Getting Off the Sri Lankan Grid

by Eelapalan, June 6, 2013

~800 AD

The looming “great game” that will be played out in the in the Indian Ocean holds an important lesson for the Tamils of Eelam and TamilNadu.

As I mentioned in the previous post, at the heart of the global and regional policy framework on the Indian Ocean is the stable, economic growth.  It is essential that the Tamils chart their destiny thoughtfully given the pressure to submit to the 13th amendment.  Control over a Tamil national economy and the ability to select the nodes through which to connect to the global economic grid is a strategic imperative for the Eelam Tamils.  Tamil leaders need to keep this in mind when articulating the devolution model.

A brief history of the Tamil economic model is helpful.

The impact the colonial rule had on the Tamil economy is significant.  The way of life and concept of trade irreversibly changed for the Eelam Tamils. This macro economic change had started under the  Portuguese rule, aided by the Dutch, and then accelerated under the British.

In the ancient times, India was the hub of the spice trade . Ceylon benefited by proximity to India and to the Indian Ocean trade route. This trade route was in the hands of the Egyptian and Turk navies.  Those navies engaged in trade but not in conquests. And the trade itself was a Royal monopoly both in India and in Ceylon.  Records show the Sinhala kings primarily sold Cinnamon while the Tamil king sold Elephants and pearls.  The Tamil trade was heavily tied to the kingdoms in the Coromandel coast through the narrow ocean path. There was minimal people to people trade with the neighbouring Sinhala kingdoms.

After the “age of discovery” , the Portuguese were trying to dominate the spice trade and the routes.   This quest brought Portuguese in contact with Ceylon in November 1505 when they were on their way to the Maldives to attack a fleet of Moorish spice ships.  After firmly establishing in India, and conquering most of Ceylon, Portuguese went about consolidating their power on trade and also focused on religious conversion.  Both Sinhala and Tamil people started to loose control over the external trade.  Portuguese continued to trade the same commodities as before and followed the same trade routes.  In the Sinhala areas, Colombo and Galle ports were upgraded. In the Tamils areas, focus was on Mannar and Point Pedro ports.  The administrative control for the Portuguese rule in Ceylon was vested with their Company in India.

Dutch took over from the Portuguese in the early 1600.  This led to the altering of the administrative power centers and to the decisions that impacted trade significantly.  Dutch expanded their administrative role in Colombo through the appointed Governor.   And that governor appointed a commander to Jaffnapatnam to look after the Tamil affairs.

The existing elephant trade of the Tamils was expanded by the Dutch Governor Van Mydregt since 1689.  The elephants were caught by the different Vanni chiefs who ruled the region and were given to the Dutch as tributes.  And then the Dutch traded those elephants with the merchants from Tanjavur and Golkonda (current Hyderabad) in India after removing the previous Tamil broker/agents in Jaffna.  Seasonal pearl fishing in Mannar remained a big source of revenue for the Dutch. Furthermore, the Moors of Bengal were trading at both Galle and Jaffna ports bringing in grain and sugar. Tamils were selling palmyrah and coconut products as well as Tobacco to Nagapatnam and further north through the Point Pedro port.

Dutch East India company also earned revenue selling pepper, Arca-nut, copper, etc from the Tamil areas .  And the Company tried to introduce linen manufacturing and dye making techniques from Tutucorin and Coromandel to the Tamil areas so that finished goods can be sold back to India but with a 20% duty.

But for some inexplicable reason, the colonial Dutch governor in Colombo tried to restrict the export trade of the Tamils to the Coromandel coast.

In Oct,1694,the Dutch commander of Jaffna proposed to reroute the Areca-nut trade to Coromandel through Jaffna just as the Portuguese had been doing. He proposed that the Areca nut from the Sinhala areas be brought to Jaffna through land and then be shipped through the Point Pedro port.  But in July 3,1696, Dutch government rejected the proposal and decided to stay with shipping the Areca-nut through the longer Calpetty sea route (1 – pg19).

Under the Dutch rule, for the Tamils, the center of gravity for both administration and trade shifted towards Colombo.  Reminiscence of recent state of affairs,  Vanni Chiefs and Tamil leaders started making their treks to Colombo to air their grievances to the Governor: bypassing the Dutch Jaffna Commander.

Colonial power then transitioned to the British in 1796 . The changes that followed had an accelerated impact on the Tamils.  British decision to treat Ceylon as crown colony much earlier than India ( India was under the control of British East India Company til mid 1800) empowered the British Governors in Colombo with more administrative powers.  It linked the Ceylon administration directly to the Crown.  It decoupled Ceylon from a India based supervisory structure (Coincidently, Burma was annexed to the British India).  During the British time, the kingdoms in the Coromandel and Malabar coasts ceased to exist.  And British controlled the regional trade in its entirety.

With these developments, the Eelam Tamil trade route to the Indian coast came to a stop.

British also fundamentally changed the  export commodities.  It was no longer the Cinnamon, Areca-nut, Pearls or the elephants.  The staple products exported from Ceylon towards the end of their rule show the dramatic transition from the Dutch rule. Tea was the number one export from Ceylon and rubber was number two (2). The global economy had changed by then.  Elephants and Pearls were not as much in demand.

Forced out of the Indian trade route, and not able to develop an external trade mechanism due to lack of economic or political autonomy,  the Eelam Tamils were forced to transform their local economy into a services based one.  It pushed the Tamil society increasingly into mercantile and civil service jobs thus eroding their agricultural basis. As mentioned in the previous post, the missionary educational investments in the Tamil areas helped to expedite this transition.

