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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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TAMIL NATIONAL FORUM

Selected Writings - Dr. Chelvadurai Manogaran

Sinhalese - Tamil Relations & the Politics of Space

Symposium on the Plight of the Tamil Nation,
London, 29 June 1997


Territory or space is used by ethnic groups as a symbol of group identity in their struggle for the right of self-determination in many parts of the world.1 Similarly, Sri Lankan Tamils link their identity to a well-defined geographical region comprising the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the island. Without a territory of their own, Sri Lankan Tamils could not have preserved their language, religion, and culture and continued to use Tamil names for places in their traditional homeland as they have done from the glorious days of the Tamil Kingdom. This traditional Tamil homeland has provided a safe haven for thousands of Tamils who fled Sinhalese areas during the dreadful years when recurring anti-Tamil riots rocked the island. Tamils have no longer to fear the threat of repeated killings from marauding thugs in Sinhalese areas, but have to protect themselves from the brutal methods used by government forces to occupy the Tamil homeland itself.

While the Jaffna Peninsula, with its barren landscape, does not protect civilians from artillery attacks and aerial bombings, the sparsely inhabited and forested terrain of the mainland will continue to furnish protection to longtime residents, militants and thousands of refugees from these savage attacks. Unfortunately, large tracts of forested land and valuable farmlands, with their standing crops, in the Tamil homeland are being systematically destroyed by the advancing army manned exclusively by Sinhalese soldiers.

The bitterly fought civil war between government forces and Tamil militants can be attributed to the refusal of Sinhalese leaders to accept the concept of a Tamil homeland on grounds that Sri Lankan Tamils are not the original settlers of the island and have never occupied any part of the island, exclusively for themselves.

Sri Lankan Tamil Homeland: Boundary Demarcated by Britain in 1873

Sri Lankan Tamils have been unfairly chastised for defending their ethnic and territorial rights on the island, because British travellers and administrators have attested to the existence of two nations on the island in the seventeenth century. Sinhalese and Tamil place-names were even used in a map of Ceylon prepared by Arrowsmith of Britain to show the location of Sinhalese and Tamil villages on the island in the mid-nineteenth century (see Figure 1). Indeed, the areas occupied by Sinhalese and Tamils were distinct enough for the British government to utilize the distribution of Sinhalese and Tamil place-names as the basis to demarcate the boundaries of the Tamil provinces in 1873. It should be also noted that, according to the 1881 Census of Ceylon, the Sinhalese population, which was confined to the borders of the Tamil provinces, accounted for only 1.8% of the total population of the combined Tamil provinces.

Figure 1. The space-related identity of Sri Lankan Tamils.
Source: Tennent J. Emerson, Ceylon, Volume II, London: Longmans Press, 1859


 

Portuguese and Dutch rulers, who occupied the island prior to the British, recognized the existence of two distinct nations on the island and administered the Tamil areas as separate districts, distinct from the rest of the island in the 16th and 17th centuries. The British, on the other hand, established a unitary state, but the centralized system of government failed to unite the Tamil and Sinhalese communities. The distinct languages and historical experiences of the two nations continue to keep them apart.

The Genesis of the Concept of Sri Lankan Tamil Homeland

Sri Lankan. Tamils did not contemplate the notion of a Tamil homeland until their very existence as a distinct nation was threatened by the passage of Sinhala Only legislation in 1956. It was this discriminatory legislation and government's peasant colonization policy that compelled S.J. V. Chelvanayakam, the leader of the Federal Party, to advance this concept of Tamil traditional homeland as a legitimate demand of the Tamil people. He stressed that "a people without a territory are a diaspora." 2 He had to instill the "concept of the traditional homeland of the Tamil people" in the minds of the people because their economic future, their cultural identity and the territorial integrity of their ancestral homeland were threatened by the well-conceived plan of the Government to settle large numbers of Sinhalese peasants in the Tamil-dominated areas. The nature and extent of Sinhalese colonization in Tamil provinces and their impact on the ethnic composition and political character of the Tamil homeland have been well documented in recent studies.3

The Integrity of Sri Lankan Tamil Homeland threatened by Sinhalese Colonization

Sinhalese colonization of Tamil districts was willfully carried out to change the ethnic and political character of Tamil areas.It is estimated that almost a quarter of the island's population was moved from the Wet Zone to the Dry Zone between 1946 and 1971, under peasant colonization schemes. These colonization schemes altered the ethnic composition of Tamil provinces. In particular, Sinhalese population in the Trincomalee District increased from 3.8% to 33.6% of the total population between 1911 and 1981. During the same period, the Tamil population decreased from 56.8% to 33.7% in the district. In the Amparai District, Sinhalese population increased from 7.0% to 38%, while the Tamil population declined from 37.0% to 20.0% between 1911 and 1981. This rapid increase in the number of Sinhalese settlers in the Eastern Province led to the creation of the Sinhalese electorates of Seruvila and Amparai in 1976 (see Figure 2)

