Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Neutralisation of Tamil Moderates

by PK Balachandran, The Hindustan Times, July 18, 2006

Right from the time Sri Lanka or "Ceylon" became independent in 1948, the dominant Sinhala polity has never thought it fit to negotiate seriously with the Tamil moderates. This unwillingness had given rise to Tamil militancy, which, in turn, devalued the moderates further.

It was July 13 — the 17th anniversary of assassination of one of the most prominent moderate Tamil leaders of Sri Lanka — Appapillai Amirthalingam.

The day went unnoticed, but for an article by the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the web newspaper Asian Tribune and a short appreciation in the state-owned Daily News.

None of Amirthalingam's comrades thought it fit to mark the event.

Statue of SJV Chelvanayagam Vavuniya March 31, 2006 - TamilNet

Gold statue of SJV Chelvanayagam installed in Vavuniya on 108th anniversary of his birth (source, TamilNet, March 31, 2006)

The treatment meted out to Amirthalingam, who spearheaded the Tamils' democratic and peaceful struggle after the death of "Eelam's Gandhi" SJV Chelvanayakam in 1977, is a reflection of the continual marginalisation of moderates in the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict.

Right from the time Sri Lanka or "Ceylon" became independent in 1948, the dominant Sinhala polity has never thought it fit to negotiate seriously with the Tamil moderates.

This unwillingness had given rise to Tamil militancy, which, in turn, devalued the moderates further.

And fearing isolation [irrelevancy -- Editor], the moderates themselves began to tout the extremist agenda, alienating themselves even more from the Sinhala polity.

But right through, despite mouthing separatist slogans, the moderates had made sincere attempts to tread the path of constitutionalism and accommodation [i.e. through the electoral process and dialogue] .

To their dismay, these were invariably sneered at by the Tamil militants [because of lack of results] and the Sinhala polity, leaving them with no alternative but to toe the extremist line again.

There have also been occasions when the Sinhala polity and the Tamil extremists have united to fight the moderates, albeit for entirely different reasons.

Both saw the moderates as obstructing the line of fire. They hoped that once the moderates were sidelined, they would be able to take each other on more effectively.

The absence of any moderate intermediaries resulted in the exacerbation of the conflict and its continuance.

It paved the way for intervention by non-Sri Lankan forces, India first and the international community later.

The latter came as honest brokers, facilitators, mediators or as active participants as a third force.

But far from reducing the anxieties in the minds of the two principal actors, the foreign actors only added a new dimension to these anxieties.

If the Sri Lankan state felt an unwanted abridgement of its sovereignty, the non-state actor, the LTTE, felt that its hands were being tied.       

Today, with the moderates having been eliminated, the LTTE is waging an armed struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam based on the right to self-determination.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), comprising a set of politicians, is but an unabashed supporter of the LTTE and touts its line in parliament and outside [otherwise the people in their districts would not have elected them].

Killings mount despite a Ceasefire Agreement. The international community, including India, is fully in the picture as a third party, but its role is a cause of new frustrations and frictions.

The pathetic story of the Sri Lankan Tamil moderates has been told very vividly by the veteran Sri Lankan journalist T.Sabaratnam in his book, The Murder of a Moderate: Political Biography of Appapillai Amirthalingam (Nivetha Publishers, Dehiwela, Sri Lanka, 1996).

Language issue

Although the Sinhala-Tamil conflict predates Ceylon's independence, it got exacerbated with the introduction of the "Sinhala Only" Act in 1956.

Tamil, spoken by more than 12 percent of the population which was concentrated in the North-East covering a third of the island's land mass, was given no place in the administration of the country.

The aggrieved Tamils, and their chief political organisation, the Federal Party (FP), felt that they would get justice only if they had regional autonomy under a "federal" Sri Lankan Constitution.

In August 1957, the FP sought the establishment of a "Federal Union of Ceylon" with an autonomous Tamil state in the North East; parity between Sinhala and Tamil; and an end to state-aided [Sinhala] colonisation meant to whittle down the proportion of Tamils in the North East.

FP's agitation led Bandaranaike (popularly known as Banda) to enter into a pact with the leader of the FP, SJV Chelvanayakam (popularly known as Chelva) in 1957.

