Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: The Agonist

Reconciliation in Burma

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday August 5 2012

Colonial background

The British forced Burma to become a part of the colonial export economy. Vast tracts of land were taken to cultivate rice for export. Indigenous farmers lost their lands and most jobs went to indentured Indian laborers. Grass-roots control was exercised by burning villages and dissent was suppressed by mass executions.

The imperial power introduced a secular education system and encouraged Christian missionaries to found schools. Buddhism and traditional Burmese culture were discouraged as part of a plan to deprive the Burmese people of a cultural unity.


A nationalist movement began to take shape in the form of Young Men’s Buddhist Associations (YMBA). By 1930s, a new radical movement known as the Thakin was formed. Its leading figures included Aung San, U Nu and Ne Win.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San sought support for the Burmese independence struggle from Japan. Japan invaded Burma in 1942 but never succeeded conquering the whole country. On August 1, 1943 the Japanese declared Burma to be an independent nation. Aung San was appointed War Minister but he became disillusioned with the Japanese. He was assassinated on July 19, 1947. Former prime minister U Saw was tried and hanged. Middle-ranking British army officers were also tried and imprisoned.



For most of its existence independent Burma has been ruled by a military dictatorship. In 1988 unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression led to demonstrations. Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators.  General Saw Maung staged a coup and established SLORC – the State Law and Order Restoration Council. In May 1990 the government held free elections for the first time in almost after 30 years but ignored the results. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy won 80% of the seats.


Ethnic conflict

There are 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Burma. Burma has been the scene of some of the most-sustained and diverse ethnic insurgencies in the contemporary world. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) found that “more people had been forcibly displaced from their homes during the past year than any other since obtaining first data collection in 2002.”

Human Rights Watch publicized “atrocities” committed during last month’s clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas which left 78 people dead and about 100,000 homeless.

A foreign journalist asked Aung Sang Suu Kyi whether she regarded Rohingyas as citizens of Burma. “I do not know. We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.” This can be translated as “I won’t get any votes by defending a minority group”.


The US had accepted Burma as one of the original beneficiaries of its Generalized System of Preference (GSP) program in 1976. There was also a major International Military Education and Training [IMET] program) until 1988. The implementing of sanctions on Burma did not begin until the Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar army) brutal suppression of peaceful protest.
Washington recently lifted some financial and investment sanctions in response to nascent democratic reforms but has retained the ban on imports — a restriction that a US Senate committee this month said should be extended by three years.
Today optimists on Burma have criticized sanctions as stifling key job-creating areas of the economy such as the garment industry rather than hurting the interests of the targets of the corrupted elite. The International Crisis Group(ICG)  has said the sanctions stifle  reform.


Human rights

A Boycott Burma campaign stated : “As a tourist to Burma you will travel on roads and railroads, see temples and palaces and stay in hotels built or rebuilt since 1988 which will definitely contain the dead bodies of the slave laborers who made them for you… If you go to Burma you pay to murder the people you visit.”

The army has used villagers as human minesweepers. The prisoners sentenced to ‘prison with hard labor’ are used as slaves and many die. Burmese soldiers, who provide security for the Yadana oil pipeline on behalf of the French company forced thousands of people to do heavy work in the pipeline area and to build police stations and barracks.



The TBBC said: “Almost two thirds of households in rural areas of the South East are unable to meet their basic needs.” The TBBC statement said poverty is severe in the “conflict-affected areas of Northern Kayin State and Eastern Bago Region.”
A Burmese academic Maung Zarni said: “Pro-democracy crowds are also cut from the same racist ideological fabric as the military-dominated government.”

Burmese lessons for Sri Lanka?

Some Sri Lankans think that Burma has good lessons for their country. If these commentators think the nation consistently placed at number 190 in the human development league of shame could be an exemplar to anyone they seem determined to think the worst of Sri Lanka.
– See more at:


Fantasies of Virtue

This article was posted on The Agonist on July 29th, 2009

In his article in The Atlantic dated 1 July 2009 entitled To Catch a Tiger, Robert D Kaplan acknowledged the success of the Sri Lankan government in defeating the Tamil Tigers

Kaplan admits that tiny, cash-strapped Sri Lanka, generally thought of as ”third world” or ”developing”, has succeeded where the mighty USA has failed. The man who dominated Sri Lankan life for the worse for thirty years, Vellupillai Prabakharan, leader of the Tamil Tigers, is dead, while Osama Bin Laden is still living, a free man.

Kaplan asks if the US can learn from Sri Lanka’s success but answers:

”These are methods the U.S. should never use.”

The Sri Lankan government defeated, within its own sovereign borders, with the support of its electorate, what Kaplan admits to be a terrorist group ”among the best organized and most ruthless to have emerged anywhere since the Second World War”. The US has for long used and continues to use even more brutal methods than those condemned by Kaplan.

The birth of the American nation was mired in the genocide of the indigenous races and its development depended on slavery. In his book, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920, Jackson Lears describes how many Americans embraced militaristic fantasies of national rebirth through war and empire. US soldiers were awarded medals in 1890 for firing Hotchkiss cannons at unarmed Indians at Wounded Knee. When Filipinos resisted US imperial claims, the US Army “civilized” them with indiscriminate slaughter as Mark Twain put it “Maxim Guns and Hymn Books”.

America is today an imperial power with military bases instead of colonies. George Orwell commented in 1943, ”It is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory.” Citizens of many nations today get that same feeling. Those populations hosting US bases are expected to be grateful that the bases are contributing to democracy and freedom, but instead feel exploited because the bases are used to control trade, resources, local supplies of cheap labor, and the political, economic, and social life of host countries. They also force them to support American imperialism, including foreign wars, despite harmful fallout to local populations.

There are 38 U.S. military facilities on Okinawa. They account for 78 percent of the bases in Japan and use up 30 percent of the land mass of the island. The U.S. military bases on Okinawa also cover over 40 percent of the arable soil, once some of the best agricultural land in Japan.

Figures up to 1998, show that since 1972, 4,905 crimes were committed against Japanese people by U.S. military personnel, their dependents and U.S. civilian contractors and employees. More than ten percent of these crimes involved serious crimes of murder, robbery or rape. In most cases, the Japanese authorities were not allowed to arrest or question the alleged perpetrators.

Possibly the most famous case was in 1995, when three U.S. soldiers abducted and raped a young schoolgirl. This provoked massive protests. One demonstration drew a crowd of over 92,000, demanding the bases be removed and that the soldiers be turned over to the Japanese authorities for trial. This was never done.

The US is the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons. They dropped atomic bombs  on civilians. 90,000 (this is the low estimate) died immediately at Hiroshima. The estimate for Nagasaki is 20,000.

During the Vietnam War up to 5 million civilians (including citizens of Laos and Cambodia) lost their lives.

On May 26, 2009, a report by Australian law professor Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, was published. The report focused mainly on transgressions during the Bush administration’s”war on terror”. The report found that accountability in the U.S. has been “deplorable.” Few would doubt that the USA has killed innocent civilians and used torture in Iraq. According to The Lancet, the US adventure in Iraq has led to a death toll in excess of 650,000 and four million civilians have been displaced.

The CIA has kidnapped people and outsourced their torture. Torture is illegal under international law; the Obama administration is reluctant to face the issue, but supports calls for Sri Lanka to be investigated for war crimes.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, civilians continue to die because of US air attacks. Kaplan dismisses this: “The Americans have carefully targeted select al-Qaeda members and, in the process, killed a few, at the most, dozens of civilians among whom the fighters were surrounded.” Small drone attack – not many babies or wedding guests killed. Sri Lankans feel that, in a world where innocent Afghan and Pakistanis are killed on a regular basis by unmanned Predator drones in the name of fighting terrorism, the west should not preach to Sri Lanka.

President Obama said:”If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban, or allows al-Qaeda to go unchallenged, that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.  For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralysed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people, especially women and girls. The return in force of al-Qaeda terrorists who would accompany the core Taliban leadership would cast Afghanistan under the shadow of perpetual violence.”

Sri Lanka had an even greater interest in avoiding falling to the Tigers. As Kaplan points out 3,000 died on 9/11; perhaps as many as 100,000 Sri Lankans have died because of the Tigers.

The most worrying thing for those of us not fortunate to be US citizens is the delusional nature of US policy. As Rory Stewart wrote recently in the London Review of Books, ”It papers over the weakness of the international community: our lack of knowledge, power and legitimacy. It conceals the conflicts between our interests: between giving aid to Afghans and killing terrorists. It assumes that Afghanistan is predictable. It is a language that exploits tautologies and negations to suggest inexorable solutions. It makes our policy seem a moral obligation, makes failure unacceptable, and alternatives inconceivable.”

Ian Birrell wrote about elections in Afghanistan in the Independent: ”Once again, we are chasing a chimera, falling for the myth of democracy rather than the reality. Buttressed by our own history, we see the ballot box as the ultimate expression of democracy… The dream is back on. Meanwhile, warlords wash the blood from their hands and dress up as democrats, doing deals to carve up the country… At the end of the process, there will still be some tribal tensions, gangsterism and poppy fields. Even to get to this point will cost billions. It will take many years. And sadly, there will be scores more teenage soldiers slaughtered and maimed. ”

There is an assumption that the US has a moral justification and obligation to intervene in other nations’ affairs. There is also the fantasy that it has the capability to address terrorism and, simultaneously, support ill-defined humanitarian objectives. The US is not as tough and powerful or as humane as thinks. It is unlikely that it can defeat the Taliban forever. In trying to make its fantasies real, it causes havoc and suffering.

Who could dare to argue that “morality” is a bad thing? Morality can be dangerous in politics, particularly if it is not clearly thought out, if it is just used as a buzz concept, part of the jargon. Blair and Bush told many lies (a justifiable immorality?) about Iraq and ended up with Saddam’s “evil” as the only justification for the mess. Saddam was killed; Prabakharan was killed. Large numbers of people were killed in Iraq but the purpose was noble wasn’t it? President Rajapaksa could also argue that difficult decisions had to be taken in order to achieve the ultimate good of ending the horror wrought by the Tamil Tigers.

There are certainly very real concerns about human rights and freedom of speech in Sri Lanka. However, Kaplan should look at the beam in the USA’s eye before calling attention to the mote in Sri Lanka’s. The Obama administration said it could continue to imprison non-U.S. citizens indefinitely even if they have been acquitted of terrorism charges by a U.S. military commission.

