the former had headed the TULF’s city unit. In fact, few knew that he had quietly joined the LTTE.

On the eve of the 27th, the two shot M. Canagaratnam, a Tamil MP who had won on a TULF ticket but switched allegiance to the UNP. He was shot and wounded in the chest, neck and ribs. But died a few months later. Canagaratnam’s botched murder blew up Uma’s cover and he gave up the open life.

The police, embarrassed that Tamil militants could strike in Colombo, launched a vicious crackdown under the supervision of Inspector T.I. Bastiampillai of the CID.

After rounding up several suspects in Jaffna, police issued “wanted” posters for 4 men. Uma, Chellappah Nagarajah, Thanam (who had been once driver to Chelvanayagam) and Kannadi. Little did the police know that one of the four was already dead? Chetti murdered Kannadi in cold blood at Poonagari after breaking the prison in the city of Anuradhapura 1973.

Increased violence and prescription of LTTE

In March, Thangathurai, who the previous year had escaped a police trap after an attempted bank robbery, decided to kill a suspected police informer called Thadi (beard) Thangarajah. He and Jegan went to Thadi’s house at Kokuvil and shot the man.

On April 7, Bastiampillai, the Tamil CID officer, two of his colleagues and their Sinhalese driver reached a desolate spot at Murunkan, in the northwest district of Mannar, only to stumble upon a group of Tamil youths. It was a secret training camp of the Tigers, but it was never found out if Bastiampillai staggered there by accident or was tipped off. Among those present at the camp were Uma and Nagarajah, both were well known to the police. Fortunately for them, they were on a makeshift platform on a tree and remained there, frozen by Bastiampillai’s unexpected arrival. The others on the ground, in shorts and lunges were not known to the CID officer.

Bastiampillai wanted to know the identity of the men, who replied nonchalantly that they were farm employees. One of the Tigers, in a bid to distract attention, said loudly in Tamil: Give some water to these gentlemen.

The ruse succeeded. It was just the way a labourer would treat visitors, particularly men in uniform. Bastiampillai fell for the trick. He kept his Sub-Machine Gun (SMG) by a well and bent down for the water that was offered.

Chellakili (who led the attack in 83 in Jaffna that killed 13 soldiers which triggered the 83 riots), a Prabhakaran’s confidant who was present there, moved like a lightning. In one swoop, he pounded on the SMG and hit Bastiampillai on his head and simultaneously opened fire, killing him and a sergeant before they could realize what was happening. A Tamil inspector Perampalam, however, put up a fight but crashed down the well where he was shot. The driver started running, but was chased and moved down.

When it was all over, Uma and Nagarajah came down from the tree. The Tigers quickly shifted to another hideout. Bastiampillai’s Peugeot 404 was taken away.
The killings sent shock waves in Sri Lanka. Bastiampillai was considered an authority on the Tamil rebel groups and was in charge of the CID’s TULF desk. In fact, the murder came to be known only after a woodcutter informed the police about some decaying bodies. These were identified after Perampalam’s was hauled up from the well and his ID card was recovered. The Tamils had committed their first murder with an SMG.

On April 25, the LTTE came out in open for the first time. accepting responsibility for the murders of Mayor Duraiyappah, an alleged police agent N. Nadarajah and nine policemen including Bastiampillai. The claim was made in an LTTE letterhead marked ” To whom it may concern”, inscribed with the now famous insignia of the roaring Tiger.

The claim, posted in Colombo newspapers and published 3 days later by the Tamil language Veerakesari made a special mention of Bastiampillai killing a carried a crudely worded warning: “No other groups, Organisations, or Individuals claim this death ( these deaths). Serious action will be taken against those who claim the above other than Tigers in Ceylon or Abroad.”

The last sentence read: ” We are not responsible for past robberies of any kind”

At this time the Sri Lankan government could not ignore the threat of the Tamil militant groups anymore. As if to prove that, the Thangathurai group now struck. On May 6, a group of 4 or 5 men went to the residence of Inspector K. Pathmanathan, an officer in charge of the District Crime Detective Bureau of Jaffna police. He was not at home but his children telephoned the parents at a friend’s place which they were visiting. When he returned, the waiting men fired without warning from revolvers from point blank range.

Alarmed by the killings, the government enacted legislation, called the Prescription of LTTE and other organisations, to give sweeping powers to the security forces.
Amirthalingam claimed that the Tiger statement was a fake. But he was wrong. The letter was genuine and had been typed by a young divorcee called Urmila Devi on the TULF leader’s official typewriter in the parliament house without his knowledge.

In May, Kuttimani (who had been released in 1977) and Jegan gunned down a retired police inspector at the Valvettithurai junction. In June Kuttimani shot and killed another police officer who had allegedly tortured a woman suspect following in a bank robbery. By April, the militants have accumulated about 5 million rupees by robbing banks and cooperative stores.

IGP Stanley Senanayake said: ” Members of this (Tigers) movement are not common criminals. They are educated, sophisticated youth, a factor which makes them all the more dangerous.

On September 7, when parliament introduced a new constitution, an AVRO 748 of Air Ceylon was blasted by a time bomb after it landed at Ratmalana airport, on the outskirts of Colombo, with 35 passengers from Jaffna. The device was apparently timed to go off when the AVRO would be in the air for Male, but a catering delay had put off the takeoff.

The culprits were 2 passengers, and one of them was S. Subramaniam alias Baby, who would emerge as one of the most loyal confidants of Prabhakaran. After the AVRO blast, Subramaniam came to be called “Avro Baby”.

