"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
 
- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Selected Writings by Nadesan Satyendra
- நடேசன் சத்தியேந்திரா

Ethnic Problem? What Ethnic Problem!

October 1993

Background -  The Sinhala owned Sri Lanka Sunday Island reported on 22 August 1993: ''The (Sri Lanka Sinhala) army command has lowered education qualifications, minimum height and age requirements for recruits in its search for men to urgently form new combat units. Anyone who has studies upto grade five, is not less than five feet in height and is between 17 and 25 years old could join the army. Earlier the army sought those who had passed grade eight, were not less than five feet four inches in height and were between 18 and 24 years.''  The report added: ''The Sunday Island learns the government has agreed to release additional funds to raise new battalions and improve the fighting capabilities of the men after the LTTE wiped out the Janakapura camp on 25 July... Army headquarters believe that the necessary number of men could be found expeditiously in view of the lowered qualifications to join the army. After ten years of fighting and several thousands soldiers killed and wounded today the army finds it difficult to find young men to wage war particularly because of political and military miscalculations resulting in stunning set backs.''


Today at a time when the Sri Lanka army has reduced its recruitment age to 17 in its bid to battle against Tamil resistance, it appears that President D.B.Wijetunga is bent on doing his share for Sinhala chauvinism.

During the first week of September, President Wijetunga addressing a Seminar for government officials held in Hambantota in the South of Sri Lanka gave expression to some of his inner feelings. Said he:

''Please do not condone the practise of referring to a so called ethnic problem. Because there is no such problem... Two of my secretaries are Tamil. If Sinhalese and Tamils intermarry, work together, live together, how can anyone say there is communalism in the country. The LTTE is trying to paint the situation as an ethnic crisis...

People in the North were given universities and other centres of education. They are being given government jobs according to the ethnic ratio. They got electricity generated by the Laxapana hydro power project. Sinhalese have looked after Tamils for several thousands of years and have treated them as brothers. They treat Tamils so even today and they will do so in the future too.''

Thinking perhaps that his remarks may be dismissed as the momentary aberration of a Sinhala political leader groggy with recent military reverses, President Wijetunga returned to the fray the following week at a special Central Committee meeting of the UNP Branch at Hanguranketha - again in the South of Sri Lanka. He said (with almost imperial authority):

''There is no ethnic problem in the North - it is only a terrorist problem...We have done a lot for the Tamil speaking people. Tamil is an official language. Tamils hold very high positions in the public service. It is the terrorists who insist on waging war on the flimsy excuse of an 'ethnic problem'.''

Appearances to the contrary, President Wijetunga was not speaking in jocular vein. President Wijetunga has two Tamil secretaries, therefore he feels there is no Tamil ethnic problem. Tamils should be suitably grateful that two of them have had the good fortune of directly serving their Sinhala ruler, at and during his pleasure.

Tamils and Sinhalese intermarry, therefore President Wijetunga feels there is no ethnic problem. Given that there are seven Sinhalese for every two Tamils in the island, it is not difficult to see the attraction that Sinhala chauvinism has for intermarriage as a way of accelerating the assimilative process - if you cannot kill them off, marry them.

But then according to President Wijetunga, the Sinhalese have been looking after the Tamils like brothers. And, he was not joking. Hundred of Tamils were killed by Sinhala mobs in 1958, thousands in 1977 and again during the planned genocide of 1983. It was all done in a frenzy of brotherly affection. Clearly President Wijetunga subscribes to the view that brotherly love takes many forms.

Again, according to President Wijetunga, the Tamils have also been 'given' 'universities and other centres of education'. Listeners may have been forgiven if they had got the impression that universities had been somehow 'gifted' by the Sinhala people, as a token of their brotherly affection, without any contribution from Tamil tax payers.

Be that as it may, there was the little matter of standardisation which President Wijetunga was reticent about in a brotherly sort of a way - standardisation that prevented qualified Tamil students from gaining admission to Universities. Presumably President Wijetunga felt that between brothers, there should be some give and take - the Tamil brother gives and the Sinhala brother takes University admission places.

And as for 'giving' other 'centres of education', there was, again, the little matter of the burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981 whilst two of President Wijetunga's fellow cabinet ministers were in Jaffna. In President Wijetunga's book, the burning was, no doubt, a brotherly act of affection by hundreds of Sinhala policeman imbued by the desire to 'looking after' those Tamils who had begun, foolishly, to think of looking after themselves.

According to President Wijetunga, Sinhala kindness also extended to 'gifting' their Tamil brothers with electricity from Laxapana. After all, the Laxapana hydro electric project was situated in the Sinhala south and the big Sinhala brother in a spirit of brotherly affection actually permitted (surprise, surprise) electricity generated by a project funded by the Sri Lanka government to be sold to Tamil consumers who were citizens of the country!

Perhaps because the Tamils had not shown their gratitude in an appropriate manner, electricity has now been cut off and an economic blockade imposed on the North - until such time as the Tamils express a desire to be 'looked after' by their Sinhala brothers again.

Says President Wijetunga:

"Government jobs are according to the ethnic ratio, and this shows that there is no ethnic problem."

Selection for government jobs will not be on merit and this shows there is no ethnic problem. Some of his listeners may have found the logic baffling but in matters of brotherly affection, sentiment often clouds rational thought.

Adds President Wijetunga: ''Tamil is now an official language and therefore there is no ethnic problem.'' But the Constitution secures that the Sinhala brother will be able to continue to 'look after' his Tamil brother. It enacts: 'Sinhalese shall be the official language. Tamil will also be an official language.' It is the old formula of Sinhala Only and Tamil Also dressed up in new clothes and government offices in the island continue to function in the old way in Sinhala.

The patronising, big brotherly attitude that President Wijetunga adopts reveals the underlying psyche of Sinhala chauvinism. 'Sinhalese have looked after Tamils', 'We have done a lot for the Tamils'. That which President Wijetunga prefers not to understand is that the Tamil people's response for some years now has been: ''You have 'looked after' us enough. We have suffered enough. We plan to look after ourselves.''

Ofcourse, it is not that President Wijetunga is unaware of the decades of systematic oppression of the Tamil people by a Sinhala majority within the confines of a Sri Lankan unitary state. The United National Party manifesto on which President Wijetunga and his party campaigned for election in 1977 declared:

''The United National Party accepts that there are numerous problems confronting the Tamil speaking people. The lack of a solution to their problems has made the Tamil speaking people support even a movement for the creation of a separate state.... The party when it comes to power will take all possible steps to remedy their grievances in such fields as (1) education (2) colonisation (3) Use of Tamil Language (4) Employment in Public and Semi Public Corporations.''

The brazenness with which President Wijetunga declares today: ''Ethnic problem? What ethnic problem?'' insults not simply the intelligence but also the common sense of his listeners.

Eelam Tamil journalist and human rights activist, Subramaniam Sivanayagam, then Head of the Tamil Eelam Information Unit, put it well, in his own inimitable fashion in 1984:

''Imagine a habitual wife beater who has been at it for twenty years. Imagine the little woman protesting, arguing, screaming, grappling and having come to the end of her tether one day, snatching the nearest kitchen knife to defend herself against further attacks. And then she says: 'You have tormented me enough. it is impossible to live with you anymore.' with that she files papers for divorce.

If you were the judge, what causes would you attribute to the break up of the marriage? The Sri Lankan Government (as probably the habitual wife beater) attributes the causes to the wife snatching the kitchen knife and asking for separation! To any oppressor resistance to oppression is naturally the beginning of the problem.''

To Sinhala chauvinism, there is no ethnic problem. To Sinhala chauvinism the problem is the armed resistance. of the Tamil people to decades of oppression. President Wijetunga recent speeches expose the true nature of the cancerous growth of Sinhala chauvinism in the Sinhala body politic.

Meanwhile, informed non governmental sources in Geneva have commented that the political context which impelled President Wijetunga to deny the existence of an ethnic problem is significant. President Wijetunga needs foreign aid to meet the staggering annual Rs.20,000 million expenditure on the Sinhala armed forces.

But aid donors (particularly those with Tamil refugees) are increasingly restive about continuing to pump money into a seemingly bottomless pit. They have begun to recognise that stability will not come to the island unless the parties to the conflict sit and talk to each other and structure a polity where two peoples, speaking two different languages, having two different histories, may live in equality and in freedom. Sri Lanka's rejection of the recent Nobel Prize Winners Peace proposal has not gone down well.

Here, the statement of the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Velupillai Pirabaharan, that the LTTE was prepared to consider a federal structure with the NorthEast forming the Tamil homeland only served to heighten President Wijetunga's discomfiture.

On the 5 September 1993 the Political Correspondent of the Sinhala controlled Sri Lanka Sunday Times, put his finger on the current political reality on the ground:

''With the national political parties continuing to grope in the dark on how to approach the ethnic issue, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam once again seized the opportunity to confound their adversaries by calling for a negotiated political settlement....

The Government itself has been at sixes and sevens in the recent past in coming to grips with the issue...The ongoing war with little headway being made is not only bleeding the human resources of the country but also the economy which could only portend additional problems in the months to come...''

Clearly, President Wijetunga badly needed to boost the morale of his Sinhala constituency which was questioning a war which was 'not only bleeding the human resources of the country but also the economy which could only portend additional problems in the months to come'.

He had also to withstand increasing pressures from Western aid donors to resolve the 'ethnic conflict'. What better way to buy time and get over the immediate pressures resulting from the continuing armed conflict in the North-East than by blandly asserting: Ethnic problem? What ethnic problem?

The final assessment of President Wijetunga's comments may be left, for the time being, with his own Cabinet Minister S.Thondaman In a recent newspaper interview (reported in the Lanka Guardian of 1 October 1993). Minister Thondaman was typically circumspect but also perceptive:

''It is the experience of history that statements are made by persons in positions and these statements cannot be interpreted in isolation. One has naturally to consider such statements in the context of general national policy. Persons in positions in any part of the world are constrained to make statements for many a reason, for example to boost the morale of a people.''

 

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