“In fact, there are no useful pointers to be gleaned from the Sri Lankan government’s victory.” I hope that Kaplan is correct and that the US does not try to learn from the Sri Lankan experience.

One lesson that might be learnt is that even those Sri Lankans who were dubious about the government’s decision to pursue the military option, are relieved, Tamils among them, that the venture has been successful.

Does the fact that those accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes are not free of guilt themselves, mean the issue should be ignored? Some would argue that a full investigation of war crimes would be a distraction from the reconciliation process. Others argue that the bitterness felt by many of the Tamil community will make reconciliation impossible if this issue is not addressed.

Other  countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, Chile and Northern Ireland are sometimes cited. Sri Lanka does not have direct parallels with any of these countries.Whatever discrimination and violence Sri Lankan Tamils may have suffered, Sri Lanka is not an apartheid society like South Africa, Palestine or even Louisiana. Whatever notion the western media might convey, Sri Lanka’s entire Tamil population has not been confined to a narrow strip of beach being bombarded by a racist government intent on genocide; the entire Tamil population is not currently imprisoned in concentration camps prior to extermination. Tamils are spread throughout the country and generally live normal lives. Many of them are prosperous and influential. Some held senior positions in government until the Tigers killed them.

In Chile, General Pinochet overthrew a democratically elected government; in Sri Lanka a democratically elected government increased its popularity with the voters by overthrowing a totalitarian, fascist, military dictatorship in part of its internationally recognised sovereign territory and intends to restore democracy to that area.
In Northern Ireland, peace was achieved through negotiation when both sides became exhausted and accepted that neither could win. The IRA gave up its goal of a united Ireland. The LTTE went into every negotiation with an uncompromising demand for nothing short of a separate homeland, comprising two-thirds of the territory of Sri Lanka.

Reconciliation will be difficult but it is possible. Sri Lanka needs help in this process rather than sanctimonious lectures.

Obama, Osama, Blake and Prabakharan

This was posted on The Agonist on May 23 2011

Death of Bin Laden

President Obama decided not to release any photographs of Bin Laden’s body or video footage of the burial. He said it was important to keep photographic evidence from “floating around as incitement or a propaganda tool”.

The body was prepared for burial “in conformance with Islamic precepts and practice”, then placed in a weighted bag and dropped into the water from the vessel’s deck. Officials said this was to avoid his grave becoming a shrine.

Leon Panetta , Director of the CIA, said that, “Obviously, under the rules of engagement, if he had in fact thrown up his hands, surrendered and didn’t appear to be representing any kind of threat, then they were to capture him. But they had full authority to kill him.”

Death of Prabakharan

May 18 2011 marked the second anniversary of the death of Vellupillai , leader of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) at Nandikathal lagoon north of Vellamullivaikkal near Mullaithivu.

For some Tamils, Prabakharan had the status of a demi-god. A Tamil Catholic priest (Fr SJ Emmanuel, former Vicar-General of Jaffna, now living in Germany) compared him to Jesus. The surviving LTTE initially claimed that Prabakharan was alive but the government published pictures of the corpse which was conclusively identified by former LTTE commander in the Eastern province ”Colonel Karuna” (Vinayagamoorthy Muaralithan) now deputy leader of the governing SLFP party). Further confirmation was through DNA testing against genetic material of Prabakharan’s son, Charles Anthony, who had been killed earlier by the Sri Lanka army. Circumstantial evidence suggested that Prabakharan senior’s death was caused by massive head trauma, perhaps from a shot at close range. There are also allegations that he was executed.

Sutirho Patronobis, wrote recently in the Hindustan Times: ”army chief Sarath Fonseka had initially told me that Prabakharan and a few of his remaining lieutenants were shot dead in an ambulance while they were trying to crash through a Sri Lankan army deployment. The official version changed a day later: Prabakharan was killed inside a mangrove forest near the bank of a lagoon in a last burst of gunfire. His body was then burnt and the ashes scattered across the sea.

A month later, the defence ministry said it was after the chance discovery of the body of Prabakharan’s bodyguard that the army realised that the LTTE chief was possibly dead. Unlike the attack on Bin Laden, in which four or five others were killed, hundreds of LTTE cadres died in attempting to save Prabakharan; no stealthy helicopter strike, it was a bloody fight. Fonseka is currently on trial for saying in an interview that surrendering LTTE leaders with white flags were executed.

Prabakharan was a Sri Lankan citizen who had been at war with the Sri Lankan government since 1975. In that year, he made his first known killing. The ensuing conflict led to around 100,000 deaths (although it is impossible to arrive at a definitive figure) . He was killed by the legitimate armed forces of a sovereign nation answerable to a democratically elected government on its own territory.

The USA was rather lukewarm in its reaction to this major victory in the global war on terrorism: “The Department of State welcomes the fact that the fighting has ended, and we are relieved that the immense loss of life and killing of innocent civilians appears to be over. This is an opportunity for Sri Lanka to turn the page on its past and build a Sri Lanka rooted in democracy, tolerance, and respect for human rights. Now is the time for the government to engage the Tamils, Sinhalese, and other Sri Lankans to create a political arrangement that promotes and protects the rights of all Sri Lankans”.

The Rise and Crimes of the LTTE

In 1972, a group of students formed a militant group called the Tamil New Tigers (TNT). One member of this group was Prabakharan, who was born in Jaffna in November 1954. On July 27 1975, the former mayor of Jaffna, SLFP politician Alfred Durayappah, a Tamil, was assassinated.  Later Prabakharan claimed that he had fired the fatal shot.

The TNT became the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and by means of murder and intimidation became the dominant group. Separatist militancy was further fanned by the anti-Tamil riots which followed the 1977 general election, in which the UNP came to power. The LTTE were proscribed in 1978 by which time most of its rivals had been eliminated. The anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983, Black July, sent many Tamils into exile from where they funded the growth of the LTTE.

Over many decades, Prabakharan used cease-fires to regroup and re-arm. Unlike the IRA leaders, he had no interest in compromise and would settle for nothing less than a separate state of Tamil Eelam, comprising one third of the island’s land mass and two thirds of its coastline, including the strategic harbour of Trincomalee. The LTTE continued to murder Tamils as well as Sinhalese. The distinguished foreign minister, Lakshman Kadigarmar, was one of the Tamil victims.

The LTTE was guilty of many crimes over the thirty years of the conflict. They assassinated Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lanka President Premadasa. An attempt on the life of President Kumaratunga failed but she lost an eye. In that attempt, 23 civilians were killed.

In 1985, LTTE gunmen shot dead 146 Sinhalese civilians and injured 85 others as they were praying at a sacred Buddhist shrine in Anuradhapura. A further 18 people fleeing from that massacre were shot dead in Wilpattu forest. Later in the same year, in Dehiwatta village, 100 LTTE men hacked to death 15 women and children as they were sleeping.

In 1986, an LTTE bomb exploded aboard an Air Lanka flight carrying mainly French, British and Japanese tourists killing 21 (including 13 foreigners – of whom 2 British, 2 German, 3 French, 2 Japanese, 1 Maldivian and 1 Pakistani) and injuring 41.

Throughout 1988 and 1989, there seemed to be an LTTE massacre of villagers every day. In June 1990, the LTTE marked the breakdown of ceasefire talks by overrunning police stations throughout the north east of Sri Lanka. The LTTE killed 600 police officers who had surrendered. On June 10, over 400 unarmed police officers were shot dead in police stations across eastern Sri Lanka.

On August 3, 30 Tigers attacked four mosques in the Kattankudi area, where 300 Muslims were prostrate in prayer. The Tigers sprayed automatic fire and hurled hand grenades at the worshipers. Most of the victims were shot in the back or side. Speaking to the New York Times, Mohammed Ibrahim, a 40-year-old businessman said, “I was kneeling down and praying when the rebels started shooting. The firing went on for 15 minutes. I escaped without being hit and found myself among bodies all over the place.” Mohammed Arif, a 17-year-old student who also survived the massacre said : “Before I escaped from a side door and scaled a wall, I saw a Tiger rebel put a gun into the mouth of a small Muslim boy and pull the trigger.”

Killings continued on a daily basis over the years. In 1994, presidential candidate and opposition leader Gamini Dissanayake (we know his son-in-law) was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber who exploded herself at a campaign rally in Colombo. Fifty others were killed in the blast and a further 75 were seriously injured.

The most deadly LTTE attack on a civilian target in the history of the group’s operations occurred in 1996. The Central Bank (located in the twin towers of the Colombo World Trade Centre) was bombed and 90 people were killed and 1,400 injured. In 1997, another bombing at the WTC killed 13 and injured hundreds.

In 1998, a Black Tiger squad drove an explosives-laden truck into the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, a major Buddhist shrine, killing seven and injuring 25. The attack took place just days before foreign dignitaries were expected to attend celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Sri Lankan independence at the temple.

Later that year the LTTE shot down a plane with 55 passengers (including 48 Tamils) and crew while it was flying over LTTE held territory. Everyone onboard was killed.

In 1999, Dr Neelan Thiruchelvam, a Tamil, who was working on a constitutional package aimed at ending the decades-long conflict, was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber.

In May 2000, the LTTE celebrated the holiest day of the Buddhist calendar, Vesak Poya, by detonating a bomb hidden inside an ice-cream box on a bicycle killing 20 people and injuring 75.

In 2001, a 14-man suicide squad attacked an air force base and the adjoining international airport. They destroyed many aircraft, crippling the country’s economy and reducing tourism.

In 2006, the award-winning author Nihal de Silva and seven Sri Lankan tourists were killed by an LTTE land mine in Wilpattu National Park.

In the same year, The LTTE bombed a bus carrying 140 civilians in the north east. The blast killed 68 civilians including 15 school children, and injured 78 others. It was caused by two claymore mines placed side by side on the bus by LTTE cadres, which sprayed the packed bus with millions of ball bearings upon manual detonation. Survivors, including school children, of the blast were shot as they ran away.

In the same year, a suicide bomber in a truck killed 103 sailors on buses going or returning from leave at a transit point and wounded 150 other sailors. Several civilians were killed. Two people were killed and 14 others wounded, mostly civilians who were passing by the site in an attempt on the life of defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

There are many more instances of LTTE cadres hacking to death unsuspecting villagers at home or at prayer, or on buses or trains (often using multiple bombs in several carriages) on the way to work or school.