Uma, who was in hiding, immediately rang up London and asked LTTE supporters there to claim responsibility. The LTTE capped off 1978 with another bank robbery. On December 5, six gunmen stormed to the Thirunelveli People’s bank branch gunned down two policemen and robbed the bank of 1.18 million rupees.

The Split of LTTE

In 1979, after the Thangathurai group shot dead 3 more policemen in Jaffna, JR replaced the Proscription of LTTE act with a more draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), clamped a state of emergency throughout Jaffna peninsula and sent more troops to the region.
He also hand-picked Brigadier T.I. Weeratunge, chief of the army, to stamp out “the menace of terrorism in all its forms from the island” by Dec.31.

The crackdown, for the first time, seriously disrupted the militant network. The mutilated bodies of 6 youths picked up from their homes on July 14 were found under a bridge. Because of this disruption, Thangathurai, Kuttimani and Prabhakaran fled to Tamil Nadu.

Tamil militancy died down almost totally in 1980 but picked up again from early next year. Police repression was not the only cause for the fall in militant sponsored violence. There were growing differences within the militant ranks, particularly the LTTE which resulted in its split and the subsequent formation of PLOTE by Uma.

On March 25, the TELO pulled off a sensational robbery. A People’s bank van was returned to Jaffna with the day’s collection when it was ambushed on a lonely stretch of road at Neervely, 12 miles from Point Pedro. Kuttimani who led the operation gave rapid-fire orders in Sinhala when the van came to a halt. The loot was put by a bank official at a staggering 7.8 million rupees.

On April 5, he, Thangathurai and Thevan were arrested at Mannalkadal, near Point Pedro, while tried to escape in a boat to India. Sri Sabaratnam had dropped them in a car but left before they prepared to sail away. Kuttimani had some gold on him, tried to shoot himself but was overpowered. It was the end of the journey both for Kuttimani and Thangathurai, two of the original pillars of Tamil militancy. They were brutally beaten to death in Colombo’s Welikade jail during the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots.

Jaffna was clearly confused. It was only 5 yrs since the TULF had taken a mandate to achieve Eelam, which was nowhere in sight. Tamils were pondering on this and a lot more when unexpected news came from Tamil Nadu. Two men well known to Amir as well as to the Lankan authorities were involved in a gunfight. Newspapers identified them as Uma and Prabhakaran.

Conflict and civil war

In the post-Cold War period, international relations theorists and strategic studies analysts have begun to pay attention to the impact of ethnic and communal crises on international security. In the past, the ethnic crisis was generally considered as an internal affair of a country. Therefore, the international community of foreign countries was not supposed to interfere in the conflict. However, many ethnic crises entangled a neighbouring country either because of the involvement of a common ethnic group inhabiting both the countries or the inflow of refugees into the other country. Consequently, international organisations or regional organisations made efforts to resolve such crises. At times international mediation measures or outside intervention in ethnic conflicts was also exercised. But the most serious threat to international security was considered the likelihood of a nuclear war as a result of the East-West confrontation during the Cold War period. With the end of the Cold War and the demise of Communism in Europe, ethnic crises erupted in the former Communist countries in Europe and it was found that the European security structure was incapable of resolving such crises. For almost four years, the bloody Bosnian ethnic crisis remained intractable. The fragile peace could be established with the deployment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-led forces in Bosnia.

In South Asia, there have been many ethnic crises involving more than one country. The Sri Lankan ethnic crisis has involved Sinhalese and Tamils. The latter ethnic group also inhabits Tamil Nadu of India. The Sri Lankan ethnic strife began because the majority Sinhalese felt that their interests were being sacrificed in an independent country by not adopting “Sinhala only” as an official national language in place of English. Though the national (Sinhala) leadership was aware of the impending inherent dangers in adopting Sinhala only as an official language, yet they succumbed to the demand of the majority because it was considered a political exigency in the face of the language movement with religious overtones. The immediate reaction of the main minority–Tamil–was non-violent, perhaps helplessness in the existing democratic polity. As the situation became more grim, the frustrated youth came to believe that they could not achieve any tangible solution to the problem without adopting violent means to achieve their cherished goal of independence. Presently the conflict is not only of language but also religio-ethnonationalism.

This article does not dwell on the various details of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the reactions of many countries and at international forums. Nor does it chronicle the day-to-day twists and turns of the Sri Lanka ethnic crisis, before and since the outbreak of civil war. It seeks, instead, to highlight and explain the main features of the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis, the real problem and likely prospects of the complex, bloody ethnic problem that finally erupted violently in the late 1970s and remains intractable.

Nevertheless, to understand the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, the composition of different ethnic groups in the country and the major events that led to the ethnic crisis will be deliberated upon here. According to the 1981 census, the Sinhalese comprised 74 per cent, Tamils 18.2 per cent (Ceylon Tamils 12.6 per cent and Indian Tamils 5.2 per cent), Muslims 7.4 per cent and others 0.4 per cent of the Sri Lankan population. The total population of Tamils in Sri Lanka is 2.7 million of the total 14.85 million population of the country. The Sri Lankan Tamils can be divided into two groups: the indigenous “Ceylon” Tamils who number 1.9 million and the “Indian” Tamils who number 825,000. The “Indian” Tamils are plantation workers descended from labourers indentured by the British colonial government during the 19th and 20th centuries. They are mainly Hindus but a minority is Christian. The Sinhalese are mainly Buddhists (92 per cent), the rest being Christians. Apart from Tamils and Sinhalese, there are small minorities of the Moors (both Ceylon and Indian) and Malays who are all Muslims. Then there are also Burghers and Eurasians who are Christians.1

