British government owes
“Meaculpa Meaculpa Meamaximaculpa” to Eelam Tamils
By Dr. Victor Rajakulendran
For the benefit of those who are not familiar with the Latin phrase “Meaculpa Meaculpa Meamaximaculpa”, this is the way the Catholics confess their sins at the beginning of a Holy Mass. If translated into English, it is said as “Through my fault, Through my fault, Through my most grievous fault. In Tamil, it is said as “ En Pavamae, En Pavamae, En Perumpavamae.
Anyone who knows the political history of Ceylon (the Sinhalese changed it to Sri Lanka) from the time before Britain colonised the island, will accept that the present British government, and if not, at least any future government, needs to confess to the Tamil people by saying “Meaculpa Meaculpa Meamaximaculpa”, for putting them into the situation in which they are in today.
In the western maritime part of Ceylon, which is now the Western and Southern Provinces, the Portuguese found a Singhalese Kingdom with a king having his seat of government at Jayawardenepura Kotte. This city had been founded by a Tamil Viceroy, named Alakeswara, of the Singhalese King who ruled from Gampola, to defend the kingdom against the Tamil King of the Jaffna Kingdom, whose navy had laid siege. Alakeswara later became the Singhalese King by the name of Alagakonara who ruled over the western maritime part, which came to be known as the Kotte Kingdom. It is to this city of Jayawardenepura Kotte that the Government of late President Jayawardene shifted the Capital and Parliament of Ceylon. The Portuguese also conquered the Kotte Kingdom.
Portuguese rule, over the conquered territories of the Jaffna and Kotte Kingdoms was short lived. The Dutch conquered them from the Portuguese and established their rule until the close of the 18th century when the British ousted the Dutch. In 1802, by the Treaty of the Amiens, these territories were ceded to the British Crown.
In the mountainous central part of Ceylon the Singhalese had established another Kingdom. Its King was a Tamil prince from South India who had his seat of Government in Kandy. This Kandyan Kingdom was the last bastion of Singhalese independence. It had managed to beat off repeated attacks by the European powers, but the King was bedevilled by palace intrigues and plots. Finally in 1815, his Singhalese Chief Minister betrayed him to the British, who captured the King, occupied his Kingdom, and annexed it to the British Crown. The whole island of Ceylon thus became a British possession.2
For the entire duration of the Portuguese and Dutch occupation of the Jaffna and Kotte Kingdoms’ territories, the occupation powers had maintained separate administrations in the respective territories, and the Tamil-Singhalese animosity had no chance to show up. The British continued that system in the beginning even with regard to the newly annexed Kandyan Kingdom territory.
This was an epoch-making event. For the first time in its two thousand years of history, the whole of Ceylon was brought under the effective control and administration of centralised government. At no time in the past during that long history had any king, whether Tamil or Singhalese, ever exercised effective power over the entirety of the island although some of them had made bombastic claims to being universal Sovereign and Emperor of all Lanka (Ceylon). The British Governor responsible to none but his sovereign in England ruled the whole Colony from Colombo as one political entity.
It is this event which made the Tamils of the Northern Kingdom of Jaffna a minority in a unified Ceylon as against the combined numbers of the Singhalese in the territories of the Kotte and Kandyan Kingdoms. It had far-reaching consequences to the Tamils. What was administrative convenience to the British proved to be the death knell to Tamil independence and sovereignty. It enabled the British to exploit the Tamils and lure large numbers of them to leave their homeland and migrate into the Singhalese country. It helped to revitalise the centuries-old enmity of the Singhalese.
Britain owes the first “Meaculpa” to the Eelam Tamils for Captain Colebrook creating this situation.
Generally speaking, the Singhalese by nature are a lovable and friendly people with an easy-going outlook in life. The two peoples mixed freely, and there existed between them a relationship of friendliness and mutual understanding so long as neither had any political power in the country. Perhaps a common feeling of being subject peoples under an alien rule helped to create an atmosphere for friendly coexistence.
Prior to 1947, under the British Donoughmore Constitution, the civil administration of internal affairs of the country was in the hands of a Board of ministers formed from the elected members. This Board of Ministers was headed by Mr.D.S. Senanayake, but it was subject to checks by three British Secretaries. With the imminence of India’s independence in the air, Mr. D. S. Senanayake chose an opportune moment to communicate with Whitehall and raised the question of Ceylon’s independence. Whitehall requested the Board of Ministers to submit a constitutional scheme, which would be examined and reported on by a Royal Commission to be appointed at the end of the War. The Board of Ministers, composed preponderantly of Singhalese Ministers, submitted a scheme modelled on the British system of Cabinet Government and insisted on its total acceptance without any commission having to examine it. It is widely believed that this draft scheme was the handiwork of Sir Ivor Jennings, the then Principal of the Ceylon University College.
When the War came to an end Whitehall, nevertheless, appointed a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Viscount Soulbury with terms of reference to study the constitutional scheme of the Board of Ministers, hear evidence in Ceylon, if necessary, and to recommend proposals for the reform of the constitution. Although Mr. D. S. Senanayake and his ministerial colleagues officially and formally boycotted the Commission, privately they had long and protracted negotiations with the Commission in Colombo.
