Indictment Against Sri Lanka

by Nadesan Satyendra

from a 1993 booklet of the same name published in London by the Legal & Human Rights Division of the International Secretariat of the LTTE

The island of Sri Lanka (known earlier as Ceylon) is 25,000 square miles in extent, situated about twenty miles from the southern extremity of the Indian sub continent. About one fifth of the island’s population of 16 million, are Tamils and somewhat less than three quarters are Sinhalese. The Tamils reside largely in the north and the east and on the plantations in the central hills, whilst the Sinhalese reside in the south, west and in the center as well. The two people speak two different languages and by and large profess two different religions. A large number of Tamils are Hindus and the overwhelming majority of the Sinhala people are Buddhists.

the early Tamils

The Tamils are an ancient people. Their history had its beginnings in the early settlements on the rich alluvial plains near the southern extremity of peninsular India. It was here, that the Tamils erected their first cities about three thousand years ago.

The words in use amongst the early Tamils show that they had ‘kings’ who dwelt in ‘strong houses’ and ruled over small ‘districts’. They had ‘laws’ and ‘customs’. They had ‘medicines’, ‘towns’, ‘boats’ and ‘ships’. All the ordinary and necessary arts of life, including ‘agriculture’ ‘spinning’, ‘weaving’ and ‘dyeing’ existed amongst them. [Robert Caldwell: A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages: London, Trubner 1875]

The Tamils were a sea faring people They traded with Rome in the days of Emperor Augustus. They sent ships to many lands bordering the Indian Ocean and with the ships went traders, scholars, and a way of life. Tamil inscriptions in Indonesia go back some two thousand years and the French archeologist, Jean Filliozat, has concluded that some of them may be dated as belonging to the second century before Christ. The oldest Sanskrit inscriptions belonging to the third century in Indo China bear testimony to Tamil influence and until recent times Tamil texts were used by priests in Thailand and Cambodia. The scattered elements of ruined temples of the time of Marco Polo’s visit to China in the 13th century give evidence of purely Tamil structure and include Tamil inscriptions. The island of Sri Lanka, which was separated from the Indian sub continent by less than thirty miles of water, was not unknown to the early Tamils who called it Eelam, and who established their early kingdoms there more than two thousand five years ago.

the early Sinhalese

The Sinhala people trace their origins in the island to the arrival of Prince Vijaya from India, about 2500 years ago and the Mahavamsa, the Sinhala chronicle of a later period (6th Century A.D.) records that Prince Vijaya arrived on the island on the same day that the Buddha attained Enlightenment in India.

The question as to whether it was the Sinhalese or the Tamils who were the first to arrive in the Island has not been without controversy but the words of the eminent Sinhala historian and Cambridge scholar, Paul Peiris represent an influential and common sense point of view:

‘ stands to reason that a country which was only thirty miles from India and which would have been seen by Indian fisherman every morning as they sailed out to catch their fish, would have been occupied as soon as the continent was peopled by men who understood how to sail… Long before the arrival of Prince Vijaya, there were in Sri Lanka five recognized isvarams of Siva which claimed and received f he adoration of all India. These were Tiroketeeswaram near Mahatitha; Munneswaram dominating Salawatte and the pearl fishery; Tondeswaram near Mantota; Tirkoneswaram near the great bay of Kottiyar and Nakuleswaram near Kankesanturai. Their situation close to these ports cannot be the result of accident or caprice and was probably determined by the concourse of a wealthy mercantile population whose religious wants called for attention…’ [Paul E. Pieris: Nagadipa and Buddhist Remains in Jaffna: Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch Vol.28]

early political history

The early political history of the people of South India and Sri Lanka, in the centuries before the advent of the European powers, is largely a chronicle of the rise and fall of individual kingdoms. Sometimes they fought against outside invaders and some times they warred against each other. The society was feudal in structure. Land was the dominant means of production. Kingdoms existed. Nations were yet unborn. There was more than one Tamil kingdom in both South India and in Sri Lanka just as much as there was more than one Sinhala kingdom in Sri Lanka. Sometimes alliances were made to defeat a common enemy. Again, as in Europe before the Industrial Revolution, marriage was one way by which a kingdom was enlarged or strengthened. Sinhala kings sometimes married Tamil princesses. The pace had been set by Prince Vijaya himself.