At this juncture, it will not be out of place to write a brief history of the people of Sri Lanka. Notwithstanding the controversy about who were the first migrants from India to Ceylon–Sinhalese or Tamils–or whether Tamils were the original inhabitants of the island, it is a generally accepted fact that both migrated from India mostly in the 5th or 6th century B.C. The Sinhalese are traditionally believed to be the descendants of migratory Aryans from northern India. It is, however, controversial whether the founder of the Sinhala race came from Bengal or from Gujrat. Be that as it may, the Sinhalese traditionally trace their ethnic origin to Vijaya Singha who was an Indian by birth. The Sinhalese settled in the North-Central, North-Western, and Southern Provinces of Ceylon.

The Tamils also migrated from India to Ceylon. They belong to the Dravidian stock of India. They are divided into the two categories “Ceylon Tamils” (also called indigenous Tamils) and “Indian” Tamils. While the Ceylon Tamils arrived in Ceylon in the pre-Christian period, the Indian Tamils migrated into Ceylon in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the wake of the introduction of plantation economy into the island by the British Empire. The Ceylon Tamils settled in Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Batticaloa and Mullaitivu in the northern and eastern coast of the country. The Indian Tamils settled in the traditional tea garden areas of Colombo, Kalutara, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla Ratnapura and Kegalle.

Not again entering into the controversy of who came first in Sri Lanka, there are numerous accounts of wars between the Armies of Sinhalese and Tamils. The Chola rulers of south India launched many invasions into the island. At one time the Chola invasions of Ceylon reached their peak as they conquered the whole or most of the island. Different Kingdoms were established in the country. When in 1505, Portuguese sailors landed on the coast of Sri Lanka, they found three Kingdoms in Sri Lanka–a Tamil one in Jaffna and two Sinhala, one in the Kotte (near present-day Colombo) and the other in Senkadagalle (present-day Kandy). The Tamilian and Sinhalese Kingdoms remained separated under both the Portuguese administration and that of the Dutch who succeeded them. It was only under British colonial rule that, after the administrative reforms of the 1930s, the island was brought under a single administrator. Thus, the current demand of the Ceylon Tamils to establish an independent state for Tamil—Eelam–has a historical basis.

In many quarters there is a misperception about the legitimacy of the Ceylon Tamil’s agitation for an independent state for themselves in the island. According to this misperception, the Sinhalese are the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka and the Tamils migrated to Sri Lanka from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. After the independence of both countries from the British Empire, the Tamils of the two countries were separated but wanted to get together to establish a “greater” country for Tamils of both countries, it is felt. Incidentally, in the 1960s, there was a, massive agitation in Tamil Nadu for regional autonomy. The Ceylon Tamils’ agitation for independence also evoked the emotional sympathy of Tamils of Tamil Nadu. There were also reports about material assistance given by Tamils of India to the Ceylon Tamils. But there is hardly any substance in the establishment of a “greater” country for Tamils of both countries on the lines of the alleged design of Slobodan Milosevic for the establishment of a “Greater Serbia”. In reality, the “Ceylon” Tamils, who have been fighting for independence, would never want to join Tamil Nadu which has a greater area and larger population than their own in Sri Lanka.

The present ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka can be traced back to the policy of local administration adopted by the British Raj. The Christian missionaries mainly opened schools in the Tamil homeland and not in the Sinhalese dominated areas. Perhaps the British rulers found that the Tamils were more willing to learn English and join government jobs than the Sinhalese because the Ceylon Tamils were living in a dry zone which was not as fertile as the low country Sinhalese area which was a fertile wet zone. In other words, unemployed Tamils were in search of state employment, unlike the Sinhalese who were engaged in trade and plantation. Subsequently, the Tamils gained entry into government jobs and also found opportunities to acquire higher education in the professional fields. Initially, the Sinhalese were not, attracted towards state employment but by the early 20th century, they also leaned towards state employment; thus, began the unhealthy competition between the two main ethnic groups in the country but it never converted into clashes between the two groups.

The first sign of discontent amongst the Sinhalese was noticed when the Sinhala Buddhists bourgeoisie challenged the Christian hegemony in the late 19th century. A strong Sinhala nationalism emerged against Westernism and Christians. This was the beginning of the chauvinistic tendency in the majority community. The first ethnic crisis erupted in 1915 when trading and merchant elements of the petty bourgeoisie resorted to violence against the Muslims. Later in the 1930s, the Sinhala working class demonstrated its hostility towards the Malayalis.2 Until the 1930s, the language issue had not become controversial in spite of the majority Sinhalese feeling discriminated against in their own country because of their lack of knowledge of English. In fact, under the British rule, English had not only been the official language or the language of administration but also the language of professions, commerce, higher education and politics. In fact, the English language was the language of Sinhalese elites and a large number of Tamils.

