Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Kumaratunge in South Africa

In honor of ex-President Kumaratunge's return to the Sri Lanka and its politics, we offer a 1998 TV interview she gave in South Africa that was then rebroadcast on Rupavahini, Sri Lankan stated-owned television, in which she asserts that the Tamils are not the original inhabitants of the island. This clip was given to us by Mamanithar Kumar Ponnambalam.

Chandrika Kumaratunge in South Africa - A Video Clip

[requires Real Audio Player or Windows Media Player] 10th Anniversary


Chandrika disrupts ethnic balance

by T.V.R. Shenoy, Tribune India, January 10, 1999

WHEN Sri Lanka’s President, Ms Chandrika Kumaratunga, blurted out during her recent South Africa tour that Tamils were “not the original people” of her island, she did more than elicit a few disbelieving gasps.

Grabbing the opportunity to rubbish rebel Tamil Tigers’ claims to a separate state in northern Sri Lanka, the ethnically Sinhalese leader may have undone four years’ hard work trying to assure the world of her commitment to a multi-racial society in which all citizens — Tamils, Christians and Muslims included — feel they belong.

Coming home from South Africa, the President’s reception was anything but warm.

Her usually-reliable clique of anti-Tiger Tamil MPs threatened to withhold support for the next Budget. “The Tamil United Liberation Front wishes to communicate the grave anguish caused to the Tamil people and the feelings of condemnation arising in their minds by the (President’s) statement,” cried one mainstream Tamil party.

Tamil newspapers lamented “yet another betrayal” by a Sinhalese leader sporting two faces, and recounted several solemn pacts revoked by Sinhalese past prime ministers.

And thousands of Tamil campaigners abroad — mostly enthusiastic supporters of Tamil independence — gleefully seized on her words to strengthen the case for armed rebellion against a “blatantly chauvinist Sinhalese regime”.

Sri Lanka’s main Opposition party, the UNP, sensing a chance to regain Tamil votes squandered during its own repressive 13-year rule preceding Kumaratunga’s ascension to power in 1994, jumped in the bandwagon too.

Interestingly, the only group to applaud Kumaratunga’s politically-incorrect utterance was one calling itself the National Movement Against Terrorism, thought to have close ties with the military.

But being a Sinhalese supremacist outfit, with a philosophy dangerously akin to America’s Ku Klux Klan, this is a group whose support the President would much rather do without.

Kumaratunga’s outburst, moreover, could not have come at a worse time for the government, especially when Tamil backing is so crucial ahead of parliamentary polls in two years’ time.

Such statements badly injure Tamil pride, because Tamils generally see themselves as just as much the island’s original people as the Sinhalese, if not more so.

But to a lot of Tamils, the President’s apparent slip-up had more profound implications.

It indicated, to them, that Kumaratunga’s mindset was tainted with Sinhalese racism. And this brought into question the ultimate aim of her military campaign in the Tamil-inhabited north which is led, not insignificantly, by an overwhelmingly Sinhalese armed force.

Tamils are now asking: is the President’s military effort really aimed, as she is fond of claiming, at weakening the Tigers so the government can pave the way to gift Tamils with the autonomy they so thirst for?

But the South Africa episode, too, has created a legacy. And led to its fair share of casualties.

Chief among these have been some of the President’s dearest Tamil supporters, particularly the Foreign Minister, the only Tamil in the Cabinet.

This distinguished politician, usually noted for his quick-step diplomacy, evidently lost his balance when questioned about the President’s words, and worsened his plight by insisting on national television that Kumaratunga could never in principle have uttered such a racist comment.

Knowing her intimately, he said, her entire philosophy would forbid such language. He finally dismissed the matter as the work of mischievous journalists.

But even as he spoke, a video-cassette containing the whole of the President’s interview was doing the rounds both in Colombo and abroad, alienating waves of Tamils as it went. There could no longer be any question that Kumaratunga made the offending comment.

A further clumsy attempt by the Information Ministry to reinterpret the meaning of her remark only led to more red faces.

The centre-piece of Kumaratunga’s domestic policy has been a dogged insistence on the equality of all the island’s communities. Routine pronouncements to this effect have won it sound military and political backing from several useful Western allies including the USA, which periodically steps forward to commend Colombo’s commitment to resolving its ethnic problem.

