Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Printer-Friendly Version

From Tamil Typewriters to Sinhala Helicoptor Gunships

by Dr. S Sathananthan, Northeastern Monthly, July 2006

Ceylon, they alleged, is a ‘poor’ country and its government has difficulty fully implementing the Official Language Act because it lacks financial resources to buy sufficient Tamil typewriting machines! By the 1990s... the same, but more impoverished, Sinhala State began purchasing infinitely more costly helicopter gunships and multi-barrel rocket launchers to pursue the armed conflict with the LTTE-led Tamil National Movement.


The Norwegian head of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission Maj. Gen. (retd) Trond Furuhovde alluded to the Sinhala leadership’s incapacity to understand realpolitik a few weeks before the February 2006 Geneva Talks: ‘the Government of Sri Lanka’, he wrote, ‘must accept things which in principle it dislikes.’ (TamilNet, 30/jan/06)

There are two benchmarks that perhaps best illustrate the Sinhala leadership’s inability to do this. In 1958 the Sinhala government enacted the Official Language (Special Provisions) Act, prodded by the protests of Tamils against the acutely discriminatory legislation imposed two years earlier that made Sinhala the sole official language and effectively relegated the Tamil people to second-class status. The pivotal provisions of the Act require the State to either communicate with Tamil-speaking persons in the Tamil language or attach Tamil translations to all its Sinhala language communications with Tamils.

Even this meagre relief turned out to be eyewash. Tamil-speaking persons continued to receive official documents and communications in the Sinhala language without Tamil translations. Many non-violent Tamil activists challenged this blatant infringement of Tamils’ linguistic rights in the 1960s, more than a decade before the LTTE was born. The response of Sinhala politicians and liberals can only be described as duplicitous; Ceylon, they alleged, is a ‘poor’ country and its government has difficulty fully implementing the Act because it lacks financial resources to buy sufficient Tamil typewriting machines!!!

By the 1990s, the gross and systematic violations of their national – including linguistic – rights and discrimination in employment by the Sinhala State catalysed the transformation of Tamils’ non-violent agitation into widespread armed resistance, with the LTTE as its cutting edge. Ironically, the same but more impoverished Sinhala State began purchasing infinitely more costly helicopter gunships and multi-barrel rocket launchers to pursue the armed conflict with the LTTE-led Tamil National Movement.Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter


But, like its predecessors, the current Sinhala government also seems to learn nothing and forget nothing.

For example, ’Tamil medium schools in Sri Lanka have been receiving circulars and other official documents from the Central Ministry of Education in Colombo in Sinhalese language only. No translation is provided because 99% of the clerks in all eighteen branches of the Ministry of Education are Sinhalese’ (TamilNet, 23may06). The present Sinhala refrain is that the State is short of money and so it cannot hire clerks who are native Tamil-speakers!! But the same State is seeking 60 million dollars worth of urgent military supplies from Pakistan (Daily Mirror, 7/jun/06)!!!

In his address to the American Chamber of Commerce, Colombo, the US Assistant Secretary Richard A. Boucher suggested to President Rajapakse’s government that ‘Tamils can be assured of their right to use their language and provided with equal opportunities in public and private sector employment’ (US Dept of State, 1/jun/06). Evidently he grossly overestimates the Sinhala leadership’s atrociously poor grasp of elementary realpolitik – the wisdom of yielding gracefully that which is unwise to hold by force.

The late Leader of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK), SJV Chelvanayagam, commented five decades ago, in 1958, on the Sinhala leaders’ woeful ignorance of realpolitik. The agreement he concluded with the then Sinhala Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike – the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam (BC) Pact – envisaged the creation of rudimentary ‘district councils’ in Tamil-majority northern and eastern districts with far less powers than presently existing Municipal Councils.

The proposed elementary decentralization of authority was too much for Sinhala chauvinists. Immediately after Sinhala politicians unilaterally abrogated the Pact, Chelvanayagam reportedly told them: ‘today you refused to yield to our modest demands; the next generation (of Tamils) will take a lot more from you.’ It is said the Sinhala leadership at that time found his prophesy amusing!