In Europe, the industrial revolution which brought with it the printing press and the steam engine, the growth of easier communications, and the shift from land to other means of production, led to the break up of feudalism and the birth of nation states. It was a change that was aided by the use of gun powder and the power that flowed from the barrel of the gun. The boundaries of many nation states were settled painfully, after many wars spread across more than two hundred years.

But the same industrial revolution which was linked with the birth of nation states in Europe, also served to consolidate the mercantile expansion of the European powers and the colonization of Asia.

The Portuguese arrived in Southern India late in the 15th century and in Sri Lanka in the 16th century. The 17th century saw the advent of the British, the Dutch and the French to the Indian region. In Sri Lanka even when the island was ruled by the Portuguese and the Dutch, the North and the East was administered as an entity separate from the rest of the country. But with British colonization in 1833 all parts of the country were combined under a unitary form of government.

The colonization process, amongst other things, served also to inhibit the organic growth of nations in the Indian region. State boundaries in India and in Sri Lanka reflected the power wielded by the foreign ruler and the need of the ruler to perpetuate that power.

It was with the departure of the British in 1947/48, that the organic growth of nations gathered momentum in the Indian region. In India this led to the demand for linguistic states within a Federal Union. A rising Tamil nationalism on the Indian sub continent was contained, for the time being, within the frame of the linguistic state of Tamil Nadu which was constituted in the 1960s a linguistic state with a population of around 50 million Tamils.

rule by a permanent Sinhala majority

In the island of Sri Lanka, however, the growth of a separate Tamil national identity was accelerated by the actions of a Sinhala majority which regarded the island as the exclusive home of Sinhala Buddhism and the Tamils as invaders who were to be sent back to Tamil Nadu or subjugated and assimilated within the confines of a unitary Sinhala Buddhist state.

“The history of Sri Lanka is the history of the Sinhalese race… The Sinhalese people were entrusted 2500 years ago, with a great and noble charge, the preservation… of Buddhism.. in 1956 will occur the unique threefold event the completion of 2500 years of Ceylon’s history, of the tie of Sinhalese and Buddhism. . . The birth of the Sinhalese race would thus seem to have been not a mere chance, not an accidental occurrence, but a predestined event of high import and purpose. The nation seemed designed, as it were, from its rise, primarily to carry aloft for fifty centuries the torch that was lit by the great World Mentor (the Buddha) twenty five centuries ago…” (The Revolt in the Temple, by D.C. Vijayawardhana,1953)

This potent mixture of legend and superstition, passed off as historical fact, was nurtured, refined and utilized by successive Sinhala political leaders who sought to perpetuate their rule in Sri Lanka within the structural constraints of a dependent post colonial economy. Richard Falk of the University of Princeton put it well when he declared:

“To participate actively in the world economy as a latecomer, it is necessary to enter on terms that serve that wider market at the expense of the domestic population. . . the logic of the global market is such that a Third World country has little to offer other than commodity exports (that generally divert productive resources from the domestic economy) and cheap labor (that attracts foreign investment). This cycle has dreadful political effects as well; the export compulsion capitalizes agriculture at the expense of marginal peasants and domestic demand, while the investment compulsion both depresses real wages and represses the efforts of workers to resist. In such a context a Third World leader is necessarily alienated from his people, serving interests that are primarily external to those of his country. . . “ [Richard Falk – The World Bank in the Philippines, Institute of Food and Policy, San Francisco 1982]

On the one hand the Sinhala political leaders opened out the economy, encouraged tourism and foreign capital and served interests that were often external to those of their own Sinhala people. At the same time they preached an exaggerated Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as a way of securing their increasingly tenuous hold on popular support. It was a belligerent Sinhala chauvinism which laid claim to the island of Sri Lankan Sinhala Buddhist ‘Deepa’ and which often found open and shameless expression:

