Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: TamilCanadain
| Date: 19980204

Fifty Disastrous Years: Let me straightway tell you that the title of my talk today does not in any way seek to narrate to you the half century of hell, death, doom and disaster through which our brothers and sisters in Jaffna and Batticaloa have gone.

That is a sordid tragedy in itself where we have witnessed the barbarians enter our gates and loot and plunder, kill and rape the innocents in our community much to the chagrin of all Tamil people as well as the international community. There is now talk of intervention, mediation and arbitration. Alas! All this seams a little late. We do not know and we cannot predict the future. Tamil nationalism has come to stay and has appeared on the scene as a reactivated and burgeoning force. The scars of the horrendous war that the Sinhala Buddhist State has waged against us will remain a festering sore.

Before I interpret to you the events of 1947 to 1997, there are two burning questions to which try to find answers. Firstly, is the continuing Sinhala-Tamil conflict a failure of political will on the part of the Sinhala politicalised class to implement the solemn undertakings of their leaderships? Secondly, were we witnesses to the ugly face of Sinhala nationalism? In other words, a surge to political hegemonism by the Sinhala political elite who had suddenly been blessed with the bonanza of sovereign independence with no checks or balances attached to the conditions of the transfer of power by Britain in 1948?

To the first question, it is now almost universally admitted that the Sinhala politicalised class sought an explanation to the woes and grievances of their less fortunate countrymen. In this way, this class hoped to avoid the wrath of the barbarians by pointing to a scapegoat ready at hand, namely, the Tamils. The Citizenship Acts were surrender by the low country degenerates to upcountry upstarts. Thus the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 was designed to give hope to ascendant unemployable GCE - O’ level Sinhala candidates and unemployed graduates.

On the second question of the surge to political hegemonism, through this is an accurate assessment, there were many more sophisticated ways of giving expression to it than by the naked use of force by the Sinhala state. For example, the Citzenship Acts of 1948 and 1949 relating to the disfranchisement of Indian plantation workers could have been more humanely enforced than erasing one half and more of their numbers from the electoral register. It is very unfortunate that Britain chose this path as the easy way out by granting unconditional independence. Now 50 years after independence, the conscience of Britain’s political elite seeks to find an acceptable political solution through the good offices of Dr.Liam Fox and Mr.Malcom Rifkind. Their endeavors given context, I daresay, have little chance of gaining acceptance.

So then we are left with only a partial explanation of the dynamics of a historical process which began supposedly some 2500 years ago. That dynamism still constitutes the locomotive of history even to this day. Some parallels in other states might give us a few hints as to the dilemma of the Sinhala national question in Sri Lanka. If we look deeper to the main springs of German history and Nazi radicalism, there was the concept of herrenvolk, the privileged people which mushroomed into the Nazi peril and insatiable ambition for world domination and the superiority of the Aryan race. The same could be said of white nationalism, the Ku Klux Klan in the United States and apartheidism in South Africa. There was little difference in the brahminical attitude of India’s visa-vis the non-Brahmins. And the Bhumiputra in Malaysia is the post-modern version of this urge to create a privileged state folk. In Sri Lanka they are used already speaking of Buddhaputra, the privileged Sinhala folk who enjoy the benefits of standardization, state-aided colonisation and preferential treatment in appointments and promotions in the Public Services. If you are born of Sinhala parents, you straightway become a member of highly privileged exclusive club. The last mentioned is exactly what happened with us Tamil folk in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala staatsvolk took the upper hand and hardly had independence settled on their laps like a gift from the gods than that half of the Tamil population was deprived of the Citzenship and voting rights, in 1948 and 1949. Then in the wake of this followed the Sinhala Only Act in less than 7 years which by statute made our language a dead language and threatened the very existence of Tamil culture.