Co-Chairs: Running with the hare and hunting with the hound

Perhaps the Co-Chairs (the US, EU, Norway and Japan) of the donor consortium resorted to realpolitik when they individually and collectively delivered three statements: by the EU on 29 May, the Co-Chairs on 30 May and by the US on 1 June 2006. The Sinhala-controlled press played up the EU statement, which proscribed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to claim the government’s campaign to further internationally isolate the organisation has been as a resounding success and it also highlighted selectively the strictures against the LTTE in the three statements. The statements repeated well-worn demands that the organisation must renounce terrorism and violence, respect democratic rights and negotiate a political solution within a united Sri Lanka; and reiterated the warning that the LTTE will face further isolation if it fails to meet the demands. Sinhala politicians issued exuberant press statements relishing what they alleged is the victory of Sinhala character over machinations by cunning foreigners and ‘white tigers’ (Norwegians). There was plenty of backslapping over how they had pitted the Co-Chairs and, by extension, the international community against the Tamils; and some of them began hallucinating a military ‘victory’ over the politically weakened LTTE.

The public bravado provoked the Dutch Ambassador in Colombo. He warned: ‘I don’t think this message [in the Co-Chairs statement] is well understood so far, because I don’t see it in any headline. I mean, if you say the international community would diminish international support, the headline would be “Sri Lanka on the brink of war and of being internationally marginalized.” That is part of the statement which we feel is just as important as, or even more important than the listing of the LTTE’ (Daily Mirror, 2/jun/06).

The Co-Chairs appear to be creating the impression they expect reciprocity from the Sinhala government in return for coming down hard on the LTTE. In their 30 May statement (The Morning Leader, 31/may/06), they explicitly recognised ‘the Tamil and Muslim peoples of Sri Lanka have justified and substantial grievances that have not yet been adequately addressed.’ They ‘encouraged’ the government ‘to further develop concrete policies for addressing the grievances of minorities’ and to ‘show that it is ready to make the dramatic political changes to bring about a new system of governance’ according to ‘the basic principles’ enunciated ‘during the successful period of negotiation in 2002-2003.’ They include the commitment by the government (and the LTTE) ‘to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking people, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka’ in the December 2002 Oslo Statement.

US Assistant Secretary of State Boucher seemed to warn President Rajapakse that America’s pro-government policy could change. He emphasized, ‘the government should provide a positive vision to Tamils and Muslims of a future Sri Lanka where their legitimate grievances are addressed and their security assured.’ At a subsequent press conference he did not mince words. Tamils, he asserted, have ‘a very legitimate desire ... to be able to control their own lives, to rule their own destinies and to govern themselves in their own homeland, in the areas they've traditionally inhabited’ (TamilNet, 4/jun/06).

A Tamil peacenik weighed in on the side of the Co-Chairs. He lamented the ‘lack of strategic objective on the part of the government as far as conflict transformation is concerned’ (TamilNet, 14/may/06). A Sinhala peacenik prescribed: ‘the only logical step to be taken is to strengthen the CFA and work towards a negotiated solution’ (Sunday Observer, 30 April 2006).

But even the proverbial child knows the Constitution will not permit any devolution of power whatsoever. Constitutional amendments to facilitate devolution – assuming the unlikely theoretical prospect where a Sinhala leader may wish to introduce them – would not see the light of day because Sinhala chauvinists who control government will deny the necessary two-thirds majority votes in Parliament and torpedo approval in a referendum.

No ‘dramatic political changes’ are at all possible and the Co-Chairs must surely be aware of this. It follows that the Co-Chairs must definitely know – Tamils already do – that the Sinhala leadership strapped in the constitutional straightjacket and steeped in the Sinhala-extremist 'Mahawamsa mindset' cannot and will not permit anything remotely resembling a viable political solution to emerge through the so-called ‘peace process.’

The government does have a ‘strategic objective,’ which is a final military solution. The 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) therefore is an irrelevant pantomime.