But for the 1st time, this also permanently tied the Tamils into a Ceylon economic grid.

( note: Tamil complains to Soulberry about the negligence of the Vanni water tanks and agricultural infrastructure can be understood in this context (2)).

Sinhala Buddhist rulers took over from the British in early 1930s.  Driven by a siege mentality, they worked to criminalize the attempted Tamil trade between Valvettithurai and India instead of regulating it.  This may have lead to the early friction between the state apparatus and the Tamil people and made that town the hub of early resistance.

Would Tamils ever be able to exercise independence in the economic policies that impact them?

Anyone who cares to read the 13th amendment to the Sri lankan constitution can see the governor described in there is no different than the ones from the Dutch and British era in authority.  And it is not a coincidence that they are men of military.  The provincial Chief minister is nothing more than a ceremonial figurehead.   There are multiple layers of fail safe ( should the military governor decides to go native) mechanisms embedded into the amendment to ensure provincial councils can operate only “during the pleasure of the president”.

The current discussions on the 13th amendment focus on the very limited, provincial land and police powers.  A true devolution of those powers are directly tied to the safety and security of Tamil lives. No Tamil party should ever compromise on that.  Especially when the law enforcement of the state historically has been ethnically biased and excessively violent towards the Tamils.  And the state is pursuing a genocidal policy of demographic change.  Due to the Sri lankan state constantly moving the devolution goal post, one other critical and important aspect is pushed aside in these discussions which is the devolution of economic powers.  Tamil economic security is as important as any other.

What controls will Tamils have over a future economic model?

Tamils need to develop and articulate a framework that fits within the narratives of the global and regional powers talking about the stability and economic growth of the region.  The provincial list and the concurrent list of the 13th amendment do not allow the Tamils to choose how they want to conduct external trade.

The total destruction of the Tamil Nation, in a perverse way,  has enabled the Tamils to re-imagine the economic framework.  Tamils should be discussing ways and means to ensure they are vested with the rights for such an economic policy.  As opposed to co-opting into the blind and misplaced policy of assimilation through development model the Sri lankan state is trying to impose.

Under the constraints of a military campaign, the tigers made an attempt at economic self sufficiency when they controlled territory drawing this US remark as mentioned in wikileaks.

That policy only moved the Eelam Tamils away from the Srilankan economic grid that the British put them under.  Tamils should now pursue alternate routes to access the global economic grid.

Cliche aside, with the raise of India and China, the world indeed has come a full circle to the ancient power balance.  And it is about time, Tamils, collectively,  reassert their place in that configuration. Soliciting the support of the Indo-US axis, Tamils should actively pursue a policy of reviving the old trade ties between Eelam and South India.  There will be worries that this will further alarm the Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka and weaken the case for devolution.  But Tamils have been facing Genocide without even exercising this option.  Plus this is the most economically prudent and a reasonable economic policy within the policy realms of both India and the US.

Tamil nadu is the 2nd largest economy in India behind Maharashtra. The importance and the potential of TamilNadu is not lost on America as evident by the increasing investments of the US companies and by the visit of Hillary Clinton.  TamilNadu is empowered to attract foreign investments, sign MOU’s with foreign entities and to create special economic zones to promote commerce. (Note: Compare that to thedrama created by Sri Lanka for the MOU between the trincomalee Urban council and the American Embassy for an american corner).

TamilNadu has been on an impressive socio economic development trajectory. The literacy rate is comparatively high. It is home to the 2nd largest urbanized population in India  and is poised as a very powerful node on the global economic grid.  Eelam Tamils choosing TamilNadu, instead of Sri Lanka, as the vehicle to access the global grid, is an economically wiser decision.  Setting them up for a better windfall in the future.

Tamils on both sides of the palk strait should be agitating for the revival of this direct trade link. Be that the ferry service between the coasts or a future land bridge.  An interconnected eelam economic zone tied to the Indian grid is the best southern strategic buffer a sensible Indian government policy could strive for.

The lifeline of the Eelam economy is now made to run through the Chinese built Colombo-Kandy road and to be dependent on Colombo alone.  Designed to support the paranoid model of assimilation through development.  The Sinhala nation, due to its ingrained paranoia and racism,  will not see the economic benefits of a self sustaining, viable local model that will be far less draining on its budget.  Indian government Policy of achieving similar results but through the Sri Lankan state will backfire. The Eelam Tamil, TamilNadu and Diaspora connections are getting stronger not weaker.

On seeing the continuing occupation and the oppression of Eelam Tamils, an agitated and politically aware Tamilnadu, will reduce the soft power of both India and the US.  Seen as supporting the Sri Lankan policies, the anti US and Indian sentiments of the Tamil student protests should be an alarming signal to the Indo-US policy makers.  Tamils need to continue to stress that the true stability can only be achieved when Tamils in Eelam hold the keys for the safety and security of their lives and for the economic betterment of their future.  The TamilNadu assembly resolution seeking economic embargo on Sri Lanka is very powerful. But is ignored by the center.  Imagine a scenario of TamilNadu assembly upping the ante by taking legislative steps to make a point. By passing legislation that goods and services originating from Colombo or Galle will incur additional state duties and Goods and services originating from  Trincomalee, Mannar, or Kankesanthurai will be exempt from  duties.  This will be a very powerful and meaningful step.

Will Tamils on both side of the Palk strait earnestly take up the issue of reopening the direct trade and people to people connection that can help stabilize the growth remain to be seen.

1) Memoir of Hendrick Zwaardecron, Commandeur of jaffnapattnam



Comments are disabled on this page.