Tamil National Question & Tamil Insurgency in Sri Lanka

by Imtiyaz Razak, ‘Colombo Telegraph,’ May 14, 2018

Prof. Imtiyaz Razak

On May 17, 2009 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) admitted the defeat in the war against the Sinhalese dominated Sri Lanka security forces and vowed to silence guns. In May 18, Sri Lanka security forces announced that the LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, who led the three decades old violent campaign to build ethnic nation for the Tamils who predominantly live in the Northern and Eastern territories of the island of Sri Lanka, was killed by Sri Lanka’s military in a firefight that signaled the effective end to one of Asia’s longest-running military conflicts. The territory formerly controlled by the LTTE have been brought under the control of the government since the middle of 2009 and then government led by former President Mahinda Rajapakshe is claiming that it is making all efforts to rebuild the war affected Northern region where a large majority of ethnic Tamils and minority Muslims live. This short article would deal with the roots of the Tamil insurgency. It would also attempt to provide brief overview about the growth and demise of the Tamil insurgency led by the LTTE. It would finally suggest some solution to the Tamil national question since no solution is being proposed by the current government, which promised solution during the election campaign. .

The history of Sri Lanka’s Tamil conflict or roots of the Tamil insurgency can be identified from the time of colonial period.Three regional sovereign kingdoms were existed in the country, when the Portuguese, the first of the Western colonialists arrived on the shores of Ceylon in 1505. One of these was the independent Tamil Kingdom located on the northern Jaffna peninsula of the same name. Two were Sinhalese with their capitals at Kotte, and at Kandy in the central hill country. The northern Tamil Kingdom had been in existence since the early thirteenth century. When the Portuguese defeated Tamil kingdom then administered by Cankili II, the last Tamil King, in battle and formally annexed the Jaffna Kingdom in 1619. After the Portuguese influence left from the island, the Dutch replaced the Portuguese occupied places until their departure. The British, who displaced the Dutch in 1831 unified the island and thus brought the Jaffna Kingdom under the single administration along with the Sinhala kingdoms. The Jaffna centered Tamil Kingdom neither consulted by the British nor offered an alternative power-sharing with the Sinhalese. Problems arose when the British favored the Tamils and gave some cultural concessions to the Tamil region such as building top English medium schools in the Tamil dominated Jaffna district and allied with elites of the Tamils to help in colonial administration. When independence came in 1948, the Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group, who thought that they were being marginalized and found itself in a precarious position, as the majority group sought to gain economic power. The leaders of the Sinhalese seized power from the British administrators and adopted pro-Sinhala policies in order to redress the grievances of the majority community-Sinhalese.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike laid the first foundation for such an ethnicization of politics by introducing the Sinhala-Only language policy in the 1950’s. Repeatedly over the next four decades, Sinhala politicians employed the same ethnic tricks to capture a large share of the Sinhalese votes. Then an educational standardization policy in 1972 allowed Sinhalese students to enter Science and Medicine schools with lower scores than the Tamil students. The Constitution of 1972 conferred a special status on Buddhism in both the state and public sectors. Communal riots in 1958, 1961, 1974, 1977 and 1983 in which Tamils were killed, maimed, robbed and rendered homeless were carefully designed by the Sinhala elites eventually radicalized the Tamils who consider themselves as a distinct nation and subsequently produced Tamil militants, notably the LTTE (in 1976), a secessionist Tamil guerrilla movement which set the stage for violent Tamil retaliation and efforts to secede.

It is the fact the LTTE’s three decades old struggle for an independent Tamil state effectively challenged the state policies over the Tamils. It also attracted reasonable global support from the Tamil Diaspora as well as some quarters of the Western governments and policy makers. However, the global political developments of the post September 11 terrorist attacks had radically contributed to the erosion of global sympathy for the LTTE. Sri Lanka’s Sinhala political class had succeeded in portraying the Tamil struggle as mere terrorist campaign and advantageously employed the global war on terrorism for its own counter insurgency activities and war against the LTTE.

The LTTE was militarily defeated in May 2009. The island of Sri Lanka has entered into a new phase and political condition was made to seek a meaningful reconciliation with the Tamils and other minorities to take the island into a post-conflict period. There were wave of expectations that Sri Lanka’sBuddhist dominated government would seek political compromise and settlements with the Tamil leaders. The questions therefore are; will the current government take any meaningful measures to find a solution through power-sharing democracy? Will the collapse of violent resistant by the LTTE further strengthen the hands of the Sinhala extremists who aspire to build Sinhalese only Sri Lanka? Or will it further alienate the minorities of Sri Lanka?

What Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka suggests is that politicization of ethnic distinctions by major political parties has weakened democracy and its institutions and thus has fueled an ethnic violence and conflict. Democratic institutions in Sri Lanka need to be strengthened. Political autonomy and power-sharing can help the Tamils to increase their level of trust in the state and it institutions. In other words, tensions among groups can be significantly reduced in Sri Lanka if the Sinhala political class genuinely seeks political compromise with the Tamil polity and other minorities through a feasible political solution that would go beyond the current British imposed unitary structure. If there is a resistance to offer power sharing, the other option is partition which can possibly offer social and political security, as well as stability, to the different ethnic groups. social and political security, as well as stability, to the different ethnic groups.

Further Reading

Imtiyaz, A.R.M. & Stavis, Ben “ Ethno-Political Conflict in Sri Lanka” The Journal of Third World Studies (v. 25/2, 2008)

Silva K.M.De. Reaping the Whirlwind: Ethnic Conflict, Ethnic Politics in Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1998).

Votta, Neil De. Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

*Professor A.R.M. Imtiyaz taught in universities in Sri Lanka (South Eastern University) and China (Nanjing University). He is attached to Asian Studies, and Department of Political Science, Temple University, Philadelphia. Currently, he is in China for his research on Hui Muslims. His research studies cover two major aspects—the symbolic politics of elites and politicization of ethnic differences, especially in Sri Lanka. His scholarly pursuits have led to publications at various international venues, including the Journal of Asian and African Studies (JAAS), the Journal of South Asia (JAS), the Journal of Third World Studies (JTWS), the Journal of South Asia (JAS), Asian Ethnicity, and Asian Affairs.

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