Under the "B-C Pact", Tamil was to be used in the North East. Banda was ready to consider a Provincial Council, but ruled out a merger of the North and East to form a Tamil-dominated Regional Council.

His Sinhala constituency feared that a consolidation of Tamils on a territorial basis would lead to secession.

The B-C Pact was not implemented, due to an agitation led by JR Jayewardene of the opposition United National Party (UNP) and supported by Buddhist monks who considered themselves guardians of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community.

In fact, Banda tore up the pact when Buddhist monks confronted him on April 9, 1958. But Banda's dramatic gesture did not assuage communal feelings.

There were anti-Tamil riots in various parts of the island in May and June.

However, Banda regretted tearing up the B-C Pact and brought in the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act. But this too was not implemented.

Moves to get the provisions included in the Constitution failed.

With the UNP playing the Sinhala Only card to capture the majority Sinhala vote, the SLFP wriggled out of its commitment to implement the B-C Pact.

Led by Banda's widow, Sirima Bandaranaike, the SLFP swept the 1960 polls. And her government said that the Sinhala Only Act would be implemented from January 1, 1961.

FP was dismayed, and the more radical youths in it urged the party to give up federalism and go for full separation instead. But the party Supremo, Chelva, rejected separatism, saying that it was "premature" and advocated Civil Disobedience.

The Civil Disobedience movement [was overall peaceful with numerous sit-ins and other actions, but] took a violent turn at a few places and the FP issued Tamil Arasu (Tamil Government) postage stamps, giving a hint about the existence of a separatist undercurrent [although participants say that this action was chosen because it was one that was do-able with the resources available].

In April 1961, Ms Bandaranaike declared a State of Emergency and placed the North East under military rule. But this only hardened the Tamil stand.

In  1963, the FP asked Tamil government servants not to learn Sinhala [now required by law to keep their jobs] even as the government threatened to sack them.

In the March 1965 parliamentary elections, the UNP led by Dudley Senanayake better known as "Dudley" won. The FP supported him, and Dudley entered into a pact with Chelva called "D-C Pact".

The D-C Pact said that the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act would be implemented in the North East; District Councils (DCs) would be established and locals would get priority in land allotments in the North East to allay fears of planned Sinhala colonisation among the Tamils.

As a compromise, the FP did not press for federalism or regional Councils, even though these were in its 1965 election manifesto.

But as author Sabaratnam points out, the D-C Pact was implemented only "half heartedly". Some of its provisions were not implemented at all, he notes.

He quotes Dudley telling Chelva: "I thought that after sometime you will not insist on your demands!"

However, Dudley said he was prepared to introduce District Councils (DCs) and asked a moderate Tamil minister from the FP, M Tiruchelvam, to draft a devolution package for them.

The DC system Thiruchelvam fashioned was toothless because it functioned under the Centre and did not replace the district administrative structure.

While the radical Tamil youth in the FP were angry, the opposition SLFP deemed the DCs to be a stepping stone to the division of the country and started to agitate.

Dudley climbed down and temporarily withdrew the District Councils bill in 1965.

Chelvanayakam, Amirthalingam and Mangayarkarasi

Chelvanayakam, Amirthalingam & Mangayarkarasi

Upon this, the radical youth in the FP wanted the party to quit the government. Amirthalingam, who was General Secretary, said that Dudley should be given more time to fulfill his promise.

However, in 1969, the FP withdrew support to the government.

In the 1970 parliamentary elections, the FP campaigned for federalism, with five autonomous states within Sri Lanka.

To allay Sinhala fears, the FP said that a state should have only limited powers and that the Centre should be able to dismiss a state government.

But the 1972 Republican Constitution did away with the safeguards for the Tamils, which existed in the previous Soulbury constitution, and entrenched the Sinhala Only Act.

Regulations made under the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act were not made part of the constitution. Tamil failed to get a place even in the North East. Sinhala was made the court language all over the island.

The militant Tamil youth, encouraged by the emergence of an independent Bengali-speaking Bangladesh with Indian military assistance in late 1971, pressed the FP to abandon federalism and go for separation.

But the FP continued with its demand for an autonomous "Traditional Homeland" in the North East within Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, Velupillai Prabhakaran had formed the Tamil New Tigers (TNT) to wage an armed struggle for total separation. He was fully exploiting the frustration of the educated Tamil youth.

