Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Tamil Statehood?

by Bruce Fein, The Washington Times, January 29, 2008

This abbreviated chronicle of Sri Lanka's persecution of the Tamil people easily justifies Tamil statehood, with boundaries to be negotiated. The Declaration of Independence proclaims: "[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce [a people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security." The Canadian Supreme Court in In re Secession of Quebec (1998) elaborated that a right to secession may arise whenever a government flouts its obligation to represent "the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction of any kind." Tamils have been treated as third-class citizens for a half-century.

Applying the "self-evident" truths celebrated in the Declaration of Independence, the United States should recognize the right of Sri Lanka's long oppressed Tamil people to independent statehood from the racial supremacist Sinhalese.

To deny the statehood right — sought by the Tamil people since 1976 — would mark one of the United States' most ill-conceived hours. Double standards beget enmity or contempt, a steep price even for a superpower.

To borrow from the Declaration, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

In 1948, Sri Lanka achieved nationhood from British colonial rule with a population of about 10 million. The commanding majority were Buddhist-Sinhalese. A Hindu-Tamil minority approximated 2 million.

Immediately upon independence, the Sinhalese denied citizenship and disenfranchised a staggering 1 million Tamils, which reduced them to a politically impotent ink blot. There has never been a Tamil president, prime minister or head of the military.

In the last two years, four Tamil parliamentarians under the ostensible protection of the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) have been assassinated. Sri Lanka's signature became predation, repression, and state sponsored race riots against Tamils, the first organized on May 27, 1958.

Take the grim fate of Tamil Jayantha Gnanakone, whose story speaks for all Tamils. Beginning in 1958, his family's businesses were thrice looted and burnt by Sinhalese while police and firefighters played spectator. His best friend was burned alive and, Jayantha was forced to flee to the United States for safety. No prosecutions were forthcoming nor compensation paid.

As an international airline pilot, Jayantha's career was stymied for balking at aping the Sinhalese. His shipping and transport business was crippled by the GOSL for protesting Tamil subjugation; and, the Parliament concocted allegations he was smuggling drugs and guns.

The GOSL similarly manufactured a criminal charge against Jayantha's mother, likening her to Colombia's notorious Pablo Escobar. She died of a heart attack in her home caused by stress during the appeal of her conviction and life sentence. In 2005, Jayantha's brother was arrested and falsely accused of complicity in the assassination of Sri Lanka's foreign minister.

Jayantha's homes have been regularly raided and ransacked by the police or military without warrants. His wife was arrested in 2000 on suspicion of assisting the Tamil Tigers. Even his minor children, who are U.S. citizens, have been threatened with arrest on more than one occasion while visiting Sri Lanka.

The 1958 Sinhalese Only Act was a landmark in the history of Tamil oppression. It generally excluded or handicapped Tamils in public or private employment, education, housing or welfare. Roads, schools, hospitals and public utilities were shortchanged in Tamil areas, which reflected a Sinhalese policy of "separate and unequal" that has persisted for 50 years.

Budget revenues have been spent exclusively on Singhala and Muslim areas; and, only three industries — cement, chemicals and paper — were founded in the Tamil region, and they have been shuttered for two decades.

In 1961, Tamils began a nonviolent, Gandhi-like protest in favor of regional autonomy. The Sinhalese government answered with assaults on the demonstrators, mass arrests, detentions of Tamil members of Parliament, torture and shootings. The firehoses and cattle prods used by white policemen in the United States against civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s were gentle in comparison.

In 1978, then Prime Minister Junius Jayewardene unilaterally rewrote the Sri Lankan constitution to the exclusion of Tamil representatives. It created an omnipotent presidency, an office which President Jayewardene employed to enact the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act. The law enables the Sinhalese police to arrest, search or punish any Tamil who might question Sinhalese supremacy without judicial review or supervision.

In 1983, the Sinhalese government originated raced riots that culminated in the slaughter of 4,000 Tamils. No prosecutions were brought against the Sinhalese culprits. No Tamil was compensated. Crimes of violence against Tamils by Sinhalese are never pursued, reminiscent of black lynchings in the United States during Jim Crow.

Tamils cannot resort to Sri Lankan courts for protection. There is no parallel to the United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In 1970, for example, the GOSL inaugurated a system of standardization, which required Tamil students seeking college admission to score substantially higher marks than Sinhalese applicants.

This abbreviated chronicle of Sri Lanka's persecution of the Tamil people easily justifies Tamil statehood, with boundaries to be negotiated. The Declaration of Independence proclaims: "[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce [a people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security." The Canadian Supreme Court in In re Secession of Quebec (1998) elaborated that a right to secession may arise whenever a government flouts its obligation to represent "the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction of any kind." Tamils have been treated as third-class citizens for a half-century.

Last Friday, the Sri Lankan ambassador to the United States, Bernard Goonetilleke, sported with facts in likening the persecuted Tamils to the Confederate States of America. The states that formed the Confederacy dominated the Congress and the White House for decades before 1860. The institution of slavery had been fortified by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) protecting slaveholders in Free States. The Civil War erupted when the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter, not because of Union aggression. Is it any wonder that an ambassador has been defined as an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country?

President Bush should not tarry in urging the GOSL to recognize Tamil statehood and to negotiate boundaries.

Bruce Fein is a lawyer for Tamils For Justice and chairman of the American Freedom Agenda.