“Can the Tamils Seize a new opportunity” ? was the heading given by Ajith Ratnarajah to his well-written piece on the future of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Though lengthy the post evoked a lot of constructive discussion and debate on this blog.
Ajith had written it from a Tamil perspective and outlined certain ideas and proposals envisaging a bright future for the Tamils of Sri Lanka who at the moment face bleak prospects.
Another person of Sri Lankan origin now resident in Britain has sent an interesting , thought provoking article on what the future holds for Sri Lankans in general and Sri Lankan Tamils in particular.
Gus Mathews the writer in an e-mail sent to me says:
“I am of Sri Lankan origin and as my name suggests I do not belong to either of the major communities. My extended family embodies all the racial elements in Sri Lanka today as well as races from other parts of the world”.
Mathews in this piece argues eloquently for what I would term a paradigm shift in Sri Lankan Tamil attitudes and approaches towards the rankling ethnic crisis.
Delivering many home truths to the Tamils ,Mathews goes on to view the Sinhala position sympathetically and above all realistically.
In this there is some resonance with the earlier views of Mohan Segaram posted on this blog. Mohan too urged Tamils to try and view the problem from a Sinhala point of view also.
What Mathews says may not go down well with Tamils of an ultra-nationalist outlook but much of what is said here seems pragmatic.
Thanks to the LTTE’s suicidal course the Tamils are in a deep morass today. We need to extricate ourselves from this diligently and prudently.
The need of the hour is solid realization and awareness that Tamils are in dire straits.
There is a need to “unlearn” much of the past and adopt a realistic approach based on international, regional and national realities.
The situation cannot be remedied by bellicose, bombastic slogans and demands. Tamils need to seek practical ways and realistic means to better their lot.
Needless to say I am in agreement with a lot of points stated here by Mathews.
As I keep on saying reconciliation is a process. It is a necessity and not a luxury.
The Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka are inextricably inter-twined and share a common destiny.
Against that backdrop the views expressed cogently by Gus Mathews would I am sure provide much food for thought.
Once again I request readers to engage in an amiable, constructive conversation revolving around the points stated by Gus Mathews.- DBSJ ~ I can be reached at email@example.com
[in Trincomalee-pic: indi.ca]
What does the future hold for Sri Lanka and all its citizens?
By Gus Mathews
The comprehensive vanquishing of the Tamil tigers by the Sri Lankan forces has left the Tamil Diaspora in a dilemma. Will the untold billions of dollars collected during the past twenty six years be utilised to continue the insurrection in a covert form however unlikely the outcome or will the Diaspora face reality and engage in the political process that is unfolding at present? The answer to both these scenarios is a resounding negative.
Armed struggle as pursued by the tigers came to a devastating and ignominious end and its revival is now a distant memory. In addition the victorious Sri Lankan establishment will not accept any political overtures from the Tamil tigers’ representatives as exhibited by the Defence Secretary a few weeks ago. Even the newly formed Eleam government in exile will be another ghost government that will wither on the vine of international expediency. What would unfold in Sri Lanka is a unique indigenous political solution for which a model already exists in the Eastern Province.
Where did it go wrong for the Tamil populace? The strategy that has been followed by the Tamil Diaspora has not yielded the results they envisaged-the elusive dream of Eelam was a non-starter as regards the majority Sinhalese.
The Tamils for the last 61 years since Independence have been redolent and insensitive in the appraisal of the Sinhalese aspirations. Unlike the Tamils who are culturally, linguistically and spiritually connected to Tamil Nadu in India, the Sinhalese do not have a spiritual home nor do they have any direct linguistic connections elsewhere. They derive their spiritual and cultural existence in the knowledge that they are the sole guardians of Theravada Buddhism and Sri Lanka its temporal habitat.
Even to this day other followers of Theravada Buddhism in Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand consider Sri Lanka in the same analogous manner as the Roman Catholics consider the Vatican in Rome. Their language Sinhalese is only spoken in Sri Lanka by 17 million in comparison to Tamil that encompasses over 65 million in Tamil Nadu and in other parts of the world that harbours an ex-patriate Tamil population.