The Soulbury Commission visited during 1944-45 and held public sittings in the principal cities of the island. ALL the important minority communities made representations through their organisations. An ad-hoc body of Tamil leaders under the leadership of Mr. G. G, Ponnambalam made the representation before the Commission on behalf of the Ceylon Tamils. Mr. G. G. Ponnambalam presented the case as its sole spokesman. He enunciated the fifty-fifty formula for parliamentary representation, which represented the consensus that had been reached among all the Tamil leaders of the time. The fifty-fifty formula simply meant that fifty percent of the seats in the legislature to be established under the reformed constitution should be allotted to the Singhalese by virtue of their being the majority people, while all the other minority communities put together should be given the remaining fifty- percent. The Soulbury Commission paid a polite tribute to Mr. G. G. Ponnambalam’s performance, but rejected the formula. It made its recommendations accepting the scheme of the Board of Ministers in its totality. Then what was the need for a Royal Commission? The most plausible answer Mr. V. Navaratnam (a former Tamil parliamentarian) gave in his book2 was that, Whitehall was aware of the existence of a Tamil-Singhalese conflict in Ceylon and the Board of Ministers’ scheme was a completely Singhalese proposal, and that the British did not wish to appear as having not consulted the Tamils and other minorities.
British’s solution to the Ceylon’s problem, which is an almost identical conflict in India, the Hindu-Muslim problem, was different from what they did in India. In India the British were in favour of the minority and separated Pakistan from India. In Ceylon the British acted in favour of the majority and gave the majority what they wanted, ignoring the future of the minorities.
Therefore, British are responsible for all the sufferings Tamils had to go through due to the legislative and non-legislative measures implemented by the successive Singhalese governments, set up in Ceylon under the Soulbury commission recommendations. Tamils lost their language rights, their homeland was colonised with Singhalese people against Tamil people’s wishes, their right to education was curtailed, they were physically harmed, maimed and brutally killed and their properties destroyed during governments instigated ant-Tamil pogroms in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1983 etc and most of them have been forced by the Singhalese governments to live under a hostile army of occupation for almost 2 decades now.
Naturally the later generations began to question the wisdom of the political leaders of the time when the Soulbury commission was deliberating about the new constitution. After nearly 400 years of foreign occupation and rule, history presented the first opportunity to the Tamils to regain their lost freedom. In neighbouring India a minority (Muslims) similarly placed availed itself of a similar opportunity, and found protection by establishing a separate state. The youths felt that their leaders have failed to think of a similar solution for the Tamils in Ceylon. This thought led to the birth of Tamil militancy and the armed struggle for Thamil Eelam, a separate state for the Tamils in Ceylon. Their idea of a Tamil State called Thamil Eelam and a Singhalese State called Sri Lanka coexisting in the island of Ceylon, they knew is not going to be given in a plate by someone. This is what ended up in the current crisis we see in Sri Lanka (Ceylon).
Therefore, Britain owes the second “Meaculpa” to the Tamils for creating all this as a result of the Soulbury Commission recommendations.
It has become a fashion in the modern world for those who are in power, and therefore in enjoyment of the benefits of liberty, to advise others who are struggling and fighting, to settle differences by dialogue and negotiation. Because they are in power, it never occurs to them that they too at one time have had to carry on a fight for their own freedom. In this line, the LTTE has been subjected to tremendous pressure from international friends, to sit down to talks and settle by negotiations, a solution to their problem. Making use of such friends, President Chandrika’s government started an international campaign to brand the “Freedom Fighters” as “International Terrorists”. It succeeded in making the US government to accept and endorse this idea. The US, which is already facing a threat of International Terrorism from Muslim militants, who are hostile to the US, was the easy target for its conversion. The Sri Lankan government successfully persuaded the US government to include the LTTE in their list of International Terrorist Organisations. Britain was under pressure from the Sri Lankan government to do the same thing for a long time. Britain having done the damage to the Tamils twice earlier, by its own activities in Ceylon, resisted for sometimes. But, when the British government enacted its new “Terrorism Law 2000”, under direct pressure from the Sri Lankan government and indirectly through the US government, British government committed the sin of betraying the Tamils once again, by proscribing the LTTE in Britain. This too, they did at a crucial time when a Norwegian facilitated, internationally supported peace effort was intensifying. This action by the British government has undermined the legitimacy the LTTE has gained among the international community to represent the Tamil people of Ceylon in any negotiations with the Sri Lankan government, as an equal partner. Britain has done this at a time when Sri Lankan government has to lift its own proscription on LTTE to facilitate the anticipated negotiations.
For this, Britain owes the “Meamaximaculpa” to the Tamils of Ceylon.
Far too many innocent lives have been slaughtered at the altar of Sinhalese ambition, for dominion over the Tamils or assimilation of Tamils to become Singhalese and Buddhists. Far too great is the flood of Tamil tears, shed by grieving mothers and widows and orphaned children. Far too numerous is the number of Tamils who have been driven out of their homes and hearths to roam and wander throughout the world from country to country in search of asylum to cling to life. Therefore, it is now idle to talk of federalism, devolution of power, autonomy, regional councils, district development councils, second chamber and such substitutes.
Seventy-five years of fruitless discussions and agreements about every one of these devices have vindicated in no uncertain manner the far-sighted wisdom of the Tamil leader of the colonial era, Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan’s prophetic admonition, and “Never trust the Singhalese leaders”. Therefore if Britain wants to sincerely say “Meaculpa Meaculpa Meamaximaculpa” to Tamils, and save itself from the fires of the hell, British government should be prepared to underwrite an agreement, reached between the LTTE and Sri Lankan government, for a Tamil Nation (Thamil Eelam) and a Singhalese Nation (Sri Lanka) to coexist in the island of Ceylon in peace and harmony, with mutual economic and political benefits.
1. Mendis, G.C. 1944. Ceylon Under The British. The Colombo Apothecaries Co. Ltd., Colombo.
2. Navaratnam,. V. 1991. The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation. Kaanthalakam, 834, Anna Saalai, Madras 600 002. India.