To go back a little into history. I am of the view that the Tamil disaster really began at the time of the formation of the Ceylon National Congress in the good year 1919. Prior to the convening of this Congress, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam who was one of the founder- members of the Congress used his enormous prestige to persuade and negotiate with the principal Tamil organizations, the Jaffna Association and the Ceylon Tamil Maha Jana Sabhai and to join in the venture the participate in the work of setting up the organization. Prior to this arrangement, Sir Ponnambalam Arunchalam had entered into an agreement in December 1918 with Messrs James Peiris and E.J. Samarawickarna, influential Sinhalese political leaders at the time to concede the Tamil demand for a Tamil seat in the Western Province if not one in Colombo town. When the matter came up for ratification before the Ceylon National Congress at its annual sessions, the Working Committee of the Congress without any explanation postponed consideration of this agreement. The matter was left to die a slow death in the years thereafter. Then on 28 June 1925, the delegates of the Congress’s Executive Committee led by MR.C.E.Corea, one of the leading liberals at the time and Mr. W. Duraiswamy concluded a treaty on the distribution of seats in the entire island on the a ratio of 2:1. The agreement was referred to as the Mahendra House Agreement. These were the beginnings of the Agreements, Understandings and Pacts that came to be signed and unilaterally abrogated by the Sinhala leadership in future years. Again the Sinhala leaders were reluctant and hesitant to proceed with the implementation. Sir P. Arunachalam was deeply distressed over the failure once again of the Congress to proceed with implementing the Agreement. The excuse given by their leaders was by no means convincing. They argued that it was unfair for the natural majority (the Sinhalese) in the island to be deprived of their due rights. They obviously saw in the demands of the Tamils a further attempt by the Tamils to have themselves recognized as one of the two founding peoples of the Island. These attempts at accommodation were as I said earlier only the incipient signs of a Sinhala unwillingness to enter into a consociational overarching understanding with their elitist Tamil counterparts. But this was never to be. Arunachalam’s residence at the time, Ponklar, and Ramanathan’s Sukhasthan were then the powerhouses of inter-ethnic diplomacy in Ceylon. In later year it came to be Tintagel and Horagolla. Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s residences, and Woodlands D.S. Senanayake’s residences, During the 1920s, political activity was mainly confined to Ponklar and Sukhasthan as well as Queen’s House. During this entire period, the Governor for most of the time, Sir. Willam Manning, a masterful negotiator, kept all the minority communities elite's and their Sinhala counterparts on their toes. It was ultimately Governor Manning’s formula to prevent the Sinhala members outvoting the combined strength of the minorities in the Legislative Council that became the basis of the Fifty Fifty demand of G.G. Ponnambalam and his All Ceylon Tamil Congress in the nineteen thirties and nineteen forties.

Towards the end of the nineteen twenties, the Governor of Ceylon at the time, the half- mad Sir Hugh Clifford, demanded of Whitehall to send to Ceylon an investigative Royal Commission to examine the workings of the Manning Constitution in operation at the time and the difficulties that public servants were experiencing at the hands of a powerful Finance Committee of the Legislative Council. The Commission was headed by the Earl of Donoughmore and it recommended a peculiarly hybrid Constitution which came to be called the Donoughmore Constitution and was operative from 1931 to 1947. The idea of the Commissioners was to train Ceylonese politicians and leaders in the art of self government.

There were two recommendations of the Donoughmore Commission which threw out of killer the entire foundation of the Tamil political postion in Ceylon. First communal representation was abolished and replaced by unadulterated territorial representation. This meant that the Tamil position on ratios in representation was completely gone, the baby had been thrown out with the bathwater. Secondly as if to hinge this recommendation on a solid foundation, universal suffrage was introduced. There could not have been a firmer guarantee for ensuring the majority rights of the Sinhalese than this double bonanza of territorial representation and universal suffrage. Thirdly a system of government by executive committees was inaugurated making it in fact possible for the election of the Pan Sinhalese Board of Homogeneous Sinhalese- speaking Ministers after the general election of 1936.