The Military Solution

President Rajapaksa decided in 2006 that a negotiated settlement was impossible and began a military campaign against the Tigers.

By the early months of 2009, the LTTE was on the verge of certain defeat but  would not give up, perhaps hoping that other countries might save him. There was constant pressure on the government from the USA, UK, EU and Norway to call a cease-fire. The government resisted because the LTTE had a history of using cease-fires to regroup and re-arm and also to continue killing. The government argued that it was doing its best to get food and medicine to civilians in the north who were being held hostage by the LTTE.

The LTTE had always employed forcible recruitment, every family had to sacrifice a child to the cause of Eelam. This gained pace as defeat loomed. Children under twelve were recruited. Civilians who resisted were executed.
Civilians turned on the LTTE who attempted to forcibly recruit men and women in the Puthumathalan area. Several LTTE cadres were killed and many injured. This incident occurred when the LTTE attempted to forcibly recruit a young girl, despite her protests. According to civilians who escaped from the area, the LTTE had dragged the girl and torn her clothing until she was almost naked. This incident had incited her relatives and people in the vicinity who then attacked the LTTE cadres. At least six vehicles in which the group had come had been set on fire by the angry civilians. Later the people surrounded an LTTE political office in the area and set it on fire. In retaliation, a group of armed LTTE cadres came to the area and indiscriminately attacked unarmed civilians, killing and causing injuries to several of them in the presence of the humanitarian agencies working in the area.

In Outlook India Ashok Mehta, former GOC of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka wrote: “The LTTE’s principal handicap has been Prabakharan . Because of him, the Tigers missed several opportunities for a political settlement””from the devolution package to even better offers later from president Chandrika Kumaratunga and prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. Chasing the chimera of Eelam,  became a liability.”

Robert Orris Blake and Human Rights

Assistant Secretary of State, Robert O Blake, recently visited Sri Lanka. Blake was previously US Ambassador in Colombo. In February 2007, he received minor injuries from a mortar blast while disembarking from a helicopter at a Sri Lankan air base in Batticaloa, where he was to attend a development meeting. The Tigers claimed they were not informed by the government that the ambassador was present and were only returning fire from the Sri Lankan Army.

Blake had been anxious for some time to visit Sri Lanka to lecture the government about the report to the UN General Secretary on human rights violations in Sri Lanka. That was before his government shot dead without trial a man who was not a US citizen in a nation that was not the USA.

Blake was asked at a press briefing whether his country’s battle against international terrorism was likely to be undermined by accountability issues on the grounds that Bin Laden was unarmed at the time he was shot. Blake’s six-foot seven frame swayed in the breeze somewhat. Although Pakistan comes within his area of responsibility, it was obvious that he had not been in on the plan to assassinate Bin Laden in that country.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay (a South African Tamil who has long been a stern critic of Sri Lanka) and groups such as the International Crisis Group, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised such issues. Pillay has urged the White House to make public the “precise facts surrounding Osama’s killing to ensure the operation adhered to international law”.

A discomfited Blake dodged questions and hurried away after only a brief session. Blake said that he had been travelling around Sri Lanka so he wasn’t aware of specific allegations levelled against the US over the Osama killing. “Let me tell you, that Osama bin Laden was the leader of an armed group that was engaged in armed conflict against the government of United States. He was therefore a lawful target. We certainly stand by our actions”.

Was Prabakharan not engaged in armed conflict with the government of Sri Lanka? Was he not a lawful target?

Blake caused some alarm in Sri Lanka when he made a statement before the Senate subcommittee on the Middle East (West Asia) and South Asia. His address included a telling phrase. This is the first time he has gone on record to publicly state, “Positioned directly on the shipping routes that carry petroleum products and other trade from the Gulf to East Asia, Sri Lanka remains of strategic interest to the U.S.”

Once in Sri Lanka he tried to soft-pedal. ”In my official meetings today, I assured the Sri Lankan government that the U.S. is committed to a strong long-term partnership with Sri Lanka and that reports of our alleged support for ”˜regime change’ have no basis whatsoever. I expressed support for the government’s efforts to recover from its devastating civil war, and encouraged further steps towards reconciliation, and a peaceful, united, democratic Sri Lanka. I think the government has made some positive progress. It is very important that this progress be sustained. ”

Bin Laden has been hunted for ten years, Afghanistan and Iraq have been invaded and occupied because Bin Laden has been held responsible for the death of 3,000 people on 9/11. Prabakharan was responsible for countless more deaths, but Sri Lanka is accused of war crimes in defeating his evil campaign. Since the death of Prabakharan two years ago there have been no terrorist incidents in Sri Lanka and most of the Tamil groups fighting for a separate state of Eelam are now working with the government.

We shall see whether the assassination of Bin Laden will end Islamic terrorism.


Just because you’re paranoid…

This article was posted on The Agonist on September 30 2009. It still seems relevant following David Cameron’s visit in November 2013.


One can detect something of a siege mentality in Sri Lanka. There is a strong feeling that, after winning a long and brutal war, the country’s independence is threatened by unfair criticism from abroad. An important element in this is in the complex relationship with INGOs (International Non-governmental Organizations).

Susantha Goonatilake called his book on foreign-funded NGOs in Sri Lanka Recolonization.

In his conclusion he wrote:”Sri Lankan NGOs emerged in the late 1970s when the then government cracked down on democracy, transparency and accountability and killed locally-grown civil society… Sri Lanka thus became a partial NGO franchise state, with the NGOs attempting to erode the country’s sovereignty …The NGOs are now being squeezed and widely criticised, not only by the media, but also through massive street protests and countrywide posters. The coming years will see an outcome of the struggle between real civil society and foreign-funded NGOs. This struggle, which is partly between a reconciliation agenda and local voices, echoes Sri Lanka’s 500-year-old struggle with western colonial powers.”

There is a common resentment among Sri Lankans about the perceived arrogance of NGOs and the foreign correspondents that rely on them for access and information.

Gomin Dayasri has written about this: ”It’s a stopover in paradise for a Foreign Correspondent to live majestically on his overseas allowance. Such comfortable digs are not in the market in the recession-stung home country. There is exotic food and groovy watering holes at affordable prices. NGOs provide the freebies and roll out the red carpet…With the LTTE gone where they will go? After a few more horror stories to demean the Security Forces and back to the west to face the shock treatment of recession. War is an investment relief to the Foreign Correspondent. The order will soon come to pack the flak jackets and return to a not so sweet home and to wait patiently for a call to another exotic destination?”

I used to wonder why the Sri Lanka government was so paranoid about NGOs and foreign criticism. It seemed a bit crass to seek international help and get all huffy about foreign interference.

During the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA), to the outside world it would have seemed that the Norwegian facilitators were doing a difficult job in trying to bring peace to the war-torn island and getting very little thanks for it.

The leader of the Norwegian team was Erik Solheim, currently Norway’s International Development Minister. He recently called on the UN to investigate charges of war crimes in Sri Lanka, following the screening of a video on Channel 4 purporting to show Sri Lankan soldiers shooting unarmed Tamils. The Sri Lanka government claims that the video has been proved to be a fake.

The interrogation of Kumaran Padmanathan aka ”˜KP’, the LTTE’s arms procurer caught over two months ago, is helping to expose an international network that kept the Tigers in fighting trim. It has been revealed that the Norwegian government helped the LTTE to establish relations with Eritrea, which allowed the group to purchase arms, ammunition and equipment from China on Eritrean end-user certificates and other documents. Erik Solheim had been directly involved in forming the Eritrean-LTTE relationship. The LTTE had used Eritrean and also North Korean end-user-certificates to procure arms from China which were smuggled in several consignments before the Sri Lanka Navy destroyed eight floating arsenals September 2006 and October 2007.

Sri Lanka recently established diplomatic relations with Eritrea with a view to pursuing LTTE assets in that country. KP has revealed that an LTTE-owned business venture was entrusted with operating the International Airport in Asmara and that during the last leg of the war, it had been planned to smuggle the leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran to Eritrea.

Over 90 per cent of the entire Tigers’ heavy equipment, including a range of artillery pieces and 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns captured by the Sri Lankan army were of Chinese origin.

Many Sri Lankans have long been suspicious about Norwegian influence in their country. Eyebrows were raised when Norwegian People’s Aid, a Norwegian Government-funded NGO said its heavy earth-moving vehicles, trucks & tractors had been ”stolen” by the LTTE. NPA had been implicated in smuggling arms to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. When the Sri Lanka Army captured the LTTE’s Stanley Base and other camps they found electricity generators, water pumps, tents, water dowsers belonging to INGOs. The massive bunkers could have been built with the stolen vehicles.

Norwegians were suspected of training LTTE Sea Tigers in Thailand. There was also speculation that Norway provided sophisticated satellite and communication equipment to the LTTE during the 2002 CFA truce.

CARE is a leading international organization based in Atlanta, Georgia which operates in more than 65 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. On its website it acknowledges that, although there is a great deal of poverty to be addressed in the USA itself, it prefers to work in foreign countries. It has more than 14,500 employees worldwide. More than 90 percent of CARE International staff are nationals of the countries where it operates.

According to the Kotahena Police, investigations have revealed that the bomb exploded at the Pittala Junction in Kollupitiya targeting Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was taken to Colombo from Kilinochchi in a vehicle belonging to CARE International. Police arrested Sivalingam Arunan, Patmanathan Iiyer Sriskandaraja Sharma and Arunasalam Arumugam Perumal in connection with the assassination attempt. The bomb material had been buried at a safe house in Wellawatte after being carried in a CARE International van. Later, it was transported to Modera and fixed to the three-wheeler of the suicide cadre Lateef Mohamed Faris.

Two Sri Lankan UN workers were arrested in June on suspicion of using NGO activity as a cover for aiding the LTTE. The two men in detention are a 45 year old employee of the UNHCR and a 31 year-old man employed by the UN Office for Project Services.

Recent reports indicate that five Russians were ”˜smuggled’ into the country in the guise of NGO personnel, to provide special training to personal bodyguards of Prabhakaran in the Wanni. A local bodyguard, who was arrested at a refugee camp in the Wanni, revealed that 35 bodyguards had been trained by the Russians. The training included firing, driving and dismantling a vehicle and reassembling it in a very short time. Prabakharan’s son Charles Anthony had received training from the Russians. An extensive investigation is under way to identify these Russians and the NGO that supported them. Defence officials suspect these Russians could be retired members of a Russian defence unit.