The media-wise Standardisation scheme introduced in the early 1970s, required Tamil stream students to get more marks than Sinhala medium students to get admission to the professional courses.

And in January 1974, the police attacked the International Tamil Conference in Jaffna and "tremendously hurt the feelings of the Tamils," in the words of Sabaratnam.

Chelva, who had been moderate in his speeches all along, began to speak of the need for Eelam. In 1975, he pointed out how various efforts to come to an agreement with the Sinhalese had failed and why it was time to say "Goodbye" and set up an independent Tamil state.

"Nations much smaller than the size and population claimed by the Tamils of Sri Lanka are governing and functioning as separate states.

As such, why should the Tamils of Sri Lanka not agitate for a separate state whereby we can govern ourselves?" he asked at a meeting in Kokkuvil in May 1975.

In May 1976, the Tamil United Front (a new amalgam including the FP) resolved that self-determination was the Tamil goal and formed the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).

Not surprisingly, the TULF fought the 1977 elections on a patently separatist platform.

Despite this, Chelva favoured dialogue with the Sinhala moderates. In the teeth of opposition from the party youth and the new armed militants, he had talks with the SLFP and the UNP at the time of the 1977 elections for securing a federal set up.

The UNP won with a massive majority. But before anything could be done about the Tamils [or one could say because there was discussion of something to be done for the Tamils], there were anti-Tamil riots in the South in August in which 112 Tamils were killed and 25,000 rendered homeless.

Amirthalingam came under fire from the radical Tamil youth and militants for not drafting a Constitution of an independent Eelam [the platform he and the TULF ran on and were elected on] and for accepting the post of Leader of Opposition.

Simultaneously, he was under fire from the Sinhala nationalists also, for the TULF's separatist agenda.

But he remained cool saying that the TULF was not having a confrontation with the government and that he still trusted JR to give the Tamils autonomy within Sri Lanka [and he had political ambitions and wanted to enjoy the perks of office].

He also said that the position of the Leader of Opposition would open doors for him in the island and abroad and enable him to propagate the Tamil cause for autonomy peacefully.

JR abolished the media-wise standardization for admissions to professional courses and introduced a district wise quota. But this did not help matters.

Tamil militant activities increased. An Avro aircraft of the state airline was blown up in 1978 and the Army was dispatched to Jaffna in 1979.

The volatile situation, made JR propose District Development Councils (DDCs) in 1980, and the TULF agreed to participate in the teeth of opposition from the militants.

"The method of democracy is the ballot not the bullet," said Amirthalingam.

But, as the current President Mahinda Rajapaksa, recalled in a recent article in Asian Tribune the promised power was not devolved to the DDCs by the UNP government. This dismayed the TULF and further fuelled militant anger.

"The country still suffers the tragic consequences of this failure of the UNP to share power at the lowest level of the districts," Rajapaksa said.

JR did not include the safeguards for the Tamils, which the Tamils had demanded, in the new Constitution he fashioned in 1978.

However, despite this, and mounting pressure from the militants to boycott elections, the TULF decided to contest the 1981 local bodies elections. It was defeated.

"We had nothing to show to the people. The DDCs had failed," Amirthalingam said.

Mounting militancy in the North led to widespread anti-Tamil riots in Colombo in July 1983 in which, officially, 350 people were killed [unofficial counts say 2,000-3,000].

JR's anti-Tamil bias was evident when, in his broadcast, he had no soothing words for that community, the victims, points out Sabaratnam.

JR also brought in the 6th Amendment to the Constitution, which made talk of separatism an offense. He also threatened to imprison TULF leaders. [Amirthalingam and others fled to India, where they stayed until 1987 when they returned with the IPKF.]

"It is the end of the road for the TULF," gloated Prime Minister R Premadasa.

But Foreign Minister ACS Hameed warned that this would shut out the only possible local Tamil channel to the militants, and bring in India, which was already showing great concern. Hameed's fear proved to be well founded.

India trained and armed Tamil militants, re-energised the demoralised TULF, intervened diplomatically, and finally imposed the India-Sri Lanka Accord on both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

While both the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE opposed Indian intervention, especially the deployment of 70,000 Indian troops to enforce the Accord, Amirthalingam and his TULF openly spoke in support of Indian intervention and the presence of the Indian Army.