The Tamils could not have suffered a worse death blow and it was a pity that they had to await the emergence of their man of the hour, the mesmerizing and magnetic G.G. Ponnambalam who was the white knight in shining armor who did the Tamil people proud intheir crisis, in their most dangerous hour. It was great tragedy that the Tamil people in their desperate plight were leaderless in the years 1931 to 1936. There was no alternative stately they could deploy against the nascent floodide of Sinhala communalism. They could not have suffered a worse fate than fall prey to the whims of the Jaffna Youth Congress which committed the Himalayan blunder of successfully boycotting elections to the State Council. As a result the Tamils lost at least one if not two places in the first Board of Ministers, 1931 to 1936. This was not a crime but far worse than a crime. IT was great criminal blunder. The sterile Tamil boycott angered the imperial rulers at Whitehall and it was quite late in the day when elections were held to the State Council.

The rivers of Sinhala communalism as I said earlier began in full flood during this phase in Ceylon’s constitutional evolution. Elections were conducted by naked appeals to caste, religion and race. It was the aperitif of pure territorial representation and universal suffrage that produced the sumptuous meal of the Pam Sinhalese ministry of 1936. Lastly the Tamils realized that as a result of their absence from the Board of Ministers, they were being gradually edged out of the public services and losing out in the distribution of funds for the development of their areas.

The entire Donoughmore period from 1931 to 1947 was the seedbed of Sinhala and Tamil communalism. It was Sinhala communalism gone mad. Elections were fought and lost on appeals to race. The constitution also gave rise to raw communal political parties of which the worst manifestation was the Sinhala Maha Sabha of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and as a defense against it, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress of G.G. Ponnambalam. Ponnambalam, like the boy standing on the burring deck when all but he was lost, fought a valiant battle for his demand for fifty fifty or what came to be known as balanced representation. He made a speech in the State Council expounding his creed on Minorities and Constitutional Reform in 1938, the longest speech ever made till then by a Member of the Legislature. The appointment of the Soulbuty Commission was a victory for Ponnambalam but alasd all Mr.Ponnambalam’s Herculean efforts were to little purpose. Ponnambalam made a trip to England just before the Soulbury Report was published. He canvassed one or two British Mps, Lord Croft and Mr. Tom Drieberg but they could do very little for the Tamil cause. And while Ponnambalam busied himself in Britain, his followers in the State Council, Messrs S.Natesan, Jeganathan Tyagaraja and of course Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva voted for the acceptance of the Soulbury Report along with D.S. Senanayake’s supporter, thus imperiling the Tamil position in the eyes of Whitehall. The Tamil position was that for as long as the transfer of power by Whitehall failed to receive their consent the Tamil people retained to themselves the right to self determine their future. This position though ignored by Britain has been retained by the Tamils up to this day. In fact at every general election from 1956 to the present day the Federal party and its successor, the TULF have claimed for the Tamil people the right of self-determination.

Independence came for the Sinhalese people on 4 February 1948 by the grace and favor of the British Parliament and the ultra racialist UNP were put on the saddle .D.S. Senanayake was made Prime Minister shortly after the general election of September 1947 not without the devious political engineering of the Governor at the time Sir Henry Monck Mason Moore and expert advisors such as Sir Ivor Jennings and a few Sri Lanka watchers in Whitehall like Sir Charles Jeffries.

Thereafter followed the undisguised naked exercise of power by the so-called statesman D.S. Senanayake. I have heard sage Tamils who benefited during the D.S. period claim that the old fox was a master statesman who would never have let down the Tamils. I do not for a moment believe in this myth of the "D.S. phenomenon". Had he lived he would have done greater harm to the Tamils. Shortly after his death in March 1952, his son Deadly who succeeded his father as Prime Minister won the general election of April 1952 and it seemed as if the United National Party would be ensconced in the seats of power for the next 25 years. But the best laid plans of mice and men go awry. Dudley fell ill and resigned the premiership in October 1953 serving over one year as Prime Minster and was succeeded by his swashbuckling cousin Sir John Kotelawala. From 1953, the Sri Lanka ship of state was in the doldrums. The Buddhist clergy and laity took on the "cross" of their language and religion bewailing that these were in danger of destruction and that all that was required to reassure a threatened people was to enact Sinhala as the only official language and Buddhism as the state religion. The movement at the beginning was in search of a leader. Its stalwart at first offered the mantle of leadership to Dudley who was still ailing. Dudley contrary to popular myth identified himself with the aims and objectives of the Sinhala Buddhist movement but he was too ill to accept the onerous responsibilities. It was then that the Buddhist stalwart invited S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to take the leadership to which he readily agreed and then began the Movement which was the begetter of the present bloody civil war in the Northeast.