Figure 2. Sinhalese Colonization of Tamil Provinces. Source: Lee, Lionel, Census of Ceylon, 1881, Table IV, Colombo 1882, Dept. of Census and Statistics, Census of Ceylon, 1953, Colombo and Census of Population and Housing, Sri Lanka Preliminary Report No.1, Colombo 1981

Sri Lanka: Sinhalese Colonization Threatens
the Territorial Integrity of Tamil Homeland

Sinhala Colonization of Tamil Districts 1881-1982

Sinhalese Electorates Carved out of Eastern Province and Manal Aru and Maduru Oya Projects

 

Since the late 1970s, Sinhalese colonies have been established in Mullaitivu and Batticaloa districts, which had hitherto been exclusively inhabited by Tamil- speaking people. In the Mullaitivu District, Manal Aru, which was initially inhabited by Tamil peasants, was transformed into a Sinhalese colony and its name was changed to the Sinhalese name Weli-Oya. Similarly, the Tamil-name Thannimurippu was changed to the Sinhalese name, Janakapura. These colonists have been armed and additional protection is furnished by establishment of army camps in their vicinity. Tamil leaders believe that the location of this colony was designed to deny Tamils the right to claim any district on their island as their traditional homeland, anytime in the future, or to demand the merger of the northern and eastern provinces by virtue of the linkage that has existed between the Tamil populations of the provinces in the past. Similar plans are afloat to colonize Sinhalese settlers in the Batticaloa District under the Maduru Oya Project.

Sinhalese politicians continue to justify the policy of settling Sinhalese in Tamil districts on grounds that Sri Lankan Tamils, like Sinhalese, have been migrating to Sinhalese areas although Tamil migration has been voluntarily initiated and personally financed. Given the lack of resources in the Tamil-dominated dry areas of the North and East, Tamils sought residence in Sinhalese areas for the sole purpose of securing white collar jobs. Moreover, the migration of Sri Lankan Tamils into Sinhalese areas has neither changed the ethnic composition of any Sinhalese districts significantly nor created Tamil electorates in Sinhalese provinces (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Changes in the Ethnic Composition of Tamil Districts, 1911-1981. Source: Denham, Ceylon at the Census of 1911, Colombo, 1912 and Department of Census and Statistics, Census of Population and Housing, Sri Lanka, Preliminary Report No.1, 1981

Sri Lanka: Ethnic Composition of Districts

   % of Sinhalese in Tamil Districts
 
% of Tamils in Sinhalese Districts
  .. 'Malai Aha' Tamils (Plantation Tamils)
1911 1981

The Concept of Sri Lankan Tamil Homeland endorsed by Sinhalese Leaders and the Record of Broken Promises

S. J. V. Chelvanayakam received the backing of his party and Tamil people to negotiate agreements with Sinhalese leaders to resolve the Tamil question. To their disappointment, the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965, which recognized Tamil as the language of a national minority and the Northern and Eastern Provinces as the traditional homeland of Sri Lankan Tamil-speaking people, were abrogated for no fault of the Tamil leaders. Tamils were, indeed, willing to accept devolution proposals which were far short of their demand for the creation of a Tamil linguistic province under a federal system of government. Sinhalese leaders not only rejected Tamil demands, but permitted successive governments to continue discriminating against Tamils in matters dealing with employment, university admissions, and allocation of resources to develop Tamil areas, while proceeding with its aggressive policy of settling Sinhalese peasants in Tamil provinces. The economic development of all areas in the Tamil provinces, except those associated with peasant colonization schemes, have been neglected since the 1960s.

Tamils Vote overwhelmingly to demand the establishment of a Separate Tamil State in 1977

Tamil youth became infuriated with the inability of ageing Tamil leaders to resolve the Tamil problem and called upon them to form a single party to fight the general election of 1977. This resulted in the formation of the Tamil United Liberation Front and the passage of the Vaddukkoddai Resolution on May 14, 1976 giving notice to Sinhalese politicians that Tamils would adopt new strategies to "establish an independent, sovereign, secular, socialist state of Eelam." The Tamil United Front won all the 14 seats in the Northern Province and 4 seats in the Eastern Province. Instead of pacifying the Tamils, Sinhalese-dominated governments persisted in introducing laws and regulations that threatened the economic survival of the Sri Lankan Tamil community and the integrity of its traditional homeland. Once it became evident that peaceful methods were ineffective in swaying the Sinhalese majority to resolve the Tamil problem, Tamil militants, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), resorted to violence to confront Sinhalese-dominated governments on the issue of Tamil rights.

