The Tamil Question in Sri Lanka Part 1

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Back in 2010, I wrote a series of articles on a site called The Agonist. These are not always easy to access and the typography comes up a bit peculiar on the screen. I have decided to archive the articles here for safe-keeping.

This one was first published May 1 2010.

Different Kinds of Tamils

I have just returned home after celebrating the 86th birthday of possibly the nicest man in Sri Lanka (or anywhere else). All the time we were at his home, the phone rang endlessly as people rang to give their birthday wishes. Calls came from all over Sri Lanka and also USA, UK, Australia, Canada, Malaysia, South Africa, Philippines and Morocco. He is now retired, but during his working life he was a senior manager in the tea plantation business, working his way up from being a young ”creeper”, as juniors in the tea business are called. Fifty years ago, he cut the road that leads from the main A5 to the bungalow which is now our home. Even today, he is honoured and revered in the business and is often invited to conferences and seminars to share his wisdom with the young Sinhalese managers who run the industry now.

His wife is equally warm-hearted and decent and respected by people of all races and creeds, caste and class. They are both devout Christians who devote much of their time to running a pre-school day centre and an elders’ home established by the local Anglican church.

They are both Tamils.

Another Tamil attending the birthday celebrations also supports Christian charities, although he proclaims himself a Hindu. Despite that ”handicap”, he was very successful in business. He recently retired as chairman of a large conglomerate with a wide spread of interests. He was educated at Royal College and Colombo University. Royal, along with St Thomas’s and Trinity College, Kandy, educates the ”elite” who generally run most things in Sri Lanka.

Another contender for the title of most decent man in Sri Lanka is the high priest at our local Buddhist temple. When we first met him, his humorous and humble nature blinded us to the fact that he is very eminent and influential. On his 86th birthday, he got calls from President Rajapaksa and the leader of the opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Previous president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, once offered him a new car, which he declined. There is a rumour that, because of his reputation as a healer, he was kidnapped by the LTTE and treated and cured the terrorist leader, Prabakharan.

Our Muslim neighbours take their children to the Montessori school at his  Buddhist temple. Most of the workers at the temple are Hindu Tamils and they help our priest out with his ambitious schemes, such as creating cooking gas from compost and providing water and electricity to the village homes of Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims. These Hindu Tamils prostrate themselves before this Buddhist priest to bless him. He works closely with the local catholic priest on job-creation schemes for local people of all races and religions.

Many Tamils are Catholic. Many Catholic priests and bishops are Tamil.

The woman who works for us was born a Tamil but married a Muslim and converted. Their adopted son seems to be a Muslim but his natural parents were Tamil.

All Sri Lankans  love Tamil spin bowler Murali. The Sri Lankan cricket team unites the nation.

Most Sri Lankans were proud of and respected foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar who was a Tamil -the Tigers killed him.

Beginning in 1965, S Thondaman began to use his representation of estate workers through the Ceylon workers Council (CWC) as a means of strengthening his ties with the Sinhalese parties to their mutual benefit; his grandson, A Thondaman, is happy to appear on billboards outside Hindu temples embracing President Rajapaksa, Buddhist Sinhalese leader of the SLFP. The UNP in particular strengthened its position in parliament while the wages, education and health care on the estates improved markedly. Although estate workers are still among the poorest people in the country, this exercise of what Marcuse called ”repressive tolerance” has meant that relatively few plantation Tamils have made common cause with the militants of the north and east, although they do take action from time to time against their employers.


At the Victory Day celebration in May 2009 to mark the defeat of the LTTE President Rajapaksa, dressed in the traditional Sinhalese white garb with purple scarf, was surrounded by the elite of the Sri Lanka armed forces festooned with medals. Also on the stage were Muslims in taqiyahs. Next to a Buddhist dignitary in saffron robes was the chief of the Veddahs, (the indigenous aborigines of the island) dressed in a loin cloth with his ceremonial axe on his shoulder. In a sari, seated beside the president was the president’s first lady, who is a Catholic.