In 1935, the Lanka Samasamaja Party was formed whose fundamental objective was to introduce the use of Sinhalese and Tamil in the lower courts, police stations and government departments. Thus, began the movement for adopting Swabhasa (or own language) prior to independence, leading to the decision that English would gradually be replaced as the official language by both Sinhala and Tamil. However, in 1944, J.R. Jayewardene proposed that Sinhala be made the official language in a reasonable time. But his proposal was amended and it was recommended that both Sinhala and Tamil be made the official languages for the medium of instruction in schools, public service examinations and legislative proceedings. At the same time, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who later introduced Sinhala as the only official language of Sri Lanka, reportedly remarked: “I have no personal objection to both these languages, nor do I see any particular harm or danger or real difficulty from this.”3

In the course of discussions for the independence of Ceylon the issue of various communities in the future set-up of the country was considered but in the interest of the political unity of the country, it was avoided. It does not mean that the colonial government was not aware of the existence of a multi-ethnic society in the country and the danger of the emergence of an ethnic crisis in the future. As a matter of fact, as early as in 1931, when the Donoughmore Commission advised for suffrage in the country, it recognised the various communities in the country and guaranteed their interest in the legislative body. In 1944, the Soulbury Commission came to Ceylon to discuss its future political set-up. It was considered that in the democratic polity, it was unnecessary to recognise the interest of the various communities because the democratic system itself protects the interests of various ethnic groups. The Westminster model of the Parliamentary system was adopted for the country. Since the Tamils were concentrated in certain parts of the country, they could always vote a number of members into the Parliament. However, it was very soon realised that Tamil members of Parliament would constitute a minority in the Parliament and, therefore, their interests might be overlooked or sacrificed by the majority Sinhalese.

The British legacy also determined the establishment of a unitary system instead of a federal system. Perhaps it was considered that a small country of the size of Sri Lanka did not require a federal system like that of India. Great Britain also has a unitary form of government. Till then, the current Northern Ireland crisis had not erupted. However, since then not only has the violent Northern Ireland crisis been eluding a solution for about three decades but the demand for autonomy of Scotland and Wales also surfaced. Lack of understanding of the existing ethnic differences could be considered as the major reason for not recognising the independent identity of the minority Tamils in the overwhelming majority of Sinhalese. In fact, the leaders of newly independent countries generally do not want devolution of state power. The recognition of the identity of a minority is considered as a step toward weakening of state sovereignty and encouraging the tendency of secession amongst the ethnic minorities. Until then, by and large, the Tamils also did not feel that their interests would not be preserved in the Sinhala dominated democratic polity in the country. No doubt, the Sinhalese Kings and the Tamils of the Chola Kingdom fought each other in many wars but the people of both communities lived as peacefully possible. In fact, before independence in 1948, the Tamil minority had been reportedly assured by the Sinhala leadership that it would not be discriminated against with regard to representation and legislation.4

Immediately after gaining independence, the Sinhalese nationalism began to grow. The first victims of that development were the Indian Tamils who were disenfranchised under the Ceylon Citizenship Act No 18 of November 15, 1948. The Indian Tamils were virtually declared stateless because they were required to establish the citizenship of the country by proving that they were citizens of Ceylon either by descent or by registration. They could claim citizenship of the country by proving that they had family connections with the country for at least two generations. Since in those days there was hardly any practice of registering births, the Indian Tamils failed to produce the birth certificates of their fathers stating that their place of birth was in Ceylon. Consequently, a majority of Indian Tamils became stateless in a country where they had been living for generations. Incidentally, the majority of Ceylon Tamil politicians reportedly did not oppose the Act, thus, declaring people of their own ethnic groups as stateless.

In many constituencies “Indian” Tamils formed the majority and elected members of the leftist Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaya Party to the Parliament. Their sympathy for the leftist party was not favourably viewed by the Sinhalese as well as the Ceylon Tamils and, therefore, they lost their right to vote. In other words, the “Indian” Tamils became stateless in a country where till then they enjoyed the status of citizenship and the right to vote at the time of elections. It was a clear case of discrimination against a minority ethnic group in a multi-ethnic country. No doubt the “Indian” Tamils became the first victims of independent Sri Lanka and they were also persecuted at times but there was no ethnic “cleansing” like in the erstwhile Yugoslavia where Muslims suffered the maximum in the course of carrying out of ethnic “cleansing” in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As noted, the official national language issue was the major bone of contention between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. At the time of independence of the country in 1948, the “Ceylon” Tamils who constituted 10 per cent of the population but held 31 per cent of the posts in universities and acquired a higher percentage in professional fields like medicine and engineering. Therefore, many Sinhalese resented the fact that the Tamils enjoyed disproportionate educational and employment advantages because of their proficiency in the English language in the majority Sinhala country. After independence, the Ceylon government adopted a policy of denying Tamils admission into higher and professional education. Their percentage of government services also began to decline. In the meantime, an official language commission was appointed to decide on procedures for making both Sinhala and Tamil the official languages. Reading the mind of the majority Sinhala community on the issue of language, in 1951, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike parted company with the United National Party (UNP) and formed a new political party called the Sri Lanka Federal Party (SLFP). He alleged that the UNP had failed to take action on the language question. His party’s first manifesto called for immediate adoption of Sinhala and Tamil as official languages of the country so that people would cease to feel alien in their own land.

No doubt, language was not the main issue in the 1952 elections but during the period of Premiership of Sir John Kotelawala, the language question became the dominant political issue in the country. In fact, emotions were raised amongst the Sinhalese that their emancipation could be achieved by the adoption of “Sinhala only” as the official language and the revival of the Buddhist religion. Preparations had already begun for celebrating the 2,500th death anniversary of Buddha in 1956. The trends of Buddhist resurgence began in the early 1950s. They were articulated in a provocative book entitled The Revolt of the Temple written by D.C. Vijayvardhane in 1953.5 He highlighted legend and superstition as historical facts as well as romanticised the unhistorical view of the past based on mythology, fantasy and social destiny. Surprisingly, the Sinhala intelligentsia did not question the authenticity of Vijayvarardhane’s version of Sinhala history and destiny.6 However, such passiveness of the intellectuals in the face of strong chauvinistic ethno-religio-nationalism is not surprising. In fact, at times they have also been influenced by such emotionalism and articulate their own views, thus, legitimising jingoism and feel secure in avoiding the wrath of the fanatics. Such anomaly in the behaviour of the intellectuals was recently noticed in the Balkans where ethnoreligious-nationalism has violently emerged.