Police believe that some NGO employees in the IDP camps are Black Tigers whose mission is to assassinate VIPs visiting the camps. A report in The Island newspaper of 30 September claims that 20,000, believed to be LTTE cadres, have escaped from the IDP camps. Senior Superintendent Kasturiratne said special police teams from Kandy had been dispatched to the IDP camps in the north to conduct investigations. The SSP said that followers of the terrorist organisation were still moving around though the leadership of the movement had been destroyed. He said explosives and arms had been recovered from Pudikudiiruppu and other locations in the north and east on information provided by the LTTE suspects in custody.

Sri Lanka is waiting trepidatiously for the EU to report on GSP Plus, which, simply put, is a preferential tariff advantageous to the exports of the Sri Lanka garment industry. The EU created the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) from the early 1970s onwards, pursuant to a series of decisions made by the signatories of GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs).

Following a challenge from the WTO the EU had to redesign the GSP scheme. Countries lose the standard GSP scheme concessions when they are no longer classified as developing nations. The least-developed countries also lose their duty- free preferences once they become middle-income countries. They then fall into the standard GSP category and pay the 10% duty.

In order to qualify for GSP+ applicant nations had to ratify and implement 27 international conventions, account for less than one per cent of total imports into the EU, and its five main exports should account for more than 75 per cent of its total exports. If recipient countries fall short of the three GSP+ criteria, they will automatically be out of the scheme.

The EU seems to be implementing the GSP+ scheme in such a way as to spite the WTO for ruling against them. The EU is trying to disqualify Sri Lanka on the grounds that she is in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. What the WTO seemed to have had in mind were de-selection criteria in keeping with the ”˜development, financial and trade needs’ of the recipient country and stability and predictability in tariff regimes.
The EU paid local NGOs to make representations to itself to the effect that Sri Lanka was not in compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Then they paid another committee of experts to examine the documents they had paid for earlier. Nobody knows who made submissions to this three-member committee of experts appointed by the European Commission.

The irony of the situation is that Sri Lanka is trying to recover from a horrendous thirty-year civil war and the garment industry has an important role to play in rebuilding the north and east by providing employment and helping rebuild the infrastructure.

The association of companies called Sri Lanka Apparel is contributing to post-war reconstruction by establishing a new garment factory, specialising in baby clothes, in the war-affected district of Trincomalee. The factory benefited from a special incentive scheme to attract investments into the Eastern Province and has generated 1,000 jobs. The factory opened in September, 2009 and will initially export all of its output to the UK. It has the capacity to produce 100 pieces per month and in six months will increase capacity to 1.2m – 2m pieces per month.

Another Sri Lanka Apparel member company has made water and sanitation the central theme of its corporate social responsibility programme. It has been building hygienic bathing facilities for displaced people in the camps at Menik Farm in northern Sri Lanka. The project employed people living in the camps and provided them with income.

That particular company has also supported the Government’s efforts to rebuild the economy of the Eastern Province by investing 250 million rupees in a factory at Punani in the Batticaloa District, which currently employs 220 people, most of whom are from families that were displaced by the conflict.

A key feature of the Sri Lankan garment industry is that it seems to do more than pay lip-service to the concept of corporate social responsibility. Sri Lanka, as a nation, has fostered enlightened, socially-responsible legislation and has committed itself to 27 of the ILO Core Conventions. The mission of the industry is to employ ethical practices, thereby contributing to the economic development of the country while improving the quality of life of the apparel industry’s workforce and their communities.

An initiative called Garments without Guilt enabled Sri Lanka Apparel to forge a niche for itself in western markets where companies and consumers were uncomfortable after revelations about Asian sweatshops. This success has been threatened by the financial crisis and will be further threatened if GSP + is withdrawn. Was ethical marketing merely a luxury of a booming world economy which will have to be jettisoned in grimmer times? Kumar Mirchandani of Sri Lanka Apparel told me that the association will not abandon its principles. Whatever the competition might try, Sri Lanka Apparel is committed to ethical business. ”There is no excuse for unethical behaviour, no matter what the economic conditions are. This is the message Sri Lanka Apparel is sending”.

It is ironical that because of the perceptions of the EU about human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government, thousands of innocent Sri Lankan workers in an industry that achieved success because of its ethical business practices will be thrown out of work and factories in the war-torn north and east may have to close.

Much of what is called loosely ”aid” is in fact investment for a return or loans on which Sri Lanka pays interest. GSP + is not charity. Sri Lanka was one of the original 24 signatories to GATT in 1947, and what Article 1 of GATT envisaged was equal opportunity for everybody whereby member states would refrain from discriminating between one another and grant similar treatment to all countries. The stability as well as predictability of tariffs is essential for traders to make investment decisions. At the time they load their ships, they should know that the applicable tariff will not be higher when the goods reach the destination.

The EU may push Sri Lanka to the position where she has no alternative but to mount a challenge in the WTO.

Sri Lanka’s displaced people Part 2

This was posted on  The Agonist on August 11, 2009.

IDP camps in Sri Lanka

The controversy over refugee camps in Sri Lanka continues.

On August 8, Amnesty International published a document calling on the Sri Lankan government to ensure:

  • Right to liberty and freedom of movement
  • Systematic and transparent registration for each displaced person
  • Family reunification
  • Civilian administration and humanitarian access

Conditions in the camps

Despite the claims of human rights groups and vocal sections of the Tamil diaspora, there has been sufficient access to the camps for a great number of eyewitness reports to be published.

Here is one at random that I have just seen from a Colombo blogger: ”many of the people at the camps are the most resilient and resourceful people I have ever met in this country. Vegetable patches growing outside tents would vouch for that. Or the fact that out of the thousands of people we met or passed by there, only a handful acted like beggars or freeloaders.”

Another says ”a lucrative trade has emerged. Liquor, groceries, can be purchased by those able to access remittances from abroad, the entire transaction going through the military or others in a position to profit from suffering.”

DBS Jeyaraj, a distinguished Sri Lankan Tamil journalist based in Canada, posted an eye-witness account of the camps on his blog and introduced it with the following remarks: ”Once again I ask readers not to engage in ethnic-orientated recrimination about the IDP plight. Please see a humanitarian tragedy as human beings and not as ethnic beings. I must also state that this account is not the conventional fact-finding report but more of a sincere attempt to describe first-hand impressions of existential reality.”

The observers summarised their main points:

  • Many families have relatives they can go and stay with but are forcibly kept in the camp.
  • Names of IDPs are not registered systematically.
  • Screening procedures are not transparent and information is not fed back to families.
  • Families are separated in different zones.
  • The camps are administered by armed military personnel, which seem more threatening than a civilian administration.
  • There should be a right to information.
  • Aid agencies should be able to talk to the displaced.

“On both sides of the road, you could see human waste. We stopped the vehicle to take photographs but the stench was too overpowering for us to stay long.”

”Three of our colleagues who wore open footwear while working in the camps were later infected with various foot diseases. One had to have his toe nails removed.”

“One of the Grama Niladharis (local government official) was stealing supplies, which should have gone to IDPs for other purposes. Community leaders among the IDPs who complained were threatened. Corruption, mainly involving Tamil officials, seems rampant in these camps.”

”We saw an official who works in Colombo who had come to see his mother. He drove a luxury vehicle and looked as if he was from the upper strata of Sri Lankan Tamil society. His mother looked like an impoverished, malnourished beggar”.

In The Island newspaper, Lilani Jayatilaka described a visit to the camps: ”Happily, and contrary to our expectations, most people in the camp seemed relatively cheerful. Their sudden release from the overriding fear of imminent death or disablement and the resultant sense of physical safety were reason enough for their relaxed demeanour. However, when we spoke to them, they all expressed an anxiety to get back to their homes and to their occupations. When I asked them whether their homes were still intact, they said that though their homes had been demolished, they would rebuild, once they got back home.”

”One little girl, who was about ten years old, said that, prior to coming to the camp, she had slept in a bunker to escape the shelling, and used to fall asleep through fear, though her stomach was empty. At that time, she had subsisted on just one meal a day. Now she had three meals a day.”

What many accounts from western journalists omit from their stories of genocide and concentration camps, is that many Sinhalese, as well as paying for rehabilitation through their taxes, are rallying around organising help for the IDPs on a personal humanitarian basis. Lilani Jayatilaka wrote: ”Young school leavers from Colombo, who had been instrumental in making all the organizational arrangements, as well as in parcelling the “friendship package’ for each family.”

I was surprised to read that even back in April, before the war was over, the banks had set up ATMs in the camps.

A delegation from Hatton National Bank, headed by Senior Manager Mr Teagharajah (a Tamil), provided water tanks.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Displaced Persons, Erik Schwartz, who visited the Zero Camp in the Menik Farm IDP camp on July 26, said the government has taken necessary steps to improve conditions in the IDP camps.

The editor of The Hindu reported on his visit to the Menik Farm camp: ”Conditions in these camps are much better than what has been depicted, mostly second-hand, that is, without visiting the camps, in western media reports. Moreover, they are visibly better than conditions in Sri Lankan refugee camps in India, which are still mostly inaccessible to journalists, researchers, and other outsiders. Basic needs, including education for the schoolchildren and vocational training for older boys and girls, are being met by the Sri Lankan government with assistance from the United Nations, a number of countries, including India, and more than 50 INGOs.”

A retired Sri Lankan editor, now a resident of Victoria in Australia, H Mahindapala, reported what he saw in the camps: ”They have schools and hospitals. One hospital is run by a team of Indian specialists ranging from cardiac surgeons to nephrologists. This hospital has an x-ray unit, a small operating theatre and large stocks of required medicine. All medicine ” you name it ” is distributed free. The Sri Lankan hospital is manned by 55 doctors who also run a mobile ambulance. Here too medicine is free.