“…The time has come for the whole Sinhala race which has existed for 2500 years, jealously safeguarding their language and religion, to fight without giving any quaffer to save their birthright… I will lead the campaign…” (J.R.Jayawardene, Sinhala Opposition Leader reported in Sri Lanka Tribune: 30th August 1957)

“I am not worried about the opinion of the Tamil people. .. now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion… the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.” (President J.R.Jayawardene, Daily Telegraph, 11th July 1983)

It was a belligerence which was often matched by the forked tongue of the would be conqueror:

“The United National Party accepts the position that there are numerous problems confronting the Tamil speaking people. The lack of a solution to their problems has made the Tamil speaking people support even a movement for the creation of a separate state. In the interest of a national integration and unity so necessary for the economic development of the whole country, the Party feels such problems should be solved without loss of time.

The party when it comes to power will take all possible steps to remedy their grievances in such field as (1) Education (2) Colonization (3) Use of Tamil Language (4) Employment in Public and Semi Public Corporations. We shall summon an All Party Conference as stated earlier and implement its decisions.” Sri Lankan President Jayawardene’s Election Manifesto before coming into power, July 1977

“My own view is that there is no ethnic question… What is the Tamil question? Could you tell me? What is it? What do the Tamils suffer from? The island belongs to them, as to everybody else.” Sri Lankan President J.R.Jayawardene after coming into power reported in Madras Hindu, January 1986

The words of Sathasivam Krishnakumar (also known as Kittu), Member of the Central Committee of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are apposite:

“Whilst Sri Lanka talks peace it continues with its military efforts.. If we look at the past we can see why. Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism has been institutionalized in Sri Lanka and today it has become more powerful than the politicians themselves. Indeed even if some Sinhala politicians seek to settle the conflict, Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism will seek to prevent such a settlement. This is the political reality that those who are aware of the Sri Lankan situation are well aware of. This Sinhala chauvinism which was nurtured by Sinhala politicians for their electoral advantage, has grown into a Frankenstein monster which now has the power to destroy and make politicians. This we understand very well.” (Sathasivam Krishnakumar in an interview with Melbourne Community Radio CR3, reported in Tamil Nation, September 15, 1991)

And it is a Sinhala chauvinism which continues to find belligerent expression in the l990s as well:

” ‘Traditional Tamil homeland’ would best be introduced to the world as an amusing bit olfaction . .. Let interested parties keep that concept to themselves.”(Sen. Madihe Pannaseeha Mahanayaka Thera in a statement in the Sri Lanka Sunday Times, 29 December 1991)

“The majority in this country are Sinhalese. Without the consent of the majority no one can come into power” (Ven. Galaboda Gnanassara Thera, the Chief Incumbent of Gangaramaya, Sri Lanka Sunday Times, 29 December 1991)

But whilst democracy may mean acceding to the rule of the majority, democracy also means government by discussion and persuasion. It is the belief that the minority of today may become the majority of tomorrow that ensures the stability of a functioning democracy.

The reality of democracy in Sri Lanka was that no Tamil was ever elected to a predominantly Sinhala electorate and no Sinhalese was ever elected to a predominantly Tamil electorate. The practice of democracy within the confines of an unitary state served to perpetuate the oppressive rule of a permanent Sinhala majority.

It was a permanent Sinhala majority, which through a series of legislative and administrative acts, ranging from disenfranchisement, and standardization of University admissions, to discriminatory language and employment policies, and state sponsored colonization of the homelands of the Tamil people, has sought to establish its hegemony over the Tamils of Eelam.