Since around 274 BCE Sri Lanka has been a citadel of Theravada Buddhism and successive invaders from south India have not been able to dislodge it or extinguish its flame, unlike in India the birth place of Buddhism where it was ruthlessly expurgated from its prominent position. It is in this context that the federal setup demanded by the Tamils was doomed to failure. Unlike all other minorities who have in some way even reluctantly acknowledged the importance of Buddhism and the unitary nature of Sri Lanka in protecting this guardianship, the Tamils have continued to play the separatists card disguised in the form of regional autonomy. Any attempt at regionalism that threatens the unitary nature of Sri Lanka is anathema to the Sinhala Buddhist majority.
Equating the conflict in purely cultural and religious paradigms is also too simplistic. The perceived discrimination that is the raison d’etre for the conflict as permeated in disinformation by the Diaspora is also misleading. The Tamil population enjoyed all the fruits of the socialist revival of the fifties like free education up to tertiary level, free health and even the rice rationed at affordable prices. While it is acknowledged that the Sinhala only legislation enacted in 1956 prevented Tamils gaining employment in the civil service and caused immense feeling of ill will, it must also be acknowledged that the original legislation also encouraged the reasonable use of Tamil in the northern and eastern provinces.
However the ‘reasonable use of Tamil’ was only given lip service due to the opposition Sinhalese parties at that time playing the ‘race’ card. It must also be noted that the English educated Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslims and Burghers also fell foul to this legislation and many in the civil service who were nearing retirement age took early retirement while others emigrated to Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and some of the British African colonies where they utilised their English language skills with alacrity and aplomb. This action was enacted across the whole racial spectrum of Sri Lanka. The language issue that caused umbrage and untold hardship to non-Sinhalese where Sinhala was the sole language of communication since the mid fifties has also been dealt with presently-Sinhala and Tamil are both official languages of Sri Lanka with English as the link language.
Since the nineties all civil servants must have a working knowledge of Tamil to be accepted into the civil service. Those minorities who took on the challenge of learning Sinhalese did benefit and it is not surprising to see many Tamils who held high positions like IGPs, DIGs, Government ministers etc. In the commercial field where language was not much of an issue many of the Colombo Tamil elite have held influential positions of CEOs and CTOs etc. In the field of cricket (the other religion of Sri Lanka) Tamils have played a prominent part. The Tamil Union Cricket Club in Colombo had many prominent Sinhalese, Muslim and Burghers in its membership and by contrast at the Sinhalese Sports Club (another cricketing club) many prominent Tamils played their cricket with the Sinhalese and other Sri Lankan ethnic groups-one of the great Sri Lankan cricketers, Muttiah Muralitharan is of Tamil descent. Even today the national Sri Lankan cricket team embodies all religions and races of the colourful spectrum that is Sri Lanka.
Many Tamils hark back to the periods when communal riots engulfed the state. These periods of communal riots were a malign blot on the political landscape of Sri Lanka. It is also evident that some of the politicians of the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties unscrupulously played the communal card for political gain. They have since learned that playing communal politics is tinder box that raises unbridled passions and culminates in the loss of innocent lives. It does not take an Einstein to fathom that the trigger point of these riots were either some political act by either Sinhalese or Tamils, or as in 1983 a terrorist act that precipitated the murder of thirteen service personnel by the Tamil Tigers. Since the last communal riots in 1983 where an estimated 2000 Tamils lost their lives, the Sinhalese have become more circumspect and have not reacted adversely to any provocation by the Tamil tigers even after they killed 1500 service personnel in 1986.
It is also very easy to blame all Sinhalese for these riots. These riots were engineered by a minority of Sinhalese with a mob mentality and had some tacit support from the police and unprincipled politicians for their own political gain. There is ample anecdotal evidence that many Sinhalese sheltered their Tamil neighbours from the riotous mobs with great risk to themselves. The Sinhalese have also latterly learnt that the Tamils are not homogenous by any stretch of the imagination. There are vast differences in attitude, education, culture and amiability between the Tamils of the north, the Tamils of the east, the upcountry Tamils and the Tamil elite of Colombo and the suburbs. Hence tarring all Tamils similarly for actions of the northern Tamils is not only counterproductive but is immensely damaging for any semblance of dialogue between the two communities.
Unfortunately the Tamil Diaspora have not come to terms with these ugly incidents of the past and many have wanted revenge for these riots however unpalatable it may seem to many sensible and law abiding Tamils. What better way to wreak revenge on the Sinhalese by supporting the terrorists who had a military advantage over the Sri Lankan forces in the eighties and nineties. The Tigers utilised these feelings of retribution to their advantage and collected enormous funds from the Diaspora-funds that enabled them not only to buy sophisticated arms but also indulge in criminal activities to enhance their wealth. It is not surprising that many moderate Tamils too supported the Tamil tigers as revenge is the sweetest aphrodisiac.