What lies behind the Co-Chairs’ apparent censure of the hound (Sinhala government), while seeming more determined to run with the hare (Tamil people)? Obviously, they cannot expect Rajapakse to make a U-turn, to come up with a political solution that recognizes the Tamils’ ‘homeland’ and national rights. What, then, is the Co-Chairs’ hidden agenda for the ‘peace process’? What could be the Machiavellian logic behind their robust call for ‘a new [federal] system of governance’ that they know is patently impossible?

The hidden agenda

In all probability the Co-Chairs are fine-tuning their counter-insurgency strategy by conjuring the illusion that the government would respond to pressure they exert and cough up a political solution. That fits nicely with the demand by the EU Parliament that the LTTE must decommission weapons as a pre-condition for negotiations: its 17 May Resolution ‘urgently calls on the LTTE…to be prepared to decommission its weapons and to set the stage for a final political settlement of the conflict’ (Clause 2).

Second, the Co-Chairs must also be aware that by purveying the illusion of an imminent political solution, they are colluding with the Sinhala State to legitimise its armed aggression on the spurious grounds that the government’s offer is virtually at hand and the LTTE’s ‘intransigence’ leaves the State no option but to mount military offensives to crush the organisation. The then President JR Jayawardene was the first practitioner of this grotesque strategy, of course in the name of ‘peace,’ in the mid-1980s.

Third, they may be hoping Rajapakse, acting directly or through his All Party Conference, would dredge up a solution – any solution – which the Co-Chairs could unilaterally endorse and present to the LTTE as a fait accompli. An alternative approach could be for the government to induce so-called ‘democratic’ (quisling) elements among Tamils to ratify the solution and impose it at the point of a gun. 

These three aspects of counter-insurgency dovetail neatly with the Co-Chairs’ re-discovery of the wheel, that Tamils have ‘grievances.’ They are, of course, not acting out of sheer altruism – that shimmering bubble burst long ago. Their evident objective is to project the LTTE as an organisation addicted to war, as the obstacle to implementing any solution desired by the Tamil people and, thereby, to divide the Tamil national movement and weaken the LTTE. So the Dutch Ambassador’s deceptive claim is no surprise; he alleged ‘the legitimate rights of the Tamil people…is different from a faction or a political party that says they represent all the Tamils’ (Daily Mirror, 3/jun/06).

Sinhala peaceniks have for long propagated the same canard in a catchy phrase: ‘the government can satisfy the political aspirations of the Tamils but not the military ambitions of the Tigers.’ The ground reality, however, is vastly different. The LTTE is manned by the fourth generation of cadres, which means over the past four decades the organisation’s roots have spread wide and deep within Tamil society. Almost every extended Tamil family has either direct or indirect links that have welded the Tamil people and the LTTE into an organic whole and have transformed the organisation into the sole repository of Tamils’ aspirations. 

Draining the pond

The Tamil guerrillas are the proverbial fish swimming in friendly (Tamil) waters. Every political manoeuvre to catch the ‘fish’ by the government – from the 1984 All Party Conference to the 2000 Draft Constitution  – and by the Co-chairs’ flatfooted ‘peace process’ – could not turn the Tamils against the LTTE.

Having failed to defeat the LTTE, the government is seeking to drain the pond, which means unleashing collective punishment on Tamils to deter support for the organisation. In fact, the Sinhala armed forces have already unleashed violence against Tamil civilians. Murders, disappearances and massacres of Tamils are being systematically executed by the armed forces and paramilitaries. A recent innovation is extra-judicial execution of Tamil intellectuals, activists and journalists.

The LTTE has, predictably, retaliated with devastating effect. The Co-Chairs and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission roundly condemn the LTTE for alleged killing of civilians, but turn a blind eye to repeated massacres of Tamil civilians by the armed forces. 

Draining the pond – including strategic hamlets similar to those built by the US in Vietnam and the UK in Kenya – to physically and forcibly isolate Tamils from the LTTE in the North East Province is likely to be the defining the feature of Eelam War IV now underway.

  • Publication date: