The 2009 genocide of civilian Tamils by the ruthless Sinhalese military would go down as one of the most shameful chapters in the history of human kind. The systematic manner in which unarmed men, women and children were annihilated invited parallels with Nazi atrocities against the Jews during the 2nd World War. A Channel 4 video captured gruesome images of hand tied civilians being shot point blank, hospitals deliberately being shelled by the artillery, prisoners of war executed and women raped by the army with impunity, though estimates vary it is believed that within a span of a few months the advancing Sri Lankan forces might have executed as many as 40000 civilians and raped as many as 70000 women. The objective clearly was to completely demoralize a whole nation so that they may never again harbor thoughts of rebellion in future. The fact that this barbarity was perpetrated by an army consisting and backed by the Buddhists busted many a myth about the supposed peacefulness of the ‘middle path’, and brought home a brutally learnt truth that in an ethnically polarized conflict religious affiliations seldom matter.
This piece is a brief attempt at tracing and analyzing the history of Tamil-Sinhalese ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. The thrust is not to fix responsibility on either one of the two sides involved but to understand the causes for this tragedy.
The Sinhalese identity is mainly based upon mother tongue but late 19th century onward gradually it began to shift to Sinhalese Buddhism resulting in hostility toward Christian Sinhalese speakers and even occasional instances of violence against them. In 1915 there were anti-Muslim riots too. The rivalry with Tamils began largely over middle class aspirations for government jobs. Tamils had a clear advantage in education due to the presence of missionary schools in the Tamil dominated areas of the Jaffna peninsula in the North. A significant section of the Sinhalese middle class youth supported the ‘Sinhalese only’ demand in the hope that this would blunt the Tamil competition for government jobs. As early as 1943, while the British still ruled, attempts were made to push forward the ‘Sinhalese only’ demand but it was relegated to the background for the time being.
While the Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism was on the ascendant in the post independence period, Tamils failed to galvanize into a solid mass yet. Most of the rhetoric concentrated upon the plight of the Hindu Tamils of the north and the east. Two other significant Tamil speaking minorities, the so called Hill Tamils and the Muslim Tamil speakers of the east were generally neglected by the Hindu Tamil leadership of the North. Hill Tamils are the descendents of people brought to Sri Lanka to work in the tea and rubber plantations by the British in the 19th century. Despite the fact that by the mid 20th century most of the Hill Tamils were third generation residents in Sri Lanka, they were still considered foreigners and looked down upon by both, the chauvinist Sinhalese and the Tamils of the north. Most exploited and marginalized they were deprived of citizenship post independence. They still work as most lowly paid workers in the plantations of Sri Lanka. Despite being stripped of citizenship and facing Sinhalese violence in 1980 and 1983 northern Tamils seldom took up their cause and failed to win them over for to their side. Muslim Tamil speakers too, who constitute a significant minority in the east, faced the disdain of northern Tamils.
Soon after independence Sinhalese Chauvinists launched a number of government programs with the objective of weakening and marginalizing the Tamil community. Along with the act of stripping Hill Tamils from citizenship, a colonization program was launched in the north by the government, settling Sinhalese in the north and the east with the objective of reducing Tamils to a minority within their traditional homelands. In 1956 the Sinhalese chauvinists also pushed for the introduction of Sinhalese as the national language of Sri Lanka. This demand had vociferous support of the Sinhalese lower middle class youth who were hoping through this act to keep the Tamil competition out of the government jobs.
In response to these provocations, the Federal Party, which was the main representative of the northern Tamils, attempted to launch a broad based movement. Realizing that Sinhalese Chauvinism could not be defeated by northern Tamils alone it sought to encompass the issues of Hill Tamils as well as the Muslim Tamils of the east. The communist parties of Sri Lanka too supported the Tamil cause at this point of time. This created the possibility of a broad front consisting of Northern Tamils, Hill Tamils, Muslim Tamils of the East and the oppressed sections among the Sinhalese led by the Communist parties. A four-fold demand was put forward by the Federal Party in 1956:
- Grant Tamil language a status equal to Sinhalese.
- Bring in a federal form of government to ensure that minorities may be safeguarded against Sinhalese majoritarianism.
- Stop state sponsored colonization of the Tamil majority areas.
- Grant citizenship to the Hill Tamils.
The leadership of Federal Party was however never serious in pushing for all the four demands. Dominated by middle class northern Tamils, its primary focus remained upon the language issue to ensure that the middle class Tamils did not lose out from getting government jobs. They ended the movement by signing what came to be known as Bandarnaike-Chelva pact which promised to retain Tamil as an official language. This pact carried little interest for the Muslims and Hill Tamils as very few of them went into government jobs and hence they felt betrayed; also an important opportunity to ally with the progressive, oppressed and marginalized sections among Sinhalese against the chauvinist Sinhalese was frittered away. ‘Grab middle class jobs’ outlook of the Federal Party had broken the unity of the movement. Meanwhile massive anti-Tamil riots broke out in 1958 involving arson, rape and loot, the government remained a silent by stander.
In 1960s, ‘The Languages of Courts’ act placed Sinhalese as the only language for court proceedings. All Tamil protests were brutally put down. In the government offices too, despite Bandarnaike-Chelva pact, for all practical purposes Tamil was ignored. It was getting almost impossible for the Tamil youth to enter any government service whatsoever. The strict enforcement of Sinhalese in the north made it difficult for the common people to even correspond with the police and the court. The final straw seemed to be the reorganization of university admission system, which was done in a way that made it extremely difficult for Tamil students to enter state universities. Tamils of the north, increasingly realizing that Federal Party was incapable of serving as a fighting platform now gravitated toward a new organization TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) formed in 1976 with the stated goal of a separate Tamil Eelam. Tamils voted for this new party overwhelmingly in the 1977 elections hoping that things would change for better, but it was soon discovered that the leadership was more concerned with sitting in the opposition and enjoying its parliamentary perks instead of fighting for the Tamil cause. In reaction to the good performance of TULF in 1977 elections, a fresh spate of anti-Tamil violence broke out in 1977, much worse than the ones perpetrated in 1958. TULF leaders did little except hobnobbing with the government. By 1978 they were so discredited that they were afraid of entering their own constituencies, fearing for their lives. Tamils were now turning towards an organization with military outlook, the LTTE.
The LTTE intensified its guerilla warfare against the Sinhalese forces 1978 onward. The government responded by banning the LTTE in May 1978 followed by passing a draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act in July 1978.The message of the government was loud and clear, they would resolve the question of Tamil separatism through the use of military force. In 1983, 13 Sinhalese soldiers were ambushed by the LTTE. What followed shocked the whole world; while in the South government backed rioting mobs, in the North and the East the armed forces went on a rampage. The extent of violence was condemned by the international community, but apart from ritual lambasting in the international forums nothing concrete was done.
A full scale war raged in the North and the East after 1983. The LTTE became a pioneer in developing the weapon of suicide bombing, even before it was employed by the Islamic terrorists to any significant degree. Assassinations, bombing and ambushes of politicians and military men continued, but most brutal were the attacks on civilians; for instance in May 1985, 250 Sinhalese civilians were gunned down in the cold blood by the LTTE cadres. As the war escalated, no end except for a long and bloody war seemed in the sight.
Offering to extend help in ending the civil war, the Indian government signed Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in July 1987. Following this accord, Indian troops landed in Sri Lanka with the objective of establishing peace and disarming the LTTE. However this proved to be an uphill task, as Indian troops seemed vulnerable to the guerilla tactics of the LTTE. Meanwhile the Sri Lankan government begun to realize that along with establishing peace Indian government also wished to exercise subtle control over their foreign and defense policies. As anti India sentiments ran high, the government now asked IPKF to withdraw. With almost 1000 troops dead IPKF withdrew in 1989.
As the IPKF retreated, the LTTE moved in and established almost full control over the North and the East. Around this time they committed a blunder that led to a significant shrink in their mass base. In the LTTE occupied east, mass killings of Tamil Muslims were carried out. Atrocities were committed upon a small population of Muslim Tamils residing in the north and large number of them was forced to migrate. From now on, Muslim Tamils never trusted the LTTE finding little to distinguish between Buddhist-Sinhalese chauvinism and the former who were keen on imposing Hindu dominance upon them. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 too led to a shrinking in their (till now massive) sympathizer base in Tamil Nadu.
Despite this, the star of the LTTE’s fortunes seemed to be on ascendency, particularly in the period between 1999 and 2004. They seemed to be winning the war, scoring several massive victories upon the Sinhalese army. Sri Lankan air force was decimated to half its capacity through successful suicide bombings. The LTTE had by now managed to put into place stable administrative machinery in the areas occupied it.
The turning point came with the Tsunami in 2004. This natural disaster affected the economy of the LTTE occupied areas massively. The LTTE’s naval and military establishments too were significantly affected. Meanwhile within the Sinhalese areas, chauvinist forces were once again gathering momentum. Many hardliners, particularly the Buddhist clergy and the military general staff advocated a war to the finish, instead of making attempts to reach some kind of agreement in the form of a federal structure with the LTTE. The September 11, 2001 attack on WTC at New York changed the climate in the West too. . In the wake of these attacks and the atmosphere of war mongering against Islamic terrorists, the LTTE was branded as a terrorist outfit. As a pioneer of the tactic of suicide bombing, the LTTE was targeted by the West as a terrorist organization dangerous for world peace. Now on, it became increasingly difficult for the LTTE to receive funds from the sympathetic Tamil émigrés settled in the West, the supply of arms too reduced to a trickle. In these circumstances the renewed offensive of the Sinhalese army nailed the fate of the LTTE and the hard won Eelam. As the Sinhalese armies advanced it became clear that LTTE could not win the war. Towards the end the LTTE cadres fought frantically bravely to which the Sinhalese armies responded by unleashing terror on the civilians. As is the nature of genocides, the entire Tamil population of the areas occupied by the LTTE was looked upon as potential hostiles and hence a fair target for the military. The rest is recorded in the Channel 4 video available on the internet: civilians shot, women raped, civilian hospitals deliberately shelled, POWs shot in the cold blood. The kind of barbarity that was unleashed upon the hapless civilian population by the Sinhalese army has few parallels in the history of humankind, both in its intensity and scale.
Principles of human justice dictate that every nation should be able to determine its own destiny. As an oppressed nationality, Tamils’ struggle for self determination is justifiable on every count but struggle for justice also raises the question of who leads its and to what end. The LTTE with its conservative agenda and backward looking outlook merely reproduced a mirror image of Sinhalese chauvinism. Their disdainful attitude towards Hill Tamils and overt hostility towards Muslim Tamils deprived them of a significant mass base. At the same time they did not make any effort to reach out to the oppressed sections among the Sinhalese. Every form of chauvinism is by nature pro elite and hence vulnerable to disintegration from within through the struggles of the oppressed of the very community in whose name it claims to speak. Sinhalese chauvinism is as much directed against the Tamils as it is meant to obfuscate class contradictions within the Sinhalese community. Had the LTTE put forward a progressive and forward looking program led by the oppressed sections within Tamils and encompassing the aspirations of the oppressed within the Sinhalese community then the outcome might have been very different.
By Pranshu Prakash