However the writing was on the wall from the inception of this unwinnable war for the separatists. The best the Tamil tigers could have achieved was a stalemate with the incessant killing by suicide squads of the innocents. The Tigers could never subjugate the majority seventy five percent Sinhalese and also hold onto to one third of the country in any realistic fashion. Also as events have unfolded the changing political attitudes in the world that contributed to the inability to finance and supply the arms rang a death knell to the movement as a whole. The Sri Lankan forces in the meantime became very professional and the political will to a military solution superseded any doubts for a political accommodation with the Tigers.
This thinking was further enhanced by the inane obduracy of Tamil tiger leadership who were incapable of compromising on any of the political agendas that was proposed by intermediaries and politicians from time to time. In the final analysis they lost everything they aspired to and set back any political settlement for the Tamils forever. In addition the misery and suffering they leashed upon the Tamils themselves was a suffering too far for any political cause. The leadership of the Tamil tigers also became introspective during the dying days of the conflict and they killed and maimed many of theTamil civilians that they held as a human shield for the protection of the leadership.
The Sri Lankan government also learned the lessons of media and diplomatic management from the Americans, British and Israelis and applied it with ruthless efficiency that the Americans, British and Israelis could only envy. They also formed political alliances with powerful countries with disparate political ideologies such as India, China, Pakistan and Russia. These countries were broadly supportive and with their help Sri Lanka was able to crush any international opposition to the military solution that they undertook.
Sri Lanka is also masterful in playing the international politics for the benefit of Sri Lanka as a whole. It has kept the Western powers on their toes by forming alliances (some only interim) with many countries in Asia. Recently it has been accepted in the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) as a dialogue partner. The IMF loan of $2 billion dollars will not be necessary as China and certain Middle Eastern countries that are cash rich will certainly come to Sri Lanka’s financial aid.
Where does that leave the poor Tamils who are in the IDP camps, who suffered under the yoke of the Tamil tigers and are still suffering the ignominy of languishing in the camps? What sustenance can the Diaspora give to these poor souls for this vast tragedy that has befallen their kith and kin other than be mere onlookers as the drama unfolds? What would be the political expectations of the minority Tamils for their existence? By all accounts the Tamil politicians have committed political suicide by backing the Tamil tigers as the sole representative of the Tamil people. To retrieve the current situation they must develop new thinking. The Diaspora Tamils should take a leaf from the actions of the Jewish Diaspora and strive for inclusiveness in a unitary state of Sri Lanka. Regionalism based on ethnicity is not a solution in the 21st century of mass communications and mobile labour forces. We have only to discern from the atrocities and the pogroms that befell the former Yugoslavia to veer away from such solutions.
Just like the African Americans who acknowledged the majority but fought for equality based on sound principles of individual rights is a paradigm that is worth considering. What better way to enmesh your rights with that of the majority community based on human rights legislation? Tamils should engage with many moderate Sinhalese parties and push for such legislation that would ensure that all the peoples of Sri Lanka will have the protection of the law irrespective of their racial origins. Similar to the ‘European Court of human rights’ the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka should be given the sole power of arbitration in matters relating to individual rights. They could go even further and set up a body similar to the British ‘Commission of Racial Equality’ where matters relating to individual rights based on racial discrimination are taken to task by the commission.
The question remains whether there are any Tamil politicians who would forego the elusive regionalism of Eleam and work with the other political parties based on the rights of the individual irrespective of their racial origins. They should abandon regionalism based on ethnicity and instead embrace that Sri Lanka belongs to all its citizens irrespective of racial, cultural, religious and ethnic origins. The choice they have is limited and their aspirations of a Tamil homeland is unachievable as events have proved and the poor Tamils in the IDP camps are paying the price of failure of all the Tamil parties of the past 61 years.
In these times of modern communications and travel nationality is not based on ethnicity but on citizenship-you just have to look at Tamils and other Sri Lankans of differing ethnic origins who are citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA and the European Union today. Many of the second, third and fourth generation of these original Sri Lankans would intermingle with the host nations by marriage and their children and grand children will be citizens of the adopted country rather than citizenship based on any pure ethnic group.