I report these things not to say that everything is harmonious in Sri Lanka. I am merely trying to correct the distorted views that sometimes come across in western media. To a certain western mind-set everything is black or white, minorities are oppressed and discriminated against, governments must be bad, rebels must be romantic freedom fighters. I recall when my own trade union in the UK was contributing funds to the LTTE because they were obviously”freedom fighters” defending the oppressed Tamil minority.

Few in Sri Lanka itself, whether Sinhalese, Muslim, Christian, or indeed Tamil, would see them that way. I recall doing business with a Tamil called Prabakharan who described his namesake, the ruthless leader of the Tigers, as ”Hitler”. Despite outbreaks of horrific communal violence over the years, and vicious reprisals against innocent Tamils by badly disciplined police, generally speaking, different ethnic and religious groups live side-by-side in harmony. The different ethnic and religious groups mingle freely, do business together and intermarry. It is not the case of a homogeneous block of majority Sinhalese oppressing a homogeneous block of minority Tamils. Many Tamils are rich and influential. If discrimination does exist, it is not of such a nature as to prevent Tamils getting on just because they are Tamils, other factors such as education and family circumstances are more important.

Sri Lanka is not apartheid South Africa. It is not Palestine or even Louisiana. There is no institutionalised or legislated segregation here.

The CWC represents Tamil plantation workers. In the 2004 general election one of its MPs was a Muslim, Faizer Mustapha. The TNA was seen as a proxy of the Tamil Tigers. One of its MPs was a Muslim. In the 2010 general election, the successor to the TNA elected a Sinhalese MP. The LTTE had Muslim members and there were even Sinhalese Tigers. The Sinhala nationalist JVP sometimes colluded with the LTTE and had some Tamil members.

Real Life Is Complicated.

David Begg of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions managed to find the time in his busy schedule of dealing with the disappearance of the Irish economy down the toilet – redundancies, and pay and benefit cuts for his members – to urge the Irish Foreign Minister, Micheal Martin, to apply sanctions to faraway Sri Lanka as a protest against ”genocide” and ”concentration camps”. Begg’s letters seemed to suggest that he thought that all Sri Lankan Tamils had been confined to a narrow strip of beach to be shelled by government troops and then herded into extermination camps. This suggests a certain ignorance about Sri Lanka’s history and of the current situation. Trinity College, Dublin recently hosted a two-day hearing by the Permanent People’s Tribunal, which delivered the judgement that the Sri Lanka government was guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The tribunal was further pondering the issue of genocide.

When I have written on this subject on Le Monde diplomatique, my articles have drawn a strange mixture of responses. In particular, two people with similar nom de plumes have expressed diametrically opposed views.

Maham says: “A highly prejudiced and one-sided article. The Tamils have been continually ill-treated by the racist Sinhala majority. They never wanted to give the due political rights to the Tamils. From 1948 for about 30 years Tamils fought for their rights in a peaceful way. Take the case of the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayagam Pact and the Dudley Senanayake – Chelvanayagam Pact and what happened to them? Both the pacts were dishonoured by the Sinhala leaders. When the peaceful methods failed to achieve anything, then to save the Tamils from the Pan-Sinhala army and its terrorism, as a last resort the Tamil youths took up arms.”

‘MahamahaRaja’ is clearly not a Tamil. He tells me: “Tamils have not faced any ‘discrimination’ in Sri Lanka. Wanting colonial era privileges to be maintained for them, in the home of the Sinhalese into which they were brought like slaves, which they achieved through unwavering servitude and sucking up to their colonial white masters, is UNACCEPTABLE! Do some research before regurgitating terrorist propaganda.”

To state baldly: “Tamils have not faced any ‘discrimination’ in Sri Lanka” avoids the question: ”Why did Tamil separatism become such a powerful force to lead to a civil war lasting 30 years at the cost of 100,000 lives?”

I have no interest in “taking sides”. I am not taking any sides but merely trying to get at the facts and correct obvious misperceptions. I will try again and hope Maham and MahamaRaja will get to read this. I will be happy to be corrected on matters of fact and would love to discuss differences of interpretation in a civilised manner.

The British Legacy

MahamaRaja was more than a little confused when he wrote about Tamils who were ”brought in as slaves” ”sucking up to their colonial white masters” and ”wanting colonial era privileges maintained for them”.