The Civil  War and the Future of the Sri Lankan Tamil Homeland

The civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Government forces, which is exclusively manned by Sinhalese, is confined to the Sri Lankan Tamil Homeland. The beginnings of the this war can be traced to the incident on July 23, 1983, when the LTTE killed thirteen soldiers in Jaffna. Since then the LTTE and government forces have inflicted heavy damage on each other and on the civilian population but no serious attempts have been made by either party to resolve the Tamil problem. Forty years have lapsed since the signing of the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact, no government has yet enacted into law any of its provisions.

A Viable Alternative to a Separate Tamil Homeland: Two Linguistic States within a Federal Union

Sinhalese leaders have accused Tamil leaders and the LTTE of not being willing to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Tamil question, especially as it relates to the concept of a Sri Lankan Tamil homeland, but the government, itself, has never been willing to talk about negotiating a peaceful resolution to the conflict based on the premise of a full-fledged Federal system of government. There is documentation to show that Tamil leaders have negotiated in good faith with Sinhalese leaders in the past, but this did not benefit the Tamils. While the LTTE may be willing to abandon its demands for the creation of an independent Tamil state, Sinhalese leaders have never been willing to abandon the concept of a unitary government.

Given the history of many unsuccessful negotiations, the Tamil problem has been used effectively by both the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to jockey for power. Even the initial proposals of President Kumaratunge's devolution package have been watered down because of the opposition from the UNP and the Buddhist clergy. Tamils cannot be blamed for the failure of peace negotiations just because Sinhalese leaders are not willing to discuss anything that approaches a full-fledged federal system of government.

Future of Peace in Sri Lanka

The Tamil problem cannot be resolved as long as Sinhalese leaders refuse to recognize Sri Lankan Tamils as a distinct group, with a traditional homeland in the northeast of the island. Indeed, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord recognized that the Northern and Eastern Provinces have been the "historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil-speaking people." 4

Any meaningful proposal that will be received favourably by Tamils should deal specifically with the social and economic problems faced by the people of the Tamil provinces. Unlike Tamils, the Sinhalese people have not faced the devastating impact of discrimination or watch hopelessly as their homes, streets, schools, hospitals, farms, industries, churches and temples deteriorate and fall into disrepair or be destroyed by bombing and shelling. Therefore, devolving the same powers to both the Tamil and Sinhalese provinces is not politically satisfactory. It is imperative that the ultimate aim of devolving powers to Tamil areas should be to permit their inhabitants to participate freely and directly in the planning and reconstruction of the war-torn areas and in projects designed to alleviate their social and economic problems.

In conclusion, it is unrealistic to expect the government to resolve the Tamil question, given 50 years of broken promises to the Tamil people, unless the international community can intervene to bring Sinhalese and Tamils to the negotiating table. The government has always failed to release documents, which have been exchanged between the Tamil leaders and government officials during serious negotiations. As a result, the government is then in a position to blame the Tamils for the failure of negotiations.

Likewise, very little information is allowed to trickle out of the war-torn areas, although they are occupied by an armed force staffed exclusively by Sinhalese personnel who do not speak Tamil or understand the needs of the ordinary Tamil people. The international community has not been able to ascertain the nature and extent to which the war has impacted on the inhabitants, many of whom have been displaced from their homes or lost their loved ones, and have no means to support themselves without substantial help from private agencies and the government. Foreign intervention has been instrumental in bringing about peace in many parts of the world, and if the government is serious, as it claims to be, it should seek the assistance of the international community to find a political solution, to the ethnic problem.


Footnotes

1 David Hoosan(ed.), Geography and National Identity, Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1994. This excellent book shows how "geography and identity are intricately tied up," p. 1

2 see A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, S. J. V Chelvanayakam and Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism 1947-1977, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994, p.125.

3 see Chelvadurai Manogaran, Ethnic Conflict and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987 and "Colonization and Politics: Political Use of Space in Sri Lanka's Ethnic Conflict," in Chelvadurai Manogaran and Brian Pfaffenberger teds.), Sri Lankan Tamils: Ethnicity and Identity, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994.

4 Chelvadurai Manogaran, "The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 29 July 1987," The Round Table, 306, 1988, pp. 195-200.

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