The forces of Sinhala Buddhism were too ferocious and wild for Mr.Bandaranaike to hold in leash. He found to his grief that he had bitten off more than he could chew. And it was this very force which in the end did him in. In the first few months in office, Mr.Bandaranaike had to use his entire armoury of political skills to tame and domesticate the Sinhala militants and activists. In fact on the day of the passing of the Sinhala Only Act, Mr.Bandaranaike found it impossible to put his own house in order. There began the first barbarous pogrom of the Tamils in Colombo, Pandadura and Gal Oya. Law and order were in the end re-established, only after the Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetileke assumed the leadership of the state to which Mr.Bandaranaike readily acquiesced.

The federal Party which had won the overwhelming confidence of the Tamil electorate at the general election of 1956 now decided on a militant course of active opposition. Their MBPS who staged a sit down protest at the Galle Face green were beaten up and spat upon. There were repercussions in the Gal Oya district and in the North Central Province. It took some 3 weeks for the armed forces to bring the disturbances under control. The government had however learned its lesson. The enactment of a single act in Parliament had cost it a pretty penny besides disturbing the national equilibrium.

The riots of 1956 were only the forerunner of worse things to follow. Even after the murder and mayhem of 1958 there were few people who could ever have foreseen the emergence of the Prabhakaran factor. 1958 was followed by the massive civil disobedience campaign by the FP in the North and East February -March 1961. The entire administration in these areas was brought to a standstill. The campaign revealed two things. The Sri Lanka army behaved like an army of occupation. Mr.Edmund Samarakoddy raised a lone voice of protest. He castigated Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranike’s government deploring that the proud Tamil people were being trampled under foot by the jackboot of the Sri Lankan army. The second was that the young people of Jaffna began losing their cool. Demonstrating before the armed forces in front of them, they pulled off their shirts and dared the army to fire at them. Nothing untoward happened fortunately. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranike in an interview to the Sunday Observer said that the satyagraha was one of the worst moments in her political life. She said she feared that her government would have to order the army to fire on the crowd in order to disperse the Satyagrahis and she expected that at least 500 people would be killed, worse fate than that which happened to the Satyagrahis of Amritsar. In the end the army did not have to shoot to kill but they batoncharged the Satyagrahis critically wounding several hundreds of them. From this incident of 1961, there began the upward spiral of the Tamil movement.

After the general election of March 1965, the usual anti Tamil riots began and the newly installed Dudley government as usual took time to quell these. The period of the Dudley government, 1965-70 was one of national reconciliation though the Tamil Regulations of January 1966 were another occasion for violence. Then cane the formation of the United Front in 1967 comprising. The SLFP, LSSP and CP. Its success at the general election of May 1970 spelled the beginning of the end of Sinhala-Tamil amity. After the election of May 1970, there followed the usual anti-Tamilpogroms. The years 1970 to 1977 were the worst phase in Sinhala-Tamil relations. It is a crying shame that the Marxist leaders of the United Front comprising world famous Trotskyists and a suave, sophisticated Burgher gentleman in Pieter Keneman were the willing midwives at the birth of anti-Tamilism. Among the Trotskyists, there was the shameless Dr.Colvin Silva father-in the pro-Sinhala Buddhist Constitution of 1972. Pieer Keuneman sat as a member of the sectoral committee which endorsed the evil and wicked schemes of standardization and assigning racial quotas to the Sinhala districts on the score of their being "backward and poorly equipped with schools" This open policy of discriminating against Tamil was in fact the last straw for the Tamil people. They reacted with refurbished militancy and chose the path of the armed struggle, the Ayuha Poraddam In 1974 all theTamil political parties united under the banner of the Tamil United front. Hardly two years later at vaddukoddai in 1976 they changed their name to the Tamil United Liberation Front and then commenced the war of Tamil independence. The army began being increasingly used by the state to suppress Tamil opposition.