A-Level students were given tuition by specialists teachers transported from leading elitist schools like Royal College and D. S. Senanayake College in Colombo. There is a bank in which the IDPs had deposited Rs.300 million. There is a post office and phone facilities to contact the outside world. Anybody is allowed to visit them. There is a fish and a meat shop. I did not see a single student carrying AK 47s. They were more interested in watching the 20-20 series on TV sets. Investigations were going on to find the relatives of orphans. There were two INGOs purifying the water pumped from the Malwatu Oya. An engineer of the Water Board, M. Manoharan (a Tamil in case you do not know) was supervising the operations of this water project. The IDPs were provided dry rations. Visitors and well-wishers from the south, mostly Sinhalese, bring loads of goodies for the IDPs. If you had a choice in which “concentration camp” would you like to be: the one run for Japanese in Australia or the one run by the Sri Lankan government?”

He quoted his local paper in Australia: ”It reported on page one that ”˜an estimated 300,000 people (are) going hungry in Victoria.’ It added on page 8: ”˜One in 10 Victorians are malnourished, go hungry or feel anxious because they cannot access healthy and safe food.’ For your edification may I state the 300,000 IDPs are not in such dire straits as the Victorians in affluent Australia?” Like the USA, Australia is a nation founded on genocide. Those Aborigines who survived live today in appalling conditions.

This is not to say Menik Farm is Club Mediterranean but it isn’t Belsen either (or Glastonbury or Woodstock).

Tamil News says ”reliable sources” claim foreigners are being misled by being shown the better facilities


From the outset, there have been fears about the health of the inmates. “With such a large number of people concentrated together, there is always the risk of waterborne disease with the rains,” said Laurent Sury, head of mission for Medecins Sans Frontieres. The monsoon lasts about four months, and even though the World Health Organization (WHO) says no large disease outbreaks have been reported so far, the risk factors for malaria and diarrhoea have increased.

The WHO has been working closely with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health to ensure the health and welfare of IDPs. The WHO field unit in Vavuniya has been active in providing support on the ground in close coordination with the Regional Health services and Humanitarian partners.

The Colombo-based Medical Research Institute said in March that in six out of the then 13 camps, 25.5% of children suffered from global acute malnutrition, of whom 5.2% were severely malnourished and needed immediate rehabilitation with therapeutic food and treatment.

A recent press release by the UNHCR stated: ”No major disease outbreaks have been reported so far from the IDP centres despite concerns by UN and relief agencies of overcrowding.” There are currently concerns about skin complaints.

WHO said the Ministry of Health had taken precautions to deal with a possible malaria outbreak, with proper surveillance mechanisms at all camps. Until 19 June, only 29 cases of malaria had been reported, but health officials initiated a high alert when two cases were reported on 18 June from zone 4 in Menik Farm. Until 18 June 1,060 cases of dysentery and more than 5,000 cases of diarrhoea had been reported from the camps. There was a serious threat of waterborne diseases because so many people were living so close together.

The greatest disease outbreak initially was chickenpox, with more than 12,000 cases. Medical officers working with the displaced suspect that most of the chickenpox patients contracted the disease before they arrived in the camps. The UN reported that cases had since decreased and the number of new cases reported steadily declined from mid June.” The number of Hepatitis A cases also declined. A total of 2,139 cases were reported as at 12 June.

“Child health remains a key priority for the Government of Sri Lanka. We are committed to ensuring that the IDP population is protected,” said Secretary to the Ministry of Health, Athula Kahandaliyanage. On August 3rd a vaccination programme was launched. The campaign is being run by the Ministry of Health, UNICEF, World Health Organization (WHO), Sarvodaya (a local NGO) and other partners. “All the children between the age of six months and one year are given an additional dose of measles vaccine. Children between one to three years of age are given a dose of MR (measles) vaccine. All males and females between the age of 13 and 21 years who have not received the adult Td (Tetanus, Diphtheria) vaccine will be given a single dose of a Td (vaccine),” the WHO report stated.

“High-risk groups in the IDP camps (such as food handlers, health workers and workers working closely with patients) are being given Vipolysaccharide typhoid vaccine.” The children were also given a dose of vitamin A and de-worming tablets to raise resistance against other diseases and stem malnutrition.

At least 100 public health workers and 1,200 volunteers were expected to participate at 30 centres in Vavuniya District. An Indian medical team arrived in Sri Lanka on March 10 and set up a hospital in Pulmoddai, in Trincomalee district in the Eastern province to receive sick and injured IDPs being brought by Red Cross ships from the areas held by the LTTE.

India now feels that conditions have improved sufficiently to withdraw. Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Alok Prasad, said in a letter addressed to Sri Lankan Health Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva: ”Since a very useful facility has been set up and the physical infrastructure of the hospital will remain in place, you may like to consider that the hospital may be taken over by the Ministry of Health on Aug.31, 2009”.

The Sri Lanka Sunday Times reported on 9 August that the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) Spokesperson Upul Gunasekara had said that the government should have appointed a proper administrator to oversee health services in the camps.  ”We have spoken to the President, the Director General of Health Services and the Secretary of Ministry of Health but no one is taking any action. Even the IDP health coordination centre is a mess as they do not have proper administrators to execute the work. The doctors who are working there are frustrated with the situation. If this continues even we will not be able to control the situation.”

Dr Gunasekara also complained that his members had not received their overtime pay. ”These doctors are undergoing a lot of hardship in the area and they should be the ones who are looked after. If doctors of the national hospital can be paid overtime payments I cannot understand why they don’t have money to pay these doctors who are working in Vavuniya.”

Sri Lanka’s displaced people Part 3

This was posted on August 26th, 2009


When I first moved to Sri Lanka from Ireland some seven years ago, a friend wrote to me asking if I missed the Cork rain. I replied that indeed I did…  I missed its moderation. My first impression was that the rainy season in my new home lasted 13 months every year. I realise now that I was being hyperbolic but this is the first August that torrential rain has not been coming through my roof. A few years ago, there was one occasion when I woke up at about three in the morning to watch my slippers floating past me on the tide.

I am not being flippant here, merely trying to feel some empathy for those in the IDP camps in the north. How would I feel being in a tent in such weather? I spent a weekend in a tent in a sea of mud at the Glastonbury festival but I knew when it would end and there was the compensation of seeing Johnny Cash, Jackson Browne and Dwight Yoakam, among others, perform.

The monsoon season in Sri Lanka used to be predictable and everyone knows that it entails torrential downpours and floods of red mud. People die. It was expected in the north and fears were raised about the effects on those living in the camps.

There have been floods at Menik Farm already, before the real monsoon arrived. ”If only three or four hours of rain cause this much chaos, only imagine what a full monsoon can cause,” said David White, country director for Oxfam.

Disaster Management Minister Rishard Bathiudeen (who has been an inmate of an IDP camp himself because of ethnic cleansing of Muslims carried out by the LTTE) said the recent breakdown of the sewage and drainage system at displaced people’s camps because of flooding could not be blamed on the government. Mr. Bathiudeen said it was the fault of the UN agencies, which constructed the drainage system and set up flood preventive measures. ”So how can you blame the Government for the blockage in the drainage systems and the overflow of sewage during the floods,” he said. Mr. Bathiudeen said only about 400 refugees in ”˜Zone 4’ were affected by the flood and the matter was dealt with as soon as it was reported to the authorities. He said the refugees were provided with meals, accommodation, and healthcare facilities.

P S M Charles, the Government Agent in Vavuniya, said 60 families had to be temporarily moved to a higher location within the camp but that the situation was under control. Charles said that on the first day after the rain, cooked meals were provided for 21,000 people. “We have now managed the situation. Extra tents were distributed among the affected people. The drainage system was also cleaned”. By the second day, things were brought under control and cooked meals had to be provided for only 500 people and people were again able to cook for themselves.

Mavai Senathirajah MP, the general secretary of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) the parliamentary voice of the LTTE, told Parliament that people were undergoing immense mental strain because of living conditions in the camps. ”There is a horrible situation there. The country will experience the north-eastern monsoon rains next month, and the situation will deteriorate further then. The camp site is impassable for vehicles too. We will not be surprised if the people confront the military. We sound a warning of this”.

A blogger unsympathetic to the Tamil cause remarked: ” Don’t be panic! Tomorrow sun shines! Those IDPs are used to monsoon rains in Sri Lanka. They used to spend the night in the jungles during last 30 years under LTTE. Nobody complained to anybody. Now everybody complains to everybody.”

Why are people being held in camps?

Whatever about the reality of conditions: Why is the government keeping people in these camps? Why are they not being allowed to return to their homes?

The government says it will take at least six months to make the areas from which they fled habitable again. The LTTE littered the area with land mines. The UN requires a 99.6% clearance rate before resettlement and that is a slow and expensive job. Houses need to be rebuilt and other facilities provided. The war has crippled the north and east for more than 30 years. The LTTE controlled the area but neglected the infrastructure.

Critics respond to that by saying that the government found the resources to build a new airfield so why can’t they move more quickly to re-house the IDPs?

Some cynics have suggested that preparations are being made for the tourist industry to steal land belonging to the IDPS. According to Naomi Klein similar things happened after the tsunami.

Access and security

Apart from the need to clear mines and rebuild infrastructure the government says the camps are necessary to weed out LTTE cadres who escaped with the refugees. Rohini Hensman has written: ”The IDPs came out cursing the Tigers and positively inclined towards the government forces which had helped them to escape, but with every day that they remain in detention, their hostility to the government will grow”. She argues that the LTTE’s military capability has been destroyed, its top leadership wiped out; for a group that was identified completely with its supreme leader Prabakharan, and was defined by its military prowess, this means that it is finished.

Recently-retired Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva has been regarded by some Sri Lankans as a check on the potentially despotic inclinations of the executive branch. He warned that the camps could lay the groundwork for a new war, since comparable discrimination against and persecution of Tamil civilians played a major role in starting the war which has just ended. He said the situation insults the soldiers who risked and in many cases lost their lives to free the civilians from the LTTE, and makes a mockery of celebrations of the end of the war.

On the other hand, Interhamwe infiltration and intimidation was a serious problem in the Rwandan camps in Goma. There have been recent reports of LTTE posters appearing in the Sri Lankan IDP camps. Some commentators have expressed fears of ”little tribes of people going underground and fighting guerrilla war”. These commentators believe that it is realistic for a government to consider that small groups could wreak havoc with random explosions in cities crippling the economy and compromising the safety of ordinary people.

Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told Parliament that some LTTE cadres had infiltrated the refugees and until they were filtered out,  the displaced people would be kept within the camps. He said that the government was determined to provide shelter, water, sanitation, food, healthcare, education and other ancillary services for these people. The Minister said that he was particularly concerned that human rights were adequately catered for.