In the 1950s, the social and political atmosphere was surcharged with the emotional issues of language, religion and Sinhala nationalism in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist religious upsurge gained momentum because of the preparations for the celebration of the 2,500th death anniversary of Buddha in 1956. The Buddhist monks, who are supposed to renounce all worldly affairs and devote themselves to spiritualism, became the most articulate spokesmen for the adoption of “Sinhala only” as the official language.

Interestingly, Buddhism advocates non-violent means to achieve objectives in all walks of life and a middle path of moderation in society. The Buddhist monks not only relinquished the middle path of moderation but also did not hesitate in resorting to violent means for achieving worldly objectives. They were in the forefront in advocating Sinhala nationalism in a multi-ethnic state. In fact, following the middle path of moderation, in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural state like Sri Lanka, they should have worked for state or territorial nationalism and not Sinhala ethnonationalism alone.

The Buddhist monks’ agitation for the acceptance of “Sinhala only” as the official language of the country received support from teachers, students, youth and Ayurvedic physicians of the Sinhala community because they felt that they were being denied their due in the country on account of lack of their knowledge of English and the Western medical system. The Swabhashi (own language) movement in the 1940s, resulted in an increasing number of schools imparting education through the medium of instruction of Sinhala and Tamil. With the expansion of education, the demand for employment in state administration and other services increased but employment opportunities did not step up proportionately. In the 1950s, the problem of unemployment of the youth became a political issue which was suitably exploited by Sinhala parochialism though the Tamil youths also faced the unemployment problem. It was felt that English educated students were in a better position to gain employment than Sinhala educated students.

As the language movement intensified in the country, the political parties caved in and gave up their earlier stand of two official languages and adopted the policy of “Sinhala only.” Bandaranaike, who earlier left the ruling political party–the UNP–on its failure to take action on the language question and formed a new political party–the SLFP–persuaded his party to change its two-language policy to the “Sinhala only” line in 1955. The ruling UNP also adopted the resolution on “Sinhala only” in January 1956, a few months before the elections. The Sinhala chauvinism determined the language policy of the major political parties, except the leftist and Tamil parties. However, the leftist party of Philip Gunawardena, the Viplavakari Samasamaja Party (VLSSP) abandoned its policy of parity of both the major languages in the country and opted for the “Sinhala only” line. Thus, the divide between two ethnic groups–the Sinhala and the Tamil–began to widen.

The stage was set to contest elections on the issue of official language policy. Since the ruling UNP failed to adopt the act on “Sinhala only,” even after it adopted the policy in favour of one official language, the party lost the elections in 1956. The coalition led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the Majahana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) won the absolute majority in the elections. The Tamil minority was not in a position to influence the proceedings of the newly constituted Parliament. In a democratic polity, if the majority community becomes autocratic and the promoter of its own interest at the cost of the minority, it is not only an infringement of democratic norms but may also create fertile ground for ethnic violence, which may convert into a civil war.

Immediately after the new Parliament was constituted, the ruling coalition introduced the Official Language Bill of 1956 which made Sinhala the sole official language. While the Bill was being debated in the Parliament, ethnic violence erupted in Colombo and Eastern Sri Lanka. The Bill was contested by both the Tamil Congress and the left members of Parliament but their views were not taken into account by the chauvinist Sinhala members of Parliament.

Apart from the members of the Tamil Congress, the left members of Parliament forewarned the Sinhala chauvinists about the imminent danger of the growth of secessionist tendency in the country. The majority of Sinhala members of  Parliament did not realise that they were laying a strong foundation of the racial, ethnic and religious gulf between the two major communities in the country. For the first time, no Tamil was included in the Cabinet. Even a silent Satyagraha demonstration of protest by Tamils outside the Parliament building was stoned by Sinhalese mobs during the course of the debate on the language Bill.

The language issue led to not only ethnic divide but also social and religious discord. No doubt, the majority of Sinhalese and Tamils were inhabitants of different parts of the country but in modern times they came to live in the same places. There were also inter-marriages amongst them. The religious divide was not the cause of violence through the majority of Tamils are Hindus and the Sinhalese are Buddhists. In fact, according to Hindu mythology, Lord Buddha is one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the other important incarnations of his being Lord Rama and Lord Krishna. However, the Buddhists generally do not subscribe to the Hindu belief because Lord Buddha himself reportedly considered the theory of incarnation as an anachronism.

In certain quarters it is rightly believed that Ceylonese or Sri Lankan nationalism had never developed in the country in the past because before the colonial rulers brought the country into a unitary administrative body, it was governed independently by Sinhala and Tamil Kingdoms in their respective jurisdiction. There was hardly a national movement for independence from the colonial rule. Such a movement would have given an opportunity to the growth of nationalism. In the absence of such a development, the country remained divided into ethnic lines which were aggravated with the adoption of “Sinhala only” as the official language. Unfortunately, the language issue gave birth to religio-ethnonationalism and the beginning of communal riots.