The Tamils should also dispel the notion that the north and east are their homeland and state that all of Sri Lanka belongs to all Sri Lankans irrespective of their racial origins. This veracity of this statement is not false as 53 percent of Tamils live outside the Northern and Eastern provinces. Colombo the capital itself harbours 30 percent Tamils in its population. The Eastern Province consists of twenty five percent Sinhalese and twenty five percent Muslims-the rest being Tamil. It is only in the Northern Province that there is a dearth of Sinhalese and other significant ethnic groups. The Eastern Province Tamils are well used to the Sinhalese and Muslims in their midst and have worked amicably with them for decades. It is not surprising that the Eastern Province Tamil tigers were the first to break away from the hegemony of the Tamil tiger movement led by the North.
It seems that this isolation and the lack of social intercourse of the Tamils in the Northern provinces had also partly contributed to the radicalisation of the Northern Tamils. The blame also lies with the Sinhalese politicians in the south who have starved the north of investment. The Tamils in the Northern Province should now accept that with the Sri Lankan army entrenched in the Northern Province the Sri Lankan government will now incentivise Sinhalese settlement in the North. Instead of opposing such settlement the Northern Tamils should use it to their advantage and push for a larger slice of the investment that is required to build the war ravaged north.
They should also welcome with open arms and strive for Jaffna to become a rival to Colombo in terms of commerce, investment and national integration with a multi-communal population that will reflect the 30 percent population of Tamils in Colombo with 30 percent of Sinhalese in Jaffna. The other two towns in the Eastern Province of Trincomalee and Batticoloa will also be able to rival the likes of southern cities of Galle and Kandy. The prospect of any Sri Lankan of any ethnic origin should be able to live and work safely without any discrimination adhering to his religion and culture anywhere in Sri Lanka should be the mantra of all Sri Lankans irrespective of race.
The current Tamil politicians who have tacitly supported the Tamil tigers should radically change their political agenda. Instead of wasting another 61 years based on separatism they should integrate and work closely with the other Sinhalese parties and strive for the commonality in protection for all of Sri Lankans. These Tamil politicians have a mountain to climb to persuade the majority Sinhalese that they are for a unitary Sri Lanka based on individual rights. They have to proclaim that regionalism based on ethnicity is dead and separatism will never again be resurrected.
The prominence given to Theravada Buddhism in the Sri Lankan constitution should not be a hindrance to any minorities-accepting the fact that the majority of Sri Lankans are Buddhists is the reality of the situation and as other minorities have done. The Tamils should also affirm that reality. Unlike Britain where Anglican Christianity is enshrined in the unwritten constitution as state religion, the Sri Lankan constitution only acknowledges the importance of Buddhism to its majority citizens. Britain goes further in the enmeshing of state and religion by declaring the Queen (the head of state) as the temporal head of the ‘Church of England’ and ‘Defender of the Faith’.
Even today all Bishops appointed to the ‘Church of England’ must have approval of the Prime Minister. Until recently the Bishops of the Church of England had the automatic right to sit in the ‘House of Lords’ (the second legislative chamber). If a pluralistic democracy like Britain can have perceived discriminatory adjuncts to religion in its constitution, then the prominence accorded to Buddhism in the Sri Lankan constitution is in keeping with the majority aspirations, and cannot be perceived by any sane person as discriminatory to the other religions in Sri Lanka.
The solution to the future of Sri Lanka must also fall heavily on the Government of Sri Lanka. It has a duty to be inclusive of all races and creeds and must enact legislation to bring such events to fruition. It must also be disdainful of any political party based on race, religion and regionalism and moot the alternative in the constitution-the alternative based on the rights and responsibilities of the individual.
Finally the individual cultural, religious, linguistic aspirations of all communities from Sinhalese, Tamils, Malays, Moors, Burghers and the other smaller minorities must be enshrined in the constitution and must be promoted ensuring that there is no detriment to the other interacting communities. Political parties based on communalism must also be further vanquished from politics and should be treated with disdain as the British National Party and other right wing organisations are perceived in Britain and in Europe.
Sri Lanka has now the opportunity to become a pluralistic, tolerant and law abiding nation state and to abandon the mistakes of the past. All it needs is the political will and leadership similar to what Nelson Mandela achieved with a disparate state such as South Africa. As with South Africa this is a strong possibility as Sri Lanka is a mature democracy. However it will take time, understanding, patience and mostly importantly the political will by all the major parties to enable Sri Lanka ‘the pearl of the Indian ocean’ to regain its shimmering political lustre based on the aspirations of all its people.