A group of volunteers visting the camps who were quoted by the Tamil journalist DB Jeyaraj on his blog suggested the LTTE suspects in the camps were treated somewhat better than others: ”œThe LTTE detainees are housed in different locations. There are separate camps for boys and girls. There are around 9000 plus boys and 2000 plus girls. They are looked after quite well except when they protest or appear to get aggressive… The problem is that they need regular supplies and that they idle the whole day.”

There are many stories of LTTE soldiers escaping after bribing army, police or health personnel. Vavuniya District Tamil National Alliance MP, (the TNA were the mouthpiece in parliament for the LTTE) S Kishor, said he was aware that around 50,000 IDPs have escaped from the camps by paying money to police and army personnel. The Army is finding large stores of weapons, ammunition and explosives hidden by the LTTE in their former controlled areas and expects to recover more. Defence supremo, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, warned that this could be a part of a strategy to revive the LTTE.

Many of us living in Sri Lanka feared that, despite the defeat of the LTTE, children traveling to school on buses, people buying food in markets would continue to be maimed and killed. A friend who has often been vehement in her criticism of President Rajapaksa conceded: ”œI thank the President for finishing off the LTTE who did nothing for the Tamils here. They represented the Tamils overseas. I thank the President because we do not hear of any deaths anymore due to bombs. What a relief that is to those of us who live here.”

A recent visit to the camps by the President’s eldest son prompted heated exchanges in parliament. The Marxist JVP asked why opposition MPs are still not allowed access to the camps, accusing the government of trying to hide something. However, international and local humanitarian aid organizations have access to the camps to conduct their humanitarian work.

John Holmes, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefed journalists in Geneva following a mid-year review conference with Member States on the status of the 2009 consolidated humanitarian appeals. He said that the biggest problem in the Sri Lankan camps was not access, but the lack of freedom of movement of those in the camps. They should be able to move about even now, despite security concerns, so that these were IDP camps and not internment camps.

Adnan Khan, country director the World Food Programme (WFP), said: “Food supplies have never been affected by access restrictions.” He said that they were now able to move more freely within the camps.


The government says it will take at least six months to make the areas from which IDPs fled habitable again. The LTTE littered the area with land mines. India has already sent de-mining experts and the UK government has promised GBP 500,000 to the Mines Advisory Group.

Houses need to be rebuilt and other facilities provided. The LTTE controlled the area but neglected the infrastructure. The government plans to resettle, by the end of the year, at least 80% of those in the camps and to rehabilitate over 10,000 ex-LTTE cadres and thousands of families which had direct contacts with the LTTE.

The UNHCR described a previous re-settlement of 2,231 to seven villages in the Musali division, in the southern part of Mannar district, which at one time was controlled by the LTTE. ”The Government has applied good practices in IDP return…The process was carried out in safety and dignity.”

On 9 June, 2,120 Tamils and Muslims were re-settled. At the end of June, some 9,000 people 60 years old or above, were allowed to leave the camps and join their relatives. On 5 August, 1,100 people boarded 70 buses to return to Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara in areas where de-mining, reconstruction of roads, supply of electricity and water were already completed. “I’m happy to go back to my own house. ”I never thought that we would be able to resettle in such a short period,” P. Sundaralingam told Reuters in Jaffna.

Recently-appointed head of the army Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya (I met him at a Christmas buffet at the Bandarawela Hotel some years ago, before he reached his current exalted position ”“ I believe he is related to my wife by marriage) said that the removal of high security zones in the Vavuniya area would facilitate the resettlement of civilians displaced during the war.

He said that Army engineers had been deployed to clear mines and other explosive devices. He said the Army was spearheading a two-pronged development programme in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. ‘People visiting Vavuniya could now see the difference as the Army had taken steps to relax security measures that had been in place for years’, the Commander said.

Jayasuriya said his main priority was speeding up de-mining efforts across 8,000 sq km so people could be resettled as soon as possible. He declined to give a time-frame. “I want to take engineering battalions that were in an infantry role to do de-mining. Right now there are 300 soldiers working with four non-governmental organisations to clear the mines.”

Jayasuriya has sent 400 more for training and is aiming to purchase demining machinery. Sri Lanka has given assurances that everything possible would be done to resettle the majority of the displaced by end of this year.

Chief of Defence Staff General Sarath Fonseka said: “We have the men and the material to meet any requirement,” he said, adding that the Army was also playing a major role in restoring the northern railway track. He said that the Army would have an important part to play in resettling the displaced and that the Army had contributed 36 million rupees to meet the urgent needs of children in the north.

He also said that those who had been critical of the Sri Lankan government had conveniently forgotten that the security forces spearheaded by the Army rescued 300,000 people held at gun point by the LTTE. Fonseka said allegations that over 20,000 civilians had perished in the final battle in and around Nanthikadal lagoon, were propaganda.

He ridiculed attempts to portray welfare centres set up in the north as detention camps. He said that the international community couldn’t find fault with Sri Lankan political and military leadership for taking on the LTTE. “What we did was right and we knew exactly what we were doing and there is absolutely no scope for an international inquiry,” he said.

Fonseka’s calls to add 100,000 troops after the war perturbed Western diplomats who wanted Sri Lanka to prioritise post-war redevelopment and not further militarisation, especially as it was seeking an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan at that time.

Jayasuriya takes a softer line: “”A little increase may be required. An increase of police or Special Task Force (police paramilitaries) would be much more beneficial. I think 20,000-50,000 would be fine. I think the government does not want to increase the budget. To hold and consolidate what we captured, you need more troops than you do to fight.”


Sanjana Hattotuwa wrote in The Sunday Leader: ”As a Southerner and a Sinhala Buddhist, I am ashamed of what we have become, and how we silently countenance, nay justify, this significant post-war violence against fellow Tamil citizens. We were silent patriots during war, because we thought they were all terrorists. We are silent patriots after war, because we think they must still be terrorists. Menik Camp is a litmus test of our real commitment to peace. We do not need more support to strengthen it. We need resources and the political will urgently to dismantle it.”

Canadian minister, Bev Oda, was encouraged by what she saw in the camps. ”This is not an ideal situation… I would say that in partnership with international organisations, the government of Sri Lanka is making very good efforts to meet the basic needs.”

The Tamil journalist, now resident in Canada, DB Jeyaraj has written: ”I ask readers not to engage in ethnic-orientated recrimination about the IDP plight. Please see a humanitarian tragedy as human beings and not as ethnic beings.”

The Tamil Question in Sri Lanka Part 2

This article was posted on The Agonist on May 6th, 2010


The rise of Tamil separatist militancy.


Most Tamil militant groups began life as student organisations. In 1970,  Ponnuthurai Satvaseelan formed the Tamil Students League. The Tamil Youth League was founded in 1973. The General Union of Eelam Students was founded in London and gave birth to the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students,  from which split the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Front, which, in turn, became the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) which currently has one of its members, Douglas Devenanda as a government minister. The EPDP has a paramilitary wing.
Before 1987, India provided training for the armed militant groups, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE).

There were about 30 other minor groups.

In 1972, a group of students formed a militant group called the Tamil New Tigers (TNT). One member of this group was Vellupillai Prabakharan, who was born in Jaffna in November 1954. On July 27 1975, the former mayor of Jaffna, SLFP politician Alfred Durayappah, was assassinated. Prabakharan later claimed that he had fired the fatal shot.

The TNT became the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and by means of murder and intimidation became the dominant Tamil separatist group in Sri Lanka. Separatist militancy was further fanned by the anti-Tamil riots, which followed the 1977 general election, in which the UNP came to power. The LTTE were proscribed in 1978, by which time most of its rivals had been eliminated.

Colonel Karuna (nom de guerre of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) the leader of LTTE forces in the Eastern province broke with Prabakharan in 2004 to form the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP). The aim of this grouping was to challenge the dominance of the northern Tigers around the leadership of Prabhakharan and to defend the special interests of eastern Tamils. There was a split even in this breakaway group and rivalry between Karuna and a former child soldier Pillayan (nom de guerre of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan) led to some fatalities. Pillayan became leader of the TMVP and when government forces won control of the Eastern province and he was sworn in as Chief Minister of the province on May 16, 2008. At a disarmament ceremony in Batticaloa, on March 9 2009, the TMVP handed over its weapons to the Sri Lankan army. Pillayan said, “We tell the government and the international community that we have given up arms because we believe in democracy.” Also on March 9, Karuna joined the ruling party Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and accepted a ministerial portfolio.

Tamil homeland

The call for a separate Tamil nation in the north and east of the country was not feasible because 70% of Tamils in Sri Lanka live outside the area claimed as a homeland. The land claimed as Eelam was not exclusively Tamil except where the LTTE had carried out ethnic cleansing to drive out Sinhalese and Muslims.

When discussions were taking place on an Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, Lloyd George complained that he could not stop De Valera banging on about Cromwell. In more recent negotiations on Northern Ireland, Jonathan Powell made the same complaint about Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. The Sinhala and Tamil nationalists who comment on my articles are armchair warriors and amateur historians who like to teach me lessons in ancient history.

The origins of the”Jaffna Tamils” are shrouded in myth and legend. Such myths play an atavistic role in helping an ethnic group form a sustaining identity. These fictions can turn poisonous and lead to delusion and death. In Sri Lanka, the Jaffna kingdom, which existed in the north and some parts of the east from the 13th century to the early 17th century, has provided the foundation myth of a Tamil homeland, Eelam, which was the Tamil Tigers’ leader Prabakharan’s justification for sending women and children to their deaths.

Many historians have challenged the foundation myths, with their emphasis on ancient animosities between Tamils and Sinhalese. A Sinhalese, Professor CR de Silva, has argued that the Tamil king Elara had much support from the Sinhalese and that Buddhism in the north did not suffer under his rule. A Tamil scholar, Devanesan Nesiah has argued that the two communities had enjoyed friendly co-existence over many centuries and that hostility was a political construct that was kept alive by the Sinhalese leadership and used from time to time for political purposes.

The territory claimed by the LTTE as their sovereign nation of Tamil Eelam covers the Northern and Eastern provinces. The Jaffna Kingdom, also known as the Kingdom of Aryacakravarti, only covered the Northern Province. The kingdom lasted from 1215-1619 CE. The kingdom’s independent existence ended when the Portuguese defeated King Cankili II.