Amirthalingam and the TULF welcomed the Premadasa-LTTE talks in 1989 but said that other militant and political groups, and India, should also be involved.

The LTTE suspected that the moderates were doing all this at the behest of India, a yoke it wanted to get rid of fast.

A hit squad of the LTTE shot dead Amirthalingam and his colleague Yogeswaran in Colombo on July 13, 1989.

The LTTE did not own responsibility for the killing. Since the Premadasa government was having talks with the LTTE at that time, with the intention of getting the cooperation of the militant group to throw the Indians out, it tried to show that the LTTE was not involved.

But the efforts of the "strange bedfellows" came unstuck. In March 1990, the LTTE's Deputy Leader G Mahendrarajah alias Mahattaya, told Lanka Guardian: "They were not killed because they had held views different from the LTTE but because they were acting as the agents of India, in short, traitors, collaborators."

"In that background, the LTTE kills those who betray the cause. In a national struggle, the battle is everywhere, the traitor anywhere." [Mahattaya should know, so this is a rather strange confession of his. Whom to believe? In another interview Mahattaya described Amirthalingam as 'deadwood' and not to be bothered with. Note that the Defense Ministry website claims that Joseph Pararajasingham was also killed by the LTTE!]


from TamilNation, 1999

...But, even in 1983, having forfeited their seats in Parliament, Amirthalingam and the TULF could have openly accepted the lead role of the armed struggle.

It is true that the armed resistance itself was divided. But, the way out was not to function as a mediator between the different groups and in this way seek to ensure the lead role of the TULF,  but to openly accept that whatever role that the TULF had to play in the context of an armed struggle, must be subordinate to a leadership which must emerge from those within the guerrilla movement. To paraphrase, yet again, the words of Regis Debray, guerrilla warfare cannot be directed  from outside. It can be directed only  from within, by a leadership which accepts its full share of the risks involved.

The path that Amirthalingam and the TULF adopted, led them, in the years after 1983, to rely almost exclusively on the support of the Indian government to further the Tamil cause. In the result, they acted within the political frame set for them by India - an India where they resided as guests of the Indian Government. 

Amirthalingam could not have been unaware that  India's support for the 'Tamil cause' was of a limited nature and that New Delhi had its own geo political objectives.  Amirthalingam was right to address the question as to whether Tamil Eelam was attainable without New Delhi's acquiescence.   But, he was wrong to do so by isolating himself and the TULF from those who were leading the struggle on the ground.

In 1985, at Bhutan, the TULF subscribed to the Joint Statement made by the Tamil delegation before the walk out,  walked out of the Thimpu Talks together with all the other Tamil groups, but then stayed behind in India to continue discussions with Indian representatives and embark on 'indirect' negotiations with Sri Lanka.  These 'discussions'  eventually resulted in  the fiasco of the Draft Framework of Accord and Understanding of 30 August 1985 which was rejected by the militant groups.

Again, in 1987, Amirthalingam accepted the Indo Sri Lanka Accord and the comic opera of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution. He continued to defend India's stand even after the offensive launched by the so called Indian Peace Keeping Force in the Tamil homeland in  October 1987. Amirthalingam's support of the actions of the IPKF and his refusal to condemn them, set perhaps the final seal on his separation from the Tamil people. But, the final humiliation was yet to come.

The final humiliation

At the elections held in 1989 after the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution, the TULF which had won a resounding victory at the 1977 General Elections for Tamil Eelam, went down to an equally resounding defeat. Amirthalingam was rejected by the Tamil people and that too, at an election conducted with the active presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. [The TULF did win enough votes in all districts for Amirthalingam to be appointed a National List MP.] India, by this time had begun to rely on the armed EPRLF and Varadarajaperumal as its ally to progess its policy objectives.

Significantly, the TULF whose Members of Parliament had, in 1983, refused to take their oaths under the 6th Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution were, six years later, willing to contest elections on the basis of taking that oath.  Those who had declared in 1977 that there was no alternative but 'to proclaim with the stamp of finality and fortitude that we alone shall rule over our land our forefathers ruled' were willing to declare on oath that they will secure the territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan state. The ringing tones of the 1977 General Election manifesto now rang somewhat hollow. It was the end of the road to Tamil Eelam, so far as the TULF and Amirthalingam were concerned, though the TULF continued to call itself the Tamil United Liberation Front...