The British indeed brought in indentured laborers who were little more than slaves. The British, as in many countries, such as Ireland and Kenya, stole the land and divided the native people. They commandeered much of the land in Ceylon for the cultivation of tea and rubber and imported vast numbers of indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu in order to maintain the plantations.

The British have been accused of contributing to current problems by adopting a divide and rule strategy which favoured educated Tamils at the expense of the Sinhalese majority. There are, to put it rather simply, if not crudely, two types of Tamil in Sri Lanka, the Jaffna Tamils, sometimes referred to as ”Sri Lankan Tamils”, and the plantation Tamils, sometimes referred to as ”Indian Tamils”.

Jaffna Tamils

Jaffna Tamils have generally been considered as conservative. Jaffna Tamil society has been thought of as rather rigidly caste-bound. They have a reputation for distinguished service in the professions and in government. They also have a record of success and prosperity in other countries. Ambalavaner  Sivanandan, a Tamil who was Director of the UK Institute of Race Relations, (he was only the librarian when I met him in 1968) said in a recent interview in the New Left Review: ”The British strategy was to divide politically in order to integrate economically. One of the main instruments for this was to provide Tamils with educational opportunities and use them to staff the administrative apparatus. While economic wealth remained in the hands of the old Sinhala feudal elite, the public services, train stations, post offices and so on were all run by Tamils.” Siv also said that he did not like these Tamils much as they reminded him of Scottish Presbyterians.

Jaffna Tamils differ from Batticaloa Tamils and there are divisions within each of those groups. Caste is a dominant identity marker. The Vellala caste was dominant in the north until the 1960s, when intermediary or oppressed castes began to challenge them. The LTTE leadership mainly came from the Karaiyar caste.

Under British rule, the Jaffna Tamils came to be seen by the Sinhalese majority as a favoured elite. Even today, in 21st century Sri Lanka, after 62 years of independence the Sinhalese majority displays a minority psychology and bizarrely sometimes calls for affirmative action on its own behalf. The Sinhala language is not spoken anywhere else in the world but the small island of Sri Lanka. Although the Sinhalese are in the majority in Sri Lanka, there are 65 million Tamils just over the water in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Before independence, Jaffna Tamils began to organise to protect their minority rights but at this stage, separatism was not an issue. With the first constitution establishing universal suffrage and majority rule the northern Tamils were anxious that they would forfeit the privileges they enjoyed under the British. Under Tamil Congress founder G.G. Ponnambalam, Jaffna youth carried out boycotts and demonstrations to back up their demand for equal political representation for minorities. Since the elections of 1936, the political elite recruited from the Sinhalese majority had monopolised ministerial posts.

Plantation Tamils

Plantation Tamils had very little connection with the educated Tamil elite of the north. Even under the Portuguese, there had been a regular flow of migrant labour from South India to the kingdoms of Kotte and Kandy. During Dutch rule, manual labour from Tamil Nadu was used in the maritime areas. These incomers tended to become Sinhalised over time. The British approach to colonisation was somewhat different in that it was infused with an ethos, however spurious, that went beyond trade and religious conversion. This ethos comprised modernity and enlightenment. It was modern in a sense that is probably now becoming obsolete with the advance of global environmental collapse. British rule in Ceylon demonstrated the urge to dominate nature, an urge which was fuelling the supremacy of capitalist thinking in Britain itself.

The Crown tamed the wilderness by expropriating ”waste” land and transforming it into plantations, first coffee and then, when in 1869 heimleia vastrartix devastated the coffee crop, tea. The plantation system required a year-round demand for labour, which the British imported in the thousands from Tamil Nadu. One often hears, especially from the Sinhalese, that the importation of foreign labour was necessary because the Sinhalese were too lazy or proud to do the work, but there is no evidence that the British tried to recruit Sinhalese. It is likely that the British decided that it would be easier to control and exploit indentured Indian workers who had nowhere else to go. Plantation management systematically created enclaves of a permanent underclass enduring abominable working conditions and slum housing. A former plantation manager, not British (of indeterminate mixed lineage but with plenty of money), now feeble in his 80s, proudly told me how estate workers were expected to lie in the ditch while the lokhu mahataya rode by, and how he himself had punched out all the teeth of a labourer he thought had showed him disrespect.

