The Sinhalas destroyed Sri Lanka

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: Indian Express
| Date: 20000909

By: Arvind Kala

Whatever the outcome of Sri Lanka's national election, the island's Tamil problem reminds me of the old saying that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Though India views the Tamil Tigers as terrorists, they are worshipped by the island's 2.7 million Tamils as martyrs.

In India, however, Tamil Tiger supremo Pirabhakaran is seen as an evil mesmeric figure who sends teenagers and women suicide bombers to their death. Nobody stops to ask why the Tamil Tigers are so brave when their blood brothers, the Tamils of India, are so timid that they are sought as tenants by landlords in cities all over India.

The courage of the Tamil Tigers is a courage of desperation. They say that past experience shows that even their lives wouldn't be safe within a united Sri Lanka. Sadly, a world accustomed to Muslim fundamentalism doesn't see the Sinhalese fundamentalism of Sri Lanka where ruling politicians touch the feet of militant anti-Tamil monks.

It was the persecution which gave birth to and strengthened the Tamil resolve to fight for a new nation. The persecution began soon after Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) became free from British rule in 1948. The Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamils could have co-existed and prospered. Instead, a combination of historical factors, Sinhalese nationalism and inflammatory politics succeeded in fuelling the ethnic hatred that we see today. The root of the hatred lay in history. Ever since Britain conquered Sri Lanka in 1696, government jobs in its colonial empire went more to the Sri Lankan Tamils than to the Sinhalese. This was only because they were quicker than the Sinhalese in picking up English in Christian missionary schools.

Those government jobs in the early decades, however, gave the Sri Lankan Tamils an economic edge over the Sinhalese. By the time Sri Lanka became independent, the ethnic Tamils not only held government jobs disproportionate to their 13 per cent share of the population, they also dominated professions like medicine, law, engineering, and accountancy.

Sinhalese resentment against this surfaced when Sri Lanka became a multi-party democracy and the Sinhalese came to power. First they disenfranchised one million poor estate Tamils though they had nothing in common with the Jaffna Tamils. Then Sinhala was declared Sri Lanka's official language. Buddhism was recognised as the de facto state religion. Ceylon, the island's old name was replaced with Sri Lanka, a Sinhalese name. Government jobs were reserved for the Sinhalese. Quotas in universities, medical and engineering colleges ensured the admission of low-scoring Sinhalese students over high-scoring Tamils. These official anti-Tamil actions were so systematic that William McGowan, author of The Tragedy of Sri Lanka, says that between 1956 and 1970, out of 200,000 people recruited for the island's newly-created state corporations, nearly 99 per cent were Sinhalese.

The cumulative effect on Sri Lankan Tamils was traumatic. Sri Lanka was the only home they knew. They were descendants of forefathers who had settled on the island a thousand years earlier. Where could they go? The answer had accumulated in anti-Tamil riots in 1956, 1958 and, finally, in 1983 when Sinhalese mobs in Colombo lynched 3,000 Tamils and caused another 50,000 to flee their homes. For the Sri Lankan Tamils, the moment of truth had arrived. They picked up arms. That was 17 years ago. In that time, Tamil resolve has hardened into fanaticism symbolised by the potassium cyanide capsules they bite into when faced with capture.

The Sinhalese-Tamil war devastating Sri Lanka has not only taken 60,000 lives, Sri Lankan society has become so violence-prone that the island has one of the highest murder and suicide rates in the world. But Sri Lanka's turmoil does not figure on the world's consciousness because the island does not attract Western TV cameras the way Kosovo did.

The tragedy of the Sinhalese-Tamil confrontation is that the two cultural groups lived in harmony for hundreds of years. In fact, up to the early 1980s, the island-nation was seen as a potential Singapore of South Asia. It was ecologically rich, it had high levels of literacy and health, it had good roads and railways, and it had a perfect natural harbour at Trincomalee. It was the Sinhalese who ruined their nation.

Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) LtdWednesday, October 11, 2000