The origins of the kingdom are obscure and still the subject of controversy among historians. Among mainstream historians, such as K.M. de Silva, S.Pathmanathan and Karthigesu Indrapala, the widely accepted view is that the Kingdom of Aryacakravarti began with the invasion of a previously unknown chieftain called Magha, who claimed to be from Kalinga in modern India. He deposed the ruling King Parakrama Pandu of Pollonnaruwa with the help of his soldiers and mercenaries from the Kalinga, modern Kerala and Damila regions in India.

For a brief period, in the early to mid-fourteenth century, the Aryacakravarti kingdom was the chief power in the island of Sri Lanka and other kingdoms were subordinate to it. However, the kingdom was eventually overpowered by the rival Kingdom of Kotte, around 1450.

The Tamil separatists’ claim to the Eastern province is mainly based on a document called “the Cleghorn minute”. Hugh Cleghorn was a Scottish professor of history and part-time secret agent. He helped the British oust the Dutch by buying off a force of Swiss mercenaries manning the Dutch fort in Colombo. He was rewarded with 5,000 pounds and the post of Chief Secretary of Ceylon under the first British Governor, Lord North. The two did not get on and North was soon referring to him as ”that madman Cleghorn”. Cleghorn resigned after 15 months in 1800. The minute on the basis of which separatists claim the north and the east refers to two different nations occupying the island of Ceylon from ancient times, with the Malabars (Tamils) occupying the north and east. Tamil separatists always omit the last sentence in which Cleghorn says the Sinhalese originate from Siam. Critics say this howler invalidates the rest of the minute.

Jaffna District, which is the Tamil heartland, was once home to some 5,500 Muslim families before the LTTE expelled them allowing them only hours to leave. “At five o’clock the LTTE announced for us to come immediately to the Jinnah grounds. The LTTE leader told us that within two hours, all the Muslims must leave the [Jaffna] peninsula,” said Mohammed Yassin.

There are large numbers of Muslims and Sinhalese in the Eastern Province who would not accept a Tamil state. Even eastern Tamils grew tired of dominance by northern Tamils and broke away from Prabakharan. Former Tigers Karuna and Pillayan joined the central government.

Whatever about the myths, the Jaffna Tamils and their ancestors have undoubtedly lived on the island for at least 1,500 years and cannot justly be regarded as alien newcomers or ”blow-ins” as we say in Ireland .

July 1983 and the aftermath.

The immediate cause of the long and bloody civil war was the events of July 1983, ”Black July”. Over many years there had been incidents where ill-disciplined police or military had carried out savage reprisals, rather in the manner of the Black and Tans in Ireland, on innocent Tamils. July 1983 was a paradigm shift in terror. Thirteen soldiers were killed by the LTTE. Anti-Tamil riots ensued and lasted for ten days with property being destroyed and up to 3,000 people being killed and 200,000 displaced.

From President Jayewardene’s residence, shops could be seen going up in flames but no curfew was called and police disappeared from the streets. Marauding gangs armed with axes and cans of petrol went around Colombo with electoral rolls identifying Tamil homes and businesses. The inhabitants were doused in petrol and set alight.

A Norwegian woman tourist recalled seeing a mob setting fire to a bus with about 20 Tamils inside it. Those who climbed out the windows were pushed back in and the doors were sealed while they burned alive, screaming horribly. In another incident, a mob chopped two Tamil girls aged 18 and 11 with knives; the younger girl was beheaded with an axe, the older one raped by 20 men and then doused in petrol.

These horrific events left an indelible mark on the Tamil psyche. Atrocities were perpetrated on innocent Tamils all over the country and many fled to the north for refuge. Those who could afford to fled abroad, from where they provided ongoing financial support for the LTTE.

There were also reports of incredible courage shown by selfless Sinhalese people trying to protect their Tamil friends and neighbours and even strangers.

The Sri Lankan government did nothing to counter the prevailing impression that it had connived in the slaughter. At a time when it was imperative to appease the Tamil people if there was ever to be any faint hope of keeping them happily within the nation, parliament enacted the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which required all members to disavow separatism. Sixteen TULF members vacated their seats and left a vacuum which was filled by the TNA.

Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan historian and anthropologist looked back on these events from the perspective of 25 years: ”The militant movement for separation gathered thousands of new Tamil recruits and a rejuvenation of commitment among most SL Tamils, as well a wave of support in international quarters. Sri Lanka also received pariah status on the world stage.”

July 1983 was, indeed a turning point for Sri Lankan Tamils and for Sri Lanka. In the immediate aftermath many fled to Tamil Nadu, where those of a militant tendency were trained and armed by the Indian government. Many who might not want to engage in violence themselves fled to Canada, Australia and Europe. Many of them prospered and supported the armed struggle vicariously by providing funding. Many Tamils who remained in Sri Lanka were disillusioned at the futility of trying to defend their interests by peaceful means within the existing state apparatus.

The LTTE proved efficient at destroying any other Tamil groups that threatened to undermine their dominance. Elements of the international community were able to build a false picture of the LTTE as romantic freedom fighters.

In Tamil Nadu, where thousands of Indians took to the streets to denounce Sri Lanka and to call on Indira Gandhi to do something about what they called genocide. She came to a decision that would have lasting consequences including the death of her own son.

Training Camps in India.

Sri Lankan Tamil militants had been getting training abroad since 1975. A Sri Lankan Tamil called Eliyathambi Ratnasabapathy (Ratna for short) living in London, organised study groups at his Wandsworth home on the guerrilla struggles then going on in various countries. He had links with the PLO and arranged training from them in Lebanon in the use of firearms. There were survival courses and training in a variety of guerrilla tactics. Douglas Devananda, now a minister in the Sri Lanka government complained: ”We were asked to wear boots 24 hours a day. They gave us plenty of cheese and oranges but there was no rice.”

In 1981, retired Indian army officers had helped set up training camps around Madras in Tamil Nadu and trained around 30 men from the TELO and the LTTE.

Tamil youths were flocking to the militant groups for many reasons. One strong reason, according to MR Narayan Swami, Prabhakaran’s biographer,  was, ”a strong rumour had begun to circulate in Tamil areas. India, the giant of south Asia, which so many Sri Lankan Tamils regarded as their cultural motherland, was ready to accept, train and arm young Tamils willing to fight for Eelam.”

Tamil Nadu governments had long provided a haven for Tamil separatist militants from Sri Lanka. The central government under Indira Gandhi connived in this and tolerated the existence of bases and training camps in other parts of India. The origins of these bases go back to before the riots of 1983.

Mrs Gandhi was at odds with Junius Richard ”˜Dickie’ Jayawardene, Prime Minister and later Executive President of Sri Lanka, as he reversed Mrs Bandaranaike’s attempts to establish a socialistic command economy and turned Sri Lanka towards liberal free-market economic policies. The two neighbouring leaders also disagreed about foreign policy, especially Afghanistan and the Falklands. Mrs Gandhi also regarded Dickie as too pro-Western”. He allowed a Voice of America station in Sri Lanka and opened up Trincomalee harbour to Western commercial interests.

Indira Gandhi decided that she would give Tamil militants the support of the Indian government and of the Indian secret service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Word soon spread through the north of Sri Lanka that Mrs Gandhi was prepared to train and arm Tamil guerrillas and hundreds of young men and women left their homes to travel to Tamil Nadu.

Training began in Dehra Dun in Uttar Pradesh in September 1983. Subramanian Swami said that training was carried out at a RAW base at Chakrata north of Dehra Dun. That area was selected because the high mountains and military establishments provided cover for what was going on. From then on hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamil boys travelled by train from Madras to New Delhi and then on to Dehra Dun by trucks and buses. One group was detained by Indian police, who had not been appraised of what was going on, before leaving Tamil Nadu. The police took their names and addresses before RAW intervened.

PS Suryanayarana, in his book, The Peace Trap, quotes Tamil Tiger leader Prabakharan as saying that he first met RAW officials in Pondicherry but did not specify a date. According to MR Narayan Swamy, Prabakharan’s biographer, between 1983 and 1987, RAW trained 1,200 Sri Lankan Tamils in the use of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, self-loading rifles, and 84mm rocket launchers and in laying mines. Some were also given training in diving and under-sea sabotage.

Arms deliveries to various groups began in 1984 and went on almost up to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in 1987. India persistently denied in public that it was training Sri Lankans and disavowed any aim of splitting up the Sri Lankan state. There was comprehensive coverage in India Today of training camps in India and reports appeared in western newspapers in April 1984.

General Vernon Walters, an emissary of the Reagan administration, informed the Indian government on two visits, in 1983 and 1984, that he had evidence of the training camps. He produced photographs and the addresses of Sri Lankan militants living in Tamil Nadu.Former Sri Lankan national security minister, Lalith Athulathmudalali, has said: ”By 1986, Indian diplomats privately admitted that RAW was training people”.

However, India had no real interest in the separatist cause. Douglas Devananda has said: “We realised that they were only trying to use us in their game plan.” Sources in all Tamil groups now assert that India’s motive was to teach Colombo a lesson for being too pro-Western.

It was widely rumoured that Mrs Gandhi was planning to emulate Turkish action in North Cyprus and actually take over at least part of Sri Lanka by military force. Shankar Rajee says an Indian Army officer told him: ”we need a scout force to lead us. You are not going to do the real fighting but be prepared.”
By 1985 the numerical strength of the Tamil militants would have equalled that of the Sri Lankan armed forces. The LTTE’s main bases were at Salem and Madurai.

Delhi Accord

Indian facilitation led to talks in Bhutan in 1985 between the Sri Lanka government and representatives of various Tamil groups. There were no positive results but further talks brokered by India led to the Delhi Accord, which set out a framework for ethnic reconciliation and devolution of power to the provinces. The TULF went along with this but the other Tamil groups were reluctant and eventually TULF had to withdraw their assent.

Despite the accord between the two governments, sporadic ethnic violence continued in the north and east of Sri Lanka and the Indian government made little serious effort to stop its territory being used as a base for Tamil militant activity. Rajiv Gandhi found his options limited because the Sri Lankan Tamil separatist groups all had their supporters among government and opposition parties alike in Tamil Nadu. However, none of these parties were able to keep the peace among the rival Sri Lankan factions.