These legislative and administrative acts were reinforced from time to time with physical attacks on the Tamil people with intent to terrorize and intimidate them into submission. It was a course of conduct which led eventually to the rise of Tamil militancy in the mid 1970s with, initially, sporadic acts of armed resistance. The armed resistance was met with wide ranging retaliatory attacks on increasingly large sections of the Tamil people with intent, once again to subjugate them. In the late 1970s large numbers of Tamil youths were detained without trial and tortured under emergency regulations and later under the Prevention of Terrorism Act which has been described by the International Commission of Jurists as a ‘blot on the statute book of any civilized country’. in 1977 Sir John Foster, David Astor, Louis Blom Cooper, Dingle Foot, Robert Birley, James Fawcett, Michael Scott, wrote to the London Times:

“A tragedy is taking place in Sri Lanka: the political conflict following upon the recent elections, is turning into a racial massacre. It is estimated by reliable sources that between 250 and 300 Tamil citizens have lost their lives and over 40,000 made homeless…(The Tamils) have now lost confidence in their treatment by the Sinhalese majority and are calling for a restoration of their separate national status the racial persecution of the Tamils and denial of their human rights should not pass without protest.” Sir John Foster, David Astor, Louis Blom Cooper, Dingle Foot, Robert Birley, James Fawcett, Michael Scott, London Times 20th September 1977

In 1979 and thereafter, there were random killings of Tamils by the state security forces and Tamil hostages were taken by the state when ‘suspects’ were not found. Torture was almost an universal practice for the Sri Lankan authorities. In 1981 the Jaffna Public Library was burnt whilst several high ranking Sinhala security officers and two cabinet ministers were present in Jaffna town. And the attack on the Tamils in 1983 was described in the Review of the International Commission of Jurists in the following terms:

“The impact of the communal violence on the Tamils was shattering. More than 100,000 people sought refuge in 27 temporary camps set up across the country… A government spokesman has denied that the destruction and killing of Tamils amounted to genocide. Under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, acts of murder committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such are considered as acts of genocide. The evidence points clearly to the conclusion that the violence of the Sinhala rioters on the Tamils amounted to acts of genocide. Surprisingly, President Jayawardene in his first public comment made three days after the riots had begun, did not condemn the violence against the Tamils. In trying to placate the majority Sinhalese, he seemed by implication to justify the atrocities against the Tamils..” The Review, International Commission of Jurists, edited by Niall MacDermot, December 1983

The genocide attack on the Tamils was followed, in August 1983, by the enactment of the Sixth Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution an Amendment which in effect rendered vacant the Parliamentary seats of the elected representatives of the Tamil people. The International Commission of Jurists commented:

“The freedom to express political opinions, to seek to persuade others of their merits, to seek to have them represented in Parliament, and thereafter seek Parliament to give effect to them, are all fundamental to democracy itself. These are precisely the freedoms which Article 25 (of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights) recognizes and guarantees and in respect of advocacy for the establishment of an independent Tamil State in Sri Lanka, those which the 6th Amendment is designed to outlaw. It therefore appears to me plain that this enactment constitutes a clear violation by Sri Lanka of its obligations in international law under the Covenant… “ Paul Sieghart: Sri Lanka: A Mounting Tragedy of Errors Report of International Commission of Jurists 1984.

the Tamil nation

Today the Tamil nation exists because it is rooted in the direct personal feelings and the material interests of large sections of the Tamil people, whether they be public servants deprived of increments and promotions in consequence of the Sinhala Only Act in 1956, whether they be expatriate Tamil professionals who had left Ceylon in the face of a growing discrimination so that they may lead a life not of luxury but of dignity, whether they be those who continued to suffer discrimination at their work place because they had nowhere else to go, whether they be students deprived of admission to Universities because of standardization, whether they be parents who saw no future for their children’s advancement, whether they be farmers who were forced to contend with an ‘open economic’ policy which granted them no protection, whether they be businessmen who had their businesses burnt and destroyed by Sinhala goon squads, whether they be those who had their kith and kin killed and raped and their homes looted, whether they be those who were rendered homeless and who lived in refugee camps in their own ‘homelands’, whether they be those who had left their homelands in fear and who sought refugee in Tamil Nadu or as wandering nomads in foreign lands, whether they be those who continued to remain in Sri Lanka and live in fear because they were Tamils and whether it be those who said that ‘enough was enough’ and who would not take it lying down any more and who were ready to give their lives in an armed struggle.