In 1946, the plantation Tamil group exceeded the numbers of Jaffna Tamils but deportation and voluntary emigration have depleted their numbers.

Soon after independence, the UNP government passed legislation depriving nearly a million Indian Tamil plantation workers of their citizenship and voting rights. This upset the balance in parliament which subsequently made it easier for a Sinhalese party to obtain a majority.

Sinhala Only

Ceylon had won independence from Britain fairly painlessly. Unlike other colonies such as Ireland and India or Cyprus there was no need for any real struggle to free the country from the shackles of imperialism. There were no national heroes like Michael Collins, Nehru or Makarios. Politicians had to find some other way to strut their stuff. The imperial power let the colony go easily and conscientiously prepared for departure. Pre-independence, there was some solidarity between the Sinhalese and the Tamils of the westernized elite as they united to press the colonial administration to introduce an elective element into the legislature.

Sinhalese-Buddhist activists helped Solomon Bandaranaike and the SLFP win the elections of 1956 and were determined to claim their reward by making the new government honour its pledges to elevate Sinhala to the status of the sole national language. Many Sinhalese students only had unemployment to look forward to and resented the fact that coveted government jobs required a fluency in English which they did not have. Resentful unemployed graduates made articulate and motivated campaigners who had time on their hands. Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine felt threatened by the attraction of western medicine encouraged by the central government’s development of an effective national health service free to all.

The SLFP was strongest in rural areas with Sinhalese majorities and it felt its electoral advantage would be gained by responding to their demands rather than northern Tamils who would not vote for them anyway. Teachers in Sinhalese day schools strongly argued that establishing Sinhala as the sole official language would improve their status and income. A group of about 200 Tamils gathered on Galle Face Green for a silent peaceful protest against the SLFP’s legislation to make Sinhala, spoken as a first language by 70% of the population, the only official national language. The police were given orders not to protect the protesters and anti-Tamil mobs were allowed to take the law into their own hands. Violence spread from the Green to the whole country. The death toll in the riots of June 1956 was 150, small, perhaps, by the standards of ethnic violence elsewhere in South East Asia, but this first violent encounter between Tamils and Sinhalese in modern Sri Lankan history was a shock to the system and many thought it could have been avoided. The warning was not heeded and further wounds were suffered and continue to be endured to this day.
Bandaranaike was not untypical of a tradition in Sri Lankan politics of employing high-flown rhetoric in the pursuit of electoral success without necessarily intending to do much to fulfil promises once in power. The SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem said in 2007:  ”The subject of political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver upon the commitments made during the polls.”

Bandaranaike to extricate himself from the difficulties he had himself created. He tried for reconciliation with the Tamil community by providing, through the Tamil Language Act, for Tamil to be used for in administrative purposes in the northeast. The government tried to appease Tamils by modifying the language policy, only to arouse the wrath of the Sinhala activists. In the riots of April 1958, the death toll was higher, around 600. The government was persuaded to back down from the compromise it had agreed with the leader of the Tamil Federal Party, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, whereby concessions should have been made on language, on devolution and on colonisation of Tamil areas by Sinhalese.

At around 9.30 a.m. on September 25 1959, Bandaranaike finished a meeting with the American ambassador and walked with him to the veranda of his home where a crowd of petitioners was waiting. In the crowd was the Venerable Talduwe Sonorama a Buddhist priest and Ayurvedic practitioner. The prime minister bent towards the saffron robed priest, hands clasped in a gesture of greeting and respect. Sonomara fired four shots into him. Bandaranaike died 24 hours later.

His widow, Sirimavo, took over the premiership becoming the world’s first female prime minister. She ignored her late husband’s vacillating attempts at reconciliation and pressed ahead with implementing the Sinhala only policy to the full.

The UNP under JR Jayawardene continued with policies that Tamils found discriminatory.

Moderate Tamil politicians who tried to operate within the existing state arrangements failed and gave way to militant separatists. The old school politicians argued for a federal arrangement with more devolved power. The new generation saw this as futile and eventually turned to violence in the pursuit of a separate state of Tamil Eelam.