While the bloody ethnic clashes ceased for some time, the political opposition to the language Act continued. In December 1956, the Federal Party leader, S.I.V. Chelvanayakan, threatened to launch Satyagraha on August 20, 1957, in support of four demands, amongst them being the repeal of the Official Language Act and the grant of equal status to the Tamil language with the Sinhala. It may be recalled that the Federal Party was founded by him in 1949. He was critical of the Sri Lanka government’s Citizenship Act of 1948 which made it difficult for “Indian” Tamils to establish their credentials of Ceylonese citizenship. About two months before the beginning of the proposed peaceful movement, Prime Minister Bandaranaike offered four concessions regarding the language issue but they were rejected by the Federal Party. On July 25, 1957, the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakan compromise agreement on the language issue was signed. According to the settlement, Tamil was to be recognised as the language of “a national minority” in the country and it would be an official language for administrative purposes in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Though the Federal Party approved the compromise settlement and cancelled the proposed peaceful agitation, it reaffirmed its decision to work for the establishment of an autonomous Tamil linguistic state or states within the federal structure of the country, equal status for Tamil and Sinhalese languages and recognition of the right to full citizenship of all Tamil speaking persons who had made Sri Lanka their permanent residence. Immediately after the compromise settlement, extremists of the ruling party registered their protest against the agreement. At the same time, agitation by the extremists Buddhist nationalists led to rioting in which several hundred people were killed. Consequently, Prime Minister Bandaranaike was compelled to abrogate the agreement in April 1958. All later efforts to assuage the feelings of the Tamils failed to achieve desirable results because the Tamil language was reduced to the language of the Northern and Eastern Provinces only. Tamils, who were residing elsewhere, were discriminated against because Sinhala was made the sole official language. All public servants were required to acquire requisite proficiency in the Sinhala language within three years, failing which they would be penalised or lose their jobs. The Tamils were discriminated against in all walks of life, including government jobs, university and professional education where they used to have a higher percentage because of their proficiency in the English language which was as alien to them as to the Sinhalese.

The seasoned and matured Sinhalese politicians could not counter the Sinhala chauvinism which became too strong in the 1950s. It could have been neutralised by adopting the middle path which was first renounced by none other than S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who himself became a victim of Sinhalese extremism as he was assassinated by a monk of the extremist Buddhist group called the Eksath Bikku Peramuna. Since then, any effort to work out some agreement to ameliorate the suffering of Tamils has been rejected by the extremist Sinhalese Buddhists. The Tamils were reduced to second-class citizens in their own country where they had not only been residing for centuries but also claimed to have their roots there only.

The birth of the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka was discussed in detail above in order to understand the ethnic problem in the country. Since 1956, the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka has never waned. Instead, it continued to intensify because no government took a measure which could have redressed the grievances of the Tamil and redeemed their position in the country. Like the late 1950s, the 1960s was not a period of ethnic harmony. The ethnic clashes continued to vitiate the political, economic, social and communal atmosphere in the country. The “Sinhala only” policy was implemented during the period. The leftists also abandoned their support for the parity of the Tamils language. The Federal Party decided to sever its relations with the ruling party. Demonstrations and bandhs became a regular feature in the country. The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, popularly known as the Srimavo-Shastri Pact of 1964 provided for the repatriation to India over a period of 15 years of some 975,000 stateless Tamils of Indian origin. Their problem has still not been resolved. In the meantime, they also joined the movement for granting Tamil the status of official language.

The new United Front government headed by Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, which came to power in 1970, wrote a new Constitution, enforcing the “Sinhala only” rule and made Buddhism the state religion. A new phase of communal antagonism began. The immediate Tamil reaction was to observe a day of mourning in protest against the new Constitution. The Federal Party, the Tamil Congress and three other parties jointly formed the Tamil United Front (TUF) which was renamed as the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976.

The demand for self-rule in the Northern and Eastern Provinces gained momentum. The Tamil Tigers movement began around 1972 as an extremist wing of the TUF. They reportedly formed a strong and cohesive guerilla organisation. Vellupillai Prabhakaran emerged as an unchallenged charismatic leader of the Tamil National Tigers (TNT). He renamed it as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976. There were some other extremist organisations but they were eliminated by the LTTE. Gradually, the moderate Tamil political organisations lost their relevance in the unending bloody ethnic war.

In the Parliamentary elections of July 1977, the UNP came to power with an overwhelming majority and Junius Jayewardene became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. The communal violence erupted again the next month. Since then, violence against the Tamils has become a regular feature of communal politics in the country. The Presidential form of government was adopted in the new Constitution of 1978. The Tamils were agitating for autonomy in their region and a federal form of government. Instead, the unitary form of government was reaffirmed and the Parliamentary form of government was abolished. In other words, the majority community leader would not only be all-powerful but also not a member of Parliament where he would have to personally listen to the grievances of the minority community. Though the new Constitution recognised both Sinhala and Tamil as the national languages, Sinhala remained the sole official language in the country. Moreover, Buddhism was given the foremost place in the country, though the rights of all other religions were assured.

The Tamil youths began to feel that their political leaders had miserably failed to protect their rights, and give them an appropriate place in the country. In the existing desperate conditions, frustrated youths can easily be motivated by a charismatic leader who may mobilise them towards a cherished goal like their own independent, sovereign country (Eelam for Tamils) for a persecuted ethnic minority community. Consequently, the Tamil Tigers launched a terrorist movement to achieve their objective. The extremist activities assumed intensity in the 1970s. But in the eleven days of violence in July-August 1983, the Tamil community suffered enormous destruction and loss of life. Horrible atrocities were committed on the Tamils and efforts were made for completely destroying the economic base of the Tamils.