The record shows that the armed resistance of the Tamil people led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam arose as a defense against decades of oppressive rule by an alien Sinhala people who spoke a language different from the Tamils, and whose culture and heritage were separate from that of the Tamils.

The political force of Tamil nationalism is rooted in a shared heritage, consolidated by the oppression of the present, and given purpose by a people’s aspirations for their future. To fail to understand this, is to fail to understand that which has made possible the colossal sacrifices so willingly suffered by so many thousands of Tamils during the past several years. The cyanide capsule in the hands of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is evidence enough that it is much more than a piece of political rhetoric to say that it is not for glory or for riches or honors that a people fight but for liberty and dignity which no human will consent to lose except with his or her life.

But, that is not to say that the Tamil struggle is an expression of chauvinism. The Tamil people recognize that no nation is an island. They do not deny the existence of the Sinhala nation. It is Sri Lanka which stands charged with the continued refusal to recognize the Tamils as a nation and to deal with them on that basis.

“It is the Sri Lanka government that has failed to learn the lessons from the emergence of the struggles for self determination in several parts of the globe and the innovative structural changes that have taken place.” Velupillai Prabakharan, Leader of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, reported in Kalathil, February 1992

right of self determination

The Tamil population in the North and East of the island are united by an ancient heritage, a rich culture, and a distinct language with a great literary tradition. They have lived for many centuries within well defined geographical boundaries which demarcate their traditional homeland. The group identity of the Tamil people has grown over the past several centuries, hand in hand with the growth of their homelands in the North and East of the island, where they worked together, spoke to each other, founded their families, educated their children, and also sought refuge, from time to time, from physical attacks elsewhere in the island. And, the territorial integrity of the Tamil homeland in the island has been retained despite the sustained attacks of Sinhala dominated governments over a period of several decades.

Where a social group, characterized by distinctive objective elements such as a common language acquires a subjective consciousness of oneness and has in addition an enduring relationship to a defined territory, such a group clearly constitutes a people. The Tamil population in the North and East of the island of Sri Lanka constitute a ‘people’in international law. And the law of nations declares that every people have the right to self determination and no distinction can be drawn between one people and another for the purpose of recognizing the existence of this right.

Sri Lanka’s denial of the right of the Tamil people to self determination is a violation of the peremptory norm of international law enshrined in Article I of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Article declares:

“All people have the right to self determination. By rirtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

The gross consistent and continuing violations of the rights of the Tamil peoples by the Sri Lankan government and its agencies evidence the attempt of the Sinhala dominated Sri Lanka government to subjugate and assimilate the Tamil people. These violations have been well documented by innumerable reports of human rights organizations as well as of independent and impartial observers of the Sri Lankan scene.

The record shows

that the attack on the human rights of the Tamil people commenced more than forty years ago;

that the attack was initially resisted by the Tamil people by non violent means together with a parliamentary campaign for a federal constitution;

that this non violent resistance was met with pre meditated and planned Sinhala violence directed to subdue and subjugate the Tamil people to the will of a permanent Sinhala majority within the confines of an unitary state;

that the armed resistance of the Tamil people arose as a defense against decades of oppressive rule by an alien Sinhala majority;

that international law recognizes that the armed resistance of the Tamil people is lawful and just;

that Sri Lanka committed systematic violations of the humanitarian law of armed conflict in its effort to quell the armed resistance of the Tamil people;

that Sri Lanka’s sustained attack on the Tamil people amounts to genocide;

that international law recognizes the combatant status of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who today lead the struggle of the Tamil people for national self determination;

that the territorial integrity of the Tamil homeland continues to be defended by the Tamil people against the planned and determined attacks of the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lanka government; and

that Sri Lanka’s continued refusal to recognize the just and lawful claim of the Tamil people to the right to self determination constitutes a continuing breach by Sri Lanka of a peremptory norm of international law.

originally published November 25, 2003

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