Tamil Political Parties

A number of political parties sought to represent the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

The Ceylon Workers Congress (founded in 1939 as the Indian Workers Congress at the suggestion of Nehru) represented the plantation Tamils as a political party and as a trade union.

The All Ceylon Tamil Congress was founded in 1944 by GG Ponnambalam. The ACTC stood for a principle of minority over-representation, asking for a 50% Tamil presence in parliament even though Tamils were only 20% of the total population. This was rejected by the Governor General as a “mockery of democracy”.

The ACTC was discredited by its association with the UNP when the UNP moved to a pro-Sinhalese position and deprived a million plantation workers of their citizenship. SJV Chelvanayakam broke away from the ACTC and formed the Federal Party.

The Tamil Federal Party was founded in 1949 by a group of parliamentarians under the leadership of S Chelvanayakam. The party’s aim was to achieve a federal union of the Northern and Eastern provinces where there was a Tamil-speaking majority and to end state-aided colonial settlements of Sinhalese in the northeast.

The Tamil United Front (TUF) was a short-lived organisation that combined the TFP, the ACTC, and the CWC together with some independent Tamil politicians to protest against aspects of the 1972 constitution. The constituent elements of the TUF were traditional rivals and the alliance did not succeed.

The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) was founded in 1975 after the ACTC and the CWC went their separate ways. It emerged from the 1977 general election as the second largest party to the UNP winning more seats than the SLFP. The TULF leader A Amirthalingam became the official leader of the opposition in the national parliament. He was assassinated in 1989 by the LTTE. The TULF moved away from a policy of seeking autonomy for the north and east under a federal constitution to working toward a goal of  “a sovereign socialist state of Tamil Eelam”.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was a group of four Tamil parties led by the TULF. The TNA has until recently taken a strongly pro-LTTE stance.

The New Constitution of 1972

The ethnic situation remained fairly stable for ten years after the riots. The SLFP was strong enough to be complacent about the grievances of Tamils and even to take actions which widened the breach.

The first Republican constitution which was adopted on May 22 1972 marked the beginning of a new phase of ethnic conflict because it consolidated the status of the Sinhala language and elevated Buddhism to the status of “foremost among religions”.

Section 29 of the Soulbury constitution which gave some protection to minorities was abolished. State policies were decided in a cabinet where Tamils were not represented and so Tamil parties could not influence change.

Sri Lankan Tamils saw the new constitution as a legalistic mechanism for excluding them from full recognition within the nation of Sri Lanka. They began to move away from campaigning for protection of their minority rights, towards assertion of the right to self-determination.

Education Policy

Tamil politics, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, were further radicalised by changes in university admissions policy. Up to 1970, Tamils managed to hold their own in the more prestigious professions. Although indigenous Tamils were 11% of the country’s population they made up 35% of admissions to science-based courses and represented 45% of engineering and medical faculties. This was on the basis of open competitive examinations.

Tamils were able to achieve such good results because of the superior educational facilities in the Jaffna peninsula. Quota systems were introduced which gave a distinct advantage to Sinhalese and Muslims. (The education minister was a Muslim). The qualifying mark for admission to the medical faculty was changed to 250 out of 400 for Tamil students and 229 for Sinhala students.

Tamils had been so dependent on state employment that a quota system which made entry to the professions and to scientific and technical education more difficult for them caused a great deal of bitterness and frustration. The reduction in admissions was so severe that it was felt as a loss of rights rather than loss of privilege.

In 1979, the people of Jaffna were further alienated by a state of emergency and a counter-insurgency operation by the army. The LTTE targeted Tamil policemen, informers and government supporters. In revenge for the killing of a Tamil UNP candidate and many policemen, the Jaffna Library, home of 90,000 volumes and many rare manuscripts, was burned to the ground, it is alleged, with government collusion.

Sinhalese youth might feel alienated from a system which embodied class privileges. Indeed they felt this strongly enough to mount two bloody uprisings which threatened to topple the state. Tamil youth had the added alienation of feeling like ethnic outsiders. These intelligent and disaffected young men added a volatility and violence to Tamil politics and helped to form an ideology of separatism.

To be continued.