The Jayewardene government adopted a plan to eliminate Tamil extremists through ruthless military action. Some 40,000 Sri Lankan refugees were reportedly moved into Tamil Nadu by August 1984. The ethnic crisis took a new turn as the Hindu Tamils and Muslims also clashed in the Eastern Province in 1985. The Indian government expressed its concern about the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis. The crisis assumed more seriousness as a result of the massacre at Anuradhapura. Consequently, the Indian Prime, Minister Rajiv Gandhi, met President Jayewardene in Sri Lanka. It was agreed that India would stop the supply of arms and men to Sri Lanka and the latter would impose strict control over military operations against the Tamils. Subsequently, representatives of the Sri Lanka government and the leading Tamil groups met in Thimpu (capital of Bhutan) to work out a solution to the bloody ethnic crisis. But no progress could be made towards resolving the ethnic imbroglio.

The ethnic crisis became more serious as President Jayewardene imposed an economic blockade on the Jaffna peninsula in January 1987 in view of the LTTE’s threat to take control of the civil administration of Jaffna. As the situation in Jaffna became serious, the Indian government decided to send relief supplies to the suffering Tamils in the area. However, an Indian flotilla carrying the supplies could not reach its destination because the Sri Lanka naval authorities did not permit it to proceed to Jaffna. Consequently, India para-dropped the packages of some essential commodities in the Jaffna peninsula. Though the Sri Lanka government criticised the Indian action, it agreed on the modalities for the supply of relief materials.

Finally, the Indian direct action in resolving the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka was enshrined in an agreement signed by Rajiv Gandhi and Jayewardene on July 29, 1987. The agreement evoked criticism and sparked off riots in Colombo. An attempt was made on Rajiv Gandhi’s life on the eve of his departure from Colombo. In the terms of the agreement, India sent its Army, better known as the Indian Peace – Keeping Force (IPKF), to Sri Lanka for the cessation of the civil war and the surrender of arms by extremists in the Jaffna peninsula and the Eastern Province. Initially, the IPKF did not receive a hostile reception but later it clashed with the Tamil Tigers and the estranged local civilian population. Incidentally, the Tamil Tigers were reportedly assisted by the Sri Lankan forces to launch attacks on the IPKF. The Indian armed forces suffered heavy casualties and pulled out from Sri Lanka under an agreement reached in 1989. The IPKF’s stay in Sri Lanka became a contentious issue that spoiled bilateral relations between the two countries. Perhaps Indian leaders believed that Indian armed forces could successfully resolve the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka as they did in former East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh). But all outside interventions in ethnic conflicts cannot be the same, thus, outside intervention is not always crowned with success,8 as many Indians had believed before the IPKF debacle in Sri Lanka.

In the meantime, elections were held for constituting Provincial Councils in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in 1988, though the elections were boycotted by the SLFP and threats were issued by the LTTE and the militant Sinhalese outfit—the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) or People’ Liberation Front—against casting of votes by electors. The IPKF could conduct elections peacefully but the civilian administration could not be established against the wishes of the LTTE. The ethnic crisis continued unabated. During the rule of the UNP, the divide between the Sinhalese and Tamils was further widened. In the meantime, the UNP also lost its popularity and its opponents blamed it for widespread corruption and political power abuse. The UNP was also weakened because of a series of assassinations of its leaders—President Ranasinghe Premadasa in May 1993 and the party’s Presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake during the November 1994 election campaign. In the meantime, the People’s Alliance led by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won the Parliamentary elections in August 1994. She defeated Dissanayake’s wife, Srima, in the Presidential election three months later. She had made three main campaign pledges: to end the ethnic conflict; to replace the existing Presidential system by a Parliamentary system of government, and to eliminate the abuse of political power by the government.

The Kumaratunga government began the peace process with a bang as she could work out an agreement on cessation of hostilities with the LTTE supremo Prabhakaran on January 5, 1995, but it lasted little more than a hundred days as the LTTE resumed its attacks on April 29, 1995. In fact, the LTTE insisted on plans for economic reconstruction in the areas of their control, but the government wanted to do so only after some progress was made towards resolving the political issues.9

The armed clashes between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Tamil Tigers intensified. First, the Tamil Tigers inflicted heavy losses on Sri Lankan military hardware and personnel. In retaliation, the Sri Lankan armed forces launched a massive operation against the Tamil Tigers. The military operation was disastrous because it resulted in the capture of only a small area of territory but killed more than 200 Tamil civilians. In December 1995, the Sri Lankan armed forces launched the largest military operation and could re-establish government control over the northern city of Jaffna. It was a great achievement for the armed forces and a setback for the Tamil Tigers. However, the Tamil Tigers retaliated by setting off a massive explosion in Colombo, killing more than 80 people and destroying a commercial establishment. Since then, the armed forces’ operations and the Tamil Tigers’ hit-and-run attacks have been continuing unabated.

After many years of bloody ethnic war in Sri Lanka, the election of Kumaratunga as the President of the country appeared as the new window of opportunity. But her initiatives to resolve the ethnic crisis could not produce positive results because she delayed the release of her detailed peace proposals until August 1995, though they were ready as early as December 1994. Had these been released at the beginning of cessation of hostilities, the war-weary Tamil civilians would have been able to bring some pressure on the LTTE to negotiate seriously on those proposals.