Part of the accord with India was that Sri Lankan forces in Jaffna would stay in their barracks. The LTTE took advantage of this to mine the roads leading to the barracks and convert makeshift barricades into concrete bunkers. The Sri Lanka army could only be supplied by air and the LTTE effectively took control of Jaffna. The LTTE also set about eliminating their Tamil rivals and attacking soft Sinhalese targets to the embarrassment of the government forces that seemed unable to stop them.

As the Sri Lanka army improved its equipment and training and got help from Pakistan, India reverted from mediation to attacking Sri Lanka’s human rights record. The Sri Lanka government had treated the Delhi Accord as ”a reasonable basis for negotiation and settlement” but India was now condemning the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to combat terrorism at the same time as India harboured those threatening to overthrow the Sri Lankan state.

In 1986, there were three months of complex negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the TULF. The outcome was a set of proposals sent to India in September. There was an obstacle in that Tamil groups in general pressed for a single provincial unit joining the northern and eastern provinces as a single Tamil ethno-region. The Sri Lankan government were against this because of strong Sinhalese, and Muslim, opposition to the idea of the east as a predominantly Tamil region. By conceding the east, the government would allow its electoral base and stability to be eroded.

The main difficulty, however, was that these complex considerations were taking place in a fantasy world. It was akin to the British and Irish government having civilised discussions with each other and the Ulster Unionists and the Social and Democratic Labour Party, while it was the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Volunteer force bombing and kneecapping people.

William Clarance of the UNHCR put it thus: ”Essentially, the Accord was an agreement between the two governments, deciding over the heads of the Sri Lankan Tamils, the shape of their political future.”

The Indian and Sri Lankan governments were keen to deal with the TULF as the main representative of Tamil opinion in Sri Lanka but this was divorced from reality. The TULF had voluntarily exiled themselves in Tamil Nadu, thereby effectively cutting themselves off from Sri Lankan Tamils. The LTTE had filled the vacuum left by the TULF. The LTTE was determined to accept nothing less than a separate state of Eelam and were not prepared to recognise the lead role of the TULF.

Rajiv Gandhi’s dilemma now was how to persuade the Tamil separatists to accept what he believed to be a workable framework for an honourable peace. The LTTE alone refused to accept. For the first time the Indian government tried to impose restrictions on the LTTE’s activities in Tamil Nadu. Amid rumours of a unilateral declaration of independence, Sri Lankan forces tried to clear the north and east of LTTE fighters and largely succeeded with the rebels fleeing to the Jaffna peninsula.

Indian Peacekeeping Force

The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed on 29 July 1987. When Rajiv Gandhi was inspecting a guard of honour prior to leaving Colombo for India in July 1987, a Sinhalese naval rating struck him a heavy blow with his rifle. This symbolised the resentment of many Sri Lankans at India’s interference.

The intention was to use the might of the Indian Army to bring a swift end to the ethnic conflict in the north and east of Sri Lanka. India blithely expected the LTTE to hand over its arms to the IPKF but the Tigers refused to go beyond a token handover and firmly resisted IPKF efforts to disarm them. The LTTE was as ready to fight the Indians as it was to fight the Sinhalese.

The Indians at first sent 10,000 troops but unexpected resistance from the LTTE led to an increase to 100,000, some estimate more.

The Tamil Tigers fought the Indians and the Sinhalese were not happy about the Indian intervention. Even the cabinet was split, with Prime Minister Premadasa opposed to it as was security minister Athulathmudalali. The Marxist Sinhala nationalist party the JVP were bitterly opposed as were many Buddhist monks.

Sri Lanka accused India of violating its sovereignty and international law by sending the Indian air force to drop food supplies on Jaffna. The Tamil Nadu chief minister, MG Ramachandran made a well-publicised gift of $3.3 million to the LTTE.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Premadasa had been opposed to the accord from the outset. When he succeeded Jayawardene as president in December 1988, tensions between Sri Lanka and India increased. Premadasa saw the removal of the IPKF as essential to restoring order to the south after the bloody JVP uprising because the Sinhalese nationalist JVP traded on bitter opposition to Indian interference.

Withdrawal was completed in March 1990. Over 1,000 Indian soldiers had been killed and over 2,000 wounded. The financial cost to India of its intervention in Sri Lanka was put at around $1.25 billion.

The cost was, in fact, far higher. Rajiv Gandhi’s mother was the architect of India’s interventionist policy. He oversaw its intensification and he paid the ultimate price. On 21 May, 1991, Rajiv Gandhi attended his last public meeting at Sriperumbudur, about 30 miles from Madras in Tamil Nadu. He was campaigning for the Congress candidate for the area. At 10.10 p.m, a female Black Tiger called Thenmuli Rajaratnam, known as Gayatri or Dhanu approached Gandhi and greeted him. She bent down to touch his feet in the traditional Hindu expression of respect and detonated an explosive belt tucked under her dress containing 700 grammes of RDX. The assassination was caught on film through the lens of a local photographer, whose camera and film were found at the site. The cameraman himself also died in the blast but the camera remained intact.

Judge Thomas of the Supreme Court of India ruled that the killing was carried out because of the personal animosity towards Gandhi of LTTE leader Prabakharan. Four of the conspirators were sentenced, in their absence, to death. Sri Lanka’s President Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE in 1993.

The Indian Position Today

In more recent years, Tamil Nadu state governments have failed to give unconditional support to the LTTE. This has allowed the Congress Party, in power in Delhi since 2004, to take a more hostile position to the separatists. The Tigers lost the image of responsible negotiators they had tried to cultivate during the period of the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA).

Radar equipment has been supplied by India to the Sri Lankan government. India’s secret service has discreetly provided intelligence, particularly naval, and training for pilots and radar operators.

The Indian government is now acting as a moderating broker and discussing with the Sri Lankan government the importance of reconciliation and a just settlement for Sri Lankan Tamils. Discussions focus on the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka constitution, which, it is hoped, will provide opportunities for a federal solution to Tamil grievances.

May 6th, 2010

UN representative visits Sri Lanka IDP camps

This was posted on The Agonist September 19 2009.

B Lynn Pascoe, Under Secretary of the United Nations for Political Affairs, visited the IDP camps and met President Rajapaksa and his ministers.

Commenting on his visit to the north, Mr. Pascoe stated that he was ”impressed by the work done by the Army, the demining teams, the UN staff and the civil society” and that the team also witnessed the rehabilitation work that was underway. He also stated that in Jaffna, they were able to feel that the people were looking forward to getting more opportunities and that there was a feeling that a ”whole era was waiting for them”.

”In the Mannar area, we witnessed crews repairing roads and a school, as well as construction work on a large water reservoir to serve some 2,500 families slated to be resettled next week. We saw work being done in preparing rice fields for planting before the monsoons. We received a briefing and demonstration by the military on progress in clearing mines out of the Mannar Rice Bowl region.

In Jaffna, we visited two IDP camps: (a) The Kopai camp housing about four hundred people uprooted during fighting in the final two months of last year; and (b) the Kaidhely University Hostel, which houses more than 500 people who arrived about a week ago from Manik Farms. Also in Jaffna, we visited a rehabilitation center for former LTTE members, about 150 men and women.

We ended the trip in Vavuniya, at the Manik Farms camp. We witnessed food distribution and had an opportunity to talk to IDPs and camp administrators.”

During the discussions, issues pertaining to the health care services provided to the IDPs, educational facilities including the vocational training were also highlighted.

Secretary, Ministry of Justice and Law Reforms, S. K. Gamlath explained the progress made in the rehabilitation of ex-combatants. He stated that after rehabilitation, some have reintegrated into society, while others have gone overseas for employment arranged under a special rehabilitation programme. He also acknowledged the assistance rendered by the UNICEF in this endeavor.

Director General, Ministry of Healthcare and Nutrition, Dr. Ajith Mendis, referred to the improvements and the enhancements that have been made to the existing health facilities provided to the IDPs. He pointed out that the hospitals and the clinics in the welfare centers have been strengthened with additional staff and the drug store has also been supplied with adequate medicines and other medical supplies.

Mr Pascoe was encouraged by what he saw but still had some concerns.

”We have urged the government to take the following steps:

To allow those who have completed the screening process to leave the camps as they choose.

For those remaining in the camps, at the very least, they shouldbe able to leave the camps during the daytime, and to freelyvisit friends and family in other sites.”

Responding to Mr. Pascoe’s observation that International Community has concerns when it hears that resettlement will be done after de-mining is completed, the President said resettlement did depend on the de-mining process. He mentioned that sixteen years after its war, Croatia had still not finished de-mining. “We do not intend taking so much time. I have laid down an initial target of 180 days to resettle at least 70% of the IDPs”. With the new equipment in use, and hopefully more to come, he expected the entire resettlement to be completed by the end of next January. “We have identified areas for resettlement and the people will be sent back as they are cleared”.

On the question of IDPs moving to live with relations outside, the President said that the government had already published advertisements in the media, calling for applications from persons seeking such resettlement. However, only 2000 applications had been received. These notices would be published again and also displayed prominently at the welfare villages.

With regard to freedom of movement outside the relief centers the President said that arrangements are already being made to issue day-passes for IDPs who wish to work outside.

Mr. Basil Rajapaksa, Senior Advisor to the President said that with the experience of 2000 applicants for re-union with relations, and the limited numbers of jobs in the area, it is likely that there will be only a few takers for these day-passes.

Recalling President Rajapaksa’s earlier commendable record on Human Rights, Mr. Pascoe said he acknowledged the need to adapt the role of the security forces, especially after a very long war. President Rajapaksa said the UN must be aware of the changes that had already being initiated at a very early stage after the war.

President Rajapaksa said: “Whether it is the US, China, Britain or any country we are all members of the UN. When the UN says anything about us we take it seriously. Similarly if big countries, try to bully us we will come to the UN about such matters.”

Mr Pascoe said: ”In the end, Sri Lanka is an energetic member of the United Nations, and it is important that we are able to have a constructive dialogue
about our disagreements. The United Nations is here to help, and will do whatever it can to help Sri Lanka move forward. Our commitment is clear, and much remains to be done.”

“This is an opportunity to move beyond simply ending the fighting to solidifying the peace. As the situation currently stands in the camps, there is a real risk of breeding resentment that will undermine the prospects for political reconciliation in the future.”

Mr. Pascoe concluded by telling President Rajapaksa, “You have a better story than is getting out today.”

The Tamil Question in Sri Lanka Part 1

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.

Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

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