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One Nation Or Two?

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SRI LANKA [image, unknown] The Tamil question

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One nation or two?

As Sri Lanka celebrates fifty years of universal suffrage, political and guerrilla movements in the north of the island are trying to create a separate nation for the one and a half million Jaffna Tamils who feel discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese. Peter Marshall reports from Jaffna.

Sri Lanka today is composed of two nations held together by force. As the country celebrates fifty years of adult suffrage, a state of emergency prevails. The press is censored. Death is the penalty for arson, looting and the possession of illegal weapons. The Prevention of Terrorism Act enables the police to detain suspects without trial for up to eighteen months.

Once again communal conflict between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils has broken out. In June, after the shooting of two officers, the police went on a highly organised rampage in the Tamil stronghold of Jaffna. They burnt the public library (one of the best in Southeast Asia), the regional newspaper Eelanadu, the headquarters of the Tamil United Liberation Front (the main parliamentary opposition) and the home of the local MP. At least five people lost their lives.

But much worse was to follow. Incited by a spate of anti-Tamil posters (printed in a government ministry) and racist speeches in parliament, organised bands attacked Tamil communities and businesses throughout the island in July and August. The Tamils of Indian origin in the tea plantation, who live in appalling conditions, took the brunt of the onslaught. More than two dozen people were killed and 10,000 refugees fled. Unlike the previous outbreaks of violence in 1958 and 1977, the Tamils did not mount a counter-attack.

The racial conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils is said to be the oldest one in the world. The Sinhalese trace their history to the Aryans in North East India and their language to Sanskrit and Pali. The Tamils come from the darker-skinned Dravidians from South India. The majority of Sinhalese are Buddhist, the majority of Tamils are Hindu.

At present the Sinhalese make up 72% of the mixed population, and the Tamils 20.5%. But the Tamils themselves form two groups: the so-called ‘Ceylon' Tamils, (11.2%) who came about 2000 years ago and who live mainly in the northern and eastern provinces, and the ‘Indian Tamils’ (9.3%) who were brought over by the British to work in the tea and rubber plantations. Half a million of the latter are stateless, although Sri Lanka has agreed to keep three for every four repatriated to India.

Under the British, the hard-working Tamils received the lion’s share of the jobs in the English-speaking administration and were particularly successful in business. After independence, they did not object to the disenfranchisement of the Indian Tamils. Only when the Buddhist nationalist government of S.W.R. D. Bandaranaike adopted a Sinhala policy in 1956 did they begin to consider themselves a separate nation. The discrimination of subsequent governments led them to form the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1976 and to call for ’Eelam’ — a sovereign and independent state. A growing guerrilla movement called the ‘Tigers’ who have in recent years killed 21 policemen and pulled off several bank robberies, keeps up the pressure.

The main grievances of the Tamils are in language, education and employment. Sinhala is the official language, while Tamil is only a national one. In education, a quota system for higher education works against the Tamils. In employment, they complain of deliberate discrimination — only 2% of jobs in the public sector have gone to them since 1977 and those who are employed find that promotion is often checked. Above all, the Tamils maintain that the government is pursuing a policy of state colonisation by settling Sinhalese in their traditional areas — driving a wedge between the
northern and southern provinces.

While the Ceylon Tamils are supported by the forty million Tamils in South India, they insist that they do not want to unite with them. The Ceylon Tamils, instead, align themselves with oppressed minorities like the P.L.O., the Eritreans and the Basques. They see no reason to believe that an independent state of Eelam would be less viable than Sri Lanka. They can moreover call on the help of Libya, Iraq and Russia.

There now seems no turning back. The recent violence has forged new links between the two Tamil communities. Recruitment to the ‘Tigers’ has doubled and they now have up to 500 guerrillas training in the jungle. The TULF is prepared to have talks with the government but refuses to compromise on the call for Eelam.

It seems likely that some members of the government connived at, if not actually encouraged, the organised attacks to divert attention from the overheating economy. But worried about the threat to political stability and the country’s image abroad, it has in a heavy-handed way tried to curb the worse excesses. But President Jayewardene still blames the TULF for starting the trouble and is only prepared to offer a degree of regional autonomy. Never before has the celebrated parliamentary democracy of Sri Lanka looked so fragile. The flaw in the pearl of the Indian Ocean is rapidly
becoming a crack.

Peter Marshall

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New Internationalist issue 105 magazine cover This article is from the November 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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