Sri Lanka's Pogrom
1 October 1983
IF I WERE in Sri Lanka today I could not publish this article. As a Sinhalesejournalist, I could not even visit Jaffna, in the North of my country, where tens of thousands of Tamils have fled since the brutal attacks on them last July. The blood-letting, according to Tamil sources, cost over 2000 lives. Few Tamil homes, shops or businesses in the South of Sri Lanka escaped unscathed and thousands of refugees still wait in makeshift camps to be transported to the North.
The pro-Western government has responded to the crisis by claiming that a foreign-backed conspiracy was trying to engineer its downfall. It also banned political parties advocating a separate Tamil state and confiscated damaged Tamil property.
The Tamils constitute 20 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 15 million population. Slightly over one million of them have lived there as long as the Sinhalese, who make up the majority. The Tamils (Hindus) are Dravidians from South India, while the Sinhalese (Buddhists) claim to have come from the Aryan North of India. The so-called indigehous Tamils have traditionally lived in the Jaffna peninsula and the eastern areas of Trincomalee and Batticoloa. Only the plantation Tamils, brought by the British as indentured labourers from India, have arrived in the last 150 years.
Discrimination against the Tamils, indigenous and indentured, has its roots in the divide-and-rule policy of the British. The British used them - as they used other minorities in Nigeria, Cyprus and India - as a source of second-tier civil servants. At Independence in 1947 the new Sinhalese middle-class resented Tamils for holding 30 per cent of posts in the administrative service, 50 per cent of clerical posts and 60 per cent of professional jobs.
The 1956 ‘Sinhala-only’ Act which made Sinhala the national language was a conscious attempt by the government to redress what was perceived as an imbalance in favour of the Tamils. In 1970 the government, in a bid to appease the disgruntled, unemployed Sinhalese youth, introduced ‘standardisation’ in education. Though meant to discriminate in favour of rural children, it effectively meant that Tamil students had to score higher marks than Sinhalese to enter higher education via a quota system.
Each government since Independence has tried to appease the Sinhalese peasants by encouraging land colonisation schemes in traditional Tamil areas. Tamils allege that 1,500 of a total 7,000 square miles of ‘their’ territory has been brought under Sinhalese control. Such a claim to separate Tamil lands is a very recent phenomenon, brought about by the growing racisim of the state. For thousands of years Tamils and Sinhalese lived side by side - sharing kings, customs and foods, worshipping each others’ gods and entering into each others’ celebrations.
But successive governments have turned the ‘Tamil question’ into a political football, vying with one anotherto gain the votes of the Sinhalese majority. Racism is now becoming institutionalised at every level. A recent survey by the Movement for Racial Justice and Equality showed that Sinhala schoolbooks stereotype the Tamils and provided children with only a partial, Sinhalese history of the country. The outbreaks of communal violence against Tamils are often incited by politicians cashing in on Sinhalese fears, suggesting that the Tamils are about to swamp the country and annihilate the Sinhalese Buddhist state forever. Recent speeches by one such politician, a cabinet minister, are circulating freely in Sri Lanka under the title Diabolical Conspiracy.
Traditionally the Sinhalese are a fair-minded and tolerant people, their religion one of non-violence. But this year’s riots brought disgrace to the country and made a mockery of Buddhism. Motorists stopped by Sinhalese mobs were dragged from their cars and hacked to death if they were unable to recite a Sinhala gatha (religious verse). Children have been burnt alive, women raped. Rioting spread from Colombo, the capital, south as far as Galle, east to Trincomalee and into the hill country around Kandy and the plantations where the poorest Tamils eke out an existence.
In previous years, Tamils fled to Jaffna, where they felt safe. Today that is a less happy prospect. The people ofJaffna live in a state of near siege, with a massive army presence on their streets and a virtual blockade hindering the delivery of essential food and fuel supplies. Sent to restore law and order, the armed forces are themselves a prime cause of Tamil insecurity.
Years of racial discrimination and oppression have spawned the ‘Tiger’ movement, composed of young Tamils despairing of the old methods of parliamentary pressure, pacts and round table conferences. The old methods have yielded nothing but disappointment for the Tarnils over the past 35 years. The Tigers call for a separate state of Eelam, and have taken to armed resistance. The government has replied with massive repression. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, people can be held ‘on suspicion’ for 18 months. Confessions obtained under torture are regarded as admissable evidence in court. According to Amnesty International, detainees have been kept in solitary confinement for over eight months and torture is said to include hanging victims upside down from hooks, beating them with metal bars and driving needles under their nails. Since last June special regulations allow the armed forces to dispose of bodies without a post mortem examination.
The Tigers have responded to state repression by choosing military and political targets. But every incident brings down massive reprisals on the heads of ordinary people. Last May, after the shooting of a policeman at a polling booth, the army burnt 150 houses. Last July’s riots were sparked off when the army kidnapped three girls, raping them and killing one. In retaliation the Tigers ambushed and killed 13 soldiers. This incident set off the nationwide vidlence.
In Jaffna the army took revenge on civilians, shooting at bus queues and groups of protesting schoolchildren. In Colombo the police and army stood by as mobs went on the rampage. Sinhalese prisoners at Colombo’s Welikade jail, armed with staves, clubs and knives, twice attacked Tamil prisoners in their cells, murdering 52 inmates. One of those killed in the jail was Dr S Rajasundaram, a founder of the Gandhiyam Society, which has helped thousands of Tamil refugees who fled the South after racist attacks in 1977 and 1981. Gandhiyam is run on Gandhian principles and is supported financially by international agencies including
NOVIB, Oxfam, Christian Aid and the World Council of Churches. Government officials and service personnel also attacked the Society’s property - farm buildings, houses, offices and vehicles. Dr Rajasundaram had been in jail since last April and his body bore unmistakable signs of torture prior to his murder.
President J R Jayawardene, who hoped to make Sri Lanka a capitalist showcase in the Third World, came to power promising to root out corruption. But he has ushered in a new era of gun-law and thuggery. With opposition political parties and newspapers banned, dissidents imprisoned and parliamentary elections suspended for six years, the President has created a virtual dictatorship - albeit by ‘constitutional’ means. What started off as a ‘minority’ problem is increasingly becoming a problem of human rights for all Sri Lankans.