The general election of 1977 brought the United National party back to power. The UNP had, to start with, laudable objectives. In their manifesto, they drew attention to the appalling low levels that Sinhala-Tamil relations had deteriorated and pledged that they would summo a Round Table Conference to resolve existing disputes. However at the same time the new UNP government failed to control the savage violence of the lumpen Sinhala hooklums against Tamils. And in fact some of the violence, it was fond, was under the direct instructions of the new ministers. The government claiming innocence all the while protesting that quit a number of the recruits for the armed forces were selected from among the political supporters of the past United Front government.

1978-83 was years of unmitigated savagery launched against Tamil settlers in the seven Sinhala provinces.

Then came the holocaust of 23 July 1983 when partially state organized violence crippled the Tamil middle class. Tamils at the economic level were left for almost 48 hours at the mercy of indifferent state security personnel. Within a few days, but longer than it usually takes, large numbers of middle class Tamils were subjected to lot, arson, plundering, rape and murder. By the time the armed forces decided to act, the largest efflux of Tamils from Ceylon to foreign lands was in full tide. The war of independence had begun the Tamil refugees to W.Europe and N.America quite unexpectedly set themselves up as successful people, entrepreneurs wherever they established themselves. They also became powerful lobbyists and began pressuring governments of the countries where they lived to restrict aid to Ceylon on the score that human rights were flagrantly violated. The Tamil problem had become internationalized, giving rise to increasing foreign concerns of the violation of human rights in Ceylon. The prosperous Tamil refugee community in foreign countries also reportedly became a source of funding for Mr. Prabhakaran and his followers. The events leading to India's intervention and the Accord of 29 July 1987 are too recent for me to recall.

This anti-Tamil record of successive Sri-Lanka government gave rise to what President JR Jayawardene in one of his despairing moments said, "They constitute the world’s most powerful minority". Secondly, not only did the Tamils become a powerful minority but they also became economically successful.

You cannot keep good men down.

The record of suffering of our community is incredible. I would venture to say that in every case, with Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, President JRJ, the heads of state became prisoners of the very forces they unleashed and mobilized to start with. As bees go for the honey, they thought they could protect their power bases by letting lose on the Tamil people a vulgar and ill disciplined Sinhala army. But they failed to realize that once the bees around the honeycomb were disturbed, they would go wild and sting everyone in their wake. This is exactly what happened when hoodlums and thugs under the guise that theirs was all a manifestation of Sinhala nationalism preyed on the innocent Tamils like vultures on a corpse. In almost every instance, the leaders surrendered to the powerful lobbies that influenced the multitude. Mr.S.W.R.D was the virtual prisoner of the Buddhist Sangha. So were the forces supporting the Buddhist Sangha in the case of Mrs. Bandaranaike. And President JRJ though to all intents and purposes, a man of iron, was a slave to the principal Tamil baiter in his cabinet, Mr. Cyril Mathew the equivalent of the notorious Jew-bateau Julius Stericher in Adolf Hitler’s government.

The Tamil people have in the last 1 years been brutalized, had their young and old men plucked from their midst and their properties destroyed. How do we get out of this impasse? Lipjhart and Daalder with their theories on consociationalism showed way out but their solutions are too late. What about the variants of devolution, from confederation to the Chandrika proposals, for the Tamil people to fight out their destiny.

I personally think that only a conferral proposal will win the approval to the Tamil people as well as the Tiger high command. A pure federation might have its appeals. But will it have fair chance to work? There will be so much bickering that in the end both the Sinhalese and Tamils will want to get out of it. But you cannot get away after 50,000 people have lost their lives by giving the Tamil people stones when they are asking for bread.

Professor A Jeyaratnam Wilson is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of New Brunswick since 1972. Previously he held the founding chair in political science at the University of Peeradeniya. He was Senior Research Professor in government at the University of Manchesteer (1987) and has been a research associate or visiting fellow at Mcill, Columbia, Nuffield College, St. Anthony"s College (Oxford), Simon Senior Research Fellow at Manchester and a University Research Fellow at Leicester. He has published numerous articles in British and North American journals and authored several books.