But the USA like other Western countries, does have more than a passing interest in Sri Lanka. It provides the country — a strategic island just a stone’s-throw from India — with weapons and training. It also recently tightened the screws on the Tigers by placing them on its terrorist list (alongside the Kurdish PKK rebels and Hamas) effectively curbing pro-Tiger activities on its soil.

It is unlikely, then, that the Sri Lankan President’s remarks in South Africa would weaken support from the country’s Western friends.

But her words will certainly make the task of publicly endorsing her vision of a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, that bit more strenuous.
— Gemini News


Chandrika & the Tamils

by S. Nilakshan,, October, 1998

In an interview given to a foreign correspondent, the Sri Lankan President, Her Excellency Madam Chandrika Kumaratunge revealed that "Tamils are not originals to this country". This interview was telecast on the state television, Rupavahini, and viewed by many people.

Regarding the President's statement, the secretary general of All Ceylon Tamil Congress, Mr.Kumar Ponnambalam wrote an article in the Tamil Dailies, Thinakkural and Virakesari and also in Sunday Leader, a weekly English news paper.

In his article, he stated that "commenting on the issue whether Sinhalese or Tamils came to Sri Lanka first, is like asking whether the hen or the egg came first". This article appeared on 26th September 1998 in Thinakkural.

Regarding his article I wrote a reply on 5th October 1998, stating that comparing the "hen or egg" question with "Sinhalese or Tamils" may not be appropriate. "Hen or egg" comparison may be correct when we do not know about both things, that is, neither about the hen nor the egg.

But here in this case, it is clear that the Sinhalese history starts after King Vijaya, whereas the history of the Tamils is still not clearly known. Even Paul E.Peiries, a Sinhalese historian states that there were Tamils and Hindu settlements in Sri Lanka long before Vijaya's arrival. And also he confirms the presence of 5 Eeswaras in pre-Vijaya history.

So, it is clear that Sinhalese are not 'originals' to this country.Then who are the original people of this country? That question has to be answered by historians. What is important is that Sinhalese are not the originals to this country. Tamils may be small in number, but one cannot say that they are not 'originals' to this country. It is not the fact that the majority people are the originals of a country. (e.g. Australia, America, Mauritius, Fiji etc...)

The reason for the President to make such a statement is very clear. The particular interview was given by the President during her South African visit recently. The President wanted to create a false picture about the Tamil question in Sri Lanka. That is, she wanted to compare that to the South African struggle and tell the South African majority black people that in Sri Lanka also, a minority people, Tamils, like the South African Whites, are fighting with an innocent majority, the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Thus, creating a false image about the Tamils of Sri Lanka among the South African government and public.

After many articles appeared in the Sri Lankan press accusing the President for making a statement like this, she suddenly changed her tone and said in Kandy that "the historians tried to change the history and that created the ethnic conflict".

After nearly a month, the Director of Information, Mr.Ariya Rupasinghe, sent a letter of denial to the Tamil Newspapers that the President never made such a statement and it is baseless to accuse the President that she made such a statement. He also pointed out that one cannot even imagine that President Kumaratunge would make such a statement, as she knew the history of Sri Lanka better than any others.

Such a denial was also published in the Sunday Times (South African newspaper) sent by the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in South Africa, His Excellency Gamini Munasinghe.

..... a copy of the video cassette of the interview telecast on Rupavahini, where Her Excellency Mrs.Kumaratunge stated that "only a minority group is fighting for a separate homeland, who are not even originals to this country", is in the possession of the ACTC General Secretary Mr.Kumar Ponnambalam. The denials by H.E Gamini Munasinghe and Mr.Ariya Rupasinghe are incorrect and it is notable that the President never denied that she made such a statement until today.

Therefore the international community should understand that   successive Sinhala leaders have continuously denied that the Tamil People are the originals and have used that as a reason for denying them equal rights.True, that we never expected a statement like this from President Kumaratunge, but we now regret for our foolishness to cast a valuable vote to her and elect her with an unprecedented majority of 62% votes.

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