Be that as it may, the Kumaratunga government announced the legal text of the proposals on the evolution of power in January 1996. According to them, Sri Lanka would become an “indissoluble” union of regions. It was a modified version of the earlier proposals. It authorised the central government to remove any regional government that would try to secede from the republic and assumed direct rule over the region. In the original proposals, the central government was not empowered to remove any regional government regardless of the circumstances. While the Sinhalese appreciated the change, the Tamils expressed apprehension on the misuse of power by the centre. The government apparently modified the text of the proposals to accommodate the views of the nationalist Sinhalese. In the process, the government alienated the moderate Tamils. Thus, the other devolution proposals–like the council’s considerable jurisdiction over economic development, education, and the use of land as well as its right to negotiate directly with foreign governments for aid and investment; and some control over the the maintenance of law and order–could not make much impact on the moderate Tamils.

The devolution proposals were referred to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Reform. After many months of deliberations on the issue, despite protests from UNP members and a few others, the Sri Lankan Constitutional Affairs Minister, Prof. G.L. Perris, on October 24, 1997, presented proposals to the Parliament containing the government’s draft of a new Constitution and “riders” on it by various parties. The main feature of the government draft is the proposed conversion of the unitary state into “an indissoluble union of regions.”10 It was also proposed that a new Muslim majority South-Eastern Region would be constituted without a referendum in that pocket of territory, in the event of a new and permanent North-Eastern Region being formed as a result of a mini-plebiscite in Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts of the eastern part. In view of this reorganisation of the administrative set-up, the mainly Sinhala Ampara electoral district would be given an option to either convert itself into a full-fledged region or join the adjoining Sinhala-dominant Uva region.11 It was also reported that a major proposal was to confer citizenship on all those permanently resident in Sri Lanka as on October 30, 1964, and their descendants, on the condition that they and their descendants should not be citizens of any other country. The details of the draft new Constitution were not available at the time of writing this piece.

Though the Tamils of the North and East are war-weary, they would not easily be convinced about the feasibility of a separate region for Muslims and Sinhalese in their “homeland.” They sincerely believe that the region belongs to them and they have become a minority, especially in the Sinhala-dominated area, because of the government policy of colonisation of the Eastern region. The proposed division of the Eastern part is likely to create problems. In fact, there has been a lack of compromise and accommodation amongst both Sinhalese and Tamils. Moderates in both ethnic groups are generally called traitors and thus condemned by extremists who do not hesitate to use violent means to derail any practical solution to the ethnic crisis. In this respect, the Buddhist monks and the main Opposition political parties, whether the UNP or PA, have also played a negative role. As far as the Tamils are concerned, they have been denied a political party during the ethnic war because the LTTE has made its leaders irrelevant in the current bloody ethnic war.

The Tamils Tigers have enormous confidence in achieving their goal of total independence–Tamil Eelam (Tamil Homeland)–in the North and East combined. They reportedly use Ethiopia and Israel as their models.12 After years of fighting, Eritreans could achieve their goal of an independent sovereign country, carved out of Ethiopia. For years, the Palestine Liberation Organisation had been considered as a terrorist organisation but in the recent past it could secure its recognition as the true representative of Palestinians and negotiated with the leaders of the United States of America and Israel on the future status of their place of residence.

In the post-Cold War era, various ethnic groups have achieved independence, sovereign status or recognition of the regional autonomy. In this respect, there was a setback for secessionists of Quebec because they lost the Quebec sovereignty referendum by a narrow margin in 1995. But there have been more successes than losses for advocates of ethnic identity and regional autonomy for an ethnic group living in a region. In September 1997, the Labour government headed by Tony Blair successfully conducted referendums in Scotland and Wales to constitute new legislatures for them with the objective of bringing “government closer to the people.” In fact, Prime Minister Blair of Great Britain himself canvassed for establishing home rule in the two regions. Incidentally, earlier in 1979, the Labour government had held the referendum on the same issue in Scotland and Wales but then both rejected it.

The ethnic crises cannot be resolved by military means only. The Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland of Britain and Hamas in Israel cannot be controlled by efficient Armies and police forces. The LTTE may have received a setback because it was declared a terrorist organisation by the United States as well as the latter’s assistance in special training for controlling terrorist activities in Sri Lanka. The LTTE has also suffered a defeat in Jaffna as it was lost to the Sri Lankan Army. But such developments have not weakened the spirit of extremist Tamils. In certain quarters it is believed that no solution can be found to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka until Prabhakaran is physically eliminated. Such crises cannot be resolved by removing a person. They may be weakened for some time but are likely to revitalise soon.

There is no universal solution to ethnic crises. Each crisis may be resolved differently. At times it may be resolved by outside intervention like the Indian intervention in the Bangladesh war. A peaceful solution to the ethnic crisis may be worked out if the conflicting parties make efforts to accommodate each other’s grievances. It is very difficult to find a solution to a protracted bloody ethnic crisis. Tamil and Sinhala extremists are likely to frustrate any sincere effort in resolving the ethnic crisis. The recent efforts of Kumaratunga may produce some positive results if the Sinhala Opposition political parties and Buddhist monks do not violently oppose her proposals and she can win the confidence of the Tamil masses. She has to contain her opponents by civilians means and not resorting to military means for achieving her objectives because that would be counter-productive. Apparently, she has been making slow but sincere efforts in resolving the bloody ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka. She has moved in the right direction. But the crisis is a complex one and the path to its solution is tortuous. It may be defused with patiently handling and delicately involving of the Tamil extremists.


About editor 3016 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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