The Civil war in Sri Lanka 

By A. P. Venkateswaran
(Former Foreign Secretary of the Republic of India during Rajiv Gandhi government. He resigned over a disagreement with Rajiv Gandhi on the modalities of the Indian intervention in the Sri Lankan national war)


THE GENERAL elections in Sri Lanka held last month (Dec '99), resulted in Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) winning another term in office, after she narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber. Her main political opponent, Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe, of the United National Party (UNP) lost by a much narrower margin than expected, reflecting the steep drop in Mrs. Kumaratunga's popularity since the last election. In fact, the margin may have been even narrower but for the sympathy factor following the bomb blast working in her favour. The almost concurrent bomb explosion at the opposition rally served to accentuate the dilemma in which the voters in Sri Lanka found themselves. However, one thing was clear - whatever hopes had been raised amongst the general population about an early solution to the ethnic problem, at the beginning of Mrs. Kumaratunga's first term in office in 1994, had all but vanished.

Although Mrs. Kumaratunga had won her first term on the electoral platform of putting a speedy end to the ethnic strife in Sri Lanka, events did not move in that direction for a number of reasons. Firstly, there was the insurmountable barrier of mutual suspicion, built up over the years during the civil war, which kept coming in the way of either side showing the necessary degree of trust in the other. Secondly, there was a conspicuous absence of momentum on the Sinhalese side in translating into deeds the many verbal assurances given by the President in regard to devolution of powers and autonomy for the Tamils. Thirdly, as time passed, the hard-liners amongst the Sinhalese bureaucracy and the military managed to gather sufficient strength to nullify whatever political will the President might have initially had to find a solution acceptable to the Tamils. It was no wonder in the circumstances that the talks broke down..

It was the United Front Government with Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike as Prime Minister in 1972 that had repealed the country's first Soulbury Constitution promulgated at the time of Ceylon's independence, jettisoning Section 29 thereof which had guaranteed against any discriminatory measures. This set the stage for the conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. In the words of the ruling given by the Privy Council at that time, Section 29 of the Constitution was unalterable, since it ensured ``the solemn balance of rights between the citizens of Ceylon, the fundamental condition on which inter se they accepted the Constitution''. The Republican Constitution that replaced it was aimed at consolidating the gains the Sinhala Buddhists had been systematically making ever since Ceylon attained independence, nullifying the assurance to the Tamils of equal treatment.

The new Republican Constitution of 1972 excluded the Tamils from any power sharing, rejected outright their demands for federal autonomy and any regional devolution of power, as well as denied them the inclusion of Tamil as the official language of the North and the East, where they constituted an overwhelming majority. Moreover, its Articles specifically provided for Sri Lanka to be a Unitary State (Art. 2); excluded any possibility of delegation of powers except ``to make subordinate laws'' (Art. 45-1); made Sinhala the official language (Art. 7); and gave ``Buddhism the foremost place'', declaring that ``it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster Buddhism'' (Art. 6). This in a country where one-fourth of the population is Hindu, Muslim and Christian, and one-fifth speaks Tamil as the mother tongue!

It was in protest against these discriminatory measures that the Federal Party leader Chelvanayakam resigned his Parliamentary seat. Two years later, he won a landslide victory in the byelections declaring immediately thereafter: ``We have for the last 25 years made every effort to secure our political rights on the basis of equality with the Sinhalese in a united Ceylon. It is a regrettable fact that successive Sinhalese Governments have used the power that flows from independence to deny us our fundamental rights and reduce us to the position of a subject people. These Governments have been able to do so only by using against the Tamils the sovereignty that is common to the Sinhalese and the Tamils. I wish to announce to my people and to the country that I consider the verdict at this election as a mandate that the Tamil Eelam Nation should exercise the sovereignty already vested in the Tamil people and become free. On behalf of the Tamil United Front, I give you my solemn assurance that we will carry out this mandate.''

Justice Satchi Ponnambalam, Sri Lankan jurist, has noted in an article that it was only in 1976 that Tamil politics became radicalised, due to the reign of terror unleashed on the Tamils by the Sinhalese Government. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), formed in 1976, had then passed a resolution which declared inter alia that ``the Tamils of Ceylon, by virtue of their great language, their religions, their separate culture and heritage, their history of independent existence as a separate state over a distinct territory for several centuries till they were conquered by the armed might of the European invaders and, above all, by their will to exist as a separate entity ruling themselves in their own territory, are a nation distinct and apart from the Sinhalese and their Constitution, announces to the world that the Republican Constitution of 1972 has made the Tamils a slave nation ruled by the new colonial masters, the Sinhalese, who are using the power they have wrongly usurped to deprive the Tamil Nation of its territory, language, citizenship, economic life, opportunities of employment and education and thereby destroying all the attributes of nationhood of the Tamil people.''

Significantly, in the 1977 general elections the TULF went to the people seeking a mandate to establish an independent state of Tamil Eelam, that included all the geographically contiguous areas that had been the traditional homeland of the Tamil- speaking people of the country. The results were spectacular with the TULF returning in all 17 Members of Parliament from throughout the North and the East of the island. The TULF election manifesto rhetorically asked the Tamil voters: ``What is the alternative now left to the nation that has lost its rights to its language, rights to its citizenship, rights to its religions and continues day-by-day to lose its traditional homeland to Sinhalese colonisation? What is the alternative now left to a nation that has lost its opportunities to higher education through `standardisation' and its equality in opportunities in the sphere of employment? What is the alternative to a nation that lies helpless as it is being assaulted, looted and killed by hooligans instigated by the ruling race and by the security forces of the state? Where else is an alternative to the Tamil Nation that gropes in the dark for its identity and finds itself driven to the brink of devastation? There is only one alternative and that is to proclaim with the stamp of finality and fortitude that we alone shall rule over our land that our forefathers ruled.''

The above background will place in perspective the fierce struggle of the Tamils for the restoration of their legitimate rights as equal citizens of Sri Lanka. These rights have been repeatedly denied to them by the Sinhalese majority. The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957, as well as the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Agreement of 1965 had conceded many of these rights to the Tamils, but even before the ink was dry, the agreements were reneged upon. The country-wide violence unleashed on the Tamils in 1983 had been actively abetted by the Sinhalese Government, and led to the resurgence of Tamil militancy.

As Sir Hugh Cleghorn, British Colonial Secretary of Ceylon, wrote in 1799: "Two different nations have from a very ancient period divided between them the possession of the island... These two nations differ widely in their religions, languages and manners.'' The Tamils, who are over 20 per cent of Sri Lanka population, will never agree to be treated as second class citizens. Until that realisation dawns on the Sinhalese majority, the ethnic struggle is bound to continue.

Courtesy: The